Esther and Asiya: Bold Women in the Jewish and Muslim Tradition

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at Shabbat services at Kol Emeth Conservative synagogue in Palo Alto on Purim 5777, Saturday, March 11th, 2017.

Shalom and Salam.

I’m deeply honored to have been invited to speak to you this morning on the day that you celebrate Purim, a festive remembrance of one of the greatest events of salvation of the Jewish people, and one that came through a woman’s courage.

Esther, I understand, put her own life on the line when she went to the Persian king to intercede for her people against a sinister plot of genocide.

While Esther does not appear in Islamic tradition, Muslims have many examples of bold and courageous women who spoke up and acted for God and for humanity even at the expense of their own life. I’d like to talk to you about the one that I think comes closest in spirit to Esther, a woman who plays a key role in the Quranic version of the Exodus story.

In the Qur’an, it is not Pharaoh’s daughter who rescues the infant Moses from the river, as in the Torah, but rather Pharaoh’s wife, named Asiya in the Qur’anic account.

According to the Quran, on taking the infant Moses to the palace, Asiya says to her husband Pharaoh, “Here is a joy of the eye for me and for you. It may be that he will be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son.”

The Qur’an does not directly record Pharaoh’s reaction to this, but we may conclude from what comes later that he was none too happy with Asiya’s taking the boy into their home—and, as it turns out, into her heart as one of her own children.

Over the years, Asiya and Moses develop such a close relationship, that Asiya came to believe in the One God proclaimed by Moses.

For a time, Asiya kept her faith secret, but finally, when she saw her husband condemn her daughter’s Hebrew servant and her children to be burnt alive for the “crime” of worshipping the one true God, she could keep silence no longer.

She revealed her faith to Pharaoh, who tortured and then killed her, so becoming a martyr for her faith in Moses and the one true God.

The Qur’an says of her that “God sets forth, as an example for those who believe, the wife of Pharaoh,” recording that she said, as she died under Pharaoh’s torture, “Build for me near You God a mansion in the Garden of Paradise, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings, and save me from those that do wrong.”

Asiya is revered among Muslims as one of the four holiest women of all time; the others are Mary, Mother of Jesus; Khadija, wife of Muhammad; and Fatimah, his daughter.

The stories of all these four women—and many others throughout Islamic history—are testimony for women’s equal access to God, their strength and wisdom, and their status in Islamic tradition as saints and even prophets in some cases.

Asiya, like Esther and also Miriam in Jewish tradition, can be an inspiration for women seeking their own voice today, and exercising their power against oppression and injustice.

In the Qur’an, Asiya dies calling on God, “Deliver me from the wrongdoing people who are godless in heart.”

Not long ago, I spoke before thousands of people at the San Jose Women’s March. As I think back, I recognize in so many thousands of my sisters the spirit of Asiya and Esther, speaking out with courage against reckless and unjust power. We need that courage today, as we face a wave of hate against so many minority groups.

Just this past Tuesday, I read with horror and sadness, how some 12 Jewish schools and centers across the country were hit with bomb threats in a single day.

We, the children of Abraham and Moses—and of Asiya and Esther—need to stand together against all hateful words and actions directed not only against us, but against Sikhs, Hindus, Latinos, blacks, and immigrants.

And we are standing together!

I’m sure most of you have heard how Muslims came together to gather funds for the restoration of vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and just a few weeks ago I was deeply moved to see hundreds of Jews in the Bay Area come together to show their solidarity with Muslims.
We need to speak out against bigoted and divisive rhetoric, especially when it comes from high places.

And as Asiya stood against Pharaoh, and Esther stood against a King, we also need to stand with one another to answer voices of hate with resistance and determination, but also with love and compassion for the misguided.

Thank you, and Shalom.