Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is one man really worth two women in Islam?

One of my readers posted a valid question about some legislation that is in Syria stipulating that two women are required for a testimony to be accepted in the place of one man. The summary of what I am saying is that this is no longer necessary, and that to do so is not a contradiction of Islam if we extract the correct rationale behind the Qur'an's stipulating that it be so. I am not an authority on the matter, and if I find a more convincing reason than my arguments then I'll accept it, but my search has not yielded anything convincing. Below is my response:


Saint,
The matter of requiring two women in place of one man for witnessing the signing of legal documents has as its origins Islamic law. At first glance it seems odd from a modern perspective that two women are needed whilst only one man's testimony will suffice. There is the uncomfortable implication that the woman is somehow less important than the man, or is only half the moral worth of a man. This can be a difficult situation for someone to justify, so what is the justification used for it apart from the well known Qur'anic stipulation?

Well the basis for this stipulation is taken from inheritance law. Whilst a man is under an explicit duty to provide for his female relations, the woman is under no such duty. When the inheritance is to be distributed, it is to assist the male in providing for these relations. The female has no obligation to spend her inheritance on anybody but herself. Contrary to popular Muslim belief, this does not mean that the man should exercise dominance over the woman. In fact, far from being an advantage, it should in reality be a burden, and a proper Islamic court would be much more sympathetic to the woman than the man who falls short of his obligation, in order to maintain equity between the two. The economic stipulation imposes a duty and not a discretion, and the duty requires economic support, without any reciprocal gratitude, obligation or obedience required by the wife, mother, sister or daughter. It is important to note this often misused inheritance clause which is given as an excuse for misogyny and male dominance. The legal position is clear but there is a lack of executive will to make this happen because there is no independent judicial system in the Arab world to ensure this happens.

Now, how does this relate to the case of witnessing a document? We still are not told why two women are required for testimony whilst only one man will do. Well firstly, is it any man whose testimony should really matter? I am not familiar with the precise legal text in Syria's case, but in Islam, which I am taking to be the basis for this curious legislation, the one man should be Muslim, and a man whose testimony is respected amongst his peers, with a sound repute. They must also be free men and of sound mind and independent judgement. So far so good, this is similar to Western legal requirements for an acceptable testimony in a court or tribunal.

The same requirements are needed for women, but again, why two instead of one? I had a brief search on Islamic sites on the internet and found the answers to be mostly ridiculous, unconvincing and based on assumptions and generalisations which are actually quite insulting. The only reason I could find in the Qur'an or by consulting friends who know more than I do is that at the time Islam first spread the world was much more patriarchal than it is today, but the reasons for requiring two women are similar to those behind the inheritance laws, but with a different justification. Where in inheritance it was to impose an obligation upon men to look after their female relations when required to do so, in testimony the most important factor is truth, and the safeguarding of truth. If we accept the same requirements for a man testifying as we do for a man inheriting, and we see that the requirements for a man's testimony to be accepted are that they be Muslim, free, independent and of sound judgement, we obtain the criteria for what an acceptable witness should be. When the Qur'an stipulated that two women were required in the place of one man, it is not because Allah means they are mentally deficient to men, or of less moral worth, but that it could not be taken for granted that a woman would not be influenced by her husband, father or brother, either due to economic or direct physical coercion. There is an interesting example we can draw upon, which is when the Prophet Muhammad would send letters to the Roman and Persian kings, the letter would state "Become Muslim and you will be saved, Allah will give you two rewards". By two rewards it is implied that the first is for themselves as human beings, the second reward is because they had a responsibility to the people in their empires, who would be more likely to become Muslim.

The rationale we can extract from this is that under a system of obligations and duties, there were situations which required the testimony of two women rather than one. Today, this requirement does not necessarily have to hold if it can be proven that the person is independently making the judgement and is of sound character, this does not need to contradict the Qur'an or its assumptions.

We must remember that human society has only really accepted complete sexual equality in the last 100 or so years, but it is known that in times of civil war, strife and general societal breakdown that females are more vulnerable to exploitation than men. There is no reason to believe that the Qur'anic passage is no longer relevant, so whilst an exception to the rule can exist without compromising Islamic values, there is no danger that the exception can swallow the general rule.

