Feminist Religious Studies

Sufi Epistemology as Supportive of Female Spirituality

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The Sufi ethic and hermeneutic are underscored by several principles including the path of love, the indefinability of the human being and God, and the openness to embrace pluralities.

These, it may be argued, have been of interest to feminist theorists and scholars of religion who find great importance in examining the experiences of women. This paper is partly a reflective exploration of these concepts by trying to establish their connection to feminism and will conclude with a personal insight of professor Amina Wadud’s seminar and the feminist scholar of religion Carol P. Christ, both of whom demonstrate women’s desire for a fulfilled spirituality.

Sufi Hermeneutics and Indefinability

For prominent historical Sufi thinkers there is a profound mystery underlying the human being and God, neither of whom can be known through or contained within binary, rational, and mutually exclusive categories. God especially defies capture within fixed categories because nothing that is perceived or thought of can be said to be or to capture God in of himself. Such a view has been described as “indefinability”, namely the impossibility of reducing the human being or God to a fixed category (Chittick 2012, 59-60).

Human indefinability is articulated in tafsir. For example, Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165-1240) uses Q37:164, in which an angel says: “Each of us has a known station”, as a broad application to humanity at large, contending that just as the angels all possess different stations so do human beings: human beings do not have a fixed station, are a work in progress, and therefore undefinable until death. Only upon death, reasons Ibn al-‘Arabi, do human beings enter into fixed stations like the angels. Sufi exegetes have also frequently cited surahs including 2:148 (“Everyone has a direction to which he turns”) and 3:31 (“If you love God, follow me, and God will love you”). 2:148 is often interpreted to affirm diversity within creation, a view feminist theorists have brought into the discussion (more on this below). 3:31 underpins the path of love, which constitutes central themes within the poetry of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273) and Shams Tabrizi (1185-1248) (Ahmed 2017, 75). The exegete Rashid al-Din Maybudi read the Qur’an as a love letter that employs, in Chittick’s words, “a lover’s approach to scripture” (Chittick 2012, 63). For Maybudi, Sura 25:43 (“Have you seen the one who has taken his own caprice as his god”) teaches that if the person looks with the eye of love she will recognize the true Beloved and therefore turn her attention away from other false objects of love. Journeying along the path of love, says Maybudi, results in endless good fortune and unlimited generosity.

Sufi Hermeneutics and Feminism

The Sufi hermeneutic employs a multiple meaning approach (Almond 2004, 108), predicated on the Qur’an’s capacity to hold “multiple layers and varied registers of meaning” (Shaikh 2019b, 5; also see Qur’an 31:27). Although for Sufi exegetes it is impossible to ever exhaust all the Qur’an’s meanings, it is possible to derive increasingly “better” interpretations of its text. An attractive (and “better”) hermeneutical reading for feminist theorists is one that assists in providing “a radically destabilizing view of human nature” (Shaikh 2019b, 1-2). This reading intends to bring Sufi concepts and hermeneutics into conversion with feminist thought and notions of gender, all of which seek to push the boundaries of both binary and patriarchal rationalities, and possibly engender a rethinking of gender hierarchies and hetero-normativities within Muslim (and possibly non-Muslim) traditions.

Feminist scholars of religion have worked with the notion of “oneness of being” expressed within historical Sufi thought. According to this, all existence emerges from a unitary ground of being. One Sufi mystic refers to this as God’s manifestation in and oneness with everything (Sargut 2018, 31), and which affirms that all things constitute signs and marks of God’s goodness; in particular the human being (Chittick 2012, 61). For a Sufi such as Ibn al-‘Arabi, the “complete human” (or ideal human) is a harmonious embodiment and comprehensive balance of divine names and attributes, which, explains Shaikh, asserts that each individual is a unique “manifestation of the One with a distinctive path to his or her own refinement of divine attributes” (Shaikh 2019a, 7).

The feminist connection is that this Sufi theological anthropology enables one to comprehend, affirm, and embrace human diversity, particularly that relating to pluralities of gender and sexual orientation. Plurality opposes binary formulations of gender and sexuality, while further affirming genders and sexual identities to constitute divine manifestation. Identities and orientations, including bisexuality, homosexuality, and heterosexuality, reveal various combinations of divine attributes manifesting in the world (Shaikh 2019a, 8). Such a view not only challenges and brings into question patriarchal and binary readings and interpretations of Islamic texts, which for many have viewed as treating women as both “other” and inferior but also endorses a positive view plurality by encouraging persons holding to diverse identities and orientations to “actively cultivate these attributes” within themselves as a means to manifest the One (Shaikh 2019a, 8).

