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Are women deficient in intellect and religion?

This topic is frequently raised by non-Muslims, who often use it to argue that women in Islam are oppressed, and claim that Islam lacks respect for women; however, it is important to approach this matter with a nuanced understanding in order to dispel any misconceptions.

The hadith itself gives an explanation as to what deficiency in intellect and religion means[Sahih Bukhari 304]:

They [the women] asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what is the deficiency in our intelligence and religious commitment?” He said, “Is not the testimony of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “That is because of the deficiency in her intelligence. Is it not true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “That is the deficiency in her religious commitment.”

The women sought clarification about what he meant by their deficiency, and how gentle and kind was the Prophet’s (ﷺ) response to them without blame or reproach. Instead, he addressed them according to their level of understanding and signaled with his statement, “Like half the testimony of a man,” to the verse in the Quran: “And the testimony of one of them is equivalent to half the testimony of a man” [Quran 2:282].

In this hadith, the term “نُقْصَانُ” is used, derived from the verb “نَقَصَ” (naqasa). The word carries multiple potential meanings, contingent upon the context of the situation. Some translations include: “deficiency, loss, reduction, shortage, or decrease.”

Here is an example of it being used in the Qur’an to mean “reduction”:

This demonstrates the profound significance of the word “نقص” to which some scholars have interpreted it in this hadith to mean: “reduction in responsibility.” Therefore, in the context of two women being required as witnesses, it signifies a shared responsibility of bearing witness instead of it being solely entrusted to one individual. Thus, there is a reduced burden of responsibility when compared to a single male witness. Irrespective of the chosen translation, it is important to recognize that the Prophet ﷺ did not employ the word as an insult towards women. Consequently, the term “deficiency” is also an appropriate translation choice.

To continue, this hadith holds another claim from non-muslims that will be explored in due time. However, let us now delve deeper into the meaning behind the phrase “deficiency in intellect and religion” and gain insight into the scholarly perspectives that shape our understanding of it.

Shaykh Ibn Bāz(‏رحمه الله) was asked the question: “We always hear the noble saying that women are deficient in mind and religion, and some men use it to insult women. We kindly request Your Eminence to clarify the meaning of this saying.”

He responded:

“The Meaning of the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad(ﷺ): “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you women. A cautious man could be led astray by one of you.” They asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what is deficient in her intelligence?” He replied, “Is not the testimony of two women equal to the testimony of one man?” They asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what is deficient in her religion?” He said, “Is it not true that when she menstruates, she does not pray or fast?”

The Prophet (ﷺ) explained that the deficiency in intelligence is related to women’s weaker memory and the fact that their testimony is confirmed by the testimony of another woman. This is to ensure the accuracy of testimony since a woman may forget or exaggerate, as mentioned in the Quran: “And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And 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” [Quran 2:282].

As for the deficiency in religion, it is because during menstruation and postpartum bleeding, women are exempted from prayer and fasting. This is considered a deficiency in terms of fulfilling religious obligations. However, this deficiency is not considered a fault or a sin. It is a regulation prescribed by Allah for the ease and well-being of women. Fasting during menstruation and postpartum bleeding can be harmful to their health. Therefore, out of His mercy, Allah has allowed women to abstain from fasting during these periods and make up for it later.

Regarding prayer, during menstruation, certain impurities prevent women from attaining ritual purity. As an act of mercy, Allah has allowed women to temporarily abandon prayer during menstruation and postpartum bleeding. Similarly, they are not required to make up the missed prayers because of the hardship it would entail. This does not imply that women are deficient in all aspects of their intelligence or religion compared to men. Men are generally considered elevated above women in some respects, as Allah says in the Quran: “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth” [Quran 4:34]. However, women can surpass men in many aspects, including intelligence, religion, and self-control. It is only in the specific areas mentioned by the Prophet (ﷺ) that women may be considered deficient compared to men.

Many righteous deeds can be abundant among women, surpassing many men in their righteous actions, their piety towards Allah Almighty, and their status in the Hereafter. They may show great diligence and meticulousness in various matters, surpassing some men in many issues that they concern themselves with, striving to preserve and regulate them. Thus, they become a point of reference in Islamic history and many other matters. This is evident to anyone who reflects on the circumstances of women during the time of the Prophet (ﷺ) and thereafter.

