Gender Equality and the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: Reinterpreting the Concepts of Mahram and Qiwāma



Reinterpreting the Concepts of Maḥram and Qiwāma1

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir

We do not say, and any reasonable person cannot say, that women are above men or lower than men by a degree or more. But we have seen people who revile [women] the worst of revilements and disdain them and deny them most of their rights. – Al-Jahiz (d. 869)2

1. Introduction

As I was trained in an Islamic boarding school by the religious scholar Husein Muhammad, who has later become known as an emerging Indonesian Muslim feminist,3 I have for quite some time been disturbed by the ambiguity of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in dealing with issues related to women. For example, on the one hand, Islamic jurisprudence, referring to the Qurʾan (2:282), considers two female witnesses equal to one male witness in terms of testifying for financial contracts. On the other hand, the sciences of the Hadith (ʿulūm al-ḥadīth) prescribe that one woman is equal to one man in terms of the reception and delivery of ḥadīth (pl. aḥādīth, hereafter simply ‘hadith’),4 the second source of Islamic teachings. Since testifying about financial contracts is not nearly as important as testifying regarding traditions that have been passed down to generations of Muslims, the opinion disqualifying a lone woman from giving evidence in the case of financial contracts is questionable. However, this inconsistency within Islamic jurisprudence in dealing with women’s issues opens up possibilities of rereading the texts of the Hadith in order to argue for justice for women.

The images of women in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) are established by Muslim theologians far more often using the Hadith than the Qurʾan, which deals mostly with principles of Islamic teachings.5 Nevertheless, reinterpretations of Islamic texts, establishing what Amina Wadud calls a ‘tawhidic paradigm’6 underpinning gender equality in Islam, have proliferated with regard to the Qurʾan, but have largely passed over the Hadith, even though the Hadith has played a very important role in prescribing Islamic teachings throughout Muslim history.

Some scholars, like Asma Barlas, dismiss the Hadith as a possible source for a paradigm of gender equality in Islam as it has been corrupted by political interests, and it has texts that contradict each other and are influenced by Mediterranean cultures as well as by Judaism and Christianity.7 Others dismiss the the Hadith as being of minor importance compared to the Qurʾan. Wadud, for instance, concentrates her ‘gender jihad’ exclusively on the Qurʾan, which is, she argues, ‘congruent with the orthodox understanding of the inerrancy of Qurʾanic preservation versus historical contradiction within the Hadith literature’.8

To the contrary, as I will be arguing in this chapter, the Hadith is very important to advocacy for gender equality in Islam, for the classical sciences of the Hadith (ʿulūm al-ḥadīth) and the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh) offer a hermeneutical basis for a contextual reading. As the Hadith has played a very important role in prescribing Islamic teachings throughout Muslim history,9 its reinterpretation for the purpose of arguing for gender justice should be a central concern in the face of contemporary changed conditions of Muslims’ lives. While many progressive Muslims have established a hermeneutical basis for reading the Qurʾan for gender justice, this chapter supports those who call for a rereading of the Hadith to encourage equal relationships between women and men.10

For the purpose of rereading, this chapter takes the Hadith to be a scholarly effort (ijtihād) by classical ʿulamāʾ to shape and interpret the concept of following (ittibāʿ)the Prophet. The ijtihād here is not only about the interpretation of the Hadith and the implementation of its meaning, but also its transmission from one generation to another and its collection in the period of codification of early Islamic knowledge. The transmission, as well as the collection of hadiths, should, accordingly, be perceived as the ijtihād of the collectors within the historicity of their context-based understanding. Moreover, works of interpretation of hadiths are obviously perceived as human scholarly efforts by the majority of scholars and jurists.

Within the complex grey areas of ijtihād, a contextual reading of the Hadith as a hermeneutical process should be applied to develop the ethical guidelines of Islamic family law known as the ‘objectives of Islamic law’ (maqāṣid al-sharīʿa) and the ‘logic of the rulings’ (ʿillat al-aḥkām). As regards this reading, many progressive Muslims have noted that the Qurʾan emphasises the universality of the principle of justice. As it relates to the relations between women and men, this principle is seen in at least three aspects. First, women and men are created from the same entity (4:1), and for that reason they are of equal standing. Second, both women and men have the obligation to live good lives and to do good works (16:97). Third, women and men have the same right to be rewarded for their works (33:35).

