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Women and Reason in Arab-Islamic and European Philosophy, Schirilla

Women and Reason in Arab-Islamic and European Philosophy, Schirilla

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Women and Reason in Arab-Islamic and European Philosophy

Nausikaa Schirilla

Reason (aql) has to control desire (sahwa) and thus men women, states the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi after her analysis of various philosophical and religious texts of the Islamic Middle Ages.1 Mernissi argues that in these texts women are presentend as chaotic, irrational, unreliable and sexually active. In order to satisfy their strong sexual needs they ignore any moral or social laws and thus present a danger to the moral and social order. In the view of Muslim theologians Muslim civilisation is based on God’s will and reason, desire is viewed as chaos and as a threat to reason and civilisation. This dangerous power is projected onto women and will be controlled by controlling women. Fatwa Malti-Douglas, who analysed literary and philosophical texts in Islamic writing, came to a similar conclusion. In the texts she analysed women’s body is seen as problematic, it is threatening because of its sexual power.2 It is important to note that this kind of analysis can be applied to Western thinking as well. It seems as if there are clear parallels in Western and Islamic ideas on women and reason. Women philosophers in the Western tradition have described the image of women in philosophy as follows: women are presented as lacking in reason, being close to bodily passions and desire and not capable of autonomous moral judgement. But if they are properly guided by men they will be the most virtuous beings.3 These ideas are put forward in many periods of western philosophy: – Aristotle stated that women are incomplete men with less reason – Rousseau stated thar women’s desire is stronger than men’s, women have to refrain from abstract thinking and moral judgement – Kant admired women’s beautiful and pleasant intellect, and stressed that it is different from man’s abstract reason.
Topoi 17: 57–62, 1998. © 1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

It is interesting to realise that we find these models in the thought of philosophers of the Enlightenment, too, although they advocated the universality of reason and the equality of mankind. A conception of reason that excludes women (and a conception of the feminine as being constituted by the exclusion of reason) is to be found in the texts of many philosophers and is a prevailing concept – though it is not the only one. Already Plato held egalitarian views, we find them in Plato’s Republic, in early Enlightenment Poulain de la Barre stressed the equality between the sexes, so did J. S. Mill. too. The idea of the equality between the sexes is also to be found in Arab-Islamic philosophy, for instance in some works of Ibn Rusd (Averroes), who lived in the 12th century. 4 But these views were expressed only by a minority. There are obviously parallels in the thinking of two different cultures that are normally presented as being very different. It is also important to see that there is a strong rationalistic tradition in both cultures. This contradicts the image presented in our media of Islam as being irrational and static.5 And this also contradicts a Western self-understanding as being the civilisation of emancipation, equality and thus being superior to other cultures. There exists, however, a rationalistic tradition in both cultures and an image of woman that depicts women as lacking in reason, being incapable of moral judgement und as being close to bodily passions, emotions and desire. These parallels need to be analysed further. I will do so by approaching the rationalistic traditions from a woman’s perspective – from the perspective of the excluded others. The analysis will be focussed on the image of women of two outstanding philosophers of both cultures. After a presentation of their image of women I will try to interpret their ideas of women in the context of the whole body of thought. Furthermore we have to ask if we can outline an intercultural perspective of women on these grounds.

the Coran either . which is at the very center of his rationalism.10 Ibn Sina’s treatment of marriage and the women question can be read as an rational legitimation of the prescriptions of the sari’a (Islamic Law) on Aristotelian grounds. the results will be chaos und general decline. Nevertheless. who is killed in the end.13 For Ibn Sina the soul is an independent spiritual substance establishing the link between the intelligible and the sensous world. . based on certain Aristotelian and Pseudo-Aristotelian texts. Some of the ideas on women expressed in the “Sifa’ ” and “Kitab as-Siasa” are of Aristotelian origin – women’s lack in reason. but not spiritually. Similar assertions are put forward in the politics of Ibn Sina. Stability and peace in society are secured by the stability of the conjugal union. marriage. He was a renowned doctor of medicine and philosopher of the Golden Age of ArabIslamic philosophy and an influential representative of Islamic Neoplatonism that provided a Muslim and Neoplatonic reading of Aristotle.” they are rather led by desire and temper”. Salaman is married. It is easy to deceive them so women have to veil their bodies and stay at home. marriage as a hierachical relationship where man has the guidance. and the very basis of the social order is the smallest unit of the community. Metaphysics is completed by practical philosophy in the tenth book that contains prescriptions for marriage and the role of woman. who tried to seduce Joseph. Furthermore. It is dangerous if women succeed in governing men. the wife will become too strong and she will contradict him and try to subdue him. sexuality) is greater than men’s.58 NAUSIKAA SCHIRILLA The first philosopher to be presented here is Ibn Sina. is characterised by dispute. thus man has to guide woman. The practical faculty is directed towards the body and bodily reactions. In the third chapter of this book Ibn Sina describes his ideal of marriage and the ideal relationship between the spouses. whereas men can repudiate women at any moment. As marriage is such an important basis of society and as women tend to pervert its stability. but as rather chaste. that is sheer intelligibility. women represent a permanent danger to the social order. also known as Avicenna.11 Here women are subjected to men’s guidance on a political level. But if he is not capable of governing his wife.6 Ibn Sina states that man is a social being. In the Aristotelian view women are completely passive. Stability of marriage is secured by the fact that women have no right to divorce. The topos of dangerous female seductiveness is depicted also in one of Ibn Sina’s allegorical works.12 But there is also a philosophical notion in Ibn Sina’s image of women. spiritual confusion and instability. . women are not presented as seducers (not even Eve). Salaman and Absal. He says “In reality women are lacking in reason” (aql) . Their sahwa (desire.7 Women’s behaviour. whereas Absal is chaste. Furthermore. This notion cannot be traced back to the sacred text. But Absal is not interested in her and in the end the women takes revenge by inciting to poison him. Bodily functions detract from the . says Ibn Sina. It seems that women are extremely unreliable. But Absal’s soul survives and he convinces his brother of the vile nature of his wife. But there are features in his image of women that are definitely not Aristotelian: the notion of women’s active sexuality and their dangerous power.g. “The story of Salaman and Absal”.9 Ibn Sina tells the story of two noble brothers. we read in “Kitab as-Siasa” that if a women’s spirit is not properly bound by household obligations and children. where it originally came from. Ibn Sina explains this prescription by describing women’s character. The theoretical faculty is directed towards the intelligible world and finally to the highest principle. apart from pharaoh’s wife. a practical rational faculty and a theoretical rational faculty. We find the metaphysics in the fourth part. The soul has various faculties. but to overcome the body in order to contemplate the highest principle. Although the individual soul owes its existence to the body – being born in a body is the principle of individualisation of the soul – the body can hinder the soul from realising its ultimate aim. Salaman’s wife falls in love with Absal and uses various tricks to seduce him. e. the conception of woman as sexually active and an active social force is inherent in the Islamic tradition – we find these ideas in many texts of adab and religious literature mostly of the middle Ages. Ibn Sina’s most important philosophical work is the “sifa’ ” (Healing of the Soul). The destiny of the rational soul is to stay in the body and use it as an instrument.8 Marriage is based on male authority and virtue. the woman will turn her attention to her beauty and seductiveness. who lives in a community. the “Kitab as-Siasa”. The status of women as lacking in reason and being close to bodily passions is related to Ibn Sina’s concept of the soul. He lived from 980–1038 in Usbekistan und Iran. try to seduce other men and seek extra-marital sexual contacts.

reason is for him the . Rousseau also states that women’s desire is stronger than men’s and can be destructive for men. thus preventing it from reaching the aim of contemplation. “Emile or On Education” and “Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise” treat the women question and the relation between the sexes explicitly.16 We read in Emile that women should not develop reason as men do and should refrain from abstract thinking. In Ibn Sina’s model there is an aporetical relationship between the body and the soul: the soul is dependent on the body and has to be independent. Modesty also weakens men’s desire. One of the representatives of this thinking is JeanJacques Rousseau (1712–1778). the women represents the bodily functions. Two works of Rousseau. Women represent the danger of the body and must be dominated. Rousseau argues that the inequality between the sexes is a rational and natural institution that must be re-introduced into society as civilized society moved away from nature and reason. where he depicts the role of woman. Consequently women have no political rights and are legally dependent on men. There is a very strong dichotomy in this model of the soul. and have to apply the principles that are established by male reason. Female reasoning is extremely harmful to society. were most successful. women have to develop a particular internal virtue that is characterised by an orientation towards others and a moral feeling based on natural pity. This conflict is expressed in the imagery of a sexually active dangerous women that must be controlled by men. It is beyond the scope of this paper to give other examples that show a similar imagery in Arab-Islamic philosophy and theology. women do it by modesty. Rousseau says: “Men rather reflect philosophically on the human heart. they have to be oriented towards sentiments and detail. The seductive powers of the body threaten theoretical rational activity and must be controlled or destroyed. that try to hinder the soul and try to seduce and deceive.”20 Women are to have a social instinct and natural taste. passive. it can shake the human heart completely” 18 and goes on to say that women’s strong desires can even bring death to a man. Whereas moral judgements can only be founded on reason and reason is the realm of male activity. want to please and are modest.19 Furthermore. Modesty is an internal emotional attitude. the practical rational faculty hinders the soul and must be fought and dominated. This independence is realised through domination of the body and its destruction. Although Rousseau is very critical towards reason. Whereas men regulate desire by reason. they are weak. In “Emile” and mostly in “Julie. Female reasoning is harmful as it keeps women away from fulfilling their duties as housewife and mother. The theoretical rational faculty has to govern the practical one.17 Women have to develop “goût” (taste). He says: “the working of their desires is stronger than ours.15 Yet we have to take into account that this kind of imagery is by no means confined to medieval Islamic or Neoplatonic thinking. Everything that a women does must be founded on an internal spontaneous inclination and not on reasoning or conviction. As their desire is so strong and as women are so emotional they have to develop modesty. Modesty veils and weakens the strong female desire and makes it less dangerous. ou la Nouvelle Heloise” Rosseau discusses male and female morality. Ibn Sina presents this conflict as a strong fight that can only be won by the theoretical rational faculty if it subdues the body completely.14 Salaman represents the practical rational faculty and Absal the theoretical faculty. women are and have to be different from men. In “Emile” Rousseau presents Sophie. but women rather read in the heart of a man. but Ibn Sina has many predecessors and followers concerning his views on women. Women should not study and deal with abstract thinking. The story of Salaman and Absal is an allegoric reading of this conflict and helps us to interpret the role of the image of women. Especially his novel “Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise”. The female protagonist renounces a passionate but destructive love-affair and becomes a caring housewife and mother. women have to develop moral feeling instead of reflecting on moral jugdement. the ideal wife for Emile and expands his ideas on women. Even for philosophers of the period of Enlightenment women represent bodily and emotional powers and must be controlled by men. Again women have to show an internal emotional quality in contrast to male reasoning. who lived in France and Switzerland and was very famous and influential at his time.WOMEN AND REASON IN ARAB-ISLAMIC AND EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHY 59 rational faculty and turn it away from the intelligible. Their moral quality is a premoral feeling (bonté) whereas men’s morality is based on a reflected judgement. Rousseau insists on inequality. as it destroys internal spontaneous feelings which are very important. The character and importance of female sentiments is well illustrated in Rousseau’s novel “Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise”.

23 There is a similar contradiction in Rousseau’s views of ethics: moral judgement and moral order of society can be founded only by independent reason. and become incapable of fulfilling its great task. We also saw that for both authors woman is closer to desire and feelings. Both have to be different. but insists on the superiority and guidance of man. we will find similar positions. different epochs and different traditions of thought. the relationship between the sexes is a hierarchical one. Rousseau desexualizes women in making her modest and caring. Ibn Sina sees in women an anti-civilisational force. that the image of women is related to certain aporetical structures in Rousseau’s thinking. Rousseau places women in a pre-civilisational state.60 NAUSIKAA SCHIRILLA superior quality and he relates morality to the insight of reason into social und natural laws. move men to control their individual self-interest and act socially. In the first “Discours” as well as in “Emile” Rousseau stresses the importance of autarky and independence – Emile is educated according to these principles as well. but Rousseau understands it as a complementary relation. I will argue that there are nevertheless systematic parallels in the ideas on women of . men fight each other. Rousseau’s political ideal is the Republic. Despite certain differences there is a great similarity in the image of women. we live in the negative state of society that is inhuman und disastrous. It is not possible to explain these parallels im terms of historical influence. Reason is on the one hand a product of this civilisational development and this belongs to the very negative and destructive elements of human history. I would like to point out to another contradiction in Rousseau’s thought. her household and her children. They are complementary. So there is a social orientation in reason. For both authors. As men are dependent on one another in the state of society and as self-interest prevails. Ibn Sina rather sees women as a danger to the social order.g. are unreliable and incapable of moral judgement. But morality is on the other hand based on emotional and personal grounds: the feeling of pity and a spontaneous social orientation.21 Man developed reason in order to increase and refine the fulfilling of needs. have to be guided by men and have stronger desire and emotions than men. but reason is superior. We said that the state of society can be overcome with the help of reason. Both authors state that man has to guide woman because women are lacking in reason. But the question arises whether reason has not been corrupted in the process of civilisation.25 Rousseau’s ideas and particularly his ideas on women had a decisive impact on early bourgeois society.24 The Republic is formed by the union of the citoyens who must be prepared to give up their self-interest and submit to the general will. In a developed society reason has to realise what the feeling of natural pity does in the state of nature. but inferior to man and excluded from politics. But Rousseau states on the other hand that we can overcome the state of nature and re-establish a new state of nature only by reason. 26 Rousseau is an outstanding example of a discourse that propagates universal reason but excludes women from reason and morality and stresses the emotional and internal qualities of women.22 Reason has got to weaken individual self-interest and master it by leading to a new social and political order. reason reconstructs natural pity and social orientation on a new level. So female morality is different from men’s and under men’s tutelage. too. Hegel etc. But whereas Ibn Sina gives prominence to the great power of sexuality. I have presented two philosophers who state that women are lacking in reason. “Discourse on the origins of Inequality” we see. Therefore Rousseau wants to preserve a pre-civilisational element in women. Here Rousseau also stresses the aspect of complementarity of female moral feeling and male moral judgement. The female protagonist of the novel “Julie” undergoes significant change in the novel. Ibn Sina and Rousseau belong to different cultures. But this ideal of social orientation contradicts Rousseau’s ideal of autonomy. too. This order will be based on reason and not on self-interest. If we consider other writings by Rousseau e. In Rousseau’s thinking. So Rousseau splits moral concepts up into a male subject led by reason and a female social being endowed with moral feeling. she refrains from passionate love and self-determination and choses instead to be guided by her husband and dedicate herself to a warm relationship with her man. as instrumental and individual self-love prevails and kills any kind of soldarity. If we analyse the positons of Kant. Rousseau’s assertion that women have to refrain from abstract thinking must be seen in the context of the extremely ambivalent character of reason. This is why he constructs a female being that is characterised by social orientation. on women. too. Thus reason is characterised by an instrumental orientation.

