Explorations in Islamic Feminist Epistemology

Sa’diyya Shaikh University of Cape Town
Abstract: Responsive to Elizabeth Castelli’s (2001) call to "trouble" and destabilize our categories of analysis in the study of religion and gender, this paper explores the feminist epistemological category of "experience," particularly as it relates to the study of Islam and Muslim societies. My approach is twofold. First, I present a critique of particular contemporary presentations of women’s experience and feminist subjectivities in relation to Islam. Second, I offer a creative and reconstructive feminist engagement with the category of "experience" in reading aspects of the Muslim tradition. Focusing on the works of thirteenth-century male Sufi Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, I present some feminist explorations on how concepts of "experience," mystical and mundane, might intersect to produce egalitarian teachings on gender and subjectivities within Muslim thought. In particular, I explore some of the productive convergences between particular feminist and Sufi approaches to epistemology and religious experience.

Feminist Epistemology: A Selective Review

Elizabeth Castelli (2001), in a tradition of feminists calling for intersectional approaches to the study of gender, points to the inextricable relationship of religion with other social and cultural processes. Women’s multiple locations on different and intersecting axes of social power complicate the category of "woman" in significant ways. Castelli argues for a careful interrogation of how understandings of "religion" and "gender" are created, with particular attention to the contingent, complex, and changing conditions of their production. Such an approach makes visible the inherent instability, contingency, and mobility of both the analytical categories used by scholars as well as the subject of study. Examining the intersections between subjectivity, feminism, and Islam, I intend to "trouble" and complicate as well as generate new ways that feminists might engage the epistemological category of "experience." In order to do this, it is necessary to begin by signaling some of the important developments in feminist epistemology.

Examining the intersections between subjectivity, feminism, and Islam, I intend to "trouble" and complicate as well as generate new ways that feminists might engage the epistemological category of "experience."

A crucial feminist contribution to debates in epistemology relates to the relationship between gendered human subjectivity and power in the creation of knowledge.[1] Feminist scholars make explicit the ways in which knowledge is founded on experience and that in most societies these constitutive experiences are different for men and women. Whether in the realm of science or the humanities, the major feminist epistemological intervention is that almost all knowledge that speaks for the universal human condition has, in fact, been based on partial and selective experiential perspectives of powerful men. Knowledge in any one discipline or field is neither neutral nor innocent, but deeply imbricated in hegemonic modes of power.

Using gender as a critical analytical lens, feminists have interrogated the forms of religious experience underlying ritual, practice and ethics, and canonization and authority in a number of traditions.[2] They have also constructively focused on the retrieving marginalized histories and representations of women as well as including women’s everyday experiences as part of understanding the nature of religion. Warne (2001) points out that to genuinely (en)gender the field of Religious Studies, it is inadequate to simply supplement women into the established field. One also needs to examine how gender and varying other forms of power shape foundational concepts, definitions, and analytical terms in the study of religion.

Intersectionality renders visible the complex positioning of varying groups of women, diverse experiences, and the ways in which particular forms of feminism might reinscribe unjust relations of power.

Castelli asks that a feminist analysis must critically interrogate the multiple intersections and formulations of power and gender in every site that religion might be produced. She calls our attention to the "wide range of cognate forms of difference—class, race, colonial status, sexuality, among others," asking us to read these "with and against gender and religion" (2001, 6). Her perspective draws on earlier feminist debates that debunked assumptions of a universal female "experience." [3] Single-axis analysis focused on an isolated gender identity neglected women’s simultaneous positions on other socio-political hierarchies and the intersecting nodes of oppression experienced by those who did not share the realities of white, middle-class, first-world, and heterosexual realities. In response, "intersectionality," as a theoretical approach, demands an examination of how gender is constituted at the interface of multiple inequalities and interlocking, dynamic social locations.[4] Intersectionality renders visible the complex positioning of varying groups of women, diverse experiences, and the ways in which particular forms of feminism might reinscribe unjust relations of power. Many feminist scholars have increasingly been developing critical and inclusive knowledge projects that "trouble" stable understandings of the very categories constituting religion, women, and feminism.

