Historical View of Women in Islam and Christianity

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!

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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13 Responses to Historical View of Women in Islam and Christianity

  1. Michael Mock says:

    I just thought I’d throw in a note about The Abbess Hilda, who seems to have had rather a lot of authority in her little corner of Christiandom. I’m not sure that she really adds to or detracts from your overall discussion, but her career does seem to indicate that, at least in some cases, the early-ish Church didn’t see an insurmountable problem with a woman in a leadership role.

    • Definitely! The British isles are sort of a weird case because at the time they were considered so far away that they were more or less left alone (one of my favourite stories is how London got St Pancras as its patron saint – supposedly the child saint’s bones were considered so unimportant that the church sent them to London because they didn’t care if they got destroyed!). And I don’t think the Church had an insurmountable problem with women in leadership – it seems to be more of a slow shift, that it just because less and less common for women to have authority in the community, until eventually everyone thought that’s how it had always been.


  2. John Rgood says:

    Does the Quran or Hadith really give women a chance ahead? Do women benefit by the sanction of rape in Islam? Is rape sanctioned in Chrisitanity, as it is in Islam?

    • Atlas says:

      Isn’t (arranged) marriage “rape”? The historical nature of marriage in Judeo-Christian, if not the rest of the world isn’t really about consent & mythical fairy tales with castles & ironically troubadours is it?

  3. Pingback: Tone and trolling | askanislamicist

  4. Anna says:

    Very intersting. Here’s what a lot of people don’t understand about Christianity. The position of the cleric is NOT a position of power. The pope is called the servant of the servants of God. So the role of the priest is more like the “father” in the family. There are many women saints and doctors of the church, plus Jesus Mother is considered his first follower. If you see the paints, icons, the followers of Jesus are clustered around his mother. So I guess, I am not sure what you mean about the women not having a “prominent role.” If you mean, the woman is not a cleric, well, then I guess you are right. Also you forgot to mention, Mohammad after Kadijah died, Mohammad became a polygamist. He married a 9 year old girl. So.. that’s not really a good thing is it?

    • Anna says:

      You also forgot to mention, that mohammad chopped off the head of the husband of one of his wives. He then raped her in the blood on the ground. that’s how he “married” her. The Koran also condones wife beating provided the woman is beat lightly. BTW Rape and wife beating are not in encouraged in Christian writings. Just thought I would mention that.

    • I appreciate the argument, but I’m not certain how much you can really downplay the role of the cleric, as you call it, in the history of early Christianity. As I say in the post, we do have references to a handful of women, but these are rarely more than names, and from around the end of the first century, we have accounts of women acting as patrons of the church, but appearing to be fairly conscientiously written out of the record as it is preserved by Christians – so, for example, we have references in historical sources to many of the church fathers, including Gregory, Maximus Confessor and Severus of Antioch being patronized by women, and we have copies of letters they sent to these women being preserved in church sources, but no copies of the letters the women wrote. Most historians would point to this as an illustration of the early tradition valuing one side of the conversation, that of the male cleric, over the other side, that of the female participant.

  5. andyharker says:

    Hi Jessica. Thanks for your thoughtful blog. I’ve got a question on your paragraph mentioning the role of woman/Eve in the Fall. Could you support your mention of the Qur’an account being more predestinarian with a Surah? I can’t find this in my Qur’an but I may well have missed it. As I understand the Bible it is also saying that everything, including the first sin, was predestined by God (e.g. the choice of Jesus to be the slain lamb before creation – 1 Peter 1:20). The Bible holds together human responsibility (Adam’s sin (and it is normally taken in the Bible as his sin rather than Eve’s) was a heinous rebellion not a ‘slip’) and divine will (e.g. Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). You could argue the other way that the Quranic account marginalizes Eve by a) not mentioning her by name, b) not discussing her one-flesh union with Adam (later taken in the Bible as the foundation of marriage), and c) omitting the vital detail that it is through woman that the serpent-crusher savior will come into the world (Gen. 3:15). Grateful for your feedback on this.

  6. tony says:

    Islam comes out ahead??!! I worked in Middle East for awhile, and I would have to disagree, and your article is not honest. A muslim woman’s statement counts for half that of a man in court, they have fewer rights than men, can be divorced for any minor infraction, not to mention female genital mutilation so they don’t experience pleasure in sex. Honor killings if a girl is caught talking just to a boy, wife beating is permitted in the Koran. Look around the next time you are in a mosque, women are separate int he back, covered head to toe and silent. Today I don’t see anything like that in any Christian church.

    • Atlas says:

      An unbiased & not so blinkered polarised view is seen when looks at a long view with historical & social continuity, as opposed to a snapshot out of context.
      The Muslim world is as diverse as the Christian, for example try juxtaposing pre-genocide Bosniaks against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

  7. Kade Havens says:

    I am doing a project on Islam and Christianity with one section being the role of women, this was very helpful, thanks!

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