The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (RISSC) in Amman, Jordan, recently released the third edition of The Muslim 500, an annual publication highlighting the movers and shakers of the Muslim world. From Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to Sufi scholar Seyyed Hussein Nasr, the list compiles a wide range of personalities from all corners of the globe. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud topped the list, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an placing third and Iranian Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei taking fifth.
As usually happens when anyone tries to quantify popularity or prestige, there was disagreement on the blogosphere over the rankings, compounded by the fact that Muslim 500 does not clearly define its exact criteria. But my primary concern with the list is that only 13% of those featured are women, with a mere three making the top 50 most influential.
Queen Rania, the most internationally recognizable, came in at 34; Sheika Munira Qubeysi, head of the largest women-only Islamic movement in world, placed 24th; and Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser Al Missned, Chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, was number 38.
Women are marginalized in nearly every society. For example, under 20% of all world parliament seats are held by women. Although women across the world have more power than seen on the surface of things–exercising influence in the home on a number of issues related to business, politics, and family decisions–formal positions of power continue to be dominated by men.
As reflected by the Muslim 500, the situation is no different in Muslim contexts. Given the conservative nature of many cultures where Muslims live, this is anything but surprising; but this reality should give pause to anyone interested in understanding what Islam says about women and how the Prophet Muhammad viewed women in leadership positions.
During the foundation of Islam, women held important leadership roles in their communities. Khadijah, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife of 25 years, was a 40 year-old business woman and the boss of the Prophet when they married. Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the Prophet Muhammad’s second wife, was a strong spiritual and political leader and was highly esteemed by the Muslim community during and after the life of the Prophet.
Most importantly, the Qur’an and hadith shed light on how Islam regards women. A man once asked the Prophet Muhammad to whom he should show the most kindness. The Prophet replied, “Your mother, next your mother, next your mother, and then your father.”
Respect, power, and influence are surely three distinct concepts, but unfortunately, in order to gain respect, one must have a degree of power. Until the systems of power and those with positions at the top are more equitably represented by both men and women, we will continue to see very few female faces on future covers of the Muslim 500 and other publications ranking influence.
Religious Muslims and those following other faiths should look to the foundational texts of their own traditions to understand the equal, if not superior importance of women in society. Whether a Muslim-dominant Pakistan or a Christian-majority United States, societies throughout the world should recognize the value of women holding top leadership positions. We’d all be better for it.
Did the Muslim 500 selections accurately reflect the power and influence that women have in the Muslim world? Does society underestimate the power and influence that women exercise through informal roles in the home? Do you know of Muslim women who, against the norms of their cultural background, have justified their outspoken leadership by invoking Islamic principles?