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CRUCIBLE: Woman and Spirituality (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 10 Dec) – When Malala Yousafzai received the Nobel Prize three months ago, there were mixed reactions both in Western media and those in the Muslim world.

There was, on one side, expression of appreciation that a Muslim girl, at least, could receive such prestigious award. On other side, there were commentaries how Yousafzai has been used as “poster” girl in order to project Western values as it highlights even more the contradiction in the Muslim world.

The subtlety of reactions can also be gleaned particularly amongst feminists in the way they see the West’s hypocrisy in Yousafzai’s project given that she is, as an image, not enough to effect substantive human right reforms on women in many Muslim countries. Obviously, the most pungent opposition comes from radical Islamic fundamentalists; the fact that Malala Yousafzai was shot – fortunately she survived – by a group of Taliban claiming that Western education is not in accord with the teaching of Islam and that women have only their place at home.


The ambiguity of location of Muslim women as represented with the case of Malala Yousafzai is highlighted in these two polarized positions. It reflects the over-all experience of many Muslim women in many parts of the world, imposing on them difficult dilemma (not to mention stigma) and must have long prodded them to raise question what point of spectrum they should position themselves: either that of Western liberalism with strong feminist undertone or the extreme stance on women advanced by radical Islamic fundamentalists.

In our view, this tension has long characterized the ambiguity Muslim women have been in these past several years, if not decades, as they are bombarded with varying perspectives not only contradictory; at times, they strike the core of their status as woman.

There are obviously efforts to address this dilemma with the realization in many Muslim countries the need to come up with counter position to reduce the stigma of many Muslim women. Some efforts including literatures that have, so far, been written about them hardly take in-depth examination of the issue. Often, some works appear like propaganda materials couched in old, weary titles like “Women in Islam” and so on.

Obviously, some works have some strong points, but hardly they provide comprehensive understanding and fresh perspectives of Islam regarding women and how Muslim woman should be armed with universal teachings so that they could have more effective ways or methodology to address their dilemma where they also articulate more informed and enlightened perspectives amid the onslaught of above-mentioned ideologies and the challenges they posed.

Shari’ah and ruhaniyyah

In our observation, what happened in the discourse on Muslim women these past years has mostly been focused on the question of dividing the bundle of rights, say, between sexes. Also, from Islamic experience, the articulation is mostly based on limited prism of shari’ah or Islamic law. While some perspectives therein are important; yet, as shari’ah entails delineation of gender function, rights, and obligations, then there obviously would surface perception of inequality and injustice perpetrated against Muslim women.

Such a prism, we said, while important as it allows clarification of what and how much right should Muslim woman have in light of Islamic thought, shari’ah-centric approach, as frequently presented, is generally divorced from more holistic arch of haqiqah or truth or reality – that is, it is generally detached from inner development ideas of ruhaniyyah or spirituality as a universal theme or principle.

Thus, the situation persists like a tug of war not only between Western liberal-feminists vis-à-vis Islamic fundamentalists and few others with Muslim women caught in between; the tension, in fact, surfaces more glaringly the contradiction faced by women within Muslim society. Thus, Muslim women face dual challenges not only in relation to the other; but they have to face, too, the internal problem within Muslim society.

When we articulate a view using ruhaniyyah that domain of Islam’s inner tradition or spirituality perspective, it is to allow us to, at least, take a general purview of the issue, as it provides a unifying perspective that will help clarify the dilemma faced by Muslim women.

This means we have to be armed not only with clear understanding of Western liberalism and feminism and their views on Islam and Muslim woman; we have to be also articulate on issues about religious orthodoxy and radical fundamentalism in the Muslim world and how such strand has been intensified recently; henceforth, adding into the problem instead in emancipating Muslim women from bondage of oppression and other gender-related challenges.

More importantly, we have to be armed with basic understanding of Islamic thought especially the fundamental concepts particularly those in the Qur’an regarding the idea of man and woman.

Nafs wahidah

Suratu n-nisa, as you know, is a chapter of the Qur’an that speaks extensively about nisa or woman. We find in the opening of said sura a general frame how woman is conceived in the Holy Qur’an, when it says:

“O mankind! Reverence your Guardian Lord, who created you from a single Person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women; – Reverence God, through Whom, ye demand your mutual (rights) and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for God ever watches over you (1).”

