Mother’s Day is celebrated throughout the world, and with particular focus in the Muslim world. Women are celebrated; gifts are given in acknowledgement of nurturing female relationships, whether to mothers, women teachers or mentors. In some places, it is marked by processions, or speeches in schools and religious places of worship.
The Qur’an also emphasises the need to honour mothers, in Al-Ahqaf 46:15:
And we have enjoined on man to be dutiful and kind to his parents. His mother bears him with hardship. And she brings him forth with hardship and the bearing of him, and the weaning of him is thirty months, till when he attains full strength and reaches forty years, he says: ‘My Lord! Grant me the power and ability that I may be grateful for Your Favour which You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I may do righteous good deeds, such as please You, and make my offspring good. Truly I have turned to You in repentance, and truly, I am one of the Muslims.
And the hadith echo the same theme:
A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet (PBUH) said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim)
A man once consulted the Prophet Muhammad about taking part in a military campaign. The Prophet asked the man if his mother was still living. When told that she was alive, the Prophet said: “(Then) stay with her, for Paradise is at her feet.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
On another occasion, the Prophet said: “God has forbidden for you to be undutiful to your mothers.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari)[i]
Asma Barlas argues against the description of Islam as a theological patriarchy, because the Qur’an rejects designations of God as a father.[ii] She describes patriarchy as “father-rule and/or a politics of male privilege based in theories of sexual differentiation.”[iii] How then do we understand the ‘Father’ language in the Judeo-Christian tradition? Does it reflect an understanding of God based in a politics of male privilege? The temptation of this reading can be accentuated by English grammar, where we have both the Father and Jesus referred to by male pronouns, and also the Spirit (in Hebrew a female pronoun in Hebrew and in Greek, neuter). These are grammatical terms, not about the essential being of God – and yet they can shape our attitudes. What does the Bible really say about God’s nature?
Genesis 1:27 tells us how “God created humans to be like himself; he made men and women.” So God is not reflected primarily in the male, but by both male and female: God is not one gender or without gender, but beyond, bigger than gender. The Bible invites us to call God ‘Father’, not just Lord – a relationship of parental intimacy that goes beyond slave-master obedience. And The Bible is also replete with maternal images of God.
In Deuteronomy 32:11, God is described as a mother eagle: and in 32:18 as giving birth. The Psalms compare God to a woman (123:2-3) and a mother (131:2). Isaiah also uses rich imagery likening God to a woman in labour (42:14), a nursing mother (49:15) and a comforting mother (66:13). Hosea also describes God as a mother, both nurturing (11:3-4) and as a mother bear (13:8). In a number of contexts the Biblical writers use the imagery of sheltering under the shadow of God’s wings. This is a maternal image of God as the female bird who offers shelter to her chickens from danger. Examples include Ruth 2:12, Psalm 17:8, 57:1, 91:4; and in the New Testament, Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34. So God who is Father is also pictured in maternal images, as nurturing, protective mother, or filled with maternal fury (Hosea 13:8).
There are also two non-maternal female images of God: the woman carefully sweeping her house to find what is lost (Luke 14:8-10): and a woman baking bread (Mathew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21)[iv].
The creative Spirit of God, as we noted above, is always referred to with the female pronoun in the Old Testament. It is the Spirit who comes bringing creation out of chaos (Genesis 1:2); giving creativity and skill in craft to create furnishings of beauty and colour (Exodus 35:30-35); ecstasy (1 Samuel 10:6, 10), new life (Ezekiel 37). And in the New Testament, it is the Spirit of God who births us (John 3:3-8). As with the same metaphor cited in the Old Testament above, it would be hard to get a more female, maternal image of God!
The divine Word of God became incarnate, taking on flesh, as Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. With a prescience that is both bold and breathtaking, Julian of Norwich, an early English theologian, describes Jesus in maternal terms as mother as well as brother and Saviour (LXIII). She links Jesus to the divine Wisdom, and she argues for Jesus as like our mother through four successive premises (LX).
- Jesus Christ is the ground of our being, and then took on our being as he became incarnate in the Maiden’s (Mary’s) womb.
- He brings each of us to birth through the great travail and suffering of his death on the cross – and counts that suffering and cost all joy for the privilege of giving us life, new birth in him.
- As the mother places her new-born child on the breast, Jesus feeds us, drawing us through his open side, to nourish us with his own body and blood, as we also feed on his word.
- As a child grows, the mother allows the child she loves to be disciplined when needed so that it can grow in virtue and grace: and so too Jesus in his love for us. It is only when we fall that we can both know our own limits, and more fully know the marvellous love of our Maker for us (LXI).
We find God’s maternal care deeply within the Trinity.
A colleague working in a Muslim community in Central Asia was talking to people about God’s unconditional love for them. They told her bluntly, “If you want to tell us of unconditional love, don’t talk to us of fathers – our fathers are mostly drunk or absent or abusive. If you want to speak of unconditional love, tell us of maternal love.”
On the other side, we often talk about those who have had negative experiences of their fathers, needing to find healing in encountering God as the true Father, who is the ideal that our best father models can only try to reflect. Yet it is also true that for many of us we need to find the image of the true Mother in God, in a way that goes beyond the often damaged images of motherhood we encountered in our own families.
As we encounter the love and reverence given to mothers in many Muslim cultures (and as we see the influence they wield), we may be able to point more adequately to the fullness of God as the one who loves, births and nourishes us, by drawing on the rich female as well as male images
of God that we encounter in the Bible. We have to go beyond grammatical gender to know God as the one who fully embodies the loving parent, from which every mother and father must take their example.
[ii] Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam. Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, 2002:96-98. The verses she cites include Al-Nisa 4:171; Al-Ma’idah 5:18; Al-Taubah 9:30.
[iii] Barlas 2002:93.
[iv] This parable perhaps includes a side reference to Sarah preparing bread for the divine visitors in Genesis 18:6. In each case the same extravagant measure of flour (equivalent to about 21 kg) is used – bread for a banquet!
(c) When Women Speak… August 2018
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).
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