On Gender, Modesty, and the Feminine Principle

Yet she belongs, finally and truly, only to God. The hijab is a symbol of freedom from the male regard, but also, in our time, of freedom from subjugation by the iron fist of materialism, deterministic science, and the death of meaning. It denotes softness, otherness, inwardness. She is not only caught in a world of power relations, but she inhabits a world of love and sacrifice. This freedom, which is of the conscience, is hers to exercise as she will.

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad

In a post-traditional society,  the virtues of modesty and the feminine principle have been submerged in the dark, murky waters of the women’s liberation movement. Parallel to the innumerable contradictions that have plagued the modern feminist movement, Muslim women are finding themselves particularity uneasy about their own perception of womanhood and femininity. Caught between the unrelenting barrage of western criticism in projecting the veil as a symbol of puritanical oppression, and the un-prophetic attitudes and treatment of women in many of our cultures, Muslim women have, for the most part, stood alone against this onslaught. In hopes to humanize the Muslim woman, we have desperately attempted to formulate a definition of the hijab in either one of two ways; one that is inundated by the liberal rhetoric of body autonomy and defiance to authority; another that demands a literalist reading of sacred text, calling for outward conformity in the name of uniformity. Each definition constructs a conception of the hijab that excludes the core essence of modesty; reverence and submission to the One who commanded it.

In western civilization, early church teachings asserted that women were nothing more than lustful beings created only to tempt man away from returning to his primordial state of holiness. Along with metaphorical gendering of God as masculine, the creation of Adam before Eve apparently conferred God’s favour upon men.  Tertullian, the early Christian writer of Carthage, expressed the church’s sentiments in his writings On the Apparel of Women, “ You (women) are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.” Being the antagonist of the two sexes, female sexuality thus was associated with passivity and servitude, whilst men’s was associated with virility and power. The patristic figure-heads of the church made it very clear that a woman was not only incapable of spiritual ascendancy but detrimental to it. In fact, men embarking the spiritual path were to stay clear from any encounter with women as to not “fall” from God’s favour, as did Adam with Eve. Celibacy was then and continues to be, a common practice among Christian ascetics.

The rebellion to male dominance came into full force with the women’s liberation movement. Along with highly indecorous ethics on sexuality, women declared their supposed emancipation from the patriarchy. This revolt, however, did not confine itself to the realm of sexuality. All forms of perceived male authority, including religion, was to be tried in the court of feminist opinion. Even Abraham (may God’s peace be upon him), the patriarch of monotheism, was not spared. Dismantling Abrahamic morality was the height of their crusade to deliver women from the confines of so-called religious patriarchy.

The Tertullian-like doctrine of male preference and a gendered God-figure find no equivalent within Islam. Allah, all glory and praise be to Him, is incomparable to His creation. His attributes of divine Oneness and dissimilarity to creation is explicitly described in the Holy Qur’an:

“(He is) the Creator of the heavens and the earth: He has made for you pairs from among yourselves, and pairs among cattle: by this means does He multiply you: there is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees (all things).”

(Surah Shura: 11) 

Allah has also revealed to us ninety-nine of His glorious names. Classical scholars have noted that among these attributes are some that signify majesty (Jalal) and others that signify beauty (Jamal). Metaphorically, the attributes of beauty, such as The Merciful and The Loving, carry a feminine dimension whilst the attributes of majesty, such as The Strong,  carry a masculine dimension. In the same way that the masculine and feminine connotations within the holy names of Allah carry no privilege over each other, neither do the male and female principles within creation.

The Islamic tradition, unlike other religious traditions, does not teach abhorrence to the flesh as a means to salvation. Rather, the sharia delineates a clear path on how to navigate this temporal abode in the physical forms in which Allah has created us. As many of our scholars have taught us, we get to God through the world, not in aversion to it.  The physical body is merely a sacred vessel in which we achieve our ultimate objective; the pleasure of the One to whom it belongs. The clashing of our dual nature, the bestial and angelic, is recognized as a part of the human dichotomy. In other words, the impulses of self-gratification within us are not a punishment from Allah, but a trial to unearth the treasures within us. In terms of the spirit, we were all created equally. It is only through piety that one may excel another before Allah. Furthermore, Allahcreated humankind in two alternate but complementary forms; the male and the female. The sharia thus takes a nuanced approach by acknowledging the physical and psychological variances between men and women. For instance, the institution of marriage in Islam is viewed not as a clash of two competing forces vying to overpower one another. Rather, it is achieving a harmonious balance of the masculine and feminine principles between two loving people uniting for His sake. The beloved of God , who was Al insaan al kamil, was the epitome of this harmony. The principles of majesty and beauty were flawlessly balanced within him and infused into the extraordinary men and women who sat in hisﷺ presence. If, for even just a moment, we took the time to recognize the subtleties between these complementary principles within creation, then can we nurture a greater appreciation for the moral coherence of divine law.

Western values stipulate that true justice can only come to fruition through absolute equality for both genders at all levels of society, with no real consideration for the biological or psychological variances between them. Undeniably, there are aspects of human existence that are inherently “unequal”. However, secular culture conveniently turns a blind eye to these points of contention. While gender itself is becoming something rather obscure in the west, so is the end objective of said equality. As for the Islamic tradition, the objective is clear; to attain the pleasure of Allah. The sharia thus seeks to maximize the opportunities for both men and women to attain such. It goes without saying that Islamic jurisprudence does not occur in a vacuum. Socio-economics, political climates, and cultural customs are all considered by jurists prior to interpreting sacred law. The proof of this is the plurality of opinions within the vast landscape of Islamic law.  The absurdity of individuals who level misinformed critiques against Islamic rulings only reveals their ignorance of it.

