By Abu Amina Elias
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Men and women are equal in Islam by default, in terms of spirituality, morality, and value. They are only different in so far as there are natural differences between genders, and even these natural differences, while generally true, always have exceptions.
One gender is not inherently ‘superior’ or ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ than another. Rather, both genders complement each other for their respective strengths and weaknesses; only by their harmonious union can new life begin.
As a universal truth, the only quality that makes one individual better than another is mindfulness of Allah and righteousness (al-taqwa).
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ
O people, We have created you male and female and made you into tribes and nations that you might know one another. Verily, the most honored of you to Allah is the most righteous of you.
Surat al-Hujurat 49:13
In this respect, men and women are spiritually and morally equal, as their good deeds are rewarded in the same measure.
إِنَّ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَالْمُسْلِمَاتِ وَالْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَالْقَانِتِينَ وَالْقَانِتَاتِ وَالصَّادِقِينَ وَالصَّادِقَاتِ وَالصَّابِرِينَ وَالصَّابِرَاتِ وَالْخَاشِعِينَ وَالْخَاشِعَاتِ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقِينَ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقَاتِ وَالصَّائِمِينَ وَالصَّائِمَاتِ وَالْحَافِظِينَ فُرُوجَهُمْ وَالْحَافِظَاتِ وَالذَّاكِرِينَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا وَالذَّاكِرَاتِ أَعَدَّ اللَّهُ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمًا
Verily, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the chaste men and the chaste women, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so, for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.
Surat al-Ahzab 33:35
And Allah said:
فَاسْتَجَابَ لَهُمْ رَبُّهُمْ أَنِّي لَا أُضِيعُ عَمَلَ عَامِلٍ مِّنكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنثَىٰ ۖ بَعْضُكُم مِّن بَعْضٍ
Their Lord responded to them: Never will I cause to be lost the deeds of any among you, whether male or female; you are of one another.
Surat Ali Imran 3:195
As-Suyuti comments on this verse, writing:
بَعْضُكُمْ كَائِنٌ مِنْ بَعْضٍ أَي اَلذُّكُورُ مِنَ اَلْإِنَاثِ وَبِالْعَكْس وَالْجُمْلَةُ مُؤَكِّدَةٌ لِمَا قَبْلَهَا أَي هُمْ سَوَاءٌ فِي اَلْمُجَازَاةِ بِالْأَعْمَالِ
You are as if part of one another, meaning the male is from the female by opposite. The sentence confirms what was before it, that is, they are equal in reward for their actions.
Source: Tafsīr al-Jalālayn 3:195
At the same time, men and woman have different, but complementary, natures as part the pattern in creation of corresponding pairs. The majority of living things have male and female genders, as do forces of nature such as heat and cold, light and dark, and electricity.
وَاللَّهُ خَلَقَكُم مِّن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ ثُمَّ جَعَلَكُمْ أَزْوَاجًا
Allah created you from dust, then from a drop, then He made you into mates.
Surat al-Fatir 35:11
And Allah said:
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْأَزْوَاجَ كُلَّهَا مِمَّا تُنبِتُ الْأَرْضُ وَمِنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَمِمَّا لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Glory to He who created all pairs, from what the earth grows and from themselves and from that which they do not know.
Surat Ya Sin 36:36
They are called ‘pairs’ because they are in need of each other; one could not exist without the other.
It would be nonsensical to say that positive electric charges are ‘better’ than negative electric charges while both are needed to produce electricity. Similarly, it is nonsensical to say men are ‘better’ than women while they both require each other.
وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ بَعْضٍ
The believing men and women are allies of one another.
Surat al-Tawbah 9:71
For this reason, men and woman are described as interrelated counterparts, a manifestation of the balanced duality that permeates throughout the creation.
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّمَا النِّسَاءُ شَقَائِقُ الرِّجَالِ
Verily, women are the counterparts of men.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 25663 Grade: Sahih
That is, men are partners with women and their equals in jurisprudence by default, except in the few cases where they are different.
When Allah addresses people with the male grammatical form, it is always a general address to both men and women unless there is an indication otherwise.
Al-Khattabi comments on this tradition, saying:
وقوله النساء شقائق الرجال أي نظائرهم وأمثالهم في الخلق والطباع فكأنهن شققن من الرجال وفيه من الفقه إثبات القياس والحاق حكم النظير بالنظير وأن الخطاب إذا ورد بلفظ الذكور كان خطابا بالنساء إلا مواضع الخصوص التي قامت أدلة التخصيص فيها
His saying that women are counterparts of men means their equals and their likeness in creation and nature, as if they split off from men. In jurisprudence, it is affirmation of the analogy and equivalence in rulings, equal by equal. Such that if the address is conveyed in the male grammatical form, it is also addressed to women, except for specific topics whose specification is established by evidence.
Source: Ma’ālim al-Sunan 1/79
All of this amounts to the ontological equality of men and women as the basis (al-asl) and their natural differences as branches (al-furu’).
These natural differences are a source of contention because they might be overly generalized in a way that negatively stereotypes one gender, or they might be ignored completely in a way that denies nature.
