Abubakrah and his Hadith on Women and Leadership (2): An Analysis

Abdullahi Abubakar Lamido
13th November, 2015

Following the contest of Aisha Al-Hassan as Governorship candidate for Taraba State, and especially with her declaration as the winner of the elections by the Elections Tribunal, a debate has been sparked about the position of Islam about the leadership of a woman. While those who oppose women leadership rely, among other reasons, on the Hadith of Abubakrah, others who reject women leadership challenge the veracity of that Hadith based on the claim that Abubakrah was not a trustworthy companion and so his Hadith is, based on that, rejected. In the Hadith, the companion of Allah’s Messenger (SAW), Abubakrah, Nufai’u Ibn al-Harith al-Thaqafi (RA), narrated, as reported by, among others, most celebrated scholar of Hadith, Imam al-Bukhari, that the Prophet (SAW) proclaimed that “Any nation that makes a woman its ruler shall never prosper,”.

Generally, this hadith has become a subject of attack in recent times especially by feminist writers. Perhaps the most popular among those who question the veracity of that Hadith is the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi. In fact, Mernissi’s “scrutiny” of that Hadith remains the main source for those who argue against that Hadith. But the fact that Mernissi is not qualified to be counted among even ordinary conscious Muslims let alone Islamic scholars (Please just google her picture and see whether she deserves to give you fatwa on a Hadith of the Prophet!), is a pointer to her disqualification to talk about highly scholarly matters like authenticating a Prophetic Hadith, especially one that, as we can see in this piece, has been accepted as authentic by Hadith scholars and jurists throughout the 14 centuries of Islamic scholarship.

First of all, the Hadith, unlike the wrongly popularized view, was not only transmitted by Imam al-Bukhari. It has also been recorded by Imams al-Tirmidhi (Hadith number 2365), al-Nisa’i (8/200); al-Baihaqi (3/90 & 10/117); al-Hakim (3/118-119& 4/291); Abu Dawud and Ahmad (5/51.) The wording in the version of Imam Ahmad and al-Hakim is: “Any society that is led by a woman shall never prosper.” There are at least four other versions/wordings of the Hadith. A supportive version (Shahid) of the Hadith has also been narrated by another companion, Jabir Ibn Samurah in which the Prophet (SAW) says: “Any society whose ra‘y is controlled by a woman shall never prosper.”

Five issues can be discussed in relation to this hadith: character and personality of Abubakarah vis-à-vis the issue of the incidence of “slander” that involved him; implications of that incidence on the authenticity of his narrations in general and particularly the hadith in question; the meaning and contextual implications of the hadith in question, and finally, the implication of our analysis and conclusions on the generally held view in among the Ahl al-Sunnah regarding the trustworthiness of all the Sahabah. My short intervention in this debate does not involve the last two issues. I will, Insha Allah treat them in different write-ups.

Those who question the authenticity of the Hadith do so based on what they presume to be the questionable characters of Abubakrah. But what has been recorded in the most reliable books of hadith and history since the golden days of Islamic history has already debunked this rather misleading presumptuous propositions. Muhaddith al-Madinah (leading hadith scholar of Madinah), Sheikh AbdulMuhsin al- ‘Abbad (May Allah protect him) in his 56 paged booklet Difa’un ‘an Abi Bakrah (In Defense of Abubakrah) has dealt, quite scholarly, with the claim that the Hadith in question is not authentic and that the basis for its questionability is the claimed suspicious traits of Abubakrah (RA). I have used this book substantially for this short piece. It should be noted therefore, that I am not writing on this subject as one who claims scholarship or mastery of the subject matter. My work is to report, albeit in summary, what experts in the field have said throughout ages.

Sheikh al-Abbad traces that throughout the history of Islam, scholars, starting from the Sahabah themselves (May Allah be pleased with them all), have always held Abubakrah with high respect and reverence. Although he made reference to one contemporary scholar who challenged the Hadith, al’Abbad explained that he contacted that scholar on phone asking him whether he had read in any book where any of the jurists ever criticized that Hadith, and the scholar answered in the negative. Al’Abbad cited 11 scholars across centuries, who have recorded the virtuous status of that great companion. I have hereunder presented my translation of some of their statements:

Imam Ibn Kathir says: “Abubakrah was great and highly ranked among the companions.” Imam al-Dhahabi states:” Abubakrah was one of the leading jurists among the companions.” Imam Al-Nawawi writes: “Abubakrah was among the most virtuous and righteous companions. He never ceased to be dedicated to ‘Ibadah until his death.” Both Imam Hassan al-Basri and Abu Salamah, Musa bin Sulaiman al-Tabuzaki opined that: “Abu Bakrah was the most honest companion who resided in Basra after ‘Imran Ibn Hussain, though he was better than ‘Imran in terms of telling the truth.” Ibn Sa’ad says in al-Tabaqat that: “He (Abubakrah) was an honorable and pious person.” Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr and Ibn Hajar and assert: “He was among the most virtuous companions”. Abul Hassan al-‘Ajali reports that: “He was among the distinguished companions of the Prophet (SAW).”

