What Is the Role of a Woman in Islam?

Khadijah r.a. was a successful businesswoman in her own capacity, and it was her who proposed to Prophet s.a.w.
by Ustazah Nurhannah Irwan 2018-04-02 • 24 min read
Ustazah Nurhannah Irwan has been working at the Office of the Mufti for more than 7 years and is currently heading a new Research Unit under the office. She was a recipient of Muis postgraduate scholarship and graduated with Master of Arts in Gender Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Prior to her post-graduate education, she received her Bachelor of Social Sciences (Honours) in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
2018-04-02 • 24 min read

role of women in islam

Women's role in society

THE Muslim woman has always been situated in the centre of politicised, ideological debates. To many in the West, she is the visual symbol of an inherently misogynistic religion that deprives her of autonomy and self-realisation – she is always “constituted as a figure of subjugation, embedded and controlled by a community” (Crabtree and Husain, 2012:148).

On the other hand, it is not uncommon to hear the essentialising of the ‘West’ as the immoral ‘Other’ that seeks to ‘modernise’ the Muslim woman and causes her to abandon her religious values and ‘natural’ responsibilities, in pursuit of ‘liberal’ and ‘feminist’ values of gender equality.

Men and Women as Servants of God

In positioning men and women as individuals and as servants of God, the Quran explicitly denies any inherent supremacy of one gender over the other. In Quranic chapter An-Nisaa’, verse 1, God had said: 

“O people! Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul, and created from it is a mate, and dispersed from both of them many men and women”.

Islam hence enforces gender equality by describing both men and women “as equal human beings in their origin, created from ‘the same soul’ (nafs waahidah) both making up the human race together, as equal partners” (Omar, 2014: 102). Both genders are also equally accountable for their every action, speech and thought before God, and will be rewarded or punished accordingly on equal grounds.

There are people who argue that men and women are not equal because it has been divinely revealed that men are superior to women. The verse in which they refer to for justification is found in an-Nisaa’, verse 34:

“Men are qawwaamuun of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah would have them guard….”

The term which contributes to this perception of gender superiority is ‘qawwamun’. However, in interpreting qawwaamun alone, there are various opinions by different exegetes. The exegete al-Ṭabari (d. 923), interpreted men’s qiwama – which he defined as authority/guardianship – in this verse as being “premised on the material preference that men had been granted” (Shaikh, 1997:7). He is thus conceptualizing qiwama as something “contingent on a socio-economic phenomenon rather than some inherent quality of man or woman per se” (Shaikh, 1997:7).

However, other Islamic exegetes like al-Bayḍhawi (d.1286) and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) interpreted qiwama as men’s justified superiority due to their “innate abilities and their acquired qualities” (Shehada, 2009:28). Al-Bayḍhawi and Ibn Kathir hence contributed to an important shift in the exegesis of the verse, as “God’s preference for men over women moves beyond a merely functional preference to one of essence” (Dunn and Kellison, 2010:17).

Many modern scholars are more inclined to build on the interpretation of al-Tabari. In their reading, the verse does not prescribe qiwama as definitive based on biological roles. Riffat Hassan, for example, sees qiwama as an economic privilege. It is hence essentially prescribing a practical division of functions – women are the child bearers, and hence “during that time when they are undergoing the process of childbearing they should not have the obligation of being breadwinners, and therefore men should be breadwinners during this period” (Hassan, 1988, as cited in Abbas and Riaz, 2013:8).

Ismail Faruqi shares a similar view. Thus, he is of the opinion that due to the different socioeconomic conditions now, “women are no longer dependent on their husbands” and that the husband’s economic superiority is “subject to change.” (Abbas and Riaz, 2013:8). 

For those like Azizah al-Hibri, they are of the view that men’s qiwama over women is conditional only in these instances:

  1. where  God has  endowed a  male (in a  certain circumstance  or at a certain time) with  a feature, ability or characteristic  which a particular woman lacks (and presumably needs in that circumstance  or at that time), and

  2. that male is maintaining that particular woman (Al-Hibri, 1997:30).

According to this view, the qiwama of men is therefore not to be understood as a privilege, but a taklif – a burden, a responsibility – especially in cases where women were financially dependent (Al-Hibri, 1997), and had led sheltered lives. A man is thus responsible to support such women, offering them “guidance and advice in those areas in which he happens to be more qualified or experienced” (Al-Hibri, 1997:30). 

The views that postulate qiwama as conditional seem to be more in line with an important guiding Quranic verse that establishes the equality of humankind, beyond their social categories. The verse makes it clear that while there are many favours of God that He bestows on His creatures in different measures – wealth, status, looks, physical abilities, health and so on – there is only one favour that determines the superiority of one human over another: taqwa or God-consciousness. The verse in question is this:

“The nobler among you in the sight of God is the more muttaqi (righteous) among you.” 

