A Critical Look at ‘Harsh Hadiths’ About Women

24 January, 2020
Q As-Salam alaykum. First I want to say Jazaka Allahu khayran for this service. Secondly, I want to apologize in advance for bringing up this subject. I have some questions about certain hadiths that are claimed to be authentic by most Muslims and scholars.1. The first hadith I want to address is the one where the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is supposed to have said that women are deficient in intelligence and deen (Islamic religion or way of living). After reading this hadith, one can come to only three possible conclusions: (1) The Prophet told a lie in order to make some people laugh; (2) Islam belittles women, just as Christianity does, and says indeed that women are deficient in deen and in intelligence; or (3) This story is ascribed to Prophet Muhammad but is completely fabricated by the narrator. I can only conclude that option number three is the case here. My question to you is, what is your conclusion? 2. Another popular narration on the same subject is that most residents of hell will be women because they are ungrateful to their husbands. Please explain to me how it could be that Allah tells men to be patient with women but He will for sure punish us for our ungrateful nature? If anything, this narration is most likely fabricated too.Allah says in the Qur'an that "man" is most ungrateful to his Lord. Even Muslims are ungrateful because we are forgetful and do not remember Allah all the time. The daily life consumes us and we are ungrateful most of the time for all the good Allah has bestowed upon us. Yet, there is no single verse that says Allah will punish us for this ingratitude to our Creator. But He will punish ungratefulness towards another human being. Also if it is true that so many women will be so severely punished for their ingratitude towards their husbands (a human being) I find it strange that there is no verse warning women against this.3. Another hadith I want to address is the one that says Allah will not accept a woman's prayer if her husband is not happy with her. This hadith is plain shirk (disbelief). Same goes for the saying that your husband is your Heaven or Hell. 4. Lastly, I would like to address the popular narration that says the Prophet said, "If I were to order anyone to prostrate himself to anyone else [other than Allah], I would have ordered women to prostrate themselves to their husbands." He is supposed to have said this to explain the rights a husband has over his wife. The first thing that comes to mind is that the Prophet, the wisest man and the best speaker who has ever set foot on this planet, is (by saying this) pulling women to the edge of committing the one sin Allah will not forgive just to make a simple point. There are about a dozen ways one can say this without using this dangerous example. I actually heard women say "your husband is your god on earth." I do not believe the Prophet made this mistake when addressing women and therefore will say this again: This is most likely fabricated.This question also arises: What is it about women that makes men hate them so much to make up and defend these stories? You don't hear women claiming most men will go to hell because of this or that.I am merely trying to understand these popular narrations. I do not believe the Prophet would belittle women as these narrations are claiming. Can you please explain to me why you believe the Prophet said these things? And thank you for taking the time to read this long letter.From a sister in Islam.


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)

Read more…

Is Feminism Driving Women Away From Islam?

Considering Context: Problematic Hadiths About Women

Why Are There So Many Hadiths That Seem To Degrade Women?

Were the Sayings of Prophet Muhammad Fabricated?

About Dr. Jasser Auda
Jasser Auda is a Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, a global think tank based in London, and a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at Carleton University in Canada. He is a Founding and Board Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Fellow of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of India, and General Secretary of Yaqazat Feker, a popular youth organization in Egypt. He has a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic law from University of Wales in the UK, and a PhD in systems analysis from University of Waterloo in Canada. Early in his life, he memorized the Quran and studied Fiqh, Usul and Hadith in the halaqas of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He previously worked as: Founding Director of the Maqasid Center in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in London; Founding Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Ethics in Doha; professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Alexandria University in Egypt, Islamic University of Novi Pazar in Sanjaq, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, and the American University of Sharjah. He lectured and trained on Islam, its law, spirituality and ethics in dozens of other universities and organizations around the world. He wrote 25 books in Arabic and English, some of which were translated to 25 languages.