Originally published in July 2008.
I was wondering if you could talk about how we should deal with hadiths (Prophetic traditions) that seem to be unfair towards women; for example, that the hellfire is full of women, a woman is deficient in intellect, etc. How are we supposed to understand and accept these kinds of statements when they seem to go against the equality of Islam? Couldn’t it be that some misogynistic ideas on the part of the narrators influenced the books of hadith like Bukhari, etc?
Bismillah. In the name of God.
As salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh, May the Peace and Blessings of God be upon you,
I want to begin by thanking you for raising a very important issue. I ask Allah to make this exchange a means for us to gain a fuller and richer understanding of our faith, for our prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “Whenever Allah wants good for a person He grants him or her deep understanding of the religion.”1
Coming across a hadith that may seem troubling to us or out of sync with the general principles of Islam is not out of the ordinary, nor is it limited to womens’ issues. There are a number of texts which, on first glance, can cause disconcertion, frustration, or other negative feelings in a person. How about the hadith that says, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they say ‘la ilaha illa Allah’”? Or that “999 out of 1000 people will enter the Fire”?
There are certain steps a person must take in order to engage with and understand these types of hadith properly. I would say that there are three key elements, like three puzzle pieces, that must be fitted together soundly for one to’see’ a completed, full and accurate picture of a hadith. These three components are the following:
1. Prophetic Words
First, we must determine the accuracy of what we are reading and verify that they are indeed the words of the Prophet ﷺ. You suggested that misogynistic feelings on the part of hadith narrators may have influenced books of authenticated hadith. I believe that even a cursory study of the field of hadith criticism would completely discount this idea. Please note that by saying this I am not rejecting the idea that misogynistic attitudes did exist in the Muslim world (and still do); but that such attitudes would not have been able to penetrate into the authentication process of hadith, since it was such a nuanced and carefully crafted science. In addition, women played a significant role in hadith narration from its very inception.2
Frankly speaking, sometimes it is easier to have ourselves believe such ideas than to deal with texts that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes we perform our own version of an authentication process in our minds: if it’s something I deem is acceptable, then it’s authentic; while if it is not, then it’s definitely a weak text! I would say that to begin this journey, we must temporarily set aside our feelings and objections to come to an impartial conclusion about the authenticity of the text through reliable sources. If it is fabricated or questionable, then we obviously do not have to concern ourselves with it. If, however, the hadith is authentic, then we need to continue in this process to learn more about it, and understand how it fits into the framework of Islamic teachings.
The first piece of the puzzle, then, is making sure that we are dealing with true Prophetic words and not anything else. Once that is affixed in place, we can go on to the next step, which is discerning the meaning of those words.
2. Context and Meaning
There are a number of things we have to take into consideration in order to understand the meanings and implications of a hadith properly. First is the specific situational context in which the hadith was said. Just as the science of Asbab an-Nuzul3 is extremely important for those seeking to understand the Quran, understanding when, why, and to whom the Prophet ﷺ made a particular statement can grants us great insight into a hadith.
Next, we should seek to understand the text in light of other hadiths on the same issue. The scholars who specialize in determining the underlying principles of Islamic law [the usuliyun] employ a process called istiqraa: Instead of focusing on one specific text, they survey all of the texts on a particular topic and draw conclusions by seeing how they relate to one another and their shared themes and lessons. We need to take on a similar method when studying a hadith before extrapolating from it or making generalizations. We must also look to what the fuqaha [jurisprudential scholars] say about the text’s proper application and the rulings that are derived from it.
Lastly, we should consider the hadith from the perspective of the sunnah as a whole. I’ve heard one of my teachers liken a hadith to a snapshot: something said or done at a specific time in a specific place, while the sunnah is a more comprehensive, holistic understanding of what the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught and his message. Another analogy would be like taking a four hundred-page novel, ripping out a random page and reading it, and seeking to understand the plot line or the characters from that portion alone. Obviously, the one who does so may very easily come to the wrong conclusions. It is for this reason that we have to place the specific hadith that we are discussing in the greater framework of the sunnah.
We can see that proper analysis and study of a hadith has some complexity and requires some expertise in order to be undertaken properly. This is where sitting with people of knowledge, asking of them and learning from them, plays an important role in guiding and perfecting our understanding.
3. Spiritual Openness
The last piece of the puzzle – and I would argue in some ways the most important – has less to do with the actual content of the hadith in question and more to do with you and I as the reader. If we liken the hadith itself to a sharpened arrow, and its proper conception to a tightened bow, then the spiritual and intellectual attitude with which we approach the hadith would be the fineness of the archer’s eye. Even if the bow and arrow are sound, without proper vision and clarity of sight the mark will never be reached. In the same way, our mindset when we study a hadith is very significant and can alter whether we reach our ‘mark’ (proper understanding) or not.
