Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society

  • Book Title:
 Gendered Morality
  • Book Author:
Zahra M. S. Ayubi
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In the climactic scene of the dramatized documentary al-Ghazali: The Alchemist of Happiness (2004), the eponymous twelfth-century jurist, theologian, mystic, and ethicist stands with his family in the street outside their Baghdad home, a few simple possessions strapped to his donkey’s back. He is preparing to take leave of his wife and two children, perhaps permanently.

Up to this point in the film, director Ovidio Abdul Latif Salazar presents a dramatic recounting of Ghazali’s illustrious career in Baghdad, tracing his increasing disillusionment with the city’s corrupt political climate. Ghazali’s departure marks the culmination of his crisis of faith and conscience.

Throughout the film, he is depicted as a troubled genius, contemplative about the nature of true happiness, living out his public life against a backdrop of domesticity. His beautiful wife and his young son and daughter appear in the film intermittently, though always silent. In this climatic farewell scene, partly based on a passage in Ghazali’s autobiography, he has resolved to embark on a long journey to Damascus, Jerusalem, and Makkah.

He embraces each of his children and pauses briefly to glance at his wife. Without speaking a word to her, he then turns toward his brother and says, “You understand that I have to leave.”1 As Ghazali walks off with his donkey, the voice of the actor playing him narrates in language from Ghazali’s autobiography: “I gave to the poor what wealth I had, keeping only as much as would suffice and provide sustenance for my family, and I expected never to return to Baghdad.”2

A voice-over from the film’s narrator, sufism scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, then declares this journey to be “the act which makes Ghazali, Ghazali.” The narrator describes Ghazali’s journey as the reason why “we are speaking about him now, nine hundred years later.

 That is, he left his position, his wealth, his family, the world, and disappeared in order to rediscover certitude, in order to be honest with himself in understanding the nature of the Divine reality.”3 The third item in Nasr’s list of Ghazali’s lofty sacrifices—his family—remains curiously submerged from our attention throughout the film.

Ghazali’s wife, played by famous Iranian actress Mitra Hajjar, appears several times over the course of the film. She is shown praying at home, receiving visits from Ghazali’s doctors, and delivering and picking up trays of food for Ghazali. Yet the filmmakers do not give her a single line of dialogue, as though such an omission were necessary in order to stay true to Ghazali’s biographies, which do indeed omit mentions of his wife. Whatever the reason for such a flattened depiction of Ghazali’s wife, her near-erasure from the film’s climactic departure scene is striking.

But what, precisely, is being erased? What might Ghazali’s wife have said to him when he left? Did he ever have a private conversation with her about his planned journey? Did she ask when she could expect him back at home in Tus, or how she should rear the children and run the home in his absence, or what she should do in case of his death? What, more broadly, was her role in Ghazali’s intellectual and spiritual pursuits? What were her own spiritual goals? The film does not raise these questions, much less answer them.

The curiousness of these omissions is heightened by the film’s enactment of the director’s Western Muslim quest for Eastern, Islamic (authentic) knowledge when he travels to Iran to ask local scholars and sufis about the greatness of Ghazali’s message. Salazar’s quest demonstrates his interest in Ghazali as an enduring figure who dealt with perennial issues, and it also demonstrates the filmmaker’s own fascination with knowledge from the so-called Muslim world.4 This outsider’s fascination gives the self-reflective filmmakers’ dramatization of Ghazali’s domestic life a fetishized quality. Why would the filmmakers not attempt to imagine what Ghazali’s wife might have thought or said, even if just to add to the drama? When imagining an Islamic role model’s spiritual journey for modern audiences, why re-create the gender roles that he had prescribed in his ethics texts? Why exclude women from access to the spiritual journey?

The film is an example of contemporary reverence for Ghazali’s life and legacy, a welcome depiction to those for whom he serves as a scholarly role model. For many Muslims and scholars of Islam, Ghazali remains the ultimate ethicist, a moral paragon who transformed himself by identifying his place in the cosmos at the expense of worldly comforts, including his own family—even if he too was constrained by gendered expectations to this destiny. And yet, this contemporary reverence ought not to obscure the troubling questions raised by Ghazali’s life and work.

 In the Islamic tradition, are opportunities for lofty pursuits and self-reflection equally open to women? And to what extent, and in what ways, is the path to ultimate happiness—enacting God’s will through ethical refinement of the self—an undertaking that is gendered male? What does male-centered ethics imply for the making of masculinity, and for all of society? Such questions are the central concerns of this book.

Historically, religious authority in the Islamic tradition has been predominantly the domain of men. It is men who have long written and interpreted religious texts on human existence and ethical behavior, and men who have arguably possessed ethical normativity.

