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Last Updated: 2010/08/17
Summary of question
What is Imam Ali’s (a) viewpoint on the intellect of women versus that of men?
question
What does Imam Ali (a) mean by the statement attributed to him in the Nahjul Balagha, which says: ‘Men are higher than women in terms of both intellect and emotions’?
Concise answer

Imam Ali (a) has never said that men are higher and more superior than women in terms of intellect and emotions. What has been attributed to Imam Ali (a) in the Nahjul Balagha, if it is authentic in its narration, relates to a very specific event (The Battle of The Camel) and cannot be taken in the general sense. Likewise, in some cases, certain men have been the subject of reproach as well. The existence of women who were examples of their times or even more intelligent than the men of their times (such as the Lady Khadijah (a) and the Lady Fatimah (a)) can also be used as proof to support this line of thought.

At the same time, some other possibilities have been attributed to this saying. For example, some have attributed this to the mathematical mind or the social mind, not the ‘virtue mind’ which is the cause of nearness to God and spiritual position and rank. In terms of this type of intellect, there is no difference between men and women. It may also be possible that Imam Ali (a) was saying that in terms of psychological particularities, women can be dominated by their emotions, and if they were not created in this manner, then they could not have met their duties as mothers. This is in complete contrast to men whose intellects dominate over their emotions and this is the way both sexes were created and something which is due to divine wisdom; in addition, these are differences which are necessary for human beings. If this interpretation is true, then it does not mean that Imam Ali (a) was stating that one sex was superior to the other; he was simply stating a reality of nature.

Detailed Answer

Before answering the main question, there are some points which will be beneficial to understanding the whole of the matter.

1. Firstly, the rank of women as nurturers and educators of society in their roles as mothers and wives is a matter which cannot be denied. The Holy Quran states that obedience to parents comes right after obedience to God, and it has mentioned this unconditionally without making a difference between men or women.  In addition, it has been recorded in the books of history that the Holy Prophet (s) gave a tremendous amount of respect to his wife Lady Khadijah (a), as well as to his daughter, the Lady Fatimah (a). This is the same reality which Imam Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic) emphasized and commented on, saying: “The history of Islam gives testimony to the boundless respect that the Holy Prophet (s) gave to the Lady Fatimah (a) proving that women have a particularly important role to play in society, and if they are not superior to men, they are surely not inferior.”[1]

2. Secondly, the equality of men and women is something which is derived from the words of the Holy Quran and is exceedingly clear in its explicitness. According to the Holy Quran, women have been created from the same spiritual and physical nature as men; both sexes are the same in terms of essence and nature.

The Holy Quran says: “O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for Allah ever watches over you.”[2] Another verse says: “It is He Who created you from a single person, and made his mate of like nature, in order that he might dwell with her (in love).”[3]

In these verses of the Holy Quran, women are considered equal to men in terms of human value and men do not have any superiority over them. Each human being’s reality is composed of their soul, not their body; their humanity lies in their essence and not in their physical body.[4] Therefore we should recognize human beings for what they are in terms of their essence, and not for what they are in terms of their physical bodies.

According to Quranic thought, women have the potential of being ‘complete human beings’ just like men, and they have the capacity to understand and also to act upon the things which are necessary on the path to human perfection. Whenever the Holy Quran speaks about human perfections and high values it does not put any differences between men and women and considers them equal in this respect.[5] Not only does the Quran consider men and women as equals, but it also considers this equality as one of the signs of divine power and a means of peace of mind and fellowship.[6]

It is on this very basis that Imam Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic), was a believer in the equality of men and women. Imam Khomeini is quoted as saying:

“From the perspective of human rights, there is no difference between men and women; they are both human beings and a woman has the right to choose her own destiny, just like a man. Some differences do exist between men and women, but these don’t have anything to do with their actual human value and respect.[7]

3. Thirdly, there is no tradition or sermon narrated from Imam Ali (a), where he considers men as being superior to women in terms of intellect or emotions. What has been attributed to Imam Ali (a) is that he said women are superior to men in terms of emotions and sentiments.

