The “female” orgasm is not complex.

We’re using quotations obviously because not everyone with a vagina is female. I am not the person to write this post, but I need to say it. I have no idea if someone has written this post already. But I hope so, because someone should—this post needs to exist. So I might elaborate/rant more on this later, but every time I’m cruising through a scientific article and I read mystified complaints and/or amused jabs about how “mysterious” and “complex” the female orgasm is, I feel sorry for people with vaginas/clitorises/g-spots who’d like to orgasm. I genuinely believe men collectively participate in this ongoing gag about how difficult it is to make a woman orgasm consciously with the objective that they don’t have to actually exert themselves in the efforts of learning. You literally. Just rub. It’s not that different. Really.

Again, though, I’m not the person to write this, so someone take this assignment from me, please? Thanks.

Anime Characters Don’t “Look White” and the Ridiculousness of White-as-Default

I’m actually not an incredible fan of anime, in that I’ve never really immersed myself in it, other than–of course–the obligatory elementary school obsession with Sailor Moon. But I’ve had friends who very much were, from elementary into high school. I went to a predominantly Asian and Latinx (thank God) high school rather than a predominantly White one. In fact, my high school was 5% White. Demographically speaking, it was the best. High school speaking, it was the worst, as is expected of any high school experience. Ever.

I’d never seen anime characters as White, and it wasn’t until I happened to walk past a woman I overheard complaining, “Why don’t they”—referring to the Japanese—”draw themselves the way they really look?” For some reason, she sounded annoyed, like she didn’t think a people ought to see themselves with wide eyes or multicolored hair when that’s clearly not how they look to her White gaze. I walked away thinking it was truly bizarre. To me, Japanese characters have looked nothing but Japanese.

The answer to this has everything to do with our default perceptions. After all, on American television, we have a variety of cartoon characters with humanly impossible features, but unless they have specific “markers” defining them as Other, we read them as White. Look at Charlie Brown, for instance. He’s got beady eyes and thin lips. What makes us think he’s whi—actually, never mind, bad example.

It works the same way with sex and gender. If I draw a bunny, it wouldn’t read to a large American audience as a girl unless I made it pink, or added a ribbon. (This is getting incredibly boring, and I’m glad more “modern” cartoons are evolving past it.) Even stick figures are read as male unless they have triangular dresses. The woman asserting the Japanese should draw themselves “how they really look” believes the characters should have (racist) racial markers that read “Asian.” Anime was not, however, made for her. The characters don’t need to be “read” by her, or drawn in a way she would understand. I’m guessing Japanese people in Japan don’t see their anime characters as White. They don’t need racial markers to tell them the characters they draw are Japanese.

sailor moon
Seriously, these women still all look Japanese.

After all, why do we have any reason to believe American cartoons are white? Why do we read characters on The Simpsons as white when their skin is yellow and when Marge has a blue afro? If anything, shouldn’t this read as Black hair? But she isn’t Black to the American audience, who learns quickly (as they have known all their lives) that “Others” are defined on the The Simpsons with brown skin, not yellow. Since White is default, there must be an additional marker that acts as an indicator. And unfortunately, the afro has been appropriated and won’t cut it for an American audience. Marge’s hair might not even register as an afro.

It was clear (from this and a few other sentiments) that the woman believed the Japanese had an inflated self-image, to have the audacity to imagine themselves with blue hair and wide eyes. That’s only for Americans like Marge Simpson! It’s shocking, no doubt, to come to the realization that non-white cultures don’t see themselves the same way white supremacists see them. It’s shocking to discover that the white supremacist lens is unnatural, imposing, and entitled.

It’s a great exercise, I think, to realize that non-white characters with traits we perceive to be white, don’t, in fact, look white, and those traits are not white. They do not belong to white people or white culture.

I’ve been flattered by those of you who’ve contacted me to insist that I return to writing as frequently as I used to–unfortunately, I can’t promise that, but I have decided to post at least once a week. I wish I could tell you which day, but that would too closely resemble a schedule, and I am notoriously terrible with schedules.

