This criticism revolves around the following verse of the Quran that advises Muslims that in matters of financial dealing, they should firstly, always write down the transaction whether large or small, and secondly, witnesses should be called to the transaction:
O ye who believe! when you borrow one from another for a fixed period, then write it down. And let a scribe write it in your presence faithfully; and no scribe should refuse to write, because Allah has taught him, so let him write and let him who incurs the liability dictate; and he should fear Allah, his Lord, and not diminish anything therefrom. But if the person incurring the liability be of low understanding or be weak or be unable himself to dictate, then let someone who can watch his interest dictate with justice. And call two witnesses from among your men; and if two men be not available, then a man and two women, of such as you like as witnesses, so that if either of two women should err, then one may remind the other. And the witnesses should not refuse when they are called. And do not feel weary of writing it down, whether it be small or large, along with its appointed time of payment. This is more equitable in the sight of Allah and makes testimony surer and is more likely to keep you away from doubts; therefore omit not to write except that it be ready merchandise which you give or take from hand to hand, in which case it shall be no sin for you that you write it not. And have witnesses when you sell one to another; and let no harm be done to the scribe or the witness. And if you do that, then certainly it shall be disobedience on your part. And fear Allah. And Allah grants you knowledge and Allah knows all things well.Quran 2:283
His objection relates specifically to the point made in the verse that two women are called to testify as a replacement for one man. He writes:
But see how easily this is abused and all of the confusion we have in the Muslim world today? Any supposed “benefit” this conferred would be limited to 7th century Arabia. It clearly doesn’t stand the test of time, or even humanity’s ethical aspirations.
This verse (2:1 clause) flies in the face of
- Demonstrating forethought about how it would be abused more than any dubious benefit to society that it conferred
- Being a universal teaching
Set the testimony aside for a moment. You have to ask yourself honestly, is humankind really better off because of this verse’s 2:1 ratio in witnessing?
Knowing human nature, I submit that this verse has caused more problems and inequity in society than it could ever claim to have solved.
This passage is not always translated literally. Sometimes the verse is translated to mean that “if either of the women forgets, then one may remind the other”. That, however, is not what the verse states. The verse states “if either of the women errs, one may remind the other”. This may seem to be a nuanced difference, but it is significant.
There are a number of issues to be answered:
- What situations does this verse relate to?
- Why are two men called in the first place – why not just one person?
- Would this verse only apply to 7th century Arabia as Sohail argues?
Let’s take up these issues one by one.
Firstly, this verse relates specifically to financial transactions. This does not apply to other instances where witnesses would be required. This is clear from the context of the verse. Further, at no point does the verse state that two women’s testimonies are “equal to” one man’s testimony, in general. The Prophet’s own example of having men punished – in one case sentenced to death – on the testimony of a female victim of rape, is evidence enough to show that a woman’s testimony is not doubted on account of her gender.
Secondly, the question is why two men are called as witnesses in the first place? Why not just one? The answer is simple: two witnesses make for better security of the integrity of the transaction than one. Two witnesses better protect against:
- Inadvertent error, i.e.: memory problems
- Deliberate error, i.e.: due to being threatened or coerced
The first point is obvious and requires no explanation. Two men would be able to check their memories against each other. In the case of women, this indeed is one reason why two women are called, and is the primary reason given by Hazrat Muhammad Zafrulla Khan (ra): In an Islamic society, men and women would not socially mingle. As such, two individuals, a man and a woman, would not have the same opportunity as two men or two women, to refresh each other’s memories, during the course of ordinary interaction, as to the financial transaction they were called to witness, perhaps many years earlier. Thus, when a woman must be called to give testimony, a second woman should be called so as to afford her the opportunity that two men would have otherwise had.
Sohail might then raise the objection that this still leaves the single man without anyone to act as a memory aid to him. However, the answer is simple: the entire premise of calling two women in lieu of one man is because a second reliable man is not available: and if two men be not available, then a man and two women…Thus, the objection is irrelevant. We are already in the situation where a second man is not available to remind the first; is it not better then that at least the female witness should have someone available to remind her? Understood in this light, there is no discrimination in the verse – only a heavy importance of the sanctity of contracts and the importance of accurate and reliable witnesses, thus mandating the provision that witnesses have other witnesses with whom to refresh their memories. Sohail’s argument that this verse is misogynistic would only hold water if the Quran had asked for only one man as a witness, and in lieu of one man, two women. However, the Quran does not do this. It requires two men, thus establishing the principle that among men also, referral to one another for the sake of aiding each other’s memories is necessary.