Whose Experience? Representing Islam amidst Empire

While feminists still retain that dangerous but vital category of experience, they need to do so by nuancing it with an intentional vigilance toward intersecting constellations of power which situate groups of women quite differently. Such an intersectional analysis is imperative when approaching the ideologically charged ways that Muslim women’s experiences are currently invoked. A particular type of Muslim woman’s memoir has inundated the American and European markets since 9/11: stories by Muslim women who relate their suffering in Muslim societies and who virulently denigrate Islam as inherently misogynist (Dabashi 2011).[5] In the geopolitical context of American foreign policy, marked by a "war on terror," and increasing global forms of Islamophobia, these memoirs, among other things, at a popular level serve to provide moral legitimacy to American military and imperial presence in parts of the Muslim world.[6] These Muslim women’s testimonials are unique in that they claim to provide insider perspectives which are appropriated to validate imperialist American foreign policy. Viewed simplistically, they appear to appeal to feminism’s prioritization of women’s experience while ignoring the nuanced interplays of power within their societies, including the repressive impact of imperialist hegemonies acting on their very societies and situations as women. As such, these women’s invocations of experience obscure fuller analyses and accountability for their locations in a broader geopolitical context.

Such an intersectional analysis is imperative when approaching the ideologically charged ways that Muslim women’s experiences are currently invoked.

In an astute intersectional analysis, Hamid Dabashi (2011) interrogates such memoirs, including works by the Canadian Indian, Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam), and the Somalian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Caged Virgin). Exposing their opportunistic political positioning, he aptly describes these women as "native informers" who are successfully wooed by neoconservative politicians. Manji and Hirsi Ali, in presenting their experiences of Muslim societies as barbaric and anti-women, receive handsome financial rewards. Abou Bakr (2011) also incisively points to the permeating racism and explicit anti-Arabism underpinnings in the writings of these women.

Both Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have explicitly supported American-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as an effective form of resistance to fundamentalist Islam (Mahmoud 2011). Ironically, in the American and European media that seethes with moral outrage at the reported experiences of women like Hirsi Ali and Manji in Muslim contexts, there is little mainstream critical coverage of the destruction, damage, and death of Muslim women, men, and children at the hands of occupying U.S.-led armies in these same countries. Some of these native informers have been hailed by American and European feminists as courageous feminists. Hirsi Ali received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom in 2008, while Irshad Manji was named as "Feminist for the 21st Century" by Ms Magazine.[7] Among many of their Western feminist supporters, there is little critical attention directed at these women’s intersecting and compromised political locations.

To be clear, all women have the incontrovertible right to be critical of sexist practices within their societies and, importantly, to bring their experiences to bear on such critiques. Invocations of experiences by native informers dubiously servicing the interests of empire in the current political context, however, demand more careful scrutiny.

To be clear, all women have the incontrovertible right to be critical of sexist practices within their societies and, importantly, to bring their experiences to bear on such critiques. Invocations of experiences by native informers dubiously servicing the interests of empire in the current political context, however, demand more careful scrutiny. Elizabeth Castelli’s call for "troubling" our categories beckons us to scrutinize such women’s experiences, the deployment of feminism, and readings of religion in light of the multiple formulations of power and gender in every site where Islam is produced. Their testimonials filled with sweeping, generalized, and essentialist statements about Islam and Muslim societies echo orientalist stereotypes of an unchanging monolithic religion unable to transcend medieval norms. There is no recognition of the internal pluralism and myriad forms of lived contemporary Islam as well as the rich internal contestations of gender ethics in the Muslim world.[8] Their testimonials bolster simplistic images of Islam that have actively fueled militaristic ambition against Muslims in popular American culture, placing the predicament of Muslim women "squarely at the service of American warmongering" (Dabashi 2011, 63). These representations have also blinded much of the public to the real historical and contemporary injustices perpetrated by the American imperium.

Mahmoud observes that it is precisely the authentic Muslim women’s voice and her ability "to embody the double figure of both insider and victim" that informs the ideological power and popularity of this genre (2011, 79). Abou Bakr points out that these memoirs appeal to a voyeuristic Western audience lured by the orientalist promise of revealing the "escaped . . . and neo-colonial harem" (2011, 1). These examples powerfully illustrate that neither experience nor religion as they are produced are innocent categories—these categories can be instrumentalized by hegemonic imperial interests, by women’s own self-serving interests, and by a host of intersecting geopolitical forces in ways that exacerbate global inequalities. Such critical scrutiny and destablizing of the categories of "religion" and "experience" in this politically fraught context pushes us to interrogate ideological productions of Islam as narrow, reified, stagnant, and irredeemably misogynist.

