Gendered Morality

Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society

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Zahra Ayubi
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , August
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the last few decades a number of important scholarly discussions on the highly gendered (in a patriarchal sense) nature of Islamic intellectual tradition have been written but whose focus primarily has been on the Islamic legal tradition (fiqh) (e.g., K. Ali, A. Chaudhry, A. Mahellati ) and to a lesser extent Qur’anic commentary (tafsir) (e.g., K. Bauer, A. Geissenger). Zahra Ayubi’s remarkably well written and comprehensively referenced book, Gendered Morality, provides further evidence of the same dynamics at play in the context of exploring three most influential writers of the akhlaq (Islamic philosophical ethics) genre from the classical period, namely Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE), Nasir ad-din Tusi (d. 1274) and Jalal al-din Davani (d. 1502).

Ayubi’s major argument in the book is that “the Muslim ethicists’ gendered understandings of existence and metaphysics compelled them to produce virtue ethics that are rooted in inequality and, as such, are unsustainable by the standards of their own ethics” (6). In other words, Ayubi uncovers a paradoxical tension between the classical Muslim ethicists’ deeply patriarchal, androcentric, and at times misogynistic approach to virtue ethics and their professed metaphysical commitments premised on ideas of (divine) justice and human equality.

Ayubi identifies and analyzes expertly three central themes that animate gender related discussions in the classical akhlaq genre—namely, (1) “tension between hierarchical power and justice,” (2) “the construction of instrumental femininity in relation to rational masculinity, and (3) the construction of elite masculinity in the context of homosocial relationships among men” (7).

The author delves deeply into the classical Muslim ethicists’ discussions of virtue ethics of the self, marriage, and society and painstakingly deconstructs the assumptions that underpin their concepts of masculinity and femininity informed as they are by highly gendered and patriarchal Islamic cosmology. Here we see many parallels with discussions found in other genres of Islamic interpretive tradition such as tafsir and fiqh from the classical period. These genres  associate masculinity conceptually with religious and political authority and rationality, and femininity with not only the lack of these traits, but also a highly potent and socio-morally eroding sexuality that is to be tightly controlled and supervised by men through a variety of mechanisms and practices ranging from strict gender segregation to veiling to curbing women’s movement and placing limits on decision-making power of women in public and private matters.

The book’s most original part is its conclusion, titled “The Prolegomenon to Feminist Philosophy of Islam.” Ayubi provides a systematic and erudite analysis of how to move beyond the patriarchal Islamic philosophical ethics and the various presuppositions underpinning it that she described so lucidly in the first four of the book’s chapters. In this chapter the author draws superbly upon both authorities on feminist philosophy of religion in general (e.g., Luce Irigary, Mary Daly, etc.) and what we could term the proponents of Islamic feminism specifically (Sa’diyya Shaikh, amina wadud, etc.). Ayubi identifies and brilliantly discusses four “interrelated philosophical problems” posed by “male centred akhlaq” that include:

 “1) the problem of having an exclusionary definition of humanity based on fixed hierarchy of rational capacity; 2) the problem of patriarchal, and therefore unjust notions of khilafah (viceregency); 3) The problem of the emergence of new hierarchies in addressing exclusion on the basis of gender in akhlaq; and 4) the problem of individual refinement though the utilization of women and nonelite others.” (253).

In this respect Ayubi argues that feminist philosophy-based approaches to religion can play an important role in “exploring possible resolutions” (254). More specifically, she argues for a redefining of rationality and the need for a “liberating reason” (254) that has an inclusive, non-gender hierarchical and non-gender exclusive view of humanity. For Ayubi, as for other feminist Muslim scholars, like amina wadud and Asma Barlas, the conceptualization of a non-patriarchal and therefore non-gendered concept of khilafah is also necessary to move beyond the limits of elitist male-centric akhlaq.

Furthermore, given that patriarchal Islamic philosophical ethics is built on “interlocking hierarchies” (i.e., gender and class) (270); therefore, the need to incorporate insights from the academic study of intersectionality in general and black feminist philosophers in particular is identified by Ayubi as useful for the purposes of developing the feminist philosophy of Islam. Finally, Ayubi effectively argues that to move beyond the male-centered akhlaq it is also important to problematize its very goals, which, as noted above, are based on the logic of instrumentalization of non-elite men for elite men’s ethical refinement (275).

I recommend this book to advanced undergraduates, postgraduates, and academics working in the broad field of Islam and Gender, Gender and Religion and more specifically feminist approaches (philosophy) of religion or Islam.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adis Duderija is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society and Senior Fellow at Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Understanding at Griffith University.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Zahra Ayubi is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College.


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