Women, Witches and Christianity
by Shezena T. Mohammed
I'm taking a class at the university unlike any other I've taken. It's a feminist class. I can't stand feminists, but I needed some upper level credits and this was upper level. In this class we are expected to read a book called "Woman as Healer." It talks about the history of women in the medical field and healing arts from the beginning of humankind up until now.
From that description, if I hadn't been reading the book, I would have thought it was something you could fall asleep to, but surprisingly it's not. For every class meeting we are expected to read a portion of the book and then discuss it in class. The section we were supposed to read this time discussed Christianity, the Church, and how it affected women healers. This part particularly intrigued me and got me thinking a great deal about Christianity.
The teacher asked if anybody had anything to say about the assigned reading and there was a long and awkward silence. After a while and to break the silence I had to say, "I don't understand how any of you can still be Christian after reading this." I hoped this wouldn't offend them, and it didn't. They seemed to agree. I hadn't realized how - for lack of a better word - weird Christians' beliefs were before I read what it said about their ideas in this book.
I knew that Christians believed in Original Sin, which I perceived to be the idea that mankind is born sinful and in need of cleansing, but I had no idea how far they took it. It seems that originally at least, Original Sin is not really the belief that mankind is born sinful, but more like womankind is born sinful. According to the Church, the story behind Original Sin goes like this:
Adam, who was made in God's image, lived happily in the Garden of Eden until God made Eve out of Adam's rib. The Bible and and the Church never fail to point out that Eve was not created in God's image, just out of the side of Adam. It was at this point that everything started to go wrong.
Eve, portrayed as the evil temptress, ate from the forbidden tree and because of her evil charm made Adam eat too. As punishment for Eve's transgression, women are to forever endure the pain and anguish of labor and childbirth. It says in the Bible that God said to Eve, "I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing and in pain shall you bring forth children." (Old Testament, Genesis 3:16) Women are from the origin (Eve), sinful and so they must pay.
The Church has definitely done its part to make sure this has happened. If God made women subject to this punishment of labor and birth, it follows that anyone who made any attempt to comfort a woman in labor must be condemned and punished for trying to lessen God's punishment. The people who were most likely to comfort a woman in labor were other women, particularly the women healers.
These women had vast knowledge of herbs and their uses. They could determine their potency and knew the best times of day or season to use them. They knew how to make all kinds of remedies for anything that was bothering anyone in the village.
At one time, before the Church decided that women were born evil, these healers were held in very high esteem and respected by everyone for their knowledge. They were known as wise women and it was natural that these women were the doctors of the village. Women historically have been more often gatherers while men were the hunters, so it would follow that women would know more about the plants and herbs they would find and what they were good for and could be used for.
As the next generation took its place, just as the men would pass on their hunting skill and methods to their sons, women would pass on their knowledge of the plants and herbs to their daughters. Soon women knew exactly what kinds of plants were good for what, when to pick them, where to find them, how to prepare them and how to administer them. They knew what kinds of remedies to make and use to ease labor pains, but after the concept of Original Sin was introduced, the Church imposed a negative and corrupt image on these women because they eased the pain of laboring women.
The Church believed that labor pains were God's given punishment to women for Eve's sin, so obviously these women were a great threat to the Church. Before I go on any further though, I just quoted from the Bible where it says that labor pains are God's given punishment to women, so it follows, of course, that the ideas of the Church in this matter come from this verse in the Bible, right? No.
Actually it's the other way around. This verse exists in the Bible because it reflects the beliefs of the Church.
The Bible was written by more than a hundred of people who were "inspired by God." The Bible has been edited time and time again. There were meetings that would last for days of religious people who would go on and on trying to decide what would go in the Bible and what wouldn't. They had collections of works that were suggested for entry and much of the Original Bible was edited out by these meetings of people because they saw it as too violent, or because they felt God was portrayed as vindictive. Sometimes they even had to edit things out because they were too sexually explicit.
The last of these changes happened a long time ago, so as the Christians see it, the Bible hasn't been changed much since the New Testament emerged, which was after what they believe (but we Muslims know is false), the death of Christ.
The Work of Demons?
Getting back to the issue of the healers, although it was well known and not denied that some women had substantial knowledge in the healing arts, they could not be allowed to treat anyone anymore because they eased they pain of laboring women, which was an evil deed, and they therefore were evil.
Furthermore, because they were not priests, formally trained physicians, philosophers, or otherwise men, it was deemed by the Church that their healing practices and any result of them must be the work of demons. In the Church's view, these women were already born evil, they were doing something dreadfully evil by easing labor pains and there was no denying that they were getting results from their practices and remedies, so they concluded that the women must be in intimate contact and alliance with devils.