A problematic discourse among Muslim men is the claim than men are by nature ‘better’ than women as a universal metaphysical truth, which leads them to devalue women and disrespect their autonomy. This discourse resembles the same pre-Islamic tribal ignorance that compelled men to bury their baby daughters alive because of how little they respected women.
The genesis of their mistaken claim is based upon their generalizing the specific and specifying the general, universalizing the particular and particularizing the universal. The Quran expresses the general metaphysical equality of men and women, whereas the Sunnah details reasonable rules specific to each gender. These men, on the other hand, minimize the equality of men and women in the Quran while they over-emphasize differences mentioned in the Sunnah.
As such, their claims against women deserve to be challenged and their interpretations scrutinized, because their superficial arguments are weakened by a careful exegesis of Islamic texts and the cumulative experience of human history.
The first of such texts in need of examination is a tradition relating to the intelligence and religiosity of women, often cited to claim men are smarter than women.
Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
يَا مَعْشَرَ النِّسَاءِ تَصَدَّقْنَ فَإِنِّي أُرِيتُكُنَّ أَكْثَرَ أَهْلِ النَّارِ
O gathering of women! Give in charity, for I have seen you as a majority of people in Hellfire.
They said, “Why is that, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet said:
تُكْثِرْنَ اللَّعْنَ وَتَكْفُرْنَ الْعَشِيرَ مَا رَأَيْتُ مِنْ نَاقِصَاتِ عَقْلٍ وَدِينٍ أَذْهَبَ لِلُبِّ الرَّجُلِ الْحَازِمِ مِنْ إِحْدَاكُنَّ
You curse others often and you are ungrateful for your livelihood. I have not seen anyone with reductions in mind and religion more capable of removing reason from a resolute man than you.
They said, “What are our reductions in mind?” The Prophet said:
أَلَيْسَ شَهَادَةُ الْمَرْأَةِ مِثْلَ نِصْفِ شَهَادَةِ الرَّجُلِ
Is not the testimony of a woman like half of a man?
They said, “Of course.” The Prophet said:
فَذَلِكِ مِنْ نُقْصَانِ عَقْلِهَا أَلَيْسَ إِذَا حَاضَتْ لَمْ تُصَلِّ وَلَمْ تَصُمْ
That is the reduction in your mind. Is it not that when you menstruate you do not pray, nor fast?
They said, “Of course.” The Prophet said:
فَذَلِكِ مِنْ نُقْصَانِ دِينِهَا
That is the reduction in your religion.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 298, Grade: Sahih
There are two important points that are misunderstood in this tradition: the reason why there is a majority of women in Hellfire, and the meaning of a ‘reduction’ in intellect and religiosity.
Firstly, that the Prophet (s) saw a majority of women in the Hellfire is not indicative of their inherent propensity towards evil. Other traditions forbid men and women from boasting to each other over this claim, as if one gender were better than another.
Muhammad ibn Sireen reported: People were boasting to each other, whether men or women would be a majority in Paradise. Abu Huraira said: I heard the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, say:
إِنَّ أَوَّلَ زُمْرَةٍ تَدْخُلُ الْجَنَّةَ عَلَى صُورَةِ الْقَمَرِ لَيْلَةَ الْبَدْرِ وَالَّتِي تَلِيهَا عَلَى أَضْوَإِ كَوْكَبٍ دُرِّيٍّ فِي السَّمَاءِ لِكُلِّ امْرِئٍ مِنْهُمْ زَوْجَتَانِ اثْنَتَانِ يُرَى مُخُّ سُوقِهِمَا مِنْ وَرَاءِ اللَّحْمِ وَمَا فِي الْجَنَّةِ أَعْزَبُ
Verily, the first group to enter Paradise will have faces as bright as the full moon at night. The next group will have faces as bright as shining stars in the sky. Every man will have two wives and the marrow of their shanks would glimmer beneath their skin and there will be no one in Paradise without a wife.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2834, Grade: Sahih
Every man will have ‘two wives’ in Paradise, who will not experience worldly jealousy as they would in this life. This has been understood by some scholars to indicate that women are the majority of humankind.
Al-Qadi ‘Iyad comments on this tradition, saying:
ظَاهِرُ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ أَنَّ النِّسَاءَ أَكْثَرُ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ وَفِي الْحَدِيثِ الْآخَرِ أَنَّهُنَّ أَكْثَرُ أَهْلِ النَّارِ قَالَ فَيَخْرُجُ مِنْ مَجْمُوعِ هَذَا أَنَّ النِّسَاءَ أَكْثَرُ وَلَدِ آدَمَ
This tradition demonstrates that women are the majority of the people of Paradise, and in another tradition that they are a majority of the people of Hellfire. What can be deduced from them together is that women are the majority of the children of Adam.