Such intellectual traditions leave little room for women or their concerns. Foundational scholars of gender and Islam, such as Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi, argue that the lack of female participation in creating knowledge has led to the scholarly understanding that the Islamic tradition itself is male-centered.5 Subsequently, most scholars who seek to understand how gender has been constructed in classical Islamic sources focus on close readings of the Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence, and, to a lesser extent, mystical discourses.

In the past four decades, scholars of gender in Islam have developed multiple strategies for understanding gender roles in the Islamic tradition, primarily through study of Qur’anic exegesis and hermeneutics, or close readings of the legal tradition.6

In addition, a substantial body of literature has developed to examine gender in the mystical tradition.7 Several scholars, such as amina wadud, Kecia Ali, Zayn Kassam, Amyn Sajoo, Ayesha Chaudhry, and Reza Shah-Kazemi, have also used the terminology of “ethics” or “Islamic ethics” to advocate for particular moral standards that they read as implicit in the genres they study.

Islam scholars have tended to read gender in the Islamic intellectual tradition in one of two ways: either by distinguishing between the ontological equality of genders in the “eyes of God” and the earthly inequality of gender roles, or by focusing on the various ways male authorities have described women as inferior.

Amina wadud divides her commentary on the Qur’an into two sections, one on verses that demonstrate ontological equality and one on verses that are on earthly gender relations, and argues that the latter category of verses has been problematically understood by male scholars as the basis for earthly inequality of women and men, even if these scholars did concede the point of gender egalitarianism in creation.8 Shaheen Ali argues that Muslim legal thought is specifically responsible for undoing the gender egalitarian essence of the Qur’an, advancing this…

Homosocial Masculinity and Societal Ethics

In the Ghazali-Tusi-Davani ethics tradition, a man becomes fully ethical through association with other human beings in the public sphere. Only by interacting with and relating to a range of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, servants, and superiors—all of whom are imagined as male—can a man understand his place in society’s hierarchy of power and in the cosmos. The ethicists describe male responsibility at both the microcosmic and the macrocosmic levels using a single term, governance (siyasat), which connotes coercive ordering of not only the ethics of household management and domesticity, but also the ethics of how to live among and treat a group of male individuals within a community, city, or the world at large. This third level of siyasat, after individual and domestic governance, deals with friendship, community, society, and sovereignty.

 A man must master this level of governance in order to thoroughly dispense his ethical responsibilities. Tusi explains the relationship between the individual man and society as follows: “Just as each person is a part of the household, so each household is a part of the locale, each locale is a part of the city, each city is a part of the nation, and each nation is a part of the inhabitants of the world.”1

Within this nested cosmos, each man, as a microcosm unto himself, can achieve a perfected nafs only once he is ethical on all the scales of human existence.

In the previous chapter, I considered how the texts present ethical masculinity in the domestic realm by analyzing their discussions of husband-father and wife-mother roles and their occasional contrasts between masculinity and femininity.

 In this chapter, I broaden my analysis to the public sphere, uncovering how Ghazali, Tusi, and Davani construct masculinity and men’s ethical relations with one another in the context of society, specifically the urban homosocial environment. Several questions drive this inquiry: What are the ideal kinds of masculinity for men interacting with one another in society? Is there a possibility for social and intellectual mobility? What are the elements that make social behavior ethical? Which men are excluded from ethical refinement, and why? From this inquiry, the picture of the ethical man that emerges is of one who is mindful of his surroundings and elite station in society, responsible for himself and his friends and family, and careful with his words and actions.

Overall, the ethics texts define ultimate masculinity in terms of elite power, intellectual hierarchy, and ethical comportment within the homosocial structures of community, civic, and court life. Occasionally, they also define this public masculinity in contrast to women’s behavior.

As I explore Ghazali’s, Tusi’s, and Davani’s ethical precepts for the all-male urban homosocial environment—where superiors, equals, subordinates, friends, and foes are all hierarchically ranked by their intellectual abilities and ethical refinement—I show that ethics is not just gendered in essentialized masculine ways, but also classed, constructed within and subject to social hierarchy. The public arena of the ethicists’ conception, which is exclusively male and homosocial, is based on a kind of male power and hierarchy such that men of lower classes or intellectual stations are precluded from taking part in the enterprise of ethics.

This feature of the akhlaq tradition is crucial because it points to how the ethicists are working to construct masculinity not only by defining it in contrast to femininity, as shown in chapter 3, but also by framing it within (male-only) hierarchies and social processes. As this chapter demonstrates, in the akhlaq texts, we see social processes that define ethical masculinity unfolding along the lines of class determining rational ability, and age determining what stage of involvement a man has with society.

 Thus, we see how men are gendered and ranked not just through their interactions with women, but also through multiple kinds of homosocial male interactions in which the exemplary ethical man is contrasted not with women, but with unrefined men.

In order for us to understand how social ethics in the public realm is gendered and constructed as normatively male in akhlaq, we have to look at how the ethicists construct elite masculinity itself. Specifically, this chapter examines the general principles of and…

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