On whether the hijab is mandatory

I’ve been avoiding this post. I’ve successfully avoided writing it for four years. As most of you know I’m conscious of the context to which I contribute exegesis (or anything), and whether or not hijab is mandatory is a question that is irrelevant in a context where women are harassed for wearing the hijab—and for not wearing it. Because of this context I have, reluctantly, written more posts here about hijab than I ever cared to write, and all about men minding their own business.

There is one verse that is used by male scholars to “encourage” women to cover their hair. Humorously (or not) enough, this verse does not explicitly make this command; it reads, instead,

And say
to the believing women
that they should lower their gaze and guard
their modesty; that they should not
display their beauty and
ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof;
that they should draw their veils
over their bosoms
(Qur’an 24:31)

In case you’re wondering how “bosoms” is understood as “hair” when they are pretty clearly distinct body parts (insert joke about judicial male “expertise” knowing nothing about female anatomy here) let’s look at the word “veil.” The verse already hints that a veil existed; it doesn’t command, for example to veil as though the action is revolutionary or unpracticed, but to draw their veils, as though the women already owned fabric they understood could be used as a veil. And that’s exactly correct. The area where male scholarship is wrong, however, is in arguing that the veil was already used to cover the hair, and that 24:31 merely commands the inclusion of the bosom with the hair, thus advising that both the hair and bosom are covered.

But there are problems with this—mainly that the assumption that the sole purpose of the veil was exclusively to cover the hair in pre-Islamic Arabia is an incorrect one.

As Lee Ann explains,

“The cloth was more utilitarian in purpose than just as a piece of clothing. It served to protect against weather, to carry babies, to haul such things as wood. It was tied around the waist and used like a tool belt of sorts, to stick things in it, etc. The “hijab” [before the Revelation] was never exclusive to be used as a head covering because it would have to be removed from the head in order to use it for those other purposes. The ayat in the Quran is basically telling women to use that piece of cloth, that they already have and are using (to make it easier on them, no need to get a special “hijab” so to speak) and use it to cover your chest/breast.”

If the line of argument for scholars is that hijab is commanded in the Qur’an because the cloth to which the Qur’an refers in advising women to cover their bosoms is the same cloth women used to exclusively cover their hair (which is the male scholarly line of argument) then it is an inadequate one. And it’s inadequate for the simple reason that hair-covering was not the exclusive purpose of this fabric. Would it have made sense to interpret that women should cover their bosoms and with the same fabric we use to hold tools? If our logical standards are that all previous purposes of the cloth have now become mandatory with the inclusion of covering the bosom, then it does. Otherwise, there is no reason for scholars to focus solely on the cloth’s purpose to cover hair as an extension of the command to conceal the bosom.

The command to conceal the bosom was given because non-Muslim men would harass Muslim women due to prejudice (you know, all too familiar) while knowing full well these women were Muslim, but since all Arab women exposed their chests, when confronted the men claim that they did not recognize that the woman was Muslim and couldn’t tell, and therefore had not been harassing her for her religion. The verse was revealed to blast away this poor excuse. Muslim women were defined clearly from non-Muslim women, so that, in Lee Ann’s words “those men had no excuse other than they were assholes.”

This is why the verse cites the reason “so that they will not be harassed” in advising the hijab—it’s not meant to be interpreted as the responsibility to avoid harassment is placed on the woman: it’s meant to be interpreted so that the excuse given by men (“I did not recognize her as Muslim and therefore was not committing the 7-century version of a hate crime.”) is rendered illegitimate.

Guest Post: Qur’anic Revisionism Revised

I’m brimming with excitement in introducing our fourth guest writer, Jessica. A doctoral candidate in theology who is specializing in the history of Islam’s interactions with other religions, Jessica’s approach to research and history is nothing short of refreshing–and thorough. She routinely debunks commonly held misperceptions, including the idea that history becomes more progressive as it progresses. In this guest post, Jessica explores the working biases that have come into effect when non-Muslims attempt to research the Qur’an and its origin, including the privileging of non-Muslim sources and methods of analysis & criticism.

