Sufi Narratives of Intimacy – Book sample
Muslim Gender Imaginaries
Once upon a time, a wise and generous story unfolded. This is how it might be imagined.1 It is Cairo on a sweltering afternoon, and the faithful are streaming into a beautiful, simple mosque. The Friday (jumuʿa) prayers are about to begin.
In the courtyard, people take their ablutions in the cool fountain water that provides welcome relief from the heat of the Cairene afternoon. A group of women sitting close together is silently reciting the Qurʾān. An old man, his face kissed gently by time, is sitting easily upright with eyes closed, meditating on the beautiful names of God.
Two old friends, both returning to the city after years of travel, trade, and learning, are greeting each other with a tender embrace. A young man, hands raised in supplication, is softly murmuring his deepest yearnings into the hearing of the omniscient One. As the call to prayer is given, a hush falls over the crowd, with each person repairing to his or her private supplications before the sermon begins.
The preacher ascends the stairs to the pulpit. She is the accomplished spiritual savant Umm Zaynab Fāṭima bint ʿAbbās al-Baghdādiyya, not only the spiritual leader (shaykha) of the Ribāṭ al-Baghdādiyya but renowned among the religious divines of Cairo as a jurist (faqīha) who provides practi- cal legal responses to people’s questions (muftiyya).2
And yes, it is the four- teenth century. And no, there is no outrage or shock among the congregants that Shaykha Fāṭima is preaching to a mixed gathering of males and females in a mosque. In fact, Shaykha Fāṭima’s reputation as a scholar has traveled with her to Cairo.
While living in Damascus, she had trained as a juriscon- sult among an elite group of Hanbalī scholars known as the Maqādisa, hav- ing studied with one of the great teachers of the city, Shaykh Ibn Abī ʿUmar.3 Among the women of Damascus and more recently Cairo, she has come to
be loved and revered as the wise one who provides refuge and guidance in their spiritual strivings.
She has studied with no less than one of the leading male intellectuals of her time, the protean Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymiyya.
In public circles, he has on occasion praised Shaykha Fāṭima, not only for her intelligence and knowledge but also for her personal qualities of enthusiasm and excellence. Yet on this hot day in the Cairene mosque, he sits among the congregants unable to quell his state of discomfort. To his great chagrin, Shakhya Fāṭima easily, even presumptuously, ascends and descends from the pulpit as if un- aware of the fact that she is, after all, only a woman.
This woman appears to be oblivious to any limitations of her sex. As he leaves the mosque after the service, Ibn Taymiyya realizes that his unease and acute irritation with Shaykha Fāṭima’s presence on the pulpit had so overwhelmed him that he had not even heard a word of her sermon. He goes home and falls into a restless afternoon sleep.
Ibn Taymiyya later recalled this incident: “It unsettled me that she mounted the pulpit to deliver sermons and I wished to forbid her.”4 In Ibn Taymiyya’s inner struggle to stop this self-assured woman from public preaching, he saw the Prophet of Islam in a dream.
The Prophet put an end to his anxieties and, according to Ibn Taymiyya, rebuked him, saying, “This is a pious woman.”5 The prophetic instruction quelled Ibn Taymiyya’s agita- tion, reconciling him with Shaykha Fāṭima’s role as public preacher.6
Who would have thought that one of the most renowned mujtahids of the premodern Muslim world, Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymiyya, an individual whom many present-day chauvinists claim as their religious luminary, would have been subdued into accepting a woman’s authority by a dream? Indeed, it was no less than the prophetic command that had castigated the Hanbali jurisconsult.
This dream not only challenged his fourteenth-century gender lenses but continues to do so for others today, providing a stark contrast with the visions of women that are promoted by the contemporary votaries of Ibn Taymiyya.
Very few of Ibn Taymiyya’s followers will energetically recover this view of their intellectual exemplar, either in terms of its gen- der implications or of the Sufilike recognition of a prophetic dream. But many Muslims have not had the good fortune of an emancipatory prophetic dream foretelling that women’s spiritual equality does in fact have social and ritual implications.
In the contemporary period, a worldwide Muslim debate was sparked in 2005 when Professor Amina Wadud led Friday ritual prayers in full view of the international media in New York City. Muslim prayer leaders (the imamate) around the globe issued fatwas (legal decrees) regarding women’s leadership, taking a variety of positions on the subject. Sohaib BenCheikh, the former grand muftī 7 of Marseilles, belonging to an older generation of male graduates of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, publicly participated in a congregational prayer led by another woman in solidarity with the event in New York.
Conversely, Dr. Soad Saleh, a female Islamic law professor at Al-Azhar, declared that women-led prayers with mixed congregations constitute apostasy in Islam, an offense punishable by death under classical interpretations of Islamic law. Among her reasons for rejecting female imams, Saleh declared that “the woman’s body, even if veiled, stirs desire.”
Ironically, a few years earlier, Saleh had applied to become Egypt’s first fe- male muftī, an application that was still officially pending at the time of the New York incident but might well be considered de facto unsuccessful. Saleh’s positioning in the debates on women’s leadership in the mosque and in public rituals demonstrates current contestations over embodiment and gender, spirituality and leadership, sexuality and power within the Muslim world.
Our perspectives on this fraught contemporary debate might be en- riched by turning to the counsel provided by an eminent thirteenth- century Muslim scholar, Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī. In a striking contrast to the present-day focus on women’s bodies as the inappropriate provocateur of male desire, the premodern Ibn ʿArabī has a very different entry point for the understanding of gendered ritual leadership. He unperturbedly claims ungendered and equal access to the position of imam on the basis that men and women have identical spiritual potential in the Islamic tradition.
Without much fanfare, Ibn ʿArabī informs us that spiritual equality between men and women has very clear social and ritual consequences. It is not simply centuries that divide Saleh from this premodern personality; it is also radi- cally different assumptions on the nature of gendered human beings in light of an ontological, spiritual, and religious telos. Ibn ʿArabī thus categorically asserts that women may lead mixed congregations of men and women in ritual prayers.
The story of women’s contemporary ritual leadership began in South Africa, my birthplace, in events that shaped me and planted the seeds for deeper study and clarity on issues of gender and spirituality in Islam. The year 1994 was particularly memorable for Muslim South Africans because of two significant events. First, the first nonracial democratic elections took place, signaling the official death of apartheid. Second, Professor Amina Wadud, a visiting scholar and author of a pioneering Islamic feminist work, Qurʾan and Woman, delivered the Friday sermon (khuṭba) at the Claremont Main Road Mosque, which I attended.
The mosque had invited Wadud to share her insights on Islam with its members, who also decided to use the occasion to transform the gendered nature of their prayer space. Not only was a woman going to give the all-important Friday sermon, but the female congregants would move from the balcony into the central space of the masjid, on par with, albeit separate from, the men.
For me, a young commit- ted Muslim woman, entering the newly open and receptive masjid felt like stepping into the warmth of the sunshine after a lifetime of being concealed in the shadows, a feeling somewhat akin to voting in my country of birth for the first time. In my experiential framework, this minority congregation was boldly embodying a fundamental social justice imperative that was intrinsic to Islam.
However, even as this act of liberation unfolded, many broader community contestations of this event were pervaded by assumptions that women are somehow peculiarly and inferiorly defined by their bodies and that these female bodies, in the proximity of men, somehow diminish and threaten the sacredness of the mosque.
Integrating justice and harmony into both personal and communal religious spaces constitutes a serious religious challenge for a number of contemporary Muslims, which is why women’s free access to central spaces of worship and women’s ritual leadership remain controversial topics.8
Wadud’s khuṭba at the Claremont Main Road mosque was inspirational. Her words were like a glorious, warm summer rain, drenching us in mercy and radiating all kinds of existential possibilities. This was a spiritually ripe sermon, inspired and inspiring, beautiful and beautifying, luminous and il- luminating.
She went to the very heart of the matter, to the understanding of Islam as a state of engaged surrender in all of our most intimate and im- mediate relationships as human beings—marriage, pregnancy, childbirth— and sites of intimate relationship to the divine One. For the first time in my adult life in a public religious space, I felt myself sincerely validated as a Muslim woman.
While some sectors of the South African Muslim community enthusiastically hailed the event, other segments of that community became incensed. The resulting conflict reflected fierce struggles regarding Muslim understandings of sexuality, sacrality, and human embodiment.9
Contemporary gender politics relating to Islam is not restricted to the issue of women imams or internal differences within the Muslim world.
Wide-ranging geopolitical dynamics and ideological contestations are played out on the bodies of Muslim women. Representations of Muslim women vacillate between dominant Western images of Muslim women as oppressed and apologist Islamist images of Muslim women as the only truly liberated women.10 The debates on both sides are often simplistic, rigidly formulated, authoritarian, ideologically loaded, and contingent on the political forces of the day.
Examples abound. French public schools prohibit Muslim women from wearing head scarves (ḥijāb), ostensibly as a marker of a secular society; conversely, postrevolutionary Iran imposes the ḥijāb as a symbol of authentic Islamic identity.11 U.S. politicians strategically invoked the plight of Afghani women as a way to build public support for the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 yet are notably silent about the Saudi regime’s appalling women’s rights record as a result of the two countries’ intimate political-economic relationship.
In many parts of the Muslim world, notions of gender equality are often interwoven with larger postcolonial identity struggles about indigenous values, cultural al- legiances, and loyalties and disloyalties.12 The global context for discussions of gender justice and Islam is, therefore, ideologically fraught with contes- tations of the nature of religion, law, and secularism; citizenship, identity, and empire; freedom, equality, and self-expression.
Many antagonists in these debates share the assumption that Islam is a monolithic religion with a singular all-embracing gender paradigm.
Such generalizations not only belie the complex varying realities of contemporary Muslim women but also ignore the rich diversity of the Islamic tradition that is informed by the mélange of Arab, Turkic, Persian, Andalusian, African, and South Asian histories and cultures.13 Gender dynamics among Muslims are as complex and polymorphous as the realities of women (and even men, for that matter) in other religious, social, and political contexts. While there are undoubtedly universal aspects within Islam that fall within a cohesive religious category, this unity is mostly accompanied by myriad diversities.
Among contemporary Muslims, gender contestations occur within a tradition characterized by diverse gender epistemes. Contenders in gender debates often cull the primary Islamic sources of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth and their traditional legacy of interpretation, especially jurisprudence, to find positions that, for example, either support or reject women’s ritual leadership.
Many of the arguments are of an epistemological nature—that is, contestation over which among these various legal positions count as authoritative Islamic knowledge. Such arguments often are limited in scope, primarily addressing the outer symptoms of gender injustice, such as women’s imamate or the politics of ḥijāb. These types of debates fail to address the ways in which the underlying theological category of the “human being” is gendered.
While such gender contestations are necessary and important, a richer understanding of gender debates in Islam requires more than simple epistemological disputations about which traditional sources to prioritize and authorize in relation to a specific issue. Debates on women’s role as imam or the religious necessity of ḥijāb, for example, demand exploration and inter- rogation of the foundational premises and constructs of gender.
Contesting positions on gender are, after all, underpinned by specific assumptions regarding human nature and existence—in fact, by specific anthropological, cosmological, and ontological constructs. A thorough investigation of gender thus demands an analysis of these related philosophical constructs in Islam.
Islam, Gender Politics, and the “Deeper Questions”
I use the term “religious anthropology” to indicate a focus on the fundamental concern of what it means to be human within the Muslim tradition.14 This focus addresses questions of the nature and vision of human beings as depicted within an Islamic worldview. For the believer, it addresses the age-old ontological questions “Who am I?” and “What is the nature of existence?” within the context of Islam.
The question of what it means to be a human being immediately beckons the inquirer to the next level of inquiry: What does it mean to be a gendered human being? Does Islam provide notions of a universal human essence that transcends gender? Does Islam teach that men and women have essentially different natures? And if so, do all women and all men share some universal female or male essence, respectively?
Or, rather, is there a combination of sameness and differences between men and women—that is, do men and women share certain attributes while differing in terms of other attributes? Definitions of being human invariably provide meanings of being gendered.
A final related question in addressing religious anthropology focuses on the relationship between gender and moral capacity. Does the religion set out different moral and existential goals for men and women? Or does Islam posit a single, ungendered map for human moral agency? Are the ultimate goals of human morality within an Islamic framework the same for men and for women? In sum, how do gender differences relate to a person’s moral capacity?
Definitions and understandings of religious anthropology are closely linked either implicitly or explicitly to an ontological framework. “Ontology” refers to a theory about the nature of reality or the nature of being. Its most basic questions and concerns are the following:
What actually exists? What is the nature of being? What is? An ontological level of inquiry in terms of human nature asks the question “Who am I?” in relation to the entire universe of existence, to all that is. Ontology focuses on “the most fundamental categories of being and . . . the relations among them.”15 Onto- logical questions thus place our understandings of gendered human beings and a religious anthropology within a broader framework of understanding the nature of reality.
While ontology deals with existence in general, its intimate companion, cosmology, provides a map for understanding the universe in its totality— its origin, purpose, and destiny, including the human being’s place within it.16 Cosmology concerns an understanding of the order and relationships between the various parts of the created universe. Questions that arise in relation to cosmology might include the following: What is the nature of the universe?
How was it created? For what purpose and toward what des- tiny was it created? What are a human being’s origin, place, and purpose in this universe?
Thus, a cosmological level of inquiry in Islam enables the inquirer to situate notions of human nature and existence within a broader framework of understanding the nature of all creation. In a study of Islamic cosmology, one also finds macrocosmic mappings of gender that resonate in varying ways with understandings of human genderedness.
A strong relationship exists between these seemingly abstract constructs of religious anthropology, ontology, and cosmology on the one hand and the realpolitik of gender on the other. Underlying many of the gender inequalities in traditional Islamic legal and ethical formulations are problem- atic assumptions about the nature of men and women.
Many opponents of women’s imamate, for example, argue that a woman in a central sacred space stirs sexual desire in male congregants, distracting them from their religious devotion.
How might these individuals respond to the challenge of men being stirred sexually by the presence of other men in the mosque?
Their stated argument against women’s imamate is premised on a rather convoluted gendered view of humanity in which a carefully constructed and highly problematic religious universe is created for the moral benefit of men at the expense of women.
On the one hand, men are assumed to be the natural leaders and spiritual authorities in sacred spaces. The prevailing status quo naturalizes male control of the public religious space so that women’s mere presence in a mosque often needs to be explicated, explained, justified, or vilified. The dominant order of things is such that women are inherently positioned as impostors in the public sacred space.
Women’s Otherness is defined in this view as primarily in relation to a powerful sexualized body that ultimately desacralizes the mosque for male worshippers, particularly if the woman occupies center stage as the leader of the ritual congregational prayer.
These constructs reflect a patriarchal religious anthropology that is at once binary and hierarchical. Women and femaleness are constructed as sexual, carnal, and often by extension emotional and irrational, engendering chaos.
This sexualized feminine realm is seen as oppositional to spirituality, intellect, and rationality, which are associated with maleness and men.
Thus, men are superior and are inevitably leaders and authorities over the lesser human being, who is the female. This gendered split between the principles of body and the mind presents us with Cartesian dualism in Muslim garb.
On the other hand, this argument attributes enormous power to female sexuality and paradoxically reduces men to hapless victims of their own libidos. While women possess an overwhelming sexual allure, heterosexual men have little capacity for resistance.
Because of men’s inability to focus on God in the presence of the female body, women need to be outside men’s field of vision. Male subjectivity in this guise is defined by and caught in conflict between the realm of the transcendent divine that men are seeking and the presence of the immanent female body that they simultaneously desire.
Ironically, even perhaps humorously, such an argument significantly diminishes male humanity. From this perspective, a man is effectively a perpetual moral adolescent subject to uncontainable heterosexual instincts, and his locus of self-control has escaped into the shadows, just outside of his personal command.
His ineffectiveness in monitoring his own body and behavior necessitates vigilant policing of the outer environment. Woman, whose essence is characterized by a chaos-creating sexuality, needs to be removed, rendered invisible, dispatched into liminal spaces, and deprive of voice.
Thus, with such effort toward and effect on women, the spiritual sanctity of the mosque (for men) is retained—a dubious notion of moral agency, indeed.
These types of arguments are based on a religious anthropology that defines men and women as essentially different and more especially gives gender differences distinct hierarchal values. Ontologically, women are lesser than men and are hence accountable to divergent moral and ethical standards.
Men and women are anointed with varying types and levels of moral capacity in the world. This asymmetrical moral compass generates a normative framework where men dominate and lead in the public world and women are ideally relegated to the invisible spheres of the private and the domestic. As such, the contemporary Muslim politics of the imamate is essentially underpinned by questions about human nature that are based on specific understandings of genderedness.
These understandings must be rendered fully and on an individual basis if gender contestations are to move forward in terms of changing social mind-sets rather than merely tackling issues or “symptoms.”
These debates on the imamate also illustrate that anthropological and ontological assumptions prefigure ethical and legal norms. Thus, genuinely challenging the widest possible forms of sexism in society requires delving into questions about the constituent nature of humanity, male and female, from a religious perspective.
How is the primary God-human relationship gendered? As well, how are these perspectives understood to mediate relationships between the sexes? Framing questions in this way might inti- mately link ontology to understandings of religious anthropology while simultaneously addressing gender as an intrinsic part of a broader Islamic cosmology.
The Islamic tradition in fact possesses some rich, multitextured, and deeply grounded approaches to gender with regard to politico-legal issues. The thirteenth-century Muslim polymath Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī offers precisely such an approach when addressing the issue of women’s imamate.
Within an Islamic cosmology, Ibn ʿArabī the contemplative mystic asserts, men and women have equal capacity to attain the divinely ordained vision of spiritual completeness. Indeed, for Ibn ʿArabī, the equal ontological capacity for spiritual completeness shared by men and women defines an Islamic view of human nature.
On the basis of his assumptions regarding a universal and ungendered human capacity promoted in Islam, the incisive jurist17 asserts that a women’s leadership in ritual prayer is licit before men and women, adding somewhat dismissively that “one should not pay heed to anyone who opposes it without proof.”18 In his arguments on the subject, Ibn ʿArabī skillfully unmasks the pervasive problematic or limited web of ontology and religious anthropology underlying gendered political issues in Muslim thought.
Understanding Sufism, Understanding Gender
Ibn ʿArabī’s deep-rooted response to the issue of women’s imamate is also suggestive of his primary discursive tradition, Sufism. In addressing the nature of human beings, society, and God, Sufi scholars often reveal a spe- cific preoccupation with ontology, or the nature of reality. Drawing both on contemplative interpretations of the primary Islamic sources, the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, and mystical experiences, Sufi thinkers address most questions, including understandings of gender, in relation to the ultimate nature of reality.
Within the Islamic tradition, Sufism is often described as the inner path (ṭarīqa) that allows a person to attain the goals of ethical and spiritual culti- vation. When relating Sufism to other dimensions of the Islamic tradition, a popular ḥadīth tradition suggests a tripartite structure of moral obliga- tion—that is, islām (outward conformity), īmān (inward faith), and iḥsān (vir- tuous excellence).19 Some Muslim thinkers suggest using the metaphor of the embodied human being to understand these different elements of moral obligation for the seeker.20
Jurists, they suggest, focus on assessing outward conformity with religious precepts that might be associated with the limbs of the body. Theologians and philosophers are concerned with notions of faith and belief, which in turn correspond to the mind. Sufis focus on the inner processes of spiritual cultivation and experiential knowledge, both of which culminate in virtue and may be seen to be located in the heart. As such, Sufism seeks deeper and more complete knowledge of the inner dimensions of reality (or realities) that will facilitate a more intimate rela- tionship with God and greater submission to the divine will. Islām, īmān, and iḥsān are all considered integral to the optimal moral functioning of each human being.
To make full sense within this schema, inner understand- ings take as given the outer forms of religion. Historically, Sufism has for the most part operated within the norms of Islamic tradition while concur- rently pointing to realities beyond them.21
My focus on gender in Ibn ʿArabī’s works is largely framed by the potential of Sufi discourse to address gender questions at a deeply rooted level of religious meaning. I examine the dynamic interplay among sacred texts, mystical cosmologies, and social reality, engaging at the nexus of these three critical junctures the religious constructions of gender.
Assisted by a feminist lens, I explore in particular, how love, sexuality, marriage, and related gender dynamics are conceived, imagined, and created in the works of a major Sufi thinker in a formative period of the Islamic legacy. I probe questions about the elements that constitute humanity, male and female, from a religious perspective;
the processes by which the primary God-human relationship is gendered; and the understanding of these perspectives to mediate intimate relationships between the sexes. I hence unpack various narratives of “masculinity” and “femininity” within these texts.
