Zahra Ayubi, Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society (Columbia University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Zahra Ayubi (ZA): Often when Muslims take a gender biased position or engage in sexist practices, they do not do so by first checking with the Islamic scriptural or intellectual traditions. Yet many Muslims justify patriarchal beliefs and practices using those traditions on a post hoc basis. To me this disconnect demonstrates that the understanding of Islam as patriarchal is the result of deeply held philosophical beliefs that play out in everyday ethics, as much as it might be a result of religious interpretations. When I read the philosophical ethics treatises that I focus on in my book for the first time, my two interests within the study of Islam—gender and ethics—came organically together and I just had to write about them.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ZA: I analyze constructions of masculinity, femininity, and gender relations in widely influential classical works of Islamic philosophical ethics. A question that Gendered Morality begins with is why medieval Islamic ethicists created hierarchical, male centered virtue ethics despite being presented with potentially radical notions of equality in early Islamic sources. I argue that the ethicists did not believe in ontological equality of all human beings in the first place, as evidenced by their male normative metaphysics and virtue ethics of inequality. I base my discussions about gender in three Islamic philosophical ethics (or akhlaq) texts, Kimiya-i Sa`adat or The Alchemy of Happiness by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1111); Akhlaq-i Nasiri or The Nasirean Ethics by Nasir-ad Din Tusi (d. 1274); and Akhlaq-i Jalali or The Jalalean Ethics by Jalal ad-Din Davani (d. 1502). The goal of these texts is to provide ethical guidelines for men to achieve sa`adah (eudaimonia or ultimate happiness) and khilafah (vicegerency of God).
Gendered Morality is about analyzing ideal Muslim masculinity, even more than about women or ideal femininity, because the path of ethical refinement is by and for men, and about how men should cultivate ethical selves and relationships with female kin and other men. I examine how Ghazali, Tusi, and Davani conceive of the primary ethical human being as an elite male, within a hierarchical cosmology of male intelligence that requires a man to discipline himself, the members of his household, and his community according to the science of ethics while ruling over women and non-elite men. The ethicists assume that all women are intellectually deficient and do not have the same capacity for ethical discipline as elite men. They make similar assumptions about flaws in enslaved and other non-elite men, but attribute their reduced ethical potential to their lesser social classes. Just as the ethics of marriage tell us about hierarchical gender relations, so too the ethics of friendship, work, and court life tell us about hierarchies in the dynamics of homosocial male relations and what ultimate masculinity entails.
In order to achieve sa`adah and become a khalifa, the elite man is meant to instrumentalize his wife and children for his own ethical and spiritual refinement, and also utilize male underlings such as enslaved men, servants, and disciples in his paternalistic performance of justice. For the ethicists, justice is the top-down creation of social circumstances in which every individual plays a role according to their social class and aptitude to serve the elites who, in turn, are meant to discipline society to reflect Divine purpose–just as the ethicists believe God intended. In this way, although the ethics texts are about individual refinement, they require exploitative utilization of everyone who is not an elite male.
Yet, I argue that in the course of prescribing ethical behavior to men as a response to the real or imagined ethical evils posed by women and men of lower ethical capacity who must be disciplined, the ethicists speak of complex gendered and human relations that at times contradict their hierarchical cosmology. The akhlaq genre remains compelling because it is practical, it is about how an individual can be a force of justice, and it is rooted in appealing classical epistemologies of Islamic thought.
The question of what can or should be retained from classical ethics texts requires careful philosophical consideration. And so, by disrupting the normative male study of Islamic ethics by examining the gendered nature of metaphysics and virtue ethics, I call for a philosophical turn in the study of gender in Islam. Because of their male-centric notions of ethics—and their implicit and sometimes explicit misogyny—these classical Muslim ethics texts shed light on important philosophical problems of our day, especially how we ought to think of human refinement and ethical human relations outside of a system that necessitates exploitative hierarchy.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ZA: This book examines the philosophical underpinnings of the gender paradigms in Islamic thought that I have been studying for years. Islamic ethics is an academic construct centered on the moral ethos found in Islamic sources including Qur’an, Hadith, akhlaq, jurisprudence, sufism, as well as the practices of Muslims. My work is about gender in Islamic ethics broadly and premodern and contemporary philosophical ethics, specifically. While I am personally committed to the study of gender through Islamic ethics, most scholars focus on other genres, especially Qur’an and jurisprudence when studying gender in Islam, whether or not they employ ethics as a construct. In calling for a philosophical turn, I mean to champion philosophical approaches to work in concert with other methods, especially ethnography, in order to account for gender in Muslim life and belief.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ZA: Like all first academic books published by university presses, the primary audience is academic, but I have written it so that the book can be accessible to all lay intellectuals interested in gender, Islam, Islamic philosophy, and so on. I have also developed a reading and teaching guide for lay readers because I know that the topic of gender roles in the Islamic intellectual tradition, especially Islamic ethics, is deeply personal for many people. I hope that readers will think seriously about the merits of philosophical approaches to big questions we all, not just Muslims, confront today.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ZA: I am continuing work on gender in Islamic ethics. I am writing a Greenwall Foundation supported book on Muslim women’s experiences in medical ethics decision making. Islamic medical ethics is a jurisprudence or fiqh-dominated area that very much needs some philosophical treatment in order to think through ideas of the self, the body, autonomy, and religious authority beyond what fiqh-based approaches accommodate. I am also working on a series of articles looking at gender in various topics of Islamic philosophy.