By this, it is known that this deficiency does not prevent reliance on women in narrations (hadith), and likewise in testimonies when the presence of another woman is required. It also does not prevent their piety towards Allah and their being among the best servants of God, especially if they remain steadfast in their faith. Although they are exempted from fasting during menstruation and postpartum bleeding without the obligation to make up for them, and although they are excused from prayer during those times with the requirement to make up for missed prayers later, this does not imply a deficiency in all aspects of their piety towards Allah or in fulfilling His commands. It does not imply a deficiency in their devotion to God or their regulation of the matters they are concerned with. Rather, it is a specific deficiency in intelligence and religion, as explained by the Prophet (ﷺ).

A believer should not belittle women by considering them deficient in all aspects or weak in their faith in general. The deficiency is specific to their religion and a particular aspect of their intelligence, as clarified by the Prophet (ﷺ). Therefore, it is not appropriate for a believer to accuse them of being deficient in all things and weak in their religion overall. Instead, it is a specific deficiency related to their religion and a weakness in their intelligence regarding matters such as accurate testimony. Therefore, it is necessary to clarify this matter and interpret the words of the Prophet (ﷺ) in the best and most appropriate way. And Allah knows best.”

In this explanation, he drew upon the wisdom of [Qur’an 2:282] which highlights that a woman’s testimony holds a weight of half that of a man’s. But what precisely does it signify when we speak of her testimony?

Ibn Kathir in [Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm(Tafsir Ibn Kathir Abridged) Vol 2 Pages 85-92] he explains what that specific testimony is:

Nasir Al-Sa’di in [Tafsīr as Sa’di Vol 1 Pages 357-364]:

Rashīd Riḍā In his book [Tafsir al-Manar 3/124-125] writes about a woman’s testimony:

“The true reason is that it is not in a woman’s nature to engage in financial transactions and similar matters of opposition. Therefore, her memory is weak in those areas, but not so in household affairs, which are her main occupation. In those matters, her memory is stronger than that of a man. This means that it is inherent in human nature, both males and females, that their memory strengthens for significant matters. Their attention and focus are directed towards them, and they neglect involvement in less important matters. This does not contradict the fact that some foreign women in this era are involved in financial work; however, it is a rare occurrence and not to be relied upon. General principles are typically based on the majority and the essence of the situation.”

The Tafsīr (explanations) of the Qur’an reveal that women and men possess distinct strengths and weaknesses. Regarding business, financial transactions or other similar matters, women generally may not possess the same level of strength [intellect], thus requiring support and empowerment from another woman in case she may forget. This does not imply that there are no women who excel and surpass men in those fields. Men may exhibit strength in certain areas where women lack it, while women may demonstrate even greater strength in other domains, while men are lacking.

Ibn al-Qayyim in his book [al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥukmīyah 1/136] explains Qur’an 2:282:

A just woman is equal to a man in terms of honesty, integrity, and faith. However, due to concerns about forgetfulness and errors, she is fortified in these aspects. This may make her as strong as or even stronger than a single man. There is no doubt that the presumption drawn from the testimony of women like Umm Ad-Darda and Umm Atiyya is stronger than the presumption derived from a single man or others like him.“

Ibn Taymiyyah in [al-Ṭuruq al-Ḥukmīyah 1/128] explains Qur’an 2:282:

Our Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah, may Allah exalt his mention, said: Regarding the statement of Allah, “And 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” [Quran 2:282], it indicates that the testimony of two women is substituted for the testimony of one man for the purpose of reminding each other in case of error. This specifically applies to situations where the usual source of error occurs, such as forgetfulness and lack of precision. The Prophet, peace be upon him, pointed to this meaning when he said, “As for the deficiency in their intellect, the testimony of two women is equivalent to the testimony of one man.” This clarifies that their testimony is devalued due to the weakness of their intellect, not due to the weakness of their religion. It is known from this that the justice of women is equal to the justice of men, but their intellect [in specific areas] is inferior to that of men.

In those testimonies where the possibility of error is not feared in usual circumstances, they do not require the presence of a male witness as a prerequisite. And their testimonies, when given individually, are accepted in matters that are observed with one’s own eyes, touched with one’s own hands, or heard with one’s own ears without relying on reasoning, such as childbirth, breastfeeding, menstruation, and defects hidden beneath clothing. Such matters are generally not subject to forgetfulness and do not require the application of intellect. They are similar to the meanings of statements that one hears through affirmation of faith and other matters. These meanings are reasonable and their adherence remains valid in general.

