Thursday, November 27, 2014

Deficient in Intellect, or Interpretation?


"Women are deficient in intellect." These words, quoted from a famous hadith, have been gleefully used by many Muslim men to demean and belittle women, implying that they are, by nature, inferior.
It is sad that the majority of English translations and explanations (especially the latter) regarding this hadith have an overtly negative attitude, even aggressive in some cases.

Yet when one reads the original Arabic text, and searches for other classical explanations – such as that of Qadhi `Iyadh – a different picture is painted, one which reflects not negativity, but positivity.
The key phrase that we will look at here is the following:

"Ma ra'aytu min Naqisati `Aqlin wa deen aghlabu li dhee lubbin minkun"
 "In spite of your lacking in wisdom and failing in religion, you are depriving the wisest of men of their intelligence." (Sunnah.com)

 "I have seen none lacking in common sense and failing in religion but (at the same time) robbing the wisdom of the wise, besides you."(Sunnah.com)

 "I have not seen anyone more deficient in intellect or deen. Yet the mind of even a resolute man might be swept away by one of you."(Sunnipath.com)
 "I have never seen among those who have a deficiency in their intellect and their religion anyone more capable than women of swaying the intellect of the most determined of men."(Answering-Christianity.com)

The differences in these translations – and the connotations that come along with the words used – is quite clear. The first two are quite harsh, and a jumping board for those explanations which go into detail about how women are weak, lacking, and inferior in intelligence.

The second two are slightly more ambivalent, less condemning, as it were. Even so, in English – and, I would suspect, most languages – there is very little explanation of this phrase (and indeed, the entire hadith itself) that doesn’t come off as an excuse or justification for the horrific misogyny that has permeated our Ummah.

What is a better explanation for this hadith, then?

In Ikmaal al-Mu’lim bi Fawaa’id Muslim (a commentary on Saheeh Muslim) by Qadhi ‘Iyadh, he discusses this hadith carefully.

To begin with, a small but significant detail in the hadith has been glossed over by many.
When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) approached the believing women to impress upon them the importance of giving sadaqah and saying istighfaar (praying for forgiveness), one of those women spoke up.

Qadhi `Iyadh takes the time to speak about this woman – in the Arabic text, she is described as "imra’atun jazlatun."

What does "jazlah" mean? Another analysis of the hadith[1] defines "jazlah" as: "thaat al-‘aql, ra’iyy, waqaar" ; meaning, someone with intelligence, with an opinion based upon reason and rationale, and respect.

This "imra’atun jazlah" was not merely content to hear this statement, but wanted to understand the reasoning behind it – and as Qadhi ‘Iyadh states, her intelligence was demonstrated in that she did not challenge the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in a disrespectful manner, but spoke up in a firm yet appropriate way. Nor was her question criticizing the statement of the Prophet, but instead, she sought to further her own understanding of his statement.

In fact, her behaviour was the very embodiment of the verse:

{It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair.} (Al-Ahzab 33:36)
 Another interesting point that Qadhi ‘Iyadh makes is how the word ‘aql is defined and understood, especially in the context of this hadith. Only one definition is the widely translated and assumed one of "intellect," whereas he also mentions it as certain, specific types of knowledge, and excelling in having deep insight and being able to distinguish the true reality and nature of things.

The writer Azeez Muhammad Abu Khalaf further discusses the concept of "naaqis `aql" and how it is taken out of context in this hadith to imply something that has no evidence whatsoever either in the Qur’an or Sunnah – that is, the claim that women are intellectually inferior.

In the Qur’an, the word `aql is generally related not to intellect in and of itself, but rather, as a tool to push people into reaching a realization regarding Allah, the purpose of life, etc. so that they are motivated into working for their Hereafter. In the context of this hadith, the phrase is used in a similar manner – emphasizing the severity of the matter as a motivational tool, encouraging the women to give in Sadaqah and increase in their Istighfaar.

Furthermore, when the Prophet clarified the "nuqsaan" and their causes, they are issues that are purely Shar’i rules: the issues of testimony, prayer, and fasting.
The matter of testimony falls under `aql as it is not a ritual act of worship, whereas salah and fasting are acts of worship and therefore deeni.

Even those who try to argue that women are inferior because their testimony equals only half that of a man’s, are ignoring the fact that the Qur’anic ayah says simply {so that one can remind the other.} (Al-Baqarah 2:282) There is no mention whatsoever of inferiority in any other way, especially with regards to intelligence, either in the Qur’an or the Sunnah.

 With regards to the details of a woman’s testimony, it must be known that it is not a blanket ruling applicable to any and all situations. It must also be understood that there are cases wherein a man’s testimony is rejected completely; for example, in matters such as childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. In other cases, a woman’s testimony can be considered equal to that of a man’s. However, the details of these situations is beyond the scope of this article, and a discussion of fiqh in and of itself.

 Abu Khalaf goes on to point out that those who try to use the hadith to demean women are actually missing out a significant aspect of the hadith itself – how could the woman mentioned be described as "jazlah" if  the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was actually telling women that they are NOT intelligent?


 As for the second half of the hadith (aghlabu li dhee lubbin minkun), which has been translated in varying degrees of similar negative connotations, it is an example which highlights the power of words.


The word ‘ghalaba’ in Arabic means ‘to defeat, to prevail, overpower, to overcome, to subdue’ – basically, to have power over someone. It is a word with connotations of power and influence, of superiority, as it were.

Translations such as "robbing the wisdom of the wise," "swaying the intellect of the most resolute of men" etc. give a demeaning impression to imply that women are deceptive, cunning, and manipulative.

