Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition

(A Response to: 'Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: the Myth and the Reality', an article by Brother Sherif Muhammed)

By Sharon Morad, Beth Grove, and Jay Smith

July 2006


There has been a need to answer many of the challenges Muslims posit concerning the way we treat women in Christianity, compared to the example in Islam. To aid us in this endeavour, we have set about just such a task, using as our model, a paper written by Sherif Muhammad (abbreviated as SM in the following), which challenges many of our precepts concerning women. While this paper by SM will be used as a model, our responses will include auxiliary challenges and responses to aid the reader in better assessing the wider debate.

The stated aims of SM concerning this issue are laudable, to compare the position of women in the three religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) without attempting to denigrate the traditions they do not share. However, one is forced to question SM’s motives as he tends to repeat a number of errors in his assessment, seven to be exact…which include:

In this brief response we will try to be careful not to give an impartial comparison that is so often found in SM’s polemical writings. Instead we will confine ourselves to the more limited aim of showing where he has used the Bible unfairly for polemical ends. Though we believe that he has often distorted the teaching of the rabbis and the church fathers by quoting them out of context and with scant regard for their culture and language, we have foregone disputing him on that point for the moment, since the use of these sources is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, as Christians do not consider these sources to have the same sort of authority that Muslims grant to the Hadith.

We do not dispute the many good things that Muslims have to say about Islam, but on occasion we have pointed out passages in the Qur'an or the Hadith that seem to challenge their conclusions, and suggest that an honest treatment of the issues would demand an explanation of these troublesome texts.

I. Eve's Fault

SM’s argument:

In contrast to the Bible, the Qur'an:
- places equal blame on Adam and Eve
- suggests Eve did not tempt Adam
- believes Eve is not blamed for the pains of childbirth

Forgiveness in the Qur'an:
- God does not punish anyone for another's fault (Suras 6:164; 53:38)
- God freely forgave Adam and Eve's fault.

Our Response:

In the Genesis account, both Adam and Eve were present at the fall, both sinned, and both were punished. (Incidentally, the only one who is recorded as having 'tempted' anyone is the serpent; we have no reason to believe that Eve tried to persuade Adam in any way). Throughout the rest of Scripture, 'blame' is again attributed to both parties. Romans 5:12-21 focuses on the guilt of Adam, while 1 Timothy 2:13-14 focuses on the guilt of Eve, both passages written by Paul. Both Adam and Eve are treated seriously as moral agents, whose choices have real consequences. The ultimate consequence for each of them (because they are human) is death. However, God, being a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, did not enact the penalty immediately, but granted them the gift of children, so that all human life could some day be redeemed. The curse did begin to take effect immediately, in that Adam and Eve would both have to live out the remainder of their days in the shadow of death. Adam would struggle and face pain in bringing forth food from the ground for their sustenance, while Eve would struggle and face pain in the bringing forth of children for the next generation. Surely everyone would agree that pain in childbirth is not a good thing? But since death entered the world through the choice of Adam and the choice of Eve, it hangs over life from beginning to end. Far from being the scapegoat, Eve is held forth as the example of hope, for among her descendants will arise the 'seed' who will defeat sin and death (Gen. 3:15), and she will be the mother of all of humanity (Gen. 3:20). Likewise, the promised Messiah must come through a woman, and the un-cursed line of Jesus, is through the woman, Mary (Luke 3).

With regard to the Qur'anic account, we are forced to question why Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise if God had truly forgiven them (Sura 2:37-38)? What does God's forgiveness mean then? It also raises questions about the nature of God. How can he be truly righteous and holy if he does not hate sin? And how can he take humans seriously as moral agents if he can simply ignore their sinful choices?

What’s more, the idea that God does not punish anyone for another’s fault is contradicted by Sura 4:157, where a man is given the image of Jesus, and then dies on the cross in lieu of Jesus, seemingly paying for his ‘sin’. A further glaring example of corporate guilt is this very story in Sura 2. Since none of us are in the garden today, having all been cast out of the garden, due to their sin (this event was even more dramatic in the Qur'anic account, since the garden mentioned there was up in space), and so cannot enjoy its benefits, we have all corporally been punished for Adam and Eve’s sin, implying original sin.

The doctrine of original sin will be incomprehensible to Muslims until they have cleared up several other aspects of the nature of God. But it should be adequate to point out that whether or not you believe humans are born sinful, the fact is that all people do sin, and therefore the need for a solution to sin, and of forgiveness, remains universal as well.

II. Eve's legacy

SM's argument:

The Bible:

The Biblical image of Eve is one of a 'temptress' and all women inherit her guilt and guile. 'Consequently, [women] were all untrustworthy, morally inferior, and wicked. Menstruation, pregnancy, and childbearing were considered the just punishment for the eternal guilt of the cursed female sex.'

Ecc. 7: 26-28 shows that no righteous women exist. Then SM provides lots of non-Biblical citations: nine curses on women listed by Jewish Rabbis, a passage from Ecclesiasticus, and the daily prayer of Jewish men thanking God they are not a woman.

In Christianity Eve is pivotal because:

(SM lists a lot more quotations from the church fathers - Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther.)

The Qur'an:

3:35 - men and women are listed together as believers and are given forgiveness
9:71 - men and women do good deeds and obey God
3:195 - men and women are members of one another
40:40 - men and women believers who do good deeds enter paradise
16:97 - men and women who do good deeds will be rewarded

In Summary: the purpose for women is the same as that for men, to worship God, do good deeds, and avoid evil. The Qur'an never says that men are made in God's image. Both men and women are God's creations. The role of women is not limited to childbirth and women must do the same righteous deeds as a man. The Qur'an never says there are no righteous women, but instead holds up some women as examples (e.g. Mary and Pharaoh's wife - S. 66:11-13)

Our Response:

The bulk of SM’s evidence is based on non-Biblical sources. As Christians we do not recognise these sources as being divinely inspired, and have no trouble admitting that various people reading the Bible have made mistakes in interpreting it. We are sure SM would not want us to begin listing the horrific references about women in many Islamic pieces of literature which have been popularized lately, as examples of correct Islamic teaching.

