Why Are Women (Still) Comfortable in Islam?

By Lies Marcoes (Researcher, Rumah KitaB)

Please show where and how women are placed with dignity in the conceptual framework (epistemology) of Islam? This question resounded in my mind following the discussion of Dr. Zahra Ayubi’s book Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family and Society, (Columbia University, July 2019). This is not some strange or eccentric query, but rather an accusation that demands an honest answer. Where?The virtual discussion was held on the morning of 20 May 2020 by WE LEAD, an empowerment network of seven feminist NGOs, three of which are Islam-based. We all perceive the strong rising tide of fundamentalism that threatens women’s bodies and existence as well as the diversity of Indonesia. This was truly a very special discussion, in terms of the quality of the book, the discussants, and the dialogue. Dr. Ayubi herself participated throughout the discussion, even though it was before dawn in California. The discussion was led and notes were provided by Ulil Abshar Abdalla, M.A., who has for the past several years been an expert on Imam Ghazali’s work Ngaji Ihlya. It was important to have kyai Ulil involved, because one of the texts discussed in Gendered Morality is the works of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, better known as Imam Ghazali. Meanwhile, Dr. amina wadud (who officially prefers her name written without capital letters), serving as one of the discussants, led the discussion straight to the heart of the problem. She asked Dr. Ayubi to explain about her motivation, the basis of her arguments, and her analysis of the three texts of tasawuf (mysticism) she explored: Kimiya’i Sa’adat by Imam Ghazali, Akhlaaq-i Nasiri by Nasiruddin Tusi, and Akhlaaq-i Jalali by Jalaluddin Davani. These last two books are more popular in Iran.In his introduction to the discussion, kyai Ulil- and I concurred,  explained that mysticism has long been considered a discipline that is friendly toward women – for example, by presenting the “feminine side” of God. For many Muslim feminists, tasawuf is a branch of knowledge that can help to console them in their frustration with the teachings of Islam in other areas, which are often misogynistic and patriarchal. For example, in fiqh or dogma, women are discussed by first of all positioning them as subordinate to men. A woman is the property of her father or of some other man in his line of descent, or of her husband. Women are deemed to be only half the equal of men, and this assumption pervades practical matters such as giving testimony, inheritance rights, polygamy, and not being allowed to lead communal prayers. Sachiko Murata’s book The Tao of Islam is a study on Islamic spirituality that explores the balance of Yin and Yang and the masculine and feminine aspects in the characteristics of God. Other books, such as My Soul is a Woman by Annemarie Schimmel, also explore the feminine aspect in Islamic spirituality. But Dr. Zahra’s study and analysis leads to a very different conclusion. The construction of the teachings on akhlak (ethics), as explored in these three mystical works, is full of male-centered bias. The entire conceptual framework of thinking in mysticism about ethics solely discusses how men should behave and achieve superior moral character. In her book, she presents evidence of how these medieval Islamic intellectuals created a system of ethical philosophy that inherently has gender implications by ignoring the experience of women as subjects.

Ayubi’s study is very important and counts as new because until now, scholars of Islam who explore the issues of gender have generally criticized the patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an, the hadith, or traditions of fiqh. In the Sufi teachings as portrayed in the three works she studied, the ideal concept of a human is a man who is able to control his passions. Such an attribute can only be achieved by the elite (the nobility, higher social classes), because only these upper classes are considered intellectually capable to grasp the concepts of philosophy and to achieve realization as persons of noble character.


Methodologically, what Ayubi has done is to “interrogate” the text. To be able to analyze how gender is understood in the texts, she first examined the masculinity and the class bias contained in the texts, particularly how men – and specifically, men from the elite class, in terms of wealth, education, and power – are conditioned from birth to become patriarchs/ leaders in society. It is important to recognize here that the issue is not simply that women are not included in a given text, but rather how, overall, the texts on ethical behavior require a certain form of relationship that is based on the subordination of others (for example, wives or slaves) to men in the effort to become more ethical.


