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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Islam, Irigaray, and
the retrieval of gender

©Abdal Hakim Murad (April 1999)

The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts. But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by an animal ferocity. They have no kindness, gentleness or love, since animality dominates their nature. Love and kindness are human attributes; anger and sensuality belong to the animals. She is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is a creator - you could say that she is not created.
- Jalal al-Din Rumi

 The 1969 female eunuch was nothing but womb. The 1997 female eunuch has no womb.
- Germaine Greer

Can men any longer write about women? Will our discourse always fallaciously subjectivise the male, as the Lacanian digit to the feminine zero? Andrea Dworkin and many others are insistent here. And yet the theologian must oppose such a closure no less stridently. No-one should claim a monological right to instruct the other sex concerning moral thought and conduct. Moreover, and no less seriously, we must object to that anti-dialogical aspect of the prevailing academic feminism which, supported by biometric footnotes, proposes that men have nothing to say here because truly ‘female thought’ is on every level categorically different from the thought of males. On this view, sexual difference not only creates a predisposition to be interested in certain kinds of issues, but fundamentally affects every way in which we handle concepts. Knowledges are sexualised, we are told; ‘the very way in which we decide what is true and false is a function of sexual difference.'

One reaction against this view is voiced in detail by Jean Curthoys in her new book Feminist Amnesia. She applies a kind of Friedanite fundamentalism, lamenting the recent decline of 60s and 70s radical feminist theory which was grounded in assurances of identity between the sexes rather than mere equality. Conventional academic feminism today, she avers, draws on recent biology to posit a total epistemic discontinuity between male and female, so that all scholarship, and all conclusions about reality, are bifurcated accordingly, excluding all possibility of dialogue across the gender abyss. This aporetic cessation, she insists, is intolerable.

Clearly there is force to her complaint. But equally clearly, both she and her antagonists go too far. Biologists and philosophers now converge on a median position which suggests that men and women do indeed think differently, but not so differently that they can form no judgement on each other’s conclusions. It is not just the practical implications which make this inference inescapable (could we tolerate, for instance, separate encyclopedias for each sex?). More seriously, the claim to aporia is to be rejected as forming part of a recent feminist turn away from rationality itself as an oppressive product and tool of ‘male linearity’. On this view, women’s discourse, sceptical about attempts to deduce any intrinsically true facts about reality, is hence pre-eminently responsive to the project of postmodernism, while men languish amid the rationalising games of late modernity. This thesis of male backwardness is intriguing and has appealed to many; yet remains without persuasive proof. As the Maturidis insist, rationality and morality are observed by the mind, not merely constructed by it. Is this scruple a ‘linear male objectification’? Surely it is just objectification: to claim that women have a categorically more indirect, empathetic, spontaneous approach to reality may be tantamount to affirming that they are less capable of sustained argument based on fact. Such a conclusion is far from universal among feminists, converging as it does with a certain masculine stereotype. Of course, it is almost certainly true, as Professor Carol Gilligan has argued, that ethical responses differ markedly between the sexes. For her, women ‘make moral decisions in a framework of relationships more than in a framework of rights’. Women’s ‘moral processing is contextually oriented’. This is uncontroversial. But value judgements amid the hurly-burly of lived reality are one thing; large generalisations about the nature of the world are quite another. And in the latter field, neither revelation nor reason persuade us that the two styles of argument, the male and female, cannot overlap.

What follows, therefore, is not an androcentric apologia, although a deliberate or even unwilled male discourse is inescapable and is not inherently improper. It claims to be factual, not a self-authenticating view from within a particular ‘gendered’ language-game.

A second preliminary point raises the entire problem of gendered approaches to spirituality. The British religious philosopher John Hick, in a recent moment of feministic reflection, proposed that ‘because of the effects upon them of patriarchal cultures, many women have ‘weak’ egos, suffer from an ingrained inferiority complex, and are tempted to diffusion and triviality.’ He thus suggests that women experience greater difficulties in becoming saints because the spiritual struggle can only be undertaken by a coherent, confident personality. On this view, women must pass through two stages in achieving sainthood, while men require only one.

A little reflection will reveal that this position suffers from two sharp problems. For a start, it deploys an unexamined stereotype of traditional women as shallow and easily distracted; whereas any observation of women’s attendence at, say, salat, or a Turkish mevlud, suggests that women’s devotional behaviour tends to be not palpably less sober, or focussed or directed than that of men. Often it is women rather then men who retain a more serious faith under secularising conditions; although this may flower in the privacy of the home, rather than under public scrutiny in the mosque. Secondly, it implies that spiritual growth is a primarily mechanical, discursive procedure whereby the will overcomes passion, leading to the detachment from the world which is the precondition for sainthood. This begs some fundamental questions about the spiritual life; Hick’s image may hold good for some forms of Christianity and Hinduism, but cannot be applied to many other varieties of religious development, where the conscious, calculating will is deliberately pushed into the background. Specifically, what is characteristically male about love-based mysticism? The insistence that the mind is a prison, and that emotion and spontaneous love of God, triggered by relatively informal practices of the dhikr type, is a commonplace even of ‘male’ spirituality. Here, for instance, is a poem by Rumi:

‘In the screaming gale of Love, the intellect is a gnat.
     How can intellects find space to wander there?’

And again:

‘Do not remain a man of intellect among the lovers, especially if you love that sweet-faced Beloved.

May the men of intellect stay far from the lovers, may the smell of dung stay far from the east wind! 

If a man of intellect should enter, tell him the way is blocked, but if a lover should come,  extend him a hundred welcomes! 

By the time intellect has deliberated and reflected, love has flown to the seventh heaven. 

By the time intellect has found a camel for the hajj, love has circled the Ka‘ba. 
Love has come and covered my mouth.

It says: ‘Throw away your poetry, and come to the  stars!''

Perhaps a modern Protestant theologian will have problems with this; but most traditional religions assume that the way to God is through the heart, not the mind. So Hick’s idea that ‘patriarchy’ slams the door to God in the face of traditional women simply because they are (supposedly) less cerebral than men, seems distinctly unpersuasive. He is simply a victim of his own cultural and denominational limitations.

With these preliminary points in mind, let us now move on to the core issue. Modern women writers on religion, such as Rosemary Ruether, insist that all talk of gender in religions has to start in the beginning, with the archetypes. What do images of God tell us about the place of men and women in the world?

In her book Sexism and God-Talk, Ruether objects to ways in which Christian metaphors about God’s maleness are taken literally. For her, the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry ‘must be extended to verbal pictures. When the word Father is taken literally to mean that God is male and not female, represented by males and not females, then this word becomes idolatrous.’ She acknowledges that Christian doctrine affirms that all language about God is analogous. Nonetheless the use of male terms for the Ultimate Reality, and the characteristically Christian emphasis on the personhood of God, has regularly resulted in this kind of idolatry. Her solution is to urge the use of inclusive language, so that God is referred to from time to time as the ‘Goddess’, or as ‘She’. Ruether even objects to the idea of God as parent, suggesting, no doubt absurdly, that this encourages what she calls a virtue of spiritual infantilism which makes ‘autonomy and assertion of free will a sin.’

Despite her promethean confidence in her ability to revise tradition, Ruether has been famously outstripped by Mary Daly, a former Catholic theologian who now, like several influential feminists, describes herself as a ‘witch’. Her book Beyond God the Father rejects even the metaphorical possibilities of traditional language. To call God Father, she insists, is to call fathers God. The Trinity is thus revealed as ‘an eternal male homosexual orgy’. As the engendering matrix of the world, God is, in fact, paradigmatically female. And the world itself, as mirror of heaven, ‘bears fruit’, and is hence female also. The male principle is the alien force, the nexus of disruption, aggression, and sin. Daly seems to approach the almost dualistic notion that God is female, while the ‘horned’ devil is male. This gendered Manicheanism may seem a bizarre inversion of Augustine’s androcentrism, but her books are hugely influential, selling in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Not every figuring of the divine is androcentric, of course. Luce Irigaray observes that it is in the West that ‘the gender of God, the guardian of every subject and discourse, is always paternal and masculine’. Even Orthodoxy is more aporetic in its metaphorical gendering of the sacred. The paintings of El Greco, as they reflect his trajectory from the timeless icon-painting of his native Crete, through his studies in Venice under Tintoretto, to the Toledo of the muscular Counter-Reformation, reveal a process of increasing concretisation, with growing attention to perspective, expression, and sharpness of form. His Christ, in his late, ‘Catholic’ paintings, is more human than divine; and hence more humanly and authentically male.

In this respect, perhaps more than in any other way, ours is not a Western tradition.

Islamic theology confronts us with the spectacular absence of a gendered Godhead. A theology which reveals the divine through incarnation in a body also locates it in a gender, and inescapably passes judgement on the other sex. A theology which locates it in a book makes no judgement about gender; since books are unsexed. The divine remains divine, that is, genderless, even when expressed in a fully saving way on earth.

The source of this teaching is unproblematic for believers. Secular historians might see it differently, as confirmation that early Islam was not covenantally-defined. Andromorphic views of the divine were necessary to Judaism, which was communally constituted in opposition to neighbouring goddess-worship, whence the imagery of Israel as ‘God’s bride’. This continued in the Christian church, the ‘New Israel’, the ‘bride of Christ’, as the Church Fathers waged war on the goddess cults of late antiquity, and also, increasingly, on ‘woman’ herself as the paradigm of responsibility for the Fall. But Islam’s community of believers never saw itself as a feminine entity, despite the interesting matronal resonances of the term umma. The Islamic understanding of salvation history did not require that Allah should be constructed as male.

From a theologian’s standpoint it might be said that Islam averts the difficulty identified by Ruether through its emphasis on the divine transcendence (tanzih). The same ‘desertlike’ abstract difference of the Muslim God which draws reproach from Christian commentators also allows a gender-neutral image of the divine. Allah is not neuter or androgynous, but is simply above gender. Even Judaism, which generally has fewer problems in this area than has Christianity, does not go this far. In the Eighteen Benedictions said by pious Jews every morning and evening, we find the words: ‘Cause us to return, O our Father, to thy Law,’ while in Deuteronomy 8.6, we read: ‘As a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.’ 

Such references to God as Father are less common in the Old Testament than the New, but they are still abundant, and are thorns in the path of gender-sensitive liberal theologians.

When we turn to the Qur’an, we find an image of Godhead apophatically stripped of metaphor. God is simply Allah, the God; never Father. The divine is referred to by the masculine pronoun: Allah is He (huwa); but the grammarians and exegetes concur that this is not even allegoric: Arabic has no neuter, and the use of the masculine is normal in Arabic for genderless nouns. No male preponderance is implied, any more than feminity is implied by the grammatically female gender of neuter plurals.

The modern Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf emphasises the point that Muslim theology has consistently made down the ages: God is not gendered, really or metaphorically. The Quran continues Biblical assumptions on many levels, but here there is a striking discontinuity. The imaging of God has been shifted into a new and bipolar register, that of the Ninety-Nine Names.

Muslim women who have reflected on the gender issue have seized, I think with good reason, on this striking point. For instance, one Muslim woman writer, Sartaz Aziz, writes:

I am deeply grateful that my first ideas of God were formed by Islam because I was able to think of the Highest Power as one completely without sex or race, and thus completely unpatriarchal . . .

We begin with the idea of a deity who is completely above sexual identity, and thus completely outside the value system created by patriarchy. 

