The Testimony of Women in Islam
Shahadah [Testimony] in Arabic has many meanings, such as conclusive information, presence, inspection, a declaration of faith, oath or acknowledgment, and martyrdom.
Regarding the juristic meaning of this word, jurists have used the term ‘testimony’ in the recognition of a right, as well as in the case of death in the way of God [swt], and in an oath as in the case of Li’an.1 They also used this term to describe the giving of evidence by a witness in court, which is our subject matter. They have differed concerning the definition of testimony according to this meaning as follows:
The Hanafi scholar, Al-Kamal, defined it as: true information proved to be correct by saying ‘I witness such and such’ in court.
The Maliki scholar, Ad-Dardir, defined it as: informing the judge of what he knows, so that he may judge accordingly.
The Shafi’i scholar, Al-Jamal, defined it as: giving evidence against someone about something in favour of someone else by saying, ‘I witness …’
The Hanbali scholar, Ash-Shaybani, defined it as: giving information about that which one knows by saying ‘I witness … or I witnessed …’
The word shahadah is derived from sha-ha-da ‘to witness’. The eye-witness informs the judge about what he witnessed. This is one of the pleas whereby an allegation is proven.
Another misconception that critics repeatedly raise is the issue of giving testimony. They accuse Islam of degrading and belittling women. They frequently say that ‘Islam belittles women by making her testimony equal to half of that of a man.’
First of all, we have to understand that testimony is an obligation and a responsibility. When God [swt] facilitates this obligation and the responsibility of a testimony for a woman, He removes a hardship from her. It does not dishonour or belittle the status of women. We must also understand that the conditions which must be met by the witness are not based on sex, but rather on two other criteria:
1. The witness must be just and truthful, regardless of sex.
2. The witness must have some knowledge about the case that enables them to be aware of it and to witness it.
If it is proven to the judge that the witness is characterized as sympathetic and tender-hearted then his testimony will not be acceptable, as this indicates that his reaction to criminal issues and his ability to testify about such issues is weak or absent.
Other Facts about Testimonies
1. The testimony of a woman is accepted like that of a man in regards to seeing the crescent of Ramadan.
2. A woman’s testimony is equal to that of a man concerning the oath of Li‘an.
3. The testimony of a woman is accepted in issues pertaining to women. Ibn Qudamah said in Al-Mughni, ‘The testimony of a just woman is accepted in matters that men do not know much about, such as nursing, childbirth, menstruation, ‘Iddah [waiting period] and other similar cases. There are no disputes among scholars on this issue. He clarifies this ruling in another place saying, ‘The testimony of one woman is accepted in five matters: 1. childbirth 2. the cry of a newborn baby 3. nursing 4. conditions hidden under clothes such as virginity, and leprosy 5. termination of the waiting period [Iddah].’
4. The testimony of one woman is accepted in many cases. Ibn Qudamah said, ‘The testimony of one woman is accepted in every case where the testimony of women alone is accepted.’ ‘Uqbah Ibn Al-Harith asked the Messenger of God [pbuh] saying, ‘I married a woman, then a female slave came to me and said, ‘I suckled you both.’ Accordingly, the Prophet [pbuh] ordered them to separate. He said she is a liar. Then, the Messenger [pbuh] said, ‘Leave [divorce] her.’ Ibn Al-Qayyim commented on this saying, ‘This means that the testimony of one woman was accepted, even though she was a female slave.’ Ma‘ruf Ad-Dawalibi commented on this elegantly saying, ‘The Shari‘ah generally places more emphasis on the testimony pertaining to financial issues, by adding another man beside the first one in order to confirm his testimony and to remove any doubt. No one considers that this is degrading to men as long as this upholds the rights of people. Moreover, the testimony of a single man can never be accepted in even the most trivial of financial issues, whereas women excel men in terms of giving sole testimonies without men in more serious matters, such as being a witness to childbirth, which pertains to lineage and inheritance. Here, a single man’s testimony is not accepted in even the most trivial financial issues. This is an insightful response to those who accuse Islamic teachings of preferring men to women regarding testimony.’
5. The testimony of a woman is sometimes preferred to that of a man. For instance, cancelling a marriage contract is the husband’s choice as well as the wife’s choice if either discovers an undisclosed defect in the other. If their views differ in defining the defect, then there should be a reliable female witness whose testimony will be accepted by all sides.
6. Testimony is different from narration. The narration of one woman is accepted in every matter, even in Hadith. Prophetic Hadith have been narrated by women on the authority of the Messenger [pbuh], and have the same authenticity as those narrated by men. No one has rejected a woman’s narration because she is a female. Moreover, narrations concerning religious issues are more important than the testimony made in a trial. Ash-Shawkany said, ‘There is no precedent for a scholar to reject a woman’s narration just because she was a female. There are many narrations from women about the Prophet [pbuh] which cannot be denied by any scholar. Ibn Al-Qayyim said, ‘The Prophet [pbuh] never rejected any statement from a reliable person, whether in narration or as a testimony, but he accepted the witness of a just person in all matters that were witnessed. He also accepted the testimony of a single slave woman regarding nursing.’
The source of this misconception is the verse: ‘And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses – so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.…’ [Al-Baqarah, 2: 282] Critics confuse the term Shahadah [testimony] and Ishhad [Affidavit]. This verse is dealing with Ishhad [affidavit]. With Shahadah [testimony], the judge needs confirmation from a witness and this does not depend on sex, but only on the judge’s assurance of the truthfulness of the testimony, regardless of sex and the number of witnesses.
Once the judge is assured of the validity of the evidence, he approves the testimony of two men, two women, a man and a woman, a man and two women, a woman and two men, or a single man or a single woman. The sex of the witnesses, according to which the judge passes his ruling, has no effect on his decision.
