God coineth an example for the believers: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, “My Lord! Build for me a home with Thee in the Garden, and deliver me from Pharaoh and his deeds, and deliver me from evildoing people”;
And Maryam bint Imran, who was protected (or chaste), then We breathed into her Our Spirit. And she put faith in the words of her Lord and His Scriptures, and was of the obedient ones.
The above final two verses of Surah at-Tahreem, the 66th chapter of the Holy Qur’an, demonstrate an important aspect of the way women are treated in the Qur’an. In these verses, God praises two historical spiritual figures, pointing them out as role models for contemporary readers who believe in God. These women are held up as role models, not only for other women, but also for men! The gender inclusiveness of the phrase “an example for the believers” is not obvious in the English translation offered here; however, the original Arabic grammar makes it plain. All female plural is not used. These are “examples”, models, for men and women alike.
Who are these women, these female role models? What are their stories? What characteristics, actions or life events made them different from other men and women through out time, so much different that God cites them for the rest of humanity as examples of piety?
Too often in world literature, women are used as models only aesthetically. Poets through out the ages have extolled the sensual qualities of women. Modern media skips the verbiage, but retains the objectification in even plainer, baser language, that of visual images. Women are used to advertise cars, dramatize sentimental moments, or provide a vulnerable foil for a brave, male hero to rescue. But is that representative of a real woman, or what a woman should be? Of course not. And the Qur’anic version of women is multidimensional and spiritually focused.
Through various verses, the Qur’an examines the mental and spiritual qualities of all mankind, seldom treating women differently but always including them. Verses often address men and women equally, mentioning both with the same treatment, such as the verse:
Lo! Those who persecute believing men and believing women and repent not, theirs verily will be a doom of hell, and theirs the doom of burning.
Here, women are not the only victims. But they are mentioned, their individual plights are acknowledged alongside those of men who are persecuted on account of their faith and religion. In other verses, God Almighty assures the believers—men and women—that their faith will be rewarded. In still other verses, disbelief is admonished, warned against, and promised hellfire—whether the corrupter is a man or a woman; there is no gender distinction. An example of such treatment is in the verses:
That He may bring the believing men and the believing women into Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide, and may remit from them their evil deeds—that, in the sight of God, is the Supreme Triumph—
And may punish the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women, and the idolatrous men and the idolatrous women, who think and evil thought concerning God. For them is the evil turn of fortune, and God is wroth against them and hath cursed them, and hath made ready for them hell, a hapless journey’s end.
So the final section of Surah at-Tahreem mentioning female role-models for all believers, although an outstanding example of unbiased treatment of women, is not atypical in its own context within the Qur’an. Muslims who read these verses might pass by them, might rehearse them in religious classes, recite them in prayers, and never realize the awesome egalitarianism in the words they are pronouncing. Or they might think about the verses deeply, reflect on the biographies and religious significance of these two women. Let us contemplate their lives as examples for believers now, as the Qur’an invites us to.
Asiyah, Wife of Pharaoh
Her name was Asiyah, but she is better known by her role as the wife of one of the most tyrannical leaders in the history of mankind, the Pharaoh. As anthropologists have noted from ancient remains of the infamous Egyptian rulers, they were considered demi-gods by their people, worshipped alongside other idols and city patron gods. Tributary statues, such as the world famous Sphinx, portray pharaohs in their imagined half-god status. (The upper human head and shoulders of The Great Sphinx is believed to depict Pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid tomb is located nearby in Giza.) In this ancient, stiffly hierarchical society, women sometimes wielded immense political power. The wife of a pharaoh enjoyed a similarly privileged status as demi-god. However, it seems from the art and tablets left over for modern study, the wife of a pharaoh was ultimately subject to his command. Expectations of supportiveness and the ideal of harmony and agreement (shall we call that passivity?) are inferred from statues and wall paintings recovered in tombs of these worshipped totalitarian rulers. In this cultural climate, Asiyah, the wife of Pharaoh, followed a low-born shepherd against her husband and ruler.
