Lost in Translation
“WOMEN ARE DEFICIENT in intellect.” These words, quoted from a famous ḥadîth, have been gleefully used by many Muslim men to demean and belittle women, implying that they are, by nature, inferior.
It is sad that the majority of English translations and explanations (especially the latter) regarding this ḥadîth convey an overtly negative attitude, even aggressive in some cases, toward women.
Yet when one reads the original Arabic Text, and searches for other classical explanations—such as that of the renowned Mâlikî jurist of Cueta (Sabta, in Arabic), Qâḍî ʿIyâḍ (d. 544/1149)—a different picture is painted, one which reflects not negativity, but positivity.
The key phrase that we will look at here is the following: مارأيت من ناقصات عقل ودين أغلب لذي لب منكن
One can see for oneself the differences of translation—and by extension, interpretation—clearly in the following four citations:
- “In spite of your lacking in wisdom and failing in religion, you are depriving the wisest of men of their intelligence.” (sunnah.com/riyadussaliheen/20/11)
- “I have seen none lacking in common sense and failing in religion but (at the same time) robbing the wisdom of the wise, besides you.” (sunnah.com/muslim/1/147)
- “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intellect or dîn (religion). Yet the mind of even a resolute man might be swept away by one of you.” (sunnipath.com/library/hadith/H0002P0006.aspx)
- “I have never seen among those who have a deficiency in their intellect and their religion anyone more capable than women of swaying the intellect of the most determined of men.” (http://www.answering-christianity.com/karim/Rebuttal_to_Wiki_Islam_on___Are_Women_Deficient_in_Intelligence__.htm)
The first two are quite harsh, and a jumping board for those explanations which go into detail about how women are weak, lacking, and inferior in intelligence.
The second two are slightly more ambivalent, less condemning, as it were. Even so, in English—and, I would suspect, most languages—there is very little explanation of this phrase (and, indeed, the entire ḥadîth itself) that doesn’t come off as an excuse or justification for misogyny.
Are the Knowing and Unknowing Equal?
What is a better explanation for this ḥadîth, then?
In Ikmâl Al-Muʿlim bi Fawâ’id Muslim (a commentary on Ṣaḥîḥ Muslim) by Qâḍî ʿIyâḍ, he discusses this ḥadîth carefully. To begin with, he notes a small but significant detail in the ḥadîth has been glossed over by many. When the Messenger of Allah ﷺ approached the believing women to impress upon them the importance of giving ṣadaqah (charity) and repeating istighfâr (the asking of divine forgiveness), one of those women spoke up.
ʿAbdullah ibn ʿUmar narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “O womenfolk, you should give charity and ask much forgiveness, for I saw you in bulk amongst the dwellers of Hell.” A wise lady among them said: “Why is it, Messenger of Allah, that our kind is in bulk in Hell?”
Qâḍî ʿIyâḍ takes the time to speak about this woman. In the Arabic Text, she is described as “imra’atun jazlatun.”
What does ‘jazlah’ mean? Another analysis of the ḥadîth defines ‘jazlah’ as “dhât al-ʿaql, ra’iyy waqâr,” meaning, someone with intelligence, with an opinion based upon reason and rationale, and commanding respect.
This “imra’atun jazlah” was not merely content to hear this statement, but wanted to understand the reasoning behind it—and as Qâḍî ʿIyâḍ states, she demonstrates her intelligence in that she did not challenge the Prophet ﷺ in a disrespectful manner, but spoke up in a firm yet appropriate way. Nor does her question criticize the statement of the Prophet ﷺ, but instead, she seeks to further her own understanding of his statement.
In fact, her behavior embodies the ayah: It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. (Surat Al-A ḥzâb, 33:36)
Be Mindful of ‘Aql
Another interesting point that Qâḍî ʿIyâḍ makes is how the word ʿaql is defined and understood, especially in the context of this ḥadîth. Only one definition equates with the widely translated and assumed one of “intellect,” whereas he also mentions it as certain, specific types of knowledge, and also as one in possession of a surpassing, deep insight and the acumen to distinguish the true reality and nature of things.
The writer Azeez Muhammad Abu Khalaf further discusses the concept of “nâqis ʿaql,” and how it is taken out of context in this ḥadîth and infused with a implication that has no evidence whatsoever either in the Quran or Sunnah, namely, the claim that women are intellectually inferior to men.
