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On sexism and misogyny in hadith narrations and the books of scholars

Salam. This thing has bugged me for a while and I try to not care but it's an important topic . Basically many scholars, many ahadith, are very sexist. The work of bukhari, ibn abbas, alkatherr , it feels like I can't escape it and no matter how much I try to think that woman have rights in Islam I still feel as if my being is worth noting. I genuinely feel bad. I already deal with misogynism on daily basis in the country im from It's like being a woman is a bad thing.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

It is true that since the beginning of Islam until modern times most men had a low opinion of women. The same is true of non-Muslims throughout history. Women generally had less access to education and fewer interactions with other people, so that they appeared naive and unintelligent to men. Therefore when a historical personality says women are inferior or foolish, for them this seemed to be the truth, since they rarely met intelligent women who could think on the same level as men. For them it was an obvious fact of life that women are unintelligent, and anyone who doubted that could simply go and talk to some women in their society and verify that this was true.

Things only began changing in the past few centuries, when women in both Europe and the Middle East started to be more involved with their societies and started to get an education. Even in the United States, the universities only started admitting female students in the latter part of the 19th century. Cornell admitted its first female student in 1870, and its alumni, who were some of the best educated men in the country, strongly opposed letting in females.1

When it comes to sexism in hadith narrations, you should keep in mind that only a very small subset of hadith narrations reach the authenticity of the Quran. The overwhelming majority belong to a spectrum of authenticity. Some have a 99% likelihood authenticity, some 95%, and so on. Even highly authentic narrations can be rejected if the case can be made that they describe an earlier policy of the Prophet that may have been superseded by his later practice or by a Quranic revelation. For Imam Malik’s rejection of authentic narrations despite admitting their authenticity see Wymann-Landgraf, Mālik and Medina. For the issues surrounding hadith authenticity, see Brown, The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim and idem, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, London, 2014.2

The Quran is our only 100% reliable source for God’s opinions, therefore you should base your thinking on it. It nowhere teaches that women are unintelligent and foolish, it rather stresses the equality of the worth of men and women, guarding their dignity and prohibiting various abuses that were common in the pre-Islamic era (such as forced marriages, selling them as slaves, not letting them get a share of inheritance). If you find a hadith or scholarly opinion that teaches to view women as inferior, instead of thinking that this is Islam, you should think the opposite, that this is not Islam, and you should do the research necessary to find out the truth. If one hadith teaches a negative thing about women, you will find others that teach positive things. If one scholar voices a sexist opinion, you will find others who reject it, and in fact there are scholars who can be described as feminist in that they think women are better and more moral humans than men.

Islam is simply a tool for you to know God better and to worship Him in the possible way. This is the purpose of this religion, everything else is a side issue complicated by the vagueness of the Quran, the unreliability of hadith narrations and the sexist cultures of the past. Rather than letting these things color your understanding of Islam, make your own understanding out of the Quran and the best opinions of the people of the past and present.

Footnotes

  1. See Murray Edward Poole, A Story Historical of Cornell University: With Biographies of Distinguished Cornelllians, Ithaca, The Cayuga Press, 1916, p. xxx and xxxi.
  2. By mentioning the issue of hadith reliability, I do not wish to advocate for indiscriminate rejection of hadith narrations. I rather advocate for an empirical historian’s view of hadith that takes account of all the available evidence surrounding each narration. The authentic vs. non-authentic dichotomy should be abandoned for a new framework that can admit various shades of authenticity. In the reality of hadith, a narration could be 99% likely to be authentic while another may be 97% and yet another 90%, yet all of them may get an ‘authentic’ badge given to them by hadith scholars, in this way throwing away important historical evidence that may affect the way we judge certain issues within Islam.

    20th century Western scholars like Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht, despite their admirably thorough scholarship, had an unwarrantedly hyper-skeptical attitude toward hadith narrations, considering most of the literature potentially false and fabricated until proven otherwise, and their writings seem to have affected some Muslim thinkers. More recently, the Dutch (non-Muslim) scholar of Islam Harald Motzki has carried out a great deal of historical research that supports the Islamic view of hadith; that the hadith genre, despite its many faults, represents a true historical record. See Harald Motzki, Analysing Muslim Traditions: Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghāzī Ḥadīth, Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2012.

And God knows best.

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