Summary: Zahra Ayubi’s book examines the gendered ethics of 3 pivotal works in Islamic ethical thought. Throughout the book, she establishes that these works are intrinsically demeaning to women and men of social classes and that they rather promote a vision of an ethical society built by and enforced by elite men. Such a hierarchy is justified in these works, she claims, through linking the faculty of rationality to elite men only: these works make the important assumption that women and men of lower social classes are defective in their rationality. She goes on to show how this contradicts core Quranic principles of all humans being equal in the eyes of God and also contradicts the overall goal of “justice, happiness and vicegerency of God”. In her conclusion, she goes over 3 solutions to these conflicts, proposed by other researchers in the field of feminist philosophy. Lastly, she herself proposes another way of reading these works, which is to read them for the philosophical questions and implications they raise rather than the concepts and solutions they propose.
I was so fascinated by the book that I sent a few pages of it to my family members to get their opinion and the response I got was that they understood nothing of these extracts. More precisely, one of them told me that the level of English was too high and another, that the philosophical terminology was inaccessible to them. So I explained the extracts. Dr Ayubi’s book can sometimes be dense but if you have Google at your fingertips, a quick search will ensure you understand most of it, if not all of it. You might also want to have the glossary bookmarked since the book is rich in Arabic terms that she sometimes only explains once.
Regardless, the book was an interesting read since it was neither angry nor accusatory. I felt that the tone was constructive. Throughout the book, Dr Ayubi does not attempt to demean the people who find value in the 3 Islamic works which she deconstructs. She acknowledges that generations of seekers have found value in these texts. Rather, she wants readers to reflect more on the works’ assumed and sometimes intentional patriarchal and social hierarchy.
Rationality is also an important faculty that the book focuses on. Instead of just arguing that rationality is also possessed by women and men of lower social class, the author recognizes that this creates another problem: whichever definition of rationality you choose, you would always be substituting one type of hierarchy for another. You would be promoting a view of humanity that is exclusionary. Her solution is in 5 parts: constructing an ethics of care rather than or in addition to an ethics of rationality, reflection on the concept of love for the rational soul embedded in the rational ideal, expanding the definition of rationality, decoupling rationality from its historio-cultural sexist context, and shifting away from valuing rationality as the basis of moral worth.
Another interesting concept of the book is the analysis and description of a patriarchal hierarchy. The default view of the works she analyses is that each person in society plays their roles and that the leaders (the khilafas, or Caliphs) self-actualize in the path of ethics and take care of everybody else. In this paradigm, the elite men know best and there is knowledge that only they can access. As a result, they deserve to be the leaders and can shape and use people according to their superior knowledge of how things should be. This patriarchal ordering ensures that people of lower “value” are never able to climb out of their lower status. Hence why, peg the patriarchy! No, she does not say that, but she reflects the sentiment.
For people who enjoy reading about gendered morality, this book lays out a framework for how to go about it: deconstruct patriarchal and social hierarchies in widely acclaimed works. If you are just interested in looking at how patriarchy and social hierarchy works in Islam, it’s a good book too. Overall, this book appeals to a niche readership but for those, it’s a must-read.