Back to Basics: Feminism 101


I can’t say I’m not surprised, but some entries elicit more responses than others. Within my circles of friends, both virtual and real, there were so many positive responses to opening the conversation about feminisms in Islam that the negativity on the Web site might not give the full impression. That entry was tweeted and re-tweeted around the world. But for some respondents, my failure to succumb to their negativity in my choice both to be Muslim and to be feminist (as in Islamic feminist not secular) was contestable. Since mine is a choice: both my Islam and my feminism, I am not in need of some one else’s definition nor do I seek their approval. It just is.

I had a student once who objected to some comment I made and chose to do so by saying, “I’ve been around the block…” I love that idea. Well, in my case, I’ve been around the world. I’ve been around enough times to know there is more at stake in supporting the rights of Muslim women than proving every single word of the Qur’an is acceptable to every single reader (especially in translation). But as I have also already stated, it is the Qur’an to which I owe my surrender to God and my feminism. So I will discuss some of the Qur’anic support for my choices. Still, I keep my own frame: 1500 to 2000 words. The lengthier versions are in my extensive record on the matter. Here is the thumbnail version.

The Cosmology of Equality

Before there were humans, there was a plan. That plan includes “min kulli shay’in khalaqnaa zawjayn: from all things, ‘We’ have created the (two) pair.” Thus part of the primordial design is the necessary correlation between the two: male and female. “Wa min ayatihi ‘an khalaqakum min dhakarin wa untha’: and among ‘His’ signs is that ‘She’ created you from male and female.” At the cosmological level, there is no apriori significance or preference of the one over the other: they are both part of the design.

But when cosmology meets chronology, then what? “Khalaqakum min nafsin wahidah: ‘We’ created you (plural, meaning all humankind) from a single soul.” The Qur’an does not say we created humans from Adam, the male person, with Eve, a female person an appendage, or after thought. We have no rib story. Coincidently, this word nafs (self, soul, or person), is feminine grammatically. So when the Qur’an goes on to say, “wa khalaqa minha zawjaha: and created from her, her mate” and the word for mate, zawj is coincidently masculine, we have a dilemma if we take grammar literally. Yet nobody claims that this means Adam was female and Eve was male!

For my part, this word zawj, also used above in the dual (zawjayn, as in two pair/partner/mate) is a function of creature-ness. If all “things” are in pair; and the word for thing is shay’un, then when the Qur’an says, Allah/God is not like shay’un, or thing(s), “laysa ka mithlihi shay’un,” it means that Allah does not have thing-ness. Therefore, Allah cannot be male or female. Male and Female are creature characteristics, not a Creator characteristic. The unique nature of God is captured by the word tawhid, usually translated as monotheism. It carries the meaning not only that Allah is one, but also that Allah is unique, Allah is united, and unites all things in the creation—I use the word “unicity.”

At the time of the creation of the first parent, then (the chronological part of creation), the angels and unseen creatures (jinn) were ordered to bow. All did except Iblis, a jinn. His reasoning: I am better than him. I talked about this before, istikbar. This idea, of being better, is also the fundamental basis for all forms of oppression. I am not just different from you, but in my difference I am better than you. You are less, and therefore anything I subject you to is appropriate; including oppression, discrimination, and all the negative “isms.”

This is even true for difference of opinion. If I have an opinion different from yours, then yours must be wrong. And you are not intelligent if you do not give up your (wrong) opinion and take up my (right) opinion. I am way too old to think everyone will have my opinion, no matter how convinced I am. So I am okay if others have opinions different from mine. Although some people respond to the blogs as if I have to take up their opinions!

The idea behind istikbar, the rejection of Satan to surrender to the truth because he deemed himself better, is the same idea behind gender oppression or patriarchy. Males are better. So the logic is also accounted for in the Qur’an, but is challenged by tawhid, which says no one is better than another if all are under the unicity (or tawhid) of God.

It forms a metaphysical line: on the vertical axis, Allah is higher, or as the highest focal point. Each person, no matter what the unlimited possibility of human distinctions—including, of course, gender—can only be in one relationship to the other person/gender on a line of horizontal reciprocity. It looks like this:

Person 1        ALLAH     Person 2

Female                        Male
White                          Black
Poor                            Rich
Able-bodied                  Dis-Abled
Heterosexual                Homosexual
Believer                        Not-Believer
Masculine                     Feminine

In the column under persons 1 and 2, there are infinite numbers of human differences that are often put in binary terms. The reconciliation of these binaries under tawhid can only be of equality. Different but equal. This model is explicit to the system of Islam. That means any one who aspires to it may use it, but none are required to adhere to it. That would be self-contradictory and thereby defeat the intention of it in the first place. However, for people to remove the equality inherent in Islam because of the history of Muslims—well, then they have failed to see this crucial component. You can dispense with everything and still have Islam, with the exception of tawhid. If tawhid is put into action in social contexts then it yields the justice which results from equality and reciprocity. Then any who deem to remove it may do so, but not in the name of Islam.

For me, gender justice is a matter of faith. The struggle to eradicate all forms of discrimination, both from within the context of the Muslim communities and from without that context, is motivated by the same essence for me: Allah made me free and equal and anyone who dares to limit that freedom or curtail my equality has no right to do so. They also have no control over my choice to live that equality and justice, save for oppression. The Qur’an is pretty emphatic about that: oppression is human-made and must be human-eradicated.

I reject anything and anyone who interferes with my choice and my right to live free and equal. I do so as an integral part of my relationship with Allah. I surrender to that truth and hold no others as worthy of my devotion. No other perspective is in competition to this one. And while I may accept that others might hold a different opinion, I do not defer my opinion to theirs. I cannot, do not, and will not submit to any but the one to which I feel this devotion.

I am devoted to the oneness of God and through this I am devoted to the oneness of humankind—even those I disagree with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *