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The Male Female Relationship
Social Issues
Umer Sarfraz


In the editorial (May, 1995) of Renaissance, Mr Shehzad Saleem has taken up the subject of the human family. The question, inevitably, entails the concomitant issues of the equality of the sexes and certain difficulties in understanding the expressions of the Quran and other scriptures. As usual, Shehzad is bold enough to voice such opinions that do not completely conform to the prevalent ideas that are, more or less, nurtured by male chauvinism. We support his views as a whole. The comments offered here, however, are in the nature of taking up the loose threads of the argument and develop it further to elucidate certain points of importance.

Let us quote a representative passage from his editorial.1

"As far as the question of organization of a typical family set-up is concerned, it is evident that just like a state needs a ruler, a family needs someone to head it. According to the Quran, a man, owing to two reasons is the appropriate choice to head a family:

"Men are the guardians of women because Allah has given one superiority over the other and because they [--- men ---] support them from their means." (4:34)

The first reason for this choice is that men are naturally more suited for this task.2 Their physical strength and mental disposition make them more appropriate of the two to carry out this responsibility. The word qawwaam combines in it the concepts of physical protection and moral responsibility. The verse, it should remain in consideration, very clearly states that men's superiority to women is not absolute; it is only relative and confined to certain spheres. There are other spheres in which women are superior to men and as such must be acknowledged." (Pg 6)

This is something very refreshing and reassuring in a climate of opinion where our theologians, like their counterparts in the Christian, Jewish or Buddhist traditions, grant an equal existential status to the female species only in a grudging, if not backhanded, manner.

Christian theology, by concerning itself with sin and seeing a seductress in Eve in particular and in woman in general, has been led to evaluate the feminine sex with a maximum of pessimism. According to some, it is man alone and not woman who was made in the image of God, whereas the Bible affirms, not only that God created man in His image, but also that "male and female created He", which has been misinterpreted with much ingenuity. In principle, one might be surprised at this lack of more or less visual intelligence on the part of the theologians; in fact, such a limitation has nothing surprising about it, given the will-bound and sentimental character of the exoterist perspective in general, which disposes it to prejudices and bias. A first proof -- if proof be needed -- that woman is divine image like man, is that in fact she is a human being like him,; she is not vir or aner, but like him she is homo or anthropos; her form is human and consequently divine. Another proof -- but a glance ought to suffice -- resides in the fact that, in relation to man and on the erotic plane, woman assumes an almost divine function -- similar to the one which man assumes in relation to woman -- which would be impossible if she did not incarnate, not the quality of absoluteness, to be sure, but the complementary quality of infinitude.

And this leads us, in order to rectify the excessively unilateral opinions to which the question of the sexes has given rise, to define three relationships which govern the equilibrium between man and woman: firstly the sexual, biological, psychological and social relationship; then the simply human and fraternal relationship. In the first relationship, there is obviously inequality, and from this results the social subordination of woman, a subordination already prefigured in her physical constitution and her psychology; but this relationship is not everything, and it may even be more than compensated for -- depending on the individuals  and the confirmations -- by other dimensions. In the second relationship, that of the human quality, woman is equal to man since like him she belongs to the human species; this is the plane, not of subordination, but of friendship; and it goes without saying that on this level the wife may be superior to the husband since one human individual may be superior to another, whatever be the sex. Finally, in the third relationship there is, highly paradoxically, reciprocal superiority: in love, as we have said earlier, the woman assumes in regard to her husband a divine function, as does the man in regard to the woman'.3

The possibility of spiritual excellence calls to mind the statements of Ibn `Arabi who repeatedly emphasized the fact that rujuliyyah "Spiritual Virility" can be a characteristic of women as well as men. Affirmations of the same nature are found repeatedly, for example, in Chap. 73 where types of sainthood are described. The author, after giving the name of a particular category of auliya, often adds a remark in this sense (wa minhum ar-rijaal wan-nisaa or a similar phrase). Still more explicit is a sentence4 where he says that all the degrees (maratib), including that of the Pole (Al-qutbiyya), are as accessible to women as to men.5

Some people may object to this view. To them a woman appears as the exteriorizing and fettering element: feminine psychology, indeed, on the purely natural plane and failing a spiritual adjustment of values, is characterized by a tendency towards the world, the concrete, the existential if one wills, and in any case towards subjectivity and sentiment, and also by a more or less unconscious guile in the service of this in-born tendency.6 It is with regard to this tendency that Christians as well as Muslims have felt justified  in saying that a holy woman is no longer a woman, but a man -- a formulation that is absurd in itself, but defensible in the light of the axiom we are speaking of. But this axiom concerning the innate tendency of a woman happens to be relative and not absolute, given that a woman is a human being like a man and that sexual psychology is necessarily a relative thing; one can make as much use as one likes of the fact that Eve's sin was to call Adam to the adventure of outwardness, but one cannot forget that the function of Mary was the opposite and that this function also enters into the possibility of the feminine spirit. Nevertheless, the spiritual mission of a woman will never be linked with a revolt against man, in as much as feminine virtue comprises submission in a quasi-existential manner: for a woman, submission to a man -- no matter what man -- is a secondary form of human submission to God. It is so because the sexes, as such, manifest an ontological relationship, and thus an existential logic which the spirit may transcend inwardly but cannot abolish outwardly.

