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The Distortion of an Image
Jan 1, 2002

The origin of the debate

The Biblical account, found in Genesis 2:4-3:24, has been fundamental in religious and social life. As a primal depiction of man and woman and their roles and relationships, it functioned as a constitutive element in establishing social and religious concepts as we know them today.

Two of the most debated topics are Eve's supposed inferiority to Adam, as she was created from one of his ribs, and that she is a temptress who caused humanity's fall and expulsion from the Garden by persuading Adam to join her in eating the forbidden fruit.

Islam has a different interpretation of these events.

Male and female equality

While the Qur'an does not mention a rib, it is mentioned in a hadith. However, many experts believe that that particular hadith has been misinterpreted and is not really relevant to this matter. (1)

Whenever the Qur'an discusses humanity's creation, it focuses not on who was created first or on gender, but on the broader concept of the creation: O men! Fear your Lord Who created you from a single original human self, and out of it created its mate; and out of the two spread many men and women (4:1). The original Arabic for a single original human self is nafs wahida (a single self or soul). Nafs has two cardinal meanings: a being's self, and the animating energy or faculty that is the source or mechanism of the person's or jinn's life. Thus, the preferred translation of nafs wahida is a single original human self.

This translation is supported by other Qur'anic verses: And of His signs is that He created for you, from your selves, mates, that you might repose in them, and He has engendered love and mercy between you (30:21); God has given you, from your selves, mates, and He has given you, from your mates, children and grandchildren (16:72); The Originator of the heavens and Earth; He has given you, from your selves, mates, and from the cattle mates (42:11).

The first couple

O Adam! Dwell you, and your wife, in the Garden, and eat (of the fruits) thereof to your hearts' content where you desire, but approach not this tree, or you shall both be among the wrongdoers.

The first couple led a life of bounty in the Garden. They did not need to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. But the tree was a predestined element in the humanity's life. As humanity is easily tempted into disobedience, the tree was a test. It brought out the weak side of humanity. Adam and Eve knew the risk associated with this act, for God had made it clear to them that Satan was their enemy and what they could expect if they obeyed him.

Then Satan whispered to him, saying: O Adam! Shall I lead you to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that will never waste away? Then they both ate of the tree, and so their private parts appeared to them, and they began to stick on themselves the leaves from the Garden for their covering. Thus did Adam disobey his Lord, so he fell into error(20:120-21).

Notice the pronouns. Eve is not the sole wrongdoer or tempter, as she is portrayed in the Bible and the Torah. The Qur'an holds both Adam and Eve responsible for the mutual disobedience, and casts Satan as the tempter and enemy, for he was the one who whispered to Adam. Rather than blaming and curing the couple, God accepts their repentance and forgives them, saying that they had forgotten and blundered. There is no expulsion from the Garden by a fierce and unforgiving God who hangs a fiery sword above the gate to ensure that they will never return.

In Genesis, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent (Satan) for their misfortune. The Qur'an depicts a more modest and mature reaction. There is no blaming, but rather two people admitting their mistake and seeking God's forgiveness: They said: Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall

certainly be of the losers (7:23).

Humanity is not destined to be banished forever. True, they have been dismissed from it, but they still have the hope of return. Thus, after a period of mourning and regret, God forgave Adam and made him His first Prophet: Then his Lord chose him, turned to him with forgiveness, and gave him guidance (20:122).

The image of Eve

The story of Eve is found in the second creation story in Genesis. After this, the Bible does not mention Eve, the temptress or refer to women of bad reputation as Daughters of Eve. However, the early Church fathers developed this interpretation and imagery, and thus referred to Eve (and women in general) as their first mother who was seduced by Satan and so brought death to humanity.(2)

Tertullian, a second century theologian, reminds women of their shameful legacy: And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree: you are the first deserter of the Divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.

Many people, especially feminist activists, fought against the idea of the Fall because it encouraged society to think of women in very negative terms. Eve (evil) was the primal source of blame for human suffering. Therefore, women must endure pain at childbirth and subjection to their husbands, men must toiland eat the sweat of their brow, and all humanity must taste a bitter death.