Multiple Critique, Islam, and Feminisms

For Muslims who are concerned with justice in more comprehensive ways, the crucial question arises of how to negotiate critical demands for gender equality in this charged geopolitical context. The challenge is to skillfully navigate a multiple critique in at least three fraught and intersectional contexts. First, Muslim feminists need to continue a rigorous internal critique of sexism and injustice within our own societies in developing ever more just and gender-egalitarian norms.

For Muslims who are concerned with justice in more comprehensive ways, the crucial question arises of how to negotiate critical demands for gender equality in this charged geopolitical context.

Second, we must persist in foregrounding and reconceive humanizing aspects of Islam and Muslim tradition, recovering hidden histories of gender justice and human equality. These emancipatory narratives internal to Islam enable us to create more spiritually nourishing life worlds for contemporary Muslim women and men alike. Third, Islamic feminists need to steadfastly resist and critique the onslaught of "empire," in its many faces. Neocolonial and imperial articulations of feminism essentialize, denigrate, and diminish the value of Muslim lives, and do so in ways that enable the political ambitions of the globalizing and militarized North.

As such, a multiple critique needs to be defined by an uncompromising resistance to injustice, whether such injustice is embodied by religious proponents of patriarchy or by emissaries of empire. Such an unremitting and intersectional vigilance is difficult for many of us. In the current climate characterized by intricate political and ideological complexities that situate Muslim lives on the frontline of drone attacks and other forms of physical and psychological assault globally, some Muslims understandably find it easier to adopt defensive posturing and prioritize stable religious identities and cultural loyalties over all else. In these fraught contexts, for Muslim women critical of gender relations within their communities, there is social pressure to keep such concerns outside of the fraught public spaces where Muslims and Islam are anyway under threat. While such a position might be understandable, it is dangerous. To silence gender injustice because of Islamophobia is a defensive, reactive, and ultimately unproductive stance. Such silencing around gender injustice also results in an internal capitulation to Muslim proponents of patriarchy. In the process, a vital, dynamic, and life-giving impulse of justice within Muslim tradition is undermined.

A number of Muslim feminists who are critical of imperializing, Islamaphobic, and reductionist views of Islam are also producing justice-based critiques and creative contributions to the ongoing production of the Muslim tradition.[9] The latter is particularly important in sustaining a robust Muslim tradition that organically responds to the internal challenges of gender justice in contemporary Muslim societies. I situate my scholarship as an effort to contribute to this trajectory of Islamic feminism.[10]

Reading "Experience" in the Muslim Tradition: Feminist Horizons

As part of the emerging scholarship produced by Islamic feminists, my essay as a project of retrieval and reimagination turns to an analysis of some of the ideas of an influential thirteenth-century Muslim thinker and mystic, Ibn Arabi.[11] When examining his work, there are two things that beckon to any feminist scholar. First, amid the lush panoply of Ibn Arabi’s mystical insights, one discovers radical conceptions of gender, atypical in his context. Second, Ibn Arabi’s biography reflects a significant number of powerful relationships with women, including women outside his kinship circle. I creatively explore the possible connections between the two, namely, between his relationships and experiences with women and his mystical ideas on gender. Drawing on the feminist insight that "the personal is political," I examine Ibn Arabi’s everyday relationships as reflected in his autobiographical comments.[12] Within an epistemology of spiritual experience, mystical "openings" occur within a flesh-and-blood person whose life experiences, in all their complexity, mediate the formulation of these insights. Moreover, from these writings, I retrieve nonhegemonic representations of female subjectivities which might hold alternative ways to read the past.[13] My approach to Ibn Arabi’s life and works draws on Castelli’s instructive call to "trouble" our analytical categories so that they are mobile and responsive to the dynamic ways in which religion is produced in different sites and at the nexus of varying influences.

As part of the emerging scholarship produced by Islamic feminists, my essay as a project of retrieval and reimagination turns to an analysis of some of the ideas of an influential thirteenth-century Muslim thinker and mystic, Ibn Arabi.