The unfortunate negative views of some of the church fathers he lists must be understood in light of the surrounding culture and the fact that many of them had little contact with women, due to the fact that they were monks. However, this was not the only perspective of the church fathers, and, more significantly, it was not the perspective of the apostles, who learned directly from our Saviour to value and respect women.

Conspicuous by their absence are any references by SM to women whom Jesus cited as examples of faith and piety [e.g., healing of an ill woman and raising of a dead girl (Luke 8:40-56); the widow of Zarapheth (Lk. 4:24-26); Mary and Martha (Lk. 10:38-42); the persistent widow (Lk. 18:1-8); or the poor widow’s offering (Lk. 21:1-4); the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk. 7:24-28, Mt. 15:21-28)].

The quotation from Ecclesiastes is completely out of context.

As for the statement that all ‘daughters of Eve’ are sinners, of course is true, but so are all ‘sons of Adam’! Romans 3:23 stresses, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, implying both men and women. Sinfulness is common to the human condition, but redemption is offered to us all through Christ Jesus.

Regarding the Qur'an’s portrayal of Eve, indeed, it would be well nigh impossible to construe any unique blame on her, for she is such a secondary character that she is not even mentioned by name (S. 2:34-5). It is Adam who is deemed God’s vice-regent (khalifah) (S. 2:30), taught ‘the nature of all things’ by God (S. 2:31), to whom the angels bow (S. 2:34), and who receives the words of God (S. 2:36). Contrast this with the Bible, where Adam and Eve are declared joint rulers over the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). And despite the lack of basis in the Qur'an, according to the hadith Muhammad seemed to hold Eve responsible for sin.

SM’s choice of verses to depict the equality of women in the Qur'an stays clear of the more problematic and better known verses which show a clear inequality with men, and stand in clear contrast to anything which can be found in the New Testament, namely:

III. Shameful Daughters

SM's argument:

In the Bible the mother's ritual impurity was twice as long for a baby girl as for a baby boy (Lev. 12:2-5), and Ecclesiasticus [apocryphal literature] has many negative things to say about daughters. Islam on the other hand condemned female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia (S. 16:59, 43:17, 81:8-9) and it considers the birth of a baby girl to be as much of a blessing as that of a baby boy (S. 42:9). The hadith refer to Muhammad blessing men who bring up their daughters kindly (Bukhari & Muslim).

Our Response:

SM obviously does not understand the purpose of the purity laws in the Torah. The Hebrew world-view divided the world into ‘holy’ (things that are set apart as having to do with God) and ‘common’ (everything else). Common things could be either ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’. The normative state was to be ‘clean and common’, but certain rituals (primarily the blood sacrifices) could sanctify a person and certain situations (e.g. sin, weakness, and various abnormalities of function or condition of the human body) could make a person unclean. The levitical rules were designed to prevent anything unclean from coming in contact with anything holy. Ritual uncleanness did not imply moral blame, rather it was a state of ceremonial quarantine. Discharges from the body, especially of blood, (which represented life), was a deviation of normal health and a potential cause of death. It was not a sinful or shameful situation, but a dangerous one, making a person temporarily unfit to participate in sanctuary worship. Childbirth was recognized as a gift from God (e.g. Prov. 17:6; Ps. 127:3), but it did involve the loss of blood and so made the mother temporarily unclean (Lev. 12:2). No reason is given as to why the period is twice as long after the birth of a girl as for a boy, though some have suggested that it is in anticipation of the girl’s future menstruation. Therefore saying it is derogatory to females is imposing a man-made idea onto the text. In any case, since no shame was associated with the state of post-natal uncleanness in the first place there is no reason to associate the different length of times prescribed saying anything about the comparative value of a boy or girl. (See New Bible Commentary. IVP:Leicester. 1994. pp. 136-139)

With his references to the pre-Islamic infanticide (incidentally, the only example ever given by Muslims for Muhammad’s supposed civilizing effect on the Arabian peninsula), he has yet to bring forward any historical evidence that such infanticide ever occurred, or even was a common practice. In fact, it is difficult to reconcile his claim that polygamy was necessary due to a disproportionately high female to male ratio (see XIV below) with the existence of widespread female infanticide. What’s more, concerning polygamy, it now seems that it was little known or practiced in the Arabian peninsula before the time of Islam, and was a practice which was introduced primarily by Muhammad himself (Harald Motzki, "Marriage and Divorce", Encyclopedia of the Qur'an, vol.3, Leiden & Boston:Brill, 2006, p. 278).

Many Muslim protagonists claim that Muhammad elevated the position of women, by giving definite guidelines on male/female relationships; yet, it seem that over time, Muhammad’s stipulations imposed more rules and regulations and lack of freedoms on the women of Arabia; a progression that develops even more so in the hadith and fiqh material. (See Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992, 41-63). His wives exemplify this, in that as the Qur'an progresses from the Meccan to the Medinan revelations, more and more rules were put on them as Muhammad seemingly received more and more ‘revelations’ concerning his household struggles, i.e. the jealousy of wives, his unequal treatment of wives, his favouritism, his desire to take other wives, and the quarrels between the wives. (See Anwar Hekmats Women and The Koran: The Status of Women in Islam. Prometheus Books, 1997)

IV. Female Education

SM's argument:

1 Cor. 14:34-35 forbids women from speaking. How can a woman learn if she can't ask questions and if she must be in full submission? The Qur'an, however, refers to an occasion when a woman who argues with Muhammad and is then judged right with Allah (S. 58).

