Short Answer: The science of hadith authentication is complex and not at all binary. “For the content of a hadith to be acceptable,… it [must] not be in opposition with another hadith or with reason in a way that cannot be reconciled… Men and women are equal in Islam, before God and Islamic Law, and in terms of their humanity and value. This is the Islamic basic principle according to a large number of Islamic sources. Any isolated narration that contradicts this principle should be reinterpreted or rejected according to the weakness of its content.”
Salam Dear Zahra,
Thank you for all your questions, which raise very important issues.
In my understanding, the main theme of your questions is that there are narrations that contradict certain principles, such as the oneness of God, justice, and equality.
The factor that makes these questions more challenging is that these narrations are labeled authentic in a number of traditional sources of Hadith and Islamic Law, as you noted in your question.
Understanding the Science of Hadith
The science of hadith does not boil down to such a simple binary authentic or inauthentic classifications.
There is a whole Islamic branch of knowledge that is dedicated to criticism of narrations.
There is a difference between criticism of a hadith based on its chain of narrators and based on its content.
In my view, we have to keep in mind both of these levels of criticism. This is especially the case when it comes to hadiths related to women.
The chain-of-narrators level of critical authentication of a hadith is to check the narrators in terms of their personalities and their numbers.
Trusting a narration entails a group of conditions for bearing or learning the hadith, and another group for conveying or narrating the hadith, which all schools agreed upon in principle.
To be accepted as a bearer of a hadith, a narrator has to be mature and known to have a reliable memory.
To be accepted as a narrator of a hadith, a narrator also has to have a connected chain of narrators or teachers from him or herself to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him-PBUH).
In terms of numbers, valid hadiths (that is, those that are narrated through trusted narrators) are classified into consecutive (mutawatir) and single-chained (ahad).
Hadiths With Consecutive Narrations
Consecutive narrations are as absolute as the Quran, according to all schools. These hadiths are narrated after a large number of Companions, who could not possibly or logically agree to lie.
Hadiths included in this category are related to Islam’s most famous acts of worship (basics of prayers, pilgrimage, fasting).
However, the category does not include any hadiths in the form of sayings.
The absoluteness of these narrations, according to all schools, implies an obligation on every Muslim to believe in and practice them.
Hadiths With Single-Chained Narrations
The hadiths categorized as single-chained are related by a number of narrators not numerous enough for it to be logically impossible for them to agree on lying.
This category includes a small number of the hadiths available in traditional sources (less than 100 hadiths according to all accounts), which makes its impact on the law limited.
The category of Hadith that includes the vast majority of narrations (including all those related to women and Islamic Law) is the single-chained (ahad) category.
All schools of Islamic Law, except for some Mu`tazilites, relied on these narrations in their derivation of rulings.
These are hadiths conveyed via one or a few chains of narration.
If the narrators are trustworthy, then the hadith is authentic. This is common knowledge.
Validating the Content of Hadith
However, a hadith narrated via an authentic chain is not necessarily valid according to all schools of law.
This is because a narration has to be valid in terms of both its chain of narrators and its content.
Traditionally speaking, for the content of a hadith to be acceptable, the main criteria are that it be linguistically correct. It should also not be in opposition with another hadith or with reason in a way that cannot be reconciled.
In this case, an authentically narrated hadith would be rejected based on the incoherence of its content. This is then attributed to a narrator’s mistake.
The hadiths that you mentioned in your question are single-chained narrations. Many of them are related according to trustworthy narrators.
However, many scholars who took a second look at the content of these hadiths reinterpreted them or reconciled between them and other hadiths because the content contradicted not just one other hadith, but a large number of verses and hadiths that set certain Islamic principles.
Dealing With Contradictions
Generally speaking, there are two ways or methods of dealing with this contradiction.
The first method is to try to reinterpret the hadith.
The second method is simply to reject the hadith and label it inauthentic.
It is the first method (reinterpretation) that many scholars followed when they said that prostrating oneself before one’s husband means “respecting him,” or that “women’s deficiency” or their being “bad omens” was mentioned in the way of joking, and so on.
The second valid method is to question whether there is some error by a narrator due to his own male-bias.
Case Study: Are Women Intellectually Inferior?
We can take a closer look at the hadith that is perhaps badly translated as follows:
“In spite of your lacking in wisdom and failing in religion, you are depriving the wisest of men of their intelligence.” (Muslim)
Zainab bint Younus writes:
[…] The words of the Prophet (PBUH) in this hadîth first caution the women he is addressing regarding their own behavior; then remind them of their differences as opposed to men in specific aspects of Religion (giving testimony, praying, and fasting); then remind them that male rationality is also imperfect.
He points out that women can match wits even with “dhî lubbin” (the most intelligent of men). Some men may feel offended at the idea of a woman outsmarting them or proving herself to their intellectual superior. But the Prophet (PBUH) is telling us that this is a fact. […]
In the case of the hadîth […], many argue that it evidences a women’s inherent “deficiency” and inferiority to men, and based on this exaggerate woman’s “weakness,” though, as already shown, neither the Quran nor Sunnah support this understanding. […]
A more appropriate translation may, therefore, go as follows: “Despite your incompleteness in aql [certain types of knowledge] and dîn [religion], I have never seen anyone more able to triumph over even the most intelligent of men.” (Read the entire discussion on Al Jumuah at the link here)
The Principle Is the Rule
In conclusion, I would like to stress that men and women are equal in Islam, before God and Islamic Law, and in terms of their humanity and value.
This is the Islamic basic principle according to a large number of Islamic sources.
Any isolated narration that contradicts this principle should be reinterpreted or rejected according to the weakness of its content.
I hope this answers your question. Please stay in touch.
(From Ask About Islam’s archives)