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Houses, Women, and Horses: A Clarification on Bad Omens and an Often Misunderstood Hadith

Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra

Question: Assalamu alaykum Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatu

Please explain the following Hadith.

Sahl ibn Sa’d said, “If there is bad luck in anything, it is in houses, women and horses.”
Anas ibn Malik said, “A man said, ‘Messenger of Allah, we were in a house and there were a large number of us and we had a lot of property in it. Then we moved to another house and our numbers decreased and our property became less in it (the new house).’ The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “Go back to it (the first house) or leave it (the second house) ¬ it is bad.'”

May Allah grant you the best both in this world and the next Ameen!

Answer: Wa alaikum salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

Thank you for your question.  Variations of this narration appear in almost all the major compilations of hadith.  Due to reading a translation that may not convey the nuance of the meaning, the casual reader may be led to think that this hadith affirms the existence of bad luck, or that women are bad luck.

Neither of these assumptions are true, nor are they intended by the hadith.  Belief in superstition is completely forbidden in Islam, and women are the noble partners of men in worshiping Allah Most High, not a bad omen.

If we translate the hadith while considering its linguistic implications, corroborating versions and context, it would then approximately read that the Prophet Muhammad [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] said:
“If there was [such thing as] bad omens in anything, they would have been in houses, spouses and horses.” [al-Bukhari, al-Sahih and Muslim, al-Sahih]

Thus, the hadith negates the existence of bad luck or bad omens, and points out three major things in life (where you live, who you marry and your means of transport) which people, after suffering a bad experience with any one of them, often inadvertently fall into superstitious beliefs about.

An example is if there is a house in which every previous owner suddenly died upon moving in, and the new owner just discovered after having moved in.  If their faith is not strong, this could prove to be a great source of anxiety for them, despite the fact that they are Muslim who know that everything is in Allah Most High’s control and that superstition is false.

This hadith then becomes the basis of a merciful dispensation.  For those whose fear can actually affect their faith and cause hardship, they can separate from the cause of their anxiety in order to relieve themselves and protect their beliefs from doubts, and they would not be blamed for having acted on the basis of superstition if they did so.

Superstition and Fortune-Telling Are Impermissible in Islam

Firstly, it is important to note that fortune-telling and superstitious omens are completely forbidden (haram)to engage in or believe in in Islam.  This is because Allah Ta’ala is in complete control of all things, yet in superstition, the benefit or harm in a matter is consigned to other than Allah, such as a spirit, or a force that one begins to believe in, fear and “consult”.

It was the practice of the pre-Islamic Arabs to believe in superstitions and consult the flight pattern of birds (augury) as an attempt to check for a good or bad omen.  Islam negated this belief and practice, as this and other hadith show.

The hadith is simply saying that while bad omens are not true, houses, spouses [not “women” as is mistranslated] and riding mounts [read: one’s means of transport] are the things of this world that people most often attach bad omens to.

Another reading of the hadith could mean that while omens are not true, if they had been true, it would have been in these three things.  Only a small minority of scholars, namely Imam Malik, held that these three areas were actually exceptions to be susceptible to bad omens.

The majority of scholars disagreed, concurring on the falsehood of all bad omens, citing another version of this hadeeth mentioned in al-Bukhari’s Sahih which begins by clearly negating augury and belief in any force independent of Allah before mentioning the same text as above.  [al-Kandehlawi, Awjaz al-Masalik]

Why Houses, Spouses and Horses?

The hadith mentions three things: houses, spouses and horses.  They are most often the objects of a person’s superstitious anxiety or pessimism because they are so pervasive in one’s life, and problems can often occur in them.  Once a problem occurs in them, someone whose faith is not strong might start getting whisperings in their heart and doubts that it is a sign of bad luck.
Scholars also interpret the word “bad omen” here to mean “inauspicious”, or non-conducive to blessings and happiness.

On this meaning, the scholars give the example that a bad omen in a house could be: having bad neighbors, or the house being dark and cramped for space, or be so far from the masjid that one cannot hear the adhan.

In a horse, an example of inauspiciousness could be that it gets tired easily and is unreliable, or that it has never been used for a noble purpose.  In modern times, perhaps an analogy could be made to a car which repeatedly breaks down and is associated with many problems.

In a spouse, it could be bad character, or secret flaws, or the tendency to be verbally abusive, or a worldy or greedy outlook.  [al-Tibi, Sharh Mishkaat]

Thus, for those in whom feelings of anxiety are becoming harmful to their faith and peace of mind, the scholars say that it is better to move out of a “creepy” house, to respectfully divorce a troublesome spouse, and sell off a problematic means of transport so that one can move on with their lives and their faith.

Does the Hadith Say that Women are Bad Luck?

The hadith does not mean that women, as a gender, are bad luck.  Firstly, we have just explained how the hadith does not affirm the existence of bad luck at all, rather it negates it.  The translation can thus be misleading.

Secondly, the children of Adam and Eve (peace be upon them) are the ennobled and chosen creation of Allah Most High, and Islam does not see an entire half of the human race as inauspicious, or less blessed, or more inclined to evil than the other half, as perhaps some other religions traditionally have.

Thirdly, women are recounted as sources of blessings in many places.  The Qur’an itself refutes the idea that the birth of a girl is a bad omen [Quran 16:58].  In hadith literature, raising female children properly has been mentioned as being a means of salvation from the hellfire, and a means to eternal closeness to the Messenger (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) in Paradise.

As Imam Sakhawi said: “And had there not been in [daughters] divine blessings, the pure lineage and prophetic progeny would not have been carried forth through a woman [Fatima, may Allah be pleased with her].” [al-Sakhawi, Maqasid al-Hasana]

However, even the translation of “al-mar’a” into “women” is misleading.  The hadith does not simply intend females (al-nisaa).  Rather, the word used is also used for “wife” in Arabic.  This is further corroborated by the fact that the many commentators of this famous hadith only mention qualities related to marriage in commenting on this term.   “Wife” was used because those being addressed were men.

However, we also see that the inauspicious qualities that could be found in a wife could equally be found in a man: bad character, a worldly attitude or a history of bad marriages.  As a hadith states, women are the “twin-halves of men” [Abu Dawud, Sunan] and Ibn Hajr al-Asqalani comments that this shows that men and women are equal in rulings unless specified; thus a translation that clarifies the purport would be “spouses”.  [Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari]

Bad Omens Are Only Upon Those Who Believe In Them

Some scholars have opined that superstitious worries often bring about negative results, not because of bad luck, but because it leads one to become paranoid and actually invite and provoke calamities due to that fear, like a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. [Taqi Usmani, Takmila Fath al-Mulhim]

One version of this hadith adds: “The bad omen is upon the one who practices the reading of bad omens.” [Ibn Hibban, al-Sahih]

As for the second part of the hadith in the question where the Prophet [Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] advised the family to move out of the house in which they suffered losses [“then leave it to its own vileness”], this was advised because the family in it had suffered a loss and had already attached a pessimistic view to it.  Hence, it was only their negativity that made the house vile, so to relieve their worries despite believing in Allah Most High, it became permissible to move to another dwelling. [al-Baji, al-Muntaqa]

This teaches us the harm of forgetting that Allah Most High is in total control of His creation, and highlights the importance of relying on Him alone, and believing firmly that harm and benefit can come only from Him.  And we ask Allah Most High for His protection from calamities, and that He facilitate for us all paths to His pleasure.

Wasalam,

Abdullah Anik Misra

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani