Partners or Prisoners? Christians Thinking About Women and Islam

Written by Ida Glaser and Napoleon John Reviewed By Martin Whittingham

Co-written by a western woman and a Pakistani Anglican clergyman, currently working in east London, this book knits its authors’ diverse experiences into a coherent and valuable whole. Glaser and John write separate contributions to most chapters, covering between them an ambitious range of issues. While the reader might sometimes wish for a lengthier treatment of a particular issue, the work’s breadth contributes to its achievement as a genuinely original contribution to the discussion.

The basic thesis of the work is that oppression of women cuts across religious traditions and leaves adherents of both faiths with ‘much to be ashamed of’ (2). Turning first to Islam, two conflicting Muslim voices, traditional and feminist, are presented. The traditional apologists explain why some aspects of the role of women in Islam which tend to be viewed negatively, such as divorce and inheritance laws, are in fact both practical and beneficial. The second voice is that of Muslim women writers who have recorded women’s suffering and sense of oppression. These writers feel that such problems arise because Islam has not been understood and practised as it should have been.

In the only chapter written entirely by one author, Glaser discusses Christian biblical interpretation. She aims to show that many traditional understandings of women’s roles have misunderstood the texts, (noting en route the parallel with Muslim feminists’ calls for textual re-interpretation). For example, Glaser rejects the argument that Genesis 2:23 and 3:20 are essentially parallel accounts of Adam naming Eve and thus, according to Hebrew understanding, exercising his authority over her. For Glaser, Genesis 2:23 is not about naming, but about recognising woman as of the same type as man. The exercise of male authority is therefore confined to the time after the Fall, and is not part of original, ideal creation.

Following this chapter there is a wide-ranging sweep through the pattern of Jesus’ way of relating to women, and a look at marriage and authority in practice, where the emphasis is on authority as characterised by servanthood. In the final chapter the authors emphasise what they consider the fundamental difference between the two religions; attempts to establish right male-female relationships. Christianity’s different diagnosis of human nature, as fallen, is accompanied by a different solution. Whereas Islam offers laws to be obeyed, Christianity offers a person, Jesus Christ, and principles derived from his life.

The book has many strengths, including its commitment to presenting various Muslim and Christian voices fairly. Some readers (not this one) will disagree with some of its interpretative emphases given the subjects tackled, but the authors seek to argue carefully within the constraints of space. There is also valuable insight into cultural factors. John argues, for example, that comparing Muslim and Christian divorce statistics is best done by analysing a society where the two communities have co-existed for centuries. This helps to eliminate cultural variables that influence the divorce rate but do not arise from the teachings of either religion.

Positives far outweigh negatives, but there are minor frustrations. Several typographical errors occur, including the important Galatians 3:28 twice being labelled as 3:24. More significantly, John states that there are only two permissible Christian reasons for divorce, these being adultery and desertion. It seems curious, (the limitations of space notwithstanding), that the question of whether persistent violence constitutes another reason for divorce is not given even passing comment in a book which elsewhere mentions domestic violence. However, to dwell on such points would be unfair to authors whose discussion of sometimes emotive issues combines cool heads with compassion.

Martin Whittingham

Edinburgh Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies