How we understand God profoundly shapes how we understand ourselves and one another – as women and men, and as Christians and Muslims.
Both Christians and Muslims believe in God as Creator of all the world and of the people he placed within it. The first eleven chapters of the Bible, in particular the first three, are crucial to interpreting everything else that follows.
The very first chapter takes us to a simple but important truth: as women and men, we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), part of God’s purposes and good creation. Our first place of encounter with one another is to honour each other as those who bear God’s Image. So as we meet one another, as we meet Muslim women and men, we begin by honouring them as Image-bearers of God, as all with whom we share humanity.
What does it mean that we as women, as well as men, bear the divine image? In the Bible we discover a rich range of female metaphors that are used to show us what God is like. Some examples are:
- a mother eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11–12 and 18)
- a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14)
- a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:13-15, Isaiah 66:12–13, Psalms 123:2–3, Psalms 131; Hosea 11:1–4)
- a hen with her chickens (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34, Ruth 2:12, Psalms 17:8, Psalms 57:1, Psalms 91:4, Luke 15:8–10)
- the very act of being born of God (John 1:13, 3:3-8)
These are all maternal pictures. However we also encounter
- a woman baking bread (Luke 13:20-21), and cleaning her house (Luke 15:8-10),
as images of God.
Both male and also female metaphors are needed to give us a complete picture of God: why? Because women and men are together intrinsic to created humanity—they both matter to God and are part of his good creation. We need to honour both equally as image-bearers of God.
We learn at the beginning that men and women together are made in God’s image. And the Bible also tells us that right at the beginning tension entered the relationship between the sexes (Genesis 3). This tension was not something that God designed, but is a direct consequence of the Fall, and is therefore part of our human condition. While there are many different kinds of oppression, such as racism and other forms of discrimination, some argue that sexism is the basis of all other oppressions. And its introduction right at the beginning in Genesis 3 could support that argument. Others point to the primacy of sexism because everyone participates in it, and because most people encounter it in family settings, not outside the home, which is where racism or class-ism is encountered.
So what do we understand from this? If tension between women and men is derived from the Fall at the very beginning of human life and society, we may expect that it will never be completely eliminated or absent in this world. However we can also expect that part of seeking God’s kingdom will mean acting against it, and that God’s new community should be marked by its reversal.
Khalifah – viceregents
What is the Qur’anic understanding of the place of men and women in relationship to God? As with many of the Biblical narratives, allusions to the creation account are dispersed throughout the Qur’an.
Amina Wadud looks to one of the creation references (Al-Baqarah 2:30) to define the role of humanity as God’s khalifah (vicegerent, which she takes as ‘trustee’ or ‘moral agent’), where where both women and men are equally responsible to God to bring his justice on earth.
She draws on the verse at the start of An-Nisa’ (The Women) 4:1:
“He created you from (min) a single soul (nafs), and created from it (min nafs) its spouse (zawj), and from these two He spread countless men and women,”
to assert the ontological moral and spiritual equality of men and women within Islam.
This opens up the space for her to encourage women to be involved in a ‘Gender Jihad’ within Islam. She suggests that while “God created women fully human,” a history of almost exclusively male interpretation of the Qur’an has produced an androcentric interpretation and codification of Islamic law and life.  However Aysha Hidayatullah argues that Wadud, and other feminist interpreters of the Qur’an have failed to account for the difference within the Qur’an in the treatment of women and men at a social-functional level.
The field of feminist readings of the Qur’an is a rich and growing field. While it interconnects with Jewish and Christian feminist writings, it takes place within a fundamental understanding that men and women are God’s agents, responsible to carry out his will on earth.
Likeness of God
In the book of Genesis, we see that God reveals his own self – not just his will – to men and women as soon as they are created. The language of being created in God’s likeness and image suggests a link of not just moral accountability, but of relational reciprocity – and the rest of the Bible unpacks what that relationship means for humanity. As created beings and as bearers of the divine image, men and women are able to respond relationally to God, whether in obedience or disobedience. And the Bible is rich with the names and stories of women as well as men who responded to God.
Reciprocity in relationship, humanity created in the likeness of God, finds its fulfillment in Jesus who (as preexistent Creative Word) was born in the likeness of humanity (Philippians 2:7), to perfectly reveal God’s image.
We carry God’s image, and he reveals his very self to us in relationship and ultimately in Jesus. And the divine metaphors of paternity and maternity (God addressed as Father, but also described in maternal images) find their spiritual fulfillment in us when, in Christ, we may also become children of God (John 1:12f). In Christ we are not just image-bearers, but participants in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4).
Hidayatullah, Aysha A. Feminist Edges of the Qur’an. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory. From Margin to Center. New Haven & London: Routledge, 2015.
Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad. Women’s Reform in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.
———. Qur’an and Woman. Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
 hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. pp.36-7
 For example, Q 2:29-34, 6:96-102, 7:54-58, 15:26-28, 55:1-27.
 From Wadud’s translation in Qur’an and Woman, p.17. Also Surah 6:98.
 Wadud, Gender Jihad, 254, 262.
 Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, 128.
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