How Islam Treats Women – Reviewing Four Books on This Topic.


For my studies at Fuller Theological Seminary I had to read and review a number of books around the topic of Islam and Women. Here is the review I wrote after reading four books on the topic. I post it here as I think it has the potential to educate a reader about how Islam treats women – in a deeper way than what popular media portray. I hope you get something out of this blog.

The books that I read were :

  • Adeney, Miriam. 2002. Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women. 
  • Mallouhi, Christine. 2004. Miniskirts, Mothers and Muslims.
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. 1996. Jesus in the Qur’an.
  • Wadud, Amina. 1999 Qu’ran and Women. Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. 

The Qur’anic view of women

Amina Wadud’s book Qur’an and Women deals with how women are treated  by the Qur’an. The sentence that for me summed up the book is “It should be noted that all references to female characters in the Qur’an use an important cultural idiosyncrasy which demonstrates respect for women” (Wadud 1999:32). The book challenged my prejudiced worldview that I held strongly to, that the Qur’an was fundamentally anti woman. Wadud certainly deals with some difficult passages when relating to women, but brings balance by identifying important concepts found in the Qur’an like: there is no gender distinction in creation (Wadud 1999:15), no distinction between sexes in the hereafter (Wadud 1999:49), no single definition of set roles for the sexes (Wadud 1999:8), and holds certain women up as models for all believers (Wadud 1999:33). Indeed Wadud identifies certain practices that were deeply embedded in 7th century Arabian culture, that the Qur’an specifically forbids: infanticide, sexual abuse of slave girls and denial of inheritance to women (Wadud: 1999:9). These are pro woman. I read a quote on the Answering Islam website that said that Muhammad would have been known as pro women in his day.

In terms of Muslim/Christian relations, it seems that Wadud through the book is seeking to challenge ingrained misinterpretation and sexual and religious prejudices that Christians can hold toward Muslims and indeed Muslim women. For me I was recently researching the root cause of Honour Killings in Islam and certainly had a particular framework through which I was viewing Honour Killings – a framework that the Qur’an treats women poorly. However books like Wadud’s and other research has led me to conclude that there are broader issues, like for instance the role that Arabic Culture has played in the interpretation of Qur’anic verses and the use of Hadiths over the Qur’an. To understand the treatment of women by the Qur’an is to build bridges between Christianity and Islam.

In my context, I have found that knowledge is a powerful bridge into the Islamic world. I was in Sydney recently in Newtown which has a significant Muslim population, and I went for a haircut. The male hairdresser was a Shia Muslim from Basra in Iraq. My understanding of Sunni and Shia Muslims, being able to quote some of the Qur’an and my ability to discuss and debate Islam and Women, meant we had a very lively, robust and friendly discussion. He was most shocked when I told him I was Christian and a Minister. Knowledge and removing wrong worldviews is a great pathway to be able to witness to Muslims.

The beauty of Islamic Culture

Miriam Adeney in Daughters of Islam, made a comment that I would like to pick up, but draw the rest of the concept out of Christine Mallouhi’s book, Miniskirts, Mothers and Muslims. Adeney said “when we focus on the weakness of another culture, we miss its strengths and beauties” (Adeney 2002:19). Mallouhi opened my eyes to the beauty of the Muslim culture. Through this subject, I have become aware of the depth of negative preconceived ideas that I have held toward Muslim and Islamic culture. These are in the process of changing. Mallouhi says “Muslims live in system of community living and relationships which has more in common with Western pre-war culture and ancient Celtic Christianity” (Mallouhi 2002:133). She speaks of the warmth and security in belonging to a family within the Muslim culture where life is lived in the context of a community of family and friends that help each other in every day life. (Mallouhi 2002:135). Interestingly she contrasts this with Western Culture and quotes Margaret Thatcher who famously said “There is no community: there is only the individual” (Mallouhi 2002:136).

Throughout the book, Mallouhi, an Australian living in a Muslim culture, speaks positively of her experiences living in this culture of community and honour. She certainly relates some errors along the pathway of her learning, but she paints a fairly positive picture of Muslim culture.

Certainly this sense of community is a strong aspect of Muslim culture and contrasts dramatically  against a Western backdrop that deifies the individual and has systematically pulled apart the traditional family unit. However this incredibly strong community cohesion does manifest at times in the negative.  Mallouhi observes “that a good public image is very important in Muslim culture” (Mallouhi 2002:35). This gives power to some of the ingrained negatives of Muslim Culture such as Female Genital Mutilation and Honour Killings. Both of these issues find strength in Islam being about public image and so strongly based in community.

Celebrating the positives of Islamic culture with Muslims would be a refreshing difference for Muslims who, I would imagine, regularly have to defend their culture against Western prejudices.

Jesus in Islam

Miriam Adeney speaks at some length in one of her chapters about who Jesus is to the Muslim. To the Muslim she says, Jesus is one of the greatest prophets, his birth was unique, his end was unique (in that he never died), and the titles that he carries in the Qur’an are prophet, messenger, servant, spirit of God, word of God and eleven times, Messiah (Adeney 2002:66). He is mentioned some 90 times in the Qur’an and most times it carries a sense of reverence. Unfortunately this is where the overlap with Christianity finishes as Jesus is seen as a Prophet but not God. In fact the Qur’an is very specific that God has no son. Adeney does identify that some Muslim Scholars have tried “to build a bridge to Christianity but balk at the crucifixion and resurrection” (Adeney 2002:71). Muslim tradition teaches that Judas was actually a substitute on the cross, giving himself in place of Jesus.

