“Contemporary Muslim Woman Series”: The Way of Flesh: A Gendered Ultimate Nafsi Showdown


By A Muslim American Woman

I recently had a conversation with a non-Muslim friend about the demands on our spiritual character-and more specifically, how they differ from men to women. The conversation started from a point of inquiry not to unfamiliar to many a Muslim women.

Although my friend and I found no resolution in our 20-minute conversation, via hand-held phone-call driving, to the age-old question of whether a man can be monogamous; we did however agree upon a certain classification. That, the desire to be polygamous, to sow seeds upon miles and miles of fertile and traversing terrain, is one of man’s ultimate nafsi battle. Not that a desire is “wrong,” but that it is so engrained in man’s personhood, the limits between a man’s respectable being and animalistic behavior appear nebulous, thereby affording it the title of man’s “ultimate nafsi battle.” And by this adopted phrase, I mean to say the most difficult challenge in training the lower “the animal” part of the soul, which must not be eliminated or eradicated, to be sublimation to the higher part of the soul.

Now, the more interesting part of the conversation was the question mark we ended on. That is when I posed, “If we agree that this is the deal for a man, what is woman’s ultimate nafsi battle?” So the wheels in my head started turning. Owing to and drawing from Al Ghazaali’s assessment in The Alchemy of Happyness that, “the essence of each creature is to be sought in that which is highest in it and peculiar to it,” and also influenced by Aristoliean teleological reasoning, I thought to myself, what makes women, besides the apparent anatomical markers, distinct and “peculiar”? In what way was woman’s gendered uniqueness her point of strength as well as potentially her most destructive (to self and others) feature? Here is what I came up with, starting with men of course:

In my humble estimation, a man’s “ultimate nafsi battle,” comes from his spirit of virility,  that being the desire for more women (and woman with a dunya taste on his in hunger, desirous tongue), when he is not capble of providing for them in the way that will enable them to be proper servants, or ones working toward Perfect Servanthood, or seeking them for the right reasons. Does a polygamous man or even a committed monogamous man at that, ask himself, is this relationship, these relationships enable my wife or wives to work towards proper Servanthood. Or does it foster jealousy, suspicion, and paranoia? In this instance, man suffers from this haughtiness, a hubris that prematurely convinces him of a self-righteous allowance of many women in moments when he is incapable of filling even one woman’s cup!

A woman’s “ultimate nafsi battle” is to ensure man stays on the straight path (“sirat al-mustaqeem” in Arabic)-checking that temptation that calls for more and wants more. Woman’s nature is to tempt, and man’s to desire that temptation. But we as women do wrong if we tempt man in the direction of ourselves and not in the direction of God. Man is not to serve women, or serve his nafs through his interaction with women, but to serve God by directing man’s service, and thus worship to God. But also, women, owing to her ability to act as a vessel for earthly creation, is empowered by her connection to the Divine. So it follows, a man seeking “taqwa” (God-consciousness, awareness), when interacting with women with serious physical and emotional “niyyah” (intention), must identify the direction this woman or these women he is seeking are tempting him towards.

This delicate construction, this is where gender power politics can be and have fallen under distortion. A man does not employ women as hand-maiden at his service. Woman is at God’s service when she tempts man to channel desirous energy the nafs associates with the physical to the spiritual (because of the uniqueness of our divine connection, we are more apt to recognize, channel, connect to and be a of vessel to sail on the oceans’ currents of this realm). But can man identify the right woman or women to navigate?

Many men have lost sight of the metaphoric “ma’na” of this-the real function of polygamy and their nafs. They surrender themselves to the glittery trappings of the dunya, this irresistible craving of the nafs, when they think this highly of themselves: to be anointed to perform this practice of servanthood, when they have not even tested the nafs to rise above the “animal” part of their nature, that part that calls for the tasting, “dhawq,” of the flesh, instead of the “dhawq” of God. The “animal” part will have them in service to this, their nafs, a station of wanton, raputurous, presumably all-consuming, rampant desire, instead of the Ultimate Service. The Prophet (SAW) trained in a monogamously commited marriage of 25 years, till Khadijah’s death (PBUH), before he practiced polygamy. Understanding the power of union is microcosmically manifested in the relationship born of marriage.

