Women's Intelligence and the Islamic Tradition
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The Quran and authentic Hadiths both directly and indirectly declare women to be frivolous, unintelligent, ungrateful, and religiously and legally disabled as a result. The attitudes towards women these ideas give rise to have underpinned Islamic thinking and Islamic law ever since Muhammad's time and the founding of Islam in the deeply patriarchal culture of tribal 7th-century Arabia, where and when these ideas found ample precedent.
Among the beliefs and rulings resulting from the Islamic doctrine of women being, as a rule, less intelligent and religious than men are the halved value of female testimony in a Sharia court compared to that of a man and the doctrine that the majority of Hell's inhabitants are women.
While in modern times many Islamic modernists a few Islamic traditionalists have countered these traditional doctrines, the unusually explicit and straightforward nature of the scriptures concerned as well as their direct reference to one another has made it difficult for these new perspectives to gain much purchase beyond certain limited circles. The mainstream understanding, meanwhile, continues to remain firmly on the side of the traditional and classical authorities.
In Islamic scriptures
In the Hadith
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o 'Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle ?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion."
Narrated Abu Said Al-KhudriOn 'Id ul Fitr or 'Id ul Adha Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) went out to the Musalla. After finishing the prayer, he delivered the sermon and ordered the people to give alms. He said, "O people! Give alms." Then he went towards the women and said. "O women! Give alms, for I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were you (women)." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is the reason for it?" He replied, "O women! You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. O women, some of you can lead a cautious wise man astray." Then he left. And when he reached his house, Zainab, the wife of Ibn Masud, came and asked permission to enter It was said, "O Allah's Apostle! It is Zainab." He asked, 'Which Zainab?" The reply was that she was the wife of Ibn Mas'ub. He said, "Yes, allow her to enter." And she was admitted. Then she said, "O Prophet of Allah! Today you ordered people to give alms and I had an ornament and intended to give it as alms, but Ibn Masud said that he and his children deserved it more than anybody else." The Prophet replied, "Ibn Masud had spoken the truth. Your husband and your children had more right to it than anybody else."
Narrated Abu Said Al-KhudriThe Prophet said, "Isn't the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?" The women said, "Yes." He said, "This is because of the deficiency of a woman's mind."
In the Quran
Pickthall:O ye who believe! When ye contract a debt for a fixed term, record it in writing. Let a scribe record it in writing between you in (terms of) equity. No scribe should refuse to write as Allah hath taught him, so let him write, and let him who incurreth the debt dictate, and let him observe his duty to Allah his Lord, and diminish naught thereof. But if he who oweth the debt is of low understanding, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, then let the guardian of his interests dictate in (terms of) equity. And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember. And the witnesses must not refuse when they are summoned. Be not averse to writing down (the contract) whether it be small or great, with (record of) the term thereof. That is more equitable in the sight of Allah and more sure for testimony, and the best way of avoiding doubt between you; save only in the case when it is actual merchandise which ye transfer among yourselves from hand to hand. In that case it is no sin for you if ye write it not. And have witnesses when ye sell one to another, and let no harm be done to scribe or witness. If ye do (harm to them) lo! it is a sin in you. Observe your duty to Allah. Allah is teaching you. And Allah is knower of all things.
In the tradition
Abu Jafar Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923) is recognized as one of the greatest of all Islamic scholars. He not only wrote one of the most authoritative Tafsirs (commentaries) on the Qur'an but also wrote a history of the world (tarikh) from the Islamic worldview. Published in English as The History of al-Tabari (SUNY Press, NY) in 39 volumes, this work presents world history from the creation account up until al-Tabari's death. In this work, al-Tabari presents the Islamic view on the historical origins and nature of female menstruation.
According the Islamic account of creation found in Tabari's work, when Allah created Adam and Eve and placed them in the garden, they were told to not eat of a certain tree. Eve was tempted by Iblis (Satan) to eat of the tree, and she then gave some to Adam to eat also. Adam and Eve thereafter tried to flee from God because of shame after their private parts were exposed. From this act of disobedience of Eve, it is said, came God's curse on women.
