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Women in Islam and Christianity

Today, an issue which constantly comes to the fore between Muslims and Christians is that of gender. As society has changed and 'traditional' gender roles have been challenged, particularly in the West, questions concerning the role of Muslim and Christian women in society are being voiced as never before. It is therefore imperative that we attempt a comparison between the role of women in both religions, as a platform for further discussion. We expect that some women will agree with our propositions, and others will find other proposed solutions to be more acceptable. That's understandable and to be encouraged. Our focus is on how to explain the concept of Christian/Muslim womanhood, and how to answer the questions that are often raised by each party. The nature of these questions will vary tremendously depending on the women we meet, their educational level, degree of westernisation, and indigenous culture will have an important impact. Each of us here will have something useful to contribute from our own individual experiences, and I trust that this will be a forum for learning from one another.

What is a woman?


    Muslim women define themselves primarily in terms of their relationships (i.e. mother, daughter, sister, wife, in this order of importance). The roles that they fulfil within these relationships are usually well defined by their culture.
    1. Low Importance:
      • Boys are given a higher importance than girls (i.e. medicine, education, punishment, etc...)
      • Women are considered evil and equal to horses, and man's most harmful disease:
      Evil omen was mentioned before the Prophet. The Prophet said, "If there is evil omen in anything, it is in the house, the woman and the horse." Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 7:30-31

      The Prophet said, "After me I have not left any affliction more harmful to men than women." Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 7:33

    2. Chastity and Purity

      Intact hymen (Saadawi)

      Arab society still considers that the fine membrane which covers the external genital organs is the most cherished and most important part of a girl's body, and is much more valuable than one of her eyes, or arm, or a lower limb. An Arab family does not grieve as much at the loss of a girl's eye as it does if she happens to lose her virginity. In fact if the girl lost her life, it would be considered less of a catastrophe than if she lost her hymen. (Nawal el Saadawi. The Hidden Face of Eve, p. 26)

      -Why is there no equivalent requirement for the chastity of men (a double standard)?

      -Their chastity gives us a view of women as sexual objects alone.

    3. Marriage

      -from the prophet's example, a girl could be married at the age of 6, and be consummated at 9!

      (referring to Aisha) = that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death) Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 7:64, 88

      -Obedience to husband ? relationship of power, unilateral corporeal punishment (S. 4:34 v. 4:128), financial responsibility, wives do not have the right to refuse sex.

      Qur'an 2:223 Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will, and send (good deeds) before you for your souls, and fear Allah, and know that ye will (one day) meet Him. Give glad tidings to believers, (O Muhammad)

      Al Bukhari Vol. 7:121 quotes Muhammad as saying If a man invites his wife to sleep with him and she refuses to come to him, then the angels send their curses on her until morning.

      Qur'an 4:34 Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great.

      -The prophet's example shows us a model of women's sexual identity.

      Narrated byAbdur Rahman bin Al Aswad (on the authority of his father) 'Aisha said: "Whenever Allah's Apostle wanted to fondle anyone of us during her periods (menses), he used to order her to put on an Izar and start fondling her." 'Aisha added, "None of you could control his sexual desires as the Prophet could." Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 1.298-299

      -Muta marriages could be arranged from 3 nights or more (still practised today in Iran)!

      While we were in an army, Allah's Apostle came to us and said, "You have been allowed to do the Mut'a (marriage), so do it." Salama bin Al-Akwa' said: Allah's Apostle's said, "If a man and a woman agree (to marry temporarily), their marriage should last for three nights, and if they like to continue, they can do so; and if they want to separate, they can do so." Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 7:52

      -Polygamy is reserved for the male, not vice-versa (excuse that there was a disproportionate number of girls to boys does not bear out present reality)

    4. Motherhood
      • Importance of sons ? two sheep slaughtered for a boy, one for a girl (Bukhari, Glaser p. 83), the vertical mother-son bond is the strongest family relationship (hadith from Bukhari and Muslim) (Mernissi's comments in Glaser p. 51)
      • Raising children in threatening world: maintaining culture, preventing corruption, fears of safety
      • Barrenness is a terrible stigma (singleness is not an option)
      • Children (i.e. sons) are then responsible for their parents

    5. Obedience:
      Women are required to be obedient to men, or be beaten (S. 4:34), yet if a man is not obedient, a woman can only seek arbitration (S.4:128)