So, while they [Jurists] generally did not require or oblige women to testify in criminal investigations, legal punishments, and other matters beyond their customary roles, they acknowledged the equality of a woman’s testimony in her regular responsibilities.

The testimony of women is accepted individually in matters that are not witnessed by men. The intended meaning of this issue is that women’s testimony is valid in matters that are exclusive to them and not witnessed by men, such as childbirth, menstruation, waiting period after divorce, pregnancy, virginity, defamation, and the faults of women(except for matters of breastfeeding and determining the beginning of the lunar month to which the opinions differ). The scholars have transmitted a consensus on this.

Now, there’s another part of the hadith in which it states that a “majority of women are in the hellfire” [Sahih Bukhari 304]:

“The Prophet (peace be upon him) addressed the women and said, “O gathering of women, give charity, for I have seen that you are the majority among the inhabitants of Hell.” They asked, “Why is that, O Messenger of Allah?” He replied, “You curse frequently and show ingratitude towards your husbands”.

The scholarly understanding regarding this aspect of the hadith greatly clarifies and simplifies its meaning.

Shaykh ‘Abd al-Razzāq in [A Piece of Advice & Admonition for the Women Pages 78-85]:

The hadith highlights a concern about women who engage in frequent cursing and display ingratitude towards their husbands. It cautions that such behavior will contribute to their higher representation in the hellfire. It is crucial for muslim women to reflect on this warning from the Prophet(ﷺ) and take it seriously. The ungratefulness and actions that contradict the traits of a pious Muslim woman should be avoided. By acknowledging and rectifying these behaviors, women can strive to align themselves with the principles of piety and gratitude in Islam.

When examining the understanding of women being the majority in the hellfire, it is necessary to consider the opinions of scholars.

Al-Munawi in [Fayḍ al-Qadīr 2/428] writes:

The fewest inhabitants of Paradise are women, meaning that initially, women will enter Paradise before their disobedient counterparts are removed from Hellfire. However, this does not imply that the women of this world are fewer in number than men in Paradise. Some scholars have stated that the “fewest” can be understood in relation to themselves, meaning that they are among the first inhabitants of Paradise, and in comparison to those who enter before them, their number may be considered few. We mention this because the inhabitants of Paradise are infinite, so they cannot be described as few or many.”

Ibn Rajab in [Majmoo’ Rasa’il 4/374]:

The reconciliation between the two narrations suggests that the mention of the scarcity of women in Paradise refers to a time before the sinners among the monotheists are taken out of Hellfire. Once they are removed, the number of women will be greater. The correct understanding is that Abu Hurairah intended to convey that the gender of women in Paradise is more numerous than the gender of men because each man will have two wives.”

Al-Qurtubi in [Al-Tadhkirah 2/983]:

“It is possible that this occurs at a time when women are in Hellfire. However, after their departure through intercession and the mercy of Allah the Exalted, so that none remains therein except those who have said, “There is no god but Allah,” then the number of women in Paradise will be greater. Allah knows best. At that time, each person will have two wives from the women of this world. As for the wide-eyed maidens (Hoor al-Ayn), each person may have many of them.”

Al-Qadi ‘Iyad comments on the hadith in [Sharḥ al-Nawawī ‘alá Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2834]:

The apparent meaning of this hadith is that women are the majority of the inhabitants of Paradise. And in the other hadith (that women are the majority of the inhabitants of Hell), it can be deduced from this combination that women are the majority of Adam’s offspring. And this applies to human beings in general. However, it should be noted that each individual from the people of Paradise will have a large number of the Hoor (beautiful companions) as well.”

Ibn Hajar In [Fatḥ al-Bārī 6/325] writes:

“It is possible that the narrator conveyed it with the meaning he understood, implying that if women are the majority of the inhabitants of Hell, they must be the minority in Paradise. However, that is not necessarily implied by what has been mentioned before.

Abu Hurairah used this hadith as evidence that women in Paradise outnumber men, as reported by Muslim through the narration of Ibn Sireen from him. This is clear.”

Based on this, it becomes clear that the statement “the majority of women will be in the hellfirerefers to those women who have committed the specific acts mentioned in the hadith or any other acts of disobedience. They will enter the hellfire to undergo purification for their misdeeds. However, they will eventually be removed from the hellfire, provided that they were sincere believers in Allah, and they will constitute the majority of the inhabitants of paradise, and ‏الله اعلم

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