Theorizing Modernities article

Hierarchy, Interdependence, and Islamic Ethics

This illustration depicts the ruler Tumanba Khan, an ancestor of Genghis Khan, with his wife and nine sons, interwoven with the texts of Chingiznama, which records this account. Photo Credit: The Met Museum.

One of the most common concerns expressed in Muslim social media spaces, almost exclusively by mothers (see here, here, and here), is the question of finding the time to dedicate themselves to ethical refinement. If the path to ethical and spiritual refinement is defined by an individual’s ability to engage in ritual worship and the acquisition of religious knowledge, how can women—who are overwhelmingly responsible for household and care labor—ever aspire to walk such a path? This gendered division of household labor is by no means exclusive to Muslims. Research has shown consistently that while men in American households are increasingly spending more time on housework and care work, women are still doing far more than them. Women throughout the world are negatively impacted by this unequal division of household labor.

A similar concern is reflected in a query posted by the Imam Ghazali Institute, an educational institution that describes itself as committed to the “preservation and protection” of the Islamic intellectual tradition. Lamenting their inability to focus on individual ethical refinement as their time is largely taken up with parental duties and responsibilities, the questioner turns to religious scholars for a solution: “All my time is spent raising my children and I feel I am missing out on worship and seeking knowledge. What advice can you give me?” The respondent, a prominent Sunni religious scholar, assures the questioner that parenting and caring for children is an important act of worship. While the respondent is sensitive to the concerns of the questioner (though perhaps lacking in constructive advice), he fails to address the reasons why women (particularly mothers) experience such exclusion. What about Muslim ethical discourse and the path offered for virtuous living fails to account for the diverse lives of humans? What are the unquestioned assumptions about the “human” that are presupposed by this discourse that creates such alienation?

Zahra Ayubi’s recent book, Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society, takes on these critical questions, offering us an incisive and critical feminist reading of classical Islamic ethical discourse. Through a close reading of three ethics treatises by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali’s Kimiya-i Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness), Nasr-ad Din Tusi’s Akhlaq-i Nasiri (Nasirean Ethics), and Jalal ad-Din Davani’s Lawami‘ al-Ishraq fi Makarim al-Akhlaq (Lusters of Illumination on the Nobel Ethics), Ayubi provides a detailed account of the construction of masculinity, femininity, and gendered ethics. Her work compellingly argues that the imagined audience of classical Islamic ethics was the normative male elite, a subject who was Muslim, male, free, and (above all) rational. These ethicists construct this normative ethical subject through the othering of women and non-elite males. In chapters on the ethics governing marriage, the household, and homosocial relations between men (especially across social classes), Ayubi demonstrates the hierarchical social order that was both presupposed and authorized by these ethicists.

My own work on Islamic law also analyzes how legal subjecthood is constructed along multiple intersecting hierarchies. From gender to enslavement, age, social status, and religion, individuals acquire their status as rights-bearing subjects based on the intersection of these different social identities. Full legal agency is only inhabited by the normative legal subject who is an adult, free, Muslim male. This hierarchy does not entail, of course, that non-elite individuals cannot make claims upon each other or even upon the normative male subject. It does, however, designate non-elite subjects to a subordinate legal status. This is because their marginalization in relation to the normative male subject is seen as essential to maintaining a harmonious social order. In classical ethical discourse we can see a parallel construction of ethical subjecthood. It seems that while women and non-elite men also have access to ethical refinement, this can only happen through the acceptance of their subjugated status and the humiliation that this entails.

Among the powerful contributions of Ayubi’s analysis is her unpacking of the contradictions inherent in classical ethical discourse. In the chapter on gendered metaphysics, for example, we see that the ethicists held that all humans have a nafs (soul), which is androgynous. This understanding of the nafs, and its possession by all people, is an indication of an egalitarian impulse in the ethical tradition. All people are created equal by virtue of the possession of this nafs. The classical ethicists, however, did not imagine all humans as equal.  Their reliance on rational capacity in ethical refinement not only gendered the nafs male but also authorized an intellectual hierarchy in which only elite men possessed full rational capacity. For Ayubi, the internal contradiction in these texts—between this egalitarian understanding of human creation, and the social and spiritual hierarchy discussed above—opens up the possibility of re-imagining an egalitarian ethical discourse. The last chapter of the book, a prolegomenon to a feminist philosophy of Islam, calls on scholars of gender and Islam to consider the importance of a feminist philosophical theorization of Islam. Such a Muslim feminist philosophy, Ayubi argues, could offer an ethical discourse that is rooted in an egalitarian metaphysics. Whereas classical discourse curtails ethical excellence to a normative male elite, achieved through the instrumentalization of non-elite subjects, an egalitarian metaphysics would allow for all humans to realize their ethical potential, an essential aspect of the human experience. This profound chapter urges us to consider the many philosophical problems raised by classical ethical discourse as we move towards developing an egalitarian virtue ethic. In taking the first steps in this direction, Ayubi offers us a way to move beyond critique and to begin thinking with, and through, classical Islamic ethical discourse.

