So at least according to wordpress, people are actually reading this. Either that or wordpress is lying to me (and to quote Marge Simpson, “Why would a box lie to a person?”). So, um . . . hi! Please feel free to leave a comment, ask a question or suggest a topic, if for no other reason than to make me feel slightly less like a crazy lady talking to her cats.
Anyway, Mr Fluffykins, today’s question is: do you, as an Islamicist, find Islam more, less, or equally sexist as Christianity?
Obviously there’s no straightforward answer to this question – both traditions still have very mixed opinions about the correct role for women, and there are thinkers in both traditions who argue that the current treatment of women is not theological sanctioned, and there are those who argue that the current conditions are completely legitimate.
So instead, I’m going to focus on the historical basis for the role of women, in particular the Holy Scripture of both traditions, as well as the early theological traditions (the Church fathers in the case of Christianity and the hadith, the stories of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in Islam).
Women in the New Testament
The Bible, in particular the New Testament, gives a mixed view on the role of women in the early church. On the one hand, according to the Passion story, only the female followers of Jesus stayed by his side throughout his crucifixion (Matthew 27:55-6), and it was the women who came to the tomb in order to minister over his body (Matthew 27:61). There are also several references to women as leading Christian communities, although we know little about them beyond their names.
On the other hand, there are passages in the New Testament which have traditionally been read as limiting women to subservient roles in the early Christian community. The two most important examples come from the Pauline epistles: first, in the first letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul says, “as in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (1 Cor 14:34-5). The second comes from the first letter to Timothy, in which Paul says, “let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). It should be pointed out that both of these passages are believed to be later redactions (in fact, it’s widely disputed if the Timothy epistles were written by Paul at all), but they are cited in Patristic texts, suggesting that they were understood as part of the Bible by the early Christian community.
Women in early Christian writing
We have very little evidence for women playing an active role in the formation of the early Christian community. This may be due in part to portions of the New Testament, like the examples cited above, which discouraged women from taking any role that could be seen as superior to their male counterparts. It’s also at least in part due to the historical reality – the early debates and discussions in Christianity focused on defining the nature of doctrine, in particularly the nature of God, the Trinity and the Incarnation. In order to take part in these debates, early Christian thinkers needed to be literate, educated, and have access to a library of Christian (and often Jewish, neo-Platonic, and sometimes even Hellenic polytheist) works. Monasteries and major churches were among the rare institutions that had substantial libraries, and therefore most of the earliest known Christian authors arise out of the monastic and clerical classes, which did not include women. We do have evidence of wealthy women continuing to act as patrons for the church well into the sixth and seventh centuries, but the historical records about them tend to focus on the monks and clerics they were corresponding with, not their writing and thought.
Women in the Qur’an
In general, women play a modest, but over-all positive role in the Qur’an. Although the Qur’an retells many of the Biblical stories in which women figure as the antagonist in the Jewish and Christian tradition, most importantly the Genesis account of the Fall, the Qur’an is far more pre-destinarian than the earlier Abrahamic traditions, and therefore, although it understands humanity as having failed to follow God’s commands, these failures fit into a larger system of God’s Will, and so there’s less of a sense of the Fall being Eve’s (or Adam’s) fault, more, it is just part of the continued story of humanity.
More importantly, we know that the role given women by the Qur’an was far more liberal than the role they had had in pre-Islamic Arabian polytheism, or indeed in seventh century Christianity or Judaism. According to Qur’anic law, women can own property and inherit, which was not the case in the larger Late Antique and Late Roman world, and in Muslim marriage contracts, the dowry was paid directly to the woman, and remained her property even after divorce.
Women in the early Muslim community
According to Muslim histories, women played a major role in the early Muslim community. The first wife of the Prophet (s’lm), Khadija, was an Arabian trader and owned the caravan that Muhammad (s’lm) managed for her. After Muhammad’s first vision of the Archangel Gabriel, it was Khadija who consulted a Christian uncle in order to confirm that her husband had seen a angel of God.
Among Muhammad’s (s’lm) later wives, ‘Aisha, the daughter of the first Rightly-Guided Caliph Abu Bakr, played a particularly important role in the early community as a muhaditha, a transmitter of stories of the Prophet (s’lm) which gave accounts of how he practiced his faith. She also served as a negotiator during the Battle of Siffin, and attempted to end the political divide between Mu’awiya and ‘Ali which led to the first Islamic civil war (fitna).
So overall, from the historical perspective, I’d say Islam comes out ahead. I’m sure this is a topic I’ll come back to, but that at least brings us up to the eighth century or so!