Who Do They Say That I Am? The Identity of Muslim Women and the Hope of the Gospel

You mustn’t give up hope. If walls are high, the sky is higher still.

                                                                                                                                                                                        A U. N worker in Iran to female refugees preparing to go back to Afghanistan under Taliban rule. 

From the motion picture Kandhahar











 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Romans 8:38-39


















A very wise man once observed, “As in water the face is reflected as a face, so a person’s heart reflects the person.”[1]

                The intertwined concepts of self-image and identity – our inner perceptions of ourselves and the outward expression of this individual understanding – form our expectations about the world, our place in it and the God who fashioned both.

                The ubiquitous criticisms of the so-called “Christian West” are accurate in their observations of the obsession women have with their bodies within highly oversexed cultures.  Here, at least, is open and vigorous debate.  However, is the “Islamic East” with its protection of women really superior?  Or does exploitation of women occur amidst a conspiracy of silence?

                Recent Muslim- produced film treatments of the situation of Muslim women under fundamentalist regimes lead one to believe so.  Burqua-covered women herded like cattle by water hoses, pre-teen girls given to toothless old men as captive brides, all-female families expected to starve to death because they have no male escorts for appearing in public to work or trade – all of these stark images haunt my imagination.[2] 

                Even more powerful are my first-hand impressions – women like walking death shrouds cowering in the presence of their husbands; realizing that the bright, open and curious little girls at my feet could, in a matter of a few short years, be hounded out of sight by whips fashioned of Arabic script, be murdered for honor’s sake or become one of multiple wives to men old enough to be their father or grandfather.

                Each encounter fostered sadness for Muslim women and sympathy for the mission-minded Christian women who attempt to minister to them.  After having read the Qur’an, some of the Hadith as well as cultural and religious analysis, that sadness and sympathy morphed into a burden for women ensnared by Islam and a resolve to encourage my faithful Christian sisters who long to lead them into the freedom of the Kingdom of God.

                I examined a broad range of issues related to the experience of women within Islam: veils, education, superstitions and circumcision among others. The question that kept coming to mind as I sifted through each issue was – how is the self-image of a woman within Islam formed? Where does a Muslim woman ultimately anchor her identity?

                The purpose of this paper is to identify and evaluate the ways in which Muslim women in traditional Islamic cultures derive their primary identity, how socio-religious dynamics reinforce it and how particular biblical narratives can be used to foster redemptive dialogue regarding identity between Muslim and Christian women.

                The available writing about Islam and women is burgeoning. In view of the vast amount of information and the limited length and time for this paper, I will be using rather broad strokes. However, just as there is no monolithic entity called Islam[3], there is no single experience shared by all Muslim women wherever they happen to reside. After all, “every woman is an exception.”[4]

                I will use primary Islamic theological sources within their general historical contexts which have served to foster the prevailing religious and social environment in which these women are expected to live.  Drawing from current missiological approaches to ministry among Muslim women, a sampling of useful biblical narratives will be selected. Finally, a very brief comparison of the Sitz-im-Leben, past and present, of Christian and Muslim women as a foundation for cooperation and dialogue will round out the paper.





The Islamic Word About Women: Who Does Allah and His Prophet Say that You Are?


                There is some disagreement about the precise effect Mohammed and Islam had upon the women in Arabia once they burst upon the scene.  Some believe that his teachings reformed tribal cultures which were hostile to women.[5]  Others contrast the freedom Khadijah had in the time of Jahilia with the restricted life of ‘Aisha, Mohammed’s last wife[6]  as the evidence of the oppression of Islam. Whatever its beginnings, the end result of the revelations is essentially a religious-social structure largely favoring men over women.

                The Qur’an contains approximately 6300 ayahs.  Of these, only about 200 address women specifically.[7]  My personal impression is that the revelations of Mohammed are primarily for men. It is, if you will pardon the expression, testosterone-laced literature. In its meta-narrative, if it can be termed that, women seem largely incidental. Ruthven goes to great trouble to set the record straight.[8]

                The Qur’an says that men and women “were created from one soul”[9]and Allah established male and female relations in nature and ordained marriage.[10] It goes on to give women some rights of dowry and inheritance[11] and prevails upon men to treat women with kindness, “lest you be averse to something from which Allah brings a lot of good.”[12]  It is also certain that Allah will reward both men and women for their good deeds with admittance to Paradise.[13]

