I doubt you could have found a more inspiring place to be, this past Saturday, than the inter-faith chapel at Lancaster University, where Christian-Muslim Encounters in Lancashire had organized a day of inter-faith discussion about Jesus in Christianity and Islam. My own role, with the marvellous Dr Shuruq Naguib was to lead a workshop on ‘Jesus, Muhammad, and Gender’, considering the rich tradition of women’s leadership in both faiths, and the different ways that the early traditions of both Christianity and Islam remembered their ‘founding fathers’ as champions of respect for women and women’s voices.
We were lucky in the group of people who attended: a mix of students, clerics of both faiths, community leaders, all remarkably willing to talk openly about historical questions and also about personal experience. Some of the most valuable discussions had to do with painfully basic modern questions: a Christian priest wanting to understand better what it is like to live in Britain as a veiled muslim woman, for example. I often find that talking about ancient traditions offers an opportunity for a diverse group to raise and ‘work together’ on difficult modern questions from a position of shared humility and curiosity, and so it was in this case. (In another post, The Desert Mothers, the Prophet Mohammed, and the #YESALLWOMEN Meme, I’ve written about how these ancient-modern connections can also help scholars to see the ancient world through fresh eyes.)
Our discussion focused mostly on two passages. On the Christian side, we discussed a story from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, which remembers a woman, Mary of Bethany, who wanted to join the male disciples in studying Jesus’s teaching.
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-41; Translation: New International Version)
In my Band of Angells: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women I have discussed how this story shows that in the as the early Christian communities remembered Jesus, they remembered him protecting women’s voice. If one looks at the non-canonical Gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary, one sees that this tradition of women’s leadership did not always go unchallenged.
Similarly, on the Muslim side, the Sunan of Abi Dawud, who died in 888 C.E., is one of the six principal Hadith collections preserving the acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as remembered by his disciples, Abi Dawud preserves the following Hadith:
Umm Waraqah, daughter of `Abd Allah b. al-Harith, narrated: ‘The Messenger of Allah used to visit her at her house. He appointed a person who calls for the prayers (mu’adhdhin) to call adman for her; and he commanded her to lead the inmates of her house in prayer.’
It was fascinating to hear Shuruq speak about the rich traditions of female teachers in Islam. Many people are aware of the important contribution’s of women to Islam’s mystical tradition – one need only think of Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya (d. 801 C.E.), widely believed to be the greatest of the early Sufi poets – but in fact women’s contribution to early Islam was diverse and wide-ranging, and the memory of the Prophet’s own encouragement to Muslim women is clearly part of that.
This short post can only capture a glimpse of what was an inspired and inspiring afternoon of discussion. But it is a conversation that I trust will continue for some time to come. In the mean time, Ali Amla, Anderson Jeremiah, and the community behind Christian-Muslim Encounters in Lancashire deserve very warm thanks and congratulations.