Our Response:

To begin with, the interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is incorrect and does not consider the context of the passage (see discussion on various interpretations above). This was a particular problem (women were disrupting the meeting by speaking out loud, due to the fact that they were hearing the scriptures being read openly for the first time), for a particular place (the city of Corinth, where many of the converts came out of a conservative Jewish background, and so had never attended a public religious gathering, nor heard the scriptures read publicly before). This admonition was certainly not repeated in any other church, thus it should not be taken as an absolute rule, as SM implies. This statement was made for a specific time, to a specific church, concerning a specific problem and a specific context, and has no connection to the overall education of women, as implied by the ‘title’ SM gave this section. He is adding to the text that which was not implied, nor intended by the author.

Secondly, he blatantly ignores all of the examples of women arguing with and questioning men in the Bible, as well as examples where they learned and instructed others, including in religious matters. [e.g. Abigail challenging David (1 Sa. 25:14-35), Zelophehad's daughters questioning Moses (Num. 27:1-11), the ideal wife described in Proverbs 31 with 'faithful instruction on her tongue,' Martha arguing with Jesus while Mary sat at his feet and learned just like any other male disciple (Lk. 10:38-42), the example of Priscilla, a woman, teaching the learned Apollo, a man (Acts 18:24-28), and the commands in the epistles for women to learn (1 Tim. 2:11) and then to teach (Tit. 2:4-5)].

V. Unclean, impure women

SM's argument:

Lev. 15:19-23 - menstruation makes a woman unclean, and whatever she touches must be washed. In Islam, however, menstruation is a normal part of life. The only limitations are that they may not have sexual intercourse while menstruating, and they are exempt from prayer and fasting.

Our Response:

Once again SM has misunderstood what the phrase 'unclean' meant in the Torah. It was not a direct reflection of the moral status of the individual as he implies. Nor is this condition something unique to women. Men are also considered 'unclean' after an emission of semen (Lev. 15:16-18 - this is immediately prior to the verses he cited). We find his misunderstanding to be puzzling, as Muslims have a similar concept of ritual purity that is necessary before 'salah,' and the same sorts of circumstances can make it necessary for a person to perform 'wudu' (e.g. emission of semen, passing wind, having a baby spit up on them, etc…).

Finally, any limitations passed on a menstruating woman in the Torah or in rabbinical tradition, pales in comparison to the Muslim teaching that a woman may not even pray while menstruating. That is a heavy penalty indeed for any woman who truly loves her God - to be forbidden from speaking to him during the days of her bleeding, a time when she would need to be in relationship with her God the most.

SM also ignores the disturbing comments Muhammad makes towards women because of their menstruation. In Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 1:301, Muhammad is alleged to have said ‘…Then he, [Muhammad], passed by the women and said,… I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be lead astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?"... 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" [emphasis added].

VI. Bearing witness

SM's argument:

The Qur'an S. 2:282 declares that in financial transactions the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man, but in S. 24:6-11, if a man accuses his wife of un-chastity the woman can swear herself to be innocent, and nothing is done to her.

In the Bible, Sarah is recorded as lying (Gen. 10:9-16) and some Rabbis have taken this to mean that all women are liars. Num. 5:11-31 prescribes a trial by ordeal for a woman accused of adultery, and Deut. 22:13-21 gives parents the responsibility of proving the innocence of their daughter if she is accused of not having been a virgin on her wedding night (the girl couldn't speak up for herself).

Our Response:

The reference to Sarah is irrelevant, as the Bible itself makes no such extrapolation. Besides, other men are described in scripture as lying as well. It is a sin common to both genders, which should be obvious when reading the numerous lies recorded in scripture, the majority by men.

The interpretation of Numbers 5 entirely misses the point. Of course the woman is speaking and giving testimony on her own behalf. More than that, she is appealing to God to be her witness. The trial by ordeal was the enactment of God's justice as it was the LORD himself who would proclaim the guilt or innocence of the accused.

The Islamic situation whereby a woman can simply claim five times that she is innocent, is strange, as it means that a woman who was lying, once she had testified 5 times, would simply be let off. Where is the justice there?

Concerning Deuteronomy 22, it is first of all unwarranted to say that a woman could not testify on her own behalf. The passage, unlike the Qur'an (Sura 24:6-11), merely states that her own testimony is insufficient proof of innocence. A marriage involved the joining of two families, not simply two individuals, and the truthfulness of the parents in having declared their daughter a virgin to her betrothed was also at stake when an accusation was brought against her. Bringing forth proof of her chastity vindicated the honour of the accused woman and confirmed the honesty of her parents as well.

With regard to the Qur'an, it is extraordinary that on less significant issues such as financial transactions the testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of a single man, while for such a serious accusation as adultery the woman is supposed to be taken at her word with no investigation made as to her truthfulness. Of course SM neglects to mention the serious breach of observance of his interpretation of these passages throughout the Muslim world today.

Sharif also fails to mention Muhammad’s attitude towards women and their testimony as recorded in Sahih Bukhari Hadith 1:301, ‘…Then he, [Muhammad], 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 lead 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 [emphasis added].

VII. Adultery

SM's argument:

The Bible commands the death sentence for male and female adulterers (Lev. 20:10), as does the Qur'an (S. 24:2), however, the Bible only considers extramarital affairs involving a married woman to be adultery (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22, Pr. 6:20-7:27). If a married man sleeps with an unmarried woman, this is not considered adultery. This is because a woman is considered to be the property of men in the Bible. The Qur'an, on the other hand, describes marriage as 'love, mercy, and tranquillity, not possession and double standards' (S. 30:21).

Our Response:

In a sense, of course, SM is right, the Torah does permit a double standard. Of course, so does the Qur'an, as polygamy itself is a double standard. Why can a man have several wives but a woman can only have one husband, and may not a Muslim man have as many concubines as he wishes, regardless of whether they were married or not, while the same is not accorded Muslim women?

The Old Testament definition of adultery is a reflection of the tolerance of polygamy. If a man sleeps with a woman they are to make the situation right by marrying one another. Married or unmarried men are both capable of fulfilling this obligation, as is an unmarried woman. A married woman, however, is unable to make such restitution, as she is not permitted to take a second husband. As long as polygamy is permitted such a definition of adultery is understandable. It is important to note, however, that whilst tolerated, polygamy is not God’s ideal, nor is it included in his initial institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24-25, and reiterated in the New Testament in Ephesians 5:31-33.

With the New Covenant, however, Jesus decreases the leniency of the Old Covenant regarding marriage. Not only is fornication of all kinds forbidden, but men are commanded to guard their hearts, as in the eyes of Jesus, lust is considered as great a sin as adultery itself. Jesus modelled for us the love and sacrifice that should be seen in every Christian marriage and his example of looking to the needs of others before his own is held before the church as an example of how a man must seek the needs of his wife above his own (e.g. Eph. 5:21ff).

We fail to understand how the 'Qur'anic' definition of adultery (as 'the involvement of a married man or a married woman in an extramarital affair') fits with the permission given for Muslim men to take concubines (S. 4:24), to say nothing of reciprocity, since Muslim women may not have ‘gigolos’. Muhammad himself slept with women to whom he was not married (e.g. Maryam the Copt); does that make him an adulterer? The hadith makes numerous references to Muhammad’s concubines, sometimes simply ‘spoils of war.’ (See Barbara Freyer Stowasser in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, Vol 5, Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2006, p. 508-509).

Interestingly, SM errs in suggesting Sura 24:2 stipulates execution for the adulterer, as this verse only calls for 100 lashes. Unwittingly, he has introduced the punishment, which, according to the traditions, was that practiced by the prophet Muhammad himself, yet not now found in the Qur'an, suggesting a later revision to the text. The fact that the verse on stoning (‘rajam’) was missing in the Qur'an, bothered those who knew that its exclusion would cause problems later on. Consider:

It is interesting to note that the Qur'an also implies different treatment of women in regard to adultery. S. 4:15 mentions that women should be incarcerated in their homes for a period of time which may be until their death, whilst the other mentioned verse stipulates 100 lashes for both the man and woman.

Finally, one would appreciate an explanation concerning how permitting the beating by a man against his wife (S. 4:34-35) fits with an ideal marriage of ‘love and mercy’. The love and mercy is referenced in S. 30:21 ‘And among His Signs is this that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy. Verily, in that are indeed signs for a people who reflect.’ This verse also raises another important issue, in that women are referred to as ‘mother of’, ‘wife of’ ‘women of’ and so on, seen in their relationship to men, not as autonomous, women.

It is interesting that SM failed to mention the concept of ‘Mut'a’ marriages, both mentioned in the Qur'an (S. 4:24) and encouraged by Muhammad. To this day many Shi’a religious leaders believe the institution to be relevant, and whilst Sunnis generally do not, but believe it to have been only for the time of Muhammad, the reasoning behind Mut’a marriages is somewhat disturbing for those who consider the importance of sexual purity within and without marriage. Sura 4:24 stipulates that a man may make a ‘contract’, agreement with a virtuous woman to have sexual relations with her for a fee. The reasons for mut’a marriages, argue Muslim scholars, were for Muhammad’s soldiers who were away from their wives for long periods of time while they were at war. Today such a ‘contract’ or, ‘marriage,’ would be considered ‘legalised prostitution.’ The Qur'anical ‘get out’ for this practice could be its teaching on concubines, and slaves, or literally speaking ‘what ever your right hand possesses.’ If a man can have concubines then his sexual urges can be satisfied, however, this seems contradictory in the face of the Qur'anical discussions on adultery.

VIII. Vows

SM's argument:

Num. 30:2-15. Her husband or father can nullify the vows of a wife or daughter. This is because a woman is owned by a man. Islam, however, declares that both men and women must keep their oaths (though a formula is given for expiating them - S. 5:89), and women and men used to come to Muhammad to make oaths (S. 60:12).

Our Response:

For the claim that men own women, see IX below. Regarding release from vows, several things must be noted:

(1) Husbands and fathers are given permission to release their wives or daughters from fulfilling a vow, but they are not given permission to force her to accept the release. (i.e. they cannot prevent her from fulfilling it.)

(2) If a wife or daughter wishes to follow her husband or father's wishes and not fulfil her vow, then he is the one who is held responsible and he must make expiation; she is not held guilty. However, if she does not fulfil her vows by her own choice, then she must make expiation herself.

IX. Wife's property

SM's argument:

All three religions stress the importance of marriage and family, and all three agree with male leadership in the family. But in the Judaeo-Christian tradition the husband owns his wife as he owns a slave. (For this he gives no Biblical evidence, but cites Jewish and Christian practices at various times. He is especially contemptuous of the practice of female dowry, which he claims is a sign of oppression.)

The Qur'an, on the contrary, does not teach female dowry, rather the man must offer a marriage gift. This gift belongs to the wife and has nothing to do with her husband or family. The woman retains the gift even if she is divorced. The responsibility for her maintenance belongs to her husband and the wife has exclusive control over her earnings. She retains her legal personality and her family name.

Our Response:

The complete lack of Biblical evidence for this argument makes it unworthy of any serious consideration. SM’s prejudice against female dowry reminds one of 19th century Europeans' prejudice against 'wife buying' (as they thought of the marriage gift), and demonstrates little cultural sensitivity or understanding. His argument also stands against the status of women as implied in the Qur'an, for example S. 26:166, which states that wives are created for their husbands.’ Concubinage is a practice given to men in the Qur'an (see S. 2), slaves are given to men, (S. 2-4), all of which not only exploits women, but puts them in a position where they are ‘owned’ by their masters, or sexual users.

SM surprisingly neglects the description of the scope of female activities in Proverbs 31, which clearly demonstrates that an Israelite woman was free to set up business ventures and use the profit for the benefit of herself and her children as she saw fit, or the example of Priscilla, in the New Testament, who was a ‘tent maker’.

