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Female Autonomy in Traditional Islamic Spirituality & Contemporary Secular Feminism Open Access

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This study seeks to understand how the concept of female autonomy, particularly female spiritual autonomy, is constructed in traditional Islamic spirituality (Sufism), as compared to contemporary secular feminism.The central argument is that the latter is limited in conceptualizing the full scope of autonomy available to women, whereas the former offers a higher and more expansive form of autonomy. Beyond argument, this analysis also seeks to appreciate the beauty of different dimensions of that higher form of autonomy.After the Introduction in Chapter One, Chapter Two examines the basic notion of autonomy in moral philosophy, Islam, and feminism. Autonomy is generally defined as freedom or independence. The idea gains greater specificity and nuance when discussed in relation to the Creator, creation, and concepts of femininity and authority. The role of both birth and motherhood in relation to female autonomy is also seriously explored and considered in the section, and reappears again later. Chapter Three explores the notion of female autonomy in traditional Islamic spirituality. This is done via a methodological-linguistic analysis of select verses from the Qur’an, as well as Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). A methodology of literary analysis is also then used to examine the tropes found in a few hallmark examples of Islamic spiritual literature. The appearance of specific saintly female figures within sacred and traditional literature is also referenced. Specific attention is paid to the concept of tazkiya (self-purification), a crucial lynchpin of Sufism, if not its central component. When necessary, Islamic law is briefly referenced. Overall, based on these evidences, it is argued that the autonomy granted to women within an Islamic framework offers women unlimited spiritual independence and freedom because it is rooted in God’s infinite essence. Chapter Four explores the notion of female autonomy in contemporary secular feminism. After defining the term “contemporary feminism,” the discussion questions the ability of contemporary feminist literature to understand the expansive notion of autonomy as discussed in Chapter Three. Several examples of such literature are provided and examined. Most concerning is contemporary secular feminism’s lack of familiarity with Islamic sacred texts and spiritual literature and their deeper analyses. This textual illiteracy, it is argued, prevents contemporary secular feminism from understanding the Islamic notion of female autonomy. It is also the result of imprisoning themselves in the prism of history. Chapter Five ultimately sums up the argument that contemporary secular feminism is limited in scope and promotes a seriously truncated concept of Islamic female spiritual autonomy, whereas the framework of traditional Islam preserves the potential for female spiritual autonomy to remain expansive, if not unlimited, because it is rooted in God’s unending essence. Essentially, the definition of female spiritual autonomy in Islam is broader than that of contemporary secular feminism, because it provides for not only freedom of the self, but also from the self in God.

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