Baha'i News -- Common threads unveiled

Common threads unveiled

Four religions discuss women's role in the church

Maria Lockwood
The Daily Telegram
Last Updated: Tuesday, April 30th, 2002 09:21:17 AM

During a panel discussion of women's role in religion sponsored by the United Campus Ministry of the University of Wisconsin-Superior recently, the audience picked out a common thread.

"I heard they were speaking different languages but saying the same thing," said Perveen Jawaid of Duluth.

Not surprising, when you consider that all of the four religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahai' faith -- were born in the Middle East, and all center around faith in one God.

"All the religions represented here today are members of the same family," said Dr. Richard Hudleson, a philosophy professor at UWS and mediator for the event. "Unfortunately we know there have been some terrible family fights, and that goes on."

Panelists were Chris King, a member of Temple Israel in Duluth, Sister Katherine McLaughlin who teaches religious studies at St. Scholastica, Dr. Muqtedar Khan, the director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, internationally syndicated columnist and associate professor at a Michigan university, and Nadjla Birkland of the Bahai' faith, who moved to Minnesota from Iran 25 years ago.

Judaism is the oldest religion of the western world and the first to teach monotheism.

"Judaism is seen as a religion of deeds," said King. "Your actions are paramount." Moses, with his revelation from God on Mt. Sanai, is the prophet at the root of Judaism.

The three themes of Judaism, she said, are reverence for creation followed by revelation and redemption. The seven-branched Menorah is a symbol for creation and the important role God has played in one's life.

While the true teachings of the religion have not changed, King said the forms have. Today, there are four primary streams of Judaism -- Orthodoxy, Reformed, Conservative and Reconstructionism.

Like Judaism, Christianity encompasses a vast range of form with a shared premise. The Christian religion is based on the teachings of Jesus from more than 2,000 years ago.

The word Islam itself means submission to one God, and that is the main basis of the religion, which was revealed by the prophet Mohammed 1,400 years ago.

"Anyone who follows one God is a Muslim," said Arshia Khan, Dr. Khan's sister who gave the opening remarks about Islam. "The Quaran says Islam is not a new religion. It is the same message sent through Moses and Jesus." The basic tenants of Islam are belief in one God, belief in all the angels, belief in all prophets (Adam, Moses, Jesus, Solomon and many more), belief in all the books of faith (the Torah, Bible, Quaran, etc.) and a belief that at the Day of Judgment all will be judged based on their deeds only, not by what religion they belong to.

The Bahai' faith was started nearly 150 years ago by Baha'u'llah in Iran. The principle of the Bahai' faith is unity. It is based on the belief in the oneness of God, the one-ness of religion and the one-ness of humanity.

"It is the same way you look at different flowers," said Nadjla Birkland. "God brought diversity to the garden of humanity." She said the Bahai' faith is the most wide-spread religion in the world.

While the basic tenants of the faiths are not so far apart, the practicing religions are. In fact, there are differences in religious teachings within each religion, especially when it comes to women.

"There certainly is conflict in Judaism between what you find Biblically (in the narrative) and the teachings that come out of it," said King. Teachings out of the Talmud ask women to make sure the men are able to study the commandments. That means that the women keep house and make dinner while the men pray. While that may still be the teaching for Orthodox Jews, King said, it is not for all streams.

"I am a Reformed Liberal Jew," she said. "As such I find myself in a very equal position in this day and age." She can participate in all parts of the services, she can sit and pray with the men, and women can be Rabbis. "Women are able to relate to men as equal," King said. "If I were in a different stream of Judaism, that would not be so."

According to McLaughlin, "Jesus had a remarkably unconventional attitude toward women."

Today, many Christian religions ordain women although her own -- Roman Catholicism -- does not.

"The position of women within Christianity varies a great deal," said McLaughlin. "Certainly at the very heart of it, the Gospel teaches equality of people. I think of myself as every bit as much of a person."

Western perception of Islam and Mohammed's teachings are not one and the same, said Dr. Muqtedar Khan, especially when it comes to the treatment -- or mistreatment -- of women.

At the time Islam was revealed, he said, female children were buried alive because it was shameful to have the first-born child be a girl, men had many, many wives and women could be bought and sold.

"They had no place in the public sphere," said Khan. "The prophet made revolutionary changes, made women legal entities." These changes included giving women the power to own property and file for divorce. The legal aspects were only part of Mohammed's message.

"Islam came as a radical feminist movement," said Khan. "It made women moral co-equals with man. The Quaran was not addressed to men alone, women were equally responsible for the mission and must account for their lives."

Time has changed the religion considerably. Ironically, said Khan, what began as a beacon of emancipation has been turned by some into a bastion of conservatism. How did that happen?

"Today people are more concerned about defending Islam than pursuing Islam," Khan said. "They are suffering from siege mentality." He spoke of the more extreme, brutal forms of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and by the Taliban.

"They are doing violence to the very message of Islam," Khan said. "If we advance any interpretation of Islam where women are marginalized there is something wrong with us."

Audience members agreed.

"If you read Islam, all the rights women have, I'm so proud," said Jawaid. "I'm still striving for those rights. They are not available in any society. The way the balance is struck by Islam, I'm really proud of it. I wish people realized what an impact culture had on it."

Baha'u'la's teachings on the equality of men and women were unique and empowering, said Birkland, coming as they did at the close of the 19th century.

"The revelations gave them equal status but they function differently, as each other's helpmate," she said.

In the Bahai' faith, sons and daughters are educated equally. In fact, said Birkland, the education of women takes priority because they raise the next generation.

One of the stepping stones to equality for women in all religions, the panelists agreed, was in allowing women to practice theology.

"All theologians tend to be men," said Khan. "We need more women interpreting text; they see things from their perspective."

In the Christian religion, said McLaughlin, "there are no foremothers. We're creating that dialog. In Christianity women have been doing theology only in the last 25 years."

"It's only been in the last 50-60 years that women have been allowed to interpret text," said King of Judaism. "Before women's role was to stay at home and the men's was to study."

Panelists also agreed that religious diversity has the potential to be a blessing, not a curse.

"In the Quaran, God said 'If I wanted to I would have created you all the same," said Khan. "There is a divine purpose in diversity. It makes us compete in doing good."

"In our hearts we all know we are one," said Johnson.

And as for the status of women, Birkland summed it up well.

"We have come a long way, baby," she said. In even talking about equality and educating women, the first steps have been taken.

"We have one blossom," said Birkland.

Residents were impressed with the panel discussion.

"I search out these kind of things," said Jawaid. "I think it's an enriching experience."

"I'm loving it," said Marj Johnson of Superior. "I'm so proud of what they're saying. They're very committed to living their faiths."

"I hope this conversation continues among us," said Jawaid. "I wish there were more interfaith things like this. I felt all the panel had the same goal -- improving human rights and growing closer to God."


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