Intermezzo – Inspiring Women

Inspiring Women in Bible and Qur’an
Intermezzo by Martha Frederiks

As a child I loved to make show-boxes. Fabricated out of a plain carton shoe-box, the outside looks somewhat boring. But to those who take the trouble to peer inside, suddenly a colorful and surprising world opens up and the viewer suddenly meets e.g. hobbits in lush greens rubbing shoulders with fairies amidst beautiful flowers.

The image of a show-box comes to mind when reflecting on women in the Qur’an. For though there are many Qur’anic verses that deal with the rights and obligations of women, narratives that put women in the spotlight are rare. Mary, the mother of Jesus is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an. All other women seem at best minor actors, and at worst just a reference in passing – in stories about men. Thus, the feminist critique that women tend to be written out of history, applies not only to the Bible but also – and possibly even more so – to the Qur’an. Qur’anic narratives indeed tell hís-story rather than hér-story.

But whosoever takes the trouble to look beyond the scarce references in the Qur’an, can unearth a wealth of colorful, entertaining and inspiring stories about women. A perceptive reader for example, with some knowledge of the Judeo-Christian traditions, needs no more than the mere hint 14 Ibrahim,37 to uncover the inferred tale of Hagar and Ishmael being abandoned in the desert. Likewise, that reader might recognize 2 The Heifer,158 another reference to the Hagar story, the tale of her desperate search for water and God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of this discarded woman. According to the Islamic tradition Mother Hajar is one of the most exemplary persons of faith.

Her active search to change her situation, combined with her absolute trust in God (takwa), makes her a model for all believers. And her life predicaments are to this very day remembered during the pilgrimage in the rite of sa’y, when pilgrims run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, imitating Hagar’s search for water.

Not all stories about women in Bible and Qur’an however need such detection skills. Several women feature more or less prominently in stories, though they are solely referred to by their function. This holds for the illustrious queen of Saba or Sheba in the Qur´an, 27,The Ants,20-44, 1 Kings 10:1-13, 2 Chron. 9:1-12 known in Islamic tradition as Bilqis, and Zulaikha. It holds for the woman who tried to seduce the prophet Joseph. Gen. 39:1-20 and 12,Yusuf, 21-34 These two women are key actors in the stories of Joseph and Solomon respectively. Both ladies prove to be strong women: beautiful, powerful and not easily disposed of!

Yet, the Islamic tales are not a mere repetition of Judeo-Christian stories. The crux and details of stories often differ; at times the Biblical stories are more elaborate, at times the Islamic traditions give more details. The Qur’anic story of the Egyptian woman, who according to Bible and Qur’an, saved baby Moses from the Nile Ex. 2:5-7 and 28,The Narration,7 does not end with her rescue of Moses. Known in the later tradition as Asiya, Qur’an commentators identify her with the ‘wife of Pharaoh’, who is set as an example to all believers. The verse:

“O my Lord! build for me, in nearness to You, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings, and save me from those that do wrong”. 66,The Holding,11

refers to the story that Asiya later in her life was martyred for her faith. Tradition tells that when she spoke out against the wicked and idolatrous actions of her husband, the Pharaoh, he had her executed. But instead of being afraid, Asiya persevered in her faith (sabr) and in the hour of her death spoke only about her yearning to dwell in God’s presence.

Thus Asiya, like several other women, becomes an example for all believers.

The stories of women that feature in both Bible and Qur’an are not many. But the person who takes the trouble to explore their tales, suddenly finds him- or herself meeting women that can inspire believers and non-believers to this very day.

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