Theorizing Modernities article

Response to Gendered Morality Symposium

Osman Hamdi Bey, “Girl Citing Qur’an” (1880). Via Wikimedia Commons.

I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Kecia Ali, Kathryn Kueny, Bob Tappan, Saadia Yacoob, and Travis Zadeh for engaging so deeply with the arguments I make in Gendered Morality and offering their reflections in this forum.

When I was writing Gendered Morality, I was very tempted to say in the conclusion that it is impossible to redeem an ethical system which necessitates the exploitation of women and non-elites and in which the good life is only available to elite men. Such a system should be thrown out completely. Then I remembered how and why these texts have endured. It is not simply because they are classical texts of Islam, written by venerated scholars; it is also because their contents—their insights and advice—have continued to resonate and hold truth for new readers, especially in their observations of a society that was shaped by the ideas in the texts themselves. People want to be cosmically connected; they want to know what part they can play in creating an ethically ordered world; they want to know how to behave in order to live their best lives. Many people believe that the world is, or ought to be, structured hierarchically, the way that these texts say it is. Unfortunately, what these texts offer up is hierarchy and an ethical path that is available only to elite men, or at its widest scope, to those with the privilege to utilize others. Also, quite separately, I do not want to throw out the akhlaq texts because I think they do help us think about what it means to live a good life. I just think that we may be better off taking their questions as important ones to be answered, without adopting their answers.

We might, then, start with the crucial question of how to read ethics of the past in the present. Travis Zadeh reminds us that today’s ubiquitous concept of liberty (thanks to imperialism and colonialism) makes it hard for us to understand the past—how power worked, how society was ordered—and that concepts of hierarchy, while troubling to our present sensibilities, make it easier to understand the ethical order of past societies. I agree about the presentism that makes historical akhlaq texts unsettling, but I would add that not all contemporary sensibilities are repulsed by hierarchies in the texts. Many people on individual and institutional levels continue to believe that exploitative social hierarchy is natural law, or God’s law.

I do believe, as Kecia Ali states, that democratization of ethics is possible, and that self-cultivation remains necessary for broad social justice. Because as Saadia Yacoob points out, self-cultivation is reliant upon social relations, the question that Kathryn Kueny raises is crucial—whether ethical systems based on hierarchy can ever be fully replaced. However, I do think that regardless of their historical significance, asking whether the recovery of pre-modern akhlaq texts is possible—and how such recovery should be attempted—is not where we should focus our energies. Rather, I think that identifying the problematics that critical feminist analyses of them brings up can help to create a more inclusive and just ethics. As my interlocutors in this forum have identified, the major problem is how to think about interdependence in ethics without the exploitative aspects of hierarchy. I think it is possible to address (but not solve!) this problem by breaking it down further into specific issues that the akhlaq texts raise.

Problems I have articulated are: (1) reliance on rationality and its possession in defining the human being, thus excluding women and non-elites because of their lack of access to higher learning; (2) defining moral responsibility using patriarchal concepts of khilafa; (3) expanding access to the moral enterprise has often led to piecemeal inclusion because our paradigms of inclusivity still rely on the exploitation of those not included; (4) the goals of akhlaq, or ethics, necessitate exploitation because of the interconnectedness of human relations that are folded into discipline and practice of akhlaq and how refinement is achieved. I discuss these interrelated topics, sometimes using different language, in the conclusion of Gendered Morality, but here I am going to add a little more texture to that discussion, specifically in response to the generous participation of my colleagues in this forum.

How can we create an ethics which is not incremental or piecemeal in opening the circle of inclusion? As Ali alluded to, one example of this is the case for the United States Constitution. In some accounts, it reflects incremental inclusion; it first granted emancipation to the enslaved, then granted full citizenship to women, then outlawed discrimination against Black people, and later was interpreted to protect other minorities and LGBTQ folks from discrimination. This kind of incremental inclusion into planes of rationality, equality, and justice, as Kueny points out (echoing Audre Lorde and Helen Longino), “only promotes competition among the marginalized for what bits and scraps of the good life or happiness might be cast aside by those with all the power.” Just because the circle of inclusion may be bigger, it is not less exclusionary, and maintains oppressive hierarchies. Bob Tappan’s remarks on redeeming women though the marginalization of animals, similarly, but more broadly, eschews the incremental approach because it is an extension of patriarchy that elevates one kind of subjectivity over and against others.

Historically, the gendered criteria for inclusion has been rationality. Even though the ethicists argued that higher cognitive function is the hallmark of humanity, they didn’t believe all humans possessed it. And even if we walk away from rationality as a criterion for defining the human being, doing so requires some care and philosophical reflection on humans’ relationship to non-human animals since rationality is classically thought to mark the difference between human and non-human animals.

Relatedly, the concept of khilafa in ethics discourses requires several layers of analysis in order to break down its paternalism. On the first layer, khilafa is historically understood as the male mantle of leadership that feigns care for all—paternalism at its finest. On the positive side, built into this definition is the concept of care, which for many is a call to human beings to enact Divine law and justice. As Kueny mentions, khilafa as care has tremendous potential to transform paternalism into empathetic responsibility. But I would caution, as Marcia Homiak reminds us, that care ethics, with its focus on empathy and feeling, is often set up dichotomously against rationality—care defines feminine ethics and rationality while virtue remains within the realm of masculine ethics. Such a construction concedes that women are unable to participate in the taming of the rational faculty that is the hallmark of nafs training in the Ibn Sinan tradition of akhlaq—as if women are irrational empaths. As it stands in that tradition, khilafa is a false care that is bound up with male authority, one that is justified through male rationality and male perfection, and excludes others. Ironically, khilafa requires the care of the elite men who are playing khilifa, which, as Yacoob points out, is dependent upon women’s labor that is done to nurture and sustain the family—including the men—to the detriment of their own refinement.

