The Ecological Field:

Universal Inequality and Sexual Inequality

The distinction between the sexes and the relationship of domination between the male believer and the female believer are far from being atypical or marginal in Islam. On the contrary, they are a fundamental formulation that supports, reflects, and is reflected in the construction of the Muslim universe.
The sacred universe is organized along anatomical lines. All beings, whether divine, human, or other (with barely one exception), have a specific sex. (The exception is angels, about whose sex a certain degree of ambiguity prevails.) Segregation by sex operates, first, as a mechanism of destruction, and then, as a mechanism of hierarchization in three applications of power: discourse, time, and space.

The sacred discourse
as generator of male Power:
Discursive Practices and anatomical Givens

What we want to discover is how discourse and sex are interconnected in the field of the sacred. But first we must identify who the beings are who coexist in the sacred field before looking at the relationships between them.
In the sacred universe, concrete beings, human and animal, represent only one category among others. There are three categories of abstract beings: the category of the divine, the category of angels, and the category of spirits. Except for the category of angels, all the categories are defined anatomically as belonging to either the female or male sex. Moreover, the sex of angels seems to have been one of the subjects that preoccupied human beings, a preoccupation deemed presumptuous by the divine being:

  • 27.  Lo! it is those who disbelieve in the Hereafter who name the angels with the names of females.
  • 28.  And they have no knowledge thereof. They follow but a guess, and lo! a guess can never take the place of the truth. (Surah LIII, »The Star«)[1]

We will return to these verses later on when we take up the attitude of the divine being toward the family and the process of reproduction in general.[2] For the moment we will simply note that humans attributed female sex to the angels, and that the divine being disputed their point of view. It is not important for us here to debate the sex of angels or try to determine it, but it is important to be aware that the sex of beings assumes a particular importance for the sacred organization of the universe. It is one of the key differences and plays a determining role in the application of power in the sacred construction of reality.[3]
In the field of the sacred it is the religious discourse that organizes the world and sets up its relationships. It is the source of truth and legitimacy, and thus of power. The religious discourse is the world's order. And it is the monopoly of the divine being, who is of the male sex. He addresses human beings indirectly through intermediaries, who are privileged human beings, the prophets. They are without exception also of the male sex:

  • 7. And We sent not (as Our messengers) before thee other than men whom We inspired. (Surah XXI, »The Prophets,«  p. 420)

Since the transmitting of the religious discourse was a monopoly of the male sex, we are prompted to ask what took place at the receiving end. Did the divine being and his prophets address women, or were women invisible as auditors and thus reduced to being the object of religious discourse?
This question did not escape the attention of two religious authorities, two qadis known for their great intellectual rigor, Ibn al-Khatib and Ibn Khaldun. Ibn Khaldun was in agreement with Ibn al-Khatib, whom he cited on the fact that the divine being only addresses his orders to him who has the power to execute them:

God . . . only addresses his order to him who has the power to carry it out. Haven't you noticed what Ibn al-Khatib said about women? The majority of religious laws are not addressed to women. Women are not mentioned in the discourse. Nevertheless these laws apply to them as they apply to men. According to Ibn al-Khatib, women are included by analogy (bil-qiyas). Laws are not addressed to them because they are without power. It is men who control their acts, save in regard to the acts of worship properly speaking (al-'ibada). For these acts, women are directly mentioned in the discourse; they are not included there by analogy.[4]

So there are two modes of sacred discourse regarding women. The first is that in which woman is directly mentioned in the discourse, where she is addressed by name; it relates to acts of worship where men and women are on a level of equality before God:

  • 30.  Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. . . .
  • 31.  And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest. . . . (Surah XXIV, »Light,«  p. 460)
  • 2. The adulterer and the adulteress, scourge ye each one of them (with) a hundred stripes  And let not pity for the twain withhold you . . . (Surah XXIV, »Light,«  p. 456)
  • 40. . . . whoso doeth right, whether male or female, and is a believer, (all) such will enter the Garden, where they will be nourished without stint. (Surah XI, »The Believer,«  p. 622)

