How dare you imply that male scholars had any kind of bias towards women? Just because they were men doesn’t mean that they hated women! They were married and knew women; how can you say that they weren’t influenced by the women in their lives?
The answer to this is both nuanced and simple. On the one hand, yes, we do have ḥusn al-ẓann for our scholars, both past and present – but we must also be honest and not live in denial of clear evidence.
The scholars of our Islamic history were human. While they dedicated themselves to studying Islam, and no doubt were sincere in their endeavors to seek the truth, this does not absolve them from the basic human flaw of having internal biases, whether as a product of their society or otherwise.
Just as we are quick to say that Muslims today have been influenced by those around them, whether by media or by un-Islamic society or by intellectual colonization, we must recognize that the Muslims of the past had just as much external influence to contend with. This is obvious when one considers the history of Islamic creed as it was impinged upon by Greek philosophy; it must equally be recognized when it comes to gender relations and fatâwa passed regarding women.
The evidence for that statement is (unfortunately) overwhelming. From relatively early on in the history of Islamic scholarship until today, statements and rulings were made that described women as being inherently inferior and thus denied basic rights. Women were prevented even from learning to read or write out of a ‘fear of corruption’; even today, excuses are made to deny women Sharʿi rights such as khulʿ out of a belief that they will ‘abuse’ this right and somehow destroy society itself.
Ibn Kathîr said in his Tafsîr (1/363):
The phrase ‘but men have a degree [of responsibility] over them’ means that they are superior in physical nature, attitude, status, obedience to the commands of Allah, spending, taking care of interests, and virtue, in this world and in the Hereafter… [*]
(The implication being that the reverse is true: that women are inherently inferior and are not as obedient to the commands of Allah, and have less virtue than men when it comes to this world and the Hereafter.)
Al-Baghawi said in his Tafsîr (2/206):
… because Allâh has made one of them to excel the other’ means, men excel women because they have more powers of reason and religious commitment and they are in charge of affairs. [†]
Again, this is to say that men are somehow more reasonable/ rational/ intelligent and also more religious in terms of obeying Allah’s Command – when one cannot find proof of such a claim in the Qur’an or Sunnah. In fact, the Qur’an and Sunnah do not differentiate between the religiosity of genders, but rather of individuals themselves.
It is true that the ḥadîth regarding women’s “deficiency of intellect” [‡] was used as evidence to make statements regarding women’s ‘lack of reason,’ but even this was critiqued by other scholars of the past.
Sadly, the above are not the only scholars to reinforce the position that women are “deficient in intellect.” Al-Baydâwi said in his Tafsîr (2/184):
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women’ means that they are in charge of them and take care of them. He gave two reasons for that, one that is inherent in them and one that is acquired subsequently, and said: ‘because Allah has made one of them to excel the other,’ because Allah has favored men over women by making men more perfect in reasoning and running affairs, and has given them more strength with regard to work and acts of worship. [§]
Here is yet another emphasis on how men are ‘more perfect’ in intelligence and ‘strength’ in acts of worship – though again, the latter is not possible to prove definitively /to support from a textual perspective.
Imam Al-Ghazali, offers advice in dealing with the supposed female ‘evil and weakness’:
…It is necessary to follow the path of moderation both in disagreement and in agreement, and to follow the truth in it all, so as to be safe from their [women’s] evil; because their scheming is great, their evil is widespread; their predominant characteristics are bad manners and weak minds, and this cannot be set straight except through a certain amount of kindness mixed with diplomacy…
Thus there is evil and weakness in them [women]; while diplomacy and harshness are a cure for evil, consolation and mercy are the cure for weakness. The skillful doctor is one who can estimate the amount of cure needed for the ailment; so let the man first know her character through experience, then let him deal with her in a manner that will set her straight in accordance with her state. [**]
Imam Al-Qurṭubi, in his tafsîr of Sûrat Al-ʿAlaq, says:
It is narrated from ʿAbdullâh ibn Masʿûd that the Prophet said,
Your women should not descend from their rooms, nor should they be taught writing.
Our scholars say:
The Prophet warned against this because in their descending from their rooms, they will look at men, and this action is not (considered) safeguarding oneself, or concealment. And, they will be observed by men. The narration speaks of discord (fitna) and affliction. So, they are cautioned to stay in their rooms on the pretext of fitna. And this is because the Prophet said, “There is no good in women unless they do not see men, and they are not seen by men.” This is because she was created from the man, and the man was created with desire, and she provides him with comfort. So, they find comfort in each other.