A critical part of this mindset is considering the hadith and pondering over it with a spirit of introspection, honesty with one’s self, and soul-searching. Instead of immediately concerning ourselves with how others may perceive a particular hadith, misinterpret it, or use it to their advancement (which are certainly valid concerns), we should begin by considering how this hadith is relevant to me as an individual, my actions, and my way of thinking. In other words, my concern should be inwardly directed before it is outwardly manifested.
Another aspect of the correct spiritual approach is being cautious with rejection. Sometimes the accusations that are leveled at hadiths and hadith narrators are based on an individual’s internal state and feelings, more so than on any research or ostensible evidence. I am in no way saying that one must eradicate genuine feelings and natural concerns that may arise when reading such hadith; but that our attitude should be one of seeking to learn more, to clarify and to understand, instead of immediately seeking a way to dismiss the hadith in question, which often includes dismantling the entire science of hadith studies. We live in an age where we are encouraged to quickly formulate opinions and draw conclusions, whereas I would say that there is nothing wrong with simply saying, when it comes to an authentic hadith that may trouble us, “I don’t know,” or “I am still learning.” Some of the scholars of old have said that, “Saying ‘I don’t know’ is half of knowledge,” and it is certainly a safer and more precautionary position to take.
As a final point of advice, we should always seek to have a good opinion of our Lord, as the Most Just, the Most Wise, and the Most Loving and Kind to His creatures, who never does injustice to anyone and who rewards those who do good and have faith, men and women, according to the best of their actions.4 Islam is His religion and it is a religion of fairness, balance, mercy, and justice – its teachings a reflection of His noble attributes. And it was Allah Most High who chose the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ for His message. As Muslims we know that Muhammad ﷺ was educated, developed, and beautified in the Divine school of prophethood, guided by the Divine in every aspect of his life, until he was, as the Quran testifies, “certainly upon the most exalted standard of character.”5 He ﷺ was the embodiment of the most beautiful of qualities in his manner with people, his personality, and in his truthful and faithful conveying of the teachings of our religion. The spiritual openness I was referring to also means that when we inquire about these ahadith, we do so with full recognition of who the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was, what he was teaching, and not let that inquiry become an obstacle in the loving and reverential relationship we should have with him and with the Divine.
I would also urge anyone who is having these types of concerns about hadith to commit themselves to reading and studying the seerah.6 The Prophet ﷺ was someone who, the more the men and women around him got to know him, the more they increased in love and awe for him and for his teachings. As the poet7 said in his praise:
(He) is like the sun that appears to the eyes from a distance
Seemingly small and insignificant – but dazzling to the eye when studied.
We owe it to our beloved Messenger ﷺ to seek to find the beauty and meaning in his words, which may not be perceived from a distance, but only when studied close at hand.
May Allah Most High make us people who sincerely strive to make our fractured understanding whole and complete, piece by piece, through His guidance and assistance, until our vision is sound and our aim is sure, and we are among those who know Him and know His religion. May He make us people of deep knowledge, insight, and wisdom, and who, through our spiritual and intellectual endeavors, reach His Nearness and Proximity. Ameen.
For Further Study
- Al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars of Islam by Dr. Akram Nadwi
- Studies in Hadith Methodology & Literature by M. M. Azami
- A Textbook of Hadith Studies: Authenticity, Compilation, Classification and Criticism of Hadith by Mohammad Hashim Kamali
- On the Science of Hadith Criticism (CD Set) by Dr. Mokhtar Magharoui
- Muhammad: Man and Prophet by Adil Salahi
- In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Dr. Tariq Ramadan
- Muhammad: Messenger of Allah (Ash-Shifa of Qadi Iyad) translated by Aisha Bewley
- Sahih Bukhari. ↩
- See Dr. Akram Nadwi’s book, al-Muhaddithat: the Women Scholars of Islam, which discusses female hadith narrators and their pivotal role in the science. ↩
- Asbab an-Nuzul: the study of the events and circumstances that are related to the revelation of particular passages of the Quran. ↩
- Qur’an, 16:97. ↩
- Qur’an, 68:4. ↩
- Seerah: the study of the life of the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), that includes the events leading up to and during his prophethood and descriptions of his physical and inner qualities. ↩
- Imam al-Busiri in his Qasidah al-Burdah ↩