SM ignores the injunctions in the Qur'an which plainly give men the authority of certain practices over women, S. 4:34, states that ‘men have a degree of women;’ S. 2:231-232; 65:2, suggests that divorce is only an option for men, ‘when you have divorced women;’ where a woman can retain her dowry, or ‘mahr’. However, if she chooses to divorce, she can ‘ransom’ herself, give up her ‘mahr’, whereby she could be left destitute. This could well hinder women from the freedom to choose in this area. Women are also rarely mentioned in the Qur'an as autonomous entities; instead they are connected to men-folk, such as a husband, father, or brother, which would imply that they have little status on their own.

When reviewing SM’s argument, a verse in the Bible comes to mind, that of Matthew 7:3-6, where Jesus says, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brothers eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

X. Divorce

SM's argument:

Christianity abhors divorce completely (Mt. 5:32) and is therefore unrealistic. Judaism on the other hand, permits divorce without cause (Deut. 24:1-4). (Then he cites various opinions in the Talmud.) Islam gives the middle road between the two. Divorce is permitted, but all efforts are to be made at reconciliation first (S. 4:19, S. 4:34-35, S. 4:128). A man is given the right of divorce by repudiation (Talaq) but may not take back the bride price. A woman may divorce her husband (Khula) if she gives him back the bride price. She may also sue through the courts for divorce on grounds of cruelty, desertion, or impotence.

Our Response:

We agree that Christ demands a very high standard of his followers. However, he does not leave them alone to struggle through difficult situations, but has given us the Holy Spirit to be our comforter and our guide and to work that change within our lives that enable us to aspire to such a goal. Of course many Christians fail, but we would never suggest that God should lower his standards and accept our sinfulness. Instead we desire to be changed ourselves so that we may reach this lofty goal, a realistic goal if God is truly as great as He says He is, and able to help His followers through His Spirit. Because Islam does not have God’s Spirit to help them grow in faith, it is understandable, then, that they believe they are unable to keep from sin in this area.

In response to the idealism of Christianity SM offers the pragmatism of Islam, but we are puzzled by the lack of equality in his portrayal. Women must pay for the privilege of a divorce, whereas men have unilateral repudiation (as they had no access to the bride-price even during marriage, (see IX above), they lose nothing when the wife retains her bride-price if repudiated).

Most worrying, women are urged to seek settlement with their husbands (S. 4:128), whereas the husband is advised to rebuke, exile, and beat her, calling for family arbitration only as a last resort (S. 4:34-35). How can this be the better middle road SM asks us to prefer?

Marriage is also not given as high a status in the Qur'an, as the Bible, even though in Islamic life and jurisprudence it is central to the Islamic community, to the extent that singleness or monasticism is not an option, as implied in S. 57:27. Here it mentions monasticism was invented by its adherents, but not of God. Marriage is seen as a contract (2: 237) in Islam, but in the Bible it is seen as a picture of Christ’s relationship and love towards His people, ‘the church,’ and thus has spiritual implications completely lacking in Islam. A celebration of marriage is also described in Song of Songs, (a book which many Muslims dislike due to its honest portrayal of romantic and sexual love between a man and a woman). Here we see a man and woman declaring their passionate love for each other. Perhaps since marriage, in the Qur'an, does not signify intimacy with God, modelled on God’s love for the believers, the aforementioned passages, therefore, are simply not understood.

XI. Mothers

SM's argument:

The Old Testament commands kind and considerate treatment of parents, and condemns those who dishonour them (e.g. Lev. 20:9, Pr. 15:20). In some places honouring the father alone is mentioned (e.g. Pr. 13:1), but no special emphasis is placed on rewarding mothers for the suffering of childbirth and suckling. In the New Testament Jesus says that a good Christian must hate his mother (Lk. 14:26). He himself was indifferent to or disrespectful of his mother (Mk. 3:31-35) and refused to endorse a woman who declared his mother to be blessed (Lk. 11:27-28).

In Islam good treatment of parents is second only to the worship of God (e.g. S. 17:23-24) and the role of a mother in childbirth and nursing is emphasised (S. 31:14). Many hadith refer to the importance of mothers.

Our Response:

Counting the number of references to fathers v. mothers is petty and unproductive. In one sense he is right. In the Bible children are never commanded to give their parents special honour simply because they gave them birth. On the contrary, parents are reminded that children are a blessing from the Lord (e.g. Pr. 17:6; Ps. 127:3) and that raising them in the knowledge of the Lord is one of their most important religious duties (e.g. Deut. 4:9, 6:7; Pr. 6:20, 29:15). However, children are instructed to honour their parents for their wisdom and good deeds (e.g. Pr. 31:28, where honouring the mother alone is stressed), and children are also instructed to care for their mothers and grandmothers in their old age and widowhood as a sign of gratitude (Pr. 23:22, 1 Tim. 5:4).

Jesus' relationship to Mary is not adequately discussed. From his childhood Jesus was obedient to his mother (Lk. 2:51), but when she tried to distract him from his mission as an adult then he could not submit to her. That did not mean that he did not love her or honour her, as he demonstrated this even while in agony on the cross by ensuring that she would be taken care of , saying to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son" and to the disciple (John) "Here is your mother." (Jn. 19:26-27).

In Lk. 11:27-28 Jesus is challenging the stereotypes of the day, which stated that a woman's worth was determined by bearing sons. He insists that women have open to them a greater avenue of blessing than childbearing, one that is open to all, that of being his disciple. That nameless woman in the crowd was important to Jesus, though she could not be his mother, she could still be blessed by him. SM's objection to this seems strange in light of his assertion in II above that 'the role of women is not limited to childbirth.' If their role is not limited to childbirth, why should they be esteemed solely because of their motherhood?