In these verses the divine being maintains, through his discourse, an identical and rigorously symmetrical relationship toward believers of the male sex and believers of the female sex, whether by addressing the two of them directly (Verse 40 of Surah XL and Verse 2 of Surah XXIV) or indirectly through his prophet (Verses 30 and 31 of Surah XXIV).
The symmetry that marks the relation of the believers of different sexes to the divine in these instances is reflected in their appearance by name in the linguistic structure of the text. One has thus the following linguistic schema:


(speaking directly or indirectly through his prophet)

believing men           believing women

In the second mode of sacred discourse regarding women — that concerning religious laws, in other words, the organization and management of Muslim society — women disappear at the level of discourse, even when it is a question of laws where they are directly involved, such as those regarding marriage. In this second mode, the divine being speaks to men directly or indirectly (through the prophet) about rules and laws that men must respect vis-a-vis women. In this mode women are reduced to the status of background figures. They are not spoken to, they are spoken of:

  • 20. And if ye wish to exchange one wife for another and ye have given unto one of them a sum of money (however great), take nothing from it. Would ye take it by the way of calumny and open wrong? (Surah IV, »Women,«  p. 101)
  • 49. O ye who believe! If ye wed believing women and divorce them before ye have touched them, then there is no period that ye should reckon. But content them and release them handsomely. (Surah XXXIII, »The Clans,«  p. 556)

In this mode the linguistic schema that reflects the power schema is the following:


(speaking directly or indirectly through his prophet)

(to believing men)

(believing women: believing men apply to them the

laws wich they have received from the divine being)

The divine being addresses the one who has power over women in these instances — man. In this mode men and women do not have a symmetrical relationship with the divine being; they overlap each other in a pyramid that organizes and hierarchizes beings according to their relationship to power. The discourse, which is power, reflects in its very texture this pyramidal structure.
Symmetry between men and women in the elements of the divine discourse arranged according to the pyramidal schema would constitute an undermining of the pyramid; it would mean disorder and chaos. Thus, if you take Verse 20 of Surah IV and reverse the gender marking of the key words, you have a preposterous result: »If ye wish to exchange one wife for another" would become »If ye wish to exchange one husband for another.«
This second phrase structures a preposterous world, because it leads us to imagine an order symmetrically opposite to the Muslim order, one where women would have the monopoly on the acts of marrying and repudiating their husbands. In the Muslim order only men can conclude an act of marriage (the woman is represented by a wali), and only men can have the privilege of repudiation.

Sacred time as a device for Discrimination:
chronology and biology

In biological time, woman gives birth to man. It is the opposite in the realm of the sacred; woman is born after man and taken out of him; God first created men, and then he created women, whom he took out of them:

  • 20.  And of His signs is this: He created you of dust, behold you human beings, ranging widely!
  • 21.  And of His signs is this: He created for you helpmeets from yourselves that ye might find rest in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo! herein indeed are portents for folk who reflect. (Surah XXX, »The Romans,«  p. 532)