This passage is cited by the modern Catholic writer Maura O’Neill, who writes on women’s issues in dialogue, and who rightly concludes: ‘Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.’

This does not mean that gender is absent from Muslim metaphysics. The kalam scholars, as good transcendentalists, banished it from the non-physical world. But the mystics, as immanentists, read it into almost everything. We might say that while in Christianity, relationality is in the triune Godhead, and is explicitly male, in Islam, relationality is absent from the Godhead but exuberantly exists in the Names. To use Kant’s terms, the noumenal God is neutral, whereas the phenomenal God is manifested in not one but two genders. The two leading modern scholars of this tradition in Islamic thought are Izutsu and Murata, who have both noted the parallels between Sufism’s dynamic cosmology and the Taoist world view: each sees existence as a dynamic interplay of opposites, which ultimately resolve to the One.

The Sufi metaphysicians were drawing on a longstanding distinction between the Divine Names that were called Names of Majesty (jalal), and the Names of Beauty (jamal). The Names of Majesty included Allah as Powerful (al-Qawi), Overwhelming (al-Jabbar), Judge (al-Hakam); and these were seen as pre-eminently masculine. Names of Beauty included the All-Compassionate (al-Rahman), the Mild (al-Halim), the Loving-kind (al-Wadud), and so on: seen as archetypally feminine. The crux is that neither set could be seen as pre-eminent, for all were equally Names of God. In fact, by far the most conspicuous of the Divine Names in the Qur'an is al-Rahman, the All-Compassionate. And the explictly feminine resonances of this name were remarked upon by the Prophet (s.w.s.) himself, who taught that rahma, loving compassion, is an attribute derived from the word rahim, meaning a womb. (Bukhari, Adab, 13) The cosmic matrix from which differentiated being is fashioned is thus, as in all primordial systems, explicitly feminine; although Allah ‘an sich’ remains outside qualification by gender or by any other property.

Further confirmation for this is supplied in a famous hadith, preserved for us by al-Bukhari, which describes how during the Muslim conquest of Mecca a woman was running about in the hot sun, searching for her child. She found him, and clutched him to her breast, saying, ‘My son, my son!’ The Prophet’s Companions saw this, and wept. The Prophet was delighted to see their rahma, and said, ‘Do you wonder at this woman’s rahma for her child? By Him in Whose hand is my soul, on the Day of Judgement, God shall show more rahma towards His believing servant than this woman has shown to her son.’ (Bukhari, Adab, 18)

And again: ‘On the day that He created the heavens and the earth, God created a hundred rahmas, each of which is as great as the space which lies between heaven and earth. And He sent one rahma down to earth, by which a mother has rahma for her child.’ (Muslim, Tawba, 21)

Drawing on this explicit identification of rahma with the ‘maternal’ aspect of the phenomenal divine, the developed tradition of Sufism habitually identifies God’s entire creative aspect as ‘feminine’, and as merciful. Creation itself is the nafas al-Rahman, the Breath of the All-Compassionate. Here the Ash‘arite occasionalism which insists on preserving the divine omnipotence by denying secondary causation is shifted into a mystical, matronal register, where the world of emanation is gendered by the sheer fact of its engendering. ‘We have created everything in pairs,’ says the Qur’an.

This ‘female’ aspect of God allowed most of the great mystical poets to refer to God as Layla - the celestial beloved - the Arabic name Layla actually means ‘night’. Layla is the veiled, darkly-unknown God who brings forth life, and whose beauty once revealed dazzles the lover. In one branch of this tradition, the poets use frankly erotic language to convey the rapture of the spiritual wayfarer as he lifts the veil - a metaphor for distraction and sin - to be annihilated in his Beloved. 


One thinks here of Christian bridal mysticism, but in reverse. St Teresa of Avila appears to use sensual images to convey her union with Christ. But again, Christ, as God the Son, is male. In Islamic mysticism, the divine beloved is ‘female’.

The kalam hence abolishes gender; spirituality deploys it exuberantly as metaphor, thereby displaying an aspect of the distinction between ‘iman’ and ‘ihsan’. The third component of the ternary laid down by the Hadith of Gabriel, ‘islam’, comprising the outward forms of religion, also recognises and affirms gender as a fundamental quality of existence, and this finds expression in many provisions of Islamic law and the norms of Muslim life.

The pattern of life decreed by Islam, which is the retrieval of the Great Covenant (mithaq), is primordial, and hence biophiliac and affirmative of the hormonal and genetic dimensions of humanity. Body, mind and spirit are aspects of the same created phenomenon, and are all gendered through their interrelation. To the extent that the human creature lives in wholeness, that creature’s spiritual essence is possessed of gender, whence the magnificent celebration of the genius of each sex which is so characteristic of Islam. The Prophet (s.w.s.) himself can only be fully understood in this light: his virility indicates his wholeness and hence his holiness. His archetypal celebration of womanhood, his multiple wives, recalls the virility of Solomon or other Hebrew patriarchs, or even of Krishna. Living life to the full, he embraced and utterly sacralised the divinely-appointed rite of procreation. His khasa’is, the rules which the Lawgiver fashioned for him alone, and which are listed by Suyuti in his al-Khasa’is al-Kubra, generally imposed upon him rigours from which his followers were exempt. The tahajjud prayer was obligatory for him, but only optional for other Muslims. He was entitled to fast for twenty-four hours, or for much longer periods (the so-called Continuous Fast - sawm al-wisal); although ordinary believers were required to fast from dawn to dusk only. His khasa’is are for the most part austerities; and yet among them we find the inclusion of an expansive polygamy. Several of his wives were elderly, it is true (Sawda, Umm Habiba, Maymuna), and their marriages may have been straightforward matters of compassion and political wisdom; but other wives were young. By his triumphant polygamy, the Blessed Prophet was indicating the end of the Christian war against the body, and rhetorically re-affirmed the sacramental value of sexuality that the Hebrew prophets had proclaimed.

