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Ethics as Politics 26 October 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships.

For some time now, I have stopped looking for the perfect solution in politics. This does not mean that one does not exist, but only that such a prospect is no longer frightening to me. More recently, I have been wondering whether the same might be true about the politics of marriage.

The ancient Greeks concluded, at least on one reading, that there is no solution to the problem of politics. As political beings, we are led by our nature (i.e., our needs and our aspirations) to establish cities. And yet political communities constrain that nature. Some cities do so by enforcing a particular conception of excellence (thereby impinging on the personal freedoms of anyone who varies from the standard). Others do so by denying that any such standard exists (thereby reducing virtue to a matter of taste and human beings to beasts). But there is no perfect form of government—one that will serve our needs without undercutting our aspirations.

I am increasingly drawn to a similar conclusion about sexual politics. The feminist mantra—“the personal is political”—suggests that the fundamental question of politics (“Who should rule?”) can be equally applied to the private sphere. Men have traditionally ruled the family, the argument goes, but doesn’t that deny the freedom and aspirations of women? Why should men rule and not women? Why not both? Or neither?

I am not convinced that the idea of male headship is unproblematic. By sanctioning male authority, don’t we increase the risks of domestic abuse? Even where polygamy is justified, isn’t it psychologically straining on women? At the same time, however, I am not convinced that a radically egalitarian marriage is either possible or desirable. I do not have the conceptual resources to elaborate on this intuition, but it seems to me that women want respect more than they want equality. And the first doesn’t necessarily follow from the second.

So where does that leave us? Without getting into a debate about the final superiority of traditional versus modern marriages (or of democracy versus other forms of government), I want to raise the possibility that there is no solution to the problem of sexual politics, just as there is no solution to the problem of politics more generally. Politics raises a question that it cannot itself answer.

Raising such a possibility uncovers the insight that, just perhaps, the answer to the problem of politics lies rather in ethics. The Prophetic mission of character building takes on a new significance:

I was sent (only) to perfect good character.
– Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace (Malik’s Muwatta)

In the absence of institutional solutions, we still have ethical concerns. If there is no perfect way to distribute power, perhaps we should stop worrying about redistributing power and focus instead on the character of the person who holds power. Rather than questioning the legitimacy of rulers and speaking to them as fellow citizens, perhaps we should speak to them simply as rulers—and encourage them to be good ones. Simonides in Xenophon’s brilliant dialogue On Tyranny employs just this strategy.

Rather than speaking to men as fellow human beings, perhaps we should speak to them as men—and encourage them to be better ones. “Be a man!” hits a different rhetorical note than “Be a human being!”, and it has its own effect. Women have been employing this strategy since the beginning of time.

All of this leads me to wonder whether the only way out of the problem highlighted by “the personal is political” is to reverse the mantra.

The political is personal.




1. Irving - 26 October 2006

“The heart wants what it wants.”
– Woody Allen

The nafs/ego also wants what it wants.

Ya Haqq!

2. The Turk - 27 October 2006

The balance between man and woman is difficult but requires both parties to give up something.

Man and woman have to become one unit. So compromise have to be made. Which friends do you keep, what activities which both suit etc. Its a long complex and arduous list.

I have friend that was married and his wife and I had mutual revulsion toward each other. She hated that I would call him and he & I would take off for hours at time. She would be left alone with baby and in-laws. I disliked her for reasons that are not relevant to this post.

I understand her position though, married she wants to hang out with her husband and tired of baby and household etc. Even though she had a nanny and household help and everything. She barely had to left a finger but perception is reality for a person.

My friend though a good friend too me was being not so good husband. Wife is a bigger priority than friends with the usual caveats life/death situation etc. It would been better if I was married too then wives talk and the men talk.

However for marriage, no marriage is perfect. Even the Prophet(SAW) had trouble with his wives. So the most perfect man had trouble with his wives. So the best way is rational thinking and compromise.

However, you compromise you don’t give up and become a stool. I have seen men say women are the solution to world problem. Women are kind and sensitive and not violent etc. Most these men are so subservient to women that’s almost ridiculous. You only have to look at Condi Rice / Madeline Albright etc to see women can be just as bad if not worse. Men and Women are not to blame alone for anything. Eve ate the apple alone as did Adam. Both of them sinned. So no one male or female is better they just are what the are. Human beings.