Although we do not know exactly where or when Asiyah lived, her life was the stage of intense political and spiritual turmoil. She was the wife of the man who opposed Moses, a great prophet shared by Judeo-Christian and Islamic heritage. Prophet Moses and his brother Prophet Aaron preached to the Pharaoh and his people, inviting them to freedom from idolatry and freedom from classist oppression. Pharaoh maintained his godhood, rejecting the Taurah of Moses, the words of God, and the religion of submission to One Almighty God. The Qur’an recounts parts of the conflict between Moses and the Pharaoh in various chapters. However, in Surah at-Tahreem, the chapter which concludes with the verses we are contemplating here, Prophet Moses is not mentioned at all. Effectively, this clears our minds as readers to absorb the example of Asiyah herself, without overshadowing her story as an individual with the more commonly told story of the great Prophet Moses, peace be upon him.
Asiyah’s prayer is highlighted for us, quoted verbatim, as God marks her as an example for all believers to admire. “My Lord! Build for me a house with You in Paradise,” she had supplicated. This draws our attention to her incredible sacrifice. Of course, we as readers know that Pharaoh’s kingdom was ultimately destroyed, his dominion obliterated. But Asiyah’s decision to follow Prophet Moses was consecrated without that futuristic perspective. She renounced her own position as ruler by opposing her husband, the Pharaoh, relinquishing her affluence and what we might safely assume was a luxurious lifestyle in an opulent palace. She traded her material prosperity in order to attain spiritual nobility. She was authentic in her pursuit of self perfection. The inner dimensions of her identity were most important to her, and she had the faith and wisdom to prefer the everlasting Hereafter to the transient world.
Beyond giving up high worldly status and pleasures, Asiyah also exposed herself to severe punishment from an infamously ruthless leader and husband. Certainly, there was no way to hide her new religion and political opinions—no where to hide, except with God. And that is what she did, as we can see from the following words of her prayer, “And save me from the Pharaoh and his deeds” she prayed, not forgetting to seek protection in forgiveness from the spiritual consequences of ever having been associated with such a rejecter of faith. And it did not end there for Asiyah. Although we today focus our attention on the Pharaoh as a single actor, the sole antagonist working against a score of innocent victims, the reality is that Pharaoh’s party was well populated with a multitude of supporters in evildoing. Some of them converted to the path of Prophet Moses. But when Asiyah left Pharaoh, she had many enemies to fear, as we can see from the end of the prayer quoted, “And rescue me from the wrongdoing people!”
Asiyah’s example is significant partly because she exemplifies a person rising above his or her circumstances. While many of us accept the mores and norms of our society, going along with the cultural tide of whatever place and time we happen to be born into, Asyiyah was a woman who questioned her society’s structure. She not only adopted the infant Moses although she knew he was from a lowly class, taking him into her upper class status during his childhood and young adulthood, she stepped down from the peak of her influence and prosperity into the depths of a doubtful future by worldly standards. She faced danger, poverty, and obscurity. But she put her trust in God. She aimed for Paradise. If only we could all be like her! And, as Surah at-Tahreem continues, like Maryam bint Imran.
Maryam, Daughter of Imran
Maryam, her mother named her. We know from other chapters in the Qur’an that she was born to a pious mother, a pious family, the Family of Imran. Her uncle, Zachariah, was a prophet, and he was the one chosen to be her guardian in the Mosque. Maryam’s earliest education was set in the Mosque or temple where her father used to lead the congregational prayer (i.e., before his death during her mother’s pregnancy with her). Islamic commentators on the life of Maryam describe her upbringing in Masjid al-Aqsa, “The Farthest Mosque”, which encircles the Dome of the Rock, a shared monotheistic holy site in Jerusalem. However, Maryam’s contemporary Jewish temple, which once stood in the site of present-day Masjid al-Aqsa, is known in Western archeological studies as the Second Temple of Solomon in the ancient Jewish city of Canaan. At the time Maryam lived there, it was probably under Roman imperialism. Herod the Great (37 BCE) had probably just finished its restoration.
