And of His signs is that He created for you, of yourselves, spouses, that you might repose in them, and He has set between you love and mercy. Surely in that are signs for a people who consider. —Qur’an 30:21
And the male is not as the female. —Qur’an 3:36
“Man is the meeting place of the angelic and the animal realms.” This is the human essence, as some of the greatest philosophers of the Islamic tradition have taught us, from al-Rāghib al-Iśfahānī and al-Ghazālī to Shāh Walī Allāh. Now, from the Revealed Law as supported by traditional philosophical ethics, we know that we do not win unto the intrinsic dignity of the actualized human essence through the sheer fact of our possession of this unique composite nature but rather by correctly ordering the various aspects of our nature through the appropriate exercise of our self-determining, individual free will. And yet we are not static, disassociated, disembodied beings, peering out at the world from ivory cloisters. To be a human is to be one or the other of two complementary, mutually completing agents of a generative love that is inescapably and intrinsically binary.1
In the experience of this most primeval fact of human embodiment—namely, that every human being instantiates one and only one among only two genders (an experience that each of us has simply by virtue of being human)—we find that we represent instantiations of intrinsically dual metaphysical principles of generation, embedded in the very structure of being. Indeed, each human being is thrown into one of these two roles—we do not choose to be a man or a woman—and a further aspect of achieving human dignity thus lies in fulfilling, with beautiful and beautifying excellence (iĥsān), the role that we have been allotted precisely in having been thus created male or female.
The metaphysical foundation of this aspect of our human dignity may well have been overlooked by many (but by no means all) of the thinkers in the rich and broad Islamic tradition. This is perhaps because our forebears were, on the whole, less likely to be found torturously theorizing about self-evident and natural, integral human realities than they were to be found actively embodying and fulfilling them. Today, on the other hand, coming to clarity about the metaphysical rootedness and ontological status of gender has become an urgent exigency. For the attack on gender is an attack on our very human nature and dignity, masquerading as a celebration of the dignity and radical freedom of the “self-determining individual,” who claims to have risen above restrictive human nature. Indeed, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, the twisting and fluidity of gender and the denial of its distinct integrity constitute quasi-sacramental experiments in social engineering executed by a dying postmodernity, which seeks to vindicate itself by actually manifesting its visions of the violability of noncontradiction in the external world. As such, the notion that gender is a social construct is a creedal utterance ubiquitous today, piously voiced by the recipients of the most cutting-edge of modern educations but rarely thought out with philosophical rigor or justified by anything beyond grounds of relativistic compassion or the invocation of dogmatically arbitrarist freedom. Is it a holy mystery that we must believe against all of the evidence of human experience and, in this case, anatomy?
The liberating truth offered by the tools of the Islamic tradition is that gender arises from both our animal nature and our angelic nature—indeed, the animal nature as informed by the angelic nature. The generative love that arises from the union of the two gender-principles is not merely the production of children, self-evidently sublime and momentous as that is, but the cultivation of the world through the actualization of complementary attributes that can only obtain via the intelligible rather than merely physical union of the gender-principles: the receptive, affective, nurturing, compassionate, beautiful feminine—a matrix of predominant, but not exclusive, attributes that supervenes on the biologically female—and the providing, active, protecting, majestic masculine—a matrix of predominant, but not exclusive, attributes that supervenes on the biologically male.2 That is, the exigencies of human nature entail that human gender comprise dimensions of depth simply not shared by mere animal gender, and which are consequences of the unique potential possessed by human beings to become the realized vicegerents and stewards of the world. The complementarity of attributes that can only obtain by means of the union of mutually completing genders presupposes humankind’s unique nature as the meeting place of the angelic and the animal—that is, it arises from our unique status as stewards of the earth, in which the balance and harmony we seek to effect must first be realized through the achievement of equilibrium between opposite attributes. This principle, derived from the advanced metaphysical tradition of Islam, comes to the fore in one of the many later commentaries on fourteenth-century Muslim theologian ¢Ađud al-Dīn al-Ījī’s Ethics:
The wisdom underlying man having been brought into existence, man who is the encapsulation of all the worlds, is [that he might fulfill] the Divine vicegerency, as is clearly expressed by the tenor of the noble verse I am appointing on earth a vicegerent (Qur’an 2:30) and is moreover the import of We offered the trust unto the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they shrank from bearing it and they were afraid of it, but man carried it (Qur’an 33:72). [Man’s] entitlement to the vicegerency is due to the perfect receptivity of his nature to opposite attributes, such that he is able to be a locus of manifestation (mażhar) of the opposite Divine Names, and accomplish the habitation, cultivation, and construction of both the outward and spiritual worlds.3
While it is quite true that this principle was not formulated with gender specifically in mind, it nonetheless illustrates an illuminating, elegant, and indeed indubitable truth when incorporated as a premise into our own reasoning about the metaphysical function of gender and its role in the economy of the divine plan for man’s vicegerency.4 Yet the reconstitution—at the hands of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud—of society and the human being in accordance with the dictates of tacit or explicit renderings of materialism set in motion a radical rethink of traditional concepts about gender, sexuality, and family. This reenvisaging was premised on the assumption of a godless universe. After all, given that the traditional views had been fundamentally theological in motivation, the “liberation” of godlessness should also imply liberation from these traditional concepts, however deeply they might seem to be grounded in a similarly disdained “nature of things.” This reached its culmination, perhaps, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s justification for the casting aside of human nature altogether—namely, that existence precedes essence;5 it was his spiritual master Marx who had previously explained that religion “is the fantastic realization of the human essence” exactly because “the human essence has no true reality.”6 For “man is no abstract being, squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society.”7 For Marx, there is no essential human nature. Instead, there are only “historically specific forms of human nature, that is, human nature specific to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism, and so on”; indeed, “the real nature of man is the totality of social relations.”8 A consequence of Marx’s views on human nature was that he likewise “tended to view gender as a dynamic concept capable of further development.”9 This is because “since both nature and society are not static entities… there can be no transhistorical notion of what is ‘natural.’ Instead, a concept of ‘natural’ can only be relevant for specific historical circumstances.”10