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.

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Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

Since Ramadan began, my wife and I have seen quite a few posts and reflections regarding the inability of mothers to spend their time and energy in ritual devotion and spiritual development because of the demands of parenting (erm, I mean, mothering). Can’t make tarawih prayers at the mosque, someone has to stay home with the kids. Can’t read much Qur’an, the kids require too much attention. Can’t devote time to any worship beyond the bare requirements, too many responsibilities in the home.

With this come of course the reassuring statements by religious authorities that their energy and time spent in fulfilling their familial responsibilities as mothers and wives is itself a form of worship and obedience to God, and will be rewarded equal to the ritual devotion that they are missing out on.

Of course, there is no doubt that fulfilling one’s obligations and duties in life is part of our worship of and relationship with God, and is morally and spiritually meaningful. That is an important reminder and message of balance and reassurance. But, at the same time, there is something woefully lacking in such discourse. We have to have more to offer than mere comforting words about the reward of such obedience, some constructive and practical discussion of how to create opportunity for women to also participate in the abundant ritual blessings of Ramadan. So I have a few points in response to such communal rhetoric and discourse.

1) Firstly, just because those social and familial responsibilities are also a form of worship and obedience to God, it doesn’t take away from the unique role of ritual devotion specifically in our spiritual development and relationship with God. The spiritual fruits that we harvest through ritual practices (prayer, dhikr, reading Qur’an, meditation, etc.) are not the same as those that come from other forms of obedience and worship, and should not just be lightly cast aside.

2) Secondly, if it is true that serving your family and fulfilling your responsibilities to them is a form of worship, and we are serious about this, then this message needs to be directed not just towards women but men as well. After all, parenting is a joint endeavor and is the responsibility of both parents (in those families with a two-parent household). So yes, men too will get rewarded for taking care of their families and fulfilling their responsibilities to their children and wives. It is a form of worship and obedience to God for them as well. Otherwise, if we are not willing to emphasize this mutual responsibility, then it is clear that such rhetoric is nothing but an apologetic justification for women not having the opportunity to seek spiritual edification.

3) Thirdly, again, let’s focus on men for a bit, shall we? In all this rhetoric, women are as always valorized for their sacrifice for their families. In this case, even sacrificing their spiritual life. What we fail to recognize is that the flipside of such sacrifice is the spiritual greed of the men in our communities. Is the message we’re sending that it’s okay for men to be spiritually greedy, taking advantage of the ritual blessings of Ramadan without a care to the fact that the women in their lives are yearning for such spiritual opportunities but cannot have them? Is it not part of spiritual excellence and maturity to seek the betterment of others as well and promote a fair and balanced spiritual life for the whole?

4) That brings me to the practical considerations of what I’m talking about. In most situations, there is really no reason why one partner should take all the hits spiritually. So if you are privileged enough to be able to perform tarawih prayers together as a couple at home, do that instead of going to the mosque. If you prefer praying at the mosque or are not able to adequately perform tarawih yourselves, then alternate who goes and who stays with the kids, or figure out babysitting, etc. In general, alternate who gets to spend some extra time alone praying, reading Qur’an, meditating, reading dhikrs, etc., and who takes care of the kids. Share responsibilities and tasks so that both partners have a bit more time to concentrate on their spirituality. Each situation and each couple’s dynamics are unique and particular to them, but the bottom line is: negotiate, compromise, and figure something out that works for both people.

We hear endless apologetics from religious authorities about how in Islam the social roles of men and women may not be the same, but they are nonetheless “spiritually equal”. As a community, however, we need to think long and hard on how to make the concept of “spiritual equality” more than just superficial rhetoric that essentially means “you will not be punished in the afterlife for being a woman”. That is not spiritual equality, that is simply a notion of God that is not terribly unjust and arbitrary in His omnipotence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If it is to be a meaningful concept at all, spiritual equality can’t just be about the next life, it has to be about this life too, about the experience of religious and spiritual life. Otherwise our women are privileged to enjoy the same “spiritual equality” as African-American slaves, who were promised that fulfilling their social role and obeying their slave-masters would land them in heaven in the next life. I, for one, don’t think that is a standard of spiritual equality that we should settle for.

~Zaid