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Can a Woman Be a Leader of Muslims?-Part 3

By Fatima Mernissi

Hazrath Aisha (RA), who often used to accompany the Prophet (Pbuh) on military expeditions, knew the procedure for the negotiations that took place before the military occupation of a city.

For each Hadith of the Sahih, al-’Asqalani gives us the historical clarification: the political events that served as background, a description of the battles, the identity of the conflicting parties, the identity of the transmitters and their opinions, and finally the debates concerning their reliability - everything needed to satisfy the curiosity of the researcher.

On what occasion did Abu Bakra recall these words of the Prophet (Pbuh), and why did he feel the need to recount them? Abu Bakra must have had a fabulous memory, because he recalled them a quarter of a century after the death of the Prophet (Pbuh), at the time that the caliph Ali retook Basra after having defeated Aisha (RA) at the Battle of the Camel.

Before occupying Basra, A’isha went on pilgrimage to Makkah where she learnt the news of the assassination of Uthman (RA) at Madinah and the naming of Ali as the fourth caliph. It was while she was in Makkah that she decided to take command of the army that was challenging the choice of ‘Ali. Days and days of indecision then followed. Should she go to Kufa or Basra? She needed to have an important city with enough provision to aid her cause and let her set up her headquarters. After numerous contacts, negotiations, and discussions, she chose Basra. Abu Bakra was one of the notables of that city and, like all of them, in a difficult position. Should he take up arms against Ali, the cousin of the Prophet and the caliph, challenged maybe, but legitimate, or should he take up arms against A’isha, the, wife of the Beloved of God? If one realises, moreover, that he had become a notable in that Iraqi city, which was not his native city, one can better understand the extent of his unease.

So why was he led to dig into his memory and make the prodigious effort of recalling the words that the Prophet was supposed to have uttered 25 years before? The first detail to be noted - and it is far from being negligible, is that Abu Bakra recalled his Hadith after the Battle of the Camel. At that time, Aisha’s situation was scarcely enviable. She was politically wiped out: 13,000 of her supporters had fallen on the field of the battle. Ali had retaken the city of Basra, and all those who had not chosen to join Ali’s clan had to justify their action. This can explain why a man like Abu Bakra needed to recall opportune traditions, his record being far from satisfactory, as he had refused to take part in the civil war. Not only did he refrain from taking part, but like many of the Companions who had opted for non-participation, he had made his position known officially.

A’isha, who often used to accompany the Prophet on military expeditions, knew the procedure for the negotiations that took place before the military occupation of a city and had conducted matters correctly. Before besieging the city, she had sent messengers with letters to all the notables of the city, explaining to them the reasons that had impelled her to rebel against Ali, her intentions, and the objectives that she wanted to attain, and finally inviting them to support her. It was a true campaign of information and persuasion, a preliminary military tactic in which the Prophet excelled. And Aisha was going to use the mosque as the meeting place for a public discussion to inform the population before occupying the city. Abu Bakra was thus contacted from the beginning in his capacity as a notable of the city.

A’isha did not take this course of action only because of faithfulness to Muhammad’s methods. There was a more important reason. This was the first time since the death of the Prophet that the Muslims found themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. This was the situation that Muhammad had described as the worst possible for Islam: fitna, civil war, which turned the weapons of the Muslims inward instead of directing them, as Allah wished, outward, in order to conquer and dominate the world. So Aisha had to explain her uprising against Ali. She reproached him for not having brought the murderers of Uthman, the assassinated third caliph, to justice. Some of those who had besieged Uthman and whose identity was known were in Ali’s army as military leaders. Many Muslims must have thought like ‘A’isha, because a large part of the city of Basra welcomed her, giving her men and weapons. After driving out the governor who represented Ali, Aisha set up her headquarters in Basra, and with her two allies, Talha and al-Zubair, members of the Quraysh tribe like herself, she continued her campaign of information, negotiation, and persuasion through individual interviews and speeches in the mosques, pressing the crowds to support her against the “unjust” caliph. It was year 36 of the Hejira (AD 656), and public opinion was divided: should one obey an “unjust” caliph (who did not punish the killers of ‘Uthman), or should one rebel against him and support Aisha, even if that rebellion led to civil disorder?

Thus the decision not to .participate in this civil war was not an exceptional one, limited to a few members of the elite. The mosques were full of people who found it absurd to follow leaders who wanted to lead the community into tearing each other to pieces. Abu Bakra was not in any way an exception. When he was contacted by ‘A’isha, Abu Bakra made known his response to her: he was against fitna. He is supposed to have said to her (according to the way he told it after the battle):

“It is true that you are our umm (mother, alluding to her title of “Mother of Believers,” which the Prophet bestowed on his wives during his last years), it is true that as such you have rights over us. But I heard the Prophet say: “Those who entrust power (mulk) to a woman will never know prosperity.”

Although, as we have just seen, many of the Companions and inhabitants of Basra chose neutrality in the conflict, only Abu Bakra justified it by the fact that one of the parties was a woman. According to al-Tabari’s account, Basra, after ‘A’isha’s defeat, lived through many days of understandable anxiety. Was Ali going to take revenge on those who had not supported him one of whom was Abu Bakra? “In the end Ali proclaimed a general amnesty to all those who threw down their arms. He announced on the day of the battle that those who returned to their homes would be spared. Ali spent some days on the battlefield; he buried the dead of both sides and said a common funeral prayer for them before returning to the city.

What is surprising to the modern reader who leafs through the chronicles of that famous Battle of the Camel is the respect that the people, whatever their position towards the war, showed to Aisha. Very rare were the occasions on which she was insulted -and even then it was never by one of the political leaders, but by some of the ordinary people.

(To be continued)


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