REVIEW OF Zahra Ayubi. Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society .New York, NY: Columbia University Press, August 2019. 336 pages. $35.00. Paperback. ISBN 9780231191333.
Unedited version .To appear in Reading Religion
By: Dr. Adis Duderija, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society, Griffith University
Over the last few decades a number of important scholarly discussions on the highly gendered ( in a patriarchal sense) nature of Islamic intellectual tradition have been written but whose focus primarily has been on the Islamic legal tradition (fiqh) ( e.g. K.Ali, A. Chaudhry, A.Mahellati ) and to a lesser extent Qur’anic commentary (tafsir) ( e.g. K. Bauer , A.Geissenger). Ayubi’s remarkably well written and comprehensively referenced book provides further evidence of the same dynamics at play in the context of exploring three most influential writers of the akhlaq (Islamic philosophical ethics) genre from the classical period , namely Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali ( d.1111 CE), Nasir ad-din Tusi ( d.1274) and Jalal al-din Davani ( d.1502). Ayubi ‘s major argument in the book is that “the Muslim ethicists’ gendered understandings of existence and metaphysics compelled them to produce virtue ethics that are rooted in inequality and, as such, are unsustainable by the standards of their own ethics” (p.6). In other words, Ayubi uncovers a paradoxical tension between the classical Muslim ethicists’ deeply patriarchal, androcentric and at times misogynistic approach to virtue ethics and their professed metaphysical commitments premised on ideas of (Divine) justice and human equality.
Ayubi identifies and analyses expertly three central themes that animate gender-related discussions in the classical akhlaq genre, namely: i.) “tension between hierarchical power and justice”; ii.) “the construction of instrumental femininity in relation to rational masculinity, and iii.) the construction of elite masculinity in the context of homosocial relationships among men” (p.7).
She delves deeply into the classical Muslim ethicists’ discussions of virtue ethics of the self, marriage and society and painstakingly deconstructs the assumptions that underpin their concepts of masculinity and femininity informed as they are by highly gendered and patriarchal Islamic cosmology. Here we see many parallels with discussions found in other genres of Islamic interpretive tradition such as tafsir and fiqh from the classical period that associate masculinity conceptually with, among others, religious and political authority and rationality and femininity with not only the lack of these but also with a highly potent and socio- morally eroding sexuality that is to be tightly controlled and supervised by men through a variety of mechanisms and practices ranging from strict gender segregation to veiling, to curbing of women’s freedom of movement and the placing of strong limits on decision-making power of women in relation to both public and private matters.
The book’s most original part is its final, fifth chapter (which also is its conclusion) that is titled “The Prolegomenon to Feminist Philosophy of Islam”. Here Ayubi provides a systematic and very erudite analysis of how to move beyond the patriarchal Islamic philosophical ethics and the various pre- suppositions underpinning it that she described so lucidly in the first four of the book’s chapters. In this chapter Ayubi draws superbly upon both authorities on feminist philosophy of religion in general (e .g.Irigary, Daly etc.) and what we could term the proponents of Islamic feminism specifically ( Shaikh, wadud etc.). Ayubi identifies and brilliantly discusses four “interrelated philosophical problems” posed by “male-centred akhlaq” that include: “i.) the the problem of having an exclusionary definition of humanity based on fixed hierarchy of rational capacity; ii.) the problem of patriarchal, and therefore unjust notions of khilafah(vicegerency) ; iii.) The problem of the emergence of new hierarchies in addressing exclusion on the basis of gender in akhlaq; and iv.) the problem of individual refinement though the utilization of women and nonelite others. “(p.253). In this respect she argues that feminist philosophy-based approaches to religion can play an important role in “exploring possible resolutions” (p.254). More specifically, Ayubi argues for a redefining of rationality and the need for a “liberating reason” (p.254) that has an inclusive, non-gender hierarchical and non-gender exclusive view of humanity. For Ayubi, like for other feminist-minded Muslim scholars such as wadud and Barlas, the conceptualisation of a non-patriarchal and therefore non-gendered concept of khilafah is also necessary to move beyond the limits of elitist male-centric akhlaq. Furthermore, given that patriarchal Islamic philosophical ethics is built on “interlocking hierarchies” ( i.e. gender and class ) ( p.270), therefore, the need to incorporate insights from the academic study of intersectionality in general and black feminist philosophers, in particular, is identified by Ayubi as very useful for the purposes of developing the feminist philosophy of Islam. Finally, Ayubi ably argues that to move beyond the male centred akhlaq it is also important to problematise its very goals , which, as noted above, are based on the logic of instrumentalization of non-elite men for elite men’s ethical refinement(p.275).
In my engagement with gender issues in Islam I have similarly argued that to dislodge patriarchal interpretations of the Islamic intellectual tradition it is important to develop a gender egalitarian paradigm that would involve the following: i.) Engendering alternative conceptualisations of gender cosmologies based on reciprocal and non-hierarchical relationships; ii.) Rethink the very nature and the conceptual relationship between masculinity and femininity where masculinity and femininity are not considered as binary opposites( disguised in form of gender complementary terminology ); and iii.) Reconceptualization of the concept of honour itself that delinks the honour of men from the sexual or sexually-perceived behaviour of ‘their women-folk’(Duderija, 2019).
I think that Ayubi’s book under review has a lot to offer in relation to the first two points in particular but that it lacks theoretical insights in relation to the role of patriarchal understandings of female sexuality and male honour that inheres in male-centred akhlaq. In this author’s view these ideas and concepts are one of the lynchpins that underpin the patriarchal expressions of the Islamic tradition which must be deconstructed and newly reconstructed for any future viable feminist philosophy of Islam.
I recommend this book to advanced undergraduates, postgraduates and academics working in the broad field of Islam and Gender, Gender and Religion and more specifically feminist approaches (philosophy) to religion/ Islam.
A.Duderija. 2019. “Using Progressive Muslim Thought to Take Down Patriarchy”, Tikkun 34(1):96-102. ( free PDF)