My investigations into the relationship between gender and ontology are vested in the possible implications for core ethical values in Islam. Focusing on intimate relationships and the realm of sexuality as well as public gender dynamics, the framework of Ibn ʿArabī’s mystical cosmology is rich ground for an examination of seemingly abstract philosophical concepts such as ontology and religious anthropology on the one hand and the concrete daily relationships between men and women on the other.
Islamic narratives about personal, intimate relationships and public gen- der imaginaries often share central gendered assumptions. In particular, patriarchal epistemologies have often configured the intimate realms of love, marriage, and sexuality as domestic, private, and outside of the political sphere, thereby rendering them invisible and inviolable. Feminists have rendered transparent the insidious reach of ideology and patriarchal politics into the sphere of the private.22
Deconstructing the binary between the private and the political has revealed the systemic nature of gendered power dynamics that pervade intimate and family relationships.23
Whether sexual, marital, emotional, or familial, all intimate relationships are en- twined in dominant narratives of gender that are imminently political in nature.
Drawing on these feminist insights, I examine the interconnections be- tween the personal and the political in my sources, focusing specifically on the way in which marriage, sexuality, and intimate relationships are config- ured. I keep these personal/political narratives of gender in conversation with Sufi ontology and anthropology to contribute to the contemporary search for a relevant Islamic ethics of gender justice.
I claim neither that Sufis hold a monolithic position on gender nor that Sufism is an ahistorical panacea of all things good and wonderful for women. To be sure, Ghazālī, a central Sufi thinker who exposed the limitations of a law not based on ethical praxis, concurrently conceptualized an ethics of justice that is comfortable and even often complicit with male domination. Thus, 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.
While negative understandings of women have been evident in some strands of Sufi thought and practices from its inception, particularly during its earlier ascetic variety, Sufism in other instances has also provided gender-egalitarian spaces. As discussed in more detail in chapter 1, significant evidence indicates the multitudinous approaches to piety adopted by early Sufi women.
While varying levels of asceticism and spiritual discipline formed an integral part of the religious life of these women, their lifestyles varied from traditional gender roles as mothers and wives to non- traditional roles as independent individuals, travelers, teachers, disciples, and solitary mystics.
The departures of early Sufi women from traditional gender norms may have been rendered acceptable to other Sufis, male and female, largely by the greater priority most Sufis accord to the individual’s inner state and by the concomitantly diminished significance of gender identity on the spiritual path.
In some cases, Sufi practices have subverted traditional patriarchal religious anthropology in ways that might provide contemporary Muslims with creative resources for expanding the paradigm for gender justice in their societies.
In other instances, however, some Sufis have accepted the traditional sexist understanding of the gendered human person, thereby excusing the normative injustice characterizing patriarchal society. For example, some Sufi anthropologies have reinforced the associations of women with the baser, material spheres of existence, thereby positing women as a threat to male spiritual seekers.25
While such an underlying anthropology shares much with popular and highly visible patriarchal Islamic discourses, the anthropology characterizing the more positive Sufi constructions of women is largely hidden. I elaborate on both types of anthropological constructs and engage them in dialogue with one another. Instead of avoiding contra- dictions, this dialectical criticism embraces competing rationalities as an instrument for engaging conflict that may offer new alternatives.
In the pages that follow, I illustrate that despite competing gender narratives, core Sufi assumptions are inherently critical of power configurations that assert the superiority of particular human beings on any basis other than spiritual stature.26 In fact, some Sufi stories reflect a critique of preva- lent notions of intrinsic male superiority.
I choose to focus on this area precisely because of the rich complexity of Sufi thought that addresses the core vision of reality within Islam as well as its intrinsically egalitarian spiritual impetus. From the polyphony of Sufi gender narratives, Ibn ʿArabī’s ideas in particular exemplify a superb articulation of these interrelated discursive possibilities concerning cosmology and gender.
His hermeneutics reflects a rich mélange of scholarly and scriptural tradition, Sufi unveilings, and, like all other interpreters, his sociohistorical positioning. While Ibn ʿArabī and Sufi discourse in general offer some exciting possibilities for creatively and critically engaging questions of gender ethics, neither the individual nor the discipline are monolithic.