Source: Sharḥ al-Nawawī ‘alá Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2834
A majority of women in Hellfire does not mean they are uniquely evil compared to men, because there are more women than men overall. This interpretation is supported by other traditions speaking about periods of time in the future, which are signs before the Day of Judgment, when women will greatly outnumber men.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
وَتَكْثُرَ النِّسَاءُ وَيَقِلَّ الرِّجَالُ حَتَّى يَكُونَ لِخَمْسِينَ امْرَأَةً الْقَيِّمُ الْوَاحِدُ
There will be an abundance of women and scarcity of men such that fifty women will be maintained by a single man
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 81, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
And in another narration, the Prophet said:
وَيُرَى الرَّجُلُ الْوَاحِدُ يَتْبَعُهُ أَرْبَعُونَ امْرَأَةً يَلُذْنَ بِهِ مِنْ قِلَّةِ الرِّجَالِ وَكَثْرَةِ النِّسَاءِ
A man will be seen followed by forty women seeking refuge with him due to the scarcity of men and abundance of women.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1348, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Hence, polygyny (a man marrying up to four wives) is permissible in Islam, as it would be necessary in contexts such as this when women greatly outnumber men, although many scholars recommended that a man marry only one wife at a time under normal circumstances.
Secondly, the ‘reduction’ (nuqsan) in mind and religion is related to a woman’s legal obligations. It is not an ontological statement that women are always less intelligent or religious than men. As applied to religion, women are not obligated to pray or fast while menstruating or enduring post-natal bleeding. As applied to mind, women are not obligated to perform some functions such as testifying before a judge in a criminal case.
Some authors have mistranslated nuqsan by using derogatory terms like ‘deficient in intelligence,’ or ‘lacking common sense.’ This rendition is inappropriate because the word in this context means a ‘reduction,’ as it is used in the Quran:
أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّا نَأْتِي الْأَرْضَ نَنقُصُهَا مِنْ أَطْرَافِهَا
Have they not seen that We set upon the land, reducing it from its borders?
Surat al-R’ad 13:41
أَفَلَا يَرَوْنَ أَنَّا نَأْتِي الْأَرْضَ نَنقُصُهَا مِنْ أَطْرَافِهَا
Then do they not see that We set upon the land, reducing it from its borders?
Surat al-Anbiya 21:44
This is one of the meanings of the word mentioned by Ibn Manzhur in his classical Arabic lexicon:
وَاسْتَنْقَصَ الْمُشْتَرِي الثَّمَنَ أَيِ اسْتَحَطَّ وَتَقُولُ نُقْصَانُهُ كَذَا وَكَذَا هَذَا قَدْرُ الذَّاهِبِ
The buyer seeks a reduction in price, that is, seeks a lessening. It is said: His reduction (nuqsan) is such and such amount taken out.
Source: Lisān al-‘Arab 7/100
The reduction for women is a manifestation of Islam’s leniency towards women, by not burdening them with the same obligations as men while they have their own particular duties and concerns.
In the case of testimony, women in early Islam did not customarily involve themselves in business contracts, debts, and other matters. They were usually doing other important work, caring for their children and elderly parents, and so on. As a result, the verse was revealed to lessen a woman’s obligation to testify in such matters.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا تَدَايَنتُم بِدَيْنٍ إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى فَاكْتُبُوهُ وَلْيَكْتُب بَّيْنَكُمْ كَاتِبٌ بِالْعَدْلِ … وَاسْتَشْهِدُوا شَهِيدَيْنِ مِن رِّجَالِكُمْ فَإِن لَّمْ يَكُونَا رَجُلَيْنِ فَرَجُلٌ وَامْرَأَتَانِ مِمَّن تَرْضَوْنَ مِنَ الشُّهَدَاءِ أَن تَضِلَّ إِحْدَاهُمَا فَتُذَكِّرَ إِحْدَاهُمَا الْأُخْرَىٰ
O you who believe, when you contract a debt for a specified term, write it down, and let a scribe write it between you in justice… and bring two witnesses from among your men. If there are not two men available, then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses, so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:282
The purpose of this rule was a practical matter to achieve justice in business by having two women support each other’s memories in matters outside of their regular duties. It is not a universal rule that women are half as intelligent as men or that their testimony is always half of a man.
By default, men and women are equal to each other in terms of honesty and piety, but because women in this context were afraid that they might forget some details of the contract, they were told to include another woman to help one another remember. In fact, the testimony of two women outweighs the testimony of one man.
Ibn al-Qayyim writes:
وَالْمَرْأَةُ الْعَدْلُ كَالرَّجُلِ فِي الصِّدْقِ وَالْأَمَانَةِ وَالدِّيَانَة إلَّا أَنَّهَا لَمَّا خِيفَ عَلَيْهَا السَّهْوُ وَالنِّسْيَانُ قَوِيَتْ بِمِثْلِهَا وَذَلِكَ قَدْ يَجْعَلُهَا أَقْوَى مِنْ الرَّجُلِ الْوَاحِدِ أَوْ مِثْلَهُ وَلَا رَيْب أَنَّ الظَّنَّ الْمُسْتَفَادَ مِنْ شَهَادَةِ مِثْلِ أُمِّ الدَّرْدَاءِ وَأُمِّ عَطِيَّةَ أَقْوَى مِنْ الظَّنِّ الْمُسْتَفَادِ مِنْ رَجُلٍ وَاحِدٍ دُونَهُمَا وَدُونَ أَمْثَالِهِمَا
The woman is equal to the man in truthfulness, honesty, and piety; otherwise, if it is feared that she will forget or misremember, she is strengthened with another like herself. That makes them stronger than a single man or the likes of him. There is no question that the benefit of the doubt given to the testimony of Umm Darda and Umm ‘Atiyyah is stronger than the benefit of the doubt given to a single man without them or the likes of them.