In the Quran, the use of the word ‘ʿaql’ is generally related not to intellect in and of itself, but rather, it is employed as a device to push people to achieve a realization about Allah, the purpose of life, and so forth, to motivate them to work for their Hereafter, which is akin to how it is used in the context of this ḥadîth: To emphasize the severity of the matter at hand. Thus, it is a mechanism to galvanize the acknowledged faith of these women in the meritorious actions of giving ṣadaqah, voluntary charity, and increasing their petitions for God’s forgiveness, or istighfâr.
Ability vs. Responsibility
Furthermore, Allah’s Messenger ﷺ clarifies the ’naqsân’ (deficiencies) to which he refers and their causes, which turn out to be related solely to rules of Divine Law ( ḥukm sharʿî) as apply to women, specifically, regarding the issues of testimony and ṭa ḥârah, ritual purity, as the latter relates to ṣalâh, ritual prayer, and ṣawm, fasting.
The matter of testimony falls under ʿaql, as it is not a ritual act of worship, whereas ṣalâh (ritual prayer) and ṣawm (fasting) are acts of worship and therefore dînî, religious observances, that is to say, they are specific to the conditions stipulated for performing acts of ritual worship.
Even those who try to argue that women are inferior because their testimony equals only half that of a man’s are ignoring the fact that the Quranic ayah says simply so that one can remind the other (Al-Baqarah, 2:282), which is, properly, a matter (a commentary?) that speaks to the common societal need of social support for women (who are more likely to be vulnerable to duress), and also to the potential of societal deficiency in facilitating female social experience in the economic sphere. The point is these stipulations in no way comment on female intellect. There is no mention whatsoever of inferiority in any other way, especially with regard to intelligence, either in the Quran or the Sunnah.
As to the details of a woman’s testimony, it must be known that it is not a blanket ruling applicable to any and all situations. There are cases where a man’s testimony is rejected completely; for example, in matters of childbirth, nursing, and the like. In other cases, a woman’s testimony is considered equal to that of a man’s. The details of these situations are subjects for a discussion of fiqh.
Abu Khalaf also points out that those who try to use this ḥadîth to demean women are actually missing a significant aspect of the ḥadîth itself. How could the woman mentioned be described as “jazlah” if the Prophet ﷺ was actually telling women that they are not intelligent?
Text and Context
As for the second part of the ḥadîth (أغلب لذي لب منكن), which has been translated in varying degrees of similar negative connotations, it is an example which highlights the power of words.
The word ‘ghalaba’ in Arabic means ‘to defeat, to prevail, overpower, to overcome, to subdue’—basically, to have power over someone, the connotaions being of superiority and influence. Translations such as “robbing the wisdom of the wise,” “swaying the intellect of the most resolute of men,” and the like degrade women by implying that they are uniquely deceptive, cunning, and manipulative.
Yet—just as easily, and perhaps much more accurately—it can be translated as women being able to outwit and outsmart men, which, in turn, highlights that women are not, in fact, lacking in or inferior when it comes to the intellect. After all, how could someone stupid be able to outsmart “dhî lubbin”—a very intelligent, or wise, or resolute man?
Amusingly enough, there is a similar saying in Arabic (و شر غالب لمن غلب), the victor’s evil belongs to the vanquished, which implies that it is the one who is defeated who is blameworthy, not the victor.
Some explanations of this ḥadîth, including that of Qâḍî ʿIyâḍ, mention that the Prophet ﷺ uttered this statement as a compliment, an expression of admiration and affirmation of a character quality.
He also makes the interesting observation that the Prophet ﷺ spoke these words in a special address to the women of the Anṣâr, who were known for their outspokenness, intelligence, and their generally equal footing with their men. This is in contrast to the people of Makkah, whose men were domineering over their womenfolk. The Prophet ﷺ is thus, in a sense, acknowledging these women for the ease with which they are able to match wits with men, despite the latter’s general physical advantage.
It is important in studying this ḥadîth—especially in light of how it has been incorrectly translated and explained—to know that this incident took place on Eid morning, an occasion for joy and celebration. It is inconceivable that the Prophet ﷺ would say something deeply offensive, meant to hurt, or harmful to the psychology of those whom he was addressing (in this case, the believing women). Rather, it is known that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ spoke in the best of ways and most eloquently, and that when he spoke to the believers, he did so always in a manner inpsiring them to grow closer to Allah, not more distant.
Yet this point is rarely even given consideration in English explanations of this ḥadîth, misrepresenting it as all the more negative toward Muslim women.
