Does a Hadith Say that Women are Intellectually Inferior?

Moustafa Elqabbany
10 min readApr 23, 2021

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. May His blessings and peace be upon our master Muhammad, Master of Messengers, and upon his kinsfolk and companions, one and all. I testify that there is no god but Allah, alone and without partner, and I testify that our master Muhammad is His slave and messenger, whom He sent as a mercy to all worlds.


Born in Merv in the second Hijri century and residing in Baghdad, Bishr ibn al-Ḥārith was a man of leisure. One night, during one of his exuberant parties, a pious man knocked on his door and asked the slave girl who answered: ‘Is this the home of a freeman or a slave?’ She replied that it belonged to a freeman, of course. He said: ‘Had it belonged to a slave, it would have manifested the signs of servitude.’ He left, and upon inquiring, the slave girl told Bishr what had happened. He ran out of his house in such pursuit of the man that he neglected to wear his sandals. He cried out: ‘I am a slave! I am a slave!’ This was the beginning of his new life as Bishr al-Ḥāfī, or ‘Bishr the Barefoot.’

This essay is for slaves of Allah, those who submit to Allah and His messenger ﷺ. Allah the Exalted says: ‘The saying of (all true) believers when they appeal unto Allah and His messenger to judge between them is only that they say: We hear and we obey. And such are the successful.’ (Al-Nūr, 24:51) The position of believers regarding the words of Allah and His messenger ﷺ is to practice what they understand and to believe in what they do not understand with contentment and submission.

This essay presents a defense of the sound prophetic hadith, narrated by Bukhārī, Muslim, and others, and that is often misunderstood and mistranslated as: ‘women are deficient in intellect and religion.’ Given that the luminaries of our ummah did not shy away from invoking the zeitgeist of their times by referring to women’s ‘wetter’ temperaments — a frame of reference largely accepted at the time but not grounded in the Qur’an and Sunnah — what charge is there against one who intends to elucidate the literal purport of the words of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ in light of greater gender sensitivity? Furthermore, the defense presented herein makes fewer assumptions than many older works of tafsīr and hadith commentary, and it requires less cultural baggage. Having said that, Allah and His Messenger ﷺ know best what the Messenger of Allah ﷺ meant by his own words. This is literally an essay; i.e. an attempt. May Allah support the truth.

The Text of the Hadith

The narrations of Bukhārī and Muslim are presented below along with their translations. The justification for the given translations will be presented shortly after, in shā’ Allāh.

خَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ﷺ فِي أَضْحَى أَوْ فِطْرٍ إِلَى المصَلَّى، فَمَرَّ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ، فَقَالَ: «يَا مَعْشَرَ النِّسَاءِ تَصَدَّقْنَ فَإِنِّي أُرِيتُكُنَّ أَكْثَرَ أَهْلِ النَّارِ» فَقُلْنَ: وَبِمَ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ؟ قَالَ: «تُكْثِرْنَ اللَّعْنَ، وَتَكْفُرْنَ العَشِيرَ، مَا رَأَيْتُ مِنْ نَاقِصَاتِ عَقْلٍ وَدِينٍ أَذْهَبَ لِلُبِّ الرَّجُلِ الحَازِمِ مِنْ إِحْدَاكُنَّ» ، قُلْنَ: وَمَا نُقْصَانُ دِينِنَا وَعَقْلِنَا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ؟ قَالَ: «أَلَيْسَ شَهَادَةُ المرْأَةِ مِثْلَ نِصْفِ شَهَادَةِ الرَّجُلِ» قُلْنَ: بَلَى، قَالَ: «فَذَلِكِ مِنْ نُقْصَانِ عَقْلِهَا، أَلَيْسَ إِذَا حَاضَتْ لَمْ تُصَلِّ وَلَمْ تَصُمْ» قُلْنَ: بَلَى، قَالَ: «فَذَلِكِ مِنْ نُقْصَانِ دِينِهَا»
(صحيح البخاري، باب ترك الحائض الصوم، 304)

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ departed to the place of prayer during (Eid) al-Aḍḥā or al-Fiṭr. He passed by the women and said: ‘O community of women, give charity, for I have indeed been shown that you are the majority of Hellfire’s inhabitants.’ They (i.e. the women) said: ‘On account of what, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘You curse much and are ungrateful to your companions (i.e. husbands). I have not seen anyone with reduced [legal] capacity and religion so capable of eliminating a judicious man’s sagacity as one of you.’ They said: ‘What is the reduction in our religion and capacity, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘Is not a woman’s testimony like half of a man’s testimony?’ They said: ‘Indeed.’ He said: ‘That is part of the reduction of her [legal] capacity. Does she not refrain from praying and fasting when menstruating?’ They said: ‘Indeed.’ He said: ‘That is part of the reduction of her religion.’