Source: al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥukmīyah 1/136
The increased possibility of error, due to customary gender roles in society, necessitated the addition of another woman’s testimony. But if there is no fear of error, the testimony of men and women return to the default position of equality, because the intention of the rule is to achieve fairness between business partners and truthful witness, not to devalue women’s intelligence.
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
فَمَا كَانَ مِنْ الشَّهَادَاتِ لَا يُخَافُ فِيهِ الضَّلَالُ فِي الْعَادَةِ لَمْ تَكُنْ فِيهِ عَلَى نِصْفِ رَجُلٍ
Whatever there is among the testimonies of women, in which there is no fear of habitual error, they are not considered as half of a man.
Source: al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥukmīyah 1/128
This dynamic can be seen in the way early jurists approached women’s testimony. They mostly did not accept, or obligate, a woman to testify in criminal investigations, legal punishments, and other matters outside of their customary purview, but they accepted a woman’s testimony as equal in her ordinary duties.
Ibn Rushd writes:
وَأَمَّا شَهَادَةُ النِّسَاءِ مُفْرَدَاتٍ أَعْنِي النِّسَاءَ دُونَ الرِّجَالِ فَهِيَ مَقْبُولَةٌ عِنْدَ الْجُمْهُورِ فِي حُقُوقِ الْأَبْدَانِ الَّتِي لَا يَطَّلِعُ عَلَيْهَا الرِّجَالُ غَالِبًا مِثْلَ الْوِلَادَةِ وَالِاسْتِهْلَالِ وَعُيُوبِ النِّسَاءِ
As for the testimony of individual women, meaning women without men, it is accepted by the majority in personal rights which are usually not the purview of men, such as pregnancy, consummation, and ailments affecting women.
Source: Bidāyat al-Mujtahid 4/248
In this regard, the classical rules were largely based upon the customary gender roles of the time and were not indicative of an universal deficiency in women’s intelligence, testimony, or truthfulness.
In other cases, a woman’s testimony was accepted in important matters of family law without any men present at all.
Ibn al-Qayyim writes:
قَالَ الْإِمَامُ أَحْمَدُ فِي الرَّجُلِ يُوصِي وَلَا يَحْضُرُهُ إلَّا النِّسَاءُ قَالَ أُجِيزُ شَهَادَةَ النِّسَاءِ فَظَاهِرُ هَذَا أَنَّهُ أَثْبَتَ الْوَصِيَّةَ بِشَهَادَةِ النِّسَاءِ عَلَى الِانْفِرَادِ إذَا لَمْ يَحْضُرْهُ الرِّجَالُ
Imam Ahmad said regarding a man who writes his will and none are present except women: I permit the testimony of women. Thus, this shows that he affirmed the will by the testimony of individual women even if no men were present.
Source: al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥukmīyah 1/135
By analyzing the sources and appreciating their historical contexts, we find that the classical rules related to women’s testimony are not a statement about her inherent intelligence or truthfulness. Perhaps the single most important fact to contradict this claim is that women excelled in narrating the traditions of the Prophet (s).
In particular, Aisha (ra) was considered to be a scholar by the righteous predecessors. Even the most senior male companions would come to her seeking religious and legal verdicts.
Abu Musa reported:
مَا أَشْكَلَ عَلَيْنَا أَصْحَابَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ حَدِيثٌ قَطُّ فَسَأَلْنَا عَائِشَةَ إِلَّا وَجَدْنَا عِنْدَهَا مِنْهُ عِلْمًا
We never had a problem occur to us, the companions of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and asked Aisha about it but that we found her knowledgeable of it.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3883, Grade: Sahih
Masruq reported: He was asked, “Was Aisha knowledgeable of the religious obligations?” Masruq said:
وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَقَدْ رَأَيْتُ مَشْيَخَةَ أَصْحَابِ مُحَمَّدٍ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الْأَكَابِرَ يَسْأَلُونَهَا عَنْ الْفَرَائِضِ
By the one in whose hand is my soul, I saw the learned elders among the companions of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, ask her about the religious obligations.
Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 30387, Grade: Hasan
Many more women, not to mention wives of the Prophet (s), were scholars of the prophetic traditions known for their honesty and reliability.
وما علمت في النساء من اتهمت ولا من تركوها
I do not know among women narrators anyone accused of lying, nor anyone abandoned.
Source: Mīzān al-I’tidāl 4/604
Al-Dhahabi then lists over one hundred and twenty women who narrated prophetic traditions.
