Within 12th and 13th century Islam, the role of women was extremely controversial. A large majority of Muslims in the time period saw women as inferior beings when compared to men. However, new thoughts on gender equality within Islam began to emerge with the writings of Sufi scholar Muhammad b. Ali b. Muhammad Ibn al-Arabi al-Ta’i al-Hatimi. Ibn al-Arabi’s thoughts concerning Islamic women within the 12th and 13th centuries drew much attention from the Islamic community. This attention was originally seen as heresy, and many responded with hostility as well as the denouncement of Ibn al-Arabi’s faith.
However, Ibn al-Arabi’s arguments are largely based on Qur’anic texts. Even in some modern day Islamic societies, women are seen as lesser beings, but by delving into the work of Ibn alArabi, as well as texts from the Qur’an, the role of women can be asserted as a major piece of Islamic authority and spirituality. Within ancient Islam, there were Sufi minorities that sought to equalize gender roles, and Ibn al-Arabi was taught under this wing of Sufism in Seville, Spain. He was instructed by many masters as a youth, but it is most notable that two of his instructors were women.
Within the study of Sufism, women were known to take on religious teaching roles that would be unheard of in ancient Islamic culture. The majority of Islamic women in the 12th and 13th century were typically unable to play a large role is religious teachings, but Sufism breaks down this gender barrier due to the fact one of the Prophet’s wives, Khadija, was a large role in the initial formation of Sufism. Sufism prides itself as the study of the purification within Islam, as well as the ideal forms of Islam.
Sufism strives to reestablish he recognition of unity, and to balance the harmony of nature, as well as in matters regarding gender. Since Ibn al-Arabi’s works were so largely influenced by Sufism, it can be shown that he works towards balancing gender roles and asserting women’s authority in spiritual matters, in which they are generally excluded. (“Woman and Sufism”) Within the Qur’an, the role of women is presented in two opposing views, however, these views do not lessen the religious role and equality of women within Islamic societies.
In certain Qur’anic texts women are looked at as a possession of their husband. “And all married women, except those you rightfully possess. ” (The Qur’an, An-Nisa’ 4:24) However, the Qur’an emphasizes the fact that men and women are equal within the eyes God, and that judgement will be cast upon both as though they are equal. “As for those who lead a righteous life, male or female, while believing, they enter Paradise; without the slightest injustice. (The Qur’an, An-Nisa’ 4:124)
Ibn al-Arabi looks upon those differing views as a way to establish the unity between God, men and women. Woman is said to be made from the image of man, and man is said to be made in the image of God. This reasoning leads Ibn al-Arabi to say that man and woman, both possess aspects of God himself, man the active nature, and woman the passive nature. This exploration of “God within women” was unheard of in 12 and 13th century Islam. Any notion of divinity within the female form was seen as heresy within the Orthodox Islamic community.
Ibn al-Arabi continues on this journey to assert the female divinity is his poem Turjuman al-Ashwaq. Within this work, Ibn al-Arabi describes an anecdote of a young woman he met while residing in Mecca. He describes the young woman as “learned and pious, with an experience of spiritual and mystic life. ” This view of women and their possession of the divine form led to a backlash from the Islamic community. Such antagonization led to Ibn alArabi having to later publish commentary stating that the description of the young woman was purely allegorical.
Even hough Ibn al-Arabi retracted his claims on divinity and the female form within Turjuman al-Ashwaq, his claims are consistent with his entirety of literature, as well as the ideology of Sufism as a whole. (Ahmed 98-101) The Qur’an places high regard on the institution of marriage, and this is one major point that justifies women’s authority and balances the scales of gender. The Qur’an states, that marriage is heavily reliant on a mutual decision between both male and female. (Qur’an, An-Nisa’ 4:24) This has also greatly influenced Islamic law, or Sharia.
Sharia plays a major role in determining every day-to-day interaction, including the roles of women within society. Sharia is interpreted from the sacred texts of the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad, and generally women are shown as near equals to men within interpretations of Sharia. Marriage is said to be a mutual decision between both one man and one woman. This equality in legalizing a marriage according to Islamic law reinforces the ideology presented by Ibn al-Arabi, that man and woman are equal counterparts that make up the form of God.
Ibn al-Arabi argues that, “there is no greater union than marriage,” because such a union reveals the Godliness of the female form, and “the witnessing of [God] in women is the greatest and most perfect witnessing. ” Although Sharia is said to come from the teachings of Muhammad, these laws are not formally written down. They have been passed down partly by word of mouth from generation to generation, and this in turn leaves room for followers to question how Sharia should be interpreted. This unclear code is a contributing factor towards the religious oppression Islamic women faced in the 12th and 13th century.
However, the Qur’an firmly asserts the ideology of equality and mutual agreement between men and women, especially in the institution of marriage. (Austin 128) Continuing on the theme of marriage, Ibn al-Arabi claims that marriage and a spiritual connection with God are greatly related. Just as man and women unite in marriage, there is a similar unity between God, men and women as well. Within the Qur’an man is said to be made in a likeness of God, and woman is said to be made in the image of man.
Since woman is from a piece of man, Ibn al-Arabi states than man will continue to yearn for women until they reach complete unity. And in turn, the unity of man with woman is meant to reflect the pure and holy form of God, since both are only partial images of God himself. (The Qur’an Al-Hujurat 49:13) This line of reasoning brings men to the forefront of Islamic spirituality. Since man must rely on woman in order to reach a holy state, this leaves great power in the hands of a woman. A woman does not have to succumb and bow down to man, because both are equally reliant on each other.
Women possess a partial image of God just as man, and this leaves both on an equal playing field in the eyes of God himself. (Austin 128-129) Within the 12th and 13th century, the majority of woman held little or no power when it came to religious matters and lifestyle practices, but these practices were not supported by the Qur’an. As you delve deeper into Qur’anic texts, and look at Islamic interpreters, such Ibn al-Arabi, you are able to see the true role and potential of women in ancient Islamic societies.
Ibn al-Arabi was seen as a heretic for his ideas on gender equality and the roles of women in spiritual matters, but his conclusions were not false in nature. Although ancient Orthodox Islamic values may try to assert males dominance, women are a core part of Islamic societies. They are the cornerstone of marriage, since a mutual agreement must be met by both parties, and they are the foundation of a holy life. Therefore, men must rely heavily on women and must respect and treat them as equals to themselves if they wish to reach spiritual bliss and reach full unity with God’s will.