Are the women called devils in hadith?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
The misinterpretation of the hadiths of our beloved Prophet – peace be upon him – is very common in today’s society, especially when many of the people criticizing these hadiths are not well-informed about the Arabic language. In fact, some of them do not even speak it or understand more than a few words of it!
When the situation is as stated, many turn to the English translation to understand some small piece of Islam, but they look at it through the wrong eyes and come to conclusions that no one who was familiar with the Arabic language would do.
One such hadith that allegedly calls women ‘devils’ will be examined in this article. We will look at the actual wording of the hadith, what the scholars have said about this use of the word, what the word means in other hadiths and finally we will come to a conclusion about the topic at-hand.
Some critics of Islam quote a hadith from Sahīh Muslim and allege that Islam considers women as devils. This is indeed false. Let us examine their argument and respond in a befitting manner.
The hadith they use says:
عن جابر، أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم رأى امرأة، فأتى امرأته زينب، وهي تمعس منيئة لها، فقضى حاجته، ثم خرج إلى أصحابه، فقال: «إن المرأة تقبل في صورة شيطان، وتدبر في صورة شيطان، فإذا أبصر أحدكم امرأة فليأت أهله، فإن ذلك يرد ما في نفسه»
Jabir reported that Allah’s Messenger – may peace be upon him – saw a woman, then he came to his wife, Zainab, who was tanning leather, and fulfilled his desire, then he went out to his Companions and said: “A woman comes in the form of a devil and goes in the form of a devil. If one of you sees a woman, let him go to his wife, for that will repel what he feels in his heart. (1)
2. Context of the saying
It is imperative to understand every instruction in view of the general Islamic teachings related to the subject.
Islam restricts a person to his/her spouse only. Any way of seeking pleasure otherwise is condemned; and for the same reason, Islam orders both man and woman to be modest – even in their gaze – so as to avoid any trouble.
Likewise, Islam asks both husband and wife to be faithful to each other and to be a protection and concealment for each other’s natural weaknesses. The Qur’an is quite clear on this issue when it says:
هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَكُمْ وَأَنْتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَهُنَّ
“They are your garments and you are their garments.” (2)
The Qur’an here uses the word لِبَاسٌ (libaas/garment) for spouses. Classical Muslim scholar al-Asfahani (d. 502 AH) says:
وجعل اللّباس لكلّ ما يغطّي من الإنسان عن قبيح، فجعل الزّوج لزوجه لباسا من حيث إنه يمنعها ويصدّها عن تعاطي قبيح
“Everything that prevents a person from acting viciously is called ‘garment. A person is called a garment for his/her spouse because each conceals the state of the others and prevents the other from acting viciously.’” (3)
Obviously, to nourish a thought about someone else’s wife or any stranger is an evil act. In this regard, a wife is a garment for her husband because she helps him get away with such thoughts that may creep into his heart.
3. The use of the word ‘devil’
Naturally, many people will question as to why the word ‘devil’ is used here. While the question is natural, it does not really cause any consternation if one is aware of its usage in the Arabic language.
At-Tabari (d. 310 AH) writes:
والشيطان، في كلام العرب: كل متمرِّد من الجن والإنس والدوابِّ وكل شيء
“Devil (shaitan) in the speech of the Arabs is every rebel among the jinn, mankind, beasts and everything.” (4)
In this hadith, it is used for a woman who comes out of her home in an unchaste manner seeing whom can cause stir of emotions in men.
The fact that it is used only for a woman who comes out in an unchaste fashion is clear from the subsequent narration in Muslim’s collection. The wording therein is:
إذا أحدكم أعجبته المرأة، فوقعت في قلبه،
“If one of you likes a woman and feels attracted to her…” (5)
It refers to fascination which is possible only when a woman comes out in a manner not befitting of a chaste woman by showing complete disregard to the Islamic injunctions about dressing.
An-Nawawi (d. 676 AH) in his monumental exegesis of Sahīh Muslim, comments:
معناه الإشارة إلى الهوى والدعاء إلى الفتنة بها لما جعله الله تعالى في نفوس الرجال من الميل إلى النساء والالتذاذ بنظرهن وما يتعلق بهن فهي شبيهة بالشيطان في دعائه إلى الشر بوسوسته وتزيينه له
“It is a reference to the temptation and attraction towards her for the natural inclination that men have towards women or for the fascination of their sight and what relates to them. And there is a likeness of devil in it for it invites evil thoughts and adoration [of a strange woman].”(6)
The gist is that by virtue of her coming out in an unchaste manner, a woman facilitates evil, so such a woman is metaphorically called a ‘devil.’