Inseparable from this was his valour on the field of battle. His style of spiritual self-naughting linked to heroism has no European equivalent: it was not that of the celibate Templars, or the Knights of Calatrava, but resonates instead with the warrior holiness of Krishna, or the bushido of medieval Japan. The samurai ethic combines meditative stillness, military excellence, and love for women in equal measure; it is a spectacular expression of maleness which is illuminative of this, to many Europeans, most remote and ungraspable dimension of the Sunna.

And this leads us towards a further question. Feminists point out that early Christian celibacy was driven by a horror of the flesh, so that women were, in Tertullian’s words, ‘the devil’s gateway’. This could have no deep purchase in Islamic culture, with the hadith insisting that ‘Marriage is my sunna, and whoever departs from my sunna is not of me;’ a valorization of marriage which implicitly valorized functional womanhood in a way that the Church Fathers, with their preference for virginal perfection, had found problematic. It is true that a celibate advocacy developed among some second and third generation Muslim ascetics also, with Abu Sulayman al-Darani declaring, ‘Whoever marries has inclined towards the world’. However, this kind of sentiment tended to be expressed in the very early ascetical milieu, where the drive for celibacy, as Tor Andrae has shown, was the result of Christian monastic influence, and was later swept away by the tide of normative Sufism. In high medieval Islam the conjunction of holiness and celibacy was unimaginable, and few who aspired to God were unmarried: Ibn Taymiya was the rarest of exceptions.

This evolution of values again parallels the situation in early Christianity. A bitterly-fought scholarly argument debates whether the appearance of the first Christians improved or degraded the status of women, with Peter Brown and many feminists arguing the latter view. Ben Witherington observes that it is the later New Testament material (Luke, Acts) that advocates an improved role for women and a departure from the rabbinical (and hence post-prophetic) norms which shaped the attitudes of the first Christians. However, as Jesus was a Jewish prophet, loyal to revelation, and in particular to its interpretation within a compassionate template, it is reasonable to assume that there existed genuinely pro-female possibilities in the early Jesus community that capsized under the weight of pre-existent Hellenic misogyny which some authors of the Pauline epistles imported from the mystery religions, in the way that Foucault has shown in the second volume of his History of Sexuality

It may be said that an analogous corrosion befell Islamic social history. Critically, however, this happened to a much lesser extent, for a set of reasons which demand careful attention.

Firstly, the above-noted refusal of the scriptures to attribute male gender to the Godhead deprived the tradition of an unarguable gynophobic foundation. The doctrine of the Names as archetypes for all bipolarities in creation ruled out any possibly consequent idea that humanity’s retrieval of theomorphism must entail a shedding of gender in favour of androgyny. On the contrary, the retrieval of theomorphism is the retrieval of gender, fully understood.

Secondly, the very word ‘woman’ had been for many Church Fathers a metonym for concupiscence; and patristic Christianity’s consistent preference for celibacy as a calling higher than marriage had entailed a particular attitude towards women. The model was, of course, Christ himself, as later figured and interpreted by the Church’s imagination. Islam, by stark contrast, maintained a version of the primordial, and also Solomonic, polygamous, heroic model of Semitic prophethood. As Geoffrey Parrinder has shown, sex-positive religions tend also to accord a higher status to the female principle; and Islam from its inception stressed that the presence of women’s bodies and spirits was in no way injurious to the spiritual life. The Prophet (s.w.s.) worshipped in his tiny room for much of the night, and when he was descending into prostration he would nudge aside the legs of his young wife Aisha, to make room. A far cry from the devotions of the Syrian monk, alone in his desert cell.

Also built into the archetypal patterns of Islam is a characteristic amendation to existing purity laws. Feminists have often identified these as a major sign and strengthener of misogyny. They exist in branches of Christianity, as is shown by Russian Orthodox hesitations about the reception of the Eucharist by menstruating women. In Judaism they are very elaborate, so that the menstruating woman is only sexually available for half of every month. Special bathhouses are required for her purification.

This reflects and responds to a very ancient, and very widely-observed taboo. In some primitive societies, women are banished from their husband’s house during this time; the Galla tribes of Ethiopia allocate special huts for menstruating women. Even today, the significant disruption to women’s behavioural patterns is acknowledged in some legislation: modern French law, for instance, even classifies extreme premenstrual tension as a form of temporary insanity.

Islam has preserved the memory of this ancient, and also Semitic hesitation, but in an interestingly attenuated and non-judgemental form. So in sura 2 verse 220 we read: 

They will question you concerning the monthly course: Say, it is a hurt. So go apart from women during the monthly course and do not approach them until they are clean.’ 

What this means is clarified in the sunna. A hadith reports that: 

‘A’isha was sleeping under one coverlet with God’s Messenger, when suddenly she jumped up and left his side. The Messenger said to her, ‘What is the matter? Are you losing blood?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Wrap your waist-wrapper tightly about you, and come back to your sleeping-place.’’ 

There are echoes here of this primordial human unease, but they are very reduced. The naturalism of Islam constantly insists that holiness does not emerge from the suppression of human instincts, but from their affirmation through regulation, so that the natural rhythms of the body and the awe with which we regard them are not to be ignored, but need commemoration in religious ritual. Hence a woman is granted a suspension of formal prayer and fasting for several days in every month. Some feminists see this as a diminution of female spirituality; Muslim female theologians regard it as a reverent acknowledgement; others, such as Ruqaiyyah Maqsood interpret it as a relief from religious duties at a difficult time. The dispensation is easily deconstructed by either suspicious or benign hermeneutics, and resists total interpretation.

What Muslims do stress is that Islam valorises women by making the basic duties of the faith equally incumbent upon both sexes: the suspension for a few days each month is seen as a pragmatic and generous dispensation which does not vitiate this basic principle. The Five Pillars are hence gender-neutral. Similarly, Islam does not establish sacred spaces inaccessible to women. Women can and do enter the Holy Ka‘ba. The Inner Court of the Temple in Jerusalem before its demolition by the Romans was out of bounds to women, who faced the death penalty if they penetrated it. Under Muslim auspices, it was thrown open to both sexes. Hence the Dome of the Rock, the golden structure which still symbolises the Celestial City, and which marks the terrestrial point of the Mi‘raj, is allocated on Fridays exclusively to women, so that men pray in the nearby al-Aqsa mosque hall. Here, as elsewhere, the sexes are segregated during congregational prayers, and the reason given for this is again the pragmatic and unanswerable one that a conmingling of men and women during a form of worship which entails a good deal of physical contact would readily lead to distraction.

Women may penetrate the sacratum; but what of the ambivalent privilege of leadership? Who is the broker of God’s saving word? If in Judaism, women could not approach the Torah, while in Christianity they found themselves excluded from administering the Eucharist, does the new dispensation of Islam restrain them analogously?

Here Islam extends its feminizing of sacred spaces to its own epiphany of the Word which resonates within them. For the Shari‘a, the word made Book is open to female touch and cantillation. Symbolically, the custodianship of the first Qur’anic text was entrusted to the Prophet’s wife Hafsa, not to a man.

Regarding collective celebration of the divine word, it is clear that there can be no Islamic equivalent to the debate over women’s ordination, for the straightforward reason that Islam does not ordain anyone, whether male or female. Our recollection of the primordial Alast and our affirmation of the Great Covenant have already conferred holy orders upon us all. They are valid to the extent of our recollection.

The imam does not mediate; but the spiritual director may do so, by praying for the disciple and offering techniques of dhikr. It is a manifestation of the inescapably anti-feminine harshness of modern pseudosalafite activism that the Sufi shaykh is for such activists a figure not to be revered, but to be abolished. Sufism, and several other forms of Islamic initiatic spirituality, have frequently accommodated women in ways which purely exoteric forms of the religion have not: the Sufi shaykh, who exercises such influence on the formation and guidance of the disciple, and is often a more significant presence for the individual and for society than the person of the mosque imam, may be of either gender. The modern Lebanese saint Fatima al-Yashrutiyya is a conspicuous and deeply moving example; but there are many others. Frequently in those Muslim societies where the mosque has become a primarily male space, the tomb of a prophet or a saint supplies a sacred place for women, responding to their affective spirituality which flourishes, as Irigaray would have it, in the embrace of closed circles rather than in straight lines. The importance of some of the tombs of the Prophets for Palestinian women has often been noted in this regard. Pseudosalafism, with its nervousness about any public visibility for women, seeks to suppress such contexts, with the exception only of the tomb at Madina, which it construes not as paradigm but as exception.

Nonetheless, the issue of a possible female imamate has been raised in several communities in recent years, although the evidence suggests that very few women aspire to this ambivalent position. The imam of a mosque can claim none of the mediating authority of a priest: he does not stand in loco divinis; but is mainly present to mark time, to ensure that the worshippers’ movements are co-ordinated, and to represent the unity of the community. While in some cultures he may have the added function of a pastoral counsellor, this is not a canonical requirement. All four madhhabs of Sunni Islam affirm that the imam must be male if there are males in the congregation. If there are only females, then many classical scholars permit the imamship of females, and this is generally accepted nowadays. But women cannot lead men in prayer. There are in fact no Qur’anic or Hadith texts that explicitly lay this down: it is a product of the medieval consensus. Although those who reject the Four Schools, and attempt to derive the shari‘a directly from the revelation, sometimes repudiate this consensus, only a few, such as Farid Esack, have proposed it seriously. In practice, women activists in the Muslim world appear to have little concern for this, again, because of the absence of inherent prestige and authority in the imamate. One can be a religious leader without being imam of a mosque, the example of prominent theologians such as Bint al-Shati’ in modern Egypt, and a host of medieval predecessors such as Umm Hani, A’isha al-Ba‘uniyya, and Karima al-Marwaziyya, affording sufficient proof of this. 

The discussion so far has moved downwards through districts of metaphysics to touch on issues of shari‘a. Theologically, as we have seen, Islam tends to assert the equality of the male and female principles, while in its practical social structures it establishes a distinction. To understand this paradox is to understand the essence of the Islamic philosophy of gender, which constructs roles from below, not from above.

Women’s functions vary widely in the Muslim world and in Muslim history. In peasant communities, women work out of doors; in the desert, and among urban elites, womanhood is more frequently celebrated in the home. Recurrently, however, the public space is rigorously desexualised, and this is represented by the quasi-monastic garb of men and women, where frequently the colour white is the colour of the male, while black, significantly the sign of interiority, of the Ka‘ba and hence the celestial Layla, denotes femininity. In the private space of the home these signs are cast aside, and the home becomes as colourful as the public space is austere and polarised. Modernity, refusing to recognise gender as sacred sign, and delighting in random erotic signalling, renders the public space ‘domestic’ by colouring it, and makes war on all remnants of gender separation, crudely construed as judgemental.

For Muslims, a significant development in the new feminism is the renewed desire for apartness. Contemplating the crisis of egalitarian social contracts, where the burden of divorce invariably bears most heavily upon women, Daly and many others advocate an almost insurrectionist refusal of contact with the male, and the creation of ‘women’s spaces’ as citadels for the cultivation of a true sisterhood. This cannot be immediately useful to Muslims. Hermeneutics of suspicion directed against either sex are irreligious from the Qur’anic perspective. God, as a sign, ‘has created spouses for you, from your own kind, that you may find peace in them; and He has set between you love and mercy.’ (30:21) Nonetheless, the feminist demand for apartness should not be cast aside; it may even converge significantly with Islam’s provision of it.

