Historically, Muslim theology has been radically iconoclastic—God is not simply beyond gender but for most Muslims, also beyond anthropocentric similitudes. The idea of God the father is simply not part of the dominant Muslim imaginary. Instead Muslim theology speaks of ungendered multitudinous divine attributes as a way for humanity to relate to the One all-encompassing God. The divine names or attributes are central in Muslim theology since humanity and all creation are ontologically lodged in and manifest varying combinations of divine attributes. So when engaging gender theologically it becomes important to look at how the divine attributes are represented.
Also, despite a theological rejection of any form of gendered anthropomorphism, Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and earliest Muslim theology, is a deeply gendered language. Allah, the Arabic name for God, is conventionally rendered into the pronoun huwa (“He”), which in Muslim theology is purportedly not to be conflated with any human attribution of masculinity. Grappling with usage of a grammatically masculine Arabic pronoun for God as “He” against the theological assertion that God is beyond gender, I decided some years ago to use both “He” and “She” in reference to God in my presentations—particularly as an attempt to refrain from promoting an underlying or unconscious valence of divine masculinity.
These gender-inclusive pronouns for Allah elicit mixed reactions among varied Muslim audiences—some younger people find gender-inclusive pronouns for Allah compelling and exciting, while older people often express deep discomfort with any feminine language associated with God. In my view, this discomfort might partly be explained by the fact that patriarchy has rendered male imagery normative (even if only symbolically and linguistically) and rendered feminine imagery for the divine as unthinkable or, at the minimum, dissonant. Muslims, like their Abrahamic siblings, have long histories of patriarchy—even though Muslims might not have images of God as father, there certainly is a long history of naturalized andocentrism, male authority, gendered hierarchies, and implicit masculine associations with the divine. These have had damaging implications for the full humanity of women and men. Ultimately, notions of the divine nature are intrinsically related to our notions of human nature and relationships.
Within a broad spectrum of Muslim scholarship historically, I have found deep resonance with the daring contributions of the thirteenth-century Muslim thinker Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi. In retrieving the gendered ideas of this luminous thinker, one finds a distinctive and powerful poetics of creation, nurture, power, and spirituality that weaves together the earth, maternity, femininity, women, and the Divine Feminine. He states:
[The earth] gives all of the benefits from her essence [dhāt] and is the location [maḥall] of all good. Thus she is the most powerful [aʾazz] of the bodies. . . . she is the patient [ṣabūr], the receptive one [qābila], the immutable one, the firm one . . . Whenever she moves from fearful awe of God, God secures her by means of (mountains as) anchors. So she becomes still with the tranquility of those of faithful certainty. From the earth, the people of faith learn their certainty. Therefore, it is the mother from whom we come and to whom we return. And from her we will come forth once again. To her we are submitted and entrusted. She is the most subtle of foundations [arkān] in meaning. She accepts density, darkness, and hardness only in order to conceal the treasures that God has entrusted to it.1Cited in Sa’diyya Shaikh. Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender and Sexuality. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2012).
In this evocative set of images, Ibn ʿArabī presents the earth as a source of abundance and plenitude, one intimately linked with the divine. The earth epitomizes the divine attributes of power, stability, strength, receptivity, and subtlety—and constitutes an exemplary spiritual model for people seeking to foster their own faith, tranquility, and certitude. Indeed, the earth mirrors an array of divine qualities that provide a form of instruction and teaching for the perceptive seeker to advance her/his own spiritual progress.
More especially, Ibn Arabi’s depiction of the earth evokes an intricate spectrum of divine qualities that distinctly echo the Qur’anic descriptions of God. Calling the earth al-Ṣabūr, the Patient One, a recurring name of God in the Qur’an, he creates for a Muslim audience an explicit resonance between the earth and God. Similarly, depicting the earth as “concealing treasures” mirrors the well-known tradition (hadith al-qudsi) where God states, “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known. Hence I created all things in order to be known.” Describing the earth as “the mother from whom we come and to whom we return” is an unequivocal invocation of the popular Qur’anic verse “From Allah we come and to Allah we return” (Q2:156).
