Mohammed was not noted for the respect he paid to womankind. He was even more pessimistic in his evaluation of the other sex than the writer of Ecclesiastes, who said (Ecc. vii, 28): "One man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found." Mohammed is reported in his Table Talk to have said that while several men had reached perfection, there were only four women, namely, his own first wife, Khadijah; favourite daughter, Fatimah; Mary, the mother of Jesus; and Asiya the wife of Pharaoh. Of these the least known is the last. For several reasons her case calls for attention. Who was Asiya? The Koran mentions her twice (xxviii, 8, and lxvi, 11), but gives her no name. In the first case she plays the part taken in the Bible narrative by Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus ii, 5), and rescues the infant Moses from death. In the second case, she is represented as a pious believer calling on God to deliver her from the iniquities of her husband. "Lord build me a house with Thee in Paradise and deliver me from Pharaoh and his doings, and deliver me from the unjust people" (lxvi, 11).

Now let us see what Arab tradition says further about the matter. Her name is given as Asiya. She was supposed to have been a believer in the new religion of her day, and in consequence was ordered by the Lord of Egypt to be put to death by torture. The details of her torment are interesting because of the conclusion to which they lead us. According to the customary account, her hands and her feet were fastened to four stakes, a large mill-stone was fastened on her breast, and her face was exposed to the scorching sun. It is said that in order to lessen her pain, angels shaded her with their wings. Then after her death she was transported by heavenly agents to a high abode in Paradise. And there she remains today, one of the four female saints of Islam.

Now it seems to us that this strange martyrdom of an Egyptian lady of the blood royal bears undoubted similarities to the Christian legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria. In fact we would go so far as to advance the theory that these two ladies were really one and the same. The question as to the origin of the story, whether it be Mohammedan or Christian, is not easy for one to decide without consulting early documentary authorities and historical data. But one very significant fact is, that while St. Catherine was traditionally martyred in the fourth Christian century, her cult did not spread to Europe until the eleventh century, when intercourse was carried on between the monks of the St. Catherine Convent at Mt Sinai and the Dukes of Normandy; and further, her name does not appear in the legends of the Saints until almost three hundred years after the rise of Islam, in the "Life of Paulus Junior" (died 956) Analecta Bolland (xi, 1892, p. 1-74; 136-182). It is surprising to find that there is no mention of her by the pilgrims who visited Mt Sinai, the place where she is revered most of all, until the year 1216 (in the Peregrinatio of Magister Thietmar). However, leaving aside that matter for the present, let us consider the story of St. Catherine, and then compare it with that of Asiya.

In outline it is as follows. The authorities to consult are (a) the "Menology of Basilieus" (date circa 10th cent), and (b) the "Martyrium Sanctae Catherinae" written by Simeon the Metaphrast (circa 956). Both are to be found in Migne, "Patrologia Graeca," cxvii, 179; and cxvi, 275-302.

Catherine, or Aekatherine, was a royal lady of Alexandria who was extremely pious, and a firm believer in the doctrines of the early Christian Church then spreading in Egypt. She rebuked the Emperor Maximianus II (307 A. D.) for his idolatry and ignominy, and as a result she was sentenced to be executed. A special machine of four wheels with sharp spikes was constructed to tear her in pieces. But by some miraculous intervention it was struck by lighting and rendered useless. Thereupon the Saint was scourged and beheaded. After her death, angels carried her remains to a lofty mountain top, generally supposed to be the Jebel Katarina, the highest mountain in the Sinai Peninsula, in the neighbourhood of Jebel Musa, the traditional Holy Mount Sinai, at the foot of which lies the famous Convent of St. Catherine today. Here her body lies in a region that is associated with Moses.

It is an easy matter to clear away from the legend the undoubted Christian amplifications. Being of the Egyptian royal family, her father was given the name of the famous Byzantine Emperor Constantine. (Filia Costhi Regis or as a later Metrical Life expresses it:

"Hur name ys clepydd Kateryn,
The kyngs doghtur of Constentyne
Of Alysaundur, as seythe ike Latyne.")

Alexander was chosen as the locus, since in those days it was the capital of the country.

Now let us construct a tabular comparison of the two lives:

(a) She was of royal blood in Egypt.
(b) She was pious, and a believer in the new religion.
(c) She was martyred by the command of the King of Egypt.
(d) She was killed for her religious beliefs.
(e) Her torture: Stakes and mill-stone (wheel).
(f) She is also said to have been scourged and beheaded.
(g) Angels ministered to her at her death.
(h) She is associated with Moses.
(i) She wished for a dwelling place with God in heaven.
(a) She was of royal blood in Egypt.
(b) She was pious, and a believer in the new religion.
(c) She was martyred by the command of the King of Egypt.
(d) She was killed for her religious beliefs.
(e) Her torture: Stakes and wheel.
(f) She is also said to hive been scourged and beheaded.
(g) Angels ministered to her at her death.
(h) She is associated with the haunts of Moses.
(i) She wished to be the Bride of Christ in heaven.

There is one point of difference. Asiya is the wife of the King; Catherine is a daughter of the King. But then we have to remember that in the Koran she also plays the part of the daughter of Pharaoh as well. It is a variable detail in the legend.

Now as to her name. She is not named either in the Bible or the Koran. One wonders then whence arose the name of Asiya. It seems likely, is a conjecture, that it is a variant reading of the name of Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph; especially as Joseph's wife in Arabic traditions is not given as Asenath but as Zulaikhah. In Arabic, written without the diacritic points, the names Asiya and Asenath would be alike. As for the name of Catherine, it is a Greek epithet meaning "Pure." In fact the rendering Asiya Aikaterina (Asia the Pure) might quite well have led through a phonetic error to Agia Aikaterina (Holy Catherine or Saint Catherine); much in the same way as Agia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became Saint Sophia.

Alexandria, Egypt.


The Muslim World, vol. 18: 1928, pp. 45-48.

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