Boys will be Boys
By Shaykh Abdul-Hakim Murad, transcript from a speech
I have been asked to offer some comments on gender identity issues as these impact on Muslims living in post-traditional contexts in the West, and particularly as they affect people who have traded up to the Great Covenant of Islam after an upbringing in Judaism or Christianity. The usual way of doing this is by examining issues in the classical fiqh, and explaining how Islam’s discourse of equality functions globally, not on the micro-level of each fiqh ruling. That method is legitimate enough (although as we shall see the concept of ‘equality’ may raise considerable problems), but in general my experience of Muslim talk on gender is that there is too much apologetic abroad, apologetic, that is, in the sense not only of polemical defence, but also of pleas entered in mitigation. What I want to do today is to bypass this recurrent and often tiresome approach, which reveals so much about the low serotonin levels of its advocates, and suggest how as Western Muslims we can construct a language of gender which offers not a defence or mitigation of current Muslim attitudes and establishments, but a credible strategy for resolving dilemmas which the Western thinkers and commentators around us are now meticulously examining.
Let me begin, then, by trying to capture in a few words the current crisis in Western gender discourse. As good a place as any to do this is Germaine Greer’s book The Whole Woman, released in 1999 to an interesting mix of befuddled anger and encomia from the press.
This is an important book, not least because it casts itself as a dialogue with the author’s earlier, more notorious volume The Female Eunuch, published thirty years previously. Throughout, Greer, who is one of the most conscientious and compassionate of feminist writers, reflects on the ways in which the social and also scientific context of Western gender discourse has shifted over this period. In 1969, liberation seemed imminent, or at least cogently achievable. In 1999, with states and national institutions largely converted to the cause which once seemed so radical, it seems to have receded somewhere over the horizon. Hence Greer’s anger descends upon not one, but two lightning-rods: the old enemy of male gynophobia is still excoriated, but there is also a more diffuse frustration with what Greer now acknowledges is the hard-wiring of the human species itself. Most feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was ‘equality feminism’, committed to the breakdown of gender disparities as social constructs amenable to changes in education and media generalisation; feminism in the 1990s, however, was increasingly a ‘difference feminism’, rooted in the growing conviction that nature is at least as important as nurture in shaping the behavioural traits of men and women. Most politicians, educators and media barons and baronesses are still committed to the old feminist idea; however, as Greer’s book shows, the new feminism is growing and promises to take the world through another social shakedown, whose consequences for Muslim communities will be considerable.
Several factors have been at work in securing this sea-change. Perhaps the most obvious has been the sheer stubbornness of traditional patterns, which most men and women continue to find strangely satisfying. Radical feminist revolution of the old Greer school has not found a demographically significant constituency. Most women have not properly signed up to the sisterhood.
Moreover, the world which has been increasingly shaped by secular egalitarian gender discourse has not proved to be the promised land than the younger Greer had prophesied. As she now writes:
‘When the Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners.’ (p.3)
She goes on to suggest that the sexual liberation that accompanied the gender revolution has in most cases harmed women more than men. ‘The sexuality that has been freed’, she writes, ‘is male sexuality.’ Promiscuity harms women more than men: women continue to experience the momentous consequences of pregnancy, while the male body is unaffected. When the USS Acadia returned from the Gulf War, a tenth of her female crewmembers had already been returned to America because of pregnancy aboard what became known as the Love Boat. The number of men returned was zero.
Another consequence of the sexual revolution has been an increase in infidelity, and a consequent rise in divorce and single parenthood. Again, it is women who have shouldered most of the burden. ‘In 1971, one in twelve British families was headed by a single parent, in 1986 one in seven, and by 1992 one in five’ (p.202). Another consequence has been the pain of solitude. ‘By the year 2020 a third of all British households will be occupied by a single individual, and the majority of those individuals will be female’ (p.250). One of the most persistent legends of the sexual revolution, that ‘testing the waters’ before marriage helps to determine compatibility, seems to have been definitively refuted. ‘Some of the briefest marriages are those that follow a long period of cohabitation’ (p.255).