3. talib - 27 October 2006

jazakAllahuKhair for the insight. i love this abstract, theoretical stuff!

excuse that outburst… i am wondering if you are referring to the notion of the impossibility of a solution or the impossibility of emulating the ideal. as muslims, we do have a theoretical ideal in politics and marriage in the example of the Prophet and the prophets, peace upon them all. what is less clear is if those ideals can ever be practically achieved by us. in terms of politics, i think history has shown the muslim ineptitude in establishing anything close to an ideal, though the rightly guided caliphs and ‘Umar ‘abd al-Aziz are often mentioned despite the fact that even their times were full of political turmoil. these latter examples would be important in your considerations, Abd, as the khulafa ar-Rashidun had the best of characters, yet they faced the same dissent and chaos less upright leaders confronted. so i guess i don’t understand how on the ground, ‘being a righteous leader’ is towards a ‘solution in politics’, i.e. a political system that will allow for the service of its citizens’ needs without the undercutting of their aspirations.

in terms of the politics of sex, i think the matter is much simpler. how many happy couples do you know, deeply happy, not-just-pretending happy? …well, if none, i will testify to their existence in modern times, whereas i would be extremely hard pressed to point out a happy and halal government-governed relationship at any time.

when you say, ‘I am not convinced that the idea of male headship is unproblematic,’ do you mean male headship is problematic in itself or in practice? domestic abuse is obviously a question of practice, not something inherent to the role of the man as amir.

also, as usual, i think our analysis as muslims *and* as academics/intellectuals/philosophers would be incomplete without reference to the Qur’an, as we believe it to be the Truth with a capital ‘t’, no matter what hat we happen to be wearing at the time. the verses about the man-woman relationship in the Qur’an do give the impression of a perfect harmony, not only being within the grasp of the ordinary muslim, but, i would put forth, also being requisite for man and woman’s achievement of fulfillment in this life. thinking about this rationally, we may concede that a man or woman’s life can be fulfilling in the material and extra-material sense without the existence of a perfect, or even competent, political order in place, but can we concede that our fulfillment as children of Adam and his beloved be achieved without the attainment of marital bliss? if yes–we can forego marital bliss in order to be fulfilled in this life, why would our Lord create Hawwa for Adam peace be upon them? when the *purpose of life*, of existence, is to worship our Creator, what benefit would women add to the situation other than posing a sizeable distraction (and keep in mind that Hawwa was with Adam in the Gardens, a place without fitnah)? or, just as compelling, why is marriage such a strongly emphasized sunnah; why wouldn’t the prophets encourage us to leave aside women as we leave aside alcohol and gambling and other obstacles in the path of worshipping Allah? this, among other concerns indicates to me that, no, we cannot achieve that true fulfillment in this life without the achievement of marital harmony. and if this is the case, then i believe that Allah as ar-Rahman would not leave us without the model or the means to achieve that harmony. which implies that marital bliss or ‘perfection in the politics of marriage’ as you call it, is a reality and an attainable one. and undoubtedly perfecting character is a requisite step in the whole process.

are you married, Abd? you don’t have to answer that, but if not, get married soon! because only then can you see that most women, especially believing women, are not so self-ish as to define the perfect marriage as ‘one that will serve our needs without undercutting our aspirations.’ and, to give credit where credit is due, believing men don’t either. and no, i am not married, so feel free to disregard anything untenable of the above as naïve, idealistic ramblings of a wide-eyed babe.

4. Celal - 29 October 2006

My dear friend ABD,

You are indeed exloring in the right direction. It also helps to know and understand why the marriage relationship was created and what higher truth it embodies.



5. Celal - 29 October 2006
6. R - 30 October 2006

just wished to say, jazak Allahu khayr ABD! masha’Allah so thoughtful and thought-provoking…

also, drjou: such good points masha’Allah. i am particularly struck by your argument that we cant achieve “true fulfillment in this life without the achievement of marital harmony.” despite having been married before and acutely aware of the “problems” of male headship (as ABD brings up), i wholeheartedly believe in it and hold the same ideals. masha’Allah ABD i think you hit the nail on the head in saying the solution lies in ethics. and such a great point about speaking to men as men, rather than just as fellow human beings! at the same time, we need to encourage women to be better women. generally speaking, it seems that men have ceased being men and women have ceased being women.. all in the name of “equality.”

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