In fact, in the same sense, the word ‘devil; is used in some other hadiths as well. This will help understand the metaphorical nature of the usage. One hadith mentions:
عن عبد الله بن عمرو، أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «الراكب شيطان، والراكبان شيطانان، والثلاثة ركب»
The Messenger of Allah – peace be upon him – said: “A single rider is a shaitan (devil), and a pair of riders is a pair of shaitans, but three riders are a company of riders.” (7)
This hadith provides a key in understanding the use of the word ‘devil.’ One and two riders are termed as devils because they are inciting evil by travelling like that. Consider this 1,400 years ago in the wilderness of Arabia. One or two riders were certainly more exposed to any evil (i.e. loss of life and/or property). In fact, a hadith clarifies this:
عن أبي هريرة قال: قال رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم -: الشيطان يهم بالواحد والاثنين فإذا كانوا ثلاثة لم يهم بهم
Narrated Abu Huraira, the Messenger of Allah said: “The devil harms one or two, but when they are three, they are not harmed.”(8)
Anything can happen to any number of people, but if one or two people travel in a place similar to what Arabia was 1,400 years ago, then they are obviously inviting evil; and for this reason only, they are metaphorically called devils.
The hadith in question calls women, who come out in a way that can fascinate men, a devil in that sense only!
4. The hadith does not degrade womankind
As explained the hadith by no means degrades women just like the riders are not condemned; it only condemns a certain kind of behavior not approved by Islam.
5. The solution in the hadith is rational
As to the solution given in hadith about the issue of having seen a woman in way that fascinates and stirs some peculiar kind of emotions; what could have been better than the proposed remedy?
If in a situation when a man gives-in to some natural weakness, why should he not make recourse to his wife – his own garment that protects him and conceals his weaknesses?
The other ‘solution’ will only be havoc, not only for the institution of family, but also for the society at large. What happens in the societies giving in to Western culture only testifies to the beauty of what is prescribed in Islam.
6. Islam honors women like no other religion or system does
There are loads of references from the Qur’an and Sunnah that can be cited to overcome the notion that Islam degrades women. In Islam, women are equal to men. The Prophet – peace be upon him – said:
إنما النساء شقائق الرجال
“Women are indeed the twin-halves of men.” (9)
Explaining this al-Khattabi (d. 388 AH) stated:
أي نظائرهم وأمثالهم في الخلق والطباع فكأنهن شققن من الرجال
“Women are likes of men in natural dispositions; as though they were cloven from them.” (10)
At another point, the Prophet – peace be upon him – said:
عن عبد الله بن عمرو، أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم، قال: «الدنيا متاع، وخير متاع الدنيا المرأة الصالحة»
‘Abdullah b. Amr reported Allah’s Messenger – peace be upon him – saying: “The whole world is a provision, and the best object of benefit of the world is the pious woman.” (11)
Such references leave no doubt about the status of women in Islam.
7. Metaphorical use of the word devil/Satan by Jesus
We read about Jesus:
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (12)
Why Peter was called “Satan” by Jesus? The question can be answered in two ways:
- Jesus actually considered Peter a devil.
- It merely conveys that for suggesting against the idea of going to Jerusalem – which, according to the New Testament, was imperative in the sight of Jesus and was according to the plan of God – he has been metaphorically called so.
If the first of the above two options was not thought to be the case, then one should not come to that conclusion while examining the above hadith either.
Jesus is reported to have said in the Bible:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (13)
8. Summary and Conclusion
The hadith metaphorically calls a woman behaving in an appropriate manner a devil. The condemnation is of an act and not the person. Such a usage is common in Arabic and there are examples of the kind in other hadith reports as well.
In the Bible Jesus reportedly used the word for one of his disciples in the same sense. Therefore, it is wrong to see this hadith as derogatory to womankind. In fact Islam sees woman as twin-halves of men and respects and honors them like no other religion or system does.
(1) Muslim bin Hajjaj, as–Sahih, Translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 3407 (9-1403)
(2) Qur’an 2:187
(3) al-Asbahani, Ragheb, al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Qur’an, (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 1992) 734-735
(4) at-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Jami’ al-Bayan fi Ta‘wil al-Qur’an, (Beirut: ar-Resalah Publications, 2000) Vol.1, 111
(5) Muslim bin Hajjaj, as-Sahih, Hadith 3409 (10-1403)
(6) an-Nawawi, Yahya bin Sharaf, Sharh ‘ala Muslim, (Beirut: Dar Ihya at-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1392 AH) Vol.5, 178
(7) as-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Translated by Yaser Qadhi and Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2008) Hadith 2607; classified as hasan by al-Albani
(8) al-Hindi, ‘Ali al-Muttaqi, Kanz al-‘Ummal, (Beirut: ar-Resalah Publications, 1981) Hadith 17156
(9) as-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Hadith 236, Classified as hasan by al-Albani
(10) al-Khattabi, Abu Suleman, Mu’alim as-Sunan, (Halab: Matba’ al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1932) Vol.1, 79
(11) Muslim bin Hajjaj, as-Sahih, Hadith 3649 (64-1469)
(12) Matthew 16:23
(13) Matthew 7:3-5