Why are two female witnesses equal to one male witness in Islam?

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Farhan Iqbal, Missionary, Canada

Gender equality is one issue that critics of Islam bring up quite often. In order to paint the narrative that Islam discriminates and oppresses women, many critics bring up the example of testimony, alleging that the testimony of a woman is considered half of that of a man. The verse that is presented by them is:

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡۤا اِذَا تَدَایَنۡتُمۡ بِدَیۡنٍ اِلٰۤی اَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّی فَاکۡتُبُوۡہُ ؕ وَ لۡیَکۡتُبۡ بَّیۡنَکُمۡ کَاتِبٌۢ بِالۡعَدۡلِ ۪ وَ لَا یَاۡبَ کَاتِبٌ اَنۡ یَّکۡتُبَ کَمَا عَلَّمَہُ اللّٰہُ فَلۡیَکۡتُبۡ ۚ وَ لۡیُمۡلِلِ الَّذِیۡ عَلَیۡہِ الۡحَقُّ وَ لۡیَتَّقِ اللّٰہَ رَبَّہٗ وَ لَا یَبۡخَسۡ مِنۡہُ شَیۡئًا ؕ فَاِنۡ کَانَ الَّذِیۡ عَلَیۡہِ الۡحَقُّ سَفِیۡہًا اَوۡ ضَعِیۡفًا اَوۡ لَا یَسۡتَطِیۡعُ اَنۡ یُّمِلَّ ہُوَ فَلۡیُمۡلِلۡ وَلِیُّہٗ بِالۡعَدۡلِ ؕ وَ اسۡتَشۡہِدُوۡا شَہِیۡدَیۡنِ مِنۡ رِّجَالِکُمۡ ۚ فَاِنۡ لَّمۡ یَکُوۡنَا رَجُلَیۡنِ فَرَجُلٌ وَّ امۡرَاَتٰنِ مِمَّنۡ تَرۡضَوۡنَ مِنَ الشُّہَدَآءِ اَنۡ تَضِلَّ اِحۡدٰٮہُمَا فَتُذَکِّرَ اِحۡدٰٮہُمَا الۡاُخۡرٰی ؕ وَ لَا یَاۡبَ الشُّہَدَآءُ اِذَا مَا دُعُوۡا

“O ye who believe, when you take a loan, one from another, for a term, reduce the transaction to writing; and let a scribe record it in your presence faithfully. And no scribe should refuse to set it down in writing, because Allah has taught him, so he should write. And let him who undertakes the liability dictate; and he should fear Allah, his Lord, and not diminish anything therefrom. But if the person incurring the liability should be of defective intelligence, or a minor, or unable to dictate then let his guardian dictate faithfully. And procure two witnesses from among your men; and if two men be not available, then one man and two women, of such as you like as witnesses, so that if either of the two women should be in danger of forgetting, the other may refresh her memory. And the witnesses should not refuse to testify when they are called upon to do so.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch:2: V.283)

The bold portion of this verse above is often presented as “proof” to allege that, in Islam, the weight of two female witnesses is equated to the weight of a single male witness. What is further alleged is that this is due to Islam not considering women “wise enough” or “intelligent enough” to give proper testimony.

In this article, we shall focus primarily on the issue at hand, that is, witness testimony, and explore the issue comprehensively, without distracting ourselves with other verses or Ahadith which speak of gender differences.

First of all, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV, may Allah have mercy on him, has noted that these verses apply to financial matters only and do not at all mean that in all legal and other affairs, two women should be requested in case a male witness is not available. Secondly, he has listed the following important points which are necessary to fully understand their true import:

The verses do not at all require both women to testify

The role of the second woman is clearly specified and confined to be that of an assistant

If the second woman who is not testifying finds any part of the statement of the witness as indicative of the witness not having fully understood the spirit of the bargain, she may remind her and assist the witness in revising her understanding or refreshing her memory

It is entirely up to that woman who is testifying to agree or disagree with her assistant. Her testimony remains as a single independent testimony and in case she does not agree with her partner, she would have the last word. (Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, p. 198)

One female witness equal to one male witness

The first point that Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh has brought up is that the verse does not imply anywhere that two female testimonies are equal in weight to one male testimony. The relevant portion of the verse only implies testimony from a single female witness, not two. It is only when she requires assistance and needs any help in recalling something that she can employ the help of her assistant. Evidently, the role of the assistant is to “refresh her memory” as the verse notes, not to provide testimony in her own right.

