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In Search of al-Insān: Sufism, Islamic Law, and Gender - Sa‘diyya Shaikh

The cultivation and embodiment of a perfect balance

between jamāl and jalāl are exactly the same

for male and female aspirants” - Sa’diyya Shaikh

Sa’diyya Shaikh situates her research by interjecting Islamic and Gender Studies, which involves gender-sensitive readings of Hadith, Quranic exegesis, and Sufi texts; theoretical and political debates on Islam and feminism; religion and gender-based violence; contemporary Muslim women’s embodied, experiential and everyday modes of understanding Quranic teachings. She takes a special interest in Sufism and its implications for Islamic feminism and feminist theory. In her paper “In Search of al-Insān: Sufism, Islamic Law, and Gender,” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 2009, Shaikh offers an analytical examination of an understanding of Islam’s juridico-ethical legacy, which is built over foundational means of submission to God, God-human relationship, nature of God and humans, and debates of the purpose of human existence. Its core argument considers significant areas that explore dominant understanding of gender within Islamic Law, gendered ontological assumptions, and gender equality through Sufi readings (especially through the lens of Ibn ʿArabī) that postulates how contemporary feminists can benefit from Sufi discourses. This essay aims to highlight a comprehensive summary of Shaikh’s paper and her main argument. In addition, I will examine her noteworthy interpretation of Sufi ontology which suggests that women are intended to primarily reflect jamāli attributes while jalāli qualities are chiefly the prerogative of men; the bases of Shaikh’s argument demonstrate the impossibility to achieve al-Insān al-Kāmil (embodying all divine attributes of human perfection and completeness) as long as Sufis sustain the man-woman binary view.

Shaikh’s paper offers four areas that support her argument, starting with feminist debates vis-à-vis Islamic Law. She stresses that a great number of feminists find that the rights of women and critical evaluations of gender inequality emerge from Islamic Law. On one side of the spectrum of scholars of the field of feminism, especially feminist reformers, we find those who stress that “traditional fiqh discourse offers more rights than their societies confer on them,”[1] while others argue that premodern interpretations of the law favoured women. Nevertheless, Shaikh’s argument on gender asymmetry attempts to instead note that “within privileged classes in Islamic intellectual history, one also find men who have resisted and contested patriarchy in some way or another.”[2] In other words, nothing new under the sun. However, she rather prefers to first target critical questions about the nature of human beings and gender differences within the traditional discourse of the law. Shaikh distances herself from some contemporary scholars of Sufism who present spiritual equality between men and women as unrelated to social realities, and instead aligns herself toward reshaping gender ethics in emerging feminist discourses of law:

A structural critique of the established fiqh canon would involve asking some fundamental questions relating to the nature of sharīʿa and its historical interpretations. These include: what are the ideological implications of using the terms “sharīʿa” and “fiqh” interchangeably?

Most significantly, it is imperative to look at the very nature and constitution of fiqh in relation to a deeper vision of ultimate reality and human purpose.[3]

In short, this re-evaluation requires us to ask how the traditional fiqh as a discourse endorses that reality. Within its application on gender studies and feminist discourses, Shaikh stresses that “we must ask critical questions about the nature of human beings and gender differences assumed within the traditional fiqh discourse.”[4] Simply put, because traditional legal rule has embedded particular understandings of the nature of men and women and their relationships into its structure, we must question the basis of such understandings.

The second area Shaikh explores is the dynamics of personality in Sufism: the soul, (al-nafs) the heart (al-qalb), the spirit (al-ruh), and the inner struggle toward self-awareness; that is, “the unity states between God and humanity”[5]and one’s struggle to conquer that relation due to self-centered, egotistic, and compulsive tendencies. For Sufis, says Shaikh, it is through the complete submission of the self to the Creator that real human potentiality can be attained. She reflects on the egotistic view of male superiority, or what she calls “the dilutions of superiority,”[6] throughout the Sufi tale of Rābiʿa and Hasan as an archetype of man-woman relationship under “the egalitarian stereotype.”[7] Sufi literature narratives that reflect misogyny address women as a projection of the inner struggles men have with their own desires, explains Shaikh. Put tastefully, the simplistic and stereotypical view of women and the dangers of an overwhelming sexual drive. Shaikh asserts that this caution toward women and the sexual drive represents “an outward projection of the inner struggles that these men were having with their own desires and desiring selves.”[8] In other words, women should not have to self-isolate themselves because of men’s lack of self-control. Can we extrapolate Shaikh’s critical evaluation regarding these insecurities to subjects such as the hijab and women’s free will? Shaikh’s feminine instinct may agree. Once again, Shaikh underlines that these male delusions of superiority ultimately contradict the essence of the God-human relationship. More to that point, discourses on the position of man as a center-spiritual superiority only questions the very nature of man-woman equality as this view of masculinity neglects “the full spiritual agency of women in contexts otherwise characterized by masculinist assumptions.”[9] Now, where does Shaikh find ontological discourses asserting women’s equality within Islamic thought? To answer that question, she offers Ibn ʿArabī.