This is a fundamental theme in the way human being is viewed and how man and woman are understood where the latter as mentioned in the Qur’an as zawjaha or his wife or mate. It suggests the nature of human being as “pair” while essentially undergirded with the notion nafs wahidah or “single soul” or “single person.”

The ulama (scholars) of tafsir or exegesis, incidentally, are quite varied in their commentaries about the notion of nafs wahidah. Ibn Kathir, for instance, speaks about the single person as Adam.

But Yusuf Ali categorized the notion of nafs wahidah to mean soul or spirit or person impressing that while this entity of Adamic persona is important, what is equally emphasized is the fact that both man and woman come from the same origin, that is – from the same nafs wahidah. They proceed from the same nature, although they vary in their function. The latter (e.g., physiological, biological, sexual functions) thus should not be viewed as sole standard into which the status of either man or woman is understood. In other words, their varying functions do not nullify or minimize the fact that they come from the same source or from the same origin.

Incidentally, there are many words in the Qur’an related to the term man like insan or dhakar, or rajul, bashar, and so on. What is important, the term insan or man also has the same derivative or etymology with that of nisa or woman, which also carries the same derivative like that of nisyan, which means forgetful or forgetfulness.

These terms – insannisanisyan – are derived from trilateral Arabic word nasa, which means invariably as: “to persevere;” “to be active in everything.” It also means “to forget.” It also means “a woman living in a family way.” The Arabs would use to call their camels and prod them to walk or stop with the same root word. It also means “to halt death and allow him or someone to live much longer.”

What is important to emphasize is that, the term insan carries a holistic definition to include the concept of both man and woman. The notion nafs wahidah (single soul/person) mentioned three times in the Qur’an carries the same tone in terms of common origin of human being whether one is man or woman.

Incidentally, the phrasing of the Qur’an regarding the first man (i.e., Adam) is frequently followed with “his wife” or “Adam wa zawjuha” or “anta wa zawjuka” or “you and your wife.” It is hardly the case where they are mentioned separately. Although dhakar and untha would mean man and woman, they are understood in different level of meaning.

Primal covenant

What is significant to note is the fact that, the concept of man in the Qur’an is viewed with the frame of universality. The Adamic man must be conceived in different level with the fact that there is a pre-Adamic entity called nafs or spirit.

Essentially, when we speak of Adam in its original Arabic term, it is derived etymologically from adum, which means nothing. It is really nothing. Adam simply gains existence when he received the “Divine breath” that is mentioned in the Qur’an that says: “wa nafakhtu fihi min ruhihi” (“And I breathe unto him My Spirit”) (Al-hajar: 29).” In other words, it was only then when Adam becomes a human being.

Although there are ahadith (Prophetic sayings) that talk about Hawa as Adam’s wife, which is accordingly originally taken from the rib of Adam and this is also partly Biblical, the name Hawa is not mentioned in the Holy Qur’an.

In most cases, Hawa is referred to as “his wife” emphasizing thus unity and parity than distinctness and singularity. What is emphasized even further, in fact, in the hadith is for man to take care of woman because there is that part in his rib that is weak – that is, man should rather be kind and loving to woman. It is not in a manner where it is generally impressed that woman simply comes from man’s rib therefore she is of lower status.

The flip side of rib argument is that, we can take the fact that Hawa is taken from the rib of Adam to mean that she is special. So that when adum, meaning that nothing entity becomes Adam as the Adamic man, there is already that prior special entity in Adam himself. This means the special place of woman in the persona of Adam must be taken as primordial that connects even more to high standing that Islam vests on woman.

When we emphasized this perspective it is because we cannot hear this view from those radical fundamentalists, feminists including the Western liberals articulating this rather unique trait given by Islam to woman.

More importantly, when we highlight that pre-Adamic entity called nafs as important, it is because it is the entity that has declared and testified the primal covenant or mithaq even before the creation of Adam (AS). The Holy Qur’an says:

“When they Lord drew forth from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves saying: Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?” – They said: Yea! We do testify (A’raf: 172)!”

The testifying of the nafs that constitutes the nafs wahidah or single soul is prior to the creation of Adam (AS). In other words, those who testified were all man and women without any differentiation of their sex and function.