If a single female witness had not been considered enough, or had been deemed deficient in some way, it would have applied to several other scenarios and circumstances. For instance, in Chapter 4, verse 16 of the Holy Quran, when witnesses are mentioned, the language used is gender-neutral and there is no qualifier given in regard to maintaining a ratio of one male witness to two female witnesses. It implies that a single female testimony is indeed equal to a single male testimony. The same is the case in terms of receiving testimony of a wife against her husband regarding inappropriate behaviour, as discussed in Chapter 24, verses 7-9. Here, too, the weight of a single female witness (the wife) is considered sufficient and equal to a single male witness (the husband).

Moreover, giving testimony in religious matters is far more important than giving testimony in worldly matters. When it comes to religious matters, such as those found in Ahadith, we find that one of the most common narrators is Hazrat Aishara, the wife of the Holy Prophetsa. Many other women have also narrated traditions from Prophet Muhammadsa. In none of these cases has a Muslim ever suggested that the testimony of a woman is not acceptable unless corroborated or confirmed by another woman.

In fact, many companions and others from the early days of Islam often consulted Hazrat Aishara in matters of religious significance. If the testimony of a single woman was only half of that of a man, none of the narrations from single a woman would have ever been accepted. Yet, they are not just accepted, but also revered. It is important to understand the significance of this matter. The verse under discussion, chapter 2, verse 283, is in relation to financial matters only, pertaining to worldly wealth, and these are not as important as religious matters, where a person’s salvation and connection with God is at stake. However, in every case – and there are hundreds of them – a single woman’s testimony about what the Prophet Muhammadsa said or did, is accepted without question!

The prime witness and the assistant

Commenting on Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV’srh four-point summary of chapter 2, verse 283, one critic has attempted to raise some doubts. For instance, he alleges that the Holy Quran does not have any evidence for the differentiation made between the “prime witness” and the “assistant witness”. He also asks why there is a need for a female witness in the first place? Further making an attempt to make his case, he questions why the English translation of the verse under discussion use the words, “either of the two women”, without identifying which one of the two is the main witness and which one is the assistant.

The problem is that critics who make such allegations do not have a good grasp of Arabic. It should be noted that the Quranic language is what is called mubeen – eloquent, articulate and powerful. Multiple meanings can be driven from a single phrase, even a single word. Keeping this in mind, we turn to the questions raised by such critics, which are directed towards the following phrase of the Holy Quran:

اَنۡ تَضِلَّ اِحۡدٰٮہُمَا فَتُذَکِّرَ اِحۡدٰٮہُمَا الۡاُخۡرٰی

The words translated as “either of the two women” are “ihdaa humaa” and they appear twice in the above phrase. A literal translation of ihdaa humaa is “one of the two women”. Consequently, a literal translation of the entire phrase above would be:

“If one of the two women should be in danger of forgetting, one of the two women may refresh the memory of the other woman.”

To make it easier and lucid for modern English readers, the translation writes out the full sentence as follows:

“If either of the two women should be in danger of forgetting, the other may refresh her memory.”

However, regardless of the above adjustment for easier reading, the phrase “ihdaa humaa” literally means “one of the two women” and has been used in other parts of the Quran such as the following verse:

فَجَآءَتۡہُ اِحۡدٰٮہُمَا تَمۡشِیۡ عَلَی اسۡتِحۡیَآءٍ ۫ قَالَتۡ اِنَّ اَبِیۡ یَدۡعُوۡکَ لِیَجۡزِیَکَ اَجۡرَ مَا سَقَیۡتَ لَنَا

“And one of the two women came to him, walking bashfully. She said, ‘My father calls thee that he may reward thee for thy having watered our flocks for us.’ So when he came to him and told him the story, he said, ‘Fear not; thou hast escaped from the unjust people.’”(Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.26]

Here, the translation does not require the adjustment to “either” and is written out as follows:

And one of the two women came to him, walking bashfully. She said, ‘My father calls thee that he may reward thee for thy having watered our flocks for us.’”

The word ihdaa comes from the root letters A-H-D (a-ha-da), meaning “one”. Hence, the literal translation of ihdaa is “one” and an implied interpretation is “either”. This does not mean that the translation, “either of the two women”, is wrong. It simply means that what Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh has concluded from the actual Arabic wording of this verse is perfectly valid and an accurate understanding and interpretation of this verse. In fact, it is closer to the literal meaning of the phrase ihdaa humaa.

What he has essentially argued is that the Quran does not directly say that either one of the two women can remind the other. The Quran instead says that one of the two women may remind the other. This may seem trivial in the English language, but it is an extremely important difference clearly seen in the original Arabic wording. Without having some rudimentary knowledge of Arabic, a person cannot truly appreciate this subtle difference.  