Yet – just as easily, and perhaps much more accurately – it can be translated as women being able to outwit and outsmart men... which, in turn, highlights that women are not, in fact, lacking in or inferior when it comes to the intellect. After all, how could someone stupid be able to outsmart "dhee lubbin" – a very intelligent man, a wise man, a resolute man?

Some explanations of this hadith, including that of Qadhi ‘Iyadh, mention that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) uttered this statement as a compliment – one of surprise, and positivity.
Another interesting point made is that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was addressing the women of the Ansar, who were known for being outspoken, intelligent, and on an equal footing with their men – in contrast to the people of Makkah, where the men were used to being domineering over their womenfolk. Thus, the Prophet was expressing how impressed he was by the fact that these women were so easily able to match wits with men, despite being physically weaker than them.

One very important thing to note about this hadith – and how it has been incorrectly translated and explained – is that this incident took place during the morning of ‘Eid, an occasion for joy and celebration. It is inconceivable that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would say something deeply offensive or meant to hurt or be harmful to those whom he was speaking to (in this case, the believing women). It is known that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke in the best of ways, in the most eloquent, and that when he spoke to the believers, it was always in a manner that would motivate them to grow closer to Allah, not more distant.

Unfortunately, this point is almost never considered in English explanations of the hadith, thus making it seem even more negative towards Muslim women.

Finally, if women were indeed inferior in intellect – then how on earth would any woman be accepted as a scholar of Islam in any capacity? If women are inferior in intellect, then how could they be entrusted with the most important type of knowledge – that of Islam itself – and possibly endanger the souls of Muslims throughout the world?


Obviously, this is not the case. From A’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her), Hafsah, Zainab bint Abi Salamah and others, to shaykhaat today, women have been entrusted with the Sacred Knowledge of Islam. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his male Companions fully recognized, acknowledged, and valued the worth of women, their intellect, and their contributions to the Ummah.
Perhaps one of the greatest evidences regarding Muslim women and their intellectual influence is the quote of Imam adh-Dhahabi – that he had never come across a female hadith transmitter accused of forgery (muttaham) or abandoned due to a high degree of unreliability (matruk)[2]. As a formidable figure in the field of hadith, and specifically in al-Jarh wa Ta’deel, these words of Imam adh-Dhahabi are significant and meaningful.

In short, it is enough to know that this hadith does not, in fact, provide any evidence or even imply that women are intellectually inferior in any manner. Rather, what this hadith does is recognize and point out that {the male is not like the female.} (Aal-`Imran 3:36)

Whereas the women were first cautioned regarding their own behaviour, and reminded of their differences in specific aspects of the Deen (giving testimony, praying, and fasting) the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also acknowledged that men, too, were not perfect.

He pointed out that even "dhee lubbin" (the most intelligent of men) are capable of having their wits matched by women. Whereas there are many men who feel insulted or offended at the idea of a woman outsmarting them or proving herself to be intellectually superior, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned it as a fact.

Allah has created men and women as partners, complementing each other in every way – whether intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. The Qur’an and Sunnah emphasize that men and women were created to asssist each other, and were both given duties and responsibilities to fulfill in obedience to Allah. Neither was created superior or inferior to the other, but rather, were designated as responsible "shepherds" – as the hadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) clearly states:

"Every one of you is a guardian, and responsible for what is in his custody. " (Al-Adab al-Mufrad)
In the case of the hadith "naqsaan ‘aql wa deen," there are many of those who try to argue that this hadith is evidence of women’s inherent "deficiency" and inferiority, and will go on to exaggerate the "weakness" of women.

However, as we have already stated, there is absolutely no evidence in the Qur’an and Sunnah to support these claims. As human beings, men and women are held equally accountable in the Sight of Allah, responsible for using their intellect to distinguish between good and evil, and to act accordingly.

A more appropriate translation of this hadith, then, could be the following:
"Despite your incompleteness in 'aql and deen, I have never seen anyone more able to triumph over a man of (great) intelligence"
 Thus, we can see the power of words, positive connotation, and the absolute necessity of having a holistic understanding of the words of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).
In reading this hadith – and others which have either been mistranslated or explained in a biased manner – it is necessary for us to always have Husn adh-Dhann (thinking well) of Allah and His Messenger.

Allah is the Most Just, the Prophet was a mercy to mankind - we can never, ever forget that. Should we allow ourselves to think otherwise, to assume that the Qur'an and Sunnah contain injustice in any way, is a victory of Shaytan over us, who strives to make us despair or doubt the perfection of Islam.
It is also an important reminder to us of the power of words. Sadly, mistranslations and harsh (mis)explanations have been directly responsible for causing all kinds of spiritual trauma, especially in relation to Muslim women.

While we cannot directly accuse translators and writers of deliberately trying to cause harm, we do have to recognize the very real consequences and effects that those words and interpretations have upon the Ummah. Whether it is deliberate on the part of the translators and writers or merely irresponsible translating is not for us to judge, although it is imperative for us to recognize and to challenge the consequences of these translations and interpretations.

May Allah make us amongst those who seek the truth and find it, and are given not only knowledge, but wisdom and understanding of His words and His Deen, ameen.


[1] Azeez Muhammad Abu Khalaf, Wujuh al-I`jaz fi Hadith  Naqisat `Aql, http://www.saaid.net/female/m121.htm
[2] Mizan al-I`tidal, Fasl: fi al-Niswa al-Majhulat

1 comment:

AniBelle said...

Jazaki Allahu Khair sister for clearing the misconception of this hadith! May Allah protect us from giving in to the Shaytan, and May our Ummah be filled with wise people like yourself!
Your sister in Islam,
Anum