One of the most controversial Shi’i texts today is a sermon in Nahj al-Balaghah (an early eleventh century collection of materials attributed to ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib) describing women as deficient in faith and intellect. This is only one of several passages in Nahj al-Balaghah which come across as unfavourable to women.
While, in the Shi’i tradition, the authenticity of materials in Nahj al-Balaghah is rarely challenged, this paper challenges the authenticity of these passages about women through three means: (a) a traditional approach based on alternative sources and chains of narration; (b) textual criticism, including the suggestion that the notion of women being ‘deficient’ was actually taken from Aristotle, not Imam ‘Ali; and (c) comparing the treatment of women in Nahj al-Balaghah with the treatment of women in Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays, the earliest extant Shi’i text. This will be done under the premise that if the portrayals significantly conflict, the material in Nahj al-Balaghah may reflect a later set of cultural-religious norms and have been attributed to ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib posthumously.
Additionally, it argues against the common view that some of these passages were addressed specifically to ‘A’ishah (as opposed to all women) due to her participation in the Battle of the Camel by a deeper examination of the alternative textual sources. It also highlights the ethical problems involved in attacking women through their gender – which is often done in Shi’i historical narrative with respect to ‘A’ishah – and considers the persistence of these ideas about the nature of women in contemporary Shi’i ideologies of gender.
Keywords: Shi’ism; ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib; Nahj al-Balaghah; Kitab Sulaym ibn Qays; women; hadith