Sacred time turns biological time upside down and reconstructs the world according to antithetical data. The one who does not give birth, man, becomes the one who is given the power to engender. The one who gives birth, woman, not only sees her procreative capacity confiscated, but also becomes by a symmetrical reversal the one who is given birth to. The distribution of events in time — that is, chronology — determines at the same time the distribution of the power that beings have vis-a-vis each other. God first created men, and then he created women for them. He gave them wives taken out of them. In sacred time, the one who comes first possesses the one who comes after. The relationship between men and women is a relationship in which one element was created for the other, given to the other; this is a relationship of possession.
Time is one of the foundations of power; it is the first, and space comes afterward. The relationship of beings to power is closely wed to their relationship to time. Chronology determines the degree of power. The being who existed first is the divine being, and in him is concentrated all power and influence without restriction. All the beings who chronologically come after him have with him a relationship of dispossession as total and complete as their submission to him. Thus time is the very foundation of power, and it is manifested, incarnated, and actualized in a relationship of possession, whether with regard to space or to the beings who live in it.
God existed first, and then he created the world (relationship to space). God existed first, and then he created the angels, and after that, human beings (relationship to beings). This chronology inevitably creates a relationship of possession as regards space. The one who exists first, God, possesses what comes into existence afterward: the world and a hierarchical relationship to beings. (God is superior to all those who exist after him. The angels are inferior to God, but superior to human beings.)
It is the divine being who created nature, a space with which he maintains a precise hierarchical relationship. It is a relationship of possession, the most extreme of the hierarchical relationships, in which the partner possessed is deprived of will. In the relationship of possession there is no interchange; there are not two elements endowed with will. There is one element endowed with will and another without it.
In the divine being's design, human beings are not homogeneous entities who occupy an identical position and fulfill interchangeable duties vis-a-vis him. The schema that links the divine being to human beings is not a symmetrical relationship. That would imply equality between human beings whatever their sex or age.
In a scenario of symmetrical relationships, the three categories of human beings (men, women, and children) would all be equal. They would have an identical relationship with God:

divine being

men   women   children

But in the sacred construction of reality the relationship that links the divine being to human beings is not symmetrical. Far from occupying interchangeable positions vis-a-vis him, human beings, carefully divided into distinct age and sex categories, are inserted into a pyramidal structure that hierarchizes them and subjects some to others. The pyramidal schema that orders the relationships between these distinct categories is not a marginal model. It is a central device for the application of sacred power. It is the mirror, the echo, and the logical extension of the universe as fashioned by the divine will.
In a scenario of pyramidal relationships, human beings are ranked by age and sex according to a discriminatory pyramid:

divine being

human being of the male sex

human being of the female sex


The schema of pyramidal relationships not only embodies a hierarchization of duties characterized by an increasing distance from the divine being and a multiplication of intermediaries. It also reflects the time sequence of creation. The male human being was created first, then the woman who came out of him, and finally the children who came out of her.
And here we come upon a fundamental distinction in the realm of the profane, the distinction between human beings and things, which becomes blurred when one moves to the realm of the sacred. Certain beings, women and children, classified as humans in the realm of the profane, are classified in the sacred realm as »lawful things« to be enjoyed by the male believer. The fact that the humanity of woman and child seems to be an intermittent given and not a constant reflects the subordinate place they occupy in the universal hierarchy. There is thus a convergence between chronology, the allotment of positions vis- a-vis the divine being, and finally the function of beings, for which the system has created them.
Each category of human beings was created according to a divine time sequence, deliberately and minutely calculated. This spacing in time expresses and actualizes a ranking in functions and purposes. If the adult human being of the male sex was created to serve God, women and children were created to serve, not God directly, but the adult male human being; only through him do they serve God. It is by fulfilling their function in attendance on the adult human being of the male sex that children serve God, who thus has an indirect and mediated relationship with them. The divine being, as the source and incarnation of power, delegates it to those who are charged with direct duties to him. Those who do not have that direct relationship have no power. Human beings deprived of power are ranked with material objects, with which they share their powerlessness. In more than one verse of the Koran, women and children are associated with the material riches that the divine being created for the gratification of the adult believer of the male sex:

  • 14. Beautified for mankind is love of the joys (that come) from women and offspring, and stored-up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode. (Surah III, »The Family of 'Imran,«  pp. 63-64)
  • 72. And Allah hath given you wives of your own kind, and hath given you, from vour wives, sons and grandsons, and hath made provision of good things for you. . . . (Surah XVI, »The Bee,«  p. 354)
  • 46. Wealth and children are an ornament of the life of the world. . . . (Surah XVIII, »The Cave,«  p. 386)
  • 37. And it is not your wealth nor your children that will bring you near unto Us. . . . (Surah XXIV, »Saba,«  p. 567)

