There is a very famous claim usually used by non-Muslims to say that Islam views women as less than men and that they are “deficient in intelligence” based on a poor understanding of a specific hadith:
Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri:
حَدَّثَنَا سَعِيدُ بْنُ أَبِي مَرْيَمَ، قَالَ أَخْبَرَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ جَعْفَرٍ، قَالَ أَخْبَرَنِي زَيْدٌ ـ هُوَ ابْنُ أَسْلَمَ ـ عَنْ عِيَاضِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، عَنْ أَبِي سَعِيدٍ الْخُدْرِيِّ، قَالَ خَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي أَضْحًى ـ أَوْ فِطْرٍ ـ إِلَى الْمُصَلَّى، فَمَرَّ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ فَقَالَ ” يَا مَعْشَرَ النِّسَاءِ تَصَدَّقْنَ، فَإِنِّي أُرِيتُكُنَّ أَكْثَرَ أَهْلِ النَّارِ ”. فَقُلْنَ وَبِمَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ ” تُكْثِرْنَ اللَّعْنَ، وَتَكْفُرْنَ الْعَشِيرَ، مَا رَأَيْتُ مِنْ نَاقِصَاتِ عَقْلٍ وَدِينٍ أَذْهَبَ لِلُبِّ الرَّجُلِ الْحَازِمِ مِنْ إِحْدَاكُنَّ ”. قُلْنَ وَمَا نُقْصَانُ دِينِنَا وَعَقْلِنَا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ ” أَلَيْسَ شَهَادَةُ الْمَرْأَةِ مِثْلَ نِصْفِ شَهَادَةِ الرَّجُلِ ”. قُلْنَ بَلَى. قَالَ ” فَذَلِكَ مِنْ نُقْصَانِ عَقْلِهَا، أَلَيْسَ إِذَا حَاضَتْ لَمْ تُصَلِّ وَلَمْ تَصُمْ ”. قُلْنَ بَلَى. قَالَ ” فَذَلِكَ مِنْ نُقْصَانِ دِينِهَا ”.
Once Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of `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 Messenger (ﷺ) ?” 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 Messenger (ﷺ)! 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.”Sahih al-Bukhari 304 – Similarly
It is important to realize that this hadith is translated from Arabic terribly and it is often used to weaponize men against women. Some people deliberately misinterpret this hadith to minimize the status of women and to silence them. Let us examine the hadith in depth.
What situation occurred for the Prophet to say this? When did the prophet say this?
This hadith was said on Eid, a joyous day for celebration. Women used to not attend Eid Prayer if they were menstruating and the Prophet ﷺ ordered women to come out and celebrate Eid even if they couldn’t pray. Which was a way to normalize the celebration of both women and men during Eid. To normalize including women in societal events and not shaming them for what they cannot control. As this was still a society of Jahlilyyah that looked down upon women. They used to bury their daughters alive and think of women as inferior to men
After the salah, the Prophet ﷺ gave a khutbah. As women sat in the back behind men, the Prophet ﷺ went to them so that his speech can be directed to the women. Do you think that our beloved Prophet ﷺ would intentionally go to the women to tell them something that would put them down? This hadith was directed specifically at the Women of Medina, who were mostly the women of Al Ansar. In which Omar Ibn Al Khattab RA said about them:
“وَكُنَّا مَعْشَرَ قُرَيْشٍ نَغْلِبُ النِّسَاءَ فَلَمَّا قَدِمْنَا عَلَى الأَنْصَارِ إِذَا هُمْ قَوْمٌ تَغْلِبُهُمْ نِسَاؤُهُمْ فَطَفِقَ نِسَاؤُنَا يَأْخُذْنَ مِنْ أَدَبِ نِسَاءِ الأَنْصَارِ”
We, the people of Quraysh, used to have the upper hand over our wives, but when we came to the Ansar, we found that their women had the upper hand over their men, so our women also started learning the ways of the Ansari women.”Sahih Bukhari 5191
The meaning of this part of the hadith Narrated from Omar RA is that when they went to Medina, they found that the Ansari women of Medina had overcome their husbands. The hadith goes on to say that some of the Muslim women of Quraysh when they came to Medina, took from the manners of the Ansari Women and started acting like them. This was the reason the Prophet ﷺ said “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you.” to the Ansari women.
