Women as Heads of State
Islam has never restricted women’s roles in society to some domains at the expense of others. A woman was the first to accept the message of the Prophet (May God shower His peace and blessings upon him). The first martyr in the cause of Islam was a woman, as was the first emigrant (muhajir). And women have continued to occupy lofty positions throughout the centuries: they have been rulers, judges, warriors, teachers, muftis, etc. Any honest student of Islamic history can testify to this.
As for being a head of state, there is one hadith that has alluded to the impermissibility of this, suggesting that people who appoint a woman as their leader will not prosper. However, Islamic history has seen more than fifty examples of female rulers throughout different time periods and empires, such as Sitt al-Mulk in Egypt, Queens Asma’ and Arwa in Sana, Zaynab al-Nafzawiya in al-Andalus, Sultana Radia in Delhi, Shajarat al-Durr in Egypt and Syria, Aisha al-Hurra in al-Andalus, just to name a few. This is no doubt a consequence of the Prophet’s affirmation of women’s participation in public life, wars, learning institutions, the police (hisba), and the marketplace.
Because of the aforementioned hadith, many jurists have maintained the impermissibility of a female head of state or judge. The Hanafī school maintained the permissibility of a female judge in restricted contexts. However, some have opined that it is entirely permissible for a woman to be either a judge or a head of state. Among these are Ibn Jarīr al-Tabarī, Ibn hazm al-Zahirī, Abu al-Fath ibn Tarar, Ibn al-Qasim, and one narration from Imam Malik.
It is important to keep in mind that this hadith was a response to a particular context and circumstance, namely the case of the Persians who had appointed a woman as their leader as a last resort. The Prophetic hadith therefore is to be taken not as a prescription, but rather as an indication of the Persian’s waning fortunes. The principles of jurisprudence are clear that particular circumstances do not establish generality. Furthermore, Allah Himself relates the story of Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba in the Qur’an, extolling her competence and sagacity.
It also bears noting that there is a significant difference between the lofty position of Caliph of Islam and simply the head of a contemporary state. The Caliphate is a religious post, whose duties include leading the believers in prayer, and which is subject to strict conditions mentioned by the jurists. However, the head of state is a civil position, with no pretensions to the leadership of all Muslims. Therefore, a woman has every right to occupy this position.