A further area in which women seem to have found themselves degraded rather than liberated by the new cultural climate is that of pornography. This institution, opposed by most feminists as a dehumanisation and objectification of women (Otto Preminger once called Marilyn Monroe a ‘vacuum with nipples’), has not been chastened into decline by the feminist revolution; it has swollen into a thirty billion pound a year industry, populated by armies of faceless Internet whores and robo-bimbos. As Greer remarks, ‘after thirty years of feminism there is vastly more pornography, disseminated more widely than ever before.’ Pornography blends into the fashion industry, which claims to exist for the gratification of women, but is in fact, as she records, largely controlled by men who seek to persuade women to denude or adorn themselves to add to a public spectacle created largely for men. (Many fashion designers, moreover, are homosexual, Versace only the most conspicuous example, and these men create a boylike fashion norm which forces women into patterns of diet and exercise which constitute a new form of oppression.) Cellulite, once admired in the West and in almost all traditional societies, has now become a sin. To be saved, one ‘works out’. Demi Moore pumps iron for four hours a day; but even this ordeal was not enough to save her marriage.
Greer and other feminists identify the fashion industry as a major contributor to the contemporary enslavement of women. Its leading co-conspirator is the pharmaceuticals business, which, as she says, deliberately creates a culture of obsession with physical flaws: the so called Body Dysmorphic Disorder which is currently plumping out the business accounts of doctors, psychiatrists, and, of course, the cosmetic surgeons. As Dolly Parton says, ‘It costs a lot of money to look as cheap as I do.’ The world’s resources are gobbled up to service this artificially-induced obsession with looks, fed by the culture of denudation. And perhaps the most repellent dimension is the new phenomenon of hormone replacement therapy, billed as an anti-aging panacea. The hormone involved, estrogen, is obtained from mares: in America alone 80,000 pregnant female horses are held in battery farms, confined in crates, and tied to hoses to enable their urine to be collected. The foals that are delivered are routinely slaughtered.
The consequences of the new pressures on women are already generally known, although no solutions are seriously proposed. Women, we are told by the old school of feminists, today lead richer lives. However, it is also acknowledged that these lives often seem to be sadder. ‘Since 1955 there has been a five-fold increase in depressive illness in the US. For reasons that are anything but clear women are more likely to suffer than men,’ (p.171) while ‘17 percent of British women will try to kill themselves before their twenty-fifth birthday.’ This wave of sadness that afflicts modern women, which is entirely out of keeping with the expectations of the early feminists, again has brought joy to the pharmaceuticals barons. Prozac is overwhelmingly prescribed to women. (This is the same anti-depressant drug that is routinely given to zoo animals to help them overcome their sense of futility and entrapment.)
Greer concludes her angry book with few notes of hopefulness. The strategies she demanded in the 1960s have been extensively tried and applied; but the results have been ambiguous, and sometimes catastrophic. What is clear is that there has not been a liberation of women, so much as a throwing-off of one pattern of dependence in exchange for another. The husband has become dispensable; the pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-growing army of psychiatrists and counsellors, have taken his place. Happiness seems as remote as ever.
Later in this talk I will attempt an Islamic critique of all this. But before doing so I think it would be useful to take a brief look at the science which is now providing Western social analysts with a context in which to frame an interpretation of what has gone wrong.
The most obvious area in which science has reverberations among feminists is in the differentials of physical strength which divide the sexes. In areas of life demanding physical power and agility, men continue to possess an advantage. Attempts have, of course, been made to overcome this proof of Mother Nature’s sexism through legislation. The most notorious attempt in the United Kingdom was the 1997 Ministry of Defence directive that female recruits would not be subject to the same physical tests as men. This excursion into political correctness foundered when it was discovered that the women being admitted to the army were not strong enough to perform some of the tasks required of them on completion of their training. As a result, the 1998 rules applied what were called ‘gender-free’ selection procedures to ensure that women and men faced identical tasks. The result was a massive rise in female injuries when compared with the men. Medical discharges due to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures, were calculated at 1.5% for male recruits, and at anything between 4.6% and 11.1% for females. Lt Col Ian Gemmell, an army occupational physician who compiled a report on the situation, noted that differences in women’s bone size and muscle mass lead to 33%-39% more stress on the female skeleton when compared to that of the male. The result is that although social changes have eroded the traditional moral reasons for barring women from active combat roles, the medical evidence alone compels the British army to bar women from the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps.