Hi all!  My name is Jessica, and I’m the author of askanislamicist.  Nahida very sweetly asked me to write a guest post for her.  I’m a researcher in Islamic studies, finishing up a PhD at Oxford.  My research focuses predominantly on the theological interactions between Christianity and Islam in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, although blogging has increased my interest in the modern history of the field of Islamic studies and how that impacts our work as researchers.

I’m currently in the (slightly soul-crushing) process of final revisions on my thesis, and have been rereading a lot of material about the Qur’an and modern scholarship on the Qur’an, so when Nahida approached me, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about how the modern history of the field of Islamic studies can affect the research itself, specifically looking at the example of modern theories on the dating and origins of the Qur’an.

The Muslim tradition holds that the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad (peace be upon him) over a period of about twenty years, from circa 610 to his death in 632.  Passages of the Qur’an were transmitted orally for the first few decades; the first attempt at a written version was under the first caliph Abu Bakr (s’lm), but the complete version wasn’t assembled until the caliphate of Uthman (s’lm) around 650.  This version was transmitted during the Islamic expansion to what became the Muslim lands – North Africa, the Middle East, and Mesopotamia.

Western scholarship on the Qur’an took a long time to be anything more than polemical – many works accepted elements of the Muslim account of the work’s composition, but also routinely referred to Muhammad (s’lm) as the Antichrist and a demon, so it’s hard to claim they had much by way of a critical analysis.  It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Western scholars started to study the text critically.  The earliest Western Quranic scholars were largely Semeticists, people who studied Syriac and Hebrew, as well, such as Theodor Noldeke, who attempted to apply the methodology of Biblical criticism to the Quran, studying sentence structure, word choice, and repeated phrases in an attempt to put the suras in order, assuming that those written at the same time would have a similar topic, tone, and structure.

The theory was flawed both methodologically and philosophically – methodologically because the Qur’an was potentially written over a period of decades to the Hebrew Bible’s[1] centuries, leaving much less time for language evolution, and philosophically because Biblical criticism had been developed to cope with the lack of sources contemporary to the Hebrew Bible, so the internal focus of comparing books of the Bible to other books of the Bible was really the only option.  There are, however, a wide range of sources referencing Islam from the seventh century, and although in the nineteenth century there were few Arabic sources known, there were sources in Greek and Syriac that referenced the rise of Islam, as a Semeticist like Noldeke should have known.  However, Noldeke’s dating, which largely accepted the Muslim account (minus Muhammad’s (s’lm) prophetic office), remained the implicit assumption of Western Quranic scholars for another century.

In the last forty years, however, a number of scholars have offered new datings on the Qu’ran.  These new works, called collectively “the revisionists,” all center on the assumption that the Muslim account cannot be accepted as being biased, because, you know, religion and stuff.  The first, and probably most well-known, revisionist history is Hagarism by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, which theorized that Islam started out as a variant Jewish cult, and that the Qur’an, as it exists today, was not created until what was then the earliest extant manuscript evidence for it, a century later[2].  Crone and Cook argued that there was no reason to accept the Muslim account a priori, as lacking sufficient archeological evidence to support it, and reached instead for Jewish Messianism, of which, while there are certainly examples throughout the Near East, there were very few examples in Arabia in the seventh century.

Since the publication of Hagarism, there have been a number of alternate arguments that similarly start from the assumption that we cannot accept the Muslim account.  John Wansbrough, who is routinely cited for having coined the concept of a “milieu,” a culture context used for dating texts, also published a work arguing for the Qur’an as dating from after the Abbasid revolution in 750, claiming it was a form of state-building by the Abbasids.  Gunter Luling, also writing in the1970s, expanded Noldeke’s work to argue for four strands to the Qur’an, the earliest being the liturgy of non-Trinitarian Christians in Mecca.  And Yehuda Nevo, whose work was published posthumously by colleague Judith Koren, argued for dismissing all textual evidence, as being too easily corruptible, and relying exclusively on inscriptions and archaeological evidence, and again claiming a Jewish root for Islam, based on Islam’s use of Biblical prophets in its inscribed messages.