The Sufi Ontology and Theology Satisfies Some Women’s Desire for Spirituality

Many Sufis believe that because God’s relationship to creation is never the same from one moment to the next it “demands an epistemology on the move and a vitally shifting ontology” (Shaikh 2019a, 8). Although this dynamism is of interest to feminist theorists I suspect, based upon my impressions of professor Amina Wadud’s seminar, that it is also attractive to people, especially women, who desire spiritual fulfillment and vitality, and who wish to, perhaps in accordance with their moral consciousness, embrace diversity. It is true that Islam has garnered a reputation among many for an imposition of strict boundaries in terms of sex and gender which strongly opposes plurality in such areas. The Sufi hermeneutic and ethic of embracing diversity and plurality challenges this identity, and attempts to provide a path for women (and many others, including homo- and bi- sexuals) to find a spiritual home within the Islamic tradition while also allowing space for experiencing spiritual discovery and fulfillment. That God’s relationship to creation is never the same from one moment to the next and that various combinations of divine attributes are believed to manifest within the world through diverse peoples surely bears the marks of a spirituality that is both alive and dynamic. Such a spirituality pulls away from experiences of religion which feel stale and rigid, and that lack any sense of a journey of self-discovery in relation to the Divine. In some ways Wadud reminded me of Carol Christ, the foremother of the Goddess religious movement who, while as a scholar of religion visiting Greece on an academic trip, visited the Temple of Aphrodite (the Greek god of sex and procreation) where she had a religious experience evidently vindicative of Rudolf Otto’s tremendum mysterium:

We found womblike spirals and vaginal roses carved in stone… I sat between the trees opening my body to the midday sun. I anointed myself with milk and honey and poured milk and honey into my shells. The sun warmed and transformed my body. Alone with the Goddess in her sacred space, I felt myself opening, becoming whole. I became Aphrodite… all of a sudden I heard what I can only describe as the laughter of Aphrodite” (Christ 1987a, 191).

Christ’s story is fascinating, and certainly symbolic of a greater desire for a spiritual fulfillment within women who are feeling that certain religious traditions are not satisfying this thirst. Both Wadud and Christ speak of how they became estranged from a variant of the Christian religion. It was not made clear during the seminar why Wadud, despite bearing reared in a Baptist household, left the faith for Buddhism, and then for Islam, but in the case of Christ we discover that it was because “Whenever I set foot in church, I would find myself developing headaches, neck aches, and stomach aches, as the enormity of the power of exclusion from Christian worship sunk deeply into my bones” (Christ 1987b, 58). Unlike Christ, Wadud did not intend to create a new religion but chose to be active within reformative Islamic circles, as have some Christian feminist scholars within Christian circles, such as Rosemary Radford Ruether.

In conclusion, although I avoid making value statements on the above in relation to my own convictions on truth, I find immense value in taking a step back in order to both hear the words and learn of the experiences of women within the sphere of spirituality. In respect to this, and having reflectively attempted to connect some of the dots from Sufi hermeneutics and theology to feminism, it seems clear that such a view of Sufism expressed in this paper, given its embrace of plurality and spiritual dynamism, can bring a needed vitality to the journey of spirituality of some women seeking it.

References

Ahmed, Shahab. 2017. What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chittick, William. 2012. “The Koran as the Lover’s Mirror.” In In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought, edited by Mohammed Rustom, After Khalil, and Kazuyo Murata, 57-68. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Christ 1987a. Laughter of Aphrodite: reflections on a journey to the goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Carol P. Christ. 1987b. “Reflections on the Initiation of an American Woman Scholar into the Symbols and Rituals of the Ancient Goddess.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3(1): 57-66.

Sargut, Cemalnur. 2018. Beauty and Light: Mystical Discourses by a Contemporary Female Sufi Master. 31-73. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae.

Shaikh, Sa’diyya. 2019a. Sufi Subjectivities, Gender and Islamic Feminism: Reimagining Human Nature Forthcoming in Politics and Gender.

Shaikh, Sa’diyya. 2019b. Sufism and a Hermeneutics of Generosity: A Model for Reading Gender in the Qur’an.

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