The army is an unusual case, and the great majority of professions to which women seek access require no great physical ability. But the differences between the sexes are at their most profound where they are least visible. The gender revolutionaries of the 1960s, popularising and also radicalising the earlier, gentler calls for equality led by the likes of Virginia Woolf, were working with a science which was still largely unequipped to assess the subtler aspects of gender difference. Modern techniques of genetic examination, the reconstruction of genome maps, and the larger implications of the DNA discoveries made by Crick and Watson, were unimaginable when Greer first wrote. Since Marx and Weber, and also Freud, it had been assumed that gender roles were principally, perhaps even entirely, the product of social conditioning. Re-engineer that conditioning, it was thought, and in due season fifty percent of those doing all jobs, composing symphonies, and winning Nobel Prizes, would turn out to be women.
In retrospect this seems an odd assurance. The intellectual climate was, after all, thoroughly secular. There was no metaphysical or moral imperative that obliged the Western mind to conclude that the sexes were different only trivially, or, as one trendy bishop put it, simply ‘the same thing but with different fittings’. And yet so overwhelming were the egalitarian assumptions that had shaped Europe and America since at least Thomas Paine and David Hume, that everyone assumed that the sexes must be equal, in the way that the classes must be equal, or the races, or the nations.
One of the first large-scale social experiments based on the new theory of gender equality was the kibbutz scheme in Jewish-settled Palestine. This was founded in 1910 on the assumption, still eccentric in that time, that the emancipation of women can only be achieved when socialised gender roles are eliminated from the earliest stage of childhood.
The kibbutzim were collective farms in which maternal care was entirely eliminated. Instead of living with parents, children lived in special dormitories. To spare women the usual rounds of domestic drudgery, communal laundries and kitchens were provided. Both men and women were hence freed up to choose any activity or work they wished, and it was expected that both would participate equally in positions of power. To ensure the neutral socialisation of children, toys were kept in large baskets, so that boys and girls could choose their own toys, rather than have gender-stereotyped toys and games pressed upon them.
The results, after ninety years of consistent and conscientious social engineering, have been disconcerting. The children, to the anger of their supervisors, unerringly choose gender-specific toys. Three year-old boys pull guns and cars out of the baskets; the girls prefer dolls and tea-sets. Games organised by the children are competitive - among boys - and cooperative – among the girls.
In the kibbutz administration, quotas imposed to enforce female participation in leadership positions are rarely met. Dress codes which attempt to create uniformity are consistently flouted. In Israel today, the kibbutzim harbour sex-distinctions which are famous for being sharper than those observable in Israeli society at large. The experiment has not only failed, it seems to have backfired.
Most scientists and anthropologists who have documented the failure of such projects of social engineering today locate the gravitation of males and females to differing patterns of behaviour in the context of evolutionary biology. Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are of course under attack now, particularly by philosophers and physicists, rather more seriously than at any other time over the past hundred years. And as Shaykh Nuh Keller has shown, a thoroughgoing commitment to the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Koranic account of the origins of humanity. We believe in a common ancestry for our kind; the neo-Darwinists insist in multiple and interactive development of hominids from simian ancestors.
This does not mean, however, that all the insights of modern biology are unacceptable. Keller notes that micro-evolution, that is to say, the perpetuation and reinforcement over time of genetically successful strategies for survival, is undeniable, and is affirmed also in the hadith. The breeding of horses, for instance, presupposes principles of natural selection in which human beings can intervene. Heredity is true, as a hadith affirms. Categories such as the ‘Israelites’, or the ahl al-bayt, have real significance.
What do the biologists say? The view is that biological success amounts to one factor alone: the maximal propagation of an organism’s genetic material. A powerful predator which dominates its habitat is, however outwardly imposing, a biological failure if it fails to reproduce itself at least in sufficient numbers to ensure its own perpetuation.
Biologists point out that males and females have different reproductive strategies. The burden of what biologist Robert Trivers calls ‘parental investment’ is massively higher in the case of females than of males. This has nothing to do with social conditioning: it is a genetic and biological given. The human female, for instance, makes a vast investment in a child: beginning with nine months of metabolic commitment, followed by a further period before weaning. The male’s ‘parental investment’ is enormously less.