The sharia has brought about equality in different ways for men and for women. Again, unlike other religious traditions that have alienated women from ritual practice, the obligations of Islam are equally incumbent upon women as they are with men. Women are obliged to pray, fast, and go on pilgrimage. The permissibility for women to be excused from ritual worship is done so no to shame her for her biological disposition, rather as an extension of mercy from He who knows the pain of her condition best.  As mentioned above, any form of intimate relations with a woman according to early church teachings was to shamefully fall into worldly temptation. The polarizing of genders holds no credibility within the teachings of Islam. The Prophet Muhammadﷺ was sent as Allah’s greatest show of mercy to all of humanity. A mercy that could not have been sent by Allahin exclusion to any of His other creations. The beloved, in his nurturing character, elevated the most destitute and vulnerable of society. He was a glimpse of light that the morally impoverished world of the 6th century was in dire need of. It is narrated that he said:

“Marriage is of my sunnah, and whoever departs my sunnah is not of me.”

(Sunan Ibn Majah)

Through these words, the Prophetabolished the notion that women were nothing more than lowly beings simply created for the pleasure of men. No man, present nor future, will ever be able to surpass the maqam of al Mustafa who himself took wives and made them his closest confidants. In elevating the institution of marriage, he dignified and ennobled women after centuries of spiritual and social isolation. That not only is she held in great esteem as a servant of Allah, within her is the capacity of achieving nearness to Himﷻ and even sainthood. She is not only granted this ability from Allah but also becomes a means for her husband to earn Allah’s favour.

The veil is yet another example of the extended hand of mercy and protection towards women in a highly material and exploitative world. Allah created the world as a manifestation of His beauty, and in that created women to be a reservoir of that beauty. This extraordinary expression of beauty which women possess has been celebrated across all cultures and passages of time. The feminine principles, those associated with His jamal, are particularly concentrated within the nature of women, however not exclusively. She also finds balance with those of jalal. Though the modern world wishes to do away with these principles, women of all backgrounds cannot suppress that which naturally emanates from their fitrah. Her mercy, empathy, and modesty characterize her inward and outward beauty. Her strength and courage characterize her faithfulness to God, truth and justice. In many spiritual traditions, that which embodies a type of sacredness is often veiled. Therefore, the veiling of a woman’s body articulates the sacred nature of her physical form and indicates that her beauty transcends something greater than this world. In fact, the woman has not only been  granted a sacred connection to Allah by virtue of her physical form, Allah also extended a privileged access to Him when He placed in her that which is not of the dunya; the Ruh which Allahdirectly associated with Himself and made her the vessel in which it leaves its place in the unseen realm and permeates the physical world. 

Modernity’s demand for an answer to Islam’s position has lead many women, and even men,  in our ummah to be unconsciously secularized by western ideals of gender; or more accurately, the pathologizing of it.  Our immunity to this has weakened over time. The institution of Hijab carries much more weight than a mere few inches of cloth. However, the capitalist gaze of those who wish to visually consume Muslim women have convinced many of our sisters of just that. In fact, the hijab has become somewhat of a trophy to the trillion dollar fashion and cosmetics industry. A symbol of freedom, yet not too free.  The hijab, which denotes freedom from subjugation by materialism as said by Dr. Abdal Hakim Murad, is ironically celebrated by the very same industry which seeks to normalize the commodification of women’s bodies. Rather than signifying its deep spiritual and theological premises, the hijab has been misconstrued into an instrument that plays all too well into the narrative of body autonomy and identity politics. Rather than being characterized by inwardness and obscurity, the hijab has been turned into a tool of vanity and self-obsession. By allowing the hijab to be defined by people who have no regard for its sacred nature, our world of inward retreat will begin to feel less and less like a sanctuary from the all-consuming chaos of the material world. 

The solution is not to indignantly demand that all Muslim women immediately don the hijab and those who already have to conform to a single interpretation of it. The plurality within Islam should be our strength, rather than a cause of anxiety. Reflecting on the legacy of our ladies Khadija, Maryam, Asiya, and Fatima is our point of departure. Lady Maryam (as) never married, yet she is our example of a woman who attained God’s pleasure through her chastity and intense devotion. Lady Asiya (ra) never had children, yet she is our example of a woman who attained God’s pleasure through her forbearance in the face Pharaoh’s persecution. Lady Khadija (ra) spent her wealth in God’s cause when no one else would. Her warm embrace imparted solace for the beloved when his whole world fell into disarray. Lady Fatima (ra) whose love and devotion to her father was so immense that she could not bear to live much longer in the world without him. These were women whose eminence was inextricably tied to the deep reverence and adoration they had for their Lord. As Muslim women, we must reground ourselves in what Allah intended for His female creation. There is no disputing that the veil is a command from Allah. However, whether we are veiled or on the path towards it, we must cultivate within us a deeper understanding of the sacred nature of modesty and femininity, inculcate this love within us, and lead by way of example for the generations of young girls to come. 

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