In a lecture delivered by the well-known Saudi Islamic scholar Abd Al-Aziz Al-Fawzan, a response is made to the criticism made by 'enemies' of Islam against Muhammad's "women are deficient" statement by confirming the account found in Tabari:
. . .
These hadiths provide some of the most decisive evidence that Islam protects women and guarantees their rights. Islam has surrounded the woman with a fence of compassion and mercy. It has shown that the twisted nature of women stems from their very creation. This is how Allah wanted woman to be. Therefore, the husband must adapt himself to her and be patient with her. He should not giver her too many things to do, or things that she is incapable of doing. He should not make her do anything that is contrary to her nature, and to the way she was created by Allah. In addition, he should turn a blind eye to her mistakes, he should tolerate her slips and errors, and put up with all the silly ignorant things she might say, because this constitutes part of the nature of her creation. In addition, women have surging emotions, which in some cases, might overpower their minds. The weakness with which women were created is the secret behind their attractiveness and appeal to their husbands. It is the source of women's seduction of men, and one of the elements strengthening the bond between husband and wife. This is one of the wondrous miracles of Allah: The strength of a woman lies in her weakness. Her power of seduction and appeal lie in her emotions, which might overpower her mind at times.
. . .
MEMRI TV, Clip No. 1483, Broadcast: June 11, 2007
In Quran 43:16-19, God is recorded responding to what is perceived as the very insulting idea found with Muhammad's contemporaries that God should have daughters rather than sons and that the female should have any share in the divine. In identifying why God's having a daughter should be more insulting than the equally pagan notion that he should have a son, the Quran states that because the Arabs themselves detest having daughters rather than sons, it is unbecoming that they should attribute daughters rather than sons to God. In Quran 43:18, God goes on to specify why people may feel undesirous of daughters, and suggests that it is because they are "brought up in ornaments", "trinkets", or "outward show" and are inept in their argumentation. Rather than dissenting from this description of women, the following verse goes on to suggest in that this description constitutes yet another reason why God especially should not have daughters.
Yusuf Ali: What! has He taken daughters out of what He himself creates, and granted to you sons for choice? When news is brought to one of them of (the birth of) what he sets up as a likeness to (Allah) Most Gracious, his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief! Is then one brought up among trinkets, and unable to give a clear account in a dispute (to be associated with Allah)? And they make into females angels who themselves serve Allah. Did they witness their creation? Their evidence will be recorded, and they will be called to account!
Pickthal: Or chooseth He daughters of all that He hath created, and honoureth He you with sons? And if one of them hath tidings of that which he likeneth to the Beneficent One, his countenance becometh black and he is full of inward rage. (Liken they then to Allah) that which is bred up in outward show, and in dispute cannot make itself plain? And they make the angels, who are the slaves of the Beneficent, females. Did they witness their creation? Their testimony will be recorded and they will be questioned.
Modern revisionary perspectives
Muhammad was referring to that specific group of women alone (Dr. Rasha al-Disuqi)
Dr. Rasha al-Disuqi is a professor of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) at al-Azhar University, a former lecturer at California Polytechnic State University, and holds a PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Wales. Al-Disuqi has been a key proponent in recent times of the idea that Muhammad, in the relevant portions of scripture, was merely referring to the group of women in front of him during the time of his address and not all women in general. Al-Disuqi's argument, colliding with classical interpretations, has been subjected to criticism both from traditional authorities and critics.
Not a blanket statement for all Women
Al-Disuqi's conclusion rests in part on the argument that because while making the relevant statements Muhammad was present in a specific time, place, and situation, his statements cannot be taken to be generally applicable. This argument of al-Disuqi's upsets both traditional Islamic hermeneutical practice and what might be considered a plain reading of the scriptures concerned.