    6. Modesty in dress and gaze:

      S. 33:53 - the veil is commanded

      S. 33:32-33 - the example of purity shown by the wives of the prophet

      -- no such thing as an asexual person or relationship

      For Westerners the world consists of people and we relate to people a-sexually, but in the East their world is divided into male and female and they relate to each other always on a sexual basis. An Eastern woman doesn't speak to a person when she addresses a man, she speaks to a male-person and her behaviour alters accordingly, deliberately contained or even deliberately seductive. Whatever position she chooses, her behaviour is motivated by the same overriding more of sexuality. (Christine Mallouhi, Mini-skirts Mothers and Muslims p. 37)

    7. Piety

      can't pray or read Qur'an while menstruating

      [Muhammad] replied, is not the testimony of a woman equivalent to half the testimony of a man? They said, yes. Remarking that that pertained to the deficiency of her intelligence he asked, is it not the case that when [a Muslim woman] menstruates she neither prays nor fasts? When they replied, yes, he said, that that pertains to the deficiency of her religion.

      (Bukhari 1:301; Mishkat Al-Masabih, Vol. 1, p. 9)

    8. Heaven:
      Muhammad says the majority of people in hell are women,

      - because of their low intelligence:

      Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) o 'Id_al_Adha or Al_Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell_fire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion." Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 1.301

      - because of their ungratefulness.

      [The Prophet] said, "I saw Paradise (or Paradise was shown to me), and I stretched my hand to pluck a bunch (of grapes), and had I plucked it, you would have eaten of it as long as this world exists. Then I saw the (Hell) Fire, and I have never before, seen such a horrible sight as that, and I saw that the majority of its dwellers were women." The people asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is the reason for that?" He replied, "Because of their ungratefulness." It was said. "Do they disbelieve in Allah (are they ungrateful to Allah)?" He replied, "They are not thankful to their husbands and are ungrateful for the favours done to them. Even if you do good to one of them all your life, when she seems some harshness from you, she will say, "I have never seen any good from you.' " Sahih Al_Bukhari Hadith 1:301; 7:125-126, 243, 616, 651

    The noble woman of the east values and protects her modesty and chastity so highly that she veils herself and limits herself to the four walls of her house. The internally torn woman of the west, by contrast, exhibits everything she has to offer, attracts men and is attracted to them and leaves her home to knock about aimlessly in cinemas and cafes, malls and bazaars, parks and theatres, exhibitions and circuses. How does one compare the sinful false vanity of Jahiliyya to the billowing ocean of honour and modesty of Muslim women? As a poet has said: How do you compare a dead lantern with the light of the sun? (Madani, Hijab, p. 108)

    • Disrespectful to husbands
    • Treated badly by our men
    • Breakdown of families
    • Sexually loose
    • Immodest
    • Not truly feminine (especially single or childless women) Religion
    • Idolatrous: gone astray
    • Low status (misunderstanding of Biblical texts)

    • Men and women both created in the image of God.
    • Both fallen.
    • Both can be redeemed.
    • Both can approach God directly
    • Both can be used by God.
    • All believers are equal in Christ. (Gal 3:28)
    • Priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9)
    • All believers are children of God (John 1:12)
    • The Holy Spirit gives gift to all believers for the edification of the church (1 Cor 12:12-31, Eph 4:11-13, Ro 12:3-8)
    • Our humanity and relationship to Christ take precedence over our femininity, but that does not mean our femininity is unimportant.

    Marriage and family life has always been normative for Christian women, although the single state is also considered acceptable, and in certain situations even preferable (1 Cor. 7:25-35). Scripture paints the scope of women's activities with a broad brush, and gives examples of women fulfilling a vast array of functions within the home and within society. (see below) The nucleus of a family revolves around the relationship between husband and wife. God created men and women for one another in order that together they may fulfil their mandate to rule over creation and to reproduce (Gen. 1:27-28). The image of a marriage is that of two individuals becoming one unit (Gen. 2:24, Mt. 19:5). This relationship is characterised by interdependency (1 Cor. 11;11), mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), and sexual fulfillment (1Cor. 7:3-5 states that each has a claim on the other's body, and Song of Songs describes the wonder of sexual union). Wives are specifically reminded to be respectful to their husbands (Eph. 5:33), to love them (Tit. 2:4), be faithful to them (1 Tim. 5:9), and to submit to them (Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18, Tit. 2:5, 1 Pe. 3:1,5,6). Husbands are in turn reminded that they are to love their wives as much as they love themselves (Eph. 5:33), to sacrifice for her as Christ did for the Church (Eph. 5:25), to give themselves up for her benefit and to care for her needs (Eph. 5:25-29), to be considerate towards her and respect her (1 Pe. 3:7), to be kind and to never be harsh with her (Col. 3:18).

