In Islam: Is One Male Witness=Two Female Witnesses?

GUEST ARTICLE

Hadith Studies

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).

Sura 45:5

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

3 thoughts on “In Islam: Is One Male Witness=Two Female Witnesses?

  1. Pingback: O valor do testemunho da mulher no Islão | Miguel: o site e o blog

  2. Interesting opinion.
    Consequent to the issues mentioned in the article —> The question arises – why has not more work been done for better English translations of hadith? Or maybe there has?

    Agreed that the original arabic text is the most accurate and translations will always have deficiencies and issues. No translation of Holy Quran can even begin to approach the original Divine Arabic. Yet, translations be they english, urdu etc. are invaluable to people all over the world. People should learn and understand arabic, but many people do not understand arabic and as such translations (even with mistakes and limitations) are of great benefit to millions around the world. At least through these translations, people can hope to benefit in their native language from the wisdom and beauty of the message of Holy Quran and the words of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Of course, people should always be made aware of the pitfalls of taking translations as a substitute for learning the original in the original language.

    English has now assumed great significance as a leading language of our times. Not just as a means of communication with the West, but also in our local communities. e.g. In Pakistan, there are many people who would peruse english translations rather than urdu. An increasing number of non-English youth and people across the world feel more at home with English be it in the form of communication, literature, academics.

    Which brings me to the point. English language has been around for a long while. So, why have there not been more concerted efforts to provide the public with more and more high quality translations by experts? People like Marmaduke Pickthall, M. Asad, Yusuf Ali … etc. have done a great service by providing English translations of the Holy Quran. Agreed that the translations have inherent limitations and there are human deficiencies, but at least, they tried to the best of their abilities to reach millions of people who otherwise would not have had access to these texts. Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and other major collections are considered the most authentic hadith collections, so why have not more efforts been made for better English translations? The translator should not only be well versed in English, but should also be an expert in Arabic. If dedicated and qualified individuals such as these, in concert with religious scholars make efforts, then I am sure that improvements can be made and better and better translations can emerge. Maybe such efforts have been made. I am not a student/researcher on this topic, so I can’t say what efforts have been made. There must be many individuals who have worked in this regard. But surely if qualified people working with experts in their fields co-ordinate their endeavours, translations which would benefit millions will emerge. A service not just to the Western world, but also to our own societies where English has emerged as a leading language of education. If respected religious scholars with dedicated translators make concerted efforts, then the finished translation will not only be more improved, but will also be more popular. People may be wary of just any translator and rightly so, what with the multitude of agendas and interpretations. But, if respected religious scholars are involved in the process, then people will have more confidence that no deliberate ill has been introduced into the translation.

    At least Mr. Muhsin Khan made an effort to the best of his abilities and may ALLAH (swt) reward him for his efforts. Surely there is room for improved translations. So, why are there not more qualified & competent translators in concert with respected religious scholars stepping up with a more intensified effort to provide better translations to a major global language as English? Many individuals have translated texts of hadith to English, but why not more individuals? I don’t know how many popular English translations of Sahih Bukhari exist. I believe Mr. Muhsin Khan’s is used exstensively by many publishers/bookstores/websites. If proper translators with proper experts make the effort, then more popular and crucially more accurate translations might emerge. In the absence of improved translations, people are going to peruse existing translations. If the next step on the translation ladder is not climbed, then people will have to make do with the existing standard.

    • Aslaaam o Alaikum
      In this world of armchair muslims, you have posed a very good question: Who will educate himself or herself in Arabic and English to the level of fluency and understanding that they can write out the translations in a succinct manner?
      …………Are you up to it?

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