By Ziauddin Sardar
May 26, 2008
The requirement for two female witnesses is not something to be projected forward in time. It is a backward glance to the circumstances of the society that the Qur'an sought to change, a means by which it could transform itself. Its continued relevance occurs because many Muslim societies today still need to make just the same transformation.
Under such conditions, the Qur'an says if you cannot find two satisfactory male witnesses, then have one satisfactory male and two satisfactory female witnesses. But an explicit reason is given for this provision: "if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her". Now, the thing with a specific reason is that it can change with changing times and circumstances. That's why we cannot take a provision such as this as a general rule or command. General rules in the Qur'an are simply stated as fact, as, for example, "There is no compulsion in religion" (verse 256). But context-specific verses tend to have conditions or reasons attached.
But we also need to see this verse in relation to what the Qur'an says elsewhere. As a whole, the Qur'an does not locate spirituality, agency, morality, or individuality in gender. On the contrary, it insists on the equality of humanity, men and women, races and nationalities, colour and cultures. And, as such, it often mentions men and women in parallel to explicitly emphasise their ontological equality: "For men and women who are devoted to God - believing men and believing women, obedient men and obedient women, truthful men and truthful women, patient men and patient women, humble men and humble women, charitable men and charitable women, men who fast and women who fast, men who protect their chastity and women who protect their chastity, and men who remember God frequently and women who remember God frequently - God has prepared forgiveness and a rich reward" (33:35).
There is another, equally important, reason why it is absurd even to think, let alone claim, that this verse is suggesting that "two women equals one man". When it comes to witnesses, the Qur'an suggests that different situations require different kinds of witnesses. When making a bequest, for example, any two men will do (5:106). For witnessing a divorce, two witnesses, male or female, is OK (65:2). If a husband accuses his wife of cheating, then her testimony rules over his (if this was turned into a general ruling then women would be superior to men - 24:6). And if he wants to take things further, than he has to produce four eyewitnesses to justify his claim (24:4). (Rosalinda has already mentioned this!)
The main purpose of emphasis on different kinds of witnesses is to encourage the believers to reflect on the nature of evidence. What constitutes reliable evidence, who can you trust? The Qur'an suggests one should examine the context of each particular situation and then decide who would make a viable witness, what kind of experience is needed, and how many witnesses one would need to confirm the validity of a particular event. The witnesses themselves have a serious burden to bear: they cannot conceal their testimony; they are required to come forward unhesitatingly when needed and be just and truthful in their testimony. They have to bear witness for the sake of God even though it may be against themselves, their parents or relatives (4:135).
What the Qur'an seeks, I think, is to lay the foundations of a literate, reflective society. If you have to write things down then you have to learn to read and write. If you have to examine the context of each situation, then you have to think seriously not just about what constitutes evidence but also about your society as a whole. The "middle community" cannot function on rumours and hearsay; it seeks to be reasonable, to use reason and work with thorough and viable evidence in its daily economic, social and political transactions.
The "problem of women", so evident in Muslim societies, has nothing to do with the Qur'an: it is a problem created by Muslims in history which draws on a dominant tradition of interpretation.
Classical commentators, as products of their age, were often misogynists; and traditional modernists have uncritically followed in their footsteps, both out of respect and as an excuse for maintaining their own prejudices. Modern history has also created conditions in Muslim societies that have made them more conservative than earlier eras.
In the face of the challenges of radical change, sections of Muslim society have sought to turn back the clock rather than think forward according to the principles of the Qur'an. The prevailing traditionalism, based on a narrow, literal and out-of-context reading of the Qur'an, is responsible for the plight of women in Muslim societies - and it is the main hurdle to progressive change that the Qur'an itself seeks. This traditionalism has been devised and elaborated without the voice of Muslim women scholars, and it is to the growing ranks of these learned sisters in Islam that we must look to balance our understanding and give a contemporary interpretation of its meaning so that we can transcend the hypocrisy and unreasonable nonsense put out by so many traditionalists to the detriment of Muslim society and civilisation as a whole.