This range of theses have also infected public knowledge about the Qur’an to various degrees, fueling a belief that the Qur’an is essentially impossible to study.  Resistance to the revisionist movement by Muslims has also fueled a belief that Muslims are somehow against the study of their religion.  However, as some Western scholars, including Gabriel Said Reynolds and Fred Donner, have started to argue, this revisionism is itself as essentially flawed as the quasi-Biblical approach it sought to replace.

Firstly, Qur’anic revisionism is often itself a-historical.  It’s perfectly reasonable to want to compare Islam to its Abrahamic neighbors, as many of the revisionists do, but it should be done in a source-relevant way.  Luling, for example, reaches back to obscure 3rd century Jewish and Christian apocalypses for his narrative imagery, without any account of how these works would have been transmitted to Arabia (or in what language).  Crone and Cook and Nevo and Koren both reference Jewish cults in Arabia, and Luling theorizes Jewish-Christian and non-Trinitarian Christian Arabians, all without reference to the wide range of actual Jewish and Christian sources from the seventh century.  We have letters, sermons, books of heresy, teaching manuals, and books of canon law, all discussing each and every variety and sect of Christian and Jew, all without any reference to these Arabian cults who make these theories work.

Secondly, revision requires privileging non-Muslim sources, even those written thousands of miles away or centuries later.  Nevo and Koren are maybe the funniest example of this – in the introduction to their work The Origins of the Arab Religion, they lay out, in no uncertain terms, that they intend to use exclusively physical sources (inscriptions and archaeological evidence) because texts can be corrupted, and even uncorrupted, are often written centuries later. And then, on the very next page, they start to lay out the context for the rise of Islam in the seventh century using the accounts of Theophanes the Confessor (9th century), the Annales of Eutychius (10th century), and Nikephorus Gregoras (13th century), all without reference to any contemporary sixth or seventh archaeological or epigraphical evidence to support these later sources, or apparently, any sense of irony.

Thirdly, it’s internally inconsistent.  Luling says use narrative for internal dating.  Nevo and Koren say no texts, never, and then immediately break this rule because you can’t write a history using only inscriptions: no one inscribes a stone with everything that’s happened that year, let alone that decade or century.  This is particularly clear when we’re talking about the religion of pre-Islamic Arabians – were they Jewish?  Jewish Messianists?  Jewish Christians?  Or were there no variant cults at all, as suggested by Gerald Hawting?  Methodology, at its core, is supposed to aid in the study of a field or subject, by suggesting new ways of looking at things or new ways to interpret data in order to create a coherent narrative, but the revisionist theses are all wildly diverse, contradictory between each other, and based on so many assumptions that we can’t do much with them except either accept or reject them wholesale.

And finally, it suggests a universal conspiracy of silence for which we have no evidence.  No matter when you want to date the writing of the Qur’an, if it’s outside of the period of the early community, then at some point, not only did everyone writing about it agree to pretend it was written then, but they also implicitly agreed to never mention that it was changed.  In a caliphate that stretched from Spain to Afghanistan, and had several major sects vying for rule, that kind of conspiracy of silence would be impressive.  But that’s not even considering the non-Muslim sources.  By the early eighth century, we have John of Damascus writing a book of heresies and including a refutation of Islam, John of Ephesus writing canons explicitly telling Christians how to deal with Muslims, and anonymous apocalypses and apologies cropping up in Greek, Syriac, and Coptic, all explaining how evil and awful Islam is.  Surely if the Muslims had just started circulating a holy book a few years earlier AND were running around claiming it was a hundred years old, someone would have said something.  Someone would have written something in a language the Muslims couldn’t understand.  No conspiracy is that effective.  And yet there is no evidence for this at all.  Christian authors claim Muhammad (s’lm) is a demon, and that Muslims are really worshipping Aphrodite or a star when they say, “Allah al-Akhbar” (God is Great), but no contemporary is saying, “Hey, these guys want us to believe their holy book is a hundred years old!  Remember when they were just a bunch of Jewish-Christian-Messianists?”