The suggestion of rereading the Hadith in this chapter will be based on the universality of this principle of justice as the ethical purpose of Islamic teachings. Accordingly, this chapter calls for a reinterpretation of the Hadith that should be made in line with those aspects established by the Qurʾan to ensure the principle of gender justice. Arguably, as mentioned by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), the ideals of justice and the welfare of the community are the foundational principles of Islam.11 Thus, interpretations that are contrary to the principles of justice must be challenged and rectified. In this work, reinterpretation also highlights the inevitable historicity of the Hadith, that is, the essential, intrinsic, socio-historical embeddedness of much of the content.

2. What is the Hadith?

The term ‘Hadith’ is usually defined as an action, in the form of words, deeds or manifestations of approval, that can be traced to the Prophet Muhammad. Other terms used to refer to Hadith include sunna, khabar and athar. The term sunna is most common, which is why Hadith is sometimes also known as the Sunna of the Prophet. The literal meaning of sunna is ‘way’ or ‘road’, and it is therefore often translated as ‘tradition’ in the sense of a course of action commonly followed by the Prophet. Khabar literally means ‘news’, and athar means ‘heritage’. The term ḥadīth itself means ‘something that is new’ or ‘something that is reported’, but it has come to refer to something reported from or about the Prophet.

Later scholars of Hadith, particularly after al-Shafiʿi (d. 819), arrived at a consensus that the Sunna is identical with the corpus of hadiths, and refers only to the Prophet, whereas in early Islam the Sunna had been more broadly defined as the ways of the Prophet, the Companions and the community (‘the people of Medina’). Scholars of Hadith, pioneered by al-Shafiʿi, then proposed an interplay between the Qurʾan and the Sunna in shaping Islamic teachings, and argued that the former should be explained and interpreted by the latter. Because of this development, the majority of Muslim scholars were convinced that the Hadith, as synonymous with the Sunna, was one of the authentic sources of Islamic rulings and teachings.12

However, in the hierarchy of sources the Hadith ranks second after the Qurʾan. The Hadith serves as a clarification of the revelations contained in the Qurʾan. Insofar as the Hadith is also regarded as revelation according to some scholars – though it is problematic to have revelation other than the Qurʾan – it is perceived by the majority as an indirect and secondary source, the accuracy of which is not necessarily guaranteed. The accuracy of the Qurʾan as the very word of God as revealed to Muhammad, by contrast, is unquestionable, because the chain of transmission of the Qurʾan from the time of its revelation to Muhammad, to its being written down in definitive form, included a large number of transmitters of the same text in each generation.

There is less certainty that the Hadith contains accurate reports of the Prophet’s actual words and actions, simply because the number of individuals in each generation who orally relayed those reports from one person to the next is smaller. In most cases, there were only one or two transmitters in each generation. The fewer the links between the Prophet’s words and the permanent written record, the greater the possibility of a mistake, an omission or an outright untruth.

In his analysis of the sources of Islamic law, for instance, al-Shafiʿi categorised the Hadith as ‘individual reports’ (akhbār khāṣṣa), in the sense that they were heard and reported by a limited number of individuals, sometimes only one. This differs from the Qurʾan, which al-Shafiʿi termed a ‘general’ or ‘public’ report (khabarʿāmm) because it was heard, witnessed and transmitted publicly, and therefore accepted by and acceptable to all Muslims. The fact that knowledge of the Prophet’s actions was much more limited than knowledge of the contents of the Qurʾan makes it more difficult to justify applying the terms of the Hadith to all Muslims. Thus, the authenticity of the Hadith is ‘strongly presumed’ rather than axiomatic. It is for that reason that al-Shafiʿi said, ‘We are not justified in demanding repentance of one who is doubtful as to the truth of a hadith.’13

The Hadith carries less legal authority than the Qurʾan but more than either the consensus of Muslim scholars (ijmāʿ) or the process of analogy (qiyās), which form the other sources of Islamic law. For that reason, scholars of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh) have held that the authority of the Hadith only extends to matters of religious practice and not to matters of faith and creed.14 The authority of the Hadith as evidence of God’s will derives from the fact that the Prophet Muhammad possessed a special understanding regarding the meaning of the Qurʾan, and thus these texts have primary significance as explanations and elaborations of the meaning of God’s revelation. The Hadith serves a number of different functions in relation to the Qurʾan. Sometimes it confirms the revelations given in the Qurʾan, sometimes it supplies an interpretation of the Qurʾan, and at other times it refers to new legal matters, which are not mentioned in the divine revelation but which have to be judged in accordance with its basic spirit.

Only a few hadiths were transmitted through multiple narrators (tawātur) like the Qurʾan. The larger part of the Hadith – if not the whole – is only transmitted through a solitary link (āḥād). However, the solitary character of the transmission of a hadith is, according to the scholars, not an obstacle to its authority as a source of Islamic law. According to al-Shafiʿi, even though a hadith is the report of a single individual, it can still be accepted and put into practice, just as the testimony of a single witness is sufficient in a court of law, or as we rely on information from a single individual in daily life. However, he also wrote that

If anyone can say that there is a consensus (ijmāʿ) by the religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ) confirming the authority of the solitary report (al-khabar al-wāḥid), it should be me. But that is not the case, I only say that as far as I know the legal experts do not disagree (i.e., there is no ijmāʿ) that the solitary report is a source for Islamic law (…)15

The quotation above implies that the authority of the Hadith is accepted by most but not all Muslim scholars (ʿulamāʾ), while the Qurʾan, on the other hand, is accepted by all. The Hadith is far from gaining recognition as a revelation besides the Qurʾan by a consensus of scholars and jurists. At best, the Hadith is considered as a vital source for exegesis of the revelation – the Qurʾan – and as a crucial criterion for flourishing Islamic jurisprudence.

In sum, the discussion above at least shows the scholarly assumption that the establishment of the Hadith, especially a particular hadith, as a source of Islamic teachings is a matter of ijtihād. Many of the scholars and the jurists even consider the Hadith as ‘largely transmitted in the words of the narrators themselves’.16 These features will be more noticeable in the following section, which discusses efforts made by scholars of Hadith in selecting, compiling, accepting, rejecting and critiquing texts according to their chain (sanad) and content (matn).

3. Studying the sanad and matn of the Hadith

At the time of the Prophet, the Hadith consisted solely of its content: the text (matn) or the message embodied in the Prophet’s words or actions. After his death, the Hadith typically came to comprise two parts: the content and the chain of narrators, the sanad. With the passage of time, the evaluation of the authenticity of a hadith has become more and more difficult.The categorisation of a particular text as valid (ṣaḥīḥ), sound (ḥasan) or weak (ḍaʿīf) is based on the reliability of the content (matn) and on the narrative chain (sanad). In short, a text is not considered to be valid, nor can it be implemented as the basis for a legal ruling,until both its sanad and matn have been subjected to critical evaluation.

The critique of the sanad and matn should be inseparable in the narration and implementation of a hadith. While this critical methodology has been employed by Hadith scholars from the early period of Islam, they typically concentrate on the transmitters of the hadith, while the Islamic legal experts (fuqahāʾ) focus on the content. Critiquing the sanad involves investigating the integrity of the individuals named in the chain of transmission, from the last person in the chain who recorded the text, to the first person who had direct contact with the Prophet. In the evaluation of a sanad, the links in the chain of transmission must all be directly connected to the previous narrator, and each one must also meet a standard of integrity measured by his reliability (thiqa), honesty (ʿadāla) and good memory (ḍābiṭ).17 Al-Shafiʿi added the requirement that the transmitters of a hadith must comprehend its meaning.18 If this is not the case, the hadith is considered weak (ḍaʿīf), even if the deficiency relates to only one of the criteria in one generation of transmitters. In other words, if one or more of the following deficiencies are found in a transmitter, a text would be described as ‘weak’: the transmitter is unknown by Hadith scholars; disapproved of by the scholars; considered corrupt or of limited integrity; known to have produced invalid hadiths; or known to have lacked sufficient knowledge of the particular text. A weak hadith does not constitute a legal proof (ḥujja).19 Generally speaking, Hadith scholars agree that the validity of a sanad does not inevitably indicate that the matn is valid, and vice versa. As stated by the Hanbali scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350): ‘It is understood that the validity of a sanad is one condition for the validity of a hadith, but it does not automatically guarantee that the hadith is valid.’20

For instance, internal inconsistency and confusion of the matn can add to the acknowledged weakness of a hadith. Accordingly, from the beginning, Hadith scholars have conscientiously evaluated the matn of each text for possible inconsistencies and confusion, known as defects of the Hadith (ʿilal al-ḥadīth). In his work al-Mawḍūʿāt al-Kubrā, Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201) mentions forms of defect that occur in matn. These include inconsistencies with a verse of the Qurʾan, a more valid text of the Hadith or a contrary historical fact; inconsistencies in logic; and inappropriate linguistic formulation.21

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