The images of these monstrous fertile women with supernatural powers were sealed in the minds of early believers, and contributed to the generally negative attitude toward women. The parallels with Eve's image are obvious, and their effects can be seen in religious illustrations of the Fall painted during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Ave and Eva

Mary was presented as a substitute for Eve: the new Eve. With her came the hope that humanity could re-enter the Garden. Mary (Ave), the absolute opposite of Eve (Eva), obeyed Gabriel (and through him God); Eve obeyed Satan. Mary was a symbol of innocence and chastity; Eve represented corruptive sexual desire. Mary was the mother of God; Eve was to be the mother of all mortals. Mary brought mercy and salvation; Eve brought death and destruction.

There was an underlying feeling that women (Eve) could be blessed (Mary) if they suppressed their femininity, the alleged source of human weakness and disobedience.Christian women followed the image of Mary to be closer to God. They remained virgins, as virginity was the innocent state of the Garden. Some chose a monastic life, for such a lifestyle enabled them to pursue a somewhat intellectual and active life instead of the traditional role of mother and wife. Such women traveled to the Holy Land, engaged in scholarly dispute with fellow nuns, and enjoyed social respect and authority.

The early Church fathers promoted celibacy over fourth-century Roman society's objections. Stories about Thecla, a woman who followed Paul's call to a virgin life, were popular among Roman women. She refused to marry her appointed husband, cut her hair short like a man, and followed Paul as he preached all over the country. Once she was harassed by a king who had her thrown to wild beasts when she refused to comply with his wishes. Her strong belief and Divine protection saved her from this and many other such events.

If all women chose to remain virgins, however, humanity would disappear. The Bible told men to increase and multiply. Jerome, an early Church father, stated that he praised wedlock and marriage, for the result was virgins.

Reform and the woman's bible

The Protestant Reform, brought on by Martin Luther (1483-1546), led to a critical study of biblical concepts. The Church considered marriage as inferior to virginity, and sexual and domestic relations were shadowed by the interpretations of the Adam and Eve story. However, reformists found Divine sanction for marriage: It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him (Genesis 2:18).

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, female moralists and activists were seeking to change society's view of woman as a victim of sinful nature. They discussed such issues as female education, equal rights to employment, and possession of goods throughout society via literature, poetry, and protest meetings. In her novel Shirley (1849), Charlotte Bronte condemned a social system which requires women to scheme,' to plot,' to flirt' and manoeuvre in order to win a husband.3 Women argued that beliefs like if a woman can cook a dinner or dress herself well she has culture enough were forcing women into being mischievous and empty-minded Eves.

The Woman's Bible, published in 1895, was a collection of essays written by women opposed to the Bible's portrayal of women. In one essay, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) wrote that the Darwinian theory of evolution was less degrading for women than the allegory of Eden.


Unfortunately, human interpretations of holy texts have caused many people to abandon religion, and the truth for which they are searching is often hidden by shadows of ignorance and prejudice. Even worse is that Islam is usually overlooked as a pure source of Divine Knowledge. Ignorance and misrepresentation by Muslims, and prejudice by non-Muslims, have polluted the clear image of Islam's message: No one can be judged for another's sins.


  1. Found in Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
  2. The Qur'an does not mention Eve by name. Various hadiths call her Hawwa (created from a living thing). Muslims honor this wife of the first Prophet and mother of all believers by calling her Mother Hawwa.
  3. Pamela Norris, Eve: A Bibliography (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1999), 292.


  • Al-Hilali, Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din (interpreter). Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Quran.
  • Saudi Arabia: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 1994.
  • Armstrong, Karen. In the Beginning. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
  • Kurucan, Ahmet. Dusunce Kaymalari. Izmir: Kaynak A.S., 1996.
  • Kvam, Kristen E., Schearing, Linda S, and Ziegler, Valarie H. (editors). Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press, 1999.
  • Norris, Pamela. Eve, A Bibliography. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1999.