My problem is not with polygamy, it is with men who overestimate the size of their  feet for the shoes that they want to walk in. Once a man has successfully performed that service and are about to enlist tribes to aid in a dawah world-wide in scope, then, talk to me about all other “service.” And women are no different in overestimating the gait-shuffle they swing their hips to in narrow walk-ways.

Women shouldn’t tempt men to feast on just their flesh, and men shouldn’t over fill their plate with the flesh they cannot stomach. Knowing the path to the dhawq of God, is knowing your gendered limitations and embedded strength we draw from our gendered differences that uniquely orient ourselves and our partners towards the pursuit of serving and pleasing God.

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5 thoughts on ““Contemporary Muslim Woman Series”: The Way of Flesh: A Gendered Ultimate Nafsi Showdown

  1. I know this is ostensibly about polygamy but these sentences:

    “A woman’s “ultimate nafsi battle” is to ensure man stays on the straight path (”sirat al-mustaqeem” in Arabic)-checking that temptation that calls for more and wants more. Woman’s nature is to tempt, and man’s to desire that temptation. But we as women do wrong if we tempt man in the direction of ourselves and not in the direction of God.”

    Sound chillingly like the justification George Sondini used to shoot up a gym full of women in Pittsburgh, PA. Even worse, there are people who are saying “Oh he couldn’t get some and it just drove him to the edge,” as if the fault is with the women who were there, existing in their daily lives and tempting him their alive-ness, instead of sleeping with him.

    • Aaliya,
      I disagree with your comment on the premise that ideas and actions should be judged differently. You can take a single idea and use it to justify either a good action or a bad action. For example, let’s say I have the idea that humans are imperfect, which is a completely true, valid idea. Now, I can use that idea to justify that human race should be annhiliated or I could use it to justify going out and teaching people to be better. Does either action make the original idea either good or bad? Of course the idea is neither good nor bad, but it still remains true. It’s the action and person that should be judged in this case, not the idea. Islam, in a general sense, is a perfect example of this. Islam is a beautiful, profound religion, but some people use it to jusitify terrible actions. Do these terrible acts by a few people make the whole religion wrong? Again, it’s the person and the action that are wrong, not the religion. I will grant you that there are some genuinely bad ideas, but the one in this essay is not one of them.

      As to your general idea that women should not be accountable for men’s sexual frustrations, I completely agree with you. That burden is borne by men and I think the author suggests that as well. I think what the author is saying about women and their struggle is that a women has the ability to tempt a man sexually and it’s her struggle not to exploit that ability. I don’t think anywhwere in her essay she suggested that women should be held responsible for men not ‘getting any’. On the contrary, her essay was about inner struggles, controlling one’s own behavior. The essay was not about controlling other people’s behavior. That was my reading of it anyway and it seems to make sense. Wallahu ‘alim.
      wasalaam,
      Sohail

  2. a lot of the men I know, who are bought-up Sufis, are not so weak-minded and ego-centric as you portray men to be.
    may be your exposure is of a very limited type of men and women

  3. you know you understate the womans nafs
    you barely give it any space
    you have a bone to pick with men
    and you pick it thoroughly
    but there is no deeper investigation of that temptress and its characteristics

  4. this is an interesting article. perhaps you’re right about what constitutes a man’s “ultimate nafsi battle” but i disagree with the woman’s battle as you have portrayed it. to boil it all down to sexuality is a bit too freudian. it’s also a rather biblical perspective of things reminding one of how eve diverted adam from the right path.

    secondly, it makes it seem as though a woman’s primary role is to assist a man in his path to the divine. i believe women have that capacity which they fulfill through their roles as wives and mothers. but a woman who is neither (or even one that is both) still has her battles to fight that have little to do with the sway of her hips. her goal above all should be to seek God for herself.

    basically, i believe that the “ultimate nafsi battle” is completely subjective and personal. a broad division of this battle along gender lines doesn’t make sense.

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