So why do these works keep coming?  Well, part of it is definitely that our field has gotten a lot more attention recently, and controversy sells.  No one is going to get invited on CNN or written up in the New York Times for discussing manuscript transmission.  But Crone and Wansbrough predate much of the modern Islamophobia-driven media focus by several decades.

I think at its most basic, it’s the problem that it’s much easier to recognize other people’s biases than your own.  It’s certainly the case that Muslims’ religious devotion can and has led to some strange analyses about the Qur’an and other topics (and if I have to read one more tenth century Arabic debate about when God created the throne upon which he sits, it’ll be too soon).  All of these scholars started from their own resistance to those beliefs, and their rejection of them, but failed to apply the same rules of logical analyses to their own assumptions.

 

[1] Hebrew Bible = Old Testament, for those unfamiliar with the phrase.

[2] Since Hagarism‘s publication in the 1970s, manuscripts with Qur’anic passages have been found that date to the Uthmanic period, and, it’s probably worth noting, Crone has largely rescinded her support of her earlier thesis.

Removed from Societal Context: Verse 33:53, the Veil, and the role of Umar

Umar, the only corrupted caliph of the first four, publicized stoning as a punishment for adultery, a penal ordinance that does not appear in the Qur’an and was delivered by the Prophet in cases when the adulterer was non-Muslim, such as the case of a Jewish woman in Medina whose people had agreed to an Islamic government only if it were separated from Jewish law. The Prophet, in order to keep peace and maintain religious freedom by recognizing non-Muslim laws among the residents he governed, allowed Jewish citizens to maintain their own sub-courts. However, association of stoning with Islamic law was promulgated by Umar after the Prophet’s death.

Unsurprisingly, Umar was known to be cruel to his wives and to physically assault them. Attempting to confine women to their homes, Umar also sought to deter women from attending prayers at the mosques, and, though he failed to accomplish this, managed temporarily to assign not only separate groups but separate imams for men and women. Although the men were led by an imam of their own sex, the women, of course, were led not by a female imam but a male one. They were also prevented from being imams themselves, though while the Prophet was alive, a woman—Umm Waraqa—was appointed to lead both men and women in prayer. This separation arrangement was revoked by the succeeding caliph, Uthman.

Part of Umar’s agenda to confine women to separate quarters manifested in his prohibition for Muhammad’s wives to go on pilgrimage, from which they had not been forbidden while the Prophet was alive. He lifted the restriction the year before he died, but the (historically influential) damage of this and other laws was done. It was not the first time that Umar sought to regulate the behaviors of women by restricting their ability to travel or interact with the opposite sex; while Muhammad was alive, Umar insisted that the Prophet separate his wives from himself, as was the practice of wealthy leaders. Umar was initially unsuccessful with this, as Muhammad did not have his own separate room but shared different rooms with his wives on different nights. While it is true that Muhammad’s wives were harassed by hypocrites who would attempt to assault them, Umar’s proposed solution (that the wives make themselves unrecognizable as the Prophet’s wives by separating themselves from the Prophet) was different from God’s—which was the veil.

But unlike what is commonly understood as the function of the veil, the purpose of the hijab is to separate the intimacy between a wedded couple from the patriarchal intrusions of the outside world. When the Prophet married Zeynab bint Jahsh, a woman renowned for her incredible beauty, he was quietly frustrated by indiscreet male guests who overstayed their welcome, and—as the verse curiously notes that none of the Prophet’s wives are permissible to other men—may have been meddling for indecent reasons. The verse reads,

