In the Quran, no distinction is made between male and female witnesses in court (65:2, 5:106, 4:15), except during cases of financial transactions and suspected adultery (zina).
Verse 2:282 specifies the requirements for financial witnesses:
“O you who believe! when you deal with each other in contracting a debt for a fixed time, then write it down; and let a scribe write it down between you with fairness; and the scribe should not refuse to write as Allah has taught him, so he should write; and let him who owes the debt dictate, and he should be careful of (his duty to) Allah, his Lord, and not diminish anything from it; but if he who owes the debt is unsound in understanding, or weak, or (if) he is not able to dictate himself, let his guardian dictate with fairness; and call in to witness from among your men two witnesses; but if there are not two men, then one man and two women from among those whom you choose to be witnesses, so that if one of the two strays/is deviated (Arabic: tadilla), the second of the two may advise (Arabic: tuzakkirah) the other; and the witnesses should not refuse when they are summoned; and be not averse to writing it (whether it is) small or large, with the time of its falling due; this is more equitable in the sight of Allah and assures greater accuracy in testimony, and the nearest (way) that you may not entertain doubts (afterwards), except when it is ready merchandise which you give and take among yourselves from hand to hand, then there is no blame on you in not writing it down; and have witnesses when you barter with one another, and let no harm be done to the scribe or to the witnesses; and if you do (it) then surely it will be a transgression in you, and be careful of (your duty) to Allah, Allah teaches you, and Allah knows all things.” 2:282
Firstly, this verse doesn’t say that a woman’s testimony is equal to half of a man’s. It simply says that if (conditional) a woman strays in her testimony, then another woman can be brought in to advise her. If the first woman’s testimony is sound, the second woman is not needed to testify.
The Arabic word used in 2:282 to signify a woman “straying/deviating” is often rendered by translators as “forgetting.” Similarly, the word for “advising/admonishing” is often changed into “reminding.”
For example, Pickthall translates the phrase as “…so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember,” and Yusuf Ali’s version says “if one errs, the other can remind her.”
These translations are inaccurate. The word used for “straying,” from root daad-laam-laam (ض ل ل), signifies being led astray due to some external cause, not due to “forgetfulness.” It’s the same word employed in Surah Fatiha to describe being led astray (by Satan):
“[Guide us to] the way of those whom You are pleased with, not those who have gone astray (Arabic: daalleen).” 1:7
Lane’s Lexicon also confirms this:
In fact, throughout the Quran, the root daad-laam-laam is solely used to mean being “led astray” by an external cause, rather than “forgetting.” Every occurrence of the word can be found here.
“It has been decreed for every devil that whoever turns to him–he will misguide him (root daad-laam-laam) and will lead him to the punishment of the Blaze.” 22:4
“Allah has sent down the best statement: a consistent Book wherein is reiteration. The skins shiver therefrom of those who fear their Lord; then their skins and their hearts relax at the remembrance of Allah. That is the guidance of Allah by which He guides whom He wills. And one whom Allah leaves astray (root daad-laam-laam) –for him there is no guide.” 39:23
The Quran uses a different word to mean “forgetting.” The word is formed from the Arabic root nun-theen-yaa (ن س ي), and is consistently used to denote the literal action of forgetting or of being forgotten:
“And it will be said, “Today We will forget you (Arabic: nansaakum) as you forgot (root nun-theen-yaa) the meeting of this Day of yours, and your refuge is the Fire, and for you there are no helpers.” 45:34
From Lane’s Lexicon:
It is clear that tadilla as used in verse 2:282 denotes straying or being led astray, while nun-theen-yaa means “to forget.”
Additionally, the word that most translators render as “to remind” is formed from the same Arabic root as zikr/dhikr, which can denote a “reminder” but can also mean a “warning/advice/admonition.” The word zikr is often used to describe the Quran, as an “Admonition to the worlds”:
“Then do you wonder that there has come to you an Admonition (Arabic: zikr) from your Lord through a man from among you, that he may warn you?…” 7:69
Thus, this part of verse 2:282 is best translated as “so if one strays/deviates/is misguided, the other can admonish/advise her.”
Why are there two witnesses?
Two female witnesses may be ordained according to 2:282 for several reasons. The first is to prevent the woman involved from being pressured by either party. Adding another female witnesses could decrease the possibility of perjury. This is further supported by the statement, “…and let no scribe nor witness be harmed” (indicating that a risk of perjury/intimidation is present). This explains the usage of root daal-laam-laam, which signifies the woman being led astray in her testimony–likely due to the nature of a male-dominated financial transaction. Adding a second female witness would provide greater support in such a case.