Finally, the virtue of extreme mother-son ties is presupposed rather than proved. The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi sees the strength of this bond as advocated by Islam to be a major source of social instability in Muslim countries, as it weakens the husband-wife tie (cited in Glaser & John, Partners or Prisoners? Paternoster:Cumbria. 1998. pp. 51-53).

This subject also raises another glaring exception in the Qur'an, and in Islam in general, that of the status of single, childless women; a status not only ignored in the Qur'an, but discouraged in the hadith, fiqh and with Muslim scholars. The Bible on the other hand, sees all women as equal with men, regardless of whether they are married or single, in the eyes of God and towards each other. In fact, the New Testament encourages singleness if a man or woman is serving the Lord, as their hearts will then belong solely to the Lord, an ‘undivided devotion to the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:8, 25-35).

XII. Female inheritance

SM's argument:

Women are owned as property in the Bible. The inheritance laws are listed in Num. 27:1-11. A wife receives no inheritance from her husband, though he is her first heir, even before her sons. Widows and orphaned girls were especially vulnerable.

In Islam the inheritance laws are given in S. 4:7, 11, 12, 176. Females have an inheritance share half that of men, (except in cases where a mother receives a share equal to that of the father). This is not unfair because men have higher financial obligations and since celibacy is discouraged single females are rare.

Our Response:

Interestingly, SM appeals to 7th c. Arab culture and to the higher obligations on men to justify apparently 'unfair' Qur'anic inheritance laws, yet he makes no effort to see if similar reasons could explain the inheritance pattern in the Torah. When a woman married, she was given gifts from her family - typically of money, clothing, jewellery, and furniture (e.g. Gen. 29:24,29; Jdg. 1:13-15, 1 Ki. 9:16). This ended a father's financial responsibility for her and she became a member of a new family. Her sons inherited her husband's estate, not her father's (patrilineal descent). This emphasis on keeping land within the family prevented the development of a great 'rich-poor' divide, where wealthy sons and daughters would marry one another and receive inheritance from both sides of the family. This is the same rational as the 'Jubilee' legislation. (Lev. 25, cf. 1 Ki. 21:3) As for widows, sons were responsible for looking after their mothers (1 Tim. 5:4,8) and for their unmarried sisters (Lev. 21:3). The husband's brother was obliged to offer to marry his brother's widow if she preferred that to living with her sons (and if there were no sons, the inheritance passed to the daughters (Num. 27:1-11) and the same obligations applied).

Using SM’s logic, in light of present circumstances, where in cases of divorce, women are usually awarded the responsibility of children, should not the Qur'anic injunction for inheritance be biased therefore towards women, giving them twice the inheritance of males, due to their ‘higher financial obligations’?

Finally, his argument, that few women are single in Islam, is dealt with above in XI, but it further shows how the Qur'anic stipulation is not relevant for the modern world today, since many woman have the choice to be single, especially if her whole devotion is to the Lord’s work, whereby financial support would be crucial to her abilities to serve her LORD among the communities of the world.

XIII. Plight of widows

SM's argument:

In the Bible widows had no inheritance and therefore they were the most vulnerable people in Jewish society. Widows were forced to marry their dead husband's brother (Gen. 38). She had no choice but was treated as a piece of property. Widows were looked down on (Is. 54:4) and priests could not marry them (Lev. 21:13-15).

In Islam there is no stigma attached to widows or divorcees (S. 2:231, 2:234, 2:240), and sons were forbidden from marrying their father's wives (S. 4:22)

Our Response:

Women were not forced to participate in a Levirate marriage. The brother-in-law is compelled to make the offer, but no one said that she had to accept it. In the passage cited no compulsion was used, rather it was the widow, Tamar, who agitated for the marriage to take place.

The question of inheritance has been discussed above (XII), and the silly and absolute incorrect assertion that women were simply property has been addressed ad nauseam. SM does not understand the message of the prophets when he cites Isaiah. The 'reproach' referred to, is not the fact of widowhood, but rather the loss of favour with God that Israel experience, due to her sin. The prophets frequently used the metaphor of marriage between a good man and a prostitute to illustrate the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of Israel. In this chapter Isaiah is prophesying the return of God's favour to Israel, and likening that to a widow receiving back her husband from the dead. The fact that priests were only permitted to marry virgins says nothing about whether widows were stigmatised or not, as priests were restricted from many perfectly acceptable things because of the nature of their work. Incidentally, note the Torah shares the Qur'an's disapproval of son's marrying their father's wives (Lev. 18:6-8).

We are glad to hear that there is no stigma regarding widows or divorcees in Islam, and we hope that is true in practice as well as in text. On a related issue however, we would appreciate an explanation of how forcing a divorced woman to marry and divorce a second partner before she is permitted to return to her first husband (especially when the first husband is not required to do the same) is just? Or how it is moral in the eyes of a Holy God?

It is also interesting to note that SM fails to consider the long details given in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 5:1-16, regarding widows in the church, whereby Christians are told to ‘Give proper recognition to widows in need…so the church can help those widows who really are in need.’

Younger widows are encouraged to remarry if they struggle with controlling their sexual desire, and they are encouraged to minister to other people. The church is very concerned with those who could be in a vulnerable situation; the apostles often call Christians to reach out to the needy as do the prophets of the Old Testament. (See Deuteronomy 24:17, Ephesians 6:9-10).

XIV. Polygamy

SM's argument:

Polygamy is an ancient institution found in many societies. The Bible does not condemn it and many important Old Testament figures had multiple wives [e.g. Solomon (1Ki. 11:31) and David (2 Sa. 5:13)]. Laws are given for dividing property between sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7), but the only restriction is against marrying two sisters (Lev. 18:18). The New Testament never explicitly condemns polygamy either.

The Qur'an permits polygamy but regulates it. A maximum of four wives are permitted, on condition that they are treated justly (S. 4:3). Polygamy was permitted to enable Muslims to fulfill their community obligation to care for orphans and widows.

