Do Women Make Reliable Witnesses in Islam?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Weak Translation of Hadits Misleads Readers: A Clarification of the Meaning of ‘Aql and Jariya

Woman, as a witness, has been placed on trial by many Orientalists and translators of hadits primarily due to limitation of the translator over both languages.

It becomes essential when translating that one understands not only the literal meaning with accuracy but also the context it is coming with.  All those who study the Qur’an know that the Qur’an confirms itself in many references and the hadits is but a walking Qur’an in the form of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).

Our limitation as Muslims in understanding certain aspects of the hadits stems from a limitation in holding excellence in two languages - Arabic and English.

Difficulties in Translation

Some translations have hit the Internet in very hostile territory and I wanted to clear those misconceptions that come primarily from the translator’s choice of words rather than the actual meaning of the hadits.

Hadits on Witnesses (Swahih al-Bukhari No. 826, Vol. 3, Sections XVIII)

In his translation of Swahih al-Bukhari, Dr. Muhsin Khan translates hadits number 826 as follows: Narrated Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (r.a.), the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Is not the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?”

The women replied, “Yes”.

He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”

The Arabic is fadzalika min nuqsan il-‘aqaliha, which should be translated as: “That is owing to her lack of understanding.”

Understanding the Concept of ‘Aql

The translation of ‘aql as ‘mind’ is incorrect.  The term ‘mind’ is a platonic concept, which refers to innate ability.  ‘Aql is the word for understanding, sense and wisdom which is acquired through experience and development of educational abilities.  The mind is fixed and unchanging; understanding can be developed.  The term ‘mind’ has to do with the idea that some people are born with intelligence and some are not: In its essence, it is a racist concept.

How Does the Qur’an Define ‘Aql?

We can try to define the meaning of the word ‘‘aql’ by looking at its usage in the Qur’an.  It is used to refer to ability which learns from observation and which works though experiencing the wonders of God’s Creation:

And among His Signs, He Shows you the lightning, by way both of fear and of hope, and He Sends down rain from the sky and with it Gives life to the earth after it is dead: verily in that are Signs for those who are wise. (Surah ar-Rum:24)

And in the alternation of Night and Day, and the fact that Allah Sends down Sustenance from the sky, and Revives therewith the earth after its death, and the change of the winds - are Signs for those that are wise. (Surah al-Jatsiya:5)

The term used is liqawmin ya’qilun.  These verses are meant for the general audience of the Qur’an.  Anyone who is willing to use his understanding and look at the heavens and the earth can perceive the underlying power, which makes the universe possible.  These verses are not aimed at some special elite, which has a ‘mind’ which others lack.  Certainly women are not excluded from the audience of these verses.

No honest commentator would be able to claim that the signs of God mentioned in these verses are not available to women because women are deficient in their ‘minds’.  Any person, man or woman, can perceive the Ayat (Signs) of Allah (s.w.t.) and arrive at conclusions about God’s Oneness, Creativity, Power and Nurturing Love.

Dr. Muhsin Khan does not in his translation; realise that the holy Prophet (s.a.w.) was actually urging the women to gain understanding.  He was not saying that they are deficient by nature and will always remain so.  When a teacher says to a student: “Your understanding of the book is weak, you are deficient in your analysis; think, do not cheat”; the teacher is actually urging the student to gain the understanding which he/she lacks.  Islam came to educate people, to raise them from out of the marshes of ignorance, not to condemn them.

Had Dr. Muhsin Khan looked at other hadits in the same chapter of Imam al-Bukhari’s (r.a.) Swahih, he would have realized two things:

1.         The holy Prophet (s.a.w.) did not reject the witness of one woman even as opposed to a man’s.
2.         He did not think that women are deficient in their minds.

Documentation of the Use of One Woman as Witness

In hadits number 827 and 828, we are told that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) abrogated a marriage on the basis of one woman as a witness who had testified that in their infancy she had suckled both the husband and the wife.  The narration indicates that the male narrator did not want to accept the woman’s witnessing but the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) would not countenance his hesitation.  (Incidentally the woman was black and a slave from the Era of Ignorance, which also indicates the revolutionary Islamic concepts of equality of all races and peoples along with equality of male and female.)