If a woman’s testimony were always half of a man or she was always less intelligent than him, that would have applied even more so to narrating prophetic traditions. After all, relating the words and actions of the Prophet (s) is an awesome responsibility requiring the foremost intelligence, memory, and trustworthiness, yet many women excelled in this field just as men did.
It is claimed from another perspective that men are ‘better’ than women because men have been given the responsibility to defend and maintain the livelihoods of women, their wives and their children.
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ
Men are guardians over women by what Allah has favored some over others and by what they spend of their wealth.
Surat al-Nisa 4:34
The ‘favor’ of men over women refers to the physical strength of men, which is on average much greater than women and which enables men to better perform hard physical labor and military duties.
In return, women should obey their husbands if they fulfill their duties of providing for them and protecting them.
Al-Qurtubi comments on this verse, saying:
أَيْ يَقُومُونَ بِالنَّفَقَةِ عَلَيْهِنَّ وَالذَّبِّ عَنْهُنَّ وَأَيْضًا فَإِنَّ فِيهِمُ الْحُكَّامَ وَالْأُمَرَاءَ وَمَنْ يَغْزُو وَلَيْسَ ذَلِكَ فِي النِّسَاءِ
It means men sustain women by spending upon them and defending them. Likewise, among men are rulers, commanders, and those who wage military campaigns; it is not like that among women.
Source: Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī 4:34
The physiological differences between men and women in this regard cannot be ignored, as even today professional sports leagues are separated between men and women, and occupations like construction work and frontline combat duty are almost exclusively male.
Even though there are plenty of exceptions to this general observation, as some women can be much physically stronger than some men, it is true on the whole and rules are formulated based upon the majority of cases and not exceptions.
It was in this context that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَنْ يُفْلِحَ قَوْمٌ وَلَّوْا أَمْرَهُمْ امْرَأَةً
A people will not succeed who are commanded by a woman.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4163, Grade: Sahih
In ancient societies, women were simply not qualified most of the time to lead the military because they generally lacked the physical strength required to be successful. There surely have been successful female military leaders, but again they are the exception.
Even so, a woman may assume any position of leadership as long as she is the most qualified person for the job. Samra bint Nahik, for example, was a woman in the time of the companions who was placed in charge of policing the marketplace.
Abu Balj Yahya reported:
رَأَيْتُ سَمْرَاءَ بِنْتَ نَهِيكٍ وَكَانَتْ قَدْ أَدْرَكَتِ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَلَيْهَا دِرْعٌ غَلِيظٌ وَخِمَارٌ غَلِيظٌ بِيَدِهَا سَوْطٌ تُؤَدِّبُ النَّاسَ وَتَأْمُرُ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَى عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ
I saw Samra bint Nahik and she had met the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. She had on herself a thick corset and veil. In her hand was a whip which she used to discipline people, and she would enjoin good and forbid evil.
Source: al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr 785, Grade: Hasan
And Ibn Abdul Barr writes:
أدركت رَسُول اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وكانت تمر فِي الأسواق وتأمر بالمعروف وتنهى عَنِ المنكر وتضرب الناس عَلَى ذلك بسوط كَانَ معها
She knew the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, during her lifetime. She would patrol the markets by enjoining good and forbidding evil. She would discipline people with a whip she had with her.
Source: al-Istī’āb fī Maʻrifat al-Aṣḥāb 4/1863
Women played important complementary roles during military campaigns, such as providing rations and medical support to frontline soldiers. Although women did not fight on the frontlines per se, their contribution was critical to the community’s victory.
Anas ibn Malik reported:
كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَغْزُو بِأُمِّ سُلَيْمٍ وَنِسْوَةٍ مَعَهَا مِنْ الْأَنْصَارِ يَسْقِينَ الْمَاءَ وَيُدَاوِينَ الْجَرْحَى
The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, would go into battle with Umm Sulaim and other Ansari women and they would provide water and tend to the wounded.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1575, Grade: Sahih
Though some scholars did not allow it, others permitted women to serve as a judge in various capacities for which she is qualified.
Ibn Hajar writes:
وَخَالَفَ ابْنُ جَرِيرٍ الطَّبَرِيُّ فَقَالَ يَجُوزُ أَنْ تَقْضِيَ فِيمَا تُقْبَلُ شَهَادَتُهَا فِيهِ وَأَطْلَقَ بَعْضُ الْمَالِكِيَّةِ الْجَوَازَ
Ibn Jarir al-Tabari disagreed and he said it is permissible for a woman to be a judge over matters in which her testimony is accepted. Some of the Maliki scholars gave them unrestricted permission to do so.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 13/56
The purpose of these rules, then, was to facilitate men and women performing complementary, and flexible to an extent, gender roles. Because men and women have natural physiological differences, customary gender roles are reasonable and conducive to a functional society.
However, as there are always exceptions to general trends, a measure of adaptability to changing customs and circumstances is warranted; there are some potential cases when a woman is the most qualified to do what a man might customarily do in other times and places.
It is further claimed that men are ‘better’ than women because men have been given a ‘degree’ over them.
