In many ancient cultures (and in many cultures even today), women knew exactly what their roles were. They were expected to marry, to serve their husbands and to bear and raise children.
In such a culture, women had two primary concerns. First, they were anxious to be chosen to be some man's wife. Women who were not chosen often remained in their parents' home for their entire life. Second, they were anxious about whether or not they could have children. When a married woman was barren, she felt unfulfilled and less than other women. She was often pitied and disdained. Her husband might divorce her. If such a woman were desperate enough, she might even choose the self-defeating life of being a prostitute. In that way, she might feel a temporary sense of worth.
What happens when God begins to act in such a culture? God’s ways are not our ways. He values women as individual persons, regardless of the roles society gives them. In each society where God's word is honored, the status of women is elevated. Some women have been given a very special role in God's plan for mankind.
One woman in particular stood out in religious history as a unique person, specially chosen by God for a very important task. Her culture might easily have ignored or pitied her. She was unmarried. Like other women of their day, she was illiterate, with no hope and no desire for advancement. Her family was of no importance. She was neither famous nor rich . Yet God chose her to have a central place in His plan. That woman’s name was Mary.
According to the Qur'an, Mary was so important in God's eyes that the angels argued about who would have the privilege of guarding and caring for her. They chose the winner by casting lots.
"This is part of the tidings of the things unseen which We reveal unto you by inspiration, you were not with them when they cast lots with arrows as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary, nor were you with them when they disputed." (Sura 3:44)
The angels informed Mary that God had honored her, choosing her from among other women, purifying her. In the Qur'an, we read that an angel told Mary that she would bear a very special son, whose name would be Christ Jesus (Isa al Masih, or Jesus the Messiah---"Messiah" means “the anointed one”).
The angel described Jesus. God Himself would teach him. He would be honored in this world and the next. He would be among those nearest to God. He would be a prophet, giving his message both as a child and as an adult. He would be righteous. He is God's Word, a Spirit sent from God and an apostle to the children of Israel.
"Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee- chosen thee above the women of all nations. "O Mary! worship Thy Lord devoutly: Prostrate thyself, and bow down (in prayer) with those who bow down." This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee (O Apostle!) by inspiration: Thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: Nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah; "He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous." (Sura 3:42-46)
(See also Sura 19 for details of Mary's trip into the wilderness, the appearance of the angel, etc.)
Mary asked the angel how she could have a son, since a man had never touched her. The answer was that God would create the son as He had created Adam, an easy thing for God to do.
God often chooses unmarried, childless women for special roles in His plan for mankind. Their destiny was selected for them just as Mary's was. Some of the world’s greatest scientists, politicians, doctors and social workers have been women. Consider Madam Curie, Mother Teresa and others.
Because God respects, honors and often chooses women for special places in His world's history, His true prophets must also honor women and teach others to do so. Mary's son, Jesus, certainly did. As he is revealed in the Bible, Jesus held women in high regard, no matter what their status in society. He was even kind to the adulteress and the prostitute. Their downfall was partly caused by the negative way others thought of them.
Once, while Jesus was teaching in the temple, some religious leaders brought a disheveled woman to him, accusing her of adultery and demanding that she be stoned to death, as the law required. Jesus calmly told them:
"Let any one of you who is without sin be the first a throw a stone at her." Being convicted of their own sins, her accusers left the woman alone with Jesus. Jesus told her, "God now, and leave your life of sin." (John 8:4-11)
The value of each woman is raised, and she is given dignity by Jesus' words. If you are a woman, whether you are unmarried or married, fertile or barren, God places a high value on you. You deserve respect and honor. You are a woman!
The Bible expresses the words the angel used when he spoke to Mary:
"Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
The angel described the son Mary would bear in this way:
"Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High." (Luke 1:28-32)
In gratitude for God's favor, Mary sang:
"My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name." (Luke 1:46-49)
When Mary's kinswoman, Elizabeth, received Mary into her home for a visit, her first words were:
"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!" (Luke 1:42)
Like Elizabeth, all of us can rejoice that God chooses to use humble women in His world for His purposes. Women have a very important place in God's world.
(This information is from the book, “Jesus Gives Peace: Jesus in the Qur’an and the Bible,” by Yusuf Abdallah)
Comparing Islam to Christianity, Part 7 (The Role of Women)
Islam and Women
Oppression of Women