by Kaukab siddique, PhD
Weak Translation of Hadith Misleads Readers: A Comment on the Meaning of ‘Aql and Jariya
In his translation of Sahih Bukhari, Dr. Muhsin Khan translates hadith number 826 (in volume 3, section XVII, on Witnesses) as follows: “Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri. The Prophet said: ‘Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?’ The Women said, ‘Yes’. He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.” The Arabic is fazalika min nuqsan-e-aqaleha, which should be translated as: “That is owing to her lack of understanding.” The translation of ‘Aql as “mind” is incorrect. The term “mind” is a platonic concept, which refers to innate ability. ‘Aql is the word for understanding, sense and wisdom which is acquired through experience and development of educational abilities. The mind is fixed and unchanging; Understanding can be developed. The term “mind” has to do with the idea that some people are born with intelligence and some are not: In its essence it is a racist concept.
We can try to define the meaning of the word “aql” by looking at its usage in the Qur’an. It is used to refer to ability which learns from observation and which works though experiencing the wonders of God’s creation:
And of His signs is this: He shows you the lightning for a fear and a hope, and sends down water from the sky, and thereby quickens the earth after its death. Surely in that are signs for people of understanding (liqaumin-yyaqiloon).
The Qur’an 30:24
And the difference of night and day and the provision that Allah sends down from the sky and thereby quickens the earth after her death, and the ordering of the winds, are signs for people of understanding (liqaumin-yyaqiloon).
These verses are meant for the general audience of the Qur’an. Anyone who is willing to use his understanding and look at the heavens and the earth can perceive the underlying power, which makes the universe possible. These verses are not aimed at some special elite, which has a “mind” which others lack. Certainly women are not excluded from the audience of these verses. No honest commentator would be able to claim that the signs of God mentioned in these verses are not available to women because women are deficient in their “minds”! Any person, man or woman, can perceive the ayat (signs) of Allah and arrive at conclusions about God’s Oneness, Creativity, Power, and Nurturing Love.
Dr. Muhsin Khan has made a major blunder. He did not realize that the Holy Prophet (pbuh)was actually urging the women to gain understanding. He was not saying that they are deficient by nature and will always remain so! When a teacher says to a student: Your understanding of the book is weak, you are deficient in your analysis; think, don’t cheat, etc; the teacher is actually urging the student to gain the understanding which he/she lacks. Islam came to educate people, to raise them from out of the marshes of ignorance, not to condemn them.
If Dr. Muhsin Khan had looked at other hadith in the same chapter of Bukhari’s Sahih, he would have realized two things:
1. The holy Prophet did not reject the witness of one woman even as opposed to a man’s.
2. He did not think that women are deficient in their minds.
In hadith number 827 and 828 we are told that the holy Prophet abrogated a marriage on the basis of ONE WOMAN’S WITNESS who had testified that in their infancy she had suckled both the husband and the wife. The narration indicates that the male narrator did not want to accept the woman’s witnessing but the holy Prophet would not countenance his hesitation. (Incidentally the woman was black and a slave from the Era of Ignorance, which also indicates the revolutionary Islamic concepts of equality of all races and peoples along with equality of male and female.)
Further on in the same chapter of Bukhari’s Sahih, we have a lengthy narration of the slander which was spread against Hazrat ‘Ayesha (radi Allahu unha) by the hypocrites. In the narration we find Hazrat Ali urging the holy Prophet to ask for one woman’s witness and the holy Prophet going through the process of asking one woman without saying that two women are required. (The Qur’an then confirmed this witnessing by affirming the noble character of the blessed ‘Ayesha.) The words of the narration are:
“‘Ali ibn Abi Talib said: O Messenger of Allah! Allah has not put restrictions on you, and there are many women other than she; yet you may ask the young woman (Barera) and she will tell you the truth. On that the messenger of Allah, peace and blessing of Allah be on him, called Barera and asked her: ‘O Barera! Did you ever see anything that raised your suspicion? Barera said: No. By Allah who has sent you with the Truth, I have never seen anything wrong in her except that she is young and sometimes sleeps after having kneaded the dough and the goat comes and eats it.
On that day the messenger of Allah, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, stood up to give the khutba and asked the people to support him against Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul. The messenger of Allah said:
Who will support me against that person who has hurt me in the matter of my family? By Allah I know nothing but good about my family, and they have accused a man about whom I know nothing except good and he never entered my house except in my company.”
Those who have read their hadith books carefully know that Barera was a freed slave woman. In fact, she had been freed by Hazrat ‘Ayesha and used to spend her time with Hazrat ‘Ayesha as her companion, friend, and helper. In both hadiths the witness of one woman is accepted by the Prophet (pbuh), and the question of their ‘deficient mind’ is not raised. The reason for acceptance was that Islamic education had given women mental maturity and understanding. By the time the slander against Hazrat ‘Ayesha occurred, the Muslim community had strengthened its roots.
When the verse about two female witnesses was revealed in Sura al-Baqarah, the Islamic community had just begun in Medina. Our male commentators have built their weak position on Sura al-Baqarah while completely ignoring Surat un-Noor where Hazrat ‘Ayesha’s example was used by Allah to indicate the equality of males and females before the Law for all times to come.
Dr. Muhsin Khan has also slipped in his translation of the word jariya. He translates it as “woman-servant” which though better than laundi (female slave), as some Urdu language translators put it, is still off the mark. The word jariya simply means a young woman or girl.
Barera was not a slave or a servant. (Bukhari’s Sahih attests that the holy Prophet’s household did not have a servant, male or female) She had been freed by Hazrat ‘Ayesha. Somehow Dr. Khan could not see that the word jariya occurs three times in hadith 829 referring to Hazrat ‘Ayesha herself.
(As Hazrat ‘Ayesha points out, she was a young woman at that time and weighed very little; hence the camel driver did not know if she was sitting in the curtained seat atop the camel or not and moved on without her.)
Thank goodness Dr. Khan does not claim that Hazrat ‘Ayesha was a slave girl too! I hope he will look up the story of Barera and find out that she had been freed. (Freed slaves often lived with those who had freed them in a system of wilayya because they had no family systems of their own.)
I am not critiqing all of Dr. Khan’s translations. Readers however should notice how many different factors could come in to create misgivings and misunderstanding about Hadith.
We all have much to learn. Those who are translating holy books into English are often very deficient in their English; however, they are not willing to face the fact that they are deficient in their understanding of English. Inshallah, we can learn from each other. Let them tell us where we make mistakes in Arabic, and let them listen to us where we point out their mistakes in English.
The language of the people is an essential vehicle for the dissemination of a message. The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic to a people who spoke Arabic. Similarly, people who can speak and understand the idiom of the language of the American people must convey Islam in America.
And if We had sent the Qur’an in a foreign tongue, they would have surely said: if only its verses were expounded (so that we might understand). What! I foreign tongue and an Arab?–Say to them (O Muhammad): For those who believe it is a Guidance and a healing; and as for those who disbelieve, there is deafness in their ears, and it is blindness for them. Such are called to from afar.
The Qur’an 41:44