Women are inferior to men in the Quran

James M. Arlandson

Muslim expositors and preachers tell the world that Islam elevates women, so this proves their religion’s truthfulness. They imply that the entire world, especially women, should therefore warmly embrace Islam.

Here is only one typical example among many.

Dr. Jamal A. Badawi is a Muslim scholar and propagandist. In an article first printed in 1971, but reprinted many times since then by popular demand, he asserts that Islam and the Quran rose high above seventh-century Arab culture and lifted women’s status.

He proclaims that the Quran says that even though men are a degree above women in status (Sura 2:228, see below), "it implies no superiority or advantage before the law."

This part of his conclusion says that the elevation of women reflects Islam’s intrinsic truthfulness, uninfluenced by its seventh-century environment:

In the case of Islam such compassionate and dignified status was decreed, not because it reflects the environment of the seventh century, nor under the threat or pressure of women and their organizations, but rather because of its intrinsic truthfulness.

Are any of his claims (and those of others) exaggerated? Or were earliest Islam and the Quran too deeply influenced by their seventh-century Arab patriarchal environment to be relevant today?

1. Husbands are a degree above their wives in a legal context.

The Quran in Sura 2:228 says:

. . . Wives have the same rights as the husbands have on them in accordance with the generally known principles. Of course, men are a degree above them in status . . . (Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, the Meaning of the Qur’an, vol. 1, p. 165)

Maududi (d. 1979) is a highly respected traditional commentator on the Quran, and he reviews the historical and literary topical contexts of Sura 2 here.

At first, this verse appears positive: "Wives have the same rights as the husbands." However, too often a verse has a sting in it, as verse 228 does: "men are a degree above them in status."

This principle of gender inequality reflects Arab culture of the seventh century. If Allah and Muhammad improved on this patriarchy, then they did not go far enough. This verse occurring in the revealed Quran is troubling for those of us on the outside of Islam. The verse indicates that the nature of womankind is being challenged in a way that transcends culture, as we shall see.

Therefore, traditional Muslims, especially legal scholars, are permitted to apply this verse to the world of today and outside of Arabia. These Muslims believe that the entire Quran reflects the values of Allah, the god of this world, so Sura 2:228 should be carried out everywhere—it is universal.

2. Men are superior to women in a domestic context.

The Quran in Sura 4:34 says:

Men are managers of the affairs of women because Allah has made the one superior to the other. (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 329)

For the historical and literary topical contexts of Sura 4, click here. The verse goes on to permit husbands to hit their wives if the husbands merely fear highhandedness. Readers may view that article here. At the end, it has many links to modern interpretations of Sura 4:34 and to arguments for wife beating today.

The essential point to notice here is the Quran’s clear explanation of why men manage the affairs of women: because mankind is superior to womankind. The verse says that Allah made them this way. It strikes at the nature of womankind, beyond just women’s social roles in seventh-century Arabia.

Maududi tells us in his commentary that the Arabic word for "manager" stands for anyone who is:

[R]esponsible for the right conduct, safeguard and maintenance of the affairs of an individual, an institution, or an organization. Thus, man is governor, director, protector, and manager of the affairs of women (p. 333, note 56).

Thus, a man’s control over a woman ranges far and wide.

In the next note, Maududi informs us that men are not superior to women in a moral way, that is, in honor and excellence, but men "have been endowed with certain natural qualities and powers that have not been given to women or have been given in a less [sic] degree" (p. 333, note 57). The clause "men have been endowed with certain natural abilities" once again degrades womankind’s abilities. Maududi is merely stating the obvious meaning in Sura 4:34. God made woman inferior. The Quran says so.

From a patriarchal perspective, one would think that his dubious belief in womankind’s inferiority would crop up in a business or professional context, but here the belief is found in a domestic context. And as the previous link to domestic violence demonstrates, this belief is driven home, so to speak, by giving the husbands the right to hit their wives.

Patriarchy and even misogyny runs deeply in the Quran. For more information, see this article, (scroll down to the section "women are inferior to men"), the first of three parts on women in Islam.

These two cultural vices also show up in a theological context.

The hadith are the reports of Muhammad’s actions and words outside of the Quran. The two most reliable collectors and editors are Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 875).

This hadith shows that the majority of inhabitants of hell are women.

Narrated 'Imran bin Husain:

The Prophet said, "I looked at Paradise and found poor people forming the majority of its inhabitants; and I looked at Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women." (Bukhari, emphasis added; see also these parallel traditions here and here)

This parallel hadith explains that the majority of the inhabitants of hell are women because they are ungrateful and harsh towards their husbands. There is no word about the husbands’ ingratitude and harshness. It should be noted that some Muslim missionaries and polemicists assert that since women make up the majority of the world, it only stands to reason that they would be the majority in hell. In reply, however, this misses the point—and may miss the possibility that women may be more spiritual than men. Regardless, the reason that women make up the majority in hell is their harshness and ingratitude. So it has nothing to do with a numerical majority. Instead, Islam clearly does not honor women.

For a thorough refutation of this line of argument advanced by Muslim missionaries, go again to this article and scroll down to the endnotes, where more hadith on women in hell are cited and explained.

See this article for details on women in Islamic hell.

Muhammad was also superstitious. This hadith says that women are part of an evil omen.

Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar:

I heard the Prophet saying. "Evil omen is in three things: The horse, the woman and the house." (Bukhari)

It is one thing if a culture perpetuates this inequality from time immemorial, but it is quite another if it gets enshrined in the sacred texts of a worldwide religion. The Quran and the hadith attack women simply because they are women. Surely it is this patriarchal and misogynistic attitude that permeates too much of the Islamic world.

This attitude is wrong on its own, but it is doubly misguided when it can be interpreted by judges and jurists to give husbands a legal step above their wives, in such contexts as inheritance laws and giving testimony. This means that the Quranic view of womankind in Suras 2:228 and 4:34 does not remain only in a theological sphere, but in down-to-earth areas, where material and physical damage can be done, as seen, for example, in the Quranic permission for men to hit their wives. This view will also show up in two laws in the Quran.

Badawi and others like him are wrong.

Muhammad seems unable to rise above his own culture. Indeed, he absorbs too much of it in his "revelations" that get incorporated into his allegedly eternal, universal Quran.

3. In dividing the inheritance, a female gets half of a male’s share.

The Quran in Sura 4:11 says:

The share of the male shall be twice that of a female . . . . (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 311) (See Sura 4:176.)

Classical legal scholars agree with this underlying principle of awarding the male twice the inheritance of the female.

Malik (d. 795) is a founder of a major school of law. He composed a law book that is also considered a collection of reliable hadith: Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas: The First Formation of Islamic Law (rev. trans. Aisha Bewley, Inverness, Scotland: Madina Press, 1989, 2001).

Malik writes:

The generally agreed upon way of doing things among us . . . about fixed shares of inheritance (fara’id) of children from the mother or father when one or the other dies is that if they leave male and female children, the male takes the portion of two females.

Ibn Rushd, known in the West as AverroŽs (d. 1198), is the most thorough compiler and editor of legal opinions. His two-volume work, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer, (trans. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, Reading, UK: Garnet, 1994-1996), took over twenty years to write. It provides a foundation in Islamic law for judges and legal scholars throughout the Islamic world, where it is still used today.

Ibn Rushd agrees with Malik:

Muslims [jurists] agreed that the inheritance of the child from his father or mother, if they are both males and females, is that the share of the male is equal to the shares of two females . . . (vol. 2, p. 413).

Maududi explains the rationale behind the verse:

The guiding principle about the division of inheritance is that the share of the male shall be double that of the female, and this is very sound and just. As the Muslim law lays the major burden of the economic responsibility of the family on the male and keeps the female almost free from it, justice demands that her share of inheritance should be less than that of the male. (vol. 1, p. 312, note 15).

The problem with Maududi’s explanation (and what is implied in Malik’s and Ibn Rushd’s assessment) is that it is too culture-bound; paradoxically, however, it is intended to be universal. It may be true that in seventh-century Arabia a male had most or all of the responsibilities over the household. This may be true even today in traditional Muslim countries or regions. However, it is troubling that Muhammad did not receive verses from on high that clearly and unambiguously spell out the equality of mankind and womankind—verses without stings in them or near them.

Regardless of Muhammad’s failure to receive these verses, this law of inheritance should in no way be applied to the western world or in other regions that are not burdened with Islam but that want to grow economically.

Here in the US, for example, the inheritance can be divided equally among all siblings, regardless of their gender. No religious law prohibits this from happening in advance. American secular law fits into a modern context better.

Thus, today’s American secular law surpasses seventh-century Islamic law found in the allegedly universal Quran, inspired by Allah.

More importantly, sharia (Islamic law) must never creep around the world.

4. A woman’s testimony often counts half of a man’s testimony.

The Quran in Sura 2:282 says:

And let two men from among you bear witness to all such documents [contracts of loans without interest]. But if two men be not available, there should be one man and two women to bear witness so that if one of the women forgets (anything), the other may remind her. (Maududi, vol. 1, p. 205).

It seems that the foundational reason for having two women witnesses is that one of the women may "forget" something. Again, this goes to the nature of womankind. Philosophers teach us that one of the main differences between animals and humans lies in humankind’s rationality. But this verse implies that a woman’s mind is weak. How is this verse not misogynistic?

This hadith removes any ambiguity about women in Sura 2:282:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:

The Prophet said, "Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?" The women said, "Yes." He said, "This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind." (Bukhari, emphasis added)

The reason for diminishing women’s role in court is clear enough. Women have deficient minds, says Muhammad bluntly and tersely. Sura 2:282 says that a female witness may "forget," so the other female witness may need to remind the first. The Quran and the hadith match up well in this matter. In the one area that sets humans apart—the mind—Muhammad says that womankind falls short by nature or Allah-endowed (in)abilities.

As for later legal opinions in Islam, Ibn Rushd again guides us. Sura 2:282 appears in a contractual business context, but legal scholars differ on whether woman may serve as witnesses in other contexts, like criminal cases.

For the "crime" of sexual immorality (zina), which in Islam is punishable by death for adultery and whipping for fornication, four males must prove the crime. Females are excluded (vol. 2, p. 559). So this means that if a wife suspects adultery from her husband, she cannot get four women to catch him in the act. She has to get four men. Would the "Old Boy’s Club" prevent justice in Islamic patriarchal societies?

In crimes like theft and their punishments (hudud): "The opinion that is adopted by the majority is that the testimony of women is not admissible in hudud, with men or independently" (ibid). But one legal school (Zahirites) says it is admissible, when accompanied by the testimony of a man. Thus, women are not allowed to testify, according to the majority of jurists in this legal context.

In personal law, such as divorce, retraction of divorce, marriage, and emancipation of slaves, one school of law says a woman’s testimony is accepted (Abu Hanifa) (ibid). This implies that the other schools of law deny this right to a woman.

In personal law affecting women only, like birth, consummation, and "the defects of women," Ibn Rushd reports: "the independent testimony of women, that is, women unaccompanied by male witness, is acceptable according to the majority" (ibid). One school of law puts things indelicately: "Abu Hanifa permitted the testimony of women (about women) for the area that is between the navel and the knees" (vol. 2, p. 560). So in this one area of "women’s issues," they are allowed to testify.

To sum up these opinions, women’s testimony counts independently in the legal area affecting women alone, according to the majority. But in other areas, for the majority of schools of law, women are second-class citizens or are excluded from an Islamic court altogether.

Stepping back and viewing the big picture, an outsider to Islam may ask this question: why would intelligent legal scholars even debate whether women are allowed to testify in this or that area of the law?

Here is why they must debate this question. The Quran and the hadith do not honor women. The general attitude says that women are barely able to stand in the same arena as men are, not to mention a house or a courtroom. Muhammad said women have deficient minds, so why wouldn’t devout Muslims—scholars—follow their prophet?

Badawi and others like him are therefore wrong. Islam and the Quran do not elevate women so high as to demonstrate that this religion and this book came down from God.

For more hadith and discussion of women’s alleged mental inferiority, go again to this article and scroll down to the section "women are inferior to men." This article also cites more scholarship on women’s alleged innate inferiority (scroll down to Sura 4:34, a little more than halfway down). Because of original Islam’s misogyny, women are not allowed to be leaders.


Throughout the history of the Church, male Christian leaders have been patriarchal, oppressive, and even misogynist. No one should deny simple facts. However, these leaders absorbed too much of their cultures and not enough of the clear and universal teachings of the New Testament.

Jesus and the New Testament authors promote the universal principle of equity.

In the Christian community,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

This verse is remarkable, considering the patriarchal and divisive culture and rigidly structured classes in the Greco-Roman world. It breaks down all barriers between religions or ethnicities (Jew or Greek, that is, Gentile), and between wide social statuses (free or slave), and between gender (male or female). This goes to the nature of humankind. In Christ, all are one, regardless of their roles in society or external circumstances. All receive God’s value and love in their essence. This universal principle should flow out into all areas of practical life.

If later Christian leaders were patriarchal and derogatory towards womankind, then they strayed from and misread the universal pronouncements in the New Testament.

Muhammad and his Quran, in contrast, attack the nature of womankind, universally. Says the Quran: "Men are a degree above [women] in status" (Sura 2:228); and "Allah has made the one [mankind] superior to the other [womankind]" (Sura 4:34). Allah himself made men superior to women, so asserts Muhammad. He also says in the hadith: "This [diminishment of a woman’s testimony] is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind." This insults the one quality in humans that exalts them and gives them dignity: their rational, thinking mind. (In no place does Jesus or a New Testament author say that a woman’s mind is deficient.)

Clearly, Allah and his prophet absorbed too much of seventh-century Arab culture in their "universal revelations."

Therefore, if later Muslim leaders are patriarchal and derogatory towards womankind, then they are closely following and correctly reading the universal pronouncements in the Quran and the hadith.

Is Muhammad’s religion really the greatest and most advanced one for all humankind, as Badawi and others would have us believe? Certain kinds of men may cherish its patriarchy, but what about the rest of us?

Muhammad’s Quran on womankind is too culture-bound and patriarchal to be relevant today.

Supplemental material

For a direct reply to Badawi’s article, click here.

This online booklet explores the differing ideas in Islam and Christianity on the place of women.

This short article reviews Jesus’ attitude towards women.

This short chapter has an excellent overview on the differences between Islam and Christianity and women’s role in each.

This short chapter in the same online booklet sketches out the unpleasant fact that women’s testimony counts half of men’s testimony.

This one in the same online booklet has an explanation on women’s inheritance rights.

This superb online booklet surveys many passages in the Quran and the hadith about women in Islam. The facts lead to only one conclusion: Islam does not honor women.

This webpage has many links to articles and online booklets.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

Articles by James Arlandson
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