Adeney throughout her book tells stories of how Jesus is woven into people’s spiritual journeys of discovery.  In the chapter on Iranian sisters, Adeney tells the story of Zohre and how ultimately she finds Christ, even through the mixed up Islamic theology on who Christ is (Adeney 2002:95).  Similar story in the Chapter on Arab Sisters, where a Muslim girl sees the love environment of a Christian couple and then when Jesus is bought up in the conversation she equates Christ with the environment and becomes a Christian. (Adeney 2002:52).

Jesus can be a powerful connection point between Christianity and Islam. In my context I have used Jesus as the starting point for conversations with Muslims. Having read Geoffrey Parrinder’s book Jesus in the Qur’an, I have been well equipped to speak first up about the Islamic view of Jesus. I have had some very good conversations using Jesus as the common ground. Unlike the stories in Adeney’s book, I am yet to lead a Muslim to Christ by any method, so whilst I have had good conversation I have found at times though, Muslims choke on the concept of Jesus being the son of God as they see Christianity as being polytheistic, not understanding that the Trinity is one God. Adeney also makes the observation that Muslims view Jesus on the cross, “the supreme glory of Christ has become something that renders him pathetic” (Adeney 2002:72).

Christianity has an emphasis on orthodoxy or correct doctrine or belief, whereas Islam insists more on orthopraxy or correct action.  Ultimately the Qur’an does make it clear that Jesus is not the son of God, did not die for our sins and is not the way of Salvation and for a faith built on orthodoxy – this will always be a significant point of difference.

Go back to the Prophet Muhammad

Adeney’s Chapter on Family, Sex, Singles, Husbands and Children is a fascinating window into the sexual mentality of Islam. Adeney quotes some common Muslim thoughts about sex including, a man must pray during sex, a couple must not be facing Mecca during sex, sex is polluting, women are distracting, dirty and called the Rope of Satan (Adeney 2002:109). None of these thoughts are actually in the Qur’an and are contrary to Qur’anic thoughts on sex which Adeney does point out includes the thought that Allah created people male and female so that they might find mutual affection, tenderness and love (Adeney 2002:109). She goes on to, later in the chapter point out that “the Hadith and Sharia limit women more than the earlier Qur’an. Going on to quote some Muslim women who say “Go back to the Prophet  Muhammad” (Adeney 2002:116).

The concept that I am indentifying here is the use of Hadith or Sharia, elevated almost to a greater height than the Qur’an, leading to an extremity within Islam that ultimately seems to damage the religion. I do understand that is my opinion and some Muslims would strenuously argue that I am wrong. Adeney in Chapter ten speaks of Female Genital Mutilation, an issue that I have researched and written on in the past. An issue that is so damaging to women, impacting their sexual function, their ability to have children, their psychological health and their normal heath due to infection – for no reason other than patriarchal control and the myth that a women’s sexual desire is held within her clitoris. 140 million women currently live with their genitals mutilated and 8000 prepubescent girls are cut every single day. Adeney identifies that the Qur’an does not require women to be circumcised, (Adeney 2002:188) but this traditional tribal custom, that actually predates Islam, has now become an Islamic tradition and has incredible strength. If Islam “went back to the Prophet Muhammad” female circumcision within the Islamic world could be eradicated.

Adeney in her chapter on Iranian Sisters, tells Ladan’s story of her Iran being taken over in the Iranian Revolution that ousted the Shah and “in its place rose a strict religious regime” (Adeney 2002:86). This was incredibly damaging for Iran. Iran follows Shia version of Islam, which is known for its radical interpretation of not only the Qur’an but also of Islamic tradition, Hadith.

Adeney doesn’t specifically say that Islam should “go back to the prophet Muhammad”, however as I read her book, and the other assigned readings, I couldn’t help but think in terms the championing of women’s rights in Islam would be so much easier if the extremes of tradition were put down in favour of the Qur’an. As I come to the conclusion of the Subject Women and the Family in Islam, I have concluded and this is a generalisation that women are mistreated within Islam, but this is not necessarily rooted within the Qur’an, but more in the interpretations that have now become Islamic traditions.

In terms of Christian/Muslim connections, there is a part in me that would love to be a women’s advocate within Islam. To challenge the use of Female Circumcision, or to challenge honour killings showing that they are not entirely rooted in Islam. To promote a “Going back to the Prophet Muhammad” for interpretation as to how women are treated. As a Christian with a strong redemptive emphasis on everything I do, I would see this more as a social justice focus – for the betterment of women, more than a witnessing/winning Muslim women to Christ.

References Cited

Adeney, Miriam. 2002. Daughters of Islam: Building Bridges with Muslim Women. IVP:Downers Grove

Mallouhi, Christine. 2004. Miniskirts, Mothers and Muslims. Oxford:Lion Hudson

Parrinder, Geoffrey. 1996. Jesus in the Qur’an. Oneworld Publications Oxford:England

Wadud,  Amina. 1999 Qu’ran and Women. Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. NY:Oxford University Press

Categories: Book Reviews

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