Excerpt from the book
From pages 241-244 of Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society by Zahra Ayubi Copyright (c) 2019 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Findings of Feminist Reading of Akhlaq
As my reading reveals, the texts frame the ethical man’s ultimate goals, and the means by which he is to achieve them, as requiring the subordination of people who are thought to be deficient in rationality: namely, women of all classes and men of lower social classes. According to these texts, the ultimate goals for the ethical man are twofold: happiness/flourishing (sa‘adat) and vicegerency (khilafah). The former is achieved by ordering one’s nafs using tahdhib-i akhlaq and becoming an ‘alam-i saghir (microcosm of the world) unto oneself. Then, the latter is achieved by becoming a source of happiness/flourishing (sa‘adat) or justice (‘adalat) for people in one’s household and city. The crux of the akhlaq texts is rationality, a faculty whose possession and use are explicitly associated with elite masculinity. In order for a man to reach either version (happiness/flourishing or justice) of the goal of akhlaq, he must subdue his irascible and concupiscent faculties to his rational faculty, promoting justice by placing things where they belong and ordering provisions for everyone around him according to their deserts. The ethical man practices moderation in all things, including eating, drinking, and relations with family, friends, and enemies. He works hard to train his nafs, learn his craft, and marry in such a way as to support God’s creation. He ensures that the nafses of his wife and children are disciplined, and he continuously respects his father while financially supporting his mother. He has the ability to live a streamlined life, pragmatic and utilitarian. Yet, according to the ethicists, all of these ethical behaviors are achieved for the benefit of people who are thought to be deficient in rationality— that is, women in general, and men of lower social classes. Elite men achieve rationality so they do not have to.
The ethicists do have their share of justifications, however unsatisfactory, for elevating elite men over all women and over men of lower classes. First, they appeal to natural law, authenticating their patriarchal visions of society by ascribing their conception of ideal manhood to natural laws of God’s creation and defining the metaphysics of the self using descriptions of human nature. Second, although the ethicists hail from differing sectarian perspectives and epistemologies, they refer to shared scriptural sources for support. Third and most significantly, the backbone of the akhlaq texts’ patriarchal ethics are the authors’ core assumptions about the nature of gender and intellectual hierarchies among people of differing classes. The gendered nature of their ethics supersedes any sectarian or epistemological allegiances they may have about the origin and authority of moral knowledge. In the akhlaq authors’ view, women’s nafses have intellectual defects, and they are thus limited to two roles. In their role as wives, women are charged with managing the home so that their husbands can occupy themselves with the lofty goals of transcendence and becoming microcosms of the world. In women’s role as mothers, they are biological vessels for carrying and nourishing children in their early years. Similarly, the ethicists’ view of men of lower social classes is that they are intellectually deficient, and therefore their role is likewise to provide ancillary support to men of higher social classes by fulfilling social and economic functions according to their skills. The ethicists’ assumptions about gender and hierarchy, largely submerged in prior readings of these texts, are revealed and explicated by my close readings of the akhlaq texts.
Yet, even though my gendered reading of the akhlaq texts reveals their troubling exclusion of women, lower-class men, and enslaved persons, the tradition still remains deeply important to Muslim thought both historically and epistemologically. Akhlaq texts take on universal questions and themes as they offer guidance on how to live as an individual, in a family, and in society. And it seems clear that, for all their gendered elitism, the texts in some sense succeed in providing readers with answers to perennial questions on how to live the good, moral life in service of God’s plan. Even as the akhlaq texts explicitly support elite male power, they simultaneously elevate a core constitution of humanity, the intellect, that may possibly be available to a much wider range of humanity. The value in these texts lies in the questions they ask about what makes us human and about the purpose of human life. Admittedly, the answers they develop to these questions entail an understanding of the self as male, the home as male- dominated, and society as a hierarchy headed by elite and natural male leadership. Still, it is possible for us to sort out how the views expressed in the texts are historically bound (concomitant to prevailing gender assumptions of the times), and how we might answer these same questions about the good life differently in the twenty-first century. At stake in engaging these texts is not just women’s access to philosophical- ethical- religious thought about how to live the good life, but also the substance of that thought itself: the very definition of what it means to be human, the possibilities for women and subjugated others to exist in metaphysical understandings of the world, and the opportunities for virtue ethics to accommodate women, as well as men.
If we cannot dismiss the importance of these texts, then we must develop a set of tools for engaging with them philosophically in light of their implicitly gendered and hierarchical assumptions. The question is, how can highly celebrated akhlaq texts, which are even reproduced in convenient Kindle editions for popular consumption worldwide, still hold ethical validity and be read widely despite their problematic status as male normative? Can ethics texts that marginalize women and have a narrow vision of masculinity be recovered? Can an entire ethical tradition meant for men be in some ways useful to women? Can there be a virtue ethics, or account of transcendence and khilafah, that does not in some way depend on the utilization or immanence of others?
The problem runs deeper than the fact that the texts are rhetorically addressed only to men. Such a lexical issue could be solved with clever grammatical tricks and translation. The real problem is that the discipline of akhlaq itself— the path to happiness and fulfillment of God’s intent for humanity— is, at its core, designed only for elite men and is reliant on the subordination of all others. It is an ethics of exclusion. What is the meaning of ethical refinement or good society, if only some people get to experience these particular ends? The issues underlying these questions are profound, raising still more questions about what constitute knowledge, who has access to knowledge, and how we understand humanness. Considering such questions requires a philosophical framework, which as I show in the next sections, is the culmination of my argument.