وَلَهُنَّ مِثْلُ الَّذِي عَلَيْهِنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ ۚ وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ
They have similar to that which they have over you in good conduct, and for men is a degree over them.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:228
This verse states that men and women have similar rights in general, but that men have an additional right over them due to their responsibility to provide for them and defend them.
أخبر الله تعالى في هذه الآية أن لكل واحد من الزوجين على صاحبه حقا وأن الزوج مختص بحق له عليها ليس لها عليه مثله
Allah Almighty conveyed in this verse that each spouse has rights over each other, and that the husband has a specific right over her that she does not have over him.
Source: Aḥkām al-Qurʼān 2:228
The husband’s additional ‘right’ is in reality an additional duty, not an unearned privilege. The ‘degree’ which a man has over a woman is not that he is inherently superior, but that he has more responsibility for the livelihood and protection of his family.
This is the same reason, for instance, that in some scenarios a woman inherits less than a man. It has nothing to do with the superiority of men. A man in his role is required to spend on his family, whereas a woman in her role is entitled to spend her inheritance as she chooses. A man inherits more only because he is responsible for more. If that condition is taken into account, it may be that a woman inherits an even greater surplus after all a man’s expenses are paid.
In any case, a true man does not lord himself over his wife, flaunting his authority irresponsibly and demanding all of his rights. The ‘degree’ over women means precisely the opposite, that a man should not claim all of his rights.
Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
مَا أُحِبُّ أَنْ أَسْتَنْظِفَ جَمِيعَ حَقِّي عَلَيْهَا لِأَنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى ذِكْرُهُ يَقُولُ وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ
I do not like to invoke all of my rights over her, due to the saying of Allah Almighty: For men is a degree over them. (2:228)
At-Tabari comments on this, saying:
مَا قَالَهُ ابْنُ عَبَّاسٍ وَهُوَ أَنَّ الدَّرَجَةَ الَّتِي ذَكَرَ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى ذِكْرُهُ فِي هَذَا الْمَوْضِعِ الصَّفْحُ مِنَ الرَّجُلِ لِامْرَأَتِهِ عَنْ بَعْضِ الْوَاجِبِ عَلَيْهَا وَإِغْضَاؤُهُ لَهَا عَنْهُ وَأَدَاءُ كُلِّ الْوَاجِبِ لَهَا عَلَيْهِ
What Ibn Abbas said is that the degree which Allah Almighty mentioned on this topic is for a man to excuse his wife from some of her duties and lighten her burden, whereas he fulfills every duty of his towards her.
Source: Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī 2:228
In other words, it is a moral imperative upon a true man to be lenient with his wife in her duties and to be strict with himself in her rights. This is part of the Islamic ethics of ‘chivalry’ or ‘manliness’ (al-maru’ah), to treat others with the most dignified manners, especially women.
وَالْمُرُوءَةُ آدَابٌ نَفْسَانِيَّةٌ تَحْمِلُ مُرَاعَاتُهَا الْإِنْسَانَ عَلَى الْوُقُوفِ عِنْدَ مَحَاسِنِ الْأَخْلَاقِ وَجَمِيلِ الْعَادَاتِ
Chivalry is to have personal manners carrying respect for humankind, from the standpoint of good character and graceful habits.
Source: al-Miṣbāḥ al-Munīr 2/569
Put differently, the measure of a man’s ‘manliness’ is directly proportional to how he treats the women in his life.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
أَكْمَلُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ إِيمَانًا أَحْسَنُهُمْ خُلُقًا وَخِيَارُكُمْ خِيَارُكُمْ لِنِسَائِهِمْ خُلُقًا
The most complete of the believers in faith are those with the most excellent character, and the best of you are the best in behavior to their women.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1162, Grade: Sahih
That men have a degree of authority and responsibility does not mean women have no say in the matter. Part of Islamic chivalry is for a husband to consult his wife, or for men to consult women on pertinent issues, in order to benefit from their unique perspectives.
The Prophet (s) once consulted his wife Umm Salamah (ra) on a serious matter, and she provided him with a key insight into his problem.
Marwan reported: After the treaty of Hudabiyyah was concluded, the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to his companions:
قُومُوا فَانْحَرُوا ثُمَّ احْلِقُوا
Get up and offer your sacrifices, then shave your hair.
None of them stood up, and the Prophet repeated his order three times. When none of them stood up, the Prophet left them and went to Umm Salamah, and he told her about their attitude. Umm Salamah said:
يَا نَبِيَّ اللَّهِ أَتُحِبُّ ذَلِكَ اخْرُجْ ثُمَّ لاَ تُكَلِّمْ أَحَدًا مِنْهُمْ كَلِمَةً حَتَّى تَنْحَرَ بُدْنَكَ وَتَدْعُوَ حَالِقَكَ فَيَحْلِقَكَ
O prophet of Allah, would you like your order to be carried out? Go out and do not speak to them until you have offered your own sacrifice and have called the barber to shave your head.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2731, Grade: Sahih
The Prophet (s) followed the advice of his wife and made his preparations to end the pilgrimage. The companions would soon follow his lead.