Trivers shows that ‘the sex providing the greater parental investment will become the limiting resource.’ The sex which contributes less will then necessarily be in a social position involving competition, ‘because they can improve their reproductive success through having numerous partners in a way that members of the other sex cannot.’ Hence, for modern biologists, the genetic and hormonal basis of male competition and aggression. Competition and aggression are traits which may be found in females, but typically to a greatly reduced degree, simply because they are not traits vital to those females’ reproductive success. The aggression which is vital to male biological survival is directed primarily against other males (the vast, physiologically-demanding racks of antlers on stags, for instance); but aggression also serves to make the male more equipped for hunting. Male parental investment is hence physiological only indirectly, insofar as it is directed to providing food or defence for the young.
Biology also helps us understand why the female hormonal pattern, dominated by estrogen and oxytocin, generates strong nurturing instincts which are far less evident in the male androgens and in adrenaline, which is useful for huntsmen and warriors, but of considerably less value in the rearing of children. Simply put, mothers have a far greater investment to lose if they neglect their children. A child that dies, through lack of care resulting from insufficient hormonal guidance, represents a greater potential failure for the mother than for the father. During gestation and lactation, the mother is infertile or nearly so; whereas during the same period the father may become a father again many times over. Hence, again, the genetic programming which generates nurturing and convivial instincts in women far more than it does in men. Men have less of the ‘nurturing’ neurotransmitter oxytocin than do women. Androgens ensure that men choose mates for their youth and their apparent childbearing abilities, estrogens impel women to choose mates who are assertive and powerful, as more likely to provide the food and protection that their offspring will need.
Hence also the prevalence of polygyny in traditional societies, and the extreme rarity of polyandry. To have many wives is a genetically sensible strategy, to have many husbands is not.
The aggressive instincts fostered by the male physiology, flushed even before birth with androgens, served our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, and a few generations of very different lifestyles have not been sufficient to bring about any substantial alteration to the male hormonal balance. This is why ninety percent of prison inmates are men, in almost every society. Psychologists have shown that around the world, murderers and the murdered are usually young, unmarried men. A further factor is that males are far more attracted to competitive forms of behaviour. As Kingsley Browne notes, ‘While competition significantly increases the motivation of men, it does not do so for women. The more competitive an academic programme is perceived by women, for example, the poorer their performance, while the correlation is reversed for men.’ Studies also show that men are more likely than women to opt for difficult tasks.
The origin of this gender differential is again to be sought in primordial patterns of survival. Aggressive, competitive males became ‘alpha males’, and maximised their chances of reproductive success. (Males have ten times more testosterone than women; and it produces aggression as well as the sex drive.) Weaker, more co-operative males were pushed to one side, and rarely if ever found a mate. Successful hunting brought status, and status brought greater opportunities for genetic transmission.
Biologists like Camilla Benbow have recently assessed the implications for modern social differentiation of our genetic inheritance. Her study shows that ‘boys are much more likely to choose careers in maths and science even though girls are fully aware of their own abilities in these areas.’ Again, the conclusion is not that women are less intelligent than men - the new biology clearly rules that out - but that they prefer to exercise it in specific fields. At Harvard, for instance, there is a seven to one male preponderance in the science faculties, and a female preponderance, or equivalence, in arts subjects. Subjects like languages and art history are consistently oversubscribed by female students. And while there is no evidence that women are less intelligent than men - and in general they show themselves much more articulate - more than seventy percent of first-class degrees at Oxford are obtained by male students.
A variety of university committees have been set up to investigate this, initially with a view to eliminating it. However the differential is very stubborn. The reason may be partly to do with socialisation, but an awareness is growing that heredity is also a factor that refuses to be ignored. The male endocrine system carries the memory of thousands of years of hunting, an activity which requires a kind of focussed attention on a single quarry to the exclusion of all else, coupled with an adrenaline rush at the finish. Such a metabolism, it is now being argued, is better equipped to cope with university-style examinations (as distinct from secondary-school styles of assessment), than the female metabolism, which has historically flourished, that is, been reproductively successful, in nurturing and co-operative tasks.
The response at universities like Harvard and Oxford has been to question the primacy of the examination system. If the competitiveness and focus of males are unfairly served by examination assessment, then alternative modes of assessment must be sought. And so we see alternative assessment procedures: continual assessment of termwork, and other schemes which enable women to work consultatively on projects and hence develop their full potential. Already the results are encouraging, and it may be that the male bias which seems to be inherent in the examination system will one day be eliminated.