Sorry for the long post, but I thought I'd clarify this quite sticky topic with a genuine and honest response that is a)not insulting to the intellect or to women, and b) to provide a response to people ignorant enough to think such a stipulation is part of a perceived misogyny allegedly inherent in Islam.

Salam

26 comments:

Princesse de Clèves, islamogauchiste said...

"We must remember that human society has only really accepted complete sexual equality in the last 100 or so years."

In France, for example, women were not allowed to vote before 1945. In the 1950's they could not even sign a check without their husband's approval.
It is also well known that in the United Kingdom till as late as 1882 (1st Married Women's Property Act passed by Parliament) a married woman could hold no property of her own, independently of her husband.
While in so-called misogynist Islam, since the very beginning (622), any property that a woman might acquire by her own effort belongs to her independently of her husband.

Chris said...

Hi,
I am going to write down the impression we get in Syria, with a little added stuff i assembled by experience : D, if i am wrong in anyway i would like a reply.
First of all we must agree that the woman’s mind is different than a man’s mind, that’s for sure. The male tends to have different interests and different roles in the human society. The most simple and mundane example and proof of this is that general girls prefer pink and hearts while general boys prefer cars and less springy colors etc.
After agreeing to that, we can make out that men (at least in general, or 98% of the world :P) are the income of the family, not just in money and are mainly the ones that go work in business and in naked society, they also take the protective job. Women are ( also in general) more likely to be the ones that stay at home (ever heard "stay at home mom", people say that for a reason) and has her mind on kids and food and fashion and what ever woman tend to have their minds at.

saint said...

I’m hearing a lot of “contrary of popular Muslim believes” from so many muslims, so what is real and what is not, or how much are real and how much are not. It seems to me that it is extremely easy to blow up all the Islamic inheritance law by only sending the female to work; this would remove the basis built on. While Islamic authorities are standing still like stone and can not touch on these facts. Even if that is the basis you said it built on, was that bases apply across the board of that historical period that women did not work or only apply to specific area. I have seen very simple life of peasants families in Syria for example, women were in the field all day working, where this coming from?

Your explanation raises more questions than answers.
Is Islam is fixed theology and rules or a changing theology and rules. Does what apply to specific period apply for the current time and does what apply for all societies the same.
In fact any comparable study will see completely different understanding of this theology, the recent Malaysian grumble about using the word Allah by Christians is evidence as it known to me it is an acceptable norm in Arabic societies.

I think if you chose any variable from above you will cancel large segment of Islamic body and it seems to me that they need simple principal to work under and many should keep their mouths shut and stop talking in the name of the Religion. The question is does it look that all sects, factions, school of thoughts, sunni Shiaa can find those principals, in my mind it is impossible.

أُمنيّة said...

"Become Muslim and you will be saved, Allah will give you two rewards"

as far as i know , the two rewards is because they believed in Allah twice, and followed two prophets , Jesus and Mohammad. according to Islam , Christians who convert to Islam are to be rewarded twice , once for following Jesus and believing in him and the second if they were willing to convert to Islam and believing in Mohammad.

be back

Maysaloon said...

That's a good point Omnia, but wasn't the same message passed on to the Persians too? Thanks for your correction.

Maysaloon said...

Saint,
I don't see Islam as some form of inflexible rules or doctrines.In fact it might not even be for every time and place, it is there as a guide to help us reach Allah. When you try to make all Muslim's follow the same instructions and the same details, you are forcing them to follow doctrine. You should let Muslim's disagree, be as strict or as relaxed as they want, as long as they say la ilah ila Allah, Muhammad Rasoul Allah.

Chris said...

I totally disagree with the Maysaloon when he wrote 'you should let Muslims disagree ----->>>>"
Just because someone says La Ilah Ila Allah Muhammad Rasool Allah does not mean he has the given intentions of begin a Good Muslim or anything close to that matter. And not everybody who calls himself Muslim is really a Muslim, or acting in the interests of Islam, i can not emphasize this enough! Plus, one of the most strongest and very cool (at least in my opinion, and what i got from the Quran) properties of Islam is Unity. All Muslims should be united, as said in the Quran and by the Prophet, why else do we call each others Brother and Sister? Unity really is the key for alot of great things in life. Imagine a united arab world nonetheless a united Muslim people! Islam is One. There are no others.