                The Qur’an postulates men’s superior authority over women.[14] Allah also permits a man up to four wives[15] and the right to divorce any of them – but they do not have that same option.[16]  Most offensive to our Western sensibilities is the apparent right of a man to beat his wife.[17]

                Where the Qur’an is sometimes problematic though generally ambiguous about the nature of woman, hadiths repeatedly deny Muslim women hope even if they ardently desire to obey:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri

On ’Id ul Fitr or ’Id ul Adha Allah’s Apostle (p.b.u.h) went out to the Musalla. After finishing the prayer, he delivered the sermon and ordered the people to give alms. He said, “O people! Give alms.” Then he went towards the women and said. “O women! Give alms, for I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were you (women).” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is the reason for it?” He replied, “O women! You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. O women, some of you can lead a cautious wise man astray.” Then he left.” [18]

            The idea that women make up the vast majority of those who abide in hell is repeated over and over.  Mohammed’s declaration of their mental and physical deficiencies is also repeated. In one of these related hadiths:[19]

     Muhammad’s litany of the sins of women include cursing frequently, ungratefulness to their husbands, intellectual deficiency, inadequate religious observance, leading others astray, and having menses that causes them to be unclean so that they can neither pray nor fast…All of this conclusively states that over half of the Muslim population of the world has a serious ‘deficiency of religion’ that will cause them to go to Hell…Does not this authoritative saying of Muhammad set a theological and pragmatic groundwork allowing the deprivation of human rights? …Perhaps my major problem with Islam is how a Hadith like this gives the imprimatur of Allah to debase the female sex. Updating any interpretation of Islamic scripture is regarded as blatant heresy. Therefore, deprivation is assured.[20]


                Now, back to the initial question of this section, “Who do Allah and His Prophet say that you are?”   A Muslim woman might answer, “Allah created me of stuff less strong, less holy, and less sound than a man.  Although the desire of my heart is to worship Allah, I am irretrievably flawed in mind and body which impedes my faith and most assuredly secures my place as one of the many women who will be tormented in Hell.”

                Unfortunately the broader radical Muslim culture emerging today will likely reinforce this negative self-image and further damage her identity.


The World of Islamic Women: Who Does the ’Ummah Say that You Are?

        The brief verse caught my eye – and my heart:


The journey of my life

begins from home,

ends at the graveyard.

My life is spent

like a corpse,

carried on the shoulders

of my father and brother,

husband and son,

bathed in religion,

attired in customs,

and buried in a grave

of ignorance.[21]


                As often happens, a few lines of poetry communicate concisely and completely what it takes chapters of prose to do so adequately.  In this potent image of a funeral we glimpse the inner life of many Muslim women – its powerlessness and hopelessness, the emptiness of a life spent outwardly acquiescing to religious forms and cultural norms.

                As the Parshalls (and others) observe, any alteration to the understanding of Islamic holy writ is tantamount to heresy.  The cultures which have arisen from these teachings will usually reinforce them. Therefore, since the writings set women in an unfavorable light, it is safe to assume that in the rising fundamental religious-social ethos, the ‘ummah will not transgress this assessment.

                Jan Goodwin offers a glimpse into the life cycle of a woman within the ‘ummah:

Dichotomously, in the twenty-first century, the majority of Muslim women still find their lives controlled by their closest male relative. They are the daughters whose future marriage partners continue to be determined by their fathers. They are the brides who must be virgins on their wedding nights in a culture where if they are not, honor killings are common and often carried out by the girl’s own brothers….Bride price still exists in Muslim countries, a convention that only serves to prove that a woman is a man’s property. Once married, every aspect of a woman’s life will be dictated by her husband…And if she is not obedient, her husband may take another wife. Polygyny is the specter that haunts every married Muslim woman….The birth of a girl…is invariably a time for mourning…Even before the umbilical cord is cut, more than one mother has had her face slapped for daring to give birth to a girl…If a Muslim woman doesn’t present her husband with a son, chances are high that he will take another wife.”[22]

                Nadia Hijab points out that many Arab-Muslim countries are just a few decades away from colonialism and still attempting to locate themselves regionally and globally. She notes that some “Arabs feel that economic and cultural colonialism has replaced political colonialism, and that there is all the more reason to adhere to indigenous culture and tradition in response.”[23]

                In many ways, Muslims are responding like conservative Christians in the face of tectonic shifts in social structures and societal norms. Ministries like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America are evidence that Christians are also reaching backwards toward times of social stability as anchors in seas of change when they should be anchored simply in Christ. But I digress. And, like some Christians, Muslims lay the bulk of the responsibility at women’s feet. “It is not so much private virtue that is seen to be at stake, but the dream of social harmony encompassing the Islamic ideal.”[24] (Or nostalgic Christian ideal, as the case may be.)