(Bukhārī, Chapter on Menstruating Women not Praying, 304)

عن رسول الله ﷺ أنه قال: «يَا مَعْشَرَ النِّسَاءِ، تَصَدَّقْنَ وَأَكْثِرْنَ الِاسْتِغْفَارَ، فَإِنِّي رَأَيْتُكُنَّ أَكْثَرَ أَهْلِ النَّارِ» فَقَالَتِ امْرَأَةٌ مِنْهُنَّ جَزْلَةٌ: وَمَا لَنَا يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ أَكْثَرُ أَهْلِ النَّارِ؟ قَالَ: «تُكْثِرْنَ اللَّعْنَ، وَتَكْفُرْنَ الْعَشِيرَ، وَمَا رَأَيْتُ مِنْ نَاقِصَاتِ عَقْلٍ وَدِينٍ أَغْلَبَ لِذِي لُبٍّ مِنْكُنَّ» قَالَتْ: يَا رَسُولَ اللهِ، وَمَا نُقْصَانُ الْعَقْلِ وَالدِّينِ؟ قَالَ: «أَمَّا نُقْصَانُ الْعَقْلِ: فَشَهَادَةُ امْرَأَتَيْنِ تَعْدِلُ شَهَادَةَ رَجُلٍ فَهَذَا نُقْصَانُ الْعَقْلِ، وَتَمْكُثُ اللَّيَالِيَ مَا تُصَلِّي، وَتُفْطِرُ فِي رَمَضَانَ فَهَذَا نُقْصَانُ الدِّينِ»

(صحيح مسلم، باب بيان نقصان الإيمان بنقص الطاعات، 132)

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: ‘O community of women, give charity and ask (Allah) for forgiveness often, for I have indeed seen that you are the majority of the inhabitants of Hellfire.’ Among those present, a woman of sound judgment asked: ‘Why is it that we are the majority of the inhabitants of Hellfire, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘You curse much and are ungrateful to your companions (i.e. husbands). I have not seen anyone with reduced [legal] capacity and religion so capable of defeating a sagacious man as you.’ She said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, what is the reduction in capacity and religion?’ He said: ‘As for the reduction in capacity, the testimony of two women is equivalent to the testimony of a man. This is the reduction in [legal] capacity. She (also) spends multiple nights without praying and breaks her fast in Ramadan. This is the reduction in religion.’

(Muslim, Chapter on Faith Being Reduced Due to a Lack of Acts of Obedience, 132)

Issues Addressed by the Translation

This essay addresses three core issues that arise from the above hadith: the meaning of ʿaql (legal capacity), the meaning of nuqṣān (reduction), and the parallel structure of the two expressions. According to a linguistic analysis of this hadith, I argue below that the hadith’s parallel expression of women’s reduced capacity and religion are not a judgement about women’s intrinsic nature or intrinsic capacity, in contrast to common assumptions, but a reflection of legal prescriptions.

Perhaps the harshest blow that the discussion of this hadith deals to modern sensibilities is the misunderstanding that women have been created intellectually inferior to men. Regarding the word ʿaql, it is true that this word does mean ‘intellect’ in some contexts. However, separating psychological and spiritual terms from their context is irresponsible. While the word ʿaql itself does not appear in the Qur’an, the verb ʿaqala does appear in various conjugations. Thus, the Qur’an does not address ʿaql as a thing, but as a process. Furthermore, the verb ʿaqala in the Qur’an does not imply abstract intelligence, but a psycho-spiritual process that effects conviction or action, usually good, but sometimes bad (e.g. al-Baqarah, 2:75). The most basic meaning of the root ‘ʿaqala’ is ‘to bind’ or ‘to withhold’. In fact, the hadith-cum-proverb: ‘Trust in God but tie up your camel’ uses this very verb. Most references to the noun ʿaql in early Islamic sources refer to indemnity (diyah) due upon injury. Indemnity was so named because it was paid in the form of tied-up camels. The ʿaql is thus the faculty through which one makes things binding or protects and manages interests, whether one’s own or those of others. While a certain level of intellectual capacity is required to do this, a person’s ʿaql does not increase proportionally with their intelligence. A genius who commits suicide lacks ʿaql. Furthermore, a world-renowned physicist who is an atheist has less ʿaql than someone who struggled through middle school yet believes in Allah, His Messenger ﷺ, and the Last Day, and acts accordingly. The hadith being discussed specifically mentions witnessing financial transactions, a matter in which women have limited capacity. While that is but one example, as will be demonstrated below, the explicit wording of Muslim’s version, as well as the parallel structure of the hadith, seem to indicate that these are prescriptions. Prescriptions only apply to rulings, not intrinsic attributes. Thus, I have translated ʿaql here as ‘capacity’, which seems like a good fit, as it applies to both intellectual and legal domains.