In terms of the 80th sermon of the Nahjul Balagha, in which Imam Ali (a) is quoted as having said some matters about the mental deficiencies of women, this matter is open to some points of scrutiny:

A. Firstly, if we are to assume that this tradition is correctly attributed to Imam Ali (a), it would still not mean that this is a general rule that applies to all women. According to historical records, this saying is attributed to the time after the Battle of the Camel (which Ayisha (the wife of the Prophet (s)) was involved in), where Talhah and Zubair used her social position as the wife of the Prophet (s) and initiated a large rebellion against the government of Imam Ali (a) in Basra. Imam Ali (a), after their defeat and the end of the war campaign is claimed to have delivered this sermon (which is now recorded in the Nahjul Balagha).[8] Therefore, from its historical context it is evident that this sermon was potentially delivered to a select group amongst women and not to women in general. Without doubt, there have existed and still do exist women, who are more intelligent than the men of their times. Who can consider such women as the Lady Khadijah (a), Lady Fatimah (a), Lady Zainab (a), and other great women in history as being inferior to men? It is not possible to negate their intellect, nor their efforts in the forward march of Islam and their struggles against oppression. Therefore, it cannot be said that Imam Ali’s (a) words were directed as slander against all women.

In addition, Imam Ali (a) is recorded as having complained about the weakness of the men of Kufah and Basra. For example, in the 14th sermon of the Nahjul Balagha he is quoted as saying: “You intellects are weak and your thoughts are foolish.”[9] In the 34th sermon, he is also quoted as saying: “Woe upon you (men)…you do not use your intellects.”[10] Again, in the 97th sermon he says: “Oh you (group) whose bodies are present (physically) but whose intellects are absent (who do not have minds)…”[11] In the 131st sermon he says: “O' (people of) differing minds and divided hearts, whose bodies are present but wits are absent.”[12]

Here, Imam Ali (a) clearly rebukes a group of the men and introduces them as being without wisdom and being foolish minded. This took place even while the cities of Kufah and Basra have given birth to many a knowledgeable religious scholars. To put this into other words, certain situations and historical occurrences can take place in certain ways where they can have the grounds of praise or in other contexts the grounds of criticism [13]. As time passes, these grounds and contexts for praise and criticism may cease to exist[14]  Therefore, the criticisms which are contained in the Nahjul Balagha about women, and the men of Kufah and Basrah, are of a specific nature and not general in their scope.[15]

Further proof of this lies in the fact that Imam Ali (a) has attributed a lack of intellect to many other people as well. In a sermon, Imam Ali (a) says: “Conceit is a sign of weakness, insufficiency, and deficiency of the intellect.”[16] In this tradition, as well as in other traditions[17], things such as conceit, lust, following the whims of the self, are among some of the factors counted as the causes of a deficiency in the intellect. Therefore, it is not improbable that this criticism of women’s intellect is a matter which follows along the same lines and simply means that there are some factors which cause the intellect to become deficient and that this was existent in a specific case during the Battle of the Camel. Since these causes are not essential parts of women , they are capable of removal through training and refinement.

In reality, these types of reprimands towards women are not directed at their nature, much in the same way that reprimanding a group of men does not censure their nature. These seem to be directed more towards states of being and actions which are things related to the external nature.

In addition, these traditions have an educational and reformatory message to protect men from giving in too much to the whims and wishes of women; in essence, men need to keep a spirit of independence in their decision making process. This is particularly applicable to war time situations where listening to the advice of women may lead to weakness or inactivity in the face of the enemy. This seemed to be something which took place during the time of Imam Ali’s (a) caliphate.[18]

B- It can also be said that the intellect is divided into two segments:

1. The first is the mathematical or social intellect

2. The second is the ‘intellect of virtue’. It is possible that Imam Ali’s (a) intent with this article meant the superiority of man’s mathematical intellect and not the Intellect of virtue. In other words, there may be a difference in the computational intellect of women and men, but there is no difference in the virtue intellect and the latter is the tool which allows both men and women to reach paradise.[19] In this second type of intellect, there is no difference between men and women.[20]