In traditional interpretive practice, Islamic scholars rely on the maxim that "the meaning [of scripture] is based on the generality of the wording and not the specificity of the circumstance" (العبرة بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب). The theological idea behind this practice is that since Allah tasked Muhammad with providing laws and beliefs for humankind for all eternity while still, as a human, being bound to a specific time and place, his followers would necessarily have to extrapolate his teachings which emerged in particular circumstances into future-proof, universalized formulations. Accordingly, traditional Islamic scholars agreed that if this were the case, then Muhammad would have to explicitly declare a teaching of his to be time-limited or otherwise non-generalizable in order for it not to be extrapolated into the future - otherwise there would be no way to distinguish his general proclamations from his temporal ones.
Since the scripture diminishing women's intelligence contains no such explicit qualification which limits Muhammad's comments to the women in his presence and because the scriptures also explicitly give women's lesser intelligence as the reason for the eternal Quranic law disabling women as testifiers in court, the classical understanding of these statements has always been that women were, as a rule, less intelligent than men. Classical scholars have also pointed out that the law justified with the teaching of women's lesser intelligence is itself not qualified temporally - Quran 2:282 does not say, for instance, that women's testimony will be worth half of man's for "a limited time". Thus, with an unqualified pronouncement in the hadith coupled with an unqualified legal ruling in the Quran, the classical understanding has always been that women are, as a rule, less intelligent. Other evidence that has been cited to this effect, though not explicitly linked with women's intelligence in the hadith itself, is Muhammad's teaching that women should "never" be the leaders of nations.
The same reasoning for the permanence and universality of women's intelligence is traditionally used to arrive at the permanence and universality of women's religious disability. As a works-based religion where one's fate hereafter is determined deed-for-deed, according to one's acts in this life (except for those cases where God feels like bestowing his fadl, or unequal favor upon someone), Islam teaches that a person is not generally judged by their ability, but their output. In a famous hadith, Muhammad taught that some people, given wealth more than others, would through donation be able to ascend to higher awards in heaven than the impoverished could ever hope to attain, for no other reason than that God had favored them, arbitrarily, with wealth. While admittedly unjust, Muhammad concluded that "This is Allah's Grace which He gives to whom He wishes". Similarly it is traditionally held that women are permanently disadvantaged in their ability to perform good deeds because they have been 'cursed' with menstruation, due to Eve's transgression, and are thus unable to pray as much in their lives as men (in Islam, menstruating persons are prohibited from prayer, which is the most important and most deed-rewarding Islamic ritual). This latter idea, that women are religiously disabled due to menstruation is explicitly stated in the relevant scriptures and does not refer only to the women present in Muhammad's audience at the time. This reinforces the traditional understanding that Muhammad was referring to all women in all times and places, as that comment could not possibly have been confined to his temporal audience (and is not held to be, as Islamic law has always prohibited menstruating women from praying).
It has also been pointed out by traditional authorities and critics alike that the same scriptural quotations also record Muhammad saying that "The majority of the dwellers of Hellfire are Women." This cannot possible be referring to a limited group of women, unless that group of women were larger than all the women who have ever existed outside of it throughout history. Consequently, virtually all traditional authorities agree that this doctrinal proclamation is a general description of all women rather than of a very limited group of historical women.
Scans of male and female brains prove it was only for that group
Al-Disuqi also presents a second argument to buttress her conclusion that Muhammad could not possible have been referring to all women. This argument, while plausible to many Islamic authorities, has had absolutely no purchase outside of Islam. Al-Disuqi argues that because science has proven that many women are even more intelligent than men, Muhammad could not possibly have meant otherwise by his statement. This argument assumes that Muhammad must have been correct in his scientific statements and that therefore they must be interpreted so as to coincided with incontestable modern scientific fact. The form of this argument is similar to those of many modern Islamic scholars who advance the idea that the Quran's scientific statements are sound (see Scientific Miracles in the Quran). The alternative possibility, that modern science is at odds with Islamic scripture and thus proves it to be incorrect, is not considered here.
