Our innate dispositions

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.


  • Anas Coburn says:

    OK, I’ll wade (gingerly) in.

    <<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.>>

    I don’t really know how to parse this…
    Since when and in what sense are history and human relations “sciences?” History as a discipline is notoriously changeable, rewritten with each new author. The evolutionary psychologists have a lot to say about “universal human nature” and its origins in primate behavior to which I doubt any Muslim would ascribe.

    What does it mean to include another science in your concept of religious authority?

    I am interacting here only with your words, trying to understand what you mean. Is it something like the following?

    Once I was at a conference at which a fairly rigid, long bearded type was attacking the goings-on of some young Muslims enjoying nasheeds. I said, “Look at their faces. What expressions are they wearing?”  They were smiling, having a good time. I said, “When people look at your face, they will see you frowning. If you see two people and one is smiling and one is frowning, who are you going to be drawn toward? The Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, is reliably reported to have been the most smiling of men.” Is that an example of including the ‘science’ of human relations in Religious Authority? (I am certainly no authority, religious or otherwise).


    How can one possibly know that any given notion of justice or equity is “universal”? Apart from the cultural (space)dimension, and there are certainly a lot of cultures, there is the time dimension. Is it even remotely possible to contend that any notion of justice or equity has remained constant over the millenia?

    I think the problem I am getting at has to do with the general critique of any totalizing discourse. Any such discourse is uttered in time and space and is therefore influenced by factors particular to that time and space. I feel cautious about “universal” notions of pretty much anything. It is hard to talk about this without getting into epistemology.

    It seems to me that the general tenor of Sheikh’s article and your post here is that there is a totalizing discourse within our Islamic Tradition regarding gender issues, and that from our standpoint in time and cultural space, this discourse seems problematic. I am just not sure that throwing another totalizing discourse called “universal notions…” at what is perceived as the problematic discourse regarding gender within Islam will solve anything.

    As far as I know, that the validity of a given interpretation of the text is influenced non-textual sources is widely accepted among both ancient and modern fuqaha.

    But to conflate what is, after all, only the _current_ theory of practitioners of modern sciences with “universal notions” is a serious error, and to equate these modern ideas of “universal notions of justice and equity” with the Islamic notion of fitra compounds the error.

    Through these logical errors, the _current_ state of modern “scientific” findings about something turns into a “universal notion” which turns into the “theological truth” of fitra which can be used to disallow readings of a text you and I and other modern folk don’t like.

  • asmauddin says:

    Dear Anas, Salaam,

    Thanks for your comment. I can???t tell from your post if you have read Sheikh???s article; if not, I encourage you to do so.
    When Sheikh refers to the science of human relations, I think she means sociology and psychology.  ???Science??? is not necessarily limited to physical science.  And although some sociological and psychological research can be disputed on various grounds, these fields ??? or sciences ??? do give us valuable insight into society and human relations.  It only makes sense that we incorporate our evolving knowledge of human relations into our understanding of our religion.

    ???What does it mean to include another science in your concept of religious authority????

    What Sheikh argues, and which I refer to in my post, is the idea of looking beyond the text of the Qur???an to figure out how to order ourselves vis-??-vis God and our fellow humans.  For one, how we interpret the text is at least partly a function of our social context.  To better understand why we interpret a text in a particular way, we need to understand our social context better.  We also need to understand why and how social contexts generally affect interpretations.  In doing all this, we have incorporated other sciences into our concept of a religious authority, because ultimately it is not just the Qur???an, but also our understandings of sociology and psychology (among other ???sciences???) that determine how we order ourselves in relation to God and the world.

    As for your question about whether it is possible to have universal notions of anything – I agree that it???s hard to talk about this topic without getting into epistemology.  But personal narratives can also help shed some light:

    For me, the concept of universal notions of justice and equity (which I argue seems at least related to the concept of fitra) is something I arrived at as a result of some very tortured soul-searching.  When faced with the question of gender equality in Islam, as a devout Muslim I had a hard time dealing with all of the misogynist literature written by Muslims. I had an even harder time with the actual acts of misogyny committed then justified on the basis of religion.  In trying to figure out this strange phenomenon of some-people-oppressing-others-and-thinking-God-allows-this, I tried to figure out if my repugnance to this oppression ??? or the very labeling of it as ???oppression???—was a product of my upbringing.  In other words, do I have a problem with these acts because the acts themselves are bad, or because I have been taught that they are bad?  I was absolutely tortured by the idea that I was perhaps elevating my own notions of ???right??? above God???s notions of ???right???.