O you who have believed!
do not enter
the houses of the Prophet
except when you are permitted for a meal,
without awaiting its readiness.
But when you are invited,
then enter;
and when you have eaten, disperse without seeking
to remain for conversation.
Indeed, that [behavior] was troubling the Prophet,
and he is shy of [dismissing] you.
But God is not shy of
the truth.
And when you ask [his wives] for something,
ask them from behind a partition.
That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.
And it is not conceivable or lawful for you
to harm the Messenger of God
or to marry his wives after him
, ever.
Indeed, that would be in the sight of God an enormity.
(33:53)

It is clear from context then that the notion of whether the men were inappropriately interested in the new bride is not one that is out of question. This opens the verse to the possibility of an abstract interpretation: a veil over the heart, to ensure its purity.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan writes in “A Feminist Reclamation of Islam?” the following:

“The verse on the hijab descended at precisely the moment when the Prophet’s desire to consummate his marriage to the beautiful Zeynab was frustrated by the boorish behavior of his male guests who kept sitting in his living room long after the wedding banquet was over, and who the overly polite (“bordering on timid” as Mernissi describes him)—prophet of Islam, simply could not muster up enough courage to ask to leave. Finally, when they did depart, one male companion still hovered around, by the name of Anas Ibn Malik, and it is he who reported the event of the revelation of the verse about hijab as a witness.

Thus, according to Mernissi, the circumstances of this revelation point to an understanding of the notion of hijab as a tool to protect the intimacy of the wedded pair—their privacy—and to do so by excluding a third person, the man named Anas. He becomes a symbol, then, of a male dominant community that had become too invasive in the life and personal affairs of the prophet.”

This means that the hijab, in the most traditional sense, is meant to serve as a sanctuary against patriarchy; and not in the wear-this-and-you-will-be-protected-from-the-male-gaze kind of way accorded by mainstream, contemporary interpretations of Islam. Rather, it is meant to preserve the private expression and pursuit of Divine Love within a marriage from the overbearing reach of patriarchal exhibitionism.

Originally intended to keep out overbearing men, like Umar who attempt to tell other men how to behave toward their wives and seek to seclude them, from the privacy of quiet, marital understanding, the veil, over the centuries, has been misconstrued as a symbol of the exclusive rights of a husband to the beauty of his wife. In reality, the husband is included behind the veil, encompassed in a shield of love, and protected from the bellicose forces of masculine performance and societal expectations. Umar, patriarchy embodied, had attempted numerous times to impose the patriarchal practices of pre-Islamic societies and of the surrounding cultures onto Muhammad—an infamous preoccupation of the patriarchal male.

The hijab-literally ‘curtain’—‘descended,’ not to put a barrier between A man and a woman, but between two men.

(Mernissi 85)

A woman’s beauty, of course, belongs to no one, and can be policed by no one. Umar had tried—for the rest of time Umars will continue, in vain, to try.

Prophet Maryam and Her Successor, the Prophet Muhammad

Although I’ve already written about Maryam as our Prophetess, I’d like to expand on her significance by comparing the cosmological role of our Prophet Muhammad to that of our Prophetess Maryam. There are several interesting parallels between Maryam and Muhammad; the first and most obvious is not only that both recieved word from the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel) of their Prophethoods, but that the reactions of these two Prophets to that word are strikingly similiar. When Muhammad is greeted by the Angel, he is terrified until he comes to recognize the entity; the Prophet had, at first, run frantically down the moutain. Likewise, when the Angel approaches Maryam, she cries,

“Indeed, I seek refuge
in the Most Merciful
from you, so leave me
if you fear God!”

until her visitor responds,

“I am only a messenger
of God to bring you news
of a child.” (19:18)

But what is more intriguing is the dialogue that takes place. Maryam proceeds to ask,

“How can I birth a child
when I am a virgin?” (19:20)

while Muhammad, when commanded to “Read!” at the revelation of Surah Iqra, responds, bewildered, “But I cannot read.”

The Prophet was indeed illiterate, and in this exchange his illiteracy plays the same role as Maryam’s virginity. This response, “I cannot read,” is paralleled with Maryam’s, “How can I birth a child when no mortal has touched me?”