Since my primary concern in this essay is not Ibn Arabi’s ideas in themselves but rather in making some creative connections between his reported experiences with women and his ideas on gender, I provide only a brief description of the former.[14] In the history of Muslim scholarship, Ibn Arabi undoubtedly presents some of the most vibrant conceptions of gender. Balancing more sovereign theological images of divine power that bid existence into being, Ibn Arabi also describes God’s primordial creativity through feminine images of pregnancy, labor, and birthing, foregrounding a relationship of fullness, identity, connection, and interiority vis-à-vis God (Shaikh 2012). His theological vision integrates divine qualities of mercy and beauty with a vision of divine majesty, a balance also echoed in his theological anthropology. Here he makes an explicit and repeated argument for the equal spiritual capacities of men and women, including their equal access to the archetypal ideal embodied in the "complete human" (al-Insan Kamil).[15]

Moreover, Ibn Arabi develops his inclusive theology into egalitarian positions on gendered legal and social norms. For example, Ibn Arabi (1911a, 1: 447) states that men and women are both qualified to lead gender-mixed congregations in the ritual prayer (salaat), a position that is hotly contested globally among Muslims in the twenty-first century. In discussing physical modesty, he states that there is no ontological difference between men and women in what constitutes nakedness (awra), a position that has potentially deep implications for the gendered ethics of dressing and covering (1911a, 1: 408). His arguments for women’s social equality are rooted in a clearly articulated religious view on the ontological and spiritual equality of men and women based on his readings of primary Islamic sources as well as his own mystical experiences.

To be clear, these intriguing examples of Ibn Arabi’s egalitarian positions on social-gendered relations coexist with his other more patriarchal perspectives typical within his context. Elsewhere, I have carefully examined the nuances and texture of Ibn Arabi’s writings on gender and presented a critical feminist reading of the tensions between patriarchal formulations and gender egalitarian impulses in his work.[16] These tensions, however, do not detract from his iconoclastic ideas on gender and women in the thirteenth century. To what extent might we see some connection between the unusual gender inclusivity and egalitarianism of his ideas and his reported relationships with women?

When perusing the biographical material on Ibn Arabi’s life from a gender lens, one notices starkly that there is a distinct and large presence of women in his life, not only in terms of his family but also in his religious and social circles.[17] In the formative period of his life, Ibn Arabi served as a disciple to two women saints, Fatima ibn al-Muthanna and Yasmina Umm al-Fuqara, and describes each of them with enormous love and reverence. Regarding Yasmina, he says:

Among people of our kind I have never met one like her with respect to the control she had over her soul. In her spiritual activities and communications, she was among the greatest. She had a strong and pure heart, a noble spiritual power, and a fine discrimination. . . . She was endowed with many graces. I had considerable experience of her intuition and found her to be a master in this sphere. Her spiritual state was characterized chiefly by her fear of God and his good pleasure in her, the combination of the two at the same time in one person being extremely rare among us. (Ibn Arabi 1988, 142)

Ibn Arabi also provides powerful descriptions of his female Sufi contemporaries. For example, Ibn Arabi describes an anonymous slave girl of Qasim al-Dawla who is "unique in her time," gifted with supernatural abilities to commune with mountains and trees, and able to travel great distances quickly. He admired her because her "spiritual state was strong" because she adhered to the Sufi path with "unswerving sincerity." She was rigorous in self-discipline and frequently fasted through the day and night, earning Ibn Arabi’s highest praise: "I have never seen one more spiritually chivalrous in our time" (ibid., 154–155).

Ibn Arabi visited another prominent Sufi woman, Zaynab al-Qalʾiyya. Despite being gifted with beauty and wealth, Zaynab had freely renounced the world. Ibn Arabi describes her as a "foremost ascetic of her day," known to levitate in the air during meditation; she was also "one of the most intelligent people of her time" and a companion of some of the most eminent male Sufis. Accompanying this spiritual savant on a journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, he observed that he had never seen anyone "more strict in observing the times of prayer than her" (ibid., 155). From his biographical entries, we also glean some sociological insights: within particular premodern social contexts, it appears that unrelated Sufi men and women intermingled freely, including traveling long distances together.

In a series of short poems that open his work, the Diwan, Ibn Arabi provides the names of 14 disciples that he had invested with the khirqa (Sufi cloak), 13 of whom were women (1855, 54). In Sufism, investing a disciple with the khirqa signifies an initiatory relationship of spiritual mentorship aimed at the initiate’s inner refinement through the intense teacher–disciple relationship. His poems pay tribute to these women’s sincerity, fearless spiritual work, and exemplary accomplishment on the path.[18] There is little doubt that his deep personal relationships with female Sufis clearly influenced his attitudes toward women and their spiritual capacities.

