This review was originally published at Muslim Views.
Research in the areas of Islamic and Gender Studies often overlap when it comes to the question of women in the Islamic spiritual tradition. What does Sufism offer to men and women seeking out paths of equality and egalitarianism? How does maleness or femaleness influence spirituality, and is the notion of the un-gendered soul a tenable one in the context of a hyper-gendered legal tradition? Is it possible to go beyond socially instituted gender norms, to more fundamental questions about what it means to be a human being, and use these notions to then create new gender discourses? These are some of the questions Dr Sa’diyya Shaikh, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Religious Studies department, grapples with in her latest publication, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn Arabi, Gender and Sexuality. She handles the complex spheres of gender and Sufism with the intellectual finesse and critical maturity required for such an endeavour, displaying an in-depth working knowledge of the tradition.
Shaikh provides a unique and ground-breaking reading of the works of thirteenth century Andalusian Arab Muslim scholar, Sufi saint and philosopher Muḥyiddin Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn ‘Arabi (d.1240). Shaikh reads his work through a feminist lens by which she focuses on the question of gendered roles and functionalities in the Islamic tradition – going beyond the legal trappings into more ontological questions that she feels must be answered in order to reshape and redefine contemporary understandings of Islam and gender justice.
The works of Ibn `Arabi are pertinent particularly because they offer a different or alternate way of articulating gender from within a classical Islamic framework. Whilst not entirely divergent from traditional norms – Ibn `Arabi does offer novel devices of understanding human nature and male-female relationships – he does communicate different views on controversial topics in current gender debates on matters like women’s imamate (leadership) for salah, dress and even interpersonal interactions. These are read in the context of his expertise as a legal and philosophical thinker who sought to get to the very core of existential questions, whilst living and interacting in a very specific social milieu with a specific set of structures which dictated gender norms. Shaikh uncovers these ideas and tensions from within his work which has hitherto been isolated from the English speaking world, without implying that he provides the answers to all gender dilemmas within the tradition, acknowledging that even though some male scholars like Ibn `Arabi dissent from the leading patriarchal imperatives in some writings, these same scholars support such norms in other places. Shaikh’s emphasis and insistence on reading Ibn `Arabi in his own context is significant in relation to contemporary hermeneutics, which have recently begun to give importance to the role of circumstance and historical location in the interpretation of texts.
Shaikh provides a critical study of Ibn `Arabi’s works, and also generally on tassawuf and gendered thinking with an honesty that does not claim Sufism to be the safe-haven for Islamic feminism – she clearly divulges that
“Sufism does not automatically cure people of sexism. In its historical development and its multiple contexts, Sufism, like all other areas of Islamic thought, has been characterized by tensions between patriarchal inclinations and gender-egalitarian impulses.”
This is important in the face of global power politics of hegemony which have created an imagery of “good Muslims” as being a part of passive and submissive Sufi orders. Shaikh instead offers the suggestion that aspects of Ibn `Arabi’s work, and by extension the essence of Sufism can form a springboard or base from which to develop other unique and alternate understandings of how men and women exist as gendered beings with legitimacy and integrity.
Her work is written in a narrative style that is accessible to both the academic and general audience, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in the areas of spirituality and gender studies.