Non-Muslim participants in this discussion hold a view better represented by Al-Disuqi's subsequent statement that if Muhammad meant by his statement that all women were unintelligent, he must have been mistaken ("That argument," al-Disuqi proclaims, "is a failure."). Al-Disuqi concludes that Muhammad could not have failed in this manner and thus that he must have meant something else. Non-Muslim participants in this discussion simply conclude, rather, that Muhammad being a man living in the deeply patriarchy society of 7th-century Arabian tribesmen, could easily have been mistaken on the matter of female intelligence, and almost certainly was.
Muhammad was using hyperbole to frighten women into donating their jewelry
Other Islamic voices attempting to reorient the traditional understanding of the relevant portions of scripture have argued that Muhammad was being exaggerative in order to convey the magnitude of his practical advice, which was simply that women, like men, should simply be pious. Here, a story narrated by Ibn Abbas is often presented as evidence of Muhammad "being playful in his use of strong terms to impress this teaching on the listeners." The scripture presented in this vein are Sahih Muslim 4:1923, Sahih Muslim 4:1924, and Sahih Muslim 4:1926.
The above scriptural quotations are sometimes presented as being descriptive of the same incident where Muhammad described women as being less intelligent and deficient in religion. Put together, it is argued that these hadiths show that Muhammad was simply calling women deficient in intelligence and religion in order to frighten them into donating their jewelry and that he did not intend those statements as other than exaggerative motivational rhetoric. Critics and traditional authorities have pointed out, however, that there is no particular reason to assume that the two sets of hadith describe the same incident, as Muhammad could well have exhorted women to generosity after prayers on two separate occasions, and that even if the two sets of hadith are accepted as describing the same incident, this does not change much.
It has also been pointed out that if the statement of women making up the majority of Hellfire was merely exaggerative rhetoric intended to frighten the women into giving up their jewelry, this does not explain the comments made by Muhammad about women's intelligence. While one might argue that the women would respond to the idea of their religious disability by performing more religious acts, in this case charity, on the spot, it is not at all clear how their intelligence could be relevant in this context.
Finally, the very idea of Muhammad making exaggerative rhetorical comments on matters of theology is considered deeply problematic by traditional Islamic theologians for a number of reasons. Foremost amongst these is that in all matters theological, Muhammad's word is taken to be final, as no one else is qualified to comment on these topics. Consequently, if one theological proclamation made by Muhammad is taken as rhetorical, then all his proclamations of this kind are suspect, and this cannot be acceptable to a Sunni orthodoxy which relies on literal readings of all scripture. The problem here emerges that if the comment on Hell's inhabitants was fundamentally fictitious, then, from a theological standpoint, Hell itself could be too.
Deficiency is limited to financial testimony
Some others have argued that while Muhammad did say that women were less intelligent than men, he only meant this in the very limited sense of their being less intelligent with respect to financial transactions. Islamic modernists and feminists have added to this reduction of scope the statement's time-bound nature, arguing that not only was the claim limited to women's intelligence with respect to financial dealings, but that that limitation in their intelligence was itself limited to the premodern times where one could expect that women, being home-bound for the most part, had less experience dealing with sums of money. It is important to note that this latter argument presented by modernist and feminist voices in Islam has been wholeheartedly rejected by mainstream Islamic authorities. This is because in declaring the legal disability of women to be time-bound, the entirety of the Sharia is made susceptible to revision under changing circumstances. Sunni orthodoxy is vehemently opposed to such thorough-going modern revisionism, since it deems the Sharia to be eternal, perfect, and unchanging, and thus does not consider this modernist and feminist perspective to have any theological legitimacy.
While non-Muslim participants in this discussion have welcomed these otherwise incredible revisionist perspectives for humanitarian reasons, the interpretation the revisionists rely on have strained credulity. The biggest problem facing these new interpretations is that Quran 2:282 itself gives a reason for why two women testifiers are required in lieu of one. The verse states that the reason for this requirement is so that if one woman forgets something, the other may remind her. Such a stipulation is, by contrast, not made for male testifiers, and the implication is that women are more likely to forget. This, it appears, is what Muhammad is alluding to when he links women's deficiency in intelligence to their legal disability rather than lack of familiarity. What results, leaving little room for interpretive maneuvers, is that the hadith about women's deficiency in intelligence directly cites the verse about their legal disability, and the verse about women's legal disability directly cites the idea that women are somehow mentally deficient.
