There is something quite bizarre about walking into an Islamic studies lecture to hear figures of the past defined in modern terms. With ease, the figure of Rābi’ah al-’Adawiyyah is described not just as a Ṣūfī but someone who “emphasize[s] the autonomy and capacity to remain free of any male authority”; this definition is then over time translated to “a brave woman who fought against patriarchy and oppression from institutionalized orthodoxy” (a phrase I heard in a Harvard class).  Intuitively, one might feel a discomfort at hearing the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ described as a “feminist” simply because Islām’s denouncement of Jahili practices came to raise the status of women. This feeling is justified, as al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ (d. 1149) states in his al-Shifā:
Whoever is ignorant of what is necessary for the Prophet ﷺ, or possible for him, or impossible for him, and who does not know concerning these rulings is not safe from believing some things to be different than what they really are, and does not declare him to be far removed from what must not be ascribed to him… 
Ultimately, this boils down to a question of adab (etiquette) towards the Prophet ﷺ (and other figures in the Islāmic tradition), which is sternly emphasized by al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ himself in the introduction of his work:
You have repeatedly asked me about collecting things to acquaint [the reader] with the true status of the Prophet, upon him be blessings and peace, and what is necessary for him in regards to esteem and respect, and what the ruling is for one who does not fulfil what is necessary of his status… 
To understand this issue further, it is necessary to interrogate the source of our discomfort. The obvious answer remains that any contemporary reader who sees the word “feminist” will associate it with a certain modern movement — the fourth wave of which enjoys a dominating presence in media and politics. As a result, it is a very particular brand of feminism that comes to mind, regardless of an authors’ intentions in ascribing the term to the Prophet ﷺ. This stems from a lack of adab to the Prophet ﷺ: those who wish to preserve his honour would dissociate the Prophet from any elements that are contradictory to the reality of his prophethood, and this is indeed what al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ painstakingly attempts.
Addressing this issue from a manṭiqī (logical) perspective leads us to ask: is it logically valid to ascribe the term “feminist” to the Prophet ﷺ? The short answer is “no” as several logical analyses may justify:
1) There is no single, certain definition of what feminism is. Instead, it is largely understood on the basis of sentiment — that women’s rights should be supported. However, any primer text on manṭiq (classical logic) will tell you that one condition (sharṭ) of a valid definition is that it must be jāmi’ (inclusive of everything that must in reality be captured by the definition) and māni’ (exclusive of everything that must not be captured by the definition).  However, the popular understanding of feminism does not exclude things that are contrary to the Sacred Law, such as a woman’s right to sexual freedom. Furthermore, the concept of rights in Islām is intimately linked with that of responsibility: either directly to God or to other people, the latter which is transformed also into an act of devotion to God through sincere intention. Contemporary understandings of feminism, most of which are secular in nature, will leave this essential component that gives actions its moral worth. Thus, we can conclude that feminism is not inclusive enough. It is logically necessary for us to dissociate the Prophet ﷺ from what is untrue of him; we must regard our projection of him in the same manner that one would do with explicit narrations of aḥādith, as the Prophet ﷺ himself has warned us:
And whoever tells a lie against me (intentionally), then (surely) let him occupy his seat in Hell-fire. 
2) Second, a definition must not be on the same level of ambiguity/obscurity or at an even greater level of ambiguity/obscurity as the term being defined.  However, the notion of “rights” is itself ambiguous and remains undefined: who holds the power to grant these rights, who defines what rights are necessary, etc. It seems that people have implicitly agreed to use the secular framework of rights which obeys the zeitgeist of the age. This is obviously contradictory to the notion that Islām has within it immutable principles (thawābit) and thus, cannot logically be ascribed to the Prophet ﷺ.
3) The third analysis concerns the very natural human instinct to relate things to one another, such as the phenomenon mentioned earlier in this article. Classical logicians are aware of this and have accounted for it through the concept of iltizām (correlation or extension). For example, the act of defining man as “the rational animal” logically correlates to other aspects of rationality such as the ability to write, read, etc. Thus, these aspects are also included in one’s understanding of man. In the case of contemporary Western feminism, popular understanding involves correlations with things contrary to the Sacred Law. For example, feminists’ alliances with people who actively seek to “reform” that which is non-negotiable [al-ma’lūm min al-dīn bi ‘l-ḍarūrah] would be contradictory to the role of a Prophet of Islām. In fact, in al-Shifā, al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ makes explicit the correlations of every term ascribed to the Prophet ﷺ. For example, he titles one section, “Allāh describing him ﷺ as a witness and the praise and honor that entails from that.”  Another chapter is dedicated to the discussion of how Allāh honored the Prophet by naming him with some of His Beautiful Names and describing him by some of His Sublime Qualities.  One can understand this honor as deriving from a direct relation to the Divine, which is another instance of iltizām (correlation or extension).
With these analyses in place, it becomes clear that anyone who exerts his intellect rigorously when discussing the Prophet ﷺ will reach the same conclusions as one does when motivated by adab and pure love for the Prophet ﷺ. Thus, it seems that these two are in fact intimately connected — the one who seeks to show adab to the Prophet ﷺ does so by restraining his intellect to only conceptualize the Prophet ﷺ in ways that befit his status. As explained by Syed Naquib al-Attās: “Adab refers to recognition and acknowledgement of the right and proper place, station and condition in life…” 
This analysis of a specific case-study serves to illustrate a larger problem that we face in our approach of “studying” Islāmic studies. The perpetual contrast that one sees between the careful and methodical approach of al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ’s al-Shifā and the haphazard approach of secular Islāmic studies is an embodiment of the tension between the Islāmic tradition and modern education. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad once said, “modern education can be defined very simply as an acculturation against tradition.” In this context, the two major aspects of the tradition, rigour in logic and adab, are the objects of this acculturation.
Much of the vacuous, repetitive sloganeering that has made its way into modern scholarship is the antithesis of the ideal for which Muslims strive. By beginning at the point of sharp and precise definitions, which then can be developed into further logical training, we can embody the adab necessary to engage with the sacred.
- Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University, 1992. pg. 98
- al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ. al-Shifā bi Ta’rīf Ḥuqūq al-Muṣṭafā. Dar al-Hadith, Cairo, 2004. pg. 396
- Ibid, pg. 8
- Aḥmad al-Damanhūrī. Īḍāḥ al-Mubham fī Ma’ānī al-Sullam. Maktabah al-Ma’arif, Lebanon. pg. 58
- Sahih al-Bukhari 110
- al-Damanhūrī. pg. 58
- al-Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ. pg. 20
- Ibid, pg. 152
- Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas. Islam and Secularism. pg. 105.
About the Author: Aqil Azme is an undergraduate at Harvard studying Mathematics and Philosophy. His interests include mantiq, kalam, tasawwuf and analytic philosophy. You can find him on Twitter here.
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