Witness of One Woman in the Case of Slander

Further on in the same chapter of Imam al-Bukhari’s (r.a.) Swahih, we have a lengthy narration of the slander which was spread against ‘Aishah (r.a.) by the hypocrites.  In the narration we find ‘Ali (r.a.) urging the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) to ask for one woman’s witness and the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) going through the process of asking one woman without saying that two women are required.  The Qur’an then confirmed this witnessing by affirming the noble character of the blessed ‘Aishah (r.a.).  The words of the narration are:

‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.) said, “O Messenger of Allah!  Allah has not put restrictions on you, and there are many women other than her; yet you may ask the young woman (Barirah) and she will tell you the truth.”

On that the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.), called Barirah (r.a.) and asked her, “O Barirah!  Did you ever see anything, which raised your suspicion?”

Barirah said (r.a.), “No.  By Allah who has Sent you with the Truth, I have never seen anything wrong in her except that she is young and sometimes sleeps after having kneaded the dough and the goat comes and eats it.”

On that day the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) stood up to give the khuthbah and asked the people to support him against ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul.  The Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.) said, “Who will support me against that person who has hurt me in the matter of my family?  By Allah I know nothing but good about my family, and they have accused a man about whom I know nothing except good and he never entered my house except in my company.”

Those who have read their hadits books carefully know that Barirah (r.a.) was a freed slave woman.  In fact, she had been freed by ‘Aishah (r.a.) and used to spend her time with ‘Aishah (r.a.) as her companion, friend, and helper.  In both hadits, the Prophet (s.a.w.) accepts the witness of one woman, and the question of their ‘deficient mind’ is not raised.  The reason for acceptance was that Islamic education had given women mental maturity and understanding.  By the time the slander against ‘Aishah (r.a.) occurred, the Muslim community had strengthened its roots.

The Makkan Atmosphere of Oppression Whence Surah al-Baqarah was Revealed

When the verse about two female witnesses was revealed in Surah al-Baqarah, the Muslim community had just begun in Madina.  Our male commentators have built their weak position on Surah al-Baqarah while completely ignoring Surah an-Nur where ‘Aishah’s (r.a.) example was used by Allah (s.w.t.) to indicate the equality of males and females before the Law for all time to come.

Understanding the Meaning of Jariya

Dr. Muhsin Khan has also erred in his translation of the word ‘jariya’.  He translates it as ‘woman-servant’ which though better than laundi (female slave), as some Urdu language translators put it, is still off the mark.  The word ‘jariya’ simply means a young woman or girl.  Barirah (r.a.) was not a slave or a servant.  Swahih al-Bukhari attests that the holy Prophet’s (s.a.w.) household did not have a servant, male or female.  She had been freed by ‘Aishah (r.a.).

It escaped Dr. Khan that the word ‘jariya’ occurs three times in hadits 829 referring to ‘Aishah (r.a.) herself.  As ‘Aishah (r.a.) points out, she was a young woman at that time and weighed very little; hence the camel driver did not know if she was sitting in the curtained seat atop the camel or not and moved on without her.  Thank goodness that Dr. Khan does not claim that ‘Aishah (r.a.) was a slave girl too.  I hope he will look up the story of Barirah (r.a.) and find out that she had been freed.  Freed slaves often lived with those who had freed them in a system of wilaya because they had no family systems of their own.

The Translators’ Limitations in Choice of Words

Readers should notice how many different factors could come in to create misgivings and misunderstanding about hadits.  We all have much to learn.  Those who are translating holy books into English are often quite deficient in their English.  The language of the people is an essential vehicle for the dissemination of a message.  The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic to a people who spoke Arabic.  Similarly, people who can speak and understand the idiom of the American people must convey Islam in America.

Had We Sent this as a Qur'an (in a language) other than Arabic, they would have said: "Why are not its verses explained in detail?  What!  (a Book) not in Arabic and (a Messenger) an Arab?"  Say: "It is a guide and a healing to those who believe; and for those who believe not there is a deafness in their ears, and it is blindness in their (eyes); they are (as it were) being called from a place far distant!" (Surah Fuswswilat:44)


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