On a recent browse at our local second-hand charity shop, I came across this book:
I didn’t know of the author, Phyllis Root, but like so many others, am a fan of Helen Oxenbury’s warm and thoughtful watercolour illustrations and so I bought the book. Once home I opened it up to learn that ‘Big Momma Makes The World’ is the story of a creation myth centered on lovely Big Momma (who has an utterly adorable baby) and how she made the world. It happens over a week. On the first day, she makes light, then dark, then sky and the natural world, then all the animals and finally, because she wishes to be known, she gathers up different types of mud and makes people of all colours and shapes and sizes. In the end, she is happy with what she has done and retreats to let the world she made get on with its business – only looking in occasionally afterwards to scold or encourage depending on what she sees.
I hesitated and thought and considered and hesitated some more before deciding to read the book to my six and two and half year old. How would they interpret this story? We speak often of God being neither man nor woman and we discuss that God alone is al-Khaliq, the sole Creator, who provides for us from the heavens and earth (Qur’an 35:3). Being so young, would this storybook somehow confuse them and could it – with its compelling images and warm Big Momma – eclipse, for them, the truth of what we believe? I wasn’t sure, but the great scholar Ibn ‘Arabi would sometimes employ the feminine pronoun in addressing Allah* and the idea of introducing my children to the pairing of creation with an immense feminine force was too enticing to give up and so we snuggled in a few nights later and read it together.
They were both delighted by the book and made me read it again and again as they pored over the illustrations and talked about what Big Momma was doing and why. They were particularly captivated by the images of the animals of both land and sea. When we finally put it away, my six year old was quiet. Then, later, just before bed, “Mama, I like that story but we know that Allah made the world, isn’t that right?”. I confirmed that yes, that is right and also reminded her that Allah is neither man nor woman but the Creator of heavens and earth and Knower of all things. She didn’t seem perturbed or even perplexed – I felt a bit silly to have even worried.
At the same time, I was happy to plant a seed, an image, however hazy and broad, of a woman, a mother, being the source of small “c” creation. Decades ago, as a university freshman in the History of Islamic Thought 101, I memorised a list of classical proofs for the existence of God. During the lecture, my mature student classmate (who was to become a lifelong friend) leaned over and whispered that only men would be interested in intellectual proofs for God. The then third-wave feminist in me bristled at her words, women were just as capable, if not more so, of understanding and articulating such proofs! “No,” she smiled at my furious expression, “not that women can’t understand such things, but that they don’t need to.”
And she was right. As a woman, I don’t have to see it to believe it.
From a relatively young age, we women are intimately connected with the visible and invisible rhythms of our bodies, all of which affect every part of ourselves on a monthly basis. Often fathers will talk about how their baby “wasn’t real” for them until they saw the ultrasound, heard a heartbeat or felt a kick but mostly, women don’t need a sonogram or a rounded belly to know a deep, overwhelming sense of love, guardianship and protection towards the babies we cradle in our wombs.
Is there any being spiritually closer to God the Creator (al-Khaliq) and God the Bestower of Life (al-Muhyi) than a woman carrying and giving birth to a baby? Or any being more a reflection of God the Nourisher (al-Muqit) than that same woman feeding her child afterwards? How about God the Merciful (al-Rahim), whose Mercy was described using that of a mothers’? So many of the Sacred Attributes are reflected perfectly in women – made real and knowable through them. This is a fact I want my children to absorb and make part of their being: that as women, we hold a unique and profound spiritual connection – one to be consistently recognised, honoured and uplifted. As Rumi wrote:
“Woman is the radiance of God,
she is not your beloved.
She is a creator
– you could say that she is not created.”
* John Andrew Morrow, Islamic Images and Ideas: Essays on Sacred Symbolism [North Carolina, Macfarland &Co, 2014], 11.