Additionally, at the time of the Quran’s revelation and even now, women have received less education than men, contributing to a lack of experience in financial transactions. This could add to the risk of errant testimony or perjury. Thus, a second female witness may testify if necessary.
The Quran also puts the primary financial responsibility within a familial setting on men, noting women’s lack of experience in financial transactions at the time of revelation.
Islamic secondary sources are replete with demeaning descriptions of women being “deficient in intelligence/reason and religion” (see here, here and here). Multiple apologetic claims have been made about these reports, and many explanations have been advanced (see here).
This is likely why translators have replaced the Arabic word for “straying/being deviated” with the English word “forgetting” in verse 2:282, as if to confirm that women are indeed deficient in reason. This is unQuranic.
Unsurprisingly, the Quran says nothing about women being deficient in any way. It instead prescribes two female witnesses as a contingency to account for a lack of education and/or a male-dominated transaction environment. In other cases, no distinction is made between the testimony of a man and a woman. In fact, during accusations of adultery, a woman’s testimony supersedes a man’s, as explained below.
The standard punishment for adultery/fornication in the Quran is 100 lashes. This applies to both men and women. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrators are married or unmarried. (In Arabic, there is only one term for both extramarital and premarital sex):
“The woman or man found guilty of sexual intercourse–lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment.” 24:2
The magnitude of the crime is considered the same for both genders, although women are granted greater protection against false accusations. Men who falsely accuse women of adultery are sentenced to 80 lashes. Their testimony is rejected forever after unless they repent:
“And those who accuse chaste women and then do not produce four witnesses–lash them with eighty lashes and do not accept from them testimony ever after. And those are the defiantly disobedient.” 24:4
“Indeed, those who [falsely] accuse chaste, unaware and believing women are cursed in this world and the Hereafter; and they will have a great punishment.” 24:23
During accusations of adultery, a man’s witness may be completely overruled and rendered invalid by a woman’s. According to Surah Noor (Chapter 24) of the Qur’an, a man who accuses his wife of adultery without evidence is to testify against her. If she testifies against him in return, his testimony is invalidated and the charges against her are automatically dropped.
“And those who accuse their wives [of adultery] and have no witnesses except themselves – then the witness of one of them [shall be] four testimonies [swearing] by Allah that indeed, he is of the truthful.
“And the fifth [oath will be] that the curse (Arabic: la’nata) of Allah be upon him if he should be among the liars.
“But it will prevent punishment from her if she gives four testimonies [swearing] by Allah that indeed, he is of the liars.
“And the fifth [oath will be] that the wrath (Arabic: ghadaba) of Allah be upon her if he was of the truthful.” 24:6-9
According to the above verses, a woman’s testimony can overrule a man’s!
If we were to follow the errant logic used by commentators on verse 2:282, we would have to conclude that men are deficient in intelligence and reason, and this is why God ordains that women overrule them in zina cases. Or perhaps we could take it even further. We could conclude that men are the ones deficient in religion, since God is aware that they are prone to falsely accusing women, and thus accounts for this in Scripture.
Needless to say, such conclusions are fundamentally flawed. The Quran does not consider either gender to be deficient in religion or reason. It simply prescribes different court arrangements for different situations to account for societal problems.
Note: Interestingly, according to verse 24:7, if a man is among the liars, the “curse” of Allah is upon him. But if a woman is among the liars, the “wrath” of Allah is upon her. *The Arabic words used are different and have separate connotations.
The curse of Allah is always associated with a lasting punishment in Hell. It is used for hypocrites:
“Allah has promised the hypocrite men and hypocrite women and the disbelievers the fire of Hell, wherein they will abide eternally. It is sufficient for them. And Allah has cursed (Arabic: la’na) them, and for them is an enduring punishment.” 9:68
Allah’s Wrath, however, has a connotation of less severity, and is used as a precursor to a “curse”:
“And [that] He may punish the hypocrite men and hypocrite women, and the polytheist men and polytheist women–those who assume about Allah an assumption of evil nature. Upon them is a misfortune of evil nature; and Allah has become angry with them (Arabic: ghadiba) and has cursed them (Arabic: wala’nahum) and prepared for them Hell, and evil it is as a destination.” 48:6
The Quran contains many subtle distinctions like this. It’s up to us to find them.
*Credits go to a friend from Kuwait for pointing this out to me.
- Lane’s Lexicon