This, however, raises a larger and more troubling question. The new science has established that men and women have comparable intelligence quotients, but that the nature of male and female intelligence, and the context in which it flourishes, can be quite different. Hence Capucine La Motte, another researcher, has documented how from the age of about three most children prefer to play with children of their own gender. They can accomplish their goals in their play activities more reliably in this way. Boy’s games are competitive and often aggressive; girl’s games are collaborative and involve more sophisticated forms of discourse and conceptualisation. Another child psychologist, Janet Lever, notes that 65% of boy’s games are formal games, while only 35% of games played by girls have rules. Boys, it seems, are more ‘rule-oriented’ than girls. (This is why the contemporary Muslim interpretation of shari‘a in ways which diminish haqiqa is so often accompanied by a diminished respect for women. The sexes are only regarded with equivalent esteem when batin and zahir are spoken of with equal frequency by believers.)
A further aspect of inherited gender difference is presented in the issue of risk-taking. Primordial humanity allocated willingness to take risks differently among the sexes, not for constructed ‘social’ reasons, but for reasons of biological survival. To achieve the power and status requisite for transmitting his genetic material, the male had to take risks. In the historically very few years that have elapsed since such times, this norm does not appear to have changed. Consistently the figures show that risky activities and sports attract more men than women. Gambling, motor racing and bungee-jumping continue to be overwhelmingly male activities. Men are statistically more likely to ignore seat-belt laws. Despite the popular stereotypes of women as dangerous drivers, the great majority of lethal road accidents are the fault of men, because they indulge in hazardous and aggressive styles of driving. More than twice as many boys as girls die through playing dangerous games, and this statistic is remarkably consistent throughout the world.
The precise mechanisms in the brain which generate this behaviour are only now being understood. The mechanisms are called neurotransmitters, hundreds of different varieties of which activate emotions and bodily movements. One of the most important is serotonin, which has as one of its functions the task of informing the body to stop certain activities. When the body is tired, it generates the desire to sleep; when we have eaten enough it tells the body to stop eating; and so on. It does this by linking the limbic system (which is the kingdom of the nafs, and which generates primal impulses to attack, be sad, or make sexual advances), with the frontal cortex at the front of the brain, where our ability to assess and plan our actions is thought to be located. Studies indicate that men typically have lower serotonin levels than women, and conclude that the higher risk-taking behaviour characterising successful Formula One drivers, for instance, is likely to make that choice of career an almost entirely male preserve, whatever the amount of social engineering that feminist societies may attempt.
Universities can reduce gender disparities by adopting alternative modes of assessment, but after graduation, the real world is often less amenable. Risk-taking is a necessary ingredient of success in many, perhaps most, high-flying professions. Psychologist Elizabeth Arch has recently shown that the ‘glass ceiling’ in many professions, which supposedly excludes women from further promotion because of prejudice, may in fact have a biological foundation. Conspicuous success in business, for instance, demands the taking of risks that do not always come instinctively to women. As she says, ‘from an early age, females are more averse to social, as well as physical, risk, and tend to behave in a manner that ensures continued social inclusion;’ and this is largely innate, rather than socially constructed.
One expert who has devoted his research to the implications of neurotransmitters for gender behaviour is Marvin Zuckerman. He divides the serotonin-related human quest for sensation into four types. Firstly, there is the quest for adventure and the love of danger, which is associated with the typically low serotonin levels of the male. Secondly, the quest for experiences, whether these be musical, aesthetic or religious. Zuckerman detected no significant difference between male and female enthusiasm for this quest. Thirdly, disinhibition. The neurotransmitters of the typical male allow the comparatively swift loss of moral control over the sex drive, when compared with women. Fourthly, boredom. The male brain is more susceptible to boredom when carrying out routine and repetitive tasks.