In many cultures polygamy is not seen as degrading, but is actually preferable. Since women outnumber men all over the world, what are the possible solutions to this unbalanced sex ratio? Celibacy? Female infanticide? Complete sexual permissiveness? The sex ratio is especially distorted after wars, and polygamy can prevent women being reduced to virtual prostitution. African-American communities practice ‘man-sharing’ arrangements that are a type of informal polygamy. Some people (even Christians) think that polygamy should be legal, especially in a society that tolerates mistresses and prostitution, as it may provide an alternative to divorce and may enable women to share child-rearing responsibilities and thus have both a career and a family.

In Islam polygamy is a matter of mutual consent, unlike the Bible where it is sometimes forced (e.g. Gen. 38). Anyway, the rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extra-marital affairs in the west. Even Billy Graham acknowledges this.

Our Response:

In many ways we agree – though we quibble with his description of Tamar being ‘forced’ to marry against her consent when she was the one who agitated for it against the will of the man she wanted to marry. Besides, there is no record that she was entering into a polygynous union. There is much validity in his comments about the hypocrisy of the west, but again, this is largely irrelevant, since the majority of people living in the west do not claim to be Christians or Jews, and those who do, do not always live according to the teachings of their faith, nor know the Savior in a personal way, and are thereby not genuinely given the Spirit to change towards God’s ways once they are saved.

The Bible does not in any way endorse extra-marital affairs – on the contrary, it strongly condemns them (see section on adultery, VII above). So the issue has nothing to do with the hypocrisy of Christianity, but it does reflect the hypocrisy of secular governments (and of some individual Christians). Several other issues should be considered?

  1. What precisely is the role of government in regulating morality? Should the state criminalize adultery as it has polygamy? Or should individuals be free (within limits) to choose whether or not to obey God? Muslims and Christians have very different ideas regarding the appropriate relationship between religious and secular authorities.
  2. Would the legalization of polygamy deal with the problems that SM mentioned? Perhaps, or perhaps not. The most likely scenario is that certain problems would disappear, others would remain, and new ones would arise. A wife in a polygynous marriage is not always content with her lot (see Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass. Addison-Wesley: Reading, MA. Ch. 4) and she may or may not prefer it to celibacy. Furthermore, the continued existence of prostitution in Muslim countries proves that polygamy is no panacea.
  3. Indeed, the Bible nowhere condemns polygamy explicitly, though it does portray monogamous unions as ideal, and divinely instituted, (Gen. 2:24, Mt. 19:5) and it certainly restricts church leadership to those married to a single spouse (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:2, 12). In addition, Christianity considers celibacy to be a perfectly acceptable (and occasionally preferable) alternative to marriage. There is therefore not the same social and religious pressure to get married for a Christian as there is for a Muslim, and both the single and married person are considered equal to each other, before the eyes of God. Both marriage and singleness are regarded as gifts from God with challenges and opportunities unique to each state, and both situations in life are achievable to the true believer who is strengthened by the Spirit of God.
  4. The statement that the Bible places no restrictions on polygamy is correct in that no maximum number of wives is given. However, husbands are given extra-ordinarily high standards regarding treatment of their wives (Eph. 5:25-33). In a polygamous marriage the same standard of behavior would be expected for each wife, and that itself would be a great deterrent to polygamy.
  5. SM’s reasoning that polygamy makes sense in a world where more girls are born than boys no longer is tenable, since today many more female fetuses are aborted then males (i.e. in some countries such as China and India there are 3 boys born to every girl), creating an environment where, using his logic, polyandry should now be introduced and polygamy be made illegal, to alleviate the current imbalance of boys to girls.
  6. The ‘excuses’ given for the allowance of polygamy fall short in light of the allowance for ‘muta’ [temporary] marriages, permitted only to men in time of war; again, a provision not given to the women at home, left without their husbands.

XV. The Veil

SM's argument:

The veil also plays a role in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Among Jews it symbolized modesty and status. Prostitutes were not permitted to wear a veil because it was a sign of respectability. In 1 Cor. 11:3-10 Paul commands veiling for Christian women as a sign that they were under the authority of men who are the image and glory of God. Tertullian commanded that Christian women veil in all circumstances.

So, Islam did not invent the head cover, though it did endorse it (S. 24:30,31). The veil is essential for modesty, which is itself important so that women will not be molested (S. 33:59). Unlike the Christian veil it is not a sign of women’s subjection to men, and unlike the Jewish veil it is not a sign of luxury or high status. Rather it is a sign of modesty with the goal of protecting women.

This concern to protect women extends to their reputation, and a man is flogged 80 stripes if he accuses a woman and cannot produce 4 witnesses against her (S. 24:4). In contrast to this, if a man rapes an unmarried girl in the Bible, he pays a fine and then must marry the girl (Deut. 22:28-30). She is again punished by being forced to live forever with the man who violated her. Which is more protective of women? To suggest that civilization, education etc… will serve to protect women is ridiculous (lots of scary statistics about sexual harassment and assault).

‘One of the greatest ironies of our world today is that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of ‘holiness’ when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of a man by a Catholic Nun, is reviled as a sign of ‘oppression’ when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women.’

Our Response:

First of all, we have no particular quarrel with the veil as long as women wear it because they choose to and not because they are forced to. We certainly do not dispute that Christians in various times and cultures have worn head coverings. Nor would anyone prevent a Christian woman from wearing a head covering today if she wished to do so.

However, SM’s interpretation of 1 Cor. 11 is flawed. Paul does not prescribe universal veiling, and the ‘authority’ he refers to is not the ‘authority’ of men over women, but of women over themselves. The point is that ‘although a woman has authority over her own head, she should remember that she is not independent of her husband and so should choose to cover her head for the sake of social propriety. A woman should want to honor and not to shame her husband.’ (R.B. Groothuis. Good News for Women. Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI. 1997. pp. 160). It is also known that during the time of the early church women who did not cover their heads were considered loose, like prostitutes, and therefore the stipulation is referring to a specific cultural issue, which is not universal. Note that a woman is never commanded to cover to be modest, but rather to be seen as a ‘godly woman’, which at that time would mean a head-covering. Paul himself refers to it being a cultural ‘practice’ in the church.