The Church saw so much "evil" they couldn't take it. Healing turned into the work of devils, remedies turned into potions, and these wise women turned into "witches", named so by the Church.
When I think of a witch I think of an old hag standing over a bubbling cauldron brewing potions, and then of course that evil cackle of a laugh. I can easily see how a woman boiling herbs in a pot to make a tonic for someone could, by way of the Church, be made into a witch.
Well, those wicked witches could not be left alone to spread their corruption over the earth. They had to be dealt with, and they were. It was in about the thirteenth century when things started to get really bad for women. Any woman who was a "witch" was executed; then any woman who was suspected of being a witch. It got to the point where anyone could yell, "Heretic! She's a witch!". A short drop and a sudden stop beneath the gallows (witches were hung at this time) and she was an example and a warning to women.
In the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent VIII issued the decree that allowed the persecution of these "witches" in the most inhuman and callous ways. They used torture methods that were set up in varying degrees, getting more and more excruciating to persuade the women who had been accused to confess to the "satanic" crimes they were accused of. The women would eventually confess to any charge just to make the torture stop. To add insult to injury they then charged the women and their families fees for the torture, stay in prison, trial and execution, etc. This stuff was expensive and torturers, prison guards, judges, executioners and the like didn't work for free, so somebody had to pay.
I have read several times that the entire witch craze took the lives of only fifty or sixty women. This is incorrect. They get these numbers from the documented cases here in the United States which were documented by the judges or executioners. But in Germany alone, it is well documented that over one hundred thousand witch burnings took place. The number of witches that had been burned was a source of pride and nothing to be ashamed of for the Church or followers.
There are records coming from Geneva, Switzerland, Lorraine, Treves, England, France and the list goes on, that show thousands of women from each region have been executed. It seems that anywhere Christianity was found, there were witch burnings by the thousands. It has been estimated by authorities that anywhere between a couple of hundred thousand to nine million women were murdered as a result of the witch craze. There are even reports that in some small towns, there was one woman left alive, or no women left at all. The whole thing lasted for about 700 years.
The more I research this, the more I see justification for calling this "The Women's Holocaust." They believed they were doing something righteous and holy. They thought those women were really witches and that they could purge this world of all that evil.
All this came from the belief of Original Sin. They were encouraged to use this as an excuse to beat women for no reason except that they were sinful and needed it. It was considered an act of charity to beat a woman, so that her soul could be more easily absolved. It was considered shameful to be a woman, and women would cover their faces out of that shame. It says in the New Testament of the Bible, Corinthians I, Chapter 11, verse 6, for women to cover their hair "to hide their shame that they are a woman."
What a difference compared to Islam where women are praised and it is seen as great triumph in today's society for a woman to wear hijab, and to wear it "to be recognized as honorable women and not bothered." (The Holy Quran 33:59) The Christian women were supposed to wear it to hide their shame from being women, and we Muslim women wear it to be recognized by all as honorable women. Subhanallah, what a difference!
I sympathize with the millions of people this must have directly affected over the 700 years of Church rule. I can also see how the Church's line of thought progressed. I guess that's what can happen when people start putting their opinions and their versions of how they think things happened and say it's a part of their religion. That's why Islam puts so much emphasis on preventing bidah and innovations in the religion.
If you don't stop this kind of destructive religious innovation from the very beginning,where it's growing from, it will only continue to grow. It seems like this is what happened with the Church. They started out with good intentions, but like the Christians say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. From what I've studied on the history of the Church in different college classes and individual research it seems to me that the beliefs of the Church and Christians are pretty fluid and adjust according to popular cultural views and needs.
Of course we could say the same thing about some Muslims (I'm still trying to figure out what a "modern" Muslim is).
I couldn't imagine that today's Christians still believe these notions of witches and women so I called some people to find out what it is that they believe.
Clarification from Christians
I have read all those articles about Islam saying that it's a terrorist religion. The kind of articles where they take things from the Qur'an or hadith out of context and use it do define us. If I ever need proof of the ayah, "They are deaf, dumb and blind, and understand nothing" (Quran 2:171) all I need to do is look at those articles. It is not my intention to let this article be degraded to a level of such blind accusations and insinuations. I sincerely want to know what this Original Sin is all about and I want to give the Christians a fair chance to explain so that they don't feel defensive towards me and so they don't say that I'm only trying to "get them".
I called a few people to ask about this. I spoke with priests, pastors, ministers and a nun.
The first person I talked to was John, the assistant Minister of a local church. He was young and passionate and seemed to wish I understood what he saw as the error in my ways just as much I wished he understood the error I know he has in his. He explained a lot to me and it sounded similar to what I've been saying to people since after September 11th.