As far as the issue of identifying the prime witness and her assistant is concerned, the Quran has indicated this arrangement by adding the word “Al-Ukhraa” at the end of the phrase. The word “Al-Ukhraa” means, “the latter, ultimate, last, other” (Lane’s Lexicon).

Hence, the prime witness is pointed out in the phrase ihdaa humaa (mentioned at the beginning), and the assistant is qualified by using the phrase ihdaa humal-ukhraa (i.e., one of the two women who is the other/latter/last).

In fact, the wording of the full phrase even provides a chronology that further elaborates this issue. Dividing the verse into four portions, it goes as follows:

An-Tadhilla – if she forgets

Ihdaa humaa – one of the two women(Let’s call her Aisha)

Fa-tuzakkira – she may remind

Ihdaa humal-ukhraa – the other one among the two(Let’s call her Maryam)

In essence, the phrase is saying: “If Aisha forgets, Maryam may remind her.” This is something that a literal, plain reading of the Arabic verse of the Holy Quran easily reveals. Here, Aisha is the prime witness and Maryam is the assistant.

Why the need for an assistant in the first place?

Why has the Quran felt the need to have two female witnesses – one prime and one assistant – in financial transactions? Are women deficient in some way in regard to business? Are they considered less efficient in remembering numbers?

All these questions seem fair but draw from a lack of understanding of what the Quran is teaching at a broader level. It should be noted that there indeed do exist differences in the genders in terms of how they remember things. As a result, the premise of the Quran is indeed correct. Men and women remember things differently. While men have the upper hand in keeping certain types of memory, women have the upper hand in other types of memory.

Those who have researched this subject argue that in general terms, neither gender is superior in memory. However, subtle differences appear in the way things are remembered by men and women.

One researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, makes the following observation:

“The results were clear-cut. Males were more accurate and less suggestible about the male-oriented items while females were more accurate and less suggestible about the female-oriented items. This finding provided clear support for the hypothesis that females and males tend to be accurate on different types of items, perhaps indicating their differential interest in particular items and corresponding differential amounts of attention paid to those items.” (Who Remembers What? Gender Differences in Memory. Michigan Quarterly Review, 26, pp. 64-85)

It is quite remarkable that the premise the Quran uses for providing an assistant to the female witness is pointing to a memory difference between the genders, something that is only being researched and proven 1400 years after the revelation of the Quran. However subtle the differences, there is no denying that they do exist.

This brings us to the broader question of acknowledging gender differences which Islam speaks about. Islam teaches gender equality in the best sense, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of both genders, and not turning a blind eye to them.

All this does not mean that Islam teaches that women are deficient in their memories of certain items such as those related to financial matters. It only means that Islam creates a social climate which intends to empower and favour women.

Empowerment of women

By ensuring that a female prime witness has an assistant, Islam has empowered women and taught them to work together in the face of patriarchy. There is no denying the fact that patriarchy has always existed and many argue that even in the free societies of the West today, it continues to persist. In light of this fact of life, Islam has dismissed any notion that women should be deprived of being part of the process of witnessing financial transactions. At the same time, it has recognised that patriarchy may come in the way and discourage women from being part of such proceedings. As a result, women are told to go as a pair and not feel any intimidation in such proceedings. This however remains as an option for the prime witness, who, as pointed out earlier, may not choose to accept any help from the assistant witness.

Islamic social climate

Secondly, it must be noted that Islam is a religion where men and women do not interact in a free manner as is done in some cultures. Islam safeguards women and men from promiscuity and other evils by ensuring that there is some distance between the two in social gatherings.

All of this points to an Islamic social climate as an ideal for Muslim men and women to seek. As such, if a financial transaction is taking place where several men are involved, a single female witness may feel uncomfortable in such an environment, given the social climate that Islam seeks. Hence, she is empowered through the presence of the second assistant witness. It is essentially a supportive system which Islam seeks to establish not to oppress but to empower women. Due to the revelations brought about by the #MeToo movement in recent years, we are no strangers to the fact that women are sometimes exploited in certain situations, and feel more comfortable, relaxed, and empowered when they are in the company of other women. 

We must also acknowledge that the Quran was revealed initially to an Arab society where women were treated very badly and had no rights at all. It was necessary then to consider the circumstances of such women and to create the means for what Khalil calls “breaking down barriers for women in Islamic society”. A new civilisation was being born with the coming of Islam where women were going to enjoy equal status with men. This change was going to take great courage and efforts to challenge the norms.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is completely wrong to assume that Islam considers the testimony of a woman as half of that of a man. The one verse where this teaching is supposed to have come from does not imply this at all. It only speaks of a prime witness and her assistant, who may help her with some details if the prime witness deems it necessary. Such a teaching is there in Islam to help empower women as part of an Islamic social climate.

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