What are the religious implications of this? There are feminists who point to these factors as evidence for the categoric moral inferiority of men. Islamically, however, they can all be understood, and addressed, in ways that again demonstrate the conformability of the fitra, as understood by Islam as a quasi-metaphysical quality, with the purely physical processes and geography of the human brain. The first of Zuckerman’s distinctions is not necessarily to the discredit of men. Courage is, after all, a Prophetic virtue; and without emotional surges the Muslim would make a poor horseman, or warrior, or risk-taking builder of an Istanbul mosque. Secondly, with regard to the category to which the lubb, the inner core of humanity, most fully relates, it is clear that scientific evidence exists for the spiritual ‘equal opportunities’ of the sexes. The Qur’an locates the source of religious faith in the lubb’s ability to experience the divine origin of God’s signs in nature. Men and women are clearly equally good at this. Likewise, faith-sustaining aesthetic achievements such as music, literature, crafts, and architecture, are likely to be no less effective for women than for men. The Qur’an itself is perceived as beautiful and true by both sexes without distinction. It is on this level, then, (and only here) that we can meaningfully speak of the equality of the sexes.
The third of Zuckerman’s categories appears to place men at a disadvantage; but in reality this applies only to the secular. In the believer, the virtue described in the Qur’an as taqwa, which is produced from the faith generated in the second category, overcomes this shortfall. The spiritual technologies of Islam allow a compensation for the serotonin lack and a proper disciplining of the darker passions which dwell in the limbic system. The actualised shari‘a is, in a sense, the victory of the frontal cortex, and allows the male to retrieve the balance which is already implicit in the female metabolism. No doubt this is why ‘women are deficient in intellect and religion’. It is not that the Creator has given them innate disadvantages in the quest for understanding and salvation, but rather that He requires men to make more effort to reach their degree of fitra.
The fourth (the quest for novelty, and the dislike of repetitive tasks) privileges women over men in the duties of the home. Insofar as modern office jobs are repetitive and tedious, women are clearly also gifted with more stamina in the workplace as well. Whether the biologists can demonstrate that men should, or are likely to, occupy fifty percent of jobs requiring attention to repetitive tasks, seems unlikely.
A further explanation of the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon may be located in the primordial female tendency to nurture. Consistently through the pre-modern world, women were primarily involved in care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. As the feminist writer Carol Gilligan observes, ‘women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care.’ Girls are ‘more person-oriented’, while boys tend to be more ‘object-oriented.’
Historical biology, and anthropology, can help us to understand why these key behavioural differences should exist. How they exist is also now discernable, thanks to the molecular biologists and the endocrinologists. The male and female foetuses begin life in the womb almost identical. The key difference is the XY chromosome couple which signify the male, where the female has an XX pair. The function of the Y chromosome is to trigger the release of androgens which approximately two months into pregnancy initiate the development of the male gonads. (Hence the view of many biologists that the female is in fact the basic human shape, and the male a divergence from it – the opposite of the Aristotelian view.)
These androgens, however, do more than shape the reproductive organs of the unborn child. Between the sixteenth and the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, they also trigger fundamental divergences in the male and female brains. At this point, congenital deficiencies can produce not only forms of hermaphroditism of the kind recognised by classical fiqh, but can also affect the behaviour of the subsequent person. A well-studied example is the problem known as CAH: ‘congenital adrenal hyperplasia’. This results from an abnormal secretion of androgens in an XX foetus, that is, a child that is genetically female. The child suffering from this condition, which in its classical form may affect one in every 20,000 births, is typically born with both male and female reproductive organs; and the male ones are routinely removed by surgery. Although the females appear normal and are fertile they display very distinct behavioural patterns, because of being bathed in male hormones while still unborn. The numerous papers published on this phenomenon conclude that the CAH females may be characterised as ‘tomboys’. They are more aggressive, they like games with rules, and they are ready to take more risks than girls who have been born without this defect.
Mirroring the CAH girls are the boys who suffer from the genetic abnormality of an additional X hormone. These XXY boys are superficially normal males, but their behaviour is typically feminine, lacking competitive and risk-taking impulses, and showing a preference for play with girls in cooperative and non-aggressive games.
CAH and XXY studies are increasingly cited as evidence of the immense influence which hormones exert on gender behaviour. Further proof is now emerging from studies on women who were given hormones to overcome difficulties during pregnancy, an increasingly common practice and one which is thought to be responsible for producing an increasing number of children whose behavioural traits do not tally with their bodily gender features. Female criminals, for instance, frequently suffer from abnormally high testosterone levels, and these are often the consequence of earlier medical interventions.