And accordingly, writing can be a cause of fitna, for example, if she learns writing, and then writes (letters) to the one she loves. Writing is like an eye, it is seeing the one who is not present. And writing is from the effort of the hand. It is an expression of conscience; it is what cannot be told by the tongue, but starts with the tongue.
So, the Messenger of Allah sought to cut off all causes of fitna, safeguard women, and purify their hearts. [††]
Related to the ḥadîth quoted by Al-Qurṭubi above –which has been declared fabricated by scholars of ḥadîth [‡‡] –the following is recorded regarding the Shâfiʿi scholar Ibn Ḥajar Al-Haytami:
It was put to Ibn Ḥajr Al-Haytami: What is the ruling for teaching women writing, and Sûrat Al-Nûr, and what has been narrated that it is not recommended. Is that hadith authentic, or not?
He replied: It is authentic, Al-Ḥakim narrated, and in an authentic form from Al-Bayhaqi, from ʿÂishah who said, “The Prophet said, ‘Women should not descend from their rooms, and they should not be taught writing, but teach them the spindle, and Sûrat Al-Nûr.’”
Because of the great number of provisions in them which lead them to safeguarding themselves from all discord (fitna) and uncertainty…
It should be known that prohibiting women from writing does not prevent them from learning the Koran, knowledge, or proper etiquette. Because, this a general right that has no fear of sin associated with it, unlike writing. The fear of sin and repelling it takes precedence over all other interests.
He was then asked, “Abû Dâwûd narrated from Al-Shaffâ’ bint ʿAbdallâh that she entered upon the Prophet with Ḥafṣa, and he said, ‘Why do you not teach her the ruqya for ant bites, as you taught her writing?’ Is this not proof that women should be taught writing?”
Ibn Ḥajr Al-Haytami replied, “This is not proof that women should seek out how to write, it is only proof that they are permitted to learn it. But we say that this is a dangerous matter, and severely disliked for the sinful consequences that can arise from it.” [§§]
It is necessary to note that at least nine muḥaddithîn have declared the original ḥadîth ‘evidence’ to have been fabricated, notably Ibn Ḥibbân, Al-Bayhaqi in Shuʿab Al-Imân, Ibn Al-Qisrâni, Al-Dhahabi, Ibn Hajr Al-ʿAsqalâni. [***]
It is also interesting to know that there is a statement attributed to ʿUmar ibn Al-Khaṭṭâb that says,
Learn Sûrat Al-Tawbah, and teach your womenfolk Sûrat Al-Nûr, and give them silver (jewelry) to wear. [†††]
The contrast between the fabricated ḥadîth and the statement of ʿUmar is stark, despite the commonality of mentioning Sûrat Al-Nûr. The former seeks to render women isolated and ignorant; in the latter case, ʿUmar considers it worth emphasizing the relevance of Sûrat Al-Tawbah for men due to its âyât on Jihad, Sûrat Al-Nûr’s direct address to women, and urges men to support women’s financial well-being.
One possible wisdom behind the urging of men to read Sûrat Al-Tawbah is that one of its themes is that of the equality between men and women in terms of the rewards they receive from Allah for obedience to His Commands. [‡‡‡]
With regards to the scholars mentioned whose opinions on women come off as less than savory, we do recognize that these men were no doubt righteous Muslims and individuals who spent a great deal of their time studying the Dîn, who certainly considered themselves as seeking to live according to the Sunnah and to guide others accordingly; we pray that Allah will reward them for their good and forgive them for their mistakes.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah….
[**] Al-Ghazali, “Book on the Etiquettes of Marriage, Iḥyâ’ ʿUlûm Al-Dîn.” http://ghazali.org/works/marriage.htm
[††] Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Qurṭubi (d. 671 AH/1273 CE). Al-Jâmiʿ Li Aḥkâm Al-Qurân (Tafsîr Al-Qurṭubi). For the identical wording see also Al-Ḥakîm Al-Tirmidhi (d. 320 AH/932 CE). Nawâdir Al-Uṣûl fi Aḥâdîth Al-Rasûl. https://selfscholar.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/female-education-a-view-from-early-islam/
[‡‡] http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.ilmgate.org/teaching-women-to-write-prohibited-in-hadith/&gws_rd=cr&ei=J5pEV_r5BNbwyQKNpI2YBA and http://www.ahlalhdeeth.com/vb/showthread.php?t=194211
[§§] Ibn Ḥajr Al-Haytami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatâwa Al- Ḥadîthiyah https://selfscholar.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/female-education-a-view-from-early-islam/