How do theological definitions work in the context of gender relations? How can we believe that we as humans tend toward goodness, and somehow still not only oppress others but also try to argue that such oppression is religiously sanctioned?
What role does instinct play in our understanding of right and wrong? As Muslims, we all believe in fitra, or our ‘innate human nature’ – fitra has also been defined as “primordial nature” and “innate disposition.” Our theology teaches us that knowledge of tawhid, or the oneness of God, is part of our fitra, as are the basic attributes of being human, like beauty and intelligence.
Morality, in this sense, must also to some extent be part of our fitra. The distinction between beauty and ugliness is in some sense a distinction between what is fundamentally right and wrong. By “fundamentally” I mean “at the core of our humanity.”
I realize that some aspect of my above statement may be disputable from a strict theological perspective, but semantics aside, I think we really can agree that in believing in fitra, we are believing that humans tend toward that which is right, and as such that fitra includes an instinctual morality.
So how does this work in the context of gender relations? How can we believe that we as humans tend toward goodness, and somehow still not only oppress others but also try to argue that such oppression is religiously sanctioned?
Our scholars have struggled with that question indirectly and have tried to answer it in various ways. Often, they approach it in the form of reconciling religious text with fundamental notions of “right.”
For example, Hussein Rashid, in Reading the Qur’an in a Muslim Way, explains that the Qur’an can be interpreted in many ways, with some interpretations allowing for greater equality and justice than others.
In The Ambivalence of a Toothbrush, Mona Sheikh takes one step further and argues that changing how we approach gender relations will require more than reinterpreting Qur’anic text. Despite most Muslims’ uneasiness with problematic verses – like 4:34 – they try to explain away the tension between the verse and their ideas of “right” by insisting, in the case of 4:34, that the verse requires only a tap of a miswak or, in the modern context, a toothbrush. Such attempts at reconciliation are based on our clinging to accepted notions of religious authority, whereas a true revolution would require redefining that authority.
Sheikh suggests we change our entire intellectual approach to religion and include other sciences, like history and human relations, into our concept of religious authority. Implicit in her argument, at least the way I see it, is the role of fitra. She writes:
“In order to behave as ethical and spiritual human beings in accordance to universal principles of justice and equity, there is an important task ahead of us if we want to remain loyal, faithful and good Muslims. We should honestly ask ourselves what improves our sense of ethical behavior and our sense of gender equity.”
Perhaps using the term fitra will help explain – and ultimately convince – Muslims that looking to “universal notions of justice and equity” is required by our religion. It is not a revolutionary, modern, progressive, or even “democratic” concept, but is instead a primordial truth, existing at our core, and central to our very existence.
So how do we deal with the fact that problematic verses even exist in the Qur’an? Sheikh’s and Rashid’s approaches, together, provide a holistic answer. Rashid explains how there are multiple possible interpretations of the text, and Sheikh’s analysis helps distinguish valid interpretations from invalid ones. Validity is determined at least partly from extra-textual sources, for example, the Islamic concept of fitra. Relying on this theological truth helps defeat any challenges to the validity of more equitable interpretations.
Asma T. Uddin is editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah.