A Woman's Testimony in Islam

Some critics have questioned Islam’s position on equality based on Verse 2:282 of the Quran.

And get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her. 

These critics, and some scholars, are fixated on this sentence; they ignore the fact that this verse is not about equality nor is it about witness testimony. This verse is about memorializing a financial debt. Moreover, they pretend that this verse somehow establishes a general rule on witness testimony when it does not.

Nonetheless, in examining this verse one should consider the treatment of women’s testimony at the time, the Islamic position on minimum thresholds in Islamic tribunals[1], the interpretive methodology used and procedural rules of Sharia law.

Prior to Islam, courts often refused to give any weight to women’s testimony, were openly hostile toward women, and subjected women to intimidation. This bias was even more pronounced in financial matters where the input of women was particularly unwelcomed.

With this backdrop, the Quran, prescribed certain thresholds that create a minimum basis for establishing a valid case. For instance, in testifying about adultery, the testimony of spouses was given equal treatment. Here, to legally memorialize a loan, Verse 2:282 allows two female witnesses to substitute one man as a witness.  It is noteworthy that this is the only verse in the Quran that requires two females to sit in for one male; and, likewise, it is noteworthy that Islam requires tribunals to hear and weigh all testimony absent any gender bias.

In fact, the basic Qur’anic principle of gender equality is mentioned frequently. Thus, when considering any verse of the Quran, said verse should be examined from the perspective of this overarching Islamic position.

Scholars and critics alike make the mistake of reading their own bias into their interpretations and ignoring broader established principles of Qur’anic interpretation. Many fail to even attempt a balanced reading of the verse. For example, the Arabic word which is translated as "errs" (dalal) normally means "absence." The Quran's choice of this word, rather than "to forget" (nisyan) or "to err" (khata), indicates perhaps that the meaning of dalal is broader and more comprehensive than the other two.

Some additionally disregard the rules of Sharia law. Sharia Law is fluid, and can differ from place to place, and in time. This verse was revealed in a society and time where females were perceived as incompetent in financial matters and where their input was not valued or welcome. Today’s scholars should, therefore, interpret this verse in terms of current realities.

To conclude, a woman’s testimony in Islam is not equal to half of a man’s testimony. Verse 2:282 doesn’t concern gender equality nor witness testimony generally.


[1] Religious pluralism was a bedrock in classical Islamic Jurisprudence and ethics; and, the religious laws of other religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, were accommodated within the Islamic legal framework, as seen in the early Caliphates, Al-Andalus, the Indian subcontinent, and the Ottoman Millet system in regards to personal law. Thus, in the instance that a case was not considered under the jurisdiction of Islamic courts, these thresholds may not have applied.