    After a long period of spiritual agony, I finally realized that I, as a woman, am God???s creation, and God would not have created me ??? and other women ??? just for us to be oppressed.  I didn???t feel the need to verify this conclusion on the basis of empirical evidence.  Or on the basis of any religious text, for that matter.  I just knew, in that way of knowing something with total certainty.  I???d like to say I had stumbled upon something that is in some way related to a universal moral truth.

  • Anas Coburn says:

    Thanks for responding to my comment.

    I prepared a long response last night and submitted it, but I guess the squirrels drip-fed on maple syrup while they run in little cages to keep the servers going in rural vermont must have been asleep, because the response never made it to your site.

    “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?”

    I find this question, with which you characterize your post’s topic, throws a very useful light on the issues under discussion: the problem does not lie in the text, nor in my view in the way in which religious authority is constituted within Islam, but rather in the way the text and religious authority are used by those who identify themselves as Muslim.

    And is it not interesting that domestic violence is a global issue cutting across religious and ethnic and cultural lines? That further suggests the issue is at root not to do with the religion per se.
    (Does it suggest that men’s oppression of women is somehow part of men’s ‘innate disposition’?)

    I think that a useful and profound approach to the question you raise may be found by looking at child-rearing practices that, pretty much globally, sanction psychological and physical abuse of children. See, for example the work of Alice Miller.

    There is emerging evidence of the neurological effects of abuse. Abuse of children affects the structure and function of their brain. One of the ways this shows up is by a kind of emotional numbing that limits the capacity for empathy the child has as an adult. Psychologically, it is difficult as adults and nearly impossible as a child to recognize that our parents are abusing us—especially as children, we tend to believe the parents are right, and the fault is ours.The abuse of children is widespread globally. We are trained socially to deny that this abuse is taking place. There’s a lot more to this argument, but that should serve as precis.

  • asmauddin says:

    Anas, Salaam,

    I agree that the problem does not lie in religion itself, but in how external factors affect us, including among other things our interpretations of religion, God, and holy text. But the fact that the text is susceptible to problematic readings is an issue we have to deal with alongside trying to figure out which other factors are influencing interpreters.

    I think your perspective is a highly valuable one and brings out important aspects of the issue. I encourage you – beg you! – to submit your thoughts in a formal article to altmuslimah!

  • asmauddin says:

    Anas, I just read Dr. Mattson’s essay, Can a Woman be an Imam?, and this excerpt captures what I was trying to get at in this blog entry; thought I’d share:

    “In many cases, Muslim women feel that restrictions placed upon them in the name of Islam are unjust, but they have neither fluency in the Islamic legal discourse nor the religious authority to convincingly argue their objections.  As a result, some simply suppress
    their inner voice that calls for justice; others cannot do that.  The latter are like the famous companion of the Prophet, Khawla bint Thalabah, who was ennobled by God in the Qur???an
    (58:1) with the title, al-mujadilah ???the woman who disputes.???  When Khawla first went to the Prophet Muhammad complaining of the injustice she was suffering as the result of her
    husband disassociating himself from her according to an Arabian custom, she was disappointed.  The Prophet indicated that at that time, existing customs remained normative unless God revealed a new ruling, and he had received no revelation about this issue. 
    Khawla did not give up hope, for she knew that this custom was unjust; she continued to complain to God, and waited near His Messenger, expecting him to receive a revelation.

    This inner voice, this innate sense of justice that Khawla had such confidence in is part of the fitra???the natural moral sense???that Muslims believe God has implanted in every human being.  After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, it is religious leaders to whom ordinary Muslims must appeal to articulate the normative discourse that validates this inner voice.  It is my observation that when this religious leadership does not include women, their experiences, concerns and priorities will not be well represented.”

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