The question arises as to why a man is necessary at all in witnessing the contract. The answer to this issue relates to the second type of error mentioned earlier, i.e.: deliberate error, due to being threatened. In the latter half of the verse, the Quran forbids pressuring the scribe or the witness:
…let no harm be done to the scribe or the witness. And if you do that, then certainly it shall be disobedience on your part. And fear Allah.Quran 2:283
This is a very important point, especially in financial dealings. Putting pressure on witnesses to give false testimony is a universal phenomenon, common to all cultures. Women are a vulnerable group across different societies, including our society today. Being a vulnerable group, they are more likely to be targeted for threats, and also more likely to succumb to threats, and thus give false testimony. Therefore, Islam makes provision for this by requiring multiple witnesses, one of whom is, in all circumstances, a man, and why two men, rather than two women, are mentioned in the verse to be used preferably as witnesses, since it is expected that it may be harder to threaten two men than it would be two women, when it comes to testifying to financial contracts.
In answer to Sohail’s question – would this apply only to 7th century Arabia, or is this a universal teaching, we must only look at the above premises of the two explanations above:
- Is Islam’s teaching of purdah (hijab) universal? In other words, is the prevention of men and women unrelated to each other from socially mixing something that is universal in application and scope?
- Is the pressuring or threatening of witnesses to get them to give false testimonies only a problem related to 7th century Arabia, or is a phenomenon seen widely across all cultures and societies?
As for the first point, it should be noted that all societies universally, prior to the turn of the 20th century, practised purdah (hijab) in this sense that men and women did not freely socially mix. As such, the notion that this is not a universal practice is nonsense – it most certainly is and has been for most of human history. The current trend in free-mixing of men and women is the exception that bucks the trend, not the rule.
As for the question of whether threatening of witnesses is related only to the past and not to the present, this is a question the answer to which is so obvious it does not require answering. It is clearly a universal teaching from this perspective also. The recognition of vulnerable groups and the setting in place of measures to ensure the validity of their testimonies is something that has only been implemented in Western legislature in recent decades with the provision of “special measures” such as video-link, screens and offering of intermediaries for witnesses. This is a measure Islam put in place with the recognition of women as a vulnerable group, and which it makes explicit towards the end of the verse too.
Sohail talks about the benefit of these verses being “ambiguous” and “dubious”. He says that these teachings do not accord with “humanity’s ethical aspirations”. One can see, in light of the above explanations, how meaningless such criticisms are. It is precisely because of humanity’s ethical aspirations that God put in place such provisions.
As such, we can conclude that Sohail is in error on each of the points he makes in his criticism.
Questions for Sohail
What is astonishing is the degree of bias that critics of this verse demonstrate. They fail to recognise or appreciate that in one single verse, the Quran laid out the most important economic principles for establishing the sanctity of transactions, and thus laid an axe at corruption, some 1400 years ago. It established, in this verse:
- The importance of writing down all loans and transactions so as to prevent ambiguity:
O ye who believe! when you borrow one from another for a fixed period, then write it down.
- The importance of writing as a skill, and the value of scribes in society:
And let a scribe write it in your presence faithfully; and no scribe should refuse to write, because Allah has taught him, so let him write…
…And do not feel weary of writing it down, whether it be small or large, along with its appointed time of payment…in which case it shall be no sin for you that you write it not.
- The importance of borrowers understanding their liabilities, and the importance of safeguarding those weak of understanding in their financial affairs:
…so let him write and let him who incurs the liability dictate…then let someone who can watch his interest dictate with justice…
- The value of witnesses and their role in financial dealings:
And call two witnesses from among your men…And the witnesses should not refuse when they are called.
- Warning against compromising witnesses:
And have witnesses when you sell one to another; and let no harm be done to the scribe or the witness. And if you do that, then certainly it shall be disobedience on your part.
Are these teachings also “ambiguous” and “dubious” in their benefit? Do these teachings also not accord with “humanity’s ethical aspirations”? The very fact that Sohail omits any statement on the beauty of this verse, and how it ensures civic responsibility and eliminates economic corruption, tells us much about his bias. He has no interest in giving credit where credit is due. He is only interested in raising unwarranted criticisms.