Situating Ibn ʿArabī – Sufi Narratives of Intimacy
Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn al-ʿArabī al-Ḥaṭimī al-Ṭaʾī, more commonly known as Ibn ʿArabī, was born in Murcia, in southern Spain, in 1165.27 Muslim political rule over Spain lasted approximately eight centuries (711–1492 c.e.).
Andalusia, as Muslim Spain was called, reflected a fusion of its various legacies: the Roman Empire, the Christianized Visigoths, and elements of Arab civilization brought by immigrants from the Islamic heart- lands of Syria, Arabia, and Yemen.28 It was also an intellectual and cultural center characterized by rich interactions among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers as well a site where the intellectual legacies of ancient Greece and Rome were translated and studied.
The Muslims of Spain, together with their other religious and intellectual cohorts in Andalusia, served as a conduit by which many of the lost scientific and philosophical texts of the ancient Greco-Roman civilization were reintroduced to the Western world. The collective intellectual corpus was to leave an indelible mark on Euro- pean civilization.29
Rom Landau, a modern scholar, argues that at its peak, the intellectual zest and material splendor of Cordova and Seville surpassed those of Paris and possibly even of Constantinople.30 In this diverse sociointellectual mi- lieu, Ibn ʿArabī received his early education. He was exposed to Zoroastrian and Manichaean lore, Jewish and Christian theology, Greek philosophy and mathematics, and every variety of Muslim intellectual achievement.31
Ibn ʿArabī was of Arab lineage, born to a family that was relatively well- off. He was an only son and had close relationships with both of his sisters. Details regarding his mother are sparse. His father served in the military retinue of the Almohad sultan and became fairly well acquainted with some of the intelligentsia of the day, including Ibn Rushd. Ibn ʿArabī’s family mem- bers appear to have been religious, with inclinations toward Sufism. At a young age, Ibn ʿArabī experienced mystical visions of God and subsequently traveled to various cities of learning in Andalusia, seeking out the learned and the wise. In the formative period of his life, Ibn ʿArabī studied with two women saints, Fāṭima of Cordova and Yasmīna of Mashena, both of whom influenced him significantly and contributed to his spiritual development.32 Until 1198, Ibn ʿArabī traveled around Spain and North Africa, meeting with scholars and Sufis. During this time, he continued to have mystical vi- sions, which became the basis of his numerous writings. He began to write his magnum opus, Al-Futūḥāt al-makkiyya (The Meccan Openings) in 1201, during his first visit to Mecca. Here, he met a Persian Sufi woman, Nizām, who came to represent for him the embodiment of divine love and beauty.33 In fact, Ibn ʿArabī appears to have had pervasive and rich interactions with women, not only among his spiritual teachers but also within his family and among his disciples.
From Mecca, Ibn ʿArabī traveled to various cities, encountering the spiritual figure of Khidr, the prophet who initiates people directly into spiritual life from the unseen realms without the regular initiation into a traditional Sufi ṭarīqa (path).34 Ibn ʿArabī finally settled in Damascus, where he com- pleted the Futūḥāt, which is considered an encyclopedia of esoteric knowl- edge and spiritual insight. This work took him close to thirty years to finish. He died in Damascus in 1240 at the age of seventy-five.
His Works – Sufi Narratives of Intimacy
There is no exact record of the number of books Ibn ʿArabī wrote. He men- tions three hundred, a significant number of which are extant, with copies in various libraries in the Muslim world and in Europe.35 The Futūḥāt is the largest of his works, comprising 560 chapters dealing with a great variety of topics, among them highly abstract principles of metaphysics and Ibn ʿArabī’s personal spiritual experiences. One contemporary scholar of Su- fism, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, remarks that this compendium of esoteric sci- ences in Islam surpasses in scope and depth anything of its kind composed
previously or since.36 Ibn ʿArabī states that the Futūḥāt was the product of unveilings given to him by God rather than a product of personal reflec- tion.37 This work has been studied and commented on by generations of Sufi and other scholars of Islam.