In the sacred programming of creation,[5] food and union with women are among the lawful good things that the creator destined for the male believer:

  • 5. This day are (all) good things made lawful for you. The food of those who have received the Scripture is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And so are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the Scripture before you (lawful for you) when ye give them their marriage portions and live with them in honour, not in fornication, nor taking them as secret concubines. . . . (Surah V, »The Table Spread,«  p. 135)

It is around these two pleasures — the pleasure of eating and the pleasure of union with women and having children — that the universe is organized. By examining the first of these pleasures, eating, we will see the structures of the economic politics of Islam emerge (Chapter 11), and by examining the second, the pleasure of union with women and having children, we will see the structures of the sexual politics of Islam emerge (Chapter 12). But before launching into these investigations, we must define sacred space and the beings who people it.

Sacred space as design for Discrimination

Sacred space contains the earth, but is not limited to it. The beings who inhabit it include human beings and earthly animals, but are not limited to them. We need to identify sacred spaces and sacred beings in order to isolate the aspect that interests us — the schema of relationships between all these elements.

Sacred Space: Duality and Inequality as the Relational Schema

The ecological field, where the sacred manifests itself, answers to a very precise ordering of time and space. These latter are first of all entities that are finite, limited, explored, recognized, programmed, and controlled. These two entities are then combined to create an ecological universe that is irreparably split into two distinct spaces, broken apart but linked into a fatal relationship of inequality, hierarchization, and domination — the earthly world and the Hereafter, Paradise. The dual existence of these two universes inevitably implies the relational schema that I have called inversion-linkage. The fall of one of the elements is brought on by the mere existence of the other; earthly life is devaluated as a result of the existence of Paradise. The relationship between these two universes is programmed, fixed, and eternal; inequality as the equilibrium of the system and the code of its functioning is the law and the very manifestation of divine power. All activity that takes place in sacred »reality« only has meaning in relationship to that hierarchized ecological theater where, once again, the concrete, the material (earthly life) is evaluated as a »fall" compared with the invisible, the abstract, the imaginary (Paradise). Sacred time functions within rather narrow limits. Time is conceptualized in terms of three sequences: the beginning, the unfolding, the end. The beginning of an event has a determining effect, because it situates the event within the global system at the outset.
The appearance of earthly life is an event that comes after the existence of the Beyond, just as woman was created after man. The appearance of earthly life was in fact due to an accident; it should never have existed. In the original design, Adam and his wife were in Paradise. It was an unfortunate incident, an act of disobedience, a contravention of the law, which led to the appearance of the earth. And it was a punishment for Adam, a »fall«:

  • 19.  O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden and eat from whence ye will, but come not nigh this tree lest ye become wrong-doers.
  • 20.  Then Satan whispered to them that he might manifest unto them that which was hidden from them of their shame, and he said: Your Lord forbade you from this tree only lest ye should become angels or become of the immortals.
  • 22. Thus did he lead them on with guile. And when they tasted of the tree their shame was manifest to them and they began to hide (by heaping) on themselves some of the leaves of the Garden. And their Lord called them (saying): Did I not forbid you from that tree and tell you: Lo! Satan is an open enemy to you?
  • 24. He said: Go down (from hence), one of you a foe unto the other. There will be for you on earth a habitation and provision for a while. (Surah VII. »The Heights,«  pp. 194-95)

Earthly life is the mirrored inverse of Paradise. Every element valued positively in the one is valued negatively in the other. The pleasures of the earth are valued negatively because they are a potential distraction to the believer from the conduct imposed on him by the divine program. Earthly time is ephemeral. Compared to the eternity of Paradise, it loses all value. The quality of life on earth is mere play, amusement (laib wa lahuw), compared to the great »happy ending« that is life in Paradise:

  • 20. Know that the life of the world is only play, and idle talk, and pageantry, and boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children. . . . (Surah LVII, »Iron,«  p. 721)

