Gender and spiritual wholeness: a response

In response to the previous blog post on the concept of spiritual equality in light of Ramadan parenting discussions, we received a thoughtful and intelligent comment on the piece by a very sharp and insightful sister, challenging the assumption that women’s spirituality and spiritual needs/experiences should be evaluated and judged on the basis of a male-centered standard and perspective that prioritizes ritual worship over child-rearing. Women’s spirituality, she argued, is unique and particular to their experiences and roles and should be respected and appreciated as such. While I very much value and appreciate her contribution to the discussion, the following is a clarification and further elaboration of my perspective on the matter:

To begin, I did not in any way intend to suggest that ritual worship is more important than taking care of children. Rather, I said that it has a unique function and role, i.e., that it provides different fruits than other forms of spiritual life and worship, but not that it is better or more beneficial than those. Indeed, I would be the last person to promote ritualism as the ideal of the spiritual path. I firmly believe that spirituality is about holistic living. And a life of ritualistic devotion without engaging in the world and without attention to one’s various social and moral obligations and responsibilities is a shallow and superficial spirituality that means very little. But that doesn’t mean that ritual devotion doesn’t play an important role in that journey, as a connection to the Divine through ritual brings the sacred dimension into the rest of our experiences and engagements in life so that those things can be experienced fully and contribute to our spiritual growth. So I am in no way trying to diminish the importance of child-rearing (and other forms of social/familial responsibilities) in one’s spiritual growth.

As for the very crucial point regarding the need to acknowledge the particular experiences of women and not evaluating them on the basis of a male normative standard, I agree that this is quite important, and in fact my partner-in-crime Saadia is currently in the midst of writing a blog post on that precise topic, on the need to develop a communal discourse that positively recognizes and validates women’s unique and particular experiences in a life of faith and spirituality rather than simply treating them as an exception and afterthought.

That being said, I also do not see such a rigid bifurcation between male and female experience and spirituality that should not at some level be bridged. In fact a good portion of my motivation in taking the positions I do on gender stems from a desire to see more “femininity” inculcated in men. A number of years ago, I began to realize that my own moral and spiritual growth was being hindered and held back precisely because I was lacking in qualities, traits, and values that we normally associate with “femininity”, and I have since very self-consciously tried to inculcate those in myself.

We can I think understand this matter through the prism of the concept of “acquiring/embodying the traits and attributes of Allah” (al-takhalluq bi khuluq/asma’ Allah) that has been so famously and beautifully discussed by such towering figures as Imam al-Ghazali and Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi, among many others. In order to become more whole and perfect human beings and radiate the Divine light within us, we must inculcate and manifest in ourselves the various “beautiful names of Allah” (as appropriate to our servanthood of course). And in order to reach towards perfection, we must manifest those names and attributes in the most balanced and holistic way possible, giving each attribute its due and appropriate share (e.g. “mercy precedes wrath” as a principle). We also know that among these names and attributes of Allah, there are the “jamālī” and the “jalālī” names, that is, those having to do with beauty and those having to do with power/majesty. These have also often been associated with femininity and masculinity, respectively. God, of course, encompasses the entire spectrum of attributes, both the beautiful/feminine as well as majestic/masculine. And in light of that, the most perfect and whole human being will also manifest a balance of the various attributes, both “feminine” and “masculine”. We see this most beautifully illustrated in the example of our beloved, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who clearly embodied many beautiful qualities and traits that would normally be deemed feminine, to the extent that it was said that he was “as shy/modest (haya’) as a virgin girl”. (The prophet’s femininity in the context of a machismo culture of masculinity is the topic for a future blog post as well, inshallah.)

The point I am making is that the spiritual well-being and wholesomeness of men is also hindered by being restricted to “male” roles and modes of existing in the world. That is a severe limitation on one’s experience of being human. We should not box ourselves into these idealized categories of femininity and masculinity, they are not rigid empirical categories that map directly onto being women and men in real life. So we men should also be trying to cultivate in ourselves the beautiful feminine qualities of nurturance and self-sacrifice that are so crucial to child-rearing, as a crucial part of our spiritual development.