For the Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity, once the prophets had passed away, the burden of religious leadership fell on the shoulders of the Sunni Caliphate and the Church respectively. Since women had been given unprecedented significance by the Prophets Jesus and Muhammad, it became inevitable for the Church and the Sunni Caliphate to deal with the issue of the status of women. (Here Church refers to the Church in the first two centuries after crucifixion of Jesus till approx 200 C. E. and the Sunni Caliphate to the Caliphate from approx 630 C.
E. to around 800 C. E. ) The status of women within the jurisdictions of these two authoritative bodies depended upon the commandments of their respective holy books and prophets, as well as the biases with which these scriptures were interpreted. Within the periods of interest, both institutions had similar views about female asceticism and dress code, however, the freedom of women varied greatly in terms of their participation in warfare, teaching in public, and selecting a spouse for the first or multiple marriages.
Both the Church and the Caliphate were in favor of women adopting an ascetic way of life. For the church, women were to observe ascetism in order to make up for the initial ‘fall of humankind’ from the heavens (Clark 115). Celibacy enabled women to refrain from worldly evils and attain salvation. For instance, the fathers acknowledged the spirituality of Priscilla, a saint in the earliest Christianity and even venerated her more than male ascetics (Clark 159). Likewise, the Caliphate looked at ascetism as a path to achieve nearness to God.
A new phenomenon, Sufism (the Islamic term for spiritual purity or ascetism) meant that the believers would usually isolate themselves from the earthly matters and subject their beings to the Ultimate Source (God). As a result, Sufis were revered by both, the public and the Caiph. Rabia Basri, known to be the earliest woman Sufi, had numerous followers in early Islamic caliphate (Nasr 172). The two powerful institutions were also akin in their advocacy of the veil to be included in the dress code.
The Church mandated the veil for women during prayers and outside their houses to signify the authority of man over woman (Azeem np). Likewise, the veil had been imposed on Muslim women in the latter phase of Mohammad’s life in order to guard their honor from men on the streets who were looking for any excuse to bother them (Mernissi 186). Therefore, although it served different purposes, the veil proved to be a common part of dress between Muslim and Christian women. Nevertheless, despite these similarities, the early Church and the Caliphate were greatly dissimilar.
Firstly, they varied in granting an active role to women in warfare. During the Caliphate, women were present in battlefields, tending the wounded and providing a source of motivation through songs and verses (Ahmed 70). Some of them fought too and played crucial roles in the war. For instance, Umm e Hakim single handedly disposed off several Byzantine soldiers during battle of Saffar. Aisha, the widow of the Prophet, led a major conquest against the fourth caliph Ali which is known as the Battle of Camel (71). Even after the calamitous war and loss, Aisha was still protected and given respect by the Caliph of the time.
On the other hand, such tolerance was not demonstrated by the Church throughout the early years. Fighting in wars did not fit in the role of women, which was limited only to the household. This continued even in the later centuries. The ruthless trial and burning of Joan of Arc due to her participation in warfare, despite her success as a warrior and leader, can exemplify this impartial attitude (Lynch np). Secondly, the freedom of public expression of religious ideas and doctrines was another major distinction between the societies under the Church and the Caliphate.
The former had strictly restricted the women from preaching religion outside their homes. The idea behind this restriction was yet again taken from the failure of Eve in Paradise, when her instruction to Adam had resulted in their expulsion. For example, Tertullian, the 2nd century Latin father, wrote that “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office” (np). Consequently, the top posts of the church were all reserved by men.
This was not the case in the Sunni Caliphate. Women were active interlocutors of faith. Their words had weight. They were acknowledged as transmitters of ahadith, which later became the source of Shariat laws. Hazrat Aisha was a leading traditionist, with nearly 2210 ahadith attributed to her. She also instructed men and women on various aspects of law and as a result, settled many issues (Ahmed 73). Finally, another critical contrast between the two institutes in terms of their attitudes towards the female gender was the liberty enjoyed by women in marriage.
On one hand the Church emphasized complete subjection of woman to her husband because they believed that woman was created from and for the man, and hence could not dominate him (Clark 120). This also implied that women did not have total independence in choosing their husbands. In addition, the Church cursed widows and divorcees who would remarry. On the contrary, the Caliphate was relatively egalitarian. Husbands and wives had similar rights over each other and women could even select their own spouses. If widowed, they had the right to remarry.
For example, Atika bin Zaid married four times and still was not ridiculed or insulted by anyone (Ahmed 77). Thus it seems that women enjoyed some liberties under the caliphate that were not available to them under the Church. The Sunni Caliphate has long since been abolished (1924), and with the advent of science, the Church has lost its singular hold on society. However, the issue of the position of women in society still holds great importance today. Works Cited Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam. BookCrafters Inc, 1992. Print. Azeem, Abdul Shareef, Women in Islam versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition.
WAMY, 1995. Web. ; www. islamworld. net/compwomen. html; Clark, Elizabeth Ann, Women in the Early Church. The Liturgical Press, 1983. Print. Lynch, Rev. Denis, St. Joan of Arc: The life-story of the Maid of Orleans. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1919. Print. Mernissi, Fatima, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Basic Books, 1991. Print. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, The Garden of Truth. USA: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. Print. Tertullian. “Women in The Church (I) – LCMS. ” Internet Christian Library. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.