Thus we understand that our main hadith which is the topic of our discussion: doesn’t apply to all women of all times.
If someone wants to use this hadith to generalize and say it applies to all women, they would be misinterpreting it and weaponizing it to further harm or silence women or misrepresenting Islam to suit their own narrative. If someone wants to comment “This is why the Prophet said the majority of women are in hell” know that this person is either deliberately being ignorant and harmful or they’re misinformed on the explanation of the hadith. The words of the Prophet ﷺ in this hadith were specifically said to the women of Al Ansar sitting directly in front of him while he gave his khutbah.
The women of the Ansar were known to be intense in their arguments, and their husbands would complain that they overcame them. This is why Omar RA stated that the women of Mecca started shifting and learning these manners from them.
What is the explanation of the hadith?
This hadith is not a general ruling that states that all women are less intelligent and that they are generally deficient in their religion.
It is a specific hadith that describes the Ansari women as such in certain situations. The Prophet ﷺ starts his hadith by advising the Ansari women to give alms (sadaqah) as sadaqah is known to be a means to ask Allah for forgiveness.
The Prophet ﷺ acknowledges the problem that is happening in this culture and society where some women curse frequently and they’re ungrateful to their husbands. Instead of telling the women to be better towards their husbands, he is advising them to seek the act of giving sadaqah, as the Prophet ﷺ knows this act will make them become more humble and ask Allah for forgiveness thus adjusting their behavior to become better.
“I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” – In Reference to Sahih Bukhari 304
There are several commentaries as to why the Prophet might have said this. Unanimously the majority of scholars agree that this was said based on this hadith:
حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْعَلاَءِ، حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو أُسَامَةَ، عَنْ بُرَيْدٍ، عَنْ أَبِي بُرْدَةَ، عَنْ أَبِي مُوسَى ـ رضى الله عنه ـ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ لَيَأْتِيَنَّ عَلَى النَّاسِ زَمَانٌ يَطُوفُ الرَّجُلُ فِيهِ بِالصَّدَقَةِ مِنَ الذَّهَبِ ثُمَّ لاَ يَجِدُ أَحَدًا يَأْخُذُهَا مِنْهُ، وَيُرَى الرَّجُلُ الْوَاحِدُ يَتْبَعُهُ أَرْبَعُونَ امْرَأَةً، يَلُذْنَ بِهِ مِنْ قِلَّةِ الرِّجَالِ وَكَثْرَةِ النِّسَاءِ ”.
Abu Musa reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “A time will come to people when a man will go around with gold to give in charity but he will find no one to accept it, and a single man will be seen followed by forty women seeking refuge with him due to the scarcity of men and abundance of women.”Sahih Bukhari 1414 ,Sahih Muslim 1012, Explanations of Hadith (Bukhari & Muslim)
This means that logically at that time, it was said because there was an abundance of women in this region than men. Thus the majority of the inhabitants of hell would be from the higher number of population, in this case: Women.
Another interpretation as to why he could’ve said this is that The Prophet ﷺ during the journey of Isra’ and Miraj’ said:
حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو الْوَلِيدِ، حَدَّثَنَا سَلْمُ بْنُ زَرِيرٍ، حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو رَجَاءٍ، عَنْ عِمْرَانَ بْنِ حُصَيْنٍ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ اطَّلَعْتُ فِي الْجَنَّةِ فَرَأَيْتُ أَكْثَرَ أَهْلِهَا الْفُقَرَاءَ، وَاطَّلَعْتُ فِي النَّارِ فَرَأَيْتُ أَكْثَرَ أَهْلِهَا النِّسَاءَ ”.
