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IslamQA: Is the hadith mentioning women as deficient in intelligence and faith authentic?

Assalamualaikum Are the Hadith mentioning women as deficient in intelligence authentic?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

The following hadith which mentions that women are deficient in religiosity and intelligence is extremely strong. It is one of the most authentic hadiths I have found in my studies and reaches the rank of ṣaḥīḥ al-ṣaḥīḥ, meaning that it is an order of magnitude more authentic than the average authentic hadith.

The Prophet said: I did not see more defective in respect of intelligence and religion than the wise of you (women). A woman asked: What is the defect of reason and religion ? He replied: The defect of reason is the testimony of two women for one man, and the defect of faith is that one of you does not fast during Ramadan (when one is menstruating), and keep away from prayer for some days.

Sunan Abi Dawud 4679 (Sahih)

But keep in mind that that is the Prophet himself speaking. He was simply expressing his observation about the women of Arabia at the time. So the women around him at the time were highly deficient in religiosity and intelligence according to him, but that does not mean all women will be like that for all time. The culture of that time kept women away from education and responsibilities, so that they grew up to be highly ignorant and catty as some women are today.

It is likely that any intelligent and well-educated woman would make the exact same observation about the women of that time and culture if she were to travel back in time and meet them.

As for the Prophet saying that it is a defect in women’s intelligence that their testimony is equal to half a man’s, and that it is a defect in their religiosity that they cannot fast or pray when menstruating, I admit that it sounds highly sexist. But keep in mind that the Prophet was simply expressing his own personal opinions, as a man living at that time. It made sense to him that women were deficient in these things because of the women he saw around him, and he used the issues of testimony and menstruation to justify why they were inferior. This was his personal reasoning. This wasn’t a revelation from God telling us that women are inferior. This was an Arabian man thinking for himself. We know that the Prophet made a number of serious mistakes when he was acting on his own, and the Quran mentions many of them. There is a chapter of the Quran titled “He frowned”, which strongly reprimands the Prophet for his behavior:

He frowned and turned away. When the blind man approached him. But how do you know? Perhaps he was seeking to purify himself. Or be reminded, and the message would benefit him. But as for him who was indifferent. You gave him your attention. Though you are not liable if he does not purify himself. But as for him who came to you seeking. In awe. To him you were inattentive. Do not. This is a Lesson. (The Quran, verses 80:1-11)

Another mistake is mentioned in the following verse:

May God pardon you! Why did you give them permission before it became clear to you who are the truthful ones, and who are the liars? (The Quran, verse 9:43)

This was on the issue of letting some people in Medina stay behind when they should have accompanied him on a war campaign.

Another mistake is mentioned below:

It is not for a prophet to take prisoners before he has subdued the land. You desire the materials of this world, but God desires the Hereafter. God is Strong and Wise. Were it not for a predetermined decree from God, an awful punishment would have afflicted you for what you have taken. (The Quran, verses 8:67-68)

Yet another time when the Prophet was about to make a mistake and God had to intervene is mentioned below:

Had We not held you steady, you were about to incline towards them a little. Then We would have made you taste double (torment) in life, and double at death; then you would have found for yourself no helper against Us. (The Quran, verses 17:74-75)

So the picture that the Quran paints for us is that the Prophet was just a fallible man, a normal human, trying to carry out the mission God had given him, a man who occasionally made mistakes. The Quran tells us:

Muhammad is no more than a messenger. Messengers have passed on before him. If he dies or gets killed, will you turn on your heels? He who turns on his heels will not harm God in any way. And God will reward the appreciative. (The Quran, verse 3:144)

We never sent any messengers before you, but they ate food and walked in the marketplaces. And We made some of you tempters for one another—will you be patient? Your Lord is always Observing. (The Quran, verse 25:20)

The Quran reminds us that the Prophet is not an angel or perfect being. He was just a man, just like the prophets before him. I know that it is common for Muslims to think of the Prophet as a perfect being, and I’m sure if the Quran had not so constantly reminded Muslims that the Prophet is just a man, people would have started to worship him as God’s son just as Jesus was turned into a son of God.

So what we can conclude about this hadith is that it was the Prophet expressing his own opinion and using his own reasoning to justify it. I wish the Prophet hadn’t said that, but we can accept it and forgive him, knowing that he wasn’t an angel or a son of God, but just a man trying to carry a message.

The Prophet’s traditions (hadith) are there to help us apply the Quran better in our lives. When it comes to tangential things like these that do not have a basis in the Quran (the Quran never tells us women are inferior), we do not have to consider his opinions revelations from God. He may have been simply expressing his personal opinion. If there had been numerous other hadiths that constantly told us that women are inferior, then we would have been forced to accept them as true religious teachings. But since it is just one isolated hadith and there is no hint that the Prophet is transmitting God’s words or opinions, we can consider it simply his own opinion.

I know this is an extremely sensitive matter because it may seem like it can lead us to doubt everything the Prophet says since we cannot be sure if it is merely his own opinion or if he is acting according to God’s own words and teachings. But in reality the issue is quite simple. We judge things based on how much support they have in the Quran and in authentic hadiths. This particular hadith is isolated from the rest and has no basis in the Quran, so we can be reasonably sure that here the Prophet was acting as a man expressing his own opinions. We should keep in mind that he was sometimes merely a man speaking his own mind. We should always be eager to follow his teachings when the evidence suggests he is acting as a prophet, and this is something that is usually very clear. But we should not rule out the possibility that at times his sayings are merely his own opinions. When he says something that does not sound perfectly reasonable and justified, that is not supported by Quranic teachings, and that is not repeated in other hadiths, then that is a clear hint that he is acting on his own as a human expressing his own opinions.

And God knows best.

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