Of course, Maryam’s adult life is central in the story of her son Jesus, one of the most esteemed prophets of God in Islam. She was also the niece and ward of prophet Zachariah. John the Baptist, another prominent prophet in Islam, was her cousin. But her own life is interesting for believers, independent of her incredible family connections to various prophets.
From the beginning, Maryam was an especially blessed and religiously inclined child. Her mother dedicated her to the worship of God while pregnant, according to Qur’anic narration. So Maryam’s pedagogy revolved around prayer and worship. Miracles seemed to surround her, starting with her birth. Her parents were aged and infertile. Yet, God answered her father’s supplication with the miraculous child we know today as the Mother of Jesus. Prophet Muhammad narrated that she was never touched by Satan. 
Additionally, as a child, her guardian used to find her furnished with rare fruits. Stunned, prophet Zachariah would ask Maryam where she procured these out-of-season delights. “From God,” she would answer.
In some ways, Maryam’s situation was the opposite of Asiyah’s. While Asiyah renounced a corrupted past, skewed upbringing and astray society, Maryam epitomized the good of her society, absorbed the perfection of her pious pedagogy, and lived a righteous existence from birth until death. Being raised in the Mosque by a prophet of God, Maryam effectively took full advantage of a spiritually healthy environment. But she went much farther than simply mimicking her surroundings. She faced an unparalleled test: to have her noble sentiments of chastity and piety questioned by her society because she was impregnated miraculously. The virgin birth was not automatically accepted by her people. Rather, they were suspicious of her. The judgmental, shocked reaction of the people is recollected in verses of the Qur’an, which quote the people’s quizzical exclamations:
Your father was not a wicked man nor was your mother a harlot!
The implication is clear. However, God saved Maryam from the spite and hatred of the believing people among them with the miracle of Jesus’ speech during those newborn days. The verses continue:
Then she pointed to him. They said: How can we talk to one who is in the cradle, a young boy? He said: Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. And hath made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and hath enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive.
And (hath made me) dutiful toward her who bore me, and hath not made me arrogant or unblest. Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive.
And yet, people did not fully accept her or her child. And until today, people continue to question Maryam’s virginity, her chastity, which was sacred to her as well as to God Himself. The verses continue:
Such was Jesus, son of Maryam—a statement of truth concerning which they doubt. (Qur’an, 28-34)
But Muslims are commanded to believe in the chastity of Maryam, and more importantly, her complete spirituality and submission to God. She lived in what seems to have been a religious but judgmental community, and she rose above superficiality in her religious practices. Those living in religious cultural climates can appreciate her struggle for sincerity. She remained steadfast in worship and obedient to God despite the people’s suspicions and rejection of her and her prophet son. She comprehended the spiritual distinction of her miraculous birthing as fully as she apprehended the social stigma connected to unwed motherhood—and she lived both realities.
Additionally, Maryam confronted the political world outside the Mosque when her son started to preach publicly. Her cousin, John the Baptist, had already been killed by corrupt or hypocritical forces in the Jewish society as a result of his social admonitions. The struggle Jesus faced with the occupying Roman generals and corruptors within the Jewish community is well known in historical and religious narrations. Maryam’s steadfastness throughout all her social trials and those of her pious family was also outstanding.
So here, in the examples of Asiyah and Maryam, we have both the converted believer and the constant believer under trial. Their pivotal choices, their difficult social struggles, and their wholehearted faith and trust in God are monumental cases of conviction in action. They were women who took God as their ultimate authority and judge, reacting with or against their cultures as needed. They sacrificed, persevered, and triumphed. God Himself praised them, and we can only imagine the immense satisfaction at the end of such a life, when these great women, examples for all mankind, meet their Beneficent Lord at last.
SubhanakaAllahumma wa bihamdik. Ash’hadu an-la ilaha illa Annt.
Astaghfiruka wa atoobu ilayk.
Glory is to God! O God, I praise You. I testify that there is no deity worthy of worship beside You. I seek Your divine forgiveness, and I repent unto You.
 Hadith. Sahih Bukhari, 6.60.71.