                What pressures do such communal expectations place upon Muslim women?  As these pressures bring crisis in the inner person of a Muslim woman how do they process it? Debi Bartlotti points to three main emotional points:

    One is a sense of powerlessness in the face of male control, the larger social forces and political currents surging around them. In reaction some women look to the darker side of Islam …amulets… or curses…to gain power.  Second, life often has a strong undercurrent of fear: …of gossip, slander, evil spirits, evil eye, of shame, dishonor…death at the hands of a family member. Third, there is the issue of identity. [A] Muslim woman’s identity is derivative – based on the dictates of culture and religion, not her essential and beautiful self as created by God. As symbols and representatives of honor and of Islam, women pose the greatest risk to Muslim men and to Muslim culture. And the men know it.”[25]


                Muslim women find themselves in the unsteady and unpredictable place where the waves of tradition and change crash together. In such uncertainty, who does the ’ummah say that you are?

                A Muslim woman might answer, “I am an agent of both great evil and great good.  I am adrift on social and political seas I cannot navigate, pulled by undertows and riptides of religious and cultural expectations.  Yet I must labor to swim against the tide, for if I am not faithful to the traditions of Islam, I will let my people down and risk the rage of Allah.”

                Daughter of Hagar, El-Roi, the God who sees, calls to you in this storm and stretches out His pierced hand to you.  Will you take it?


The Living Word to Islamic Women:  Who Does Jesus Christ Say that You Are?

        I was not raised in a Christian home. While I had no religious pressures, the expectations of performance and perfection placed I placed upon myself to earn one parent’s love, the endurance of abuse at the hands of the other parent alongside the added dimension of following a military father’s career led to significant self-destructive behaviors.  I heard the good news of grace, particularly that the old had gone and the new had come (2 Corinthians 5:17) all as a free gift from God.

                God rescued me from deep places of despair akin to those that Muslim women experience. He has worked into me such awareness and appreciation for what it means to be called His child – it is an “inexhaustible treasure” as Pandita Ramabai observed. What a precious message of release and freedom the gospel of Christ is for us women who have been in bondage to sin, the caprice of others and the self-loathing of our own minds.

                In the midst of making a muddle of many aspects of the gospel, the North American church has stumbled onto a priceless treasure of our faith – the rediscovery of the Scriptures as narratives, of stories that are meant to be told.  Even the propositional nature of the epistles can be rendered even more compelling by inviting listeners in to hear the conversation between the letter writer and his recipients.

                This may well turn out to be for such a time as this – the best tools for evangelism and discipleship of Muslims, according to Miriam Adeney[26] and others[27] are stories!  The vital communication of biblical narratives of God interacting with humans has proven to be potent.  Allah might stay put in the heavens with the Mother of All Books, but Yahweh came down and tabernacled among us as the Father made flesh in the Living Word, Jesus.

                As I surveyed the Quranic materials and the hadiths, seeing the value that Jesus placed upon women over and against the Islamic teachings proved fertile ground for my imagination.   For example, Muslim women are prevented by biological functions such as menses and childbirth to worship fully.  Jesus touching of the hemorrhaging woman in Matthew 9 both physically and in His affectionate address to her as a daughter – how that dispels both the issue of ritual uncleanness and affirms the value of being a daughter.

                For women who are expected to be full of activity inside the four walls of their home often to the neglect of their spiritual lives, the pointed exchange between Martha, Mary and Jesus about the great value of a woman’s spiritual development is always a word of grace.

                The Old Testament account of Leah, who learned to live with a man who didn’t love her,[28] would speak loudly to wives who experience the same shameful status.

                In her essay in Longing to Call Them Sisters: Ministry to Muslim Women, A.H. shares a comprehensive plan for chronological story telling designed to take Muslims through the biblical accounts for the sole purpose of knowing God better – no apologetics, no debates, no argumentation about the nature of the scriptures – a “win/win situation.”[29]

                Storytelling as a learned art is required as we reach into non-literate cultures.  According to A.H. fully half the population is oriented to oral communication.  Unless the sending churches and agencies adapt, we will soon have a message that no one can ‘literally’ comprehend.