I want now to move on, and deal with some of the consequences of these discoveries for our understanding, as Muslims, of the society to which we aspire, and whose guidelines are set out in revelation. Clearly, older feminist polemic against Islam on the grounds of its ‘essentialism’, its belief in the inborn nature of male and female traits, will no longer hold water. In the Muslim world itself, the new science, and the new feminism, are not yet known, and secularists, from the Turkish government to Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh, continue to insist that gender differences, and inequalities in the workplace, can be wished away through social engineering and the inculcation of new attitudes. This was the mentality invoked by the Turkish government in preparing its 2001 gender equality legislation.
Living in the West, and being more in touch with contemporary trends in science and social theory, we can easily see how thin such polemic has become. Intelligent thinkers such as Greer are no longer demanding ‘equality’. It is not that they are demanding inequality or injustice instead: far from it. Instead, they are recognising that our awareness of the categoric difference between the sexes makes the whole concept of ‘equality’ rather too simpleminded. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal. We can no more say that men are better than women than we can say that ‘the rain is better than the earth’. To use the old language of ‘equality’ is in fact to be guilty of what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘category mistake’.
Modern Muslim theologians who have assimilated the new insights insist that the demand for ‘equality’ is less helpful than the demand for opportunity and respect. Here there is clearly a congruence between Islamic discourse and the new difference feminism of Greer, Gilligan and a growing number of others.
It remains for us now briefly to sketch some of the ways in which the Shari‘a and science now vindicate each other. Equality is no more envisaged by nature than it is by the law of God; indeed, the law of God, for us, is commensurate with natural law. Since we reject ideas of the radically fallen nature of our kind, we acknowledge nature, that is the fitra, as inherently good. Christianity, wherever it followed Augustine, believed until the eighteenth century that unbaptised infants, and miscarried foetuses, would be tormented forever in hell since their unregenerate nature, stained by original sin, could only lead to damnation. Jansenists and some evangelicals still hold to this disturbing belief.
Islam is non-sacramental; or rather, we acknowledge that the remembrance of our Lord is the only sacrament necessary. And the natural order, as the Koran richly documents, is a world of signs which point to its source, and to ours. Hence the fitra of our kind, discernable we may say through consistent patterns maintained in homo sapiens across the globe and the generations, cannot be displeasing to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala.
Perhaps one of the most interesting questions which modernity poses to traditional religion has to do with divine providence amid a world which is now unimaginably more ancient than our ancestors suspected. There is no dating by numbers in the Koran or the Hadith, but medieval Muslims typically thought that the world was about five thousand years old. Now, whatever view we may take of Darwin, we must accept that our species is tens of thousands of years old. Recognisably human remains have been recovered, and reliably dated by radiocarbon methods, which show the antiquity of humanity - unless we are, by misunderstanding the logic of piety, to deny scientific evidence entirely. In 1997 the world’s oldest cricket bat was dug up in the county of Essex (of course). It is recognisably a bat, designed for some form of game, and is apparently 40,000 years old. Our theological question would therefore be: if Essex Man, in time out of mind, had the self-awareness and the humanity and the sophistication needed to play cricket, surely he was also a creature accountable to his Maker. In other words, the story of salvation is much, much older than we ever suspected. To claim that humanity had to wait for most of its history before learning about its source and destiny requires an intolerable interrogation of the divine justice.
Now, this antiquity of our species fits in with Islamic salvation history very elegantly. The hadith indicates that there have been 124,000 prophets. The Qur’an says, Wa-li-kulli qawmin had - ‘for every nation there has been a guide’. The existence of cricket matches in Chelmsford thirty-eight thousand years before the hijra is not a problem for us: homo religiosus existed then, just as did homo ludens, and presumably had access to a chapter of revelation which has since disappeared.
For Christianity, of course, the problem is more acute. Medieval theologians struggled with the fact that millions lived before the coming of Christ, and hence died without receiving the sacraments or accepting him as saviour. Complicated theories of post-mortem evangelisation, or of the harrowing of hell, were developed to make this challenge to the divine moral coherence less scandalous. Today, with our awareness of humanity’s antiquity, the theology is harder still: why should a loving God have waited for a million years before sending his Son to redeem humanity?
