January 4, 2013 By K Ashraf

Ibn Arabi Throws Feminism into Relief

Islamic feminism is generally understood in two ways: on the basis of women’s activism and their academic involvement. The second category includes feminist readings of the Quran, Islamic jurisprudence and Prophetic Tradition.  Feminist readings in Islam have been restricted to the women-centred Quranic readings of Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas for the last 20 years.

So, Islamic feminism has very often been unable to address traditions like Hadith and Sufism. Its critics have long been pointing at its limitations in addressing discourses in classical Islam, in particular the most popular Islamic tradition– the Sufism. Works of renowned writers like Syed Hussein Nasr, William Chittick, and Annemarie Schimmel regarding gender and Sufism have had limitations. At this juncture, Sa’diyya Shaikh, a strong proponent of Islamic Feminism, makes an attempt to address Sufism in her Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn Arabi,  Gender and Sexuality (UNC Press, 2011)’.

The book indeed has spiritual nature and she writes it with immense passion. The book is capable of holding dialogues with philosophy, feminism and Islamism. A Muslim is the one who constantly asks to oneself the question: ‘who is s/he actually?’ Sa’diyya tries the answers to that question in perspective. Does it have anything to do with humans having gender? Or does Islam provide answer, not being gender specific? In other words, does Islam consider male/female divisions as essences or do the divisions exist on the basis of similarities and differences mutually shared? Sa’diyya Sheikh tries to answer this problem in the book.

From the very beginning, Sa’diyya explains her social position as a Muslim woman. She says that Islamic Feminism makes varied readings possible. For her, Islamic feminism is not that kind of an approach which discards religion and community. So, in that respect, in her critique of mainstream feminism, she correlates Islamic feminism with  black feminism and third world feminism. She carries the same critical perception in the analysis of patriarchy in day-to-day Muslim experience.  Islamic feminism in her book addresses the gap between Islam as a universal experience and Muslim as a life experience.

Handling these complexities in interpreting Islamic Feminism Sa’diyya Shaikh also takes into consideration the alienation felt by, and the neo-colonial threats faced by, the Muslim community world over post September 11.  She identifies Islamic feminism as capable of criticising many authorities, as it keeps critical distance from many power centres. Also, Islamic feminism has the ability to engage in discussions with other religions and schools of thought, thereby creatively engaging in debates with Buddhism, Post-modernity and other activisms.

As mentioned earlier, Sa’diyya gets into conversation with Sufism. Muhyiddin Ibnu Arabi [1165-1240] was a multi-faceted scholar and renowned researcher. Born in Spain Ibnu Arabi travelled across the North African and West Asian countries. He is one among the all time greats with respect to contributions towards Islamic thoughts. Fatima Cordova and Yasmina Mahzana were two great lady Sufi scholars of his time and their teachings had deep influence over him. He had many students and his thoughts were mainly based on the relations between the Almighty and humans. Even after Ibnu Arabi’s demise people sharing different streams of thoughts held conversations with his thoughts. With the inception of Wahabism, contributions of the greats like him got discarded.  Sa’diyya cites that the founder of Wahabism – Muhammed Ibnu Abdul Wahab himself had once declared Ibnu Arabi as a disbeliever.

By reading Ibn Arabi contemporaneously, Sa’diyya examines how the gender dynamics including love, sex and marriage are defined and are found working. Sa’diyya claims that the readings on Ibn Arabi are not free from the political spheres as imagined by the patriarchal readings. As against the mainstream Muslim perception which considers female body as receptor of male desires, Ibn Arabi identifies ‘men’ and ‘women’ as spiritual states of being the Almighty’s slave. The focus of Sufism is the bond between Almighty and humans. This approach inhibits any attempt to categorise humans based on their gender. Every believer encounters the question as to ‘who actually s/he is’. While other thinkers lay stress on the historical, cultural peculiarities of Islam, Ibn Arabi focuses on the Muslim’s status of being the Almighty’s slave.

Sa’diyya clearly describes the epithets given to Ibn Arabi such as ‘the complete man’ [insaanul Kaamil] and ‘the soul of Muhammad’ [al roohul Muhammad] which stand him out among other philosophers. The book has described in detail to Ibn Arabi’s jurisprudential (fikh) views as regards men and women. Ibn Arabi has opined that women can attain supreme spiritual height, which he calls by the name ‘Qutub’.  He considers it the closest position to God a Sufi could attain. Sa’diyya considers this as a crucial observation, which aligns itself with justice in the analysis of man and woman.

Based on this observation, Sadiya  says that women can undertake leading roles as jurists, and that any reading contravening such an involvement of women has only been churned out of the male chauvinistic minds.  She claims that women can lead prayers [imamat] at mosques, where men are present. She says that the Islamic law which positions a male witness on par with two women does not have universal application.

Ibn Arabi thus makes us capable of viewing men and women on the basis of justice, she notes. However, Sadiya does not consider Sufism as a sacred institution free from patriarchal dominance. Instead she thinks that Sufism also possesses possibilities of male dominance like other Islamic institutions.  Unlike traditional Islamic writings, nowhere in her book does Sa’diyya Shaikh address God by ‘him’. She takes extreme care to refer to Almighty as either ‘Allah’ or ‘God’. She considers language an important factor in Islamic Feminist readings.

We are now living in an age where secular anxieties have been expressed about the lives of Muslim women, where the US state department has been making some obvious attempts to entertain apolitical Islam through Sufism and thereby making it as strategy to infiltrate in the Muslim world. To write this book at a time when critical thought and life is brought to a crisis is a challenge. So challenging is reading this book, which is deceptively simple.

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