In her Ethics of Sexual Difference, Irigaray denounces the technological workplace created by men, which ‘brings about a sexuate levelling at a certain level, [and] neutralizes sexual differences’. To compete, women must assume the ‘tunnel vision’ of the achievement-oriented male, and hence relinquish aspects of their hormonally-coded essence for the sake of a public mercantile space which is biocidal, profiteering, anti-feminine, and now anti-gender. She also observes that ‘the sexual liberations of recent times have not established a new ethics of sexuality’, and that women have been the prime sufferers. But an insurrectionist feminist response ‘often destroys the possibility of constituting a shelter or a territory of one’s own. How are we to construct this female shelter, this territory in difference?’ The question is shared with Islam; but her response is disappointing, and surely futile. Like Levinas, she demands a revolution in love, a ‘fertility in social and cultural difference’ rooted in reconciliation, a new language of gesture, and valorization of the separate nature of femaleness by males.

Given her pessimism about the mutability of the male temper, apparently reinforced by new molecular genetic studies on gender difference, this looks like wishful thinking, and cannot provide more than part of the agenda for an authentic and affirming mutuality. However in her diagnosis we may locate the clue to the more moral and more spiritual solution for which she clearly yearns. ‘Our societies,’ she notes, ‘are built upon men-among-themselves (l’entre-hommes). According to this order, women remain dispersed and exiled atoms.’ But there is a rival cultural economy which cries out to be considered.

Traditionally, the Islamic public space is constructed and subjectivised primarily by ‘l’entre-hommes’, the men in white. The women in black signal a kind of absence even when they are present, by assuming a respected guest status. But Islamic society, rooted in primordial and specifically Shari‘atic kinship patterns, emphatically refuses to reduce them to the status of ‘dispersed and exiled atoms’. There is a parallel space of the entre-femmes, a realm of alternative meaning and fulfilment, where men are the guests, which intersects in formal ways with the entre-hommes but which creates a sociality between women, a space for the appreciation of nos semblables which is largely lacking amid the conditions of modernity or postmodernity, and which is more profoundly human and feminine than the academicised utopia of which Irigaray dreams.

Irigaray commends the new institution of affidamento, current among some Italian feminists, which seeks a withdrawal from the irreducibly male and abrasive public space into nuclei of relaxed female sorority. For her, this is ‘the token of another culture which preserves for us a possible and inhabitable future, a culture whose historical face is as yet unknown to us’. She acknowledges that the power-struggles and generally negative experience of women’s groups suggests that affidamento cells may not be able to merge to create a larger and stable women’s solidarity apart from men. But the random intrusion of women into the public space, and the consequent patterns of conflict, marginalisation, the neglect of children, and spiralling divorce, suggest that some form of localised, informal sorority may provide women with the matrix of identity which a fragmenting modernity denies them.

The Islamic entre-femmes has been explored by several anthropologists. Chantal Lobato, in her studies of Afghan refugee women, angrily rejects Western stereotypes, praising the warmth and sisterly richness of these women’s lives. As she records, such women’s spaces, with systems of meaning, tradition, and narrative constructed largely by women themselves, intersect with the male narrative through institutions such as marriage. We would add that intersection, critically, is not determined by either sex. Irigaray holds that all discourses are gendered; but Islam would say that this is not true: there are in fact three discourses: male, female, and divine. Tawhid, as we have seen, refuses to gender God or God’s word; and the Qur’anic text is hence a neutral document. It is read by men and by women, and hence imported and internalised in gender-specific ways. As such it supplies a barzakh between the two worlds of meaning, equally possessed by each. It is the missing link in Irigaray’s theoretical model which enables an authentic and stable inter-sexual sociality.

What this theology, and the anthropology which is emerging to support it, propose, is that normative Islamic society is concurrently patriarchal and matriarchal. The public space is primarily that of men, who may valorise it over the private; but the latter space is valorised by women, who may regard the public space as morally and spiritually questionable. Hence a feature of Muslim folkways is a kind of reflexive amusement. Men frequently construct a trivialising discourse on women; but women, as any eavesdropper on a Muslim female conversation will know, dismiss men and their concerns with an even more amused disregard. They are right to say, ‘Men, what do they know?’ And the male patriarchal dismissal is, from the male viewpoint, no less correct. Aspects of the hadith discourse which appear to diminish women can be affirmed, and also relativised, by adopting this perspective.


A final aspect of the concurrent patriarchy and matriarchy of Muslim cultures concerns the status of the mother. A weakness of Irigaray’s work is her worrying indifference to the aged; like many feminists, she appears to be concerned only with her semblables. While she accepts the reproductive and nurturing telos of the female body, she signally fails to consider its other natural trajectory, which is towards senescence.

The veneration of aged mothers is a recurrent feature of the Prophetic vision, in which kindness and loyalty to the mother, a rahma to reciprocate the rahma they themselves dispensed, is seen as an almost sacramental act. Ibn Umar narrates that ‘a man came to God’s Messenger (s.w.s.) and said: "I have committed a great sin. Is there anything I can do to repent?" He asked, "Do you have a mother?" The man said that he did not, and he asked again, "Then do you have a maternal aunt?" The man replied that he did, and the Prophet (s.w.s.) told him: "Then be kind and devoted to her".’ (Tirmidhi) Other hadiths are legion: ‘Whoever kisses his mother between the eyes receives a protection from the fire’ (Bayhaqi); ‘Verily God has forbidden disobedience to your mother’ (Bukhari and Muslim).