For us, as I have said, this is a non-problem. For every nation there has been a guide. And, as Surat al-Insan says, ‘Has there ever come upon man a time when he was not something remembered?’ And a necessary concomitant of this acceptance of the dramatic, splendid length of prophetic history, so commensurate with the grandeur of God and the universe, has to be that recurrent and biologically-grounded patterns of human society must be considered as in some sense normal, and hence as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, our conviction, as Muslims, that the human being has been created ‘in the best of forms’, that ‘we have ennobled the children of Adam’, makes any attempt to decry the natural endocrinology of our bodies blasphemous. We are as we have been created, and Allah, blessed is He, is the best of creators.
This is why we say, respectfully ignoring the protests of old-fashioned feminists, that men and women, in a Godfearing society, will tend towards different concerns and spheres of activity. Our aim, after all, is human happiness, not political correctness. Any attempt to impose a crudely egalitarian template on the data of the Qur’an and Sunna, and of the Sira, and the recurrent patterns of Islamic social history, will underestimate them drastically. Walaysa al-dhakaru ka’l-untha, says the Qur’an: the male is not like the female. Egalitarianism is reductionism, and diminishes the bivalence of our kind, whose fertility is apparent in many more ways than the merely reproductive.
We insist, therefore, that our revealed law, confirmed so magnificently in its assumptions by the new science, upholds the dignity and the worth of women more reliably than secularity ever can. A materialistic worldview, which measures human worth in terms of earning power and status and access to sexual plenitude, will inexorably glorify the male. For the male, conditioned by the androgens from the time he was almost invisibly small in the womb, is assertive: his metaphors are projection, conquest, single-mindedness. As the facts of science trickle down into popular culture, and as old-style equality feminism breaks down, the male is going to be magnified as never before in history. Materialistic civilisations will, in the longer term, favour and revere male traits. In the shorter term women may appear to be overtaking the men, because of the energy generated by the congratulations of modernity, and because of the reciprocal atrophy of male identity and self-regard. But in the longer term, unless the logic of Adam Smith’s capitalism is mysteriously terminated, the future belongs to the androgen.
As Muslims, we refuse such a favouritism. Inevitably, given the nature of the fitra, there must be aspects of shari‘a which favour the male in functional, material terms. Ours is a religion of absolute justice. But because we reject any identification of human worth with conspicuous functionality, or power, or status, or consumption, we are able to insist on the worth of women in a way that is not possible outside a religious context. For we have not been created for the idols worshipped in the pages of GQ or Loaded Magazine. The biological advantages of the male, which, unless one day a massive reconstructive surgery and hormonal reprogramming is carried out on every one of us, do not for us denote superiority, as they must for the secular mind when it follows its own arguments through.
The key to understanding this is supplied by our rich theology of the Ninety-nine Names of Allah. And these reveal what the biologists describe as gender dimorphism. That is to say, just as procreation bears fruit through the shaping received from androgens and estrogens, so too creation itself is bathed in androgens and estrogens. The entire cosmos is gendered; in fact, it comes into being, and attains the complexity of manifestation after the experience of undifferentiated unity, through the interaction of the divine Names, where the supreme and governing category is the polarity of Jalal and Jamal. I have attempted some further reflections on this principle of a hormonally-coded cosmos in another place. (click here)
The gender issue ramifies massively into every other area of religion, and far more could be written. What I have tried to do in this essay is show that an opposition to the Shari‘a is an opposition to science, inasmuch as science is currently affirming an innate distinction between the sexes, a distinction that Allah ta‘ala clearly calls us to celebrate rather than to suppress. The social architecture of Islam is very different to that of the modern secular West: that should be a source of pride to us. We are permitted to speculate, however, that the disastrous social problems now overcoming the West, and westernising classes elsewhere, will combine with the new science to provide a revised definition of gender and social roles which will, in the longer term, convince our critics of the superior wisdom and compassion of the Prophetic social model.
wa-akhiru da‘wana ani’l-hamdu li’Llahi rabbi’l-alamin
Abdal-Hakim Murad, born 1960, London. Educated Cambridge University (MA Arabic), and al-Azhar. Translator of al-Bayhaqi's 77 Branches of Faith. Editor of M. Z. Siddiqi's Hadith Literature (Islamic Texts Society, 1993). Trustee and Secretary of The Muslim Academic Trust. Director, The Anglo-Muslim Fellowship for Eastern Europe. [Read more]
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