As human beings we continue to grapple with the perennial existential questions. Why are we here? What is the purpose of human existence? What is the ultimate end of human life? What is human nature? How do we live with integrity and beauty as human beings? How do we discern and enact virtue? How do human beings live in harmony with each other and with other forms of existence? What is the relationship between social ethics and spiritual transformation? What is the nature of connections between the individual and the social, or the realms of the personal and those of the political?
These questions invariably lead us to issues of diversity and difference. When it comes to diversity, issues of race are not all that different from concerns about gender. As Samia Rahman noted in her article on misogyny in Islam, Muslim scholars have often seen the other half of humanity as ‘the race of women’. Today some people (more often men), tend to think about gender as a separate question from being human; some see it as one of ‘those women’s issues’ and consider it as secondary or incidental to the deeper human pursuits of spiritual transformation. In fact, it should actually be a less significant question since many of us agree that men and women have access to the same spiritual realities. So gender ideally should be simply one more manifestation of divine grace and plenitude. However in reality, spirituality is always also lived, experienced and engaged within interpersonal and social spaces which are saturated by gender-biased and hierarchical norms. So, many women seeking a life of spiritual growth and social engagement often encounter a gender barricade at some point or other in their lives. This is true for women in a variety of religious traditions.
Gender hierarchies within and outside religions most often intersect with a number of other prevailing forms of injustice. Despite staggering diversity, our world continues to be characterised by global socio-economic and gendered structures that benefit a relatively small elite group of people. These insidious global hegemonies are accompanied by social norms that prize aggressive individualism and self-interest, and which are thoroughly enmeshed in intersecting axes of gendered/raced/classed power. In many contexts, political, economic, family, and religious institutions serve to reproduce the privilege of elite groups. Specialised studies in the social sciences might analyse the impact of globalising capital markets on specific local political economies or ways in which invisible structural relations reinforce forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, or class privilege in particular societies. However, from a religious perspective another set of questions might arise: do these external inequalities, or social injustices and ecological imbalances have a spiritual dimension? Is there an underlying human spiritual deficit responsible for social hierarchies and discriminatory ideologies? What might be some of the principle deficits in human nature that support sexist, racist, classist narratives? Why is there seemingly such a short supply of human sociality and ethics characterised by values of generosity, compassion, empathy, and collective care and social concern? How do we foster alternatives to the prevalent hierarchical and masculinist ways of being human, practices that continue to deliver a harvest of war, destruction, suffering, and death? What models of human nature might produce different ways of being and social possibilities?
In struggling with sexist religious practices and teachings in my own context, I have realised that most justifications for gender inequality were based on an underlying problematic: a biased and discriminatory religious conception of human nature. In religious studies jargon we describe such an essential shortcoming to be part of a deficiency in ‘gendered religious anthropology’. In other words, patriarchal behaviour and social ethics are often built on religious ideas of the human person. And religious ideas are in turn gendered in distinct and exclusivist ways. In my search for alternative and more egalitarian foundational narratives of the human person, I discovered the works of a prolific and original thinker, the thirteenth century Sufi, Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi.
In ibn Arabi’s works, I found that issues of gender and related ethical norms were embedded within an Islamic cosmology that deeply engaged the questions of what it means to be a human being. Here, politics and spirituality informed each other in a genuinely integrated manner and speak directly to contemporary Muslim concerns. Ibn Arabi’s thought could be applied not only to critique patriarchy and sexism but is equally valuable for the conceptions of self and power, aspects that animate and inform social hierarchies such as racism and classism.