Anthropologists working in Islamic cultures hence consistently report a dual hierarchy which requires wives to be dutiful to husbands, while husbands must be dutiful to mothers. Modernity loosens both these ties, the former vehemently, and the latter absentmindedly; and the consequence has been a lopsided, frankly ageist new hierarchy which prioritises youth over age, and imposes ruthless forms of discrimination against those who were once considered the community’s pride and the repository of its memory. As medical advances prolong average longevity without substantially eroding the differential which separates male and female mortality, modern societies relegate increasing numbers of women to involuntary eremeticism in regimented but prayerless convents. In 1998 the Chicago Tribune recorded that sixty percent of inhabitants of American old people’s homes never receive a visitor. Given the gender ratio normal in such establishments, the percentage among women must be higher still. Hence the irony that young and middle-aged women in the West have broader horizons than hitherto (excluding, for the moment, the religious horizon), but must all fear a decade of solitary confinement at the end, staring into television screens, recycling memories, and fingering months-old greetings cards from relatives who rarely if ever appear. Even in the most Westernised of Muslim societies, the confinement of the old to what are in effect comfortable concentration camps, is regarded with the disgust that it merits.

Other aspects of Shari‘a discourse also call for elucidation. It cannot be our task here to review the detailed provisions of Islamic law, and to explain, in each individual instance, the Islamic case that gender equality, even where the concept is meaningful, can be undermined rather than established by enforced parity of role and rights. Such a project would require a separate volume of the type attempted recently by Haifa Jawad; and we must content ourselves with surveying a few representative issues.

Perhaps the most immediately conspicuous feature of Muslim communities is the dress code traditional for women. It is often forgotten that the Shari‘a and the Muslim sense of human dignity require a dress code for men as well: in fully traditional Muslim societies, men always cover their hair in public, and wear long flowing garments exposing only the hands and feet. In Muslim law, however, their awra is more loosely defined: men have to cover themselves from the navel to the knees as a minimum. But women, on the basis of a hadith, must cover everything except the face, hands and feet. 

Again, the feminine dress code, known as hijab, forms a largely passive text available for a range of readings. For some Western feminist missionaries to Muslim lands, it is a symbol of patriarchy and of woman’s demure submission. For Muslim women, it proclaims their identity: many very secular women who demonstrated against the Shah in the 1970s wore it for this reason, as an almost aggressive flag of defiance. Franz Fanon reflected on a similar phenomenon among Algerian women protesting against French rule in the 1950s. For still other women, however, such as the Egyptian thinker Safinaz Kazim, the hijab is to be reconstrued as a quasi-feminist statement. A woman who exposes her charms in public is vulnerable to what might be described as ‘visual theft’, so that men unknown to her can enjoy her visually without her consent. By covering herself, she regains her ability to present herself as a physical being only to her family and sorority. This view of hijab, as a kind of moral raincoat particularly useful under the inclement climate of modernity, allows a vision of Islamic woman as liberated, not from tradition and meaning, but from ostentation and from subjection to random visual rape by men. The feminist objection to the patriarchal adornment or denuding of women, namely that it reduces them to the status of vulnerable, passive objects of the male regard, makes no headway against the hijab, responsibly understood.

A further controversy in the Shari‘a’s nurturing of gender roles centres around the institution of plural marriage. This clearly is a primordial institution whose biological rationale is unanswerable: as Dawkins and others have observed, it is in the genetic interest of males to have a maximal number of females; while the reverse is never the case. Stephen Pinker notes somewhat obviously in his book How the Mind Works: ‘The reproductive success of males depends on how many females they mate with, but the reproductive success of females does not depend on how many males they mate with.’

Islam’s naturalism, its insistence on the fitra and our authentic belongingness to the natural order, has ensured the conservation of this creational norm within the moral context of the Shari‘a. Polygamy, in the Islamic case, appears as a recognisably Semitic institution, traceable back to an Old Testament tribal society frequently at war and unequipped with a social security system that might protect and assimilate widows into society. However it is more universal: classical Hinduism permits a man four wives, and there are many Christian voices, not only Mormons, who are today calling for the restoration of polygamy as part of an authentically Biblical lifestyle. (See, for example,

Faced with the failure of normative Western marriage and relationship codes, a growing number of contemporary thinkers are turning to this primordial institution for possible guidance. Phillip Kilbride, professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr, aroused much interest with his recent book Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option. Audrey Chapman has written a more popular study entitled Man-Sharing: Dilemma or Choice, while in 1996, the women’s rights activist Adriana Blake published her Women Can Win the Marriage Lottery: Share Your Man with Another Wife

These studies, from their different perspectives, present three major ethical arguments for polygamy. Firstly, the institution can, as its origins suggest, allow the reintegration into a post-war society of bereaved women, of whom a tragically large number now exist around the globe. Secondly, it can work to the advantage of women: an extended family is created which allows one woman to go to work, while the other cares for the children. The juggling of work and children which is a besetting hazard of modern relationships is thus neatly averted: showing polygamy as a frankly liberative option for women. Its advantages for children, also, have been amply documented by the recent research of Carmon Hardy, who shows the strong degree of family bonding and much lower incidence of crime among offspring of Mormon polygamists at the turn of the present century. Thirdly, polygamy is realistic; and from the Muslim perspective, we would identify this as a principal argument given the Shari‘a’s general realism. Muslims point out that modern Western societies are in practice far more polygamous than Muslim ones, the difference being that in the West the second relationship exists outside any legal framework. The present heir to the British throne, for instance, has been polygamous, and to traditional Muslims nothing seemed more absurd than that Diana needed to be divorced, and a constitutional crisis provoked.

True monotheism, as always, entails realism. Men are biologically designed to desire a plurality of women, and, unless we can carry out some radical genetic engineering work, they will always do so. And when a man has two simultaneously, the law may either deprive one of the two women of legal rights and social status, as in the modern West. Or it can recognise both as legitimate spouses, as in the Shari‘a. Muslims regard as an absurdity the present arrangement in the West where consensual relationships of all kinds are allowed and even militantly defended: homosexual, lesbian, and so on; whereas a consensual ménage a trois is still regarded as immoral. The last hangover of Victorian morality? In fact, a menage a trois is perfectly acceptable in modern Western law, as long as the parties to it live ‘in sin’ and do not attempt to marry. The absurdity of this position requires no comment.