. In these theories woman is the Other. order and culture. Our feminist analysis started from two culturally different starting-points and led us to questioning a concept of reason that constitutes itself through exclusion. Women decode the images and hidden messages and contradictions. criticize and deconstruct the images of women. we could add. Roussseau however conceives of reason as a genetic force that is developed in the process of social evolution. the image of women represents the Other of male discourse. desire etc. This is also a very dichotomic pattern as the realms of the rational and irrational contradict and exclude each other. feeling etc. Thus we can conclude that women’s status is inferior in both cultures. are split up and projected onto women. Certain items are viewed in a contradictory setting.). instrumental versus social dimension of reason). feeling. The image of women contains many elements that have been excluded from the discourse. The inferior status of women is to be found in the philosophical tradition of both cultures. communication have an inferior status and are placed outside reason. It represents one side of a dichotomic structure of the subject or of reason. exclude and devalue women. desire etc. Now one might ask which consequences are to be drawn from that fact. Many philosophies in the greco-theologian tradition are characterised by this pattern. that bound. Analysis from a women’s perspective means questioning dominant ideas that bound and “shape” women. heresy). dependence.27 This analysis cannot be applied to Western philosophy only but also to Arab-Islamic philosophy. may vary (the Other of reason. the thinking of both authors is characterised by aporetical or dichotomic patterns (bodily versus intellectual functions. What these elements are. Woman represents that which is excluded.WOMEN AND REASON IN ARAB-ISLAMIC AND EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHY 61 both authors. The mechanisms that determine the construction of the female are splitting. emotions). Everything is related to a source that originates thinking and intellect. Reason is seen as an attainment but it is also the source of true being. revelation) defines a realm of the thinkable and excludes a realm of the “unthinkable” (i. Truth is also the good and the beautiful. At the beginning of this article I have asked whether there is a common perspective of women in different societies and cultures. by excluding women. I assume women in many cultures are confronted with patriarchal and exclusive concepts of reason and have to develop new concepts. ignore. For Ibn Sina philosophy is metaphysics. Derrida shows that the pattern of reference to an origin and the concept of presence of logos or reason prevail even in Rousseau’s thinking. The Algerian philosopher Mohammed Arkoun goes even further.28 With Derrida we can locate both authors in a logocentric tradition. This is a cross-cultural project.29 He analyses the metaphysical character of Islamic thinking and shows that orthodox reason (religious discourse) and classical reason (philosophical discourse) are oriented towards an origin. dispersing and projecting. starting from approaches that are orientated towards interaction or integration.e. the body and the female etc. It can be the body. First I think the project just mentioned is a cross-cultural one. As there are parallels in the status of woman in the thought we may ask if there are parallels in the structure of thought and in the concept of reason. Furthermore I think women adopt similar strategies of critique and women place themselves a comparable position towards the intellectual heritage of their societies. Their origin is either revelation or reason. or the rational (reason) and the irrational (i. body. that is made inferior and dangerous. Body.e. We have to find a concept of reason so that reason will not exclude everything irrational. but a necessary Other. truth. All being is based on the purely intelligible highest principle. And. In many societies women question the hegemonic symbolic order. The image of women always expresses an element of a theory or hints at an element that has been suppressed by a theory. not a contingent Other. We see that here are parallels in some strands of Western and Arab-Islamic philosophy. Though the contents of these images may vary there is the same intention of critique. There are similar structures defining the status of women. As we have seen. I think we are confronted with the task to conceive reason in a different way. as the pattern of the construction of femininity is the same. The image of women leads to a hidden agenda in a text. it is the source of being and its origin. negate emotions. that are hidden and forbidden elements. Feminist philosophers have stated that in our Western philosophical tradition women are placed outside the philosophical discourse and their place can be characterised as being beyond reason. body.e. Logos is no longer the highest all-encompassing principle but it is deferred to the subject himself.The reference to an origin works as an exclusion: the source (i. Reason is always constituted by excluding a non-rational or irrational: body.

Paris. see 448f. Frankfurt am Main 1986. Steinbrügge L. 85ff.). (Ed. p.. 4 Plato Politeia 451c ff. 14 Malti-Douglas.M. Diskurs über die Ungleichheit.. La Femme dans l’Inconscient Musulman. see 1155a ff. Pour une Critique de la Raison islamique. in Louis Malouf et al.. Rousseau. 448. The Man of Reason.62 NAUSIKAA SCHIRILLA Ibid. It is different. Weinheim 1985. Arab-Islamic thought is not the “Other” of Western thought. (Ed. Anawati.:12f. Kitab an-Nagat: Avicenna’s Psychology. as-sifa’ – al-Ilahiyat. Paris 1960–1985. 393f. 3 Allen Prudence. La Metaphysique du sifa’.-J. 15 Schirilla N. Introd. 26f. Malti-Douglas.. 24 J. 8 7 In the background of this activity there exists no heritage that is better. Woman’s Body. 420ff. Stuttgart 1977./Hintikka M. Discovering Reality. 1987. Discours sur l’inégalité. Woman’s Word – Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. 1984 pp. Essais sur la Pensée islamique. 378ff. In many cultures and societies women are marginalised and question the cultural heritage. Fox-Keller Evelyn. That is an effort common to all. Wien. New York 1978.. (Ed. but not essentially different. We have to see this process as a cross cultural activity that departs from similar starting points: the marginalization of women. 174ff. 23 Steinbrügge L. 2 Malti-Douglas Fatwa. 6 Ibn Sina. et notes par Georges C. Lloyd G. London 1952. Grammatologie. Dordrecht 1983. The Concept of Woman – The Aristotelian Revolution. München 1988.). Paris. 2 tomes.-J. Die Präsenz des Anderen. 20 Emile: 421. Paris 1982. 16 Rousseau J. Die Nikomachische Ethik. Frauenbilder in der arabisch-islamischen und europäischen Philosophie . 19 Rousseau J.. Teheran 1954. Vom Gesellschaftsvertrag [Social Contract]. Rahman. trad. An English Translation of Kit b al-Najat Book II. Orientalism. 1616a 21–24. Paderborn.. 2e édition. 27 List E. thus subvert this discourse and insert themselves in a discourse of liberation. New York 1991./Wartofski M. 9 Henri Corbin. 13 Ibn Sina. 25 See Schirilla N. Harding S. 26 LLoyd. 29 Arkoun M.. Regarded from the perspective of women. tome1. 11 Engineer A..-J. Traités inédites d’anciens philosophes arabes. Doeuff Le M.). Paderborn Mnchen Wien 1991. Avicenne et le Récit Visionaire. Julie oder die Neue Heloise. In a cross-cultural perspective we can analyse how women rebel against their status of the Other of male discourse. Averroes on Plato’s Republic. Notes Written under pseudonym. Emil oder über die Erziehung. Paris Arkoun M. L’étude et le rouet. 1984. S.. 18 Ibid.. 28 Derrida J. Beyrouth. Ibn Sina.. Gould Carol. München. Frankfurt am Main 1983. 10 Aristoteles. New York 1976.. Women and Philosophy – Towards a Theory of Liberation. The Rights of Women in Islam.-J. Lerner R. London 1992... London 1984. Furthermore there is a cross cultural movement of feminist critique and deconstruction. 149. 17 Ibid.. Paris 1989. London. Ait Sabah F. 22 Ibid. 1911. Liebe Macht und Erkenntnis. 5 Said E. Das moralische Geschlecht. 21 Rousseau J. 1 University of Frankfurt/Main . A. “Kitab as-siyasa”. Chapter VI by F. Die Frau das Andere der Vernunft. Weinheim 1985.. 1160b 32–35.. developed or superior. Theorie und Geschlechterpolitik. Frankfurt am Main 1996.1985. Das moralische Geschlecht. Montreal. 151. All over the world women question myths of a glorious past and deconstruct its fondations. Frankfurt 1993. 12 Fatna Ait Sabbah.

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