Perhaps the most popular of Ibn ʿArabī’s works is the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam (The Bezels of Wisdom), which was written in 1229. Ibn ʿArabī reported that this work was inspired by a vision of the Prophet Muḥammad, who commanded Ibn ʿArabī to take a book from the Prophet’s hand and transmit it to the world for the benefit of humankind.38 In this text, each “bezel” symbolizes a facet of divine wisdom respectively revealed to each of the prophets rec- ognized in Islam. The human and spiritual nature of each prophet was a vehicle for communicating and manifesting particular facets of the divine. The Fuṣūṣ and the Futūḥāt are considered Ibn ʿArabī’s two most significant works.
Ibn ʿArabī’s corpus also includes numerous works on cosmology, such as Inshaʾ al-dawāʾir (The Description of the Encompassing Spheres) and ʿUqlat al-mustawfiz (The Spell of the Obedient Servant); meditations on the Qurʾān, such as Ishārāt al-qurʾān fi ʿālam al-insān (Allusions of the Qurʾān in the Human World); practical advice to spiritual aspirants, such as Risāla al- khalwa (A Treatise on Spiritual Retreat); and poetry, such as the Tarjumān al-ashwāq (The Interpreter of Desires).
Ibn ʿArabī moved among discursive expressions ranging from theology, mysticism, philosophy, and Qurʾānic exegesis to poetry, biography, and my- thology. He constantly challenged normative boundaries in his substantive teachings. His style of presentation often involved antinomies, paradoxes, and unusual allegories to convey spiritual insights or esoteric exegeses of the Qurʾān—methods that were commonly employed in works of mystical expression. Ibn ʿArabī’s utilization of this vast, varying range of expressions and discursive windows makes for a hermeneutically rich body of spiritual insights.
Alexander Knysh marvels at Ibn ʿArabī’s adept and extraordinary style, wherein even the recurring motifs he used escape being mundane or re- petitive. According to Knysh, the variety of different discursive expressions flowing from Ibn ʿArabī’s expert hand “colours the very visions and experi- ences he endeavors to convey, making it difficult to neatly separate content from form. . . . [T]he new verbal shells transform the very meaning of these
motifs.”39 The diversity of disciplinary and linguistic expressions that Ibn ʿArabī employs to present his ideas adds a textured fluidity to his thought.
Ibn ʿArabī was heralded as one of the earliest and most sophisticated theo- reticians of Sufi metaphysics and as a distinguished practical master in his time, and contemporary scholars have illustrated the pervasive impact of his legacy in both popular and intellectual Sufi discourses.40
Contesting Ibn ʿArabī – Sufi Narratives of Intimacy
Ibn ʿArabī is also perhaps one of the most contested figures in Muslim intel- lectual history. In a detailed study on polemical literature surrounding Ibn ʿArabī, Knysh notes that from the thirteenth century onward, practically every significant Muslim thinker found it necessary to comment on the “controversial Sufi master.”41 In Muslim literature, refutations of his work are interlaced with accusations of dangerous heresy—a heresy that many of his accusers saw as the combination of a riotous mystical imagination with a pantheistic philosophy that threatened to destroy the foundations of Islam. Opponents of Ibn ʿArabī included those antagonistic to Sufism as well as reformist Sufis, who accused him of deviating from “true Sufism” or “Sharīʿa Sufism,” a Sufism keenly observant of the law.
However, some of his supporters revere him as one of the most erudite intellectuals and spiritual savants within the Islamic tradition. The extra- ordinary stature and iconic position that he enjoys among his disciples and admirers is reflected in the epithet accorded him, Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Master). According to Qūrī, a fifteenth-century jurist, among re- ligious scholars, opinions of Ibn ʿArabī ranged from claims that he was an infidel to arguments that he was an axial saint.42 Qūrī judiciously reserved judgment on Ibn ʿArabī’s status.
One of the most strident and consequential critics of Ibn ʿArabī was the fourteenth-century Ibn Taymiyya.43 Incensed by what followers of Ibn ʿArabī described as the doctrine of “waḥdat al-wujūd [unity of being],”44 Ibn Taymiyya launched a frontal attack on the monistic tendencies of Akbarian metaphysics.45 In Ibn Taymiyya’s somber view, such a metaphysical system disturbingly ruptured the clear boundaries between God and humanity,
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