“I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women.”Sahih al-Bukhari 3241, Sahih al-Bukhari 5198, Sahih al-Bukhari 6449
These are the general explanations given as to why the Prophet ﷺ might have said that the majority of its inhabitants were women, to which he wanted to warn them of the consequences of their behavior and advise them to give Sadaqah and seek forgiveness from Allah SWT for their actions.
“You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands”
This was specifically addressing a culture that has become the norm in Medina, from the Ansari Women. The men of medina went to the prophet ﷺ to tell him that their women only listen to Him ﷺ asking him to advise them to become more respectful and lenient towards their 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.” – As explained above and the latter part of the sentence is also talking about the power the women have over men in the sense that a man who is pious, can still be overcome by one of you (referring to the Ansari women mentioned in the hadith). A man can be reduced to nothing from the power she can have over his heart or mind for whatever reason.
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. – In Reference to Sahih Bukhari 304
To understand this part of the hadith, we have to stress again on the fact that this hadith is translated poorly from Arabic to English.
The word used in this hadith is ” نَاقِصَاتِ” – “naqisat” which comes from the root نَ قِ ص – نَقِص – naqs. The word here is not talking about “deficiency“. Shaykh Al-Sha’raawi, a very well-known and respected Islamic scholar and Muslim jurist, explains the word “Naqs” to mean “a reduction in responsibility” in this given context.
There is a difference when the word (in this case naqs) is used in a linguistic standpoint and a legalistic standpoint (الشرع). We explain this in Quran 4:34 when the word “ضرب- darb” is used but it doesn’t necessarily mean “to strike” in its given context. This is when other evidence is important such as the tafsir and context of the hadith.
The context is that two women needed as witnesses means the responsibility of being a witness is carried between TWO people versus the responsibility being on one person. There is a reduction in responsibility when it is compared to ONE man being the witness. This doesn’t mean that women are less intelligent, it means she doesn’t have the same level of responsibility in terms of these types of transactions.
Note: We will explain the concept of “Two Women – One Man Witness” soon.
Narrated by Masruq ibn Al Agdaa‘
– عن مسروقٍ أنَّه قيل له هل كانت عائشةُ تُحْسِنُ الفرائضَ قال والَّذي نفسي بيدِه لقد رأيْتُ مَشْيَخةَ أصحابِ محمَّدٍ صلَّى اللهُ عليه وسلَّم يسألونها عنِ الفرائضِ
Masruq reported: It was said, “Did Aisha have knowledge of the obligations?” Masruq said, “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 obligations.”Majma’ Al Zawa’d, Volume 9 Page 245, Graded Hasan according to Al-Haythami
Islam doesn’t view women as “less intelligent than men” or that they are “deficient in their intellect” the hadith is talking about the reduction of responsibility when it comes to women being represented at court in financial manners. Aisha RA remains one of the most extraordinary role models and most respected scholars of Islam. Her endless contributions in the development and spread of Islam in the land, explaining Islamic Traditions, their interpretations, chain of transmission, and having narrated more than 2000 hadith on matters such as inheritance, pilgrimage and eschatology not only proves how HIGHLY Islam views women but also their importance in societal roles and the significance of women.
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.”
Again, The Prophet ﷺ talks about the “reduction of responsibility” being lifted from women, as in not having to pray or fast while they are menstruating. However, this does not take away from her reward, as explained by Shaykh Al-Sha’raawi.
Women get the same reward for not praying or fasting (during their menses) because they are obeying Allah’s orders and submitting to Allah SWT.
We can learn that the hadith contains advice to all of us as women, till the end of time. However, the hadith wasn’t specifically said to generalize all women till the end of time with the characteristics of “cursing frequently and being ungrateful to their husbands” as THAT part was specific to some of the women of Al Ansar.
The Prophet ﷺ is encouraging the women of Al Ansar, to work on some aspects they practice in order to keep the family bond strong and intact. The Prophet ﷺ encourages them to give sadaqah.