According to Ayubi, in the understanding of mysticism, the studies of akhlak and fiqh occupy different “strata”. Fiqh is seen as discourse on ethics for the common people, who do not need heavy ideas but just require practical guidelines on what is and is not permitted; in contrast, akhlak is seen as discourse on ethics that is formulated by philosophical thinking, and therefore is intended only for the upper classes/ nobles. In her research, Ayubi concluded that the discourse on ethics in tasawuf suffers not only from male gender bias but also from class bias, because it is oriented toward the male elite. Obviously, the discussion of akhlak does include some discussion of women, and also of slaves. But the main thrust of these studies is on how a man should act ethically when facing (the temptations of) women or slaves. Hence, women are discussed in their role as the touchstone to test the quality of a man’s ethics, as a direct object to test the purity of men’s souls.


The concept of akhlak in mysticism is “refinement of nafs” (purification of the heart). Kyai Ulil added that the process of purification of the heart in tasawuf consists of three concepts: takholi (cleansing the heart of negative characteristics), takhali (filling it with good characteristics), and tajali (the peak of human endeavor, becoming a person who always acts ethically). amina wadud explained how this relates to the concept of Insaan Kamil, the ideal person, which revolves around purification of the hearts of men. According to Zahra, this “refinement of nafs” is in fact a concept that is solely for cleansing the hearts of men. In this way, no different from the epistemology in the fields of fiqh and tafsir, the texts on akhlak in tasawuf are full of misogyny and gender bias.


According to Dr. Ayubi, essentially the discipline of ethics (akhlak) offers a basic perspective on the meaning of being human, especially in the concept of dien according to Islam, which offers a way and a path of life for all humans. But apart from this rich discourse on ethics, there are still many other assumptions that need to be unpacked so that the humanity of every person can be fully recognized, so that this discourse can contribute to answering how to achieve the superiority and nobility of humankind in the perspective of Islam, i.e. as insaan kamil as mentioned by amina wadud.


Dr. Ayubi notes that in these texts, the question of gender can be raised not only in those matters that often discuss women, such as marriage, but in fact in all aspects discussed in the texts. Everything includes the issue of gender. She sees that, first, although the texts she studied were written in Persian, in which the pronouns do not literally distinguish between masculine and feminine, when we read them in context it is evident that these texts specifically refer only to males. For example, when discussing how to be a better person and Muslim, or when discussing the concept of nafs (the psyche) and how to control it, what is actually meant by the text is how to become a better Muslim male and be able to control one’s nafs. As another example, in the discussion on society, such as how to be a good leader and how to deal with opponents, the entire context is men’s leadership in society.


Second, the construction of akhlak in Islamic tradition as a way of life has to date been an exclusive effort. The ethical discourse aimed at purifying and upgrading oneself continues to exclude other groups based on gender, ability, rationality, social class, and race.


Rationality is one aspect that causes women to be treated unequally in the epistemological constructs of tasawuf, as in the other epistemologies (Fiqh, Aqidah, Philosophy, Politics). In fact, all these epistemological constructs focus on rationality. Perhaps this is why women are excluded in the texts. In fact, rationality should have no gender and need not always follow the same path.


But women’s reproductive capabilities, such as menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, postnatal confinement, which are recognized in the text of the Qur’an as extremely burdensome events, “wahnan ‘ala wahnin”, have been used as a unilateral argument that women’s rationality is lower. This also relates to the ways in which women are obstructed in performing worship. The reproductive events that women experience have been used as a judgement on their inequality with men. Their essential ability has become a stigma implying that women are less rational than men, as well as further implications departing from the same prejudice – doubting their rationality.


For Dr. Nur Rofiah, one of the initiators of KUPI (Congress of Indonesian Women Ulama), Zahra’s book further reinforces her view that there are problems within Islam’s system of knowledge, including in mysticism, which has until now been considered neutral. It turns out that tasawuf is also characterized by a masculine awareness (using males as the standard). For many centuries, the experience of women with their bodies and their reproductive capability has not been taken into account in the system of teachings/ knowledge of Islam. The long history of human civilization, including Islamic civilization, is characterized by a tradition that “does not treat women as human”. This gives rise to a collective view (including in women’s own thinking) that men are considered the standard for women’s humanity.


