Sa’diyya Shaikh: Finding Voices of Dissent within Islamic Tradition

We welcome a guest post today from Sa’diyya Shaikh, author of Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ʿArabī, Gender, and Sexuality. You can read an excerpt from the book in our blog archives. In this guest post, she demonstrates how the works of a thirteenth-century Sufi can offer insight into contemporary debates about gender and sexuality in Islam.—ellen


What is the nature of being human within the Islamic tradition? What does it mean to be a gendered human being? These are foundational religious and philosophical questions that have compelled scholars and spiritual seekers for centuries within the Muslim tradition. These deeper questions also ultimately underlie a number of current debates on gender relations in Muslim societies.

Instead of revisiting the reductionist and ideologically fraught contestations on Islam and gender currently articulated by a whole range of political, religious, and secularist actors, it might be worthwhile to instead examine some of the rich and untapped resources in Muslim thought. Indeed the works of a renown Sufi, the thirteenth-century Muslim polymath Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī, offers a contemporary audience penetrating understandings of human nature and gender which have the potential to creatively inform existing challenges to equality.

Current gender debates in Muslim societies—whether relating to questions of women’s rights in marriage and divorce, the politics of hijāb, or competing positions on women’s leadership of ritual prayer—demand an exploration and interrogation of the very foundational premises and constructs of gender itself. Contesting positions on the above issues as well as others, are after all underpinned by specific assumptions regarding human nature and existence.

In order to genuinely challenge the widest possible forms of sexism in society, it is imperative to delve into questions about the constituent nature of humanity, male and female, from a religious perspective. We need to ask some core perennial religious questions, including: “Who am I? What is the nature of the universe? Why am I here? How do I live an ethical life? What are my criteria for measuring value?” One needs to do so whilst simultaneously foregrounding gender as a central category of analysis, thus engaging gender at a foundational level of religious meaning. Framing questions in this way intimately links ontology to religious understandings of human nature while analyzing gender as an intrinsic part of Islamic cosmology.

Doing this afresh, with a full awareness of historical location, allows contemporary Muslims to arrive at very different answers than the ones proposed by dominant paradigms within the Islamic tradition. The teachings of Ibn ‘Arabī and Sufism in general show promise for contributing to a comprehensive framework within which to interrogate a politics of gender.

By using a critical approach to Ibn ʿArabī’s work, one might discern the nuanced richness of his gender mosaic. Ibn ʿArabi’s ideas and methodologies are remarkably generative, characterized by a delicate balance between conventional views and alternate possibilities. His writings, while reflecting the norms and assumptions of his specific premodern context, also fragment patriarchal dualities and destabilize fixed constructs of gender. With his dialectical method, Ibn ʿArabī pushes normative gender categories to new registers, thus rendering them mobile, fluid, and multivalent. Ibn ʿArabī’s remarkable contribution—as a poet, mystic, and legal scholar—is unique in that it resists the divide between spiritual aspiration and social engagement. It mirrors the human capacity to envision a level of attainment that is comprehensively spiritual in nature with organic and powerful social implications.

While Ibn ʿArabī and Sufi discourse in general offer some exciting possibilities to creatively and critically engage questions of gender ethics, neither the individual nor the discipline are monolithic. There are varying, even ambivalent discourses of sexuality and gender found in Sufi thought. In particular, there is a crucial tension between what I consider clear Islamic ethical ideals of justice and the simultaneous heritage of patriarchy within the Islamic legacy and the current practices of some Muslims. Also, there are interpretive complexities involved in a feminist reading of a tradition characterized by multiple and sometimes contrary economies of gender.

For Muslims committed to social justice and feminism it is vital to highlight and expand on voices of dissent to patriarchy that exist in the plethora that is Islamic tradition. As such, Ibn ʿArabī’s perspectives provide novel insights for contemporary Muslims to rethink gender and its articulations in new contexts, while remaining firmly rooted in the spiritual heritage of Islam. It has been my work to outline some of the far-reaching feminist implications of mysticism for gender justice within Islam. I argue that Sufism potentially offers a deeply rooted approach to current gender dilemmas, an approach that integrally addresses questions of ontology, spiritual cultivation, and social ethics.

Saʿdiyya Shaikh is senior lecturer of religious studies at the University of Cape Town and author of Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ʿArabī, Gender, and Sexuality.