There are other aspects of the Shari’a which deserve mention as illustrations of our theme, not least those which have been largely forgotten by Muslim societies. The intersections between the two gender universes are sometimes designed by the Lawgiver as rights of women, and sometimes as rights of men; and the former category is more frequently omitted from actualised Muslim communities. Frequently the jurists’ exegesis of the texts is plurivocal. Domestic chores, for instance, appear as an aspect of interior sociality, but this is not identified with purely female space, since they are regarded by some madhhabs, including the Shafi‘i, as the responsibility of the man rather than the wife. A’isha was asked, after the Blessed Prophet’s death, what he used to do at home when he was not at prayer; and she replied: ‘He served his family: he used to sweep the floor, and sew clothes.’ (Bukhari, Adhan, 44.) On this basis, Shafi‘i jurists defend the woman’s right not to perform housework. For instance, the fourteenth century Syrian jurist Ibn al-Naqib insists: ‘A woman is not obliged to serve her husband by baking, grinding flour, cooking, washing, or any other kind of service, because the marriage contract entails, for her part, only that she let him enjoy her sexually, and she is not obliged to do other than that.’

In the Hanafi madhhab, by contrast, these acts are regarded as the wife’s obligations. Another sufficient reminder of the difficulty of generalising about Islamic law, which remains a diverse body of rules and approaches. (Another important area, which cannot be detailed here, is the law for custody of children: the Hanafis prefer boys to leave the divorced mother at the age of 7, to live with the father; girls remain with her until the menarch. For the Malikis, the boy stays with the mother until sexual maturity (ihtilam), and the girl until her marriage is consummated.)

Islam’s theology of gender thus contends with a maze, a web of connections which demand familiarity with a diverse legal code, regional heterogeneity, and with the metaphysical no less than with the physical. This complexity should warn us against offering facile generalisations about Islam’s attitude to women. Journalists, feminists and cultivated people generally in the West have harboured deeply negative verdicts here. Often these verdicts are arrived at through the observation of actual Muslim societies; and it would be both futile and immoral to suggest that the modern Islamic world is always to be admired for its treatment of women. Women in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where they are not even permitted to drive cars, are objectively the victims of an oppression which is not the product of a divinely-willed sheltering of a sex, but of ego, of the nafs of the male. In this way, types of ‘Islamization’ being launched in several countries today by individuals driven by resentment and committed to an anthropomorphised and hence andromorphic God, appear to bear no relation either to traditional fiqh discourse or to the revelatory insistence on justice. This imbalance will continue unless actualised religion learns to reincorporate the dimension of ihsan, which valorises the feminine principle, and also obstructs and ultimately annihilates the ego which underpins gender chauvinism. We need to distinguish, as many Muslim women thinkers are doing, between the expectations of the religion’s ethos (as legible in scripture, classical exegesis, and spirituality), and the actual asymmetric structures of post-classical Muslim societies, which, like Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Chinese cultures, contain much that is in real need of reform.

By now it should have become clear that we are not vaunting the revelation as either a ‘macho’ chauvinism or as a miraculous prefigurement of late twentieth-century feminism. Feminism, in any case, has no orthodoxy, as Fiorenza reminds us; and certain of its forms are repellent to us, and are clearly damaging to women and society, while others may demonstrate striking convergences with the Shari‘a and our gendered cosmologies. We advocate a nuanced understanding which tries to bypass the sexism-versus-feminism dialectic by proposing a theology in which the Divine is truly gender-neutral, but gifts humanity with a legal code and family norms which are rooted in the understanding that, as Irigaray insists, the sexes ‘are not equal but different’, and will naturally gravitate towards divergent roles which affirm rather than suppress their respective genius. 

Biology should be destiny, but a destiny that allows for multiple possibilities. Women’s discourse valorizes the home; but Muslim women have for long periods of Islam’s history left their homes to become scholars. A hundred years ago the orientalist Ignaz Goldziher showed that perhaps fifteen percent of medieval hadith scholars were women, teaching in the mosques and universally admired for their integrity. Colleges such as the Saqlatuniya Madrasa in Cairo were funded and staffed entirely by women. The most recent study of Muslim female academicians, by Ruth Roded, charts an extraordinary dilemma for the researcher:

‘If U.S. and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [ . . . ] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.’

Stereotypes come under almost intolerable strain when Roded documents the fact that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities. A’isha, Mother of Believers, who taught hadith in the ur-mosque of Islam, is as always the indispensable paradigm: lively, intelligent, devout, and humbling to all subsequent memory.

But until past ideals are reclaimed, a polarisation in Muslim societies is likely. The Westernised classes will reject traditional idioms simply because those styles are not Western and fail to satisfy the élite’s self-image. The pseudosalafi literalists will continue to reject Sufism’s high regard for women, and its demand for the destruction of the ego. The same constituency will defy legitimate calls for a due ijtihad-based transformation of aspects of Islamic law, not because of any profound moral understanding of that law, but because of a hamfisted exegesis of usul and because those calls are associated with Western influence and demands. Whether the conscientious middle ground, inspired by the genius of tradition, can seize the initiative, and allow an ego-free and generous Muslim definition of the Sunna to shape the agenda in our rapidly polarising societies, remains to be seen. No doubt, the Sufi insight that there is no justice or compassion on earth without an emptying of the self will be the final yardstick among the wise. But it is clear that the Islamic tradition offers the possibility of a truly radical solution, offering not only to itself but to the West the transcendence of a debate which continues to perplex many responsible minds, contemplating an emergent society where the absence of roles presides over an increasingly damaging absence of rules.