Yet women’s biological and social experiences, such as giving birth and nursing their children, as well as their social implications, are never experienced by men. Women’s experience with reproduction seldom even enters into men’s awareness. Meanwhile, men hold strategic positions, including in constructing the concepts of knowledge. It is this situation that creates the gaps and differences in determining the standards of benefit in gender relations. The concept of “maslahat” (benefit, advantage) relies entirely on the standard of males. The most obvious example is that when determining permission for polygamy, in terms of both ethics/ fiqih and akhlak, polygamy is justified because women have certain time restrictions for engaging in sexual relations. Rather than having some empathy for women who are menstruating, pregnant, or in post-partum seclusion, men perceive that these obstacles interfere with their own benefit, and they therefore formulate their rights themselves so that they can continue to enjoy having sex whenever they feel they need it. On this basis, they formulate polygamy as a right that is permitted for men. Another example is marriages between young girls and adult men. This practice, which creates suffering and trauma for the girls, is considered beneficial because such marriages bring benefit to men, who feel they have the right to repeatedly deflower virgins by marrying young girls!

The importance of reproduction for the survival of living creatures, which brings with it many biological experiences for women, will never be compatible with the concepts of akhlak according to masculine bodies and experience. For amina wadud, a rereading of this issue requires us to radically integrate the bodily experiences of all humankind (not just women) in constructing an understanding of humankind, insaan kamil, and then enhancing it so that spiritual refinement is not allocated only to formal rituals of worship.


Returning to the question I raised earlier, if women are treated so badly in the epistemology of Islam, why are women (still) comfortable being in Islam?

Dr. Zahra Ayubi stated that texts such as the ones she explored should not automatically be ignored. An effort is needed to reexamine them critically and in depth, and to raise critical questions at a more philosophical and cosmic level. We can ask what the ethical basis is in interpreting the meaning of being a Muslim, what is the purpose of human existence, and what it means to surrender oneself to Allah. She recommends that Muslim intellectuals should collectively and sincerely think about a more inclusive philosophy of ethics that does not merely construct happiness based on the concept of use of reason (such that rationality holds the most important position and neglects other kinds of experience). The current definition of akhlak is problematic, because it excludes the experience of women.


Ideally, the texts on akhlak should be able to acknowledge the diversity of humankind – not just in terms of gender, but also race, ability, and class. The recognition of this diversity could give rise to a diversity of standards – not just a single standard for achieving “refinement”. And this would be more appropriate, because the various differences, social constructs, and structural challenges will lead to differences in defining the obstacles each individual faces in achieving the potential of their nafs.


I held a virtual discussion with several of my feminist colleagues. They provided some answers that seem quite reasonable to me. The most common answer was that women lack the courage or willingness to leave Islam, because the ties that bind them are so tight and strong. Imagine: from the day she is born, the first stones are laid in the walls that guard her; she is the daughter (binti) of a particular father, and the entire family line of the patriarchal hierarchy feels they have rights over her. Starting even as a baby, she is told of her obligation to maintain the dignity of the family, and then of ever-widening circles, until she must protect the reputation of the entire “Muslim community”. If she chooses to become an apostate, for example, how many people will feel they have the right to punish her? In this sense, the question of “comfortable or not” becomes irrelevant.

Second was an answer which asserts that within religion there are in fact aspects of affection, warmth, a feeling of peace, a devout relationship between individual women and their God. This experience is not codified as a discipline of knowledge, nor is it institutionalized. This is because women’s experience is not known by the men who have for so long constructed the epistemology of Islam. These aspects of warmth in religion live and are passed on as a secret among women from generation to generation. The experience of reproduction is something only they experience, which they do not share with those who will never be able to understand it (men) and who consider it a taboo subject. They choose to maintain an internal love, with their Creator, whom they treat as their beloved.

Another option is to leave Islam and take up some other religion or ideology that defends women, such as secular philosophy and thinking that is based on the legal system. But such an option does not necessarily provide space for women. And finally, and I think this is the path that is now being pursued by feminist Muslims, including Dr. Zahra Ayubi: seize the tafsir (interpretation)! The epistemology of Islam already offers a wealth of methodologies that can be criticized and reused to provide a critique that presents the experiences of women as valid truth. In this way, the epistemology of Islam can be reexamined and reconstructed! []


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