Finally, there is his enigmatic relationship with the captivating Persian Sufi, Nizam, the inspiration for some of his most spiritually exalted love poetry in the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq. Ibn Arabi describes:

a lissome young girl who captivated the gaze of all those who saw her, whose mere presence was the ornament of our gatherings. . . The magic of her glance, the grace of her conversation were such an enchantment that when on occasion she was prolix, her words flowed from the source; when she spoke concisely she was a marvel of eloquence; when she expounded an argument, she was clear and transparent. . . . If not for the paltry souls who are ever ready for scandal and predisposed to malice, I should comment here on the beauties of her body as well as her soul, which was a garden of generosity. (Corbin 1969, 136)

Ibn Arabi’s animated depiction of Nizam as a charismatic single young woman draws attention to her spiritual prowess, wisdom, eloquence, intelligence, charismatic public presence, as well as her exquisite beauty and natural sensuality. Predictably, Ibn Arabi’s representation of Nizam came under severe attack from some of his male contemporaries, who charged him with dissembling erotic love to preserve his reputation. In response, Ibn Arabi compiled a prudent and careful commentary, clarifying the spiritual realities to which he was alluding in his love poetry. This episode illustrates the interpenetrating nature of the mystical, the personal, and the political aspects of human experience, as well as the challenges of apprehending a congruous relationship between human embodiment, sensuality, and spiritual truth.[19]

Exploring Ibn Arabi’s biography presents us with a man deeply connected in emotional, physical, and spiritual ways to women in his life. He had deep, nurturing, and loving relationships not only with women in his family but also with others who were his spiritual teachers, peers, and disciples. Having sketched some of Ibn Arabi’s reported relationships with women, I revisit my initial question as to whether there was a connection between the two rather unusual dimensions of Ibn Arabi’s life: his mystical experiences, which rendered unique understandings of gender, on the one hand, and the flourishing presence of his personal and social experiences with women, on the other. Were Ibn Arabi’s mystical experiences responsible for his openness toward alternative ways of understanding gender relationships? Or were his deep and intense interpersonal relationships with women responsible for his receptivity to particular forms of mystical insights on gender? These questions, in fact, point us toward a number of relevant theoretical and epistemological debates, both in mysticism and in feminism.

Mystics and feminists share one significant epistemological concern. Both have a deep interest in the way experience produces knowledge.

Mystics and feminists share one significant epistemological concern. Both have a deep interest in the way experience produces knowledge. Feminist philosophers have convincingly argued that knowledge production, notions of morality, and ethics are significantly shaped by the experiential matrix of its formulators. As previously discussed, by exposing the partial, subjective contours of the knowledge project, feminist philosophers have deconstructed some of the assumptions about objectivity and universality in dominant patriarchal epistemology.

In a different but parallel mode, mystics claim that knowledge that is apprehended in a mystical experience has an epistemological priority to purely rational deliberations. In varying ways, both feminist and mystical discursive traditions deconstruct rigid binaries of experience and theory, emotions and rationality, embodiment and knowledge, subjectivity and objectivity. Despite varying conceptions of the nature of subjectivity and what constitutes the strata of "experience," both feminism and mysticism nonetheless provide powerful alternatives to traditional ratiocentric epistemologies.

To be clear, premodern mystics and contemporary feminists present different epistemological assumptions in their discussions of experience. For many postenlightenment feminists, metaphysics might be entirely inconsequential to their conceptualization of human experience. Some are antimetaphysical and see religion as entirely complicit with male domination. It is the vicissitudes of gendered human subjectivity, often in its everyday mundane realm, that feminists place on the agenda for epistemological reflection.

Despite varying conceptions of the nature of subjectivity and what constitutes the strata of "experience," both feminism and mysticism nonetheless provide powerful alternatives to traditional ratiocentric epistemologies.

For mystics, a metaphysical worldview is defining in every aspect of life. Sufis embrace the everyday mundane nature of human experience as the living canvas of spiritual praxis, an approach that allows for deep reflections on the nature and development of human subjectivity.[20] Simultaneously, Sufis present us with the category of mystical experience, which has a rather different epistemological status. These mystical states are often seen as the closest encounters with the one True Reality, perhaps as more true than everyday experiences, as entirely "other" and yet simultaneously located in the deepest parts of the self. For Sufis, mystical experiences are seen as acts of grace bestowed from the ultimate source of all things, having an immediate and personal "taste" of truth that is incontrovertible.