One thing in particular that captured my attention in Ayubi’s book is the ethicists’ focus on human relations and their centrality to ethical refinement. In the chapters on marriage, the domestic household, and the homosocial relationships between men, I was struck by the interdependence between the normative ethical subject and his situatedness in social and kinship networks. The human subject imagined in this discourse is not a bounded and self-sufficient self whose ethical refinement is detached or unaffected by those around him. Social relationships are in fact key to shaping the ethical subject. We could in fact argue that it is only through these relationships that the ethical subject is able to achieve ethical excellence. The problem, however, is that this interdependence was understood through a hierarchical worldview. As Ayubi argues, women and non-elite men were instrumentalized for the social and spiritual benefit of elite men; elite men are ethical subjects, whereas women and non-elite men are made into objects. In an ethical worldview where justice was understood as proportional, this hierarchical and instrumentalist relationship was not seen as unjust, but rather as necessary, since the ethical flourishing of an elite group was tied to the “good” of society as a whole.

Despite the hierarchical nature of this interdependence, the understanding of humans as interconnected in the striving towards ethical excellence carries tremendous potential as a foundational story for the narratives that Muslim feminists construct about human flourishing. In an interview discussing her book, The Force of Nonviolence, Judith Butler talks about the importance of recognizing our social and ecological interdependence as we engage in the project of building a better world. Like many other theorists who have critiqued the destructiveness of liberal notions of individualism, Butler asserts that acknowledging interdependence will allow us to begin thinking and living in a way that decenters our own self-interest over that of others. It is only through the recognition that we are not separate but instead deeply interconnected that we can move towards the flourishing of all. The challenge that stands before a Muslim feminist ethical discourse is how to center this interdependence and embed it in an ethical vision of radical equality rather than hierarchy. Scholars like amina wadud, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Aysha Hidayatullah, Jerusha Rhodes and others have already begun this difficult work. Ayubi’s contribution carries this conversation forward by bringing our attention to the gendered nature of metaphysics and the need to reflect on the fundamental question of how to understand the purpose of human existence.

Let me end by returning to the Imam Ghazali Institute post that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Ayubi’s analysis of classical Islamic ethical discourse allows us to understand the sense of alienation felt by many Muslim women who attempt to walk the path prescribed in these texts. While religious scholars and preachers today obscure the power dynamics of this discourse by presenting the ethical excellence described in these texts as gender neutral and accessible to all, these women’s lived experiences put into relief the hierarchical and exploitative nature of classical ethical discourse. The path to ethical refinement in this discourse depended on women, enslaved people, and non-elite males carrying the everyday responsibilities of mundane life, leaving the elite male free to pursue ethical refinement and excellence. Classical Islamic ethical discourse did not imagine the marginalized as its audience, but instead depended on the exploitation of such groups for the spiritual benefit of the privileged.

Through her brilliant and very accessible analysis of this discourse, Ayubi not only challenges any attempt to elide the patriarchal nature of this discourse, but also offers us the possibility of thinking with this discourse to develop a Muslim feminist ethic that centers the flourishing of all humans.

Saadia Yacoob
Saadia Yacoob is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College.  She holds a PhD in Islamic studies from Duke University and an MA from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.  She has also studied and conducted research in Egypt and Jordan. Her research focuses on gender, childhood, slavery, and legal personhood in Islamic law. More broadly, her research interests include Islamic legal history, Muslim feminist studies, history of sexuality, and slavery studies.  She has a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law on the contribution made by gender scholars to the study of Islamic law and is currently working on a book titled Reading Gender in Early Islamic Law.

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