One can see how virtually all reliable historical sources like Ibn Kathir’s al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah and al-Dhabai’s Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala’ have documented the righteousness and greatness of Abubakarah. It can be observed also that while Bukhari’ and Muslim’s Hadith collections are the most authentic Hadith collections in Sunni Islam, the most celebrated commentaries of the two books are Ibn Hajar’s commentary of al-Bukhari: Fath al-Bari and al-Nawawi’s commentary of Muslim: al-Minhaj. Both these scholars have documented that Abubakarah was a great and respected companion of the Prophet (SAW).

The major misconception (shubhah) usually raised against Abubakrah and his narrations is that he was ordered to be flogged by Caliph Umar for a false testimony he gave against another companion. But this claim also does not hold waters for at least two reasons. First, it is not true that he deliberately gave a false testimony against the companion, but he mistook the companion’s wife to be another woman who, coincidentally, resembled the accused companion’s wife. After all, they were flogged because the four (4) witnesses required by the Shari’ah were not fulfilled.

Second, the actions of the Sahabah themselves who continued to relate with him as a pious and trustworthy gentleman despite the cited incidence, as well as the statements of pious scholars of Islam through the ages, are enough to debunk the accusations against his integrity by any “independent researcher”.

Scholars have extensively discussed the matter, advancing cogent reasons based on the established precepts of Islamic jurisprudence, on why neither the Sahabah nor the proceeding generations of scholars had ever doubted or rejected the narrations of Abubakrah. For instance, Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi in his Sharh al-Luma’ (2/638) states: “The narrations of Abubakrah and the others flogged together with him are no doubt acceptable because they did not appear in the (issue) as initiators of qazaf (slander). They rather were witnesses. And Umar’s punishment for them was based on ijtihad. For this there is no reason for rejecting their narratives.” This means, because ‘Umar (RA) himself, although pious and trustworthy, is not infallible, his action could be a mistake. It cannot be treated as a divine rule. That is why in his al-Wadih fi Usul al-Fiqh (5/27), Abu al-Wafa’ Ibn Aqil al-Hambali, reports that: “Ahmad (Ibn Hambal) says: ‘the narrations of Abubakrah and those flogged together with him cannot be rejected. This is because they appeared (in the case) as witnesses. They did not concoct the qazaf, but their testimony was based on ijtihad (which is subject to mistakes.) And it is common principle that narrations (of a person) are not rejected based on issues that are subject to personal ijtihad.’”

Other scholars who spoke in the same line with Imam al-Shirazi and Ahmad Ibn Hambal include Imam al-Shafi’i, Imam Abubakar al-Baihaqi, Abu al-Khattab Mahfuf al-khulaudhani, Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, al-Shanqiti, al-Zarkashi, and a host of others.

Moreover, Hadiths of Abubakrah are authentically recorded in the most reliable Hadith literature. Among the scholars who recorded his narrations are Imams al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Nisa’i, al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah. In the Kutub al-Sittah (The six most authentic Sunni Hadith collections), 55 of his narrations have been recorded. Imam al-Mizzi has mentioned some of the narrations in Tuhfah al-Ashraf from hadith number 11654 to 11708. In the Musnad of Imam Ahmad, he (Abubakrah) has 152 hadiths (including repeated narrations), i.e. from number 20373 to 20524. Among them, Bukhari and Muslim have agreed upon 9; then Bukhari singly recorded 1, while Muslim alone recorded 5. Could all these great scholars agree on reporting from a man of questionable character? Or, could we assume that they all did not know his character was questionable?! Importantly, when someone calls for condemning Abubakrah and his narrations, does one cogitate on the deeper implications of that on all the reliable books of Hadith that have reported his narrations?

Al-Isma’ili (d 371 AH) says “None among the Tabi’un (the generation after that of the Sahabah) and the Tabi’ al-Tabi’in (those who came after them) had ever rejected the narrations of Abubakrah or denied using them as proofs, nor has there been any who ever doubted transmitting hadith from him, neither has any accused his narrations on the basis of his testimony against al-Mugirah.”

Let me add here also that Imam Ibn kathir in his al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah (7/357) has related that after Ali Bn Abi Talib became the Caliph he visited Abubakrah at his house (while the latter was sick.) After greeting him, Ali offered to him the governorship of Basra but Abubakrah declined and suggested that Ibn Abbas be appointed. Now, since Ali (RA) was part of the government of ‘Umar and was fully aware of what transpired between Abubakrah and ‘Umar more than any so-called “independent researcher”, it is clear that Ali and the companions around him never understood the incident in the manner interpreted by Mernissi and her students. Ali (RA) would never have offered position of leadership to a person of questionable character. What more do we want as a testimony for his proven integrity?

All the above explanation is in addition to the two generally established facts that all Sahabah are just and that all the Hadiths reported with a complete chain of narrators by Imam al-Bukhari and Muslim are authentic.

My next intervention, God willing, will be on the issue of the trustworthiness of the Sahabah, which many people fail to comprehend.

This is a shortened, revised version of an article I wrote in 2012 and serialized in Weekly Trust Newspaper with the title: Re: Who Falsified this Hadith.

13th November, 2015