In this example, it was his wife whose exceptional intelligence provided him with guidance and resolution. Intelligence is not simply a linear matter of more or less. There are varieties of intelligence, such as emotional and personal intelligence, which women can excel at and benefit men with their advice.
Ibn Hajar writes:
وَجَوَازُ مُشَاوَرَةِ الْمَرْأَةِ الْفَاضِلَةِ وَفَضْلُ أُمِّ سَلَمَةَ وَوُفُورُ عَقْلِهَا حَتَّى قَالَ إِمَامُ الْحَرَمَيْنِ لَا نَعْلَمُ امْرَأَةً أَشَارَتْ بِرَأْيٍ فَأَصَابَتْ إِلَّا أُمَّ سَلَمَةَ
It is permissible to consult a meritorious woman, and the merit of Umm Salamah and her abundant intelligence were such that Imam al-Haramayn said: We do not know of a woman expressing her opinion and being correct as much as Umm Salamah.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 5/347
Moreover, a woman is allowed to disagree with her husband or male leaders, as long as both parties respect each other with good manners. Men ought to be humble enough to accept that they are wrong if a woman points it out.
In one episode, the Caliph of all Muslims himself was corrected by a woman in public and he accepted her correction gracefully.
Abdur Rahman As-Salami reported: Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
لَا تُغَالُوا فِي مُهُورِ النِّسَاءِ
Do not be excessive in the dowry of women.
A woman said, “It is no so, O Umar, for Allah said: And you gave one of them a great amount,” (4:20). Umar said:
إِنَّ امْرَأَةً خَاصَمَتْ عُمَرَ فَخَصَمَتْهُ
Indeed, a woman has challenged Umar and she has defeated him.
Source: Muṣannaf ‘Abd al-Razzāq 10420
In another narration, Umar said:
امْرَأَةٌ أَصَابَتْ وَرَجُلٌ أَخْطَأَ
The woman is right and the man is wrong.
Source: al-Akhbār al-Muwaffaqīyāt 1/251
These incidents demonstrate that male-female relationships are based upon partnership, particularly in marriage, and a reciprocal recognition of each other’s rights, duties, and complementary abilities. Neither men nor women should neglect each other, for they need each other.
Since rights and duties in Islam are justly balanced, even though they are not always literally equivalent, a man’s duty to lead is counterbalanced by the ways in which a woman can be honored above men.
وَوَصَّيْنَا الْإِنسَانَ بِوَالِدَيْهِ حَمَلَتْهُ أُمُّهُ وَهْنًا عَلَىٰ وَهْنٍ وَفِصَالُهُ فِي عَامَيْنِ أَنِ اشْكُرْ لِي وَلِوَالِدَيْكَ إِلَيَّ الْمَصِيرُ
We have enjoined upon humanity to be good to his parents. His mother carried him in weakness upon weakness and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents, for unto Me is the final destination.
Surat Luqman 31:14
And Allah said:
وَوَصَّيْنَا الْإِنسَانَ بِوَالِدَيْهِ إِحْسَانًا ۖ حَمَلَتْهُ أُمُّهُ كُرْهًا وَوَضَعَتْهُ كُرْهًا
We have enjoined upon humanity good treatment to his parents. His mother carried him with hardship and gave birth to him with hardship.
Surat al-Ahqaf 46:15
In both verses, Allah singled out mothers, not fathers, for special mention when commanding good treatment to parents. It has been clarified in the Sunnah that a mother is three times more deserving of good company from her children, and that good treatment to one’s mother specifically is a means to enter Paradise.
Abu Huraira reported: A man asked the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, “Who is most deserving of my good company?” The Prophet said:
The man asked, “Then who?” The Prophet said:
The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said:
The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said:
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5626, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Mu’awiyah ibn Jahima reported: A man came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, I intend to join the expedition and I seek your advice.” The Prophet said:
هَلْ لَكَ مِنْ أُمٍّ
Do you have a mother?
The man said yes. The Prophet said:
فَالْزَمْهَا فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ تَحْتَ رِجْلَيْهَا
Stay with her, for Paradise is beneath her feet.
Source: Sunan al-Nasā’ī 3104, Grade: Sahih
Mothers were again singled out in the Sunnah, as if to imply that disobedience to one’s mother is even worse than disobedience to one’s father.
Al-Mughirah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ حَرَّمَ عَلَيْكُمْ عُقُوقَ الْأُمَّهَاتِ
Verily, Allah has forbidden you from neglecting your duty to your mothers.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5630, Grade: Sahih
From this point of view, mothers are more honored than fathers because of the additional duties they carry in pregnancy and child-rearing. Their additional rights are only in conjunction with corresponding duties.
As it is a man’s duty to lead armies and provide for his family, he has more of a right to be obeyed in these matters. As it is a women’s duty to raise and care for her family, she has more of a right to be honored in these matters. In this way, the rights and duties of spouses are balanced with each other and gender roles complement each other to facilitate a functional society.
