Stories and symbols are the guardians of a culture’s values and sources of meaning. The narratives we tell or hear about ourselves and the world we operate within form structural support for our individual and collective lives. Any psychologist who listens to his client’s discourse will be able to identify the story the latter tells about himself, grasping through it the world he has confined himself to and determining if there isn’t some alternative narrative—whether more true or more helpful—that can enable the client to live in a different, life-affirming paradigm. Similarly, our beliefs about gender inform our understanding of what it means to be human and, thus, are profoundly important and of fundamental concern for believers.
The story of the creation of Adam and Eve, in the numerous ways that it is told and retold in the Qur’an, illustrates just how important it is for humans to recognize that we have an origin and therefore a story to reflect upon in order to determine our essence and our purpose. Sachiko Murata, writing on the motivation of Muslim cosmologists states that, “...most cosmologists have been concerned with demonstrating the analogies among all levels of existence in order to show that human beings play a unique role in the universe as God’s representatives or vicegerents (khalifa
). This, in turn, demands human responsibility.”
Without the story of Adam, we would not know that we have been charged with the responsibility of khilafa
, but it is also not readily apparent why we are capable of carrying out this task. If we cannot access the ‘why,’ then acting in proper accordance with the station of khilafa will escape us.
Cosmologists have charged themselves with the task of demonstrating analogies because the Qur’an relays many of its core messages through analogical language.
Of concern to us in this discussion are the analogies God uses to help human beings understand Him as well as themselves. Vicegerency, as described in the Qur’an, bestows human beings with God-like responsibilities in the relationship we have to the rest of creation. For one, human beings have the unique capacity to think and act freely with limitations that are barely perceptible. Therefore, we are able to wield a certain amount of control over the rest of creation. We are called to care for creation, but our abilities can just as easily be used to cause harm if our outlook and priorities are disordered. Animal, plant, and mineral life are not practically defined in moral language because their actions are confined by their natures which are limited and fixed. Murata points out that “Evil appears when people break the balance…. Evil has no other entry into the world since only human beings have the freedom to choose it.”
This brings us to the second characteristic of humans that annexes us to God in our relationship to creation: we are endowed with a richness and complexity of nature and capacities that are unlike any other creature. Murata writes that human beings “manifest the whole,”
meaning that we are a little cosmos, manifesting all the attributes of the ‘big’ cosmos within ourselves. This assessment by the cosmologists is based on a number of traditional statements, among them, “We will show them our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth” (Qur’an 41:53)
and the hadith
: “Allah created Adam in His image.”
These correspondences to The Divine are of particular interest to cosmologists because they are illustrative of what is demanded by human vicegerency and why such an honor and responsibility has been placed upon us. The Qur’an employs the term signs (ayat)
hundreds of times and we, the audience, are asked to see the signs and then see beyond them to the truth that they are alluding to. Notes Murata, “...the Koran tells us that we must perceive things not so much for what they are in themselves but for what they tell us of something beyond themselves.”
The multitude of signs ultimately delivers us to a unified notion of wholeness, tawhid. In this way, all of life is imbued with meaning.
Just as we derive knowledge of our purpose from the Qur’an’s discussion of our origin story, so, too, do we learn about gender and its significance. Within the origin story, Adam stands both as the archetypal human and the archetypal man. This is because gender is only understood (by humans) when both male and female are present. Before Hawa’s creation, Adam is more properly described as human than as a human male because maleness is not comprehended without femaleness as its complement. Much of our knowledge base as people is impossible without recourse to opposites. There is the old adage that a fish neither knows that it is wet nor that it lives in water because it has no concept of dryness. When we read our origin story, we see a derivation from oneness, as exemplified in Adam before Hawa, then duality, Adam with Hawa, then multiplicity, ourselves as the progeny of Adam and Hawa. While nearly all animals exist in pairs, none, as far as we know, was created from its own self like Adam and Hawa were created from the same nafs (soul). And while all other creatures live in accordance with their natures, none of them is conscious of their origin. The first verse of Surah Nisa illustrates human derivation from oneness, through to duality and then multiplicity: “O mankind, have taqwa of Allah who created you from one soul and created from it its mate, and spread from it countless men and women…” (Qur’an 4:1). Surah Hujurat reinforces this movement from singularity to multiplicity with the added benefit of encouraging us to reflect on proverbially climbing the ladder from multiplicity back to singularity: “O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” (Qur’an 49:13).