Secondly, we would question whether the Islamic veil actually fulfills its supposed function in protecting women. Why, in Egypt, for example, is it still necessary for women to have separate trams and separate buses in order for them to avoid harassment? Also, the veil does not protect against sexual abuse within the family, a common form of assault in Muslim countries, according to the Egyptian doctor Nawal el Saadawi. (The Hidden Face of Eve. Zed Books:London. 1980, p. 14).

But even if it does, why should they be required to wear uncomfortable garments in order to be safe? The clothing of women is not the problem, the lust and violence of men is. Why does Islam not deal with the source of the problem, instead of blaming the victim, and forcing her to rectify what she is not guilty for? The New Testament puts the blame where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of the man, saying to simply look at a woman with lust is the fault of the man and is equal to that of adultery.

We don’t really understand the juxtaposition of false accusations of unchastity v. rape, as they are two different issues. Why does SM not instead give us the penalty for rape prescribed in the Qur'an? Is there one? Certainly in Islamic law, a woman has to provide four witnesses to her rape to even get justice, hence the prisons filled with innocent, but raped, women in Pakistan, as they cannot provide such witnesses, and so in turn, are accused of adultery.

Regarding the Bible, again, nowhere is the girl commanded to accept the offer of marriage. The only command is that the man must make the offer. If she refused, he was still required to pay the bride price. Remember, this was a society where prisons did not exist. The only penile options were fines or death. As long as the bride price was paid, the girl was vindicated – declared guiltless. Regarding women’s reputations, in the Bible any accusation had to be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15, Mt. 18:16). When there were insufficient witnesses, the accusation was brought before the Lord.

XVI. Epilogue

SM's argument:

No Muslim society fully follows Islamic ideals today. Some are more conservative and restrictive, others are more liberal and western-orientated. And to be fair, we must acknowledge that a variety of cultural situations have given rise to the ‘biased’ and ‘frightening’ teachings of the Bible. In fact, the poor status of Jewish and Christian women in the 7th century is one of the reasons that Islam was necessary, to guide people back to the straight path (S. 7:157). ‘Therefore, Islam should not be viewed as a rival tradition to Judaism or Christianity. It has to be regarded as the consummation, completion and perfection of the divine messages that had been revealed before it.’

Finally a word to Muslims exhorting them to return to Islam, and a word to non-Muslims expressing bewilderment as to the reasons that Islam should be singled out as oppressing women. Why don’t you understand that what Muslims practice today is not necessarily any more ‘Islamic’ than the practices of westerns are ‘Christian.’ Islam has done many good things for women, thus most western converts to Islam are women.

Our Response:

Again, the stated aim of mutual understanding is laudable. We too deplore the unthinking condemnation of Islam and the lack of cultural understanding this represents. Unfortunately, SM Muhammad has demonstrated the same lack of insight in his refusal to understand the Bible on its own terms. We find it sad that he made no effort to investigate whether the Biblical teachings are truly ‘frightening.’ Instead he divorced them from the context in which they operated, with no understanding of how these laws functioned in relationship to other laws and existing societal norms. In particular, he appears to have deliberately suppressed the positive portrayal of women in the Bible, so that the resulting picture is sadly distorted.

His comments regarding the relationship between Islam, Judaism and Christianity are somewhat disingenuous. At first glance it looks like he is saying that these religions and their scriptures were divinely inspired. But if that is true, how dare he refer to the commands of God as ‘biased’ or ‘frightening’? If he is implying that the Bible is not divinely inspired, why does he not say so? And in what meaningful sense can Islam be said to be calling Christians and Jews ‘back to’ their religions? A more forthright approach would be appreciated. Similarly, a true Muslim, following his own holy book should know that he is to turn to the Jews and Christians for advice (Suras 10:94; 21:7; 29:46; 4:136; 5:46, 68).

It is also interesting to note that all women in Christianity are regarded as equal, valuable, and worthy in their community, and before God, whether they are single or married. It is also interesting to note that God’s principles in the New Testament are relevant for all time, all cultures, and can thus be readily practiced in any culture of the world, even today, though within Islamic cultures, they are usually suppressed and persecuted.

SM seems to imply that Christianity is a ‘Western’ phenomenon, when in reality, it is growing far more quickly in South America and in parts of Africa and in the East, or among Eastern peoples, outside of Muslim lands. It is in Islamic environments where we find the persecution of converts from Islam, including women; something which is condemned in the New Testament.

Women are turning to Islam in the West, which may say more about the West than Islam, as women’s testimonies reveal frustrations at the immodesty of the West, the immorality of the West, and the lack of good men in the West (See Robert, Na’ima B., From my sisters’ lips: A unique celebration of Muslim womanhood, London: Bantam Press, 2005). Such frustrations are legitimate; and many Christians would agree with these frustrations. Yet, is Islam truly the answer? Is it truly universal when it comes to women’s issues? Does it truly elevate, and indeed protect women in all cultures, allowing them to live in their different respective cultures, and yet fully enjoy a right relationship with their Lord?

God’s command in the Bible is that we are to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself’. All of the above Biblical principles, directives and exhortations, including those regarding women, are dependent on this, and so done with ‘love’ at it’s core…consider: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, it delights in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

Finally, most of the accusations SM puts forth are leveled at Judaism, and in particular at Talmudic laws and practices, many of which are nothing more than opinions forwarded by individuals concerning the application of Judaic law. While many of these laws are no longer applicable, nor rarely practiced - a point SM would do well to acknowledge - it is interesting that he spends little time really challenging Christianity, which suggests that, indeed, it is Christian teaching and practice concerning women which proves to be the true corrective to both Judaism and Islam, and therefore, the more practical and just, and yes…universally true.

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