The verse refers to the Ishhad [Affidavit] which means that the debtor uses this to confirm his debt. It does not refer to the type of testimony in which the judge rules between litigants. This verse addresses the debtor, not the judges. Moreover, it does not refer to all debtors, but it gives guidance and advice to a certain type of debtor in special cases where the debts have particular circumstances that are stipulated by the verse. These debts must be for an appointed term which is written down by a scribe who is known to be honest. Among the jurists who perceived this difference and explained it in detail are Ibn Taymiyah [661-728 A.H./1263-1328 C.E], his student, Ibn Al-Qayyim [d. 751 AH], and two recent scholars, Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abdu [1265-1323 A.H-1865-1905 C.E.] and Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut [1310- 1383 A.H /1893-1963 C.E.].2
Ibn Taymiyah and Ibn Al-Qayyim said the following about the evidence [al-bayyinah] upon which the judge decides and whose juristic and legal basis was deducted from the saying of Allah’s Messenger [pbuh], ‘Evidence must be presented by the one making the allegation and the defendant has to make an oath.’ [Al-Bukhari] Evidence [al-bayyinah] in jurisprudence refers to all things that reveal the truth. It can be accomplished by four witnesses or in some cases by three witnesses [as in the case of proving insolvency], or two witnesses, or even a single witness, including a single woman. Evidence can be revealed by abstaining from making the oath, or fifty oaths or four oaths, which can be revealed by the current condition. Thus, the Prophet’s [pbuh] statement, ‘Evidence [al-Bayyinah] has to be presented by the one who makes the allegation’ means that the claimant must present that which proves his claim. Once his truthfulness is proven, by whichever means, the judge decides in his favour. Thus, the criteria for evidence [al-bayyiinah] can be achieved by the testimony of one or more men. It can also achieved by the testimony of one or more women, depending on the specific type of testimony that the judge requires to issue a decision.
Ibn Al-Qayyim commented by saying, ‘The Qur’an does not state that a judgment must be passed by only two male witnesses, or one man and two women. God [swt] stipulates that two witnesses are to be brought by those who have [financial] rights in order to secure their [financial] rights with the number of witnesses. However, He does not order judges to pass their rulings according to it. Therefore, the judge can pass judgment in the event that someone refuses to give a testimony, or refuses to take an oath. Also, the judge could use the testimony of one woman, or of women without the presence of men. In these cases, the judge would further investigate the case in regards to the reputation, age, and number of those providing their testimony.3
Ibn Taymiyah justified the wisdom of making the testimony of two women equal to that of one man in financial issues, by arguing that women did not usually deal with these types of financial transactions in their social context. However, if a woman gained experience and fully understood these matters, then her testimony would be regarded as equivalent to that of a man. He said, ‘There is no doubt that the purpose of plurality is experience with finance. However, if a woman acquires such experience and her truthfulness is recognized, then the evidence [al-bayyanah] can be proven by her testimony and it is accepted in religious issues. Therefore, her sole testimony is accepted in certain situations. The testimony of two women and the oath of the claimant are accepted according to Imam Malik and a narration of Imam Ahmad.’ 4
The same view was mentioned by Muhammad ‘Abdu who justified the reason for the distinction between the number of men and women in the verse. He clarified that within the social context of the time, women typically did not attend meetings related to financial transactions or business, and so, they did not acquire considerable experience in that field. Historically, this social context is subject to development and change and does not generalize the inherent nature of women throughout the ages.
He then said that the interpreters of the Qur’an discussed this matter and attributed it to the mood, and said: ‘The reason for this is that women did not participate in financial dealings like men; not due to their nature of forgetfulness, but rather that they did not have experience in dealing with commutative contracts. The memory of a woman is not inherently weak but was considered to be related to her daily experience, and may have been regarded as stronger than a man’s memory in certain domestic matters with which she typically has more expertise. This is human nature; that the memory of both males and females is weak in areas that are outside their expertise or regular routine.’5
Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut agreed with the independent reasoning of Ibn Taymiyah, Ibn Al-Qayyim and Muhammad ‘Abdu. He said that when a woman’s testimony in the issue of Li‘an is equal to that of a man, it vindicates her capabilities and contradicts what the critics allege. He mentioned that the following verse, ‘And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women…’ [Al-Baqarah, 2: 282] does not refer to the testimony which a judge uses to pass judgment, but rather stands as guidance [irshad] to the ways whereby dealers can be assured of their rights at the time their transactions are made. This does not mean that the truth cannot be proven by the testimony of one woman, or by the testimony of women without men, or that a judge cannot pass judgment accordingly. What the judge needs is evidence [Al-bayyinah].
Ibn Al-Qayyim stated that Al-bayyinah, according to the Shari‘ah, is more comprehensive than shahadah [testimony]. Anything that reveals the truth is al-bayyinah by which a judge can pass judgment. For example, the judge passes judgment according to conclusive evidence, including the testimony of a non-Muslim if he is assured thereof.
Saying that the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man does not mean that she has a weak mind or is inferior to men. This is because, as Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abdu said: ‘Women typically did not participate in financial dealings or commutative contracts and were considered to be weak in these matters. However, in other things, like domestic matters, their memory was considered to be more reliable than a man’s because this was their area of expertise in most cases. It is natural that a person has a stronger memory in relation to the matters of his/her daily tasks.’
The verse addresses what was typical and familiar to most women at that time and is still the same for most women today who still do not participate in financial transactions as often as men. The participation of some women in these areas is regarded as an exception.6
Thus, the misconception about this issue has been refuted and it should be clear that critics are being unfair.