February 17, 2014 By PP Najiya

Between Patriarchy & Civilizing Mission of ‘Feminism’

sheikhThis starts the series about contemporary scholars and debates on Women and Islam. Profiles, major discourses, debates and controversies on the issue will be featured in the section. We want our readers to write to us your contributions and feedback. Feel free to write to shauqimizaj@gmail.com

“Women and Islam” is an alluring topic for debate at least for last two decades and there are plenty of Academic-non academic, secular-religious, feminist- non feminist accounts on the topic. In this regard, mere romanticization of Islamic legacy of women empowerment is one extreme and western feminist attempts to liberate oppressed, victimized Muslim women is the other end. Dr. Sa’diyya Shaikh, a professor in the Religious Studies Department at Cape Town University places herself in between the two and seeks to ground issues of gender justice within Islam and its texts by presenting a different Islamic feminist hermeneutics which challenges the existing divide between spiritual and social aspects of life. Throughout her studies on Gender and Islam she sees patriarchy as a system which constrains both men’s and women’s spiritual development.

Shaikh criticizes Islamic scholars who speak about egalitarianism and gender justice in Islam simultaneously promoting hierarchical power relations and face the questions feminists raise with blind defensiveness. She also rejects the “civilizing mission” of western feminists who approach Muslim women as enslaved, oppressed and “monolithic category”. For her feminism includes a critical awareness of the structural marginalization of women in society as well as the engagement in activities directed towards transforming gender power relations in order to strive for a society that facilitates human wholeness for all based on principles of gender justice, human equality, and freedom from structures of oppression.

In her Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn Arabi, Gender and Sexuality Shaikh brings a re-reading of the works of thirteenth century Andalusian Arab Muslim scholar, Sufi saint and philosopher Ibn Arabi into the discourses about gender and Islam. Shaikh reads Ibn Arabi’s works using a feminist lens focusing on the question of gendered roles and functionalities in the Islamic tradition. The book deals with the unexplored interconnectivity of Islamic jurisprudence and spiritualty and dig into the possibilities of a gender politics emphasizing egalitarianism. Remaining close to the original text of Ibn Arabi enables her to postulate gender as an innate part of his Islamic cosmology. This new politics which places gender egalitarianism beyond the legal trappings of mainstream Islamic tradition is based on the interconnectivity of spiritual fulfillment and social justice.

Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn Arabi, Gender and Sexuality disagrees with modern neo-traditionalists’ accounts on Ibn Arabi as they provide ideological grounds for hierarchical social structures by wrongly attributing fixed ontological gender differentiation to him. To reformulate the contemporary understanding of Islam and gender justice she goes beyond the legal apparatus and seeks answers in the spiritual relation between God and humanity.

Shaikh makes it clear that Sufism has not always been a sanctuary for women. Like all other fields of Islamic thought, it has been witnessing confrontations between patriarchal and egalitarian values. Through her studies Sadiyya Shaikh enquires the possibilities of gender egalitarian spaces in Sufi thoughts and tradition. Her personal and historical positioning as an African (born and raised on the continent of Africa); an Indian (through ancestry) and as a Muslim, whose existential, spiritual, and ethical universe is based on an Islamic worldview is an important factor which makes her studies distinct. These thoughts open up a new and challenging post secular debate on spirituality and gender justice.


Shaikh, Sadiyya. Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality. The University of North Carolina Press (2012)

Sheikh, sadiyya.  Transforming Feminisms: Islam, Women, and Gender Justice In Progressive muslims, Omid safi (ed), pp 147-162,  Oneworld publication, Oxford, 2003.

Posted in: Debate, Woman