Women Bearing Witness in Islam
By Ali Unal
In some instances of bearing witness to certain civil contracts, two men are required or one man and two women. Again, this is no indication of the woman being inferior to man. It is a measure of securing the rights of the contracting parties, because woman as a rule, is not so experienced in practical life as man. This lack of experience may cause a loss to any party in a given contract. So the Law requires that at least two women should bear witness with one man. if a woman of the witness forgets something, the other one would remind her. Or if she makes an error, due to lack of experience, the other would help to correct her. This is a precautionary measure to guarantee honest transactions and proper dealings between people. In fact, it gives woman a role to play in civil life and helps to establish justice. At any rate, lack of experience in civil life does not necessarily mean that women is inferior to man in her status. Every human being lacks one thing or another, yet no one questions their human status (2:282).
Most Qur'anic references to testimony (witness) do not make any reference to gender. Some references fully equate the testimony of males and females.
And for those who launch a charge against their spouses and have (in support) no evidence but their own, their solitary evidence (can be received) if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by Allah that they are solemnly telling the truth; And the fifth (oath) (should be) that they solemnly invoke the curse of Allah on themselves if they tell a lie. But if would avert the punishment from the wife if she bears witness four times (with an oath) by Allah that (her husband) is telling a like; And the fifth (oath) should be that she solemnly invokes the wrath of Allah on herself if (her accuser) is telling the truth. (Qur'an 24:6-9)
One reference in the Qur'an distinguishes between the witness of a male and a female. It is useful to quote this reference and explain it in its own context and in the context of other Qur'anic references to testimony:
O you who believe! When you deal with each other in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties: let not the scribe refuse to write: as Allah has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him fear his Lord, Allah, and not diminish aught of what he owes. If the party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, let his guardian dictate faithfully. And get two witnesses out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as you choose for witnesses so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.
The witnesses should not refuse when they are called on (for evidence). Disdain not to reduce to writing (your contract) for a future period, whether it be small or big: it is more just in the sight of Allah, more suitable as evidence, and more convenient to prevent doubts among yourselves, but if it be a transaction with you carry out on the spot among yourselves, there is not blame on you if you reduce it not to writing, But take witnesses whenever you make a commercial contract; and let neither scribe nor witness suffer harm. If you do (such harm), it would be wickedness in you. So fear Allah; for it is Allah that teaches you. And Allah is well acquainted with all things. (Qur'an 2:282)
A few comments on this text are essential in order to prevent common misinterpretations:
a. It cannot be used as an argument that there is a general rule in the Qur'an that the worth of a female's witness is only half the male's. This presumed "rule" is voided by the above reference (24:6-9), which explicitly equates the testimony of both genders on the issue at hand.
b. The context of this passage (verse, or ayah) relates to testimony on financial transactions, which are often complex and laden with business jargon. The passage does not make a blanket generalization that would otherwise contradict 24:6-9, cited above.
c. The reason for variations in the number of male and female witnesses required is given in the same passage. No reference is made to the inferiority or superiority of one gender's witness or the other's. The only reason given is to corroborate the female's witness and prevent unintended errors in the perception of the business deal. The Arabic term used in this passage, tadhilla, literally means "loses the way," "gets confused," or "errs." But are females the only gender that may err and need corroboration of their testimony? Definitely not, and that is why the general rule of testimony in Islamic law is to have two witnesses, even when they are both male.
One possible interpretation of the requirements related to this particular type of testimony is that in numerous societies, past and present, women generally may not be heavily involved with and experienced in business transactions. As such, they may not be completely cognizant of what is involved. Therefore, corroboration of a woman's testimony by another woman who may be present ascertains accuracy and, hence, justice. It would be unreasonable to interpret this requirement as a reflection on the worth of women's testimony, as it is the ONLY exception discerned from the text of the Qur'an . This may be one reason why a great scholar like Al-Tabari could not find any evidence from any primary text (Qur'an or hadith) to exclude women from something more important than testimony: being herself a judge who hears and evaluates the testimony of others.
d. It must be added that unlike pure acts of worship, which must be observed exactly as taught by the prophet (P), testimony is a means to an end, ascertaining justice as a major objective of Islamic law. Therefore, it is the duty of a fair judge to be guided by this objective when assessing the worth and credibility of a given testimony, regardless of the gender of the witness. A witness of a female graduate of a business school is certainly far more worthy than the witness of an illiterate person with no business education or experience.