Patriarchy is an environmentally destructive enterprise just as it is exploitative of non-elite human beings.

Tappan brings up the question of reading khilafa as understood in the akhlaq world and contemporary exegesis alongside Sarra Tlili’s argument that early Qur’anic exegetes did not view khilafa in the same paternalistic light that later scholars did. In this way Tlili recovers khilafa by predating definitions of the term to a time before it came to mean that certain men know best. Tappan questions what happens to the edifice of akhlaq then? Akhlaq certainly comes crashing down because the genre assumes khilafa is a feature of male existential concern (universalized and normalized as human concern). Women and non-human animals serve the same purpose for elite men in that they both act as rational foils and as moral instruments that men utilize. Both are described as less capable and born at a lower station in life (despite descriptions of equality of God’s atoms and matter).

Because religious and philosophical justifications (paternalistic khilafa and male rationality) have been used in a similar way to subdue women as well as non-human animals, and indeed the entire natural environment, for elite men’s purposes, we can see —echoing Carol Adams’s arguments in Sexual Politics of Meat and that of eco-feminism in general—that patriarchy is an environmentally destructive enterprise just as it is exploitative of non-elite human beings.

Perhaps the goal should not be to elevate animals to the level of human beings as much as possible, but to demote human beings to the level of animals.

However, I worry about the emphasis placed on animals’ cognitive abilities and on recognizing religion in animals—as much as that data is incredible—to serve as evidence that human beings need to be kinder to them (we should, anyway). Indeed, non-human animal rationality and religiosity are important to study so that we can flesh out our relationship to them in the cosmic scheme. But as we have learned from disability studies, the mere presence of rationality is not specifically what defines humanity or affords someone ethical deserts or dignity. Disabled human beings who may possess lower cognitive capacity are still considered human. Non-human animals, regardless of their place in the hierarchy of cognitive ability or religiosity, still deserve not to be abused, mistreated, or exploited. Perhaps the goal should not be to elevate animals to the level of human beings as much as possible, but to demote human beings to the level of animals. I read Sarra Tlili’s work as evidence that in the Qur’anic tradition, humans are not so special in the scheme of following God’s natural law because non-human animals also obey God’s commands; thus, the very basis of khilafa in the tradition—that as the best of creation, humans have the responsibility to discipline or order the world—is moot even if it is a post-Qur’anic understanding of khilafa.

However, to “demote” humans is a difficult proposition in light of the great emphasis placed on rationality as the defining feature of human beings in Islamic philosophical and ethical discourse. The tradition is self-congratulatory, naming humans as al ashraf al makhluqat (the noblest of creation) because of their ability to reason. The superlative construction of the term, ashraf (noblest), as opposed to sharif (noble) implies a hierarchy of nobility and a hierarchy of reason. As I argued in Gendered Morality, far from thinking of it as a universal (if an able-bodied) feature of humanity, rationality is used to describe only elite men and dehumanize all others. This leads me to ask how we can dismantle rationality, because of its exclusivist application, as the standard that makes someone sharif (noble).

We need new practices for reading these texts—to ask the questions they ask, but to critique the ways they go about answering them in order to arrive at our own answers. As Zadeh puts it, in the akhlaq tradition, the goal is to tame the body and social relations to serve “the cosmic force of the divine soul as it emanates throughout all existence.” The usefulness of akhlaq’s epistemology for building an inclusive ethics, however, lies in the details. These include: challenging the various criteria used for exclusion in akhlaq such as rationality, understanding interconnectedness outside of exploitative care and paternalistic khilafa, and breaking up incremental approaches to justice and inclusion. In addition to serving as major contributions of Islamic ethics to moral discourses, these concerns are at once practical and philosophical and they require critical feminist reflection.

Zahra Ayubi
Zahra Ayubi is a scholar of women and gender in premodern and modern Islamic ethics. She specializes in feminist philosophy of Islam and has published on gendered concepts of ethics, justice, and religious authority, and on Muslim feminist thought and American Muslim women’s experiences. Her first book, Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society (Columbia, 2019) rethinks the tradition of Islamic philosophical ethics from a feminist critical perspective. Developing a lens for a feminist philosophy of Islam, Ayubi analyzes constructions of masculinity, femininity, and gender relations in classic works of philosophical ethics by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, Nasir-ad Din Tusi, and Jalal ad-Din Davani. She interrogates how these thinkers conceive of the ethical human being as an elite male within a hierarchical cosmology built on the exclusion of women and nonelites. She calls for a philosophical turn in the study of gender in Islam based on resources for gender equality that are unlocked by feminist engagement with the Islamic ethical tradition.

Her next book project, Women as Humans: Authority and Gendered Ontology in Islamic Medical Ethics, is being supported by a three-year grant from the Greenwall Foundation Faculty Scholars Program. The project is a textual and ethnographic study of gender and gendered experiences in Muslim biomedical ethics. In addition to a focus on practical ethics, in this project she examines what are Muslim ontological, metaphysical, and existential conceptions of women.

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