Another misconception is related to a tradition meant to encourage women to be grateful to their husbands, but which is often misquoted to claim men are superior to women.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَوْ كُنْتُ آمِرًا أَحَدًا أَنْ يَسْجُدَ لِأَحَدٍ لَأَمَرْتُ الْمَرْأَةَ أَنْ تَسْجُدَ لِزَوْجِهَا
If I were to order anyone to prostrate to another, I would have ordered a wife to prostrate before her husband.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1159, Grade: Hasan
Once again, this is not an ontological statement that men are ‘better’ than women, but rather it is an exaggerated linguistic expression, the purpose of which is to remind wives to be grateful to their husbands who provide for them and protect them. It is not suggesting that wives should actually prostrate to their husbands.
Ali al-Qari comments on this tradition, saying:
أَنْ تَسْجُدَ لِزَوْجِهَا أَيْ لِكَثْرَةِ حُقُوقِهِ عَلَيْهَا وَعَجْزِهَا عَنِ الْقِيَامِ بِشُكْرِهَا وَفِي هَذَا غَايَةُ الْمُبَالَغَةِ لِوُجُوبِ إِطَاعَةِ الْمَرْأَةِ فِي حَقِّ زَوْجِهَا فَإِنَّ السَّجْدَةَ لَا تَحِلُّ لِغَيْرِ اللَّهِ
That she prostrates to her husband is due to the number of his rights over her and her difficulty in maintaining gratitude for them. This rhetorical point conveys the obligation of the wife to obey her husband in his rights. Indeed, prostration is not lawful to anyone other than Allah.
Source: Mirqāt al-Mafātīḥ 5/2125
The rhetoric of emphasis in the tradition is intended to catch a woman’s attention, because she needs to remind herself to be thankful when her husband fulfills her rights and honors her. It is a natural human tendency to become ungrateful if we do not constantly remind ourselves of our blessings.
There is an erroneous addition to the text in some versions of this tradition:
وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَوْ كَانَ مِنْ قَدَمِهِ إِلَى مَفْرِقِ رَأْسِهِ قُرْحَةً تَنْبَجِسُ بِالْقَيْحِ وَالصَّدِيدِ ثُمَّ اسْتَقْبَلَتْهُ فَلَحَسَتْهُ مَا أَدَّتْ حَقَّهُ
By the one in whose hand is my soul, if there were sores from his feet to the top of his head flowing with pus and purulence, then she welcomed him and licked it off of him, she would not have fulfilled his rights.
Source: Musnad Aḥmad 12203
This extremely unusual sentence was added to a singular report by one of the sub-narrators Khalaf ibn Khalifah, may Allah have mercy on him. Unfortunately, some Muslims are under the impression that this is an authentic prophetic statement because Khalaf was considered to be reliable, and he certainly was for a time.
However, he lost his mental capacities in old age and it negatively affected his ability to narrate traditions. This anomalous interpolation can be attributed to the fact that he suffered cognitive disabilities as he grew elderly.
Sheikh al-Arna’ut writes:
صحيح لغيره دون قوله والذي نفسي بيده لو كان من قدمه … وهذا الحرف تفرد به حسين المرُّوذي عن خلف بن خليفة وخلف كان قد اختلط قبل موته
It is an authentic tradition due to external evidence, except for his saying, ‘By him in whose hand is my soul, if there were sores from his foot…’ This sentence is a solitary report by Hussein al-Marrudhi from Khalaf ibn Khalifah. Khalaf had confused narrations before his death.
Source: Musnad Aḥmad 20/65
And Ibn Abi Shaybah said:
صدوق ثقة لكنه خرف فاضطرب عليه حديثه
He was truthful and reliable, but he became senile which damaged his ability to narrate.
And Ibn Sa’d said:
أصابه الفالج قبل موته حتى ضعف وتغير واختلط
He was afflicted by a stroke before he died, to the extent that he was weakened, he changed demeanor, and he confused narrations.
Source: Tadhīb al-Tadhīb 3/152
Consequently, the added sentence is not authentic and should not be attributed to the Prophet (s), especially as it is uncharacteristic of his many other authentic traditions.
Lastly, it is worth observing the example of the wife of Pharaoh, who was a righteous woman and was saved in the Hereafter despite her marriage to one of the worst tyrants who ever lived.
وَضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا امْرَأَتَ فِرْعَوْنَ إِذْ قَالَتْ رَبِّ ابْنِ لِي عِندَكَ بَيْتًا فِي الْجَنَّةِ وَنَجِّنِي مِن فِرْعَوْنَ وَعَمَلِهِ وَنَجِّنِي مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
Allah presents an example to those who have faith, the wife of Pharaoh, when she said: My Lord, build for me near You a house in Paradise and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds and save me from the wrongdoing people.
Source: Surat al-Tahrim 66:11
The wife of Pharaoh provides a complete contrast between an evil man and a good woman. By her faith she was admitted into Paradise and by his unbelief he entered Hellfire. Righteousness was the only distinguishing factor that made one of them better than the other.
And so it is for men and women in general; no man is better than any woman, nor is a woman better than any man, except by righteousness.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.