Are women deficient in intelligence and religion in Islam?

April 11, 2013

By Abu Amina Elias

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

It is incorrectly claimed that women are ‘deficient in intelligence and religion’ or ‘lacking common sense’ according to Islam, and that for this reason restrictions are placed upon a women’s testimony and intellectual activity. This unfortunate misconception is based upon a misinterpretation or mistranslation of the following prophetic tradition:

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. The first misconception has been answered in a separate article.

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

And again:

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

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.

Allah said:

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.

Al-Dhahabi writes:

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.

Moreover, women have unique and complementary perspectives, in their own right, that can inform men of their blind spots. For instance, 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

In sum, the claim that women are ‘deficient in religion’ is based upon a misinterpretation or a mistranslation of a prophetic statement. The ‘reduction’ in a woman’s intelligence is a reduction in her legal responsibilities related to it, not in her inherent intelligence itself. The preponderance of other evidence indicates that women can be just as intelligent as men and, therefore, they should be consulted and their perspectives respected.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.