As for nuqṣān (reduction), it is often confused with naqṣ (weakness or deficiency). The hadith explicitly mentions nuqṣān. Quoting directly from Tāj al-ʿArūs, Lane says in the entry for naqṣ:

Weakness of intellect: (M, TA:) and weakness with respect to religion and intellect. (TA.) You say, دَخَلَ عَلَيْهِ نَقْصٌ فِى دِينِهِ وَعَقْلِهِ [There came upon him a weakness in his religion and is intellect]: but one should not say ↓ نُقْصَانٌ [in this case]: (K:) app. because النَّقْص is “weakness;” whereas النُّقْصَانُ is only “a going away [of part of a thing] after [its having been in] a state of completeness.” (TA.)

Applying the above to the hadith in question, the implication here is that women are intrinsically complete but have been given a pass, or a reduction, in certain matters related to their transactional and religious capacities.

Regarding the reduction in religion, women do not pray or fast when menstruating because they are legally prohibited from doing so. Women are, in fact, physically capable of praying and fasting when menstruating. They refrain from doing so out of adherence to a legal prescription from the Lawgiver. Since the wording and context of women’s reduced capacity parallel the wording and context of women’s reduced religion, it suggests that women’s reduced capacity is also a prescription rather than a description. Interestingly, most commentaries on the hadith imply or explicitly state that the reduction in capacity is intrinsic while the reduction in religion is a prescription. Imam Nawawī (may Allah have mercy on him) states that the words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘This is the reduction in capacity’, found in Muslim’s narration, mean: ‘This is the sign of the reduction in capacity.’ He does not apply the same to the reduction in religion. This approach suffers from two shortcomings: it inserts words unnecessarily into a hadith, and it is inconsistent. When women do not pray or fast, that in itself is the reduction in their religion, and it is a prescription. The same holds to a woman’s testimony in business transactions equaling half of a man’s: it is not the sign of an intrinsic reduction in her capacity. It is in itself a prescriptive reduction to her legal capacity. Bukhārī’s wording does not conflict with the idea that both are prescriptions, for ‘fa-dhālika min nuqṣāni ʿaqlihā’ may mean either: ‘That is due to the reduction of her capacity’ or: ‘That is part of the reduction of her capacity’, the latter indicating that other prescriptive reductions exist. One might be tempted to argue that the Qur’anic injunction (found in al-Baqarah, 2:282) that mentions women’s testimony provides an intrinsic reason. This will be addressed next, in shā’ Allāh.

Responding to an Objection and Addressing the Elephant in the Room

It might be tempting to object to the above treatment of nuqṣān al-ʿaql as a ‘reduction in [legal or prescribed] capacity’ based on the Qur’anic injunction that the Prophet ﷺ referred to: ‘…And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember….’ (Al-Baqarah, 2:282) Here, the Qur’an is clearly stating that two women are required to replace a man as a witness due to one of them possibly forgetting the details of the transaction. Now, if we are to submit to the idea that women are forgetful in general, then accepting prophetic hadiths from them would be problematic. Clearly, prophetic hadiths are infinitely more important than financial transactions. However, there are no limitations or caveats specific to accepting hadith narrations from women. Imam Shāfiʿī (may Allah have mercy on him) says in al-Risālah: ‘Regarding Hadith, I accept one [male narrator] or a woman.’ The limited role of women’s testimony applies to financial transactions and (according to most jurists) criminal court. So the creed and devotional practice of Islam can be established through the testimony of women, but these same women have a limited role in financial transactions and a very limited role as witnesses to crime. This is as Allah intended.

The elephant in the room here is that Islam aims at women having reduced financial and public roles. For all their talk about the objectives (maqāṣid) of the Sharia, Muslim intellectuals seem to gloss over this. A woman’s financial testimony is half that of a man’s, as is her inheritance and the indemnity due to her heirs in the case of accidental killing. A woman cannot travel without a male relative or some legal substitute. A woman is due a dowry and financial upkeep. All of this is because Islam has divided the roles of men and women. There is no doubt that earning money and doing business are permissible for women, but that is not their role, nor is it the objective of the Sharia with regards to them. Allah the Exalted says: ‘Men are caretakers of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women)….’ (Al-Nisā’, 4:34) Some Muslim intellectuals seem intent on ignoring this, viewing every push in the opposite direction of the Sharia as ‘empowerment’. The reason for this is because human worth has been reduced to earning money. A woman’s role as the bedrock of family structure — the one who teaches the next generation morality, mercy, honesty, sincerity, sensitivity, and an appreciation for beauty — is undervalued. No one cares if our children perform wuḍū’ perfectly or weep when they pray. These things cannot be sold and do not help pad anyone’s bottom line.


Men and women form the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy of the world: the yin and yang. This balance in creation is part of the wisdom of Allah the Exalted: ‘And all things We have created by pairs, that haply ye may reflect.’ (Al-Dhāriyāt, 51:49) The irony here is that the age of feminism has done away with femininity’s fire, which itself has led masculinity to freeze over.

Moustafa Elqabbany
Amman, Jordan
11 Ramadan 1442 A.H. | 23 April 2021 C.E.