Since Islam does not elevate the Maryam’s virginity to the extent that it is certainly elevated in other faiths accepting her as a religious figure, the Islamic approach to Maryam’s virginity is the same as its approach to Muhammad’s illiteracy. In other words, these two states are considered neither particularly virtuous nor are they frowned upon. They are merely the conditions in which these historical figures existed before greeted by the Divine. I am not entirely comfortable in drawing the theory that Muhammad’s illiteracy and Maryam’s virginity are symbolic of spiritual receptiveness to the Word of God, that the absence (of literacy and sexual experience) of each of these “worldy pretenses” made each Prophet the most receptive vessel, unobstructed by human finitude, for the Word of God to be Delivered–for Maryam, God’s Word in childbirth, and through Muhammad, God’s Word in the Qur’an–but it is nonetheless one to be considered.

A second parallel is the cleansing of both Prophets before the creation of the universe and all that exists. A hadith reads, “There is none born among the offspring of humankind that Satan does not touch; a child, therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Maryam and her child.” (Sahih Bukhari) This is an indication that both Maryam and her son are free of sin, like Muhammad who is distinguished by his isma, protection from moral depravity: “Did We not expand your bosom?” (Qur’an 94:1) so that the Messenger of the Qur’an could convey the message without error. Our Prophet’s heart is cleansed during his ascendance through the Heavens, and several hadiths, in which this described concept has been meditated upon by mystics, read that the Prophet existed before the very creation of the first human being, and several hadiths read that “the first thing God created [when Adam was still between water and clay] was my [the Prophet’s] Light.” As the Prophet is distinguished as exceptional compared to all humankind, so is the declaration made for Maryam at her birth,

“When she [the mother of Maryam] had delivered,
she said: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered
of a female child!”—and God knew best
what she delivered—
And no wise is the male
like the female.

I have named her Maryam (Mary), and I commend her
and her offspring to
Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected.” (3:36)

Just as the Qur’an is protected from defect through the protection of the purity of Muhammad from moral depravity, so is Prophet Isa’s protection from Satan invoked in the same protection of his mother.

What are then, the cosmological and mystical implications of both these figures? It is no accident that the Prophetess and the Prophet have inspired the same passionate praise and meditative repose among those who follow them and submit to God. One of the most fundamental attributes of the Prophet is his Light, believed to be a direct reflection of the Light of God, the noor of Muhammad is so close to God that Muhammad is Loved if God is Loved. Likewise Maryam, who occupies the realm of the Womb, is tied closely, almost inextricably, to the realm of the Divine, as made clear in 4:1. Prophet Isa, son of Maryam, is secondary to his mother, as the Qur’an reads he declares,

“I am a servant of God;
God has given me a Book and made me
a Prophet,
and blessed me and enjoined upon me
prayer and charity
and made me dutiful
to my mother
who bore me
.” (19:30-32)

There are two things to take away from this: (1) Prophet Isa was made dutiful to his mother, which has interestingly never been interpreted as a Divine Ordination of matriarchy (though Isma’il’s dutifulness to God has been conveniently misread as dutifulness to Ibrahim as a patriarch), and (2) although it is true the conception was Immaculate, it is emphasized over and over in the Qur’an that Isa is the son of Maryam: she, alone, birthed him, harnessing the Divine powers manifested in the realm of the womb and acting singularly (without a man) to perform a miracle, a sign of the Prophets.

And Maryam is most certainly a Prophet. Whether she can be called a Messenger, having carried and delivered the Word of God in the form of a human being, just as Muhammad delivered the word of God as the Qur’an, is a decision I personally haven’t made and will leave up to you, dear readers. One thing is certain: Maryam, and Asiya, and Eve, and the numerous women who inarguably qualify as Prophets demonstrate with their capacities that the distinction between a Prophet and a Messenger is hazy and not so distinct, and more uncertain than widely defined.

I propose that there is an entire league of female Prophets who transcend patriarchal categorizations of Divine Interaction.