                The good news that comes through the narratives mold and shape our identity as

“a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2: 9-10)

                Who does Jesus Christ say that you are? From the few verses alone a Muslim woman could confidently say, “I am especially chosen of God, made a royal priest!  He calls me holy and His special treasure. I live in the light, an important part of the community of God and I live and breathe each day in the full assurance of His mercy!”


Islamic and Christian Women Together: The Light and Easy Yoke of Being Called “Free and Beloved”

                 I must confess it struck me immediately that both later Islam and Christian thought often coalesce in their negative assessment of women – a partial departure of Muhammad’s ethos and a definitive divergence from Jesus Christ’s promotion of women – as Miriam Adeney noted.[30]

                 Since I deal with women’s issues as a female and in ministry I have necessarily schooled myself against forming quick judgments – prejudice is the antithesis of dialogue – trying to permit ideas to make their case.  In this instance, these initial impressions proved true. Both Abrahamic traditions have much to atone for!  It was gratifying to have a man offer a similar critique:


       As I seek to fairly and objectively analyze male-female relationships within the broad communities of Islam and Christianity, I must ask whether either group of people has much about which to boast….We, as Christians, can share our concerns with Muslims [about their view of women], but we must do so without any sense of smug superiority. Our own inadequacies are all too apparent in movies, books and magazines that degrade women.[31]



                Thus, women in the history practice of the church is no less degrading in places than it is in the history and practice of Islam – we share an unfortunate history.  In both cases, Dorothy Sayers’ witty comment, “’The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’”[32] succinctly expresses both faiths’ view of its “feminine side.”

                Since much of the poverty and illness and injustices of the world fall hard upon the shoulders of women and children, there are ample opportunities for partnerships in bringing comfort and care and advocacy to those who suffer.  This could be broader application of “The Paraclete Model” of ministry advocated by Debi Bartlotti.[33]  Instead of Muslim women being merely recipients they become active participants.  When hands join together, hearts may soon follow.

                I have often heard that Christianity is more caught than taught. Finding ways to “infect” the world of Muslim women with the winsome grace of Jesus Christ, live out the freedom of a child of God, demonstrate the unconditional love Jesus has for them and the blessed hope of eternity with Him – in short, permitting the Incarnation to continue in us as Dallas Willard has so aptly put it.

                As Christians, we are free to move beyond cultural bounds in expressing our devotion to God.  This would be an attractive apologetic, if modeled wisely and explained well. Dr. M. Gay Hubbard wrote of this amazing opportunity to explore who we are as God’s regenerated image-bearers and how He uniquely calls us in our present circumstances to live out that identity in the world:

   Women who are Christians have the exciting challenge of working out an identity that does not deny nor demean the feminine but that does not permit cultural role restrictions to define a woman’s pattern of thinking nor limit her behavioral choices. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote to the Galatian church


   For Christian women who are seeking to make choices in the context of gender-role transparency, such choices do not deny gender but make gender subservient to higher goals. While a mentally healthy woman will continue to affirm clearly her identity and worth as a woman, her priority system will reflect faith first and gender-role second.[34]


                At the beginning of this paper, I quoted Solomon’s words “As in water the face is reflected as a face, so a person’s heart reflects the person.”[35]  Someone greater than Solomon has come and brought with Him a spiritual dynamic that not only reflects who we are but transforms us into who we are meant to be:

  But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.[36]


                May our unveiled faces reveal to the women of the veil the glory and love and hope of Christ.


[1] Proverbs 27:19, New English Translation

[2] The particular motion pictures I have in mind are Kandahar and Osama.

[3] A statement often repeated by Dr. Timothy Tennent in Introduction to Islam, AP/WM 647. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Charlotte, North Carolina.  Fall 2006

[4] Miriam Adeney, Daughters of Islam, Building Bridges with Muslim Women.(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 22

[5] “It is ironic that the most outstanding contradiction regarding the inequities suffered by Muslim women is that Mohammed…was among the world’s greatest reformers on behalf of women…Islam, in fact, may be the only religion that formally specified women’s rights and sought ways to protect them. Today’s Islamic spokesman…usually fail to note that [the Prophet’s revolutionary innovations] are rarely honored.” Jan Goodwin Price of Honor: Muslim Women Life the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. (New York: Plume Books, 2003) 29ff