He said the Church started out with good intentions, but as humans are fallible, it turned corrupt. It reminded me of the Taliban. They seemed to think they were the enforcers of a Super Shariah and people in the West thought that's what all Muslims supported. John said he hates the shameful history of the Church but that is not what they are really about. It was individual people and their lust for worldly gains that drove the Church to do things like sell certificates that guaranteed one entry to heaven. John said it was cultural influences that pushed the Church to commit these hideous crimes against women. He made it clear that Christians are to follow the Bible first, and then the Church. I was completely satisfied with what he told me. Everything he said I could accept.
After I got off the phone with John though, I still had some questions about Christianity. I wanted to know more about Original Sin, what gives the Church the authority to make decisions on their beliefs for Christians, and why the Church is allowed to contradict the Bible.
Sister Mary's Opinion:
I spoke with a nun, Sister Mary. She is Catholic. It took me about two and a half hours of talking on the phone with a few Baptist pastors and ministers to remember that the Church, the one I am talking about at least, is Catholic, not anything else. No wonder the Baptists I talked to don't care what the Church thinks. However Sister Mary does care what the Church thinks. She and another Catholic Pastor, Father Ted, both confirmed to me that Original Sin is the belief that people are born sinful and the story of Adam and Eve.
I asked Sister Mary if in Catholicism it is shameful to be a woman. Over the phone in her sweet middle aged voice she exclaimed, "Oh no, dear! It is not shameful to be a woman." I asked her why then did it say in Corinthians for women to cover their shame that they are a woman. Sister Mary said that reflected the culture when it was written and they don't have to cover their hair anymore.
She said that in 1965 in the 2nd Vatican Council held in Rome, it was decided by the Pope and Bishops from around the world that nuns don't have to cover their hair anymore. She said it reflected the culture of that time, we live in a different time so they don't have to do that anymore.
"So the Bible is outdated then?" I asked her.
She started to become annoyed at my questions and sounded very uncomfortable. She told me she'd rather talk to me in person and just as I was about to ask her when would be a good time for me to come by she tried to explain it to me again. She said it's not outdated, but just some parts are irrelevant now. I was sure to be extremely polite and respectful. I didn't push it when they explained things that didn't make sense. It was not my intention to make these people uncomfortable. I do think that they should be able to tell me the basics of their religion and the logic in it.
When she finished her explanation (and because I was starting to get on her nerves) I thanked her and said goodbye.
Father Ted's Opinion:
After that I talked to Father Ted. He seemed to be older and had a kind, gentle voice and kept calling me by endearing terms. When I asked him why they believe that God gave sickness and disease as punishment to humankind because of Adam and Eve's wrongdoings and why humankind is accountable and in need of punishment for their sins he said he didn't like what I was saying because it made God sound vindictive. My point exactly. He had no explanation.
When I started to ask him more difficult questions like why the Church is allowed to disregard parts of the Bible, he quickly dismissed himself and thanked me for calling.
The rest of the Catholic pastors and priests couldn't explain everything about the Church and Bible either. Their explanations for the Church's actions in the past I could completely accept. Their reasonings for other aspects of their religion fell disappointingly short.
I can understand their reluctance to talk to me about things they don't understand themselves. Sister Mary told me a few times, "Some things we just don't talk about."
I guess it's a custom not to question things. My heart bleeds for them and I wish they could see the flaws in their religion and the perfection and beauty in Islam.
I sincerely believe these are good, God-fearing people who really want to dedicate their lives to God. I wish they could see. Witches and burnings are just part of the history of the Catholic Church. It seems Catholics don't believe some of these ideas in the Bible anymore, although it's disturbing why they believed them in the first place. And I have to wonder if there is potential for something like this to happen again.
Now the Bible and Church say man's punishment for following Eve in her sin is to work in the field in toil. They have tried to even it out as much as they can, but it's only a reflection of our culture and probably would change again if the culture changed. The interpretations would change and so would the rulings.
It makes me wonder how much the interpretations of the Quran and Ahadith have changed since the time of our Prophet (saaw) as a result of cultural influences. May Allah protect us from this.
So as I was researching witch burnings and torture methods I found something far more troubling and I can't stop thinking about it. I am referring to people's willingness to accept in a belief system they know is flawed. I made sure that the people I spoke to (John, Sister Mary, Father Ted) saw this contradiction. I couldn't let them ignore it, it's my duty not to. But after seeing the contradictions and flaws they still accept their belief system unquestioningly. There are millions of other people who I am sure can see the flaws of their religion and they still believe.
I pray Allah will guide them to the straight path and forgive me for not knowing more, or doing more to convince them.