C- However much society may try to negate this concept, we cannot negate the fact that there are tangible differences between men and women. These differences include physical, psychological, and emotional factors, and have been mentioned so widely in various books, as well as other mediums, that repeating them is not necessary. The conclusion to this matter is that since women are the foundation of the creation and the existence of mankind, as well as its subsequent nurturing and training, therefore they have been created with a correspondingly larger share in emotions and feelings.

Therefore, the position of mothers and the education and training of children, as well as the division of love and affection between the children of a family are all roles give to a mother (women).[21] In other words, men and women have no differences in terms of their human value and worth, but they do have differences in their physical bodies. God has created human beings in a way which corresponds with their duties and responsibilities on this earth; men and women are not exempt from this rule of creation. Men and women differ from each other in terms of their bodies, their psychology, and their emotions and sentiments. Women have a special attachment and interest in the family and their awareness of such matters is higher than men. They are also more sensitive of heart and the words of Imam Ali (a) show these psychological and physical differences. It was as if he was saying: The emotions of women predominate over her, and if it was not such, then women would not be able to act upon their duties as mothers. From this perspective, men are complete polar opposites in terms of their creation and this is part of the divine will; the existence of these differences is also considered essential. Therefore, Imam Ali (a) is not considering one sex superior to the other, but he is simply mentioning that there are differences, which are a human reality. The reality is that emotions and sentiments, while they are beneficial in their proper role and place, should not have the first word in matters of great importance.


[1] Sahifeye Nur, vol. 14, pg. 200.

[2]یا ایها الناس اتقوا ربکم الذی خلقکم من نفس واحدة و خلق منها زوجها و بثّ منهما رجالاً کثیرا و نساء” Nisa:1.

[3]هو الذی خلقکم من نفس واحدة و جعل منها زوجها لیسکن الیها” A’raf:189.

[4] Javadi Amoli, Abdullah, Zan dar Ayineye Jamal va Jalal, pg. 76.

[5] Ahzab:35; Ale Imran:195.

[6] Rum:21.

[7] Sahifeye Nur, vol. 3, pg. 49.

[8] Ma’adikhah, Khorshide bi Ghurub (Farsi translation of the Nahjul-Balaghah), Sermon 79.

[9] خفت عقولکم و سفهت حلومکم...”.

[10]اف لکم...فأنتم لا تعقلون...”.

[11]أیها القوم الشاهدة أبدانهم الغائبة عنهم عقولهم...”.

[12]أیتها النفوس المختلفة و القلوب المتشتته الشاهدة أبدانهم و الغائبة عنهم عقولهم...”.

[13] What is meant by this statement is that sometimes praise and criticism are results of the circumstances and contexts in which things take place.

[14] Javadi Amoli, Abdullah, Zan dar Ayineye Jalal va Jamal, pg. 368, 369.

[15] Ma’adikhah, Abdul-Majid, Khorshide bi Ghurub, sermons 13 and 14.

[16]اعجاب المرء بنفسه دلیل علی ضعف عقله”, Al-Kafi, vol. 1, pg. 27, hadith 31, the book/chapter of ‘the mind and ignorance’ (Al-Aql wal Jahl).

[17] Like “اعجاب المرءِ بنفسه حمق”, Sharh Ghurarul-Hikam wa Durarul-Hikam, vol. 1, pg. 311.

[18] See: Zan dar Ayineye Jalal va Jamal.

[19] Usul Kafi, vol. 1, the book of ‘the mind and ignorance’, chapter 1, hadith 3, pg. 11. “العقل ما عبد به الرحمن و الکتاب به الجنان”.

[20] Zan dar Ayineye Jalal va Jamal, pg. 268 and 369.

[21] See: Tafsir Nemouneh, vol. 2, pg. 164.

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