Part 1: Metaphysics
...The two leading modern scholars of this tradition in Islamic thought are Izutsu and Murata, who have both noted the parallels between Sufism’s dynamic cosmology and the Taoist world view: each sees existence as a dynamic interplay of opposites, which ultimately resolve to the One.
Each sees existence as a dynamic interplay of opposites, which ultimately resolve to the One.
The Sufi metaphysicians were drawing on a longstanding distinction between the Divine Names that were called Names of Majesty (jalal), and the Names of Beauty (jamal). The Names of Majesty included Allah as Powerful (al-Qawi), Overwhelming (al-Jabbar), Judge (al-Hakam); and these were seen as pre-eminently masculine. Names of Beauty included the All-Compassionate (al-Rahman), the Mild (al-Halim), the Loving-kind (al-Wadud), and so on: seen as archetypally feminine. The crux is that neither set could be seen as pre-eminent, for all were equally Names of God. In fact, by far the most conspicuous of the Divine Names in the Qur'an is al-Rahman, the All-Compassionate. And the explictly feminine resonances of this name were remarked upon by the Prophet (s.w.s.) himself, who taught that rahma, loving compassion, is an attribute derived from the word rahim, meaning a womb. (Bukhari, Adab, 13) The cosmic matrix from which differentiated being is fashioned is thus, as in all primordial systems, explicitly feminine; although Allah ‘an sich’ remains outside qualification by gender or by any other property.
Further confirmation for this is supplied in a famous hadith, preserved for us by al-Bukhari, which describes how during the Muslim conquest of
And again: ‘On the day that He created the heavens and the earth, God created a hundred rahmas, each of which is as great as the space which lies between heaven and earth. And He sent one rahma down to earth, by which a mother has rahma for her child.’ (Muslim, Tawba, 21)
Drawing on this explicit identification of rahma with the ‘maternal’ aspect of the phenomenal divine, the developed tradition of Sufism habitually identifies God’s entire creative aspect as ‘feminine’, and as merciful. Creation itself is the nafas al-Rahman, the Breath of the All-Compassionate. Here the Ash‘arite occasionalism which insists on preserving the divine omnipotence by denying secondary causation is shifted into a mystical, matronal register, where the world of emanation is gendered by the sheer fact of its engendering. ‘We have created everything in pairs,’ says the Qur’an.
This ‘female’ aspect of God allowed most of the great mystical poets to refer to God asLayla - the celestial beloved - the Arabic name Layla actually means ‘night’. Layla is the veiled, darkly-unknown God who brings forth life, and whose beauty once revealed dazzles the lover. In one branch of this tradition, the poets use frankly erotic language to convey the rapture of the spiritual wayfarer as he lifts the veil - a metaphor for distraction and sin - to be annihilated in his Beloved.
The kalam hence abolishes gender; spirituality deploys it exuberantly as metaphor, thereby displaying an aspect of the distinction between ‘iman’ and ‘ihsan’. The third component of the ternary laid down by the Hadith of Gabriel, ‘islam’, comprising the outward forms of religion, also recognises and affirms gender as a fundamental quality of existence, and this finds expression in many provisions of Islamic law and the norms of Muslim life.
Theologically, as we have seen, Islam tends to assert the equality of the male and female principles, while in its practical social structures it establishes a distinction. To understand this paradox is to understand the essence of the Islamic philosophy of gender, which constructs roles from below, not from above.
The discussion so far has moved downwards through districts of metaphysics to touch on issues of shari‘a. Theologically, as we have seen, Islam tends to assert the equality of the male and female principles, while in its practical social structures it establishes a distinction. To understand this paradox is to understand the essence of the Islamic philosophy of gender, which constructs roles from below, not from above.
Read full paper:
'Islam, Irigaray, and the retrieval of gender'
©Abdal Hakim Murad (April 1999)
Brief biography of Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad (Timothy J. Winter):