When Zainab bint Abu Mu’awiyah heard the Prophet ﷺ say this hadith, she went back home to her husband and said:
– تَصَدَّقْنَ، يا مَعْشَرَ النِّساءِ، ولو مِن حُلِيِّكُنَّ قالَتْ: فَرَجَعْتُ إلى عبدِ اللهِ فَقُلتُ: إنَّكَ رَجُلٌ خَفِيفُ ذاتِ اليَدِ، وإنَّ رَسولَ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ قدْ أَمَرَنا بالصَّدَقَةِ، فَأْتِهِ فاسْأَلْهُ، فإنْ كانَ ذلكَ يَجْزِي عَنِّي وإلَّا صَرَفْتُها إلى غيرِكُمْ، قالَتْ: فقالَ لي عبدُ اللهِ: بَلِ ائْتِيهِ أَنْتِ، قالَتْ: فانْطَلَقْتُ، فإذا امْرَأَةٌ مِنَ الأنْصارِ بِبابِ رَسولِ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ حاجَتي حاجَتُها، قالَتْ: وكانَ رَسولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ قدْ أُلْقِيَتْ عليه المَهابَةُ، قالَتْ: فَخَرَجَ عليْنا بِلالٌ فَقُلْنا له: ائْتِ رَسولَ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ، فأخْبِرْهُ أنَّ امْرَأَتَينِ بالبابِ تَسْأَلانِكَ: أتُجْزِئُ الصَّدَقَةُ عنْهما، علَى أزْواجِهِما، وعلَى أيْتامٍ في حُجُورِهِما؟ ولا تُخْبِرْهُ مَن نَحْنُ، قالَتْ: فَدَخَلَ بِلالٌ علَى رَسولِ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ فَسَأَلَهُ، فقالَ له رَسولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ: مَن هُما؟ فقالَ: امْرَأَةٌ مِنَ الأنْصارِ وزَيْنَبُ، فقالَ رَسولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ: أيُّ الزَّيانِبِ؟ قالَ: امْرَأَةُ عبدِ اللهِ، فقالَ له رَسولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عليه وسلَّمَ: لهما أجْرانِ: أجْرُ القَرابَةِ، وأَجْرُ الصَّدَقَةِ. [وفي رواية]:تَصَدَّقْنَ، ولو مِن حُلِيِّكُنَّ وساقَ الحَدِيثَ.
“You are a man of limited means, and the Prophet has told us to donate to charity. Go to him and ask whether I can pay my donation to you. Otherwise, I will have to pay it to some other people.” Her husband said: “You better go and ask him.”
Zainab reports: “I went to see him and at his door, I found an Ansari woman who had come to ask the same question. We were rather apprehensive of going in. Bilal, however, came over. So we said to him: ‘Go to the Prophet and tell him that two women are at the door who would like to know whether they can pay their zakat to their husbands and to orphan children they are bringing up. Do not tell him who we are.’ Bilal went in and put the question to the Prophet. The Prophet asked him who the two women were. Bilal said: ‘A woman from the Ansar and Zainab’. The Prophet said: ‘Which Zainab?’ He answered: ‘Abdullah’s wife’. The Prophet said: ‘They will have a double reward: One for their kindness to relatives and one for zakat.3088 – Sahih Muslim (Sahih al-Musnad abbreviated from al-Sunan transferring justice from justice on the authority of the Messenger of God, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him)
The reaction of the Ansari women to this hadith was to give sadaqah as the prophet ﷺ encouraged. They didn’t take any offense in what the prophet said to them nor did they feel humiliated or embarrassed, so why should we?
As we’ve learned, there is nothing wrong with the hadith, and with the correct context, and explanation of the hadith, it makes perfect sense. The next time someone wants to misinterpret this hadith to silence you as a woman, know that the prophet ﷺ himself never silenced women. He heard them, taught them, listened to their complaints, gave them solutions, encouraged them to be better. He would advise both MEN and WOMEN to do better and he gave women a higher status in society by raising their voices and empowering them.