    Children are a blessing from the Lord (Pr. 17:6. Ps. 127:3). They are commanded to honour and obey their mothers (Eph. 6:1-3, Pr. 23:12). Mothers are commanded to teach (Pr. 6:20), discipline them (Pr. 29:15), and love them (Tit. 2:5). They are to model good moral standards and are forbidden to be gossips, busybodies, or idle (1 Tim. 5:19), or be slanderers or drunkards (Tit. 2:3). [See also the lists of behaviour for all believers (e.g. Eph. 5:1-5).] Older women are also responsible for the teaching of younger women (Tit. 2:4-5), and younger women are required to care for their elderly relatives (1 Tim. 5:4,8).

    Sexual purity is extremely important in the Bible, and any sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage is condemned. If a man slept with an unmarried girl he was required to pay the bride-price and marry her (Ex. 22:16-17; Deut. 22:28-29). But if he slept with a betrothed or married woman then both would be put to death (Deut. 22:22-24, Lev. 20:10). Of course the previous situations presume that the sex was consensual - in cases of rape the perpetrator was put to death (Deut. 22:25-27). In the New Testament Jesus raised the standards even higher. Not only physical adultery but also lust is forbidden because it was adultery of the heart (Mt. 5:27-29). And the apostles urged the early Christians to flee from even a hint of sexual immorality (e.g 1 Cor. 6:18, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3).

    Modesty is also commanded for Christian women, but interestingly, the reasons given have nothing to do with sexual temptation. Rather modest dress is seen as the contrast to vanity and worldliness. Rather than attempting to gain status through fancy hairdos or expensive clothes, Christian women are to be known for their piety and good deeds (1 Tim. 2:9-0, 1 Pe. 3:3-4, cf. Pr. 1). Women are never held responsible for the sexual behaviour of men, rather, men are commanded to watch their eyes and their thoughts. Even if a woman deliberately seduces a man, he is held responsible for his own actions - as she is for hers (e.g. Pr. 5:1-23, 6:20-27). However, although sexual temptation is never given as a reason that Christian women must dress modestly, most are conscious of the effect that their clothing may have on men, and out of love for their brothers dress in a manner that makes it easier for a man to keep his thoughts pure. This concern with the welfare of others, putting their good ahead of our own and using our freedom in such a way so as not to put a stumbling block in the path of the weak, is strongly urged in Scripture (Php. 2:4; 1 Cor, 8:9,13, 10:24; Rom. 14:13).


  5. Old TestamentNew Testament
    Eve (Gen. 1:27-28) Jesus and women:Lame Woman (Lk. 14:10)
    Miriam (Ex. 15:20; Mic. 6:4)The woman with the haemorrhage (Lk. 8:40)
    Deborah (Judg. 4-5)Samaritan harlot (Jn. 4:1-42)
    RuthWidow of Nain's son (Lk. 7:11)
    Hannah (1 Sam. 1:1-2:11)Syro-phonecian woman (Lk. 15:21-28)
    Abigail (1 Sa. 25:14-35)Peter's mother-in-law (Mk. 1:29)
    EstherMary Magdalene (Lk. 8:22)
    Huldah (2 Ki. 22:14-20; 2 Chr. 34:11-33)Mary and Martha (Lk. 10:38-42, Jn. 11:1-44)
    Proverbs 31 woman Priscilla (Ac. 24-28)

Islam v. Christianity on key theological issues

  • Creation, Fall, and Redemption
  • Access to God
  • Culture, Translatability and Freedom
  • The uniqueness of the feminine
  • How does the theology influence the culture. (e.g. how does view of God influence view of marriage)

Controversy within the church

  • Historical perspective
  • Defining areas of agreement and difference
  • Related issues that contribute to the differences
  • Discussing the controversy with Muslims

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