(Quran 49:13)

Thus the fact that a man is bestowed with favours in some ways more than a woman – as per the verse – does not automatically make him superior to her. And as of all favours of God, it is not unconditional and should not be used as a basis to subjugate those who are not bestowed with the same. Taqwa is the determining factor, and only God can assess one’s level of taqwa.

Women in Leadership Positions

While many do agree on the theological equality of genders, they tend to disagree that both men and women can take up leadership positions solely based on the assessment of their merits and capabilities alone. They reasoned that if indeed women could lead, then the Prophet s.a.w. would have appointed them into positions of power.

The problem with this argument is that it failed to take into consideration the cultural norms and historical context of the society at that time. The decision to not populate positions of power was cultural, and not due to the belief that men are inherently superior. This is proven by the many examples in Islamic history that highlighted the important roles played by women.

Khadijah r.a. was a successful businesswoman in her own capacity, and it was her who proposed to Prophet s.a.w. Even after their marriage, she maintained her business, and even used her profits to support the Prophet s.a.w. and his cause, especially during the period of isolation. During his initial experiences in receiving revelations, he was confused and scared. It was she who calmed him, assured him, and brought him to meet Waraqah. She did all this not just out of love and nurturing care but also due to her wisdom, her ability to take control of the situation and to find solutions. And these were the values of hers that made her one of the most cherished individuals to the Prophet s.a.w.

The Prophet s.a.w. himself also consulted Ummu Salamah r.a. during the incident after the signing of the treaty of Hudaibiyah, when his followers refused to follow his instructions out of protest for signing what they thought to be an unfair treaty. He went back to his tent angry and confided in Umm Salamah. He heeded her wise advice, and true enough, the people started following what he did. This was not a random piece of advice – it was important and calculated. 

It was strategic political advice – advice on leadership, and advice on managing sentiments on the ground after an unpopular decision. If it was indeed a divine decree that women are incapable of making strategic, superior decisions, and that they are theologically always subjugated to men, the Prophet s.a.w. would not have sought and taken her advice, and would have dismissed it. But the Messenger of God knew better, and he not only appreciated this advice but also acted on it immediately.

Some may still argue that the examples cited above still demonstrate that while women can give advice and take control of a situation, this should be done within the limitations of their roles as a mother and a wife. But this is not true, as seen in the case of Nusaybah Binti Ka’ab. 

Nusaybah was the warrior who fiercely protected the Prophet s.a.w. in the battle of Uhud. When he was ambushed by enemies, she immediately drew her sword and joined the small group that was shielding him from the attack. The Prophet s.a.w. was very impressed and said:

“Whenever I turned my face to the right and the left, I saw Nusaybah Bint Ka’ab fighting before me” (Kanzul Ummaal).

It was reported that by the end of the battle she had thirteen injuries on her body, and she spent one year just to heal fully, but even that did not deter her from participating in subsequent battles.

In the Battle of Hunayn, she played an effective role in changing the course of the battle’s events. When the Muslims were almost defeated and they wanted to flee, she unsheathed her sword and shouted for them to come back and fight, and she herself carried on fighting. Her resilience inspired the men to wake up from their cowardice and to return to the battlefield. She also participated in battles during the leadership of Abu Bakar r.a. and ended up having one of her hands cut off.

If women were meant to be confined to only the domestic sphere, he would have stopped her and felt insulted that she was the one to defend him. But the Prophet himself acknowledged her skills and sang her praises. She was an undisputed war veteran – a role that not many women play during that time due to the norms and physical limitations, but not a role they can never play. This serves an important lesson that just because a position is not normally occupied by a woman, it does not mean they are not allowed from stepping up to the role.

Another important lesson we can learn is from the story of Umm Hiram Bint Milhan. The Prophet s.a.w. revealed to her his dream.

“Some people among my followers were shown to me as fighters in Allah’s cause (onboard a ship) amidst this sea caused me to smile; they were kings on the thrones (or like kings on the thrones).”

Umm Hiram then responded with a request: “O Messenger of Allah, invoke Allah that He makes me one of them”, to which he replied, “You will be among the first”.

And true enough, the prophecy came true during Mu’awiyah Bin Abi Sufyan’s leadership, and Umm Hiram got to participate as part of the military team. What is important to highlight was the way in which the Prophet s.a.w. responded to her request to be part of the military expedition. He did not rebuke her, nor did he tell her that a woman’s jihad is at home. Instead, he made earnest prayers for her.

The companions too followed the footsteps of the Prophet s.a.w. Umar r.a. appointed Al-Shifa bint Abdullah and Samra Binte Naik al-Asadiyyah as the chief supervisors of the marketplace in Madinah and Makkah respectively. They would go around the marketplace, making sure that transactions were in compliance with Islamic values and teachings. When the people in the marketplace had doubts about the legality of their transactions, they would consult them, and they had no problems discharging their duties well.

If it was wrong to appoint women in leadership positions in the public sphere, then Umar r.a. would not have appointed two women to oversee a marketplace – a space that is as public as can be. The marketplace in question is of course not just one that sells fresh food items as we understand it to be now – this was the centre of trading and interactions.

This article does not seek to deny that each gender “has special qualities that, in general, lead each gender to be better qualified for a particular role” (Alwani, 2013:24). Most women have the biological ability to give birth and are more inclined to take up nurturing roles. Men must hence fulfil the financial responsibility of the needs of the family. It is a practical assignment of roles based on these natural inclinations.

However, it must be emphasised that these roles are not mutually exclusive, as “it is a natural part of life for variance to exist between people concerning their strengths, abilities and qualifications” (ibid). There should not be hesitations to allow women to step beyond the traditionally prescribed roles of childbearing and nurturing, or for men to embrace such roles on their part. And this is why Islam has not stopped and instead emphasizes women’s rights to education, work, and socio-economic and political development (ibid). 

Women are allowed to work in Islam

It is hence crucial to understand that both men and women are in principle on “the same pedestal of social, legal and moral equality as human beings” (Omar, 2014:104). There can be, and at times, there could even be a need for differentiation between the roles and responsibilities of men and women in the family system.

This differentiation, however, must be guided by the principle of equality and justice. We cannot deny that due to the changing contexts, family structures and economic and social milieu, we have come to a point that calls for the need for a rethinking of the roles, rights and responsibilities which we have traditionally ascribed to men and women.

The question of whether the needs of the family will be compromised if the mother takes up leadership positions is as valid a question in the event that a father decides to take up the leadership position. The needs of the family are a priority that both spouses need to carefully make arrangements for, and mutually agree on. 

The Hadith on Women as Leaders of Nation: Understanding the Narratives

Many of those who reject the permissibility of women as leaders do so in reference to this hadith: 

“A nation with a woman ruler will never succeed.”


There has been quite an extensive discussion on this hadith, even amongst traditional scholars. There are those who questioned the credibility of one of the narrators – Abu Bakrah – who was one of those punished for giving false testimony against Aishah r.a. in the case involving another companion, Safwan r.a.

However, many scholars are of the opinion that his narrations remain credible, as he had repented and been forgiven by the Prophet s.a.w. 

Despite this, scholars do differ in the applicability of this hadith. 

Those who say it applies in general

Ibn Hajar wrote that some scholars like al-Tabari are of the view that in applying this hadith on the permission for women as judges, women are allowed to do so in matters where their testimony is accepted. Some Maliki scholars argue that there are no such restrictions.

Hence we see that even amongst the traditional scholars who agree that the hadith is sahih and applies in general circumstances, still differ in terms of applying it to different areas of leadership. They did not just accept the hadith unquestioned unanimously, and this is an indication that even back then, the idea that women cannot be leaders has already raised scholarly and religious concerns.

Hadith is specific to one context, and it was the Prophet's reaction to news of the context.

Other scholars have called for a more contextual understanding of this hadith. They argue that this hadith was narrated in specific reference to the Kingdom of Persia. A Companion recalled that when this was the Prophet’s reaction when news reached him that the Persians had placed the daughter of their former kind Chosroes on the throne.

The scholars hence argue that the Prophet was reacting to this chaotic state of affairs. This is the opinion of the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Al-Gazali Al-Saqa. 


There is a need to distinguish between was what said in the texts and the lived realities of the exegetes and scholars, which could have dictated the direction of their interpretations, as seen in the varying interpretations of Quranic verse and hadith we have discussed above.

The classical scholars at that time were more focused to determine women’s function by listing down their rights and duties “according to the various functions society imparted them” (Ramadan, 2009:211) as ‘daughters’, ‘wives’, ‘mothers’ and so on. It is hence important to revisit these well-meaning intentions and attempts of giving them an honourable position or social standing in society through these ‘natural roles’ so that it would now suit the context of today’s women who have taken up roles beyond these assumed ‘natural’ functions.

Women do not only enter paradise because of their sacrifices as mothers, good wives and daughters. Beyond all these roles which they may or may not take up, women are firstly independent, and spiritual individuals in their own right.

It is, therefore, an Islamic teaching to pursue a social structure in “which character, good work, and piety – not gender – are the defining factors of social authority” (Fawcett, 2013:np). Islam is an integral part of many of its followers, and should not be pitted against the pursuit of a non-discriminatory society.

In fact, there is a more pressing religious need to ensure that no Muslim woman is subjugated to misogynistic discourses and values using Islam as a poor justification to one’s own biases. It is a religious commitment to God to ensure that justice prevails over misogynist worldviews, which would then have consequences on how women are perceived and treated within the Islamic framework.

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