Lirun said...

i like ur approach.. at least as you describe it here

saint said...

“it is there as a guide to help us reach Allah”
Is the emphasis to reach Allah is on Muslims or the whole world? Is this a private matter or a common one should be applied on humans? The question becomes why not the emphasis on the principals that Islam brought to humans instead on the name or that specific profit.

Your answer is wonderful but most Muslim stuck in time, don’t you think? I did not expect it from you, but this make you a one man show in this universe and entail you to be critic of religious stone figures and ideas as critic of seculars.
In life we have seen honest people and good hearted people from all religious or not, if someone sees that and believe in God, he should right away realize that there are principals embrace human not specific religion.

Maysaloon said...

The emphasis is on the whole world to reach Allah...

Maysaloon said...

Chris,
I disagree with what you are saying greatly. In fact that route is incredibly dangerous because the unity you speak of is one that you will impose, rather than one which is the result of a convergence. People are different, with different understandings and motives and none is capable of discerning these more than Allah. If you put yourself in the position of judge on what people truly believe in and who is truly a Muslim, you create a dangerous position of power that is open to abuse. For that reason I am wary of your argument and choose a decentralised Islamic society of peers and equals before Allah, with no one rigid dogma binding all.

Salam

midwinterspring said...

Maysaloon,

To add to your comment to Chris, I would point out that pluralistic understandings of Islam have always been the de facto historical norm. Except perhaps in the time of the Prophet -- salallahu aleyhi waselaam-- the ummah has never been in full agreement. Where unity exists it is largely only because it has been imposed retroactively.

Chris said...

I really dont get where you got the "position of power' from. My idea was the exact opposite. Plus in Islam, no human alive is a higher rank than another, only in deeds. All Imaams for example are equal, not like we got a christian pope. Islam, the real one is not formed of opinions especially human ones, is what God SWT told us and what the Prophet (s) taught us. Period. Of course everybody has his her own intentions and tendencies but Islam is not something human made its Gods religion to us on earth.

Rick said...

If God's book is so perfect, purely the almighty's words, we do not need someone to explain this long and yet perplexed.

Maysaloon said...

Rick,
I can see you are a man who holds himself in very high regard.

Chris said...

midwinter
U see the 'except' you have written, that was when Islam was 100 % on the working path, after Sala Allah aleyhi wa selam died things started going awry, the enemies of Islam didnt die with the Prophet, everything happens for a reason but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to fix them. They made sects, which the Prophet warned us about and told us that at the end of time there will be 73 ( i am not sure of the real number, its a hadith i heard, mostly forgot)Islamic sects, and maybe thats the only reason why i actually even consider sects parts of Islam, If it wasnt for this hadith i probably wouldn't.
In summary, just because we cant make everyone united (which, as i pointed out earlier, is a very strong factor for victory) doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Its like not spreading the word of Islam just because its not up to us but up to God to make a person go into Islam
In reply to Rick,
I dont understand what he meant by we do not need someone to explain this long and yet perplexed.

midwinterspring said...

Chris,

The problem with what you are saying now is that it leaves us with a dualism between Islam as we actually interpret and practice it and Islam as revealed by God and His Messenger -- salallahu alayhi wasalaam. There is no getting over such a gap, since the only way we ever encounter these revealed sources is through interpretation. If there is only one true Islam and it's the one that is independent of all our various attempts to understand the Qur'an and the Sunnah then, of necessity, none of us has any share in it. But clearly this is not a desirable position to hold, so it may be best to go back and revise the assumptions that lead to it.

Chris said...