In all of these descriptions, Ibn Arabi unambiguously and explicitly links the earth to the divine, foregrounding the earth as the creative, benevolent, maternal source of the good. By reflecting on the human being’s intimate spiritual and immanent physical relationship with the earth, he also brings into focus women’s procreative capacities and the Divine Feminine. Moreover, by interweaving maternal, earthy, and generative qualities with the majestic attributes of strength, power, and immutability, Ibn Arabi urges his audience toward an integration and balance of what might be traditionally categorized as “masculine” and “feminine” attributes within the divine. A poetics where the earth reverberates divine presence, provides spiritual teaching, and is the locus of human origin and return, enables a reevaluation of embodiment, materiality, mothers, and spirituality.
For a feminist reader it is noteworthy that these images present a foundational integrity between the earthly and divine, and between embodiment and spirituality—elements that traditional patriarchies have often rent asunder through gendered hierarchies. Ibn ʿArabī’s exalted portrayal of the earth—and its intimate neighbor the human body—presents an unequivocal rejection of traditional patriarchal binaries. Such dualistic binaries often devalue the earth as the realm of inferior lowly materiality and embodiment (often relegated to the feminine and women)—a necessary trap of human existence that one seeks to ultimately overcome. Instead, the body and the earth as maternal and generative realities are profoundly imbued with spiritual value, and reconfigure dominant gendered ideas.
Elsewhere, Ibn Arabi uses feminine metaphors of pregnancy, labor, and childbirth to describe the origin of creation. In this cosmogenic myth, God is in a state of solitary Oneness before creation, when the yet non-existing entities within the One are heavy with potentiality and exert a metaphysical condition of pressure. Ibn Arabi describes this state of distress induced by the yet non-existing entities within the One with the term “karb” signifying the process of labor during childbirth.2Shaikh, 125. In response to this state of contraction, the divine creative force—described as the Breath of the Merciful (Nafas al-Raḥmān)—in an act of loving compassion, emancipates the non-existing entities into the sphere of existence. Like women who bear children, God births the cosmos and thereby reveals Her divine treasures.
Simultaneously, in his typically fluid use of gendered metaphors, Ibn Arabi also describes God as “male,” stating that all creation is ontologically “female” in relation to God, who impregnates each being with existence. Boldly he states that in fact, “Other than the Creator, there is not in this universe a male,” and those who are generally referred to as males are all “really female” receptive to the being of the divine creator.3Shaikh, 121. Ibn Arabi’s supple and relational use of maternal and paternal metaphors pushes his reader toward a more agile, fluid conception of gender as relating to divinity and humanity.
In Ibn Arabī’s vibrant, corporeal metaphors, we encounter a God who desires and loves to be known, who experiences anguish without creation, and whose creative process is captured through images of pregnancy, labor, and mothering. These metaphors invoke a vital aspect of deep connection, interiority, and nurture between God and humanity. Moreover, a God who needs humanity for the realization, manifestation, and fulfillment of divine possibilities subverts hierarchical patriarchal theologies that define God as primarily omnipotent, transcendent, and independent of humanity. This is not simply an invincible God whose unadulterated power demands unconditional obedience, but rather a God whose love and yearning is the very impetus for creation. Confounding prevailing gendered hierarchies, Ibn Arabi instead presents a God-human relationship characterized by intimacy, closeness, love, and mutuality, all of which contribute toward a nourishing theology, a theology which provides the ontological soil to nurture and develop a Muslim feminist ethics of relationality and radical interdependence.
For the ethical, religious, and spiritual challenges of our time, we are in need of more sustaining gender-inclusive theological language that not only affirm women’s subjectivities but that also destabilize a masculinist symbolic economy. Retrieving marginalized resources from one’s religious archive that inspire the creation of ever-more inclusive visions of God, humanity, and creation within a Muslim imaginary are imperatives of engaged believers in search of more expansive expressions of beauty, justice, and virtue for their time.