For mystics, these two levels of experience, the everyday and the mystical, are profoundly connected. A person’s receptivity to mystical experiences in many situations is at least partly contingent on his or her subjective spiritual state. Spiritual preparedness for receiving a mystical experience, in turn, happens as a consequence of the continual process of life experience where spiritual refinement is an everyday process permeating all of one’s interactions and activities. In this framework, the spiritually transforming individual is the receptive nonbinary locus where truth reveals itself on the subjective palate of the individual seeker who simultaneously holds the human and the divine in a relationship of radical nonduality, transcending explicit categories of subject and object. Mystical experience incorporates the particular and the universal in a dialectical mode. It is in terms of Sufism’s integration of the individual seeker’s particularity that I want to draw connections to feminist epistemology.

Feminists have brought into focus the organic relationship between gendered subjectivities and knowledge. They have debunked dominant assumptions that an individual is able to generate knowledge in a value-neutral way, independent of embodied experience.

Feminists have brought into focus the organic relationship between gendered subjectivities and knowledge. They have debunked dominant assumptions that an individual is able to generate knowledge in a value-neutral way, independent of embodied experience. Drawing on the feminist notion that embodied experience substantively shapes ideas and theory, I suggest that Ibn Arabi’s experiences with women in his life also pour into his work. Experience, in its myriad forms, undoubtedly provides an epistemological base for Ibn Arabi’s cosmology.

Many scholars of Ibn Arabi focus primarily on his mystical experiences to explain his gendered cosmology. Some scholars often present Ibn Arabi’s multilayered relationships with his female teachers, wives, disciples, daughters, sisters, and friends as interesting but incidental biographical information. Others reinforce an impermeable binary between the pure transcendence of his "vertical" mystical experience as impervious to social and "horizontal" influences (Nasr 1976). I disagree. One cannot discount all dimensions of his experiences, and, in particular, his relationships with women. In fact, Ibn Arabi’s unitary religious worldview defies rigid separations between the different forms of human experience. One could cogently argue that in Ibn Arabi’s framework, all experiences interpenetrate one another, together sculpting the mosaic of signs (ayat) that point to the divine.

A comment by Ibn Arabi alludes to an intriguing interface between his mystical and gendered social experience. He states that when he first embarked on the spiritual path, he intensely disliked women and sex. This instinctual aversion to women caused him great consternation, since it was contrary to a prophetic tradition that God made women lovable to the Prophet Muhammad. Accordingly, the prophetic love for women was not due only to Muhammad’s natural inclinations but was a divinely bestowed love. Ibn Arabi, fearing divine wrath for despising what the Prophet loved, beseeched God to intervene with his paltry state. Consequently, he found that his condition of aversion was dissipated and states exuberantly:

God made women lovable to me and I am the greatest of all creation in compassion towards them and in guarding their rights because in this matter I am acting on insight and it is from them [women] being made lovable to me [by God] and not from love that proceeds from my own nature. (Ibn Arabi 1911a, 4:84)

While a cynic might interpret this comment as a retrospective defense against the controversy stirred by Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman, this comment is evocative. Ibn Arabi informs us that his gender lenses are directly informed by mystical insights and his desire to emulate the prophetic example. Significant is Ibn Arabi’s claim that love, compassion, and justice toward women are divine mandates on men, based on prophetic example. They are not simply the product of individual disposition or natural propensities in some men. Ibn Arabi in a dominantly patriarchal context is making a sweeping assertion. Claiming religious authority on the basis of both inspiration and prophetic example, he demands that the men in societies characterized by gender asymmetry are obliged to relate to women with love and benevolence. More especially this anecdote reflects the porous nature of the mystical and personal dimensions of human experience. It also informs us that within privileged classes in Islamic intellectual history, one also finds men who have resisted and contested dominant gender norms in some or other manner.

By suggesting that Ibn Arabi’s personal and everyday relationships with women are intimately woven into his mystical perspectives, I attempt to dissolve popular neat binaries that represent mysticism as an entirely an other-worldly, esoteric spirituality detached from the immediate, embodied world. I also attempt to engender Islamic mysticism by posing a foundational epistemological question of the relationship between multiple forms of gendered human experience in the production of mystical knowledge.

Moreover, retrieving powerful women in Ibn Arabi’s life opens up alternative ways of reading the Muslim past. Such rethinking of the collective Muslim memory troubles traditional models of submissive femininity, facilitating more expansive models for women’s religious subjectivities. It also counters reductionist views of Islam as fundamentally oppressive and misogynist as portrayed by neo-colonial feminists. Finally Ibn Arabi’s personal relationships and mystical perspectives on women provide rich traditional resources to Muslim feminists in developing a contemporary gender imaginary informed by an ethics of reciprocity, generosity, spiritual plenitude, and human equality.