Incidentally, this is an important perspective because the root word nisyan, which, we said, is also the same with insan and nisa, which means forgetfulness, is essentially a trait present in both man and woman. For instance, the Qur’an says: “They have forgotten God; so He forgotten them (Tawbah: 67).”

This is a verse referring to certain group of people. But the important thing to mention is that the notion of nisyan is the very nature of both man and woman who are forgetful. They (e.g., Adam and his wife) are forgetful because accordingly they violated the primal covenant, which implies servanthood or ‘ubudiyyah. The forgetfulness happens when accordingly they felt that they were god themselves. This is the reason why it was easy for Iblis (i.e., Satan) to whisper to do what we call the “waswas” as the cause of their instant forgetfulness leading into their vanishing from Paradise.

But the point we would like to raise is, if there are functional differences including social and structural contradictions that shaped the relation between man and woman in the phenomenal world, of course, these are important; but these have to be framed in the context of Islamic perspective of oneness or unity given that, as we said, both man and woman come from the same source, from the same nafs wahidah or single soul.

There are many traditions of the Prophet that revere the status of woman in Islam. For instance, in a famous tradition it reads: “Paradise lies at the barefoot of mothers.” This means no one deserves a paradise (if that his or her intention) except that he or she should serve his or her mother.

Mothers or women are thus carriers of wombs or rahm, which is the root word of Divine names Rahmanor Mercy. Women thus are “creators.” And they are “progenitors” of mercy as they carry the womb. This is the reason why the Qur’an emphasizes in the verse we mentioned: “Reverence God through whom you demand your mutual rights and reverence the wombs that bore you. For God ever watches over you.”

Another strong tradition is the recognition of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) on the four great women, namely: Asya bint Muzahim, the wife of Pharoah who was martyred because she embraced the teachings of Moses; Maryam, the mother of Isa or Jesus (AS); Khadija, the wife of the Prophet (SAW); and Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). These are testaments how women are revered in the Qur’an and in the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

Ideal and reality

Despite these reverence however, there was a twist in the early period of the ummah or Muslim community especially when the ideals of Islam and the holistic views on man and women that was lived by the Prophet and the sahabah (companions) and the sahabiyyah, the woman companions, were transgressed in varying phases in Islamic history.

There are probably few Muslim woman scholars who had done extensive research on the issue of woman in Islam. A case to note is the work or works of Fatima Mernissi that traced the position of woman in Islam in varying periods of history. In “Woman and Islam,” Mernissi writes:

“Ample historical evidence portrays women in the Prophet’s Madina raising their heads from slavery and violence to claim their right to join, as equal participants, in the making of Arab history. Women fled aristocratic tribal Mecca by the thousands to enter Madina, the Prophet’s city in the seventh century, because Islam promised equality and dignity for all, for men and women, masters and servants. Every woman who came to Madina when the Prophet was the political leader of Muslims could gain access to full citizenship, the status of sahabi, companion of the Prophet. Muslims can take pride that in their language they have the feminine of the word sahabiyat, women who enjoyed the right to enter into the councils of the Muslim umma, to speak freely to its Prophet-leader, to dispute with the men, to fight for their happiness, and to be involved in the management of military and political affairs. The evidence is there in the works of religious history, in the biographical details of sahabiyat by the thousand who built Muslim society side by side with their male counterparts (viii).”

This is the summary of Mernissi about the status of women especially during the time of the Prophet and the sahabah and sahabiyyah.

The twist of history happens especially when the reforms that were put in place by the Prophet and early sahabah were supplanted with new conception of social order by subsequent Islamic empires and Arab dynasties even reflecting jahiliyah or pre-Islamic tradition and culture; thus, making it difficult to identify which is essentially the teaching of Islam and the teachings of the Prophet about Islam on woman from those that are actually cultural or historical residues of pre-Islamic Arabia that returned and became part of dominant cultural tradition in subsequent Muslim communities.

This is, in sum, a background into ideals and reality that happened about the status of woman in Islam; wherein especially in recent time their ambiguous position has been intensified posing as serious dilemma especially when Western liberal interpretation with strong feminist undertone crept in and clashed with those from extreme orthodoxy and radical fundamentalism constricting thus the Muslim women even more.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (with minor revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 05 December 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]

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