Gender further informs our position as stewards. As we know, God is not gendered; but, as Abdal Hakim Murad points out, “the phenomenal God is manifested in not one but two genders.”
When Murad says “phenomenal God,” he is referring to our perception of God which is dependent upon that which God chooses to manifest of Himself to us. This is different from “the noumenal God” which refers to God’s ipseity, or who He is in Himself, independent of human sense perception. An example of “phenomenal God” is ‘The Names of God’ which have inspired an entire doctrine that designates them as archetypes for all duality in creation.
As Murad points out, they are divided into Names of Majesty and Names of Beauty; the former are associated closely with the masculine pole and the latter with the feminine pole. It would belie the point of this essay to think of these in strict opposing categories. God, who possesses ultimate Unity, does not suffer internal conflict or contradiction. Rather, God’s effects on creation can be seen through the lens of His many names which appear to fall gracefully into two categories, archetypically masculine and archetypically feminine. Yet each of those categories contains dozens of Names, displaying variance from within as well as methodical overlap. God’s wrath, for example, is categorically distinct from His Mercy, but Prophet Ibrahim warns of a “punishment from the All-Merciful” (Qur’an 19:45), a seemingly oxymoronic statement that must be true given the authority of the person uttering it. Thus, the dynamism we see in creation—its nuance and interconnectedness—is a manifestation of God’s creative power which we come to experience from His Names, those of Majesty and Beauty. God “created everything in pairs” (Qur’an 51:49), and thereby we are affirmed in our genders and connected to all of creation as well as to the dynamic pairing of God’s Names through our genders. Notes Murad, “The doctrine of the Names as archetypes for all bipolarities in creation ruled out any possibly consequent idea that humanity’s retrieval of theomorphism must entail a shedding of gender in favour of androgyny. On the contrary, the retrieval of theomorphism is the retrieval of gender, fully understood.” Theomorphism, or being created in likeness to God, should not be confused with the Christian conception of the term which includes ‘God made flesh.’ Rather, for the Muslim, we mean that humans are granted qualities that are a small sample of the omnipotent God. It also hinges on the understanding that in order for us to be our highest version of ourselves, we ought to adopt God-like qualities of care and concern for others, goodwill, forethought, and forgiveness among others.
While modern theorists hold that true freedom rest in throwing off the shackles of masculine and feminine in favor of androgyny, Murad argues that living to our full humanity does not necessitate a rejection of gender in favor of androgyny. God is not androgynous, so the idea of the theorist that in order to have the ultimate freedom that we attribute to God we must be androgynous is a misconception. Their understanding of theology is deeply flawed. What Murad shows is that God has created these differences as a means to reflect upon Him; they are not obstacles, rather, they are means. Our genders, like our bodies, are vehicles meant to aid us in achieving our ultimate purpose of ibadah (worship) and khilafa (stewardship).
Modernity sees the ways in which we are not identical and reads meaninglessness into that. One common way this plays out can be seen in the persistence by some of feigning blindness to aspects of another’s identity. This shows, in my estimation, an inability to not be reductionist while perceiving someone’s identity. In other words, if I can’t look at you and let go of the stereotypes and preconceived notions I have about your identity, I’d rather pretend to not see our differences and claim some moral ground. Some modernists assume traditions like Islam crafted comprehensive theories because the latter refused to acknowledge variance but the opposite is true. What Islam resurrects in the modern day that is useful for us as people negotiating perspectives and influenced by thought trends is a reaffirmation of embodiment, a resurgence of feminine symbolism, and an invitation to see the form and perceive beyond it. These are important retrievals in our time.