Shaikh’s third proposal, “Ontology and Human Purpose,” offers Ibn ʿArabī proclaiming women’s equality with men that can potentially illuminate contemporary Muslim-gender debates. This message remains at the heart of her proposal. Some contemporary Muslim feminists may be surprised to know that Ibn ʿArabī, a 13th-century Muslim philosopher, opened a can of worms among his male-conservative-elite peers when he addressed women’s equality as a prophetic mandate toward men:

Ibn ʿArabī informs us that his gender lenses are in fact directly informed by mystical insights and a desire to emulate the prophetic example. Significant in this comment is Ibn ʿArabī’s claim that love, compassion, and justice toward women are divine mandates upon men, based on prophetic example. They are not to be seen simply as the product of individual disposition or natural propensities in some men.[10]

To follow the suggestions of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), being the archetype of the perfect human being, is an imperative image to live up to for all Muslims. So, if there is a memo coming from the Messenger telling us that there is a direct divine calling toward man-woman equality, which is linked to justice, love, and compassion, who will dare to challenge it, right? Shaikh’s thesis uses Ibn ʿArabī’s re-interpretation of gender to dissect and reconsider ontological discourses that pose man as a central figure in Islamic reasoning, in order to offer important reflections crucial to feminist readers. It is worth noting that Ibn ‘Arabi’s proposals, coming out of the 13th-century frame, not only emerge as radical but also must be contextualized. His close “his family but also in his religious and social circles”[11] were infused with intellectual women, including teachers, as well as “appears to interact with a number of his female Sufi contemporaries.”[12] It could be said that the female presence in his life was a strong influence on his critical views, which without a doubt shook up the establishment of scholarly elite at the time.

In the end, and to address a more specific observation I deem as crucial, Shaikh highlights Ibn ʿArabī’s core concept of al-Insān (the human) al-Kāmil (the perfection) as “a pivotal understanding of human purpose that is significant in terms of its explicit gender-inclusivity.”[13] Furthermore, Shaikh brings ‘Arabi’s note underlining that “everything a man can attain—spiritual stations, levels, or qualities—can be attained by women if God wills, just as it can be attained by men, if God wills.”[14] This rationale opens up foundational teachings and criticism of patriarchal power relations where Shaikh underlines the divine attributes, gendered human, and a clear and explicit gender inclusivity. I found the reference of Ibn ʿArabī challenging Sufi ontology which suggests that “women are intended to primarily reflect jamāli attributes while jalāli qualities are chiefly the prerogative of men”[15] as a very reasonable example of discourses that reinforce signs of patriarchal thought:

If men were jalāli and women were jamāli, this would limit the possibilities for either men or women to embody the full array of divine attributes. In this case, where one half of the human species is predominantly associated with a jamāli divine mode and the other with the jalāli mode, then one could say that any gendered human being is only able to reflect divinity partially. As such, humanity would lack the capacity for embodying all divine attributes, the criterion of human perfection, denying both men and women the ontological completeness inherent in this cosmology.[16]

This reading from Ibn ʿArabī reveals the limitations behind the traditional holistic view of the nature of human spirituality embodied by the concept of al-Insān al-Kāmil, or the full human being realization; Shaikh finds at the core of Ibn ‘Arabi argument that explicitly operates under the gender-inclusive premise.

Shaikh’s thesis lingers under the fundamental philosophical stance of Ibn ʿArabī as his teachings provide a variety of possibilities for a powerful, organic, and ontologically grounded critique of patriarchal power relations to both the individual exploring self-awareness, and to social formations. He cleverly “negotiates contradictory prophetic traditions in a way that foregrounds gender-inclusivity and women’s full participation in the work of human existence”[17] while remaining faithful to the Islamic canon. What Shaikh aspires for, is for modern feminist scholars to see in Ibn ʿArabī’s examinations and critique of patriarchal discourses the potentiality to open up “spaces for prioritizing alternative modes of relationships—based on equality—between all human beings.”[18]

[1] Sa’diyya Shaikh, “In Search of ‘Al-Insān’: Sufism, Islamic Law, and Gender,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 4 (2009), 787. [2] Ibid., 801. [3] Ibid. 787. [4] Ibid., 788. [5] Ibid., 791. [6] Ibid., 795. [7] Shaikh stresses that this anecdote ironically illustrates that Rābiʿa’s spiritual goods are in fact, of a superior nature and capacity to that of Hasan, one of the foremost male Sufis of the time. [8] Ibid., 794. [9] Ibid, 797. [10] Ibid., 801. [11] Ibid., 799. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid., 809. [14] Ibid., 807. [15] Ibid., 810. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid., 818.


Shaikh, Sa’diyya. “In Search of ‘Al-Insān’: Sufism, Islamic Law, and Gender.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 4 (2009): 781–822.