I really think my idea isnt connecting with you, maybe its my newbie writing. There is no 'dualism' in Islam. Its one. Again. One. What u call 'interpretations' might be what u mean by some of the new rulings, like smoking and etc.. stuff that werent around when Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasalaam) was around. We use 'interpretations' only because our scholars need to get the full meaning from the Quran and Sunnah. I dont want to make presumptions but are you Shiite? Just curious,if i may get pardoned. I think there was a quote 'With every lie there is at least a grain of Truth', i am in no place ot decide whether anything is right or wrong, for me i just follow the Quran and Sunni, but i really think those are the correct Islam, nothing invented, i hope i am connecting well. As for the 'assumptions' , i don't have any. I am a believer, i am not always willing to share my thoughts but my beliefs are to the public benefit. Allah knows best. In the end i think that we should at least have unity with each others and Muslims, La Ilaha Ila Allah Wa Muhammad Rasool Allah. Correct

Maysaloon said...

Chris,
Isn't your conclusion precisely what triggered off your protests earlier? :) it just seems that we are back where we first started, which is precisely where we needed to be in the first place! Sub-han Allah, two Muslims in a room, three opinions.

Chris said...

Lol, i dont get it, u have to be more direct with me. I gave only one opinion. What are u implying? I personally agree with the part "seems that we are back where we first started" Cause i dont feel u guys are understanding me :)

Chris said...

Also, i am not sure if u read my tweet, but dude are u going to keep the double comment i made?

midwinterspring said...

Chris,

I think you are connecting just fine. I don't think there is anything here to have a prolonged debate about, I am essentially only encouraging you to recognize the role that interpretation plays in all human understanding. You reintroduce what I was referring to as dualism with your use of the term "invented," which you seem to see as coextensive with interpretation. Thus, there are the real, genuine, true meanings we get from the Qur'an and the Sunnah, and then there is everything else, which is invention (though you seem to acknowledge that not all invention is bad). But, I mean no offense here, this is a rather naive view to take of interpretation. Whenever we read a text or, indeed any symbol whatsoever, we do so through interpretation. Texts do not implant their meanings directly in our minds. We reconstruct their meaning through the interpretive practices we have inherited culturally and socially. Nor do we in Islam have the benefit of the interpretive ghost in the machine provided by some popular Christian conceptions of the holy spirit.

Indeed, it is for this very reason that the interpretive methods of the Ulema are so important for us, as they provide us with essential interpretive methods for deriving meanings from texts that are so distant from us in terms of the discourses in which they were revealed. The Qur'an is eternal, but we have to do the work to determine what this eternal message means for us. To deny this is simply to arbitrarily assert that whatever particular conclusions we have reached about the meaning of the Qur'an are the only metaphysically real meanings. And this becomes problematic for the reasons Maysaloon pointed out above.

p.s. No, I'm not a Shiite, and I must say I'm rather curious what lead you to reach such a conclusion.

Safiya Outlines said...

Salaam Alaikum,

I'm just going to highlight this quote of Midwinter spring's:

The Qur'an is eternal, but we have to do the work to determine what this eternal message means for us.

because I feel this quote puts something rather complex in a beautifully simple way.

Chris said...

I personally dont think i am connecting, but i will let this debate "not get too prolonged" because it seems that we are just opening new debates o_O As for the interpretations, i totally agree with u, i never denied that, i actually supported it (this is one of the reasons why i think we arent connecting.) But i want to understand what interpretations have to do with what i pointed out in the beginning. Inventions are bad. Interpretations and rulings based on the foundation of Islam are good.
p.s. I am thanking God for your p.s. :P

Chris said...

I personally dont think i am connecting, but i will let this debate "not get too prolonged" because it seems that we are just opening new debates o_O As for the interpretations, i totally agree with u, i never denied that, i actually supported it (this is one of the reasons why i think we arent connecting.) But i want to understand what interpretations have to do with what i pointed out in the beginning. Inventions are bad. Interpretations and rulings based on the foundation of Islam are good.
p.s. I am thanking God for your p.s. :P

Chris said...

By the way maysaloon, u can also delete the comment about deleting the comment u deleted. Sorry if i am intruding but i think that that comment will only confuse new readers. You dont have to post this comment either, i would have contacted u through email or something but i dont have ur contact so i am using the comments instead