Unalike vs Inferior
If women are, indeed, inferior in intellect, then how on earth can any woman be accepted as a scholar of Islam in any capacity? If women are inferior in intellect, then how can they be entrusted with the most important type of knowledge—that of Islam itself—endangering the souls of Muslims throughout the world?
Obviously, this is not the case. From ʿÂishah to Ḥafsah to Zaynab bint Abî Salamah—and the other wives of the Prophet ﷺ and Mothers of the Belivers, may Allah be pleased with them—to our women of learning today, women have been entrusted with the Sacred Knowledge of Islam. It is incontrovertibly evidenced, moreover, that the Prophet ﷺ and his male Companions fully recognized, acknowledged, and valued the worth of women, their intellect, and their contributions to the Ummah.
Perhaps one of the greatest evidences regarding Muslim women and their intellectual influence is the quote of the great ḥadîth expert Imam Al-Dhahabî that he had never come across a female ḥadîth transmitter accused of forgery (muttaham), or who had been discarded (matrûk) due to a high degree of unreliability. As formidable a figure in the field of ḥadîth, and specifically in the subspecialty of al-jar ḥ wa taʿdîl (the science of “criticizing and crediting” the reliability of ḥadîth narrators), Al-Dhahabî’s words are especially significant and meaningful.
In sum, it is enough to know that this ḥadîth does not, in fact, provide any evidence or even imply that women are intellectually inferior in any manner to men. Rather, what this ḥadîth does recognize and point out is what we already know from the Quran وليس الذكر كالأنثى, and the male is not like the female (Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:36), meaning that the Sharîʿah conditions and stipulations with regard to each can be specific to gender in matters of religious obligation and prohibition (as relates to ritual worship), and where Allah has specified requirements or constraints in His Law.
The words of the Prophet ﷺ in this ḥadîth 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 this 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 insulted or offended at the idea of a woman outsmarting them or proving herself to their intellectual superior, but the Prophet ﷺ is telling us that this is a fact.
Allah has created men and women as partners complementing each other in every way, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. The Quran and Sunnah emphasize that Allah created men and women to asssist one another, giving both duties and responsibilities to fulfill in obedience to Him. He did not create either one superior or inferior to the other but rather designated them as diversely responsible “shepherds,” as the Prophet ﷺ clearly states: All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
In the case of the ḥadîth naqsân al-ʿaql wa al-dîn, 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. Men and women are held equally accountable in the Sight of Allah, as human beings, each one responsible for using his or her intellect to distinguish between good and evil and to act accordingly.
A more appropriate translation may, therefore, go as follows: “Despite your incompleteness in ʿaql and dîn, I have never seen anyone more able to triumph over even the most intelligent of men.”
Calling Ourselves to Account
Thus, we can see the power of words, positive connotation, and the absolute necessity of having a holistic understanding of the words of Allah and His Messenger ﷺ.
In reading this ḥadîth—and others that have either been mistranslated or explained in a way that commingles them with the translator’s bias or misunderstanding—it is necessary for us to always have ḥusn al-·ann, the best of thoughts, for Allah and His Messenger ﷺ.
Allah is the Most Just and His Messenger ﷺ is a mercy to humankind. This we can never, ever forget. Should we allow ourselves to think otherwise, to assume that the Quran and the Sunnah contain injustice in any way—this is a victory for Shaytan over us, he who strives to make us despair or doubt the perfection of Islam.
It is also an important reminder to us of the power of words. Sadly, mistranslations and harsh (mis)explanations have been directly responsible for causing much spiritual trauma, especially in relation to Muslim women.
While we cannot directly accuse translators and writers of deliberately trying to cause harm, we do have to recognize the very real consequences and effects that their words and interpretations may have upon people and our Ummah. Moreover, it is imperative for us to recognize and to challenge the misinterpretations and consequences of these translations.
May Allah make us of those who seek the truth and find it and who are given not only knowledge but wisdom and understanding of His words and His Dîn. Amîn.
 Azeez Muhammad Abu Khalaf, وجوه الإعجاز في حديث ناقصات عقل
 Ikmâl Al-Muʿlim bi Fawâ’id Muslim; Kitâb Al-Imân; Bâb Bayân Nâqisân bi Naqs Al-Tâʿah; page 338, footnote 1.
 Hamdy Shafeeq, “شبهات حول المسلمات .. حقوق النساء في شريعة السماء”
 Mizân al-Iʿtidal, Fa ṣl: fi Al-Niswa Al-Majhûlât