  1. For a rich discussion on the relationship between gender, subjectivity, and knowledge, see Alcoff and Potter (1993).
  2. For varied feminist approaches to the study of religion, see, for example, the edited collection by Darlene Juschka (2001).
  3. For powerful earlier feminist critiques of universalist notions of women’s experience, see, for example, Mohanty, Russo, and Torres (1991).
  4. For an excellent summary of major insights from intersectionality, see Mackinnon (2013). The theoretical pioneer on intersectionality is Kimberle Crenshaw (1989).
  5. In addition to Hamid Dabashi’s work, I draw also on two other excellent political analyses of this type of memoir genre authored, respectively, by Abou Bakr (2011) and Mahmoud (2011).
  6. The rhetoric of fighting Muslim terrorists to save Muslim women echoes an earlier colonial trope described by Gayatri Spivak (1988) in the context of British imperialism in India as "white men saving brown women from brown men."
  7. In 2012, Manji also received the New York Society for Ethical Cultures award as "Ethical Humanist."
  8. In this regard, see also Shaikh (2003).
  9. See, for example, the works of Abou Bakr (2003), Barlas (2002), Mir Hosseini (2003), Silvers (2006), and Wadud (2006).
  10. Critical and constructive contemporary feminist readings are part of an ongoing tradition of creating and producing Islam, one that Muslim women have been more actively claiming from at least the 1990s.
  11. I am aware of the seeming paradox presented by foregrounding the feminist category of "experience" and then focusing on the experiences of an influential male mystic and his relationships to women. However, as I argue in more detail in the longer version of this article, it is vital for committed Islamic feminist scholarsto examine traditional and canonical texts which are almost exclusively written by men, to read with gender-sensitive lenses, and to scrutinize the variety of gender discourses within these sources. Male voices in the canon are neither singular nor homogenous. At certain times, male scholars dissent from the reigning patriarchal order. At other times, these same scholars reinforce such norms. Recouping the diversity as well as the instability of gender constructs in the tradition provides contemporary Muslims with a more nuanced and expansive entry point for engaging gender in relation to the tradition.
  12. The phrase "the personal is political" was first coined by Carol Hanisch (1970).
  13. My creative analysis of Ibn Arabi’s representation of women suggests possibilities for understanding events and the relationship between events that can neither be proved nor disproved empirically. Such an approach is informed by a feminist hermeneutic that seeks the creative excavation of women represented at the borders of texts. This approach to the past does not always accord with the demand for historically verifiable data that might characterize traditional scholarship. Spivak (1981) encourages reading symptomatically beyond a text to explore its gaps, absences, and contradictions, which reveal the text’s "unnaturalness" and thus uncover "another logic haunting its surface." She notes that attending to these "marginal moments" in the text enables the reader to reflect critically on the ways in which a text might participate in a given ideology.
  14. For a more detailed and nuanced discussion of Ibn Arab’s gendered ideas, see my book, Shaikh (2012).
  15. See, for example, Ibn Arabi (1911a 2: 25).
  16. Shaikh (2012, 119–120; 152–172).
  17. For a more detailed description of all these relationships to women, see Shaikh (2012, 99–104).
  18. Only one of these female disciples, called Zumurrād, elicited a critical poem from Ibn Arabi for abandoning his khirqa. This incident, however, also speaks to the kinds of agency Sufi women had even in relation to powerful teachers.
  19. The challenges of conceptualizing female personhood in ways that integrate embodiment and spirituality continue in the contemporary Muslim world. Coercive social practices that constrain and restrict women’s lives, mobility, and behavior are evident in contexts such as Iran, where the state enforces specific forms of modest dressing on women, and Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited from driving cars or traveling without the permission of their male guardians. Underlying such practices are problematic patriarchal conceptions of the gendered relationship between spirit and body.
  20. For an example of the ways in which Sufi psychology promotes a persistent state of awareness and vigilance with the self, see the works of Muhasibi in Sells (1996).


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This paper is a shorter version of an article entitled “Feminism, Epistemology and Experience: Critically (En)gendering the Study of Islam” published in the Journal for Islamic Studies (Vol. 33, 2013, 14–47), included here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.