[6] “ Jahilia marriage practices…do correlate with women’s being active participants, even leaders, in a wide range of community activities, including warfare and religion…[Khadija’s] economic independence; her  marriage overture, apparently without a male guardian…as intermediary; her marriage to a man many years younger…and her monogamous marriage all reflect Jahilia rather than Islamic practice. ..It was ‘Aisha’s lot…which would prefigure the limitations that would henceforth hem in Muslim women’s lives…born to Muslim parents, married…when she was nine or ten, and… [observing] the new customs of veiling and seclusion.” Leila Ahmed Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1992) 41ff

[7] The average ayah count on several Internet sites hovered between 6246 and 6346.  I performed multiple searches for woman, women, wife, wives, sisters, daughters, etc.  This is only an estimate since there was often overlap.

[8] This impression arises from unfamiliarity with the Arabic language. Rutheven assures his reader that the “Qur’an…is addressed to both sexes equally. There is a story…in the hadith…that one of the [women in the first Islamic community] asked the prophet why Allah always addressed himself to men rather than women. According to the story God himself recognized the justice of her complete and henceforth the revelations were addressed to the faithful of both sexes. Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World. Third Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 151-152


[9] Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an: English Translation of the Meanings. A Bilingual Edition. (New York: New York University Press, 2004), Surah 4:1.  As with most of the following Qur’an citations, all of the literature dealing with women repeatedly cited these surahs.  Discovery of these basic doctrines did not require painstaking search through the Qur’an, just the taking down of citations for looking up to evaluate.

[10] Ibid, Surah 5:49, 30:20ff, 42:11

[11] Ibid, Surah 2:180, 4:7-12

[12] Ibid Surah 4:19               

[13] Ibid, Surah 4:124, 9:72

[14] Ibid, Surah 2:228 4:34.  Chapman notes that these passages are “generally interpreted to mean that husbands are responsible for leadership of the family and for maintaining their wives; wives are to be obedient and chaste.” Colin Chapman.  Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 160

[15] Ibid, Surah 4:3

[16] Ibid, Surah 226:242, 60:1-2, etc.

[17] Ibid, Surah 4:34

[18] Al-Buhkari, Volume 2, Book 24, Number 541. University of Southern California Muslim Students Association.  USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts: Qur’an and Hadith. Online. Emphasis added.

[19]USA MSA Collection, Hadith 6.8.301

[20] Phil and Julie Parshall. Lifting the Veil: The World of Muslim Women. (Waynesboro: Authentic Press. 2002) 99-100


[21] Atiya Dawood, Sindhi Poet of Pakistan, quoted in  Goodwin, Price of Honor, xi

[22] Goodwin, Price of Honor, 32-33 and 42-43

[23] Nadia Hijab, “Islam, Social Change and the Reality of Arab Women’s Lives,” in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam, Gender and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 47-48

[24] Ruthven, Islam in the World, 161

[25] Debi Bartlotti, “Muslim Women in Crisis,” in Fran Love and Jeleta Eckheart, Longing, 26-27

[26] Adeney, Daughters of Islam, 150ff

[27] A.H., “Discipleship of Muslim Background Believers through Chronological Storytelling, “ in Love and Eckheart, Longing to Call Them Sisters, 146ff

[28] Alice Mathews, A Woman God Can Lead: Lessons from Women of the Bible Help You Make Today’s Choices. (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1998) p17.  Dr. Mathews’ book is set up specifically to communicate the truths of the narratives into issues women universally face. I have used it to great effect in missions work.

[29] A.H., “Discipleship of Muslim Women,” in Love and Eckheart, Longing to Call Them Sisters, 158.

[30] She cites Tertullian as an example of Christian thought gone awry: “You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him who the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert…even the Son of God had to die.”  Miriam Adeney, Daughters of Islam: 115

[31] Phil Parshall, Understanding Muslim Teachings and Traditions: A Guide for Christians. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994)  pp. 166 and 180

[32] Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 47

[33] Debi Bartlotti, ”Muslim Women in Crisis,” in Fran Love and Jeleta Eckheart, ed., Longing,  27

[34] Dr. M. Gay Hubbard, Women: The Misunderstood Majority: Overcoming Myths that Hold Women Back. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1992) 54

[35] Proverbs 27:19, New English Translation

[36] 2 Corinthians 3:16-18, NIV