To allege that the woman who is holy has become a man by the fact of her sanctity, amounts to presenting her as a denatured being: in reality, a holy woman can only be such on the basis of her perfect femininity, failing which God would have been mistaken in creating women -- quod absit -- whereas according to Genesis she was, in the intention of God, "a helpmate for man", and so firstly a "help" and not an obstacle, and secondly "like unto him", and not sub-human; to be accepted by God, she does not have to stop being what she is.

Mr. Shehzad has also mentioned the idea of the `paired creation' which is fundamental to an understanding of the complementary nature of the male-female relationship. In this regard we would like to remark further that apart from the three dimensions of the conjugal alliance mentioned earlier there are, as regards the  actual choice of partner, two factors to be  considered: affinity or resemblance, and complementarily or difference; love requires both of these conditions. Man naturally seeks -- without having to explain it or justify it -- a human complement who is of this type and with whom he can consequently be at ease; but on the very basis of this condition, he will seek a complement who is different from himself, failing which one could not talk of complement. for the object of love is to permit human beings to complete one another naturally and not simply to repeat one another.

All these considerations derive from a point of view that depends on the principle of natural selection, which in many cases can be neutralized by a moral and spiritual point of view, but without for all that losing its rights on its own level, which relates to the human norm, and thus to our deformity. At all events, it goes without saying, humanly speaking, that beauty, whatever be its degree, requires a moral and spiritual complement of which in reality it is the expression, without which man would not be man.7

These considerations lead us to a related question: what, it may be asked, is the meaning of the masculine character attributed to God by the Scriptures, and how can man -- the male -- accord all his love, naturally centered on woman, on a Divine Being who seems to exclude femininity? The answer to this is that the reason for the masculine character of God in Semitic monotheism signifies, not that the Divine Perfection could possibly exclude the feminine perfections (which is unthinkable), but simply that God is totality and not part, and this totality has its image, precisely in the human male, whence his priority with regard to woman -- a priority which in other respects is either relative or non-existent; it is indeed important to understand that the male is not totality in the same way that God is, and likewise that woman is not `part' in an absolute manner, for each sex, being equally human, shares in the nature of the other.

If each of the sexes constituted a pole, God could neither be masculine nor feminine, for it would be an error of language to reduce God to one of two reciprocally complementary poles; but if, on the contrary, each sex represents a perfection, God cannot but possess the characteristics of both -- active perfection, however, always having priority over passive perfection. In Islam, it is sometimes said that man has a feminine character in relation to God; but from another point of view the doctrine of the Divine Names implies that the Divinity possesses all conceivable qualities, and if we see in the perfect woman certain qualities which are proper to her, she cannot have them except in so far as they are a reverberation of the corresponding Divine Qualities.8


1. Shehzad  Saleem, "The Institution of Family", Renaissance, Vol. 5 No. 5, May 1995 Pg. 6.

2. "Both the Old and New Testaments hold the same view in this regard: `Unto the woman He said ... thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. (Gn. 3:16) `Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even  as Christ is head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their husbands in everything `(Eph. 5:22-24)"

This note is carried from the text of Mr. Shehzad's editorial.

3. As could be seen from the foregoing note, the Bible only takes into consideration the role of the male in respect to the female whereas the Islamic perspective takes a more comprehensive point of view by envisaging it as a complementary or reciprocal relationship.

4. Ibn `Arabi, "Al-Futuhat-ul-Makkiyyah", Cairo, 1911, Reprinted Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d. Vol.3, Pg. 89.

5. It is significant that this sentence appears in chapter 324, which corresponds to the manzil for surah 60 (Al-Mumtahina), a surah several of whose verses refer to the status of Muslim women and whose penultimate verse, in particular, concerns the pacts that women, the same as men, have with the Prophet (sws). Historically, the pact in question here is the one made in Hudaibiyyah in the year 6, but it is at the same time, in sufism, the prototype and the scriptural justification of the initiatory pact. On this subject, see also, e.g., "Futoohat". Vol. 4, Pg. 494; "Mawaqi` Un-Nujoom", Pgs. 115-16; "Kitaab-ut-Taraajim", Pgs. 1 and 39.

6. We are here in the realm of imponderables, but what is decisive is that the psychological differences between the sexes really exist in a vertical or qualitative sense as well as in a horizontal or neutral sense. Perhaps one should add, in order to forestall easily foreseeable objections, that a woman finds a means of manifesting her particular worldliness within the very framework of a de facto masculine worldliness; in other words, generally human weaknesses do not abolish the specific -- but recall in this context that modern life ends in devirilizing men and in defeminizing women, which is to the advantage of no one, since the process is contrary to nature and transfers or even accentuates faults instead of correcting them.

7. This point is pertinent to the response Mr. Shehzad has made in the recent issue of July, 1995 to our earlier remarks concerning "Union and Utility".

8. Sources: `Isa Nur-uddin, "Dimensions of Islam", Suhail Academy, Lahore, 1985; Frithjof Schuon, "Esoterism as Principle and as Way", Perennial Books, London, 1981.

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