Also important is the fact that classical authorities did not usually interpret Quran 2:282 as limiting women's legal disability as testifiers to financial transactions only. While the verse gives a particular example of a case where two women are required in lieu of one, the hadith on women's intelligence sees Muhammad generalizing this disability to all legal contexts. While classical authorities typically made exceptions for accepting the testimony of women in cases relating directly to women, such as those involving facts of menstruation, pregnancy, and the like, the common assumption was that, notwithstanding these exceptions, two women would be required to testify in the place of one man. Modern Islamic voices, including most modernist and many traditionalist figures, have only very recently shifted heavily in favor of restricting women's legal disability to financial cases alone. While this development has been welcomed for its humanitarian qualities, it cannot be said to alter historical facts about the Islamic tradition. What remains the case is that, for the longest time, Islamic authorities interpreted Muhammad's restriction on female testimony as being a general one with few exceptions, and that they held, without apology, that the reason for this restriction was, in Muhammad's own words, "the deficiency in her intelligence."
Muhammad was joking
Still others have, in recent times, suggested that the hadiths about women's mental deficiency, religious deficiency, and majority share in Hell be read sarcastically or satirically. The idea here, it appears, is that Muhammad, being very familiar with the women in his community, would have understood that in saying what he did, he would not be taken seriously. While sarcasm can be infamously challenging to detect in historical texts, particularly where cultural mores and expectations have changed dramatically with time, there is little in the relevant portions of scripture to suggest Muhammad was being anything but serious in his statements. Traditionalists are incensed by the insinuation that Muhammad could have been making light of such a theologically important matter as the inhabitants of hell or that he could have cited the Quran and Sharia to buttress what was only meant as a joke. Traditionalists encountering this interpretation also worry that by dismissing these hadiths and even verses as being satirical or sarcastic in nature, there is a risk that much else in the scriptures could come to be similarly dismissed, severely undermining traditional authority. Non-Muslim participants in this discussion have found this argument similarly incredible, albeit for non-theological reasons alone.
Reinterpreting Quran 43:18
Some modern Muslim scholars have shifted to interpreting Quran 43:18 as a simple description of pagan attitudes towards women rather than an affirmation of those attitudes. However, the following verse (Quran 43:19) uses the same interrogative and exclamatory device found earlier in the passage -- a statement of what the pagans believed followed by an alif (translated "What!") -- and then Allah's rebuttal ("did they witness their creation?") which expresses incredulity and outrage. Thus it seems more likely that in Quran 43:18 Allah is making what he thinks is a factual counter-argument (i.e. that women are frivolous and unintelligent) to contradict the pagan belief in the daughters of Allah.
- Creation - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Creation
- Muslim Cleric Presents "Scientific" Proof that Women Cannot Talk and Remember Simultaneously (MEMRI video featuring Abd Al-Majid Al-Zindani)
- Dr. Rasha Al Disuqi, Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (archived from the original), https://web.archive.org/save/https://www.cilecenter.org/about-us/our-team/dr-rasha-al-disuqi
- حول قاعدة : ( العبرة بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب ), Islam Q&A (archived from the original), https://web.archive.org/web/20210309164943/https://islamqa.info/ar/answers/224767/%D8%AD%D9%88%D9%84-%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%88%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%81%D8%B8-%D9%84%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%AE%D8%B5%D9%88%D8%B5-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%A8%D8%A8
- Sahih Bukhari 9:88:219
- Sahih Muslim 4:1239
- Qur'an, Hadith and Scholars:Women#Women and Menstruation
- See, for instance, the work of Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, an Islamic writer in the UK.
- Shaykh Sohail Hanif, Tafseer Quran 43:18: does this verse view women negatively?, SunniPath (archived from the original), https://web.archive.org/web/20120518193855/http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=10&ID=12885&CATE=88