Life on earth, the realm where human beings create and are recreated, is devalued and made subordinate to an imaginary space, Paradise, which by its mere existence dictates the fall of everything that is earthly. Inversion-linkage polarizes the opposing elements in a hierarchized and conflictual relationship and condemns the productive forces (concrete nature) to dispossession and sterility in their confrontation with the abstract, the imaginary (Paradise). In the sacred construction of reality, the structural code reverses the signs and values. It labels as inferior the agents and processes that produce material and human wealth and divests them of the power to create, which becomes the monopoly of the nonconcrete, the imaginary, of God and Paradise. The space that is the creator of riches is not only dispossessed but assigned its value by reference to the space that has confiscated its creativity — the imaginary.
The relationship of domination accompanies and is the logical and simultaneous result of the relationship of dispossession, and in this relationship the abstract, the imaginary is always the winner. The conflictual relationship between the material and the imaginary polarizes the energies of the sacred universe and diverts them from the great struggle to become human that the human being wages with nature. The same schema of relationships is found in the sacred population. The latter is composed of concrete beings and imaginary beings, and all are linked in a value scale that places some concrete beings in a position inferior to that of other concrete beings.

The Sacred Population:
The Angels as an Instrument for Downgrading Human Beings

The schema of relationships between beings (whether between the divine being and the human, between the angel and the human, between the divine and the angel, between the angel and the djinn, or between two human beings, especially man and woman) can only be understood in its overall context, by regarding the population as a whole as it exists in sacred time and space.
In the Muslim universe there are various categories of beings. Some have a concrete existence, others have an abstract one. The concrete beings are human beings and animals. They are visible, palpable, tangible. A human or animal being can be seen, heard, touched, and occasionally smelled or tasted. Besides this category of concrete beings, there is a category of abstract beings whose existence cannot be apprehended by the five senses. If it is decided to classify everything that is not concrete as imaginary, these are purely fictive beings. They are the divine being and another category distinct from the divine, which groups together beings as diversified as the angels and the djinns. These two categories of beings are linked by strictly codified relationships, whether within each category or outside it. The code is the inversion-linkage that we already found existing in space. God and the angels are superior to human beings. This is the reason why Satan refused to bow down before Adam:

  • 12. He said: What hindered thee that thou didst not fall prostrate when I bade thee? (Iblis) said: I am better than him. Thou createdst me of fire while him Thou didst create of mud. (Surah VII, »The Heights,«  p. 192)

From the very beginning the imaginary and the concrete had a precise chron-ological relationship as regards beings: The imaginary (God and the angels) existed first, and it was God who then created the concrete (the human being). It was the divine being, God, who existed first, and he created all the other beings as well as the environment in which they live. The existence of God as the first event in the creation of the universe has a determining effect on the whole schema of relationships.
So we have seen that the sacred ecological field (sacred time, space, and population) is a universe with two components, the concrete and the abstract, and these two components are linked in a hierarchical relationship in which the concrete is always inferior to the abstract and judged by reference to it. The divine discourse creates a specific time where the sequence of events is different from the sequence of events in the concrete world.
In the divine discourse the angels existed before human beings, and among the latter men were born first, women afterward. This sacred chronology mirrors the conceptual structure of the unequal relationship that exists between angels and humans and between men and women.
With regard to space, Paradise is superior to the earth, and the latter is valued by reference to it. So sacred time and space encompass abstract spaces and beings along with concrete space and beings. And time and space are organized according to a schema of unequal relationships, which they put into effect and through which they manifest themselves.
Now that the theater of the universe has been delineated and space and its population described, we must look at the schema that regulates the relationship of the sacred population to the environment — that is, to natural resources. How does that population subsist and reproduce itself? How do these beings mobilize the resources that they need for survival? Is it by work or by some other process? It is obvious that our interest still lies in discovering if the relations between the sexes are exceptional or if they actualize and reproduce the fundamental schema of the Muslim order. In order to discover how woman subsists and under what conditions she has access to earthly nourishment, we must first find out under what conditions man himself subsists.