Rethinking Muslim Masculinity

By Hasan Hameed

Why do men avoid expressing their emotions? The notion that men are socialized into suppressing all forms of emotions other than anger is central to the concept of toxic masculinity, a broad term signifying a varied set of social norms on ideals of manhood and manliness. Toxic masculinity, in particular, has been blamed for a wide range of issues from honor killings and sexual harassment of women to deteriorating mental health of men. Forced into bottling up what is central to the human condition — feelings — men struggle to express and communicate their inner lives, their emotional experiences such as desire, love, and fear. How does one promote alternative, healthier ideas of masculinity? This article draws upon aspects of the classical Islamic tradition to present a vision of Muslim Masculinity as embodying a self that is openly vulnerable, loving, and highly sensitive to others.

Expressing Fear and Receiving Emotional Support

Prophet Musa (peace be on him) is on Mount T?r. This is his first direct conversation with Allah. It’s a historic moment in the history of the world. Allah gives a command, ‘Throw that [stick] down O Musa.’ [20:19] Musa obliges, and the stick becomes a snake. What is Musa’s reaction? One might expect that he wouldn’t be too concerned about a small snake given that he is in the company of Allah himself and it is He who commanded him to throw the stick that has now become a snake. Yet Musa (A.S) reacts just like any other human would if a snake suddenly appeared while they were on top of a mountain: he gets scared. And far from admonishing him for such a humanly emotion, God responds: ‘Pick it up and fear not’ [20:21] In addition to consoling Musa(A.S), Allah also records this consolation in the Quran, thus preserving it for eternity and showing us that not only did the prophets get scared in scary situations, but also that providing emotional support to someone experiencing difficult emotions is a Sunnah (practice) of Allah.

Moreover, feeling fear was not limited to such ‘naturally’ scary situations. Later on, during the same conversation, Allah gives Musa and his brother, Prophet Haru’n (peace be upon him), another command: ‘Go to Pharaoh. Indeed, he has transgressed’ [20:43] A direct command from the Master of all Masters. But note the vulnerability that Musa and Harun express: ‘Our Lord, indeed we are afraid that he will hasten [punishment] against us or that he will transgress.’ [20:45] Many of us would assume this to be a sign of weakness – God has given a command, you better go and fulfill it. Otherwise, there’s something wrong with you or with your Iman. But how does Allah respond? In the most sensitive and powerful words: “Do not Fear. Indeed, I am with you, hearing and seeing” [20:46]

Sexual Conquest

Feminist writers have brought attention to the double standards regarding the social perception of excessive male and female sexuality: a woman having sexual relationships with multiple men is socially chastised, while a man having multiple sexual partners is celebrated as a ‘player’. In Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan, while having extra-marital or pre-marital sexual relationships is generally considered socially unacceptable for both men and women, it is certainly the case that sexual excesses of men are much more tolerated than those of women (popular Pakistani TV dramas are a good example).

The story of Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) and his response to the seductive offer of the minister’s wife is therefore of utmost importance. Considered the most physically attractive man ever created, second in beauty only to the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), a young Yusuf was invited to sin by the wives of the nobles of the city, and threatened with prison if he refused their offer. He responded: ‘My Lord, prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me. And if You do not avert from me their plan, I might incline toward them and be of the ignorant.’ [12:33]

This famous response of Yusuf (A.S.) sets the foundations for thinking about Muslim manhood. In a situation where his sexual desire was evoked, Yousuf’s response was to immediately turn to his Master, ‘Rabb! (O My Lord)’. He isn’t even concerned with rebuking the women for their ungodly ways, nor is his an arrogant dismissal of their advances. If anything, his response is a recognition of his weakness, and it is in Allah that he seeks strength and refuge: ‘if You do not avert this from me, I might incline toward them…’. The image of manliness evoked here—a vulnerable self that is susceptible to temptation but one that is firmly God-centred—is very different from contemporary ideals of manhood that are mostly defined in opposition to ideals of femininity.

Walking like a Man

One of the most well-known passages from the Quran describing the qualities of the most special believers is the last section of Surah al-Furqan. Their first quality is described thus: ‘And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them, they say [words of] peace.’ [25:63] I find it fascinating to think of this quality of these special servants of Allah, the Ibad al-Rahman[1], in relation to contemporary ideas of the ‘cool’ guy in college. He’s the one who walks with a certain swag, easily noticeable to everyone who sees him. Head held high, confident eyes casually surveying the campus. He exudes such confidence that you know even before speaking that any questioning of any of his beliefs or opinions will provoke a fierce rebuttal. The abd of Rahman, on the other hand, appears to be walking a different trail. He walks humbly, and he does not go out debating everyone he meets. How, then, does he respond to idle or vain talk: The same passage describes: ‘and if they pass by some evil play or evil talk, they pass by it with dignity’. [25:72] The image of the believing men that emerges from such passages is worth reflecting on.

Prophet Muhammad’s Masculinity

The most beloved prophet of Allah, the best of all human beings, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) exemplified Muslim masculinity in his everyday life. His domestic life, especially his attitude toward his wives, has been thoroughly documented. What guidance does his life as a husband provide for Muslim men today?

To begin with, the Prophet expressed love for his wives. When his wife, Aisha, drank from a vessel, the Prophet placed his lips on the exact spot where she had placed hers. To help her watch a sporting spectacle on Eid day, he made her stand behind him, their cheeks touching each other’s. And not only did the Prophet make an active effort to express his love for her, the Prophet was also unashamed to admit his love in public. ‘Who is your favorite person?’ he was once asked. ‘Aisha,’ he replied. ‘[And] among men?’ asked the questioner. ‘Aisha’s father,’ the prophet replied. What a tragedy, then, that to be in love with one’s wife is today considered in many Muslim households the ultimate weakness of a man, his affection often erroneously equated to his being a witless Joru ka Ghulam (servant of the wife). The prophet, on the contrary, would even continue to send gifts to the friends of his first wife, Khadija (RA), after she passed away, teaching us that having respectable, cordial relationships with the loved ones of one’s wife is also a prophetic Sunnah. Ironic, again, that many Muslim families today believe that the surest way to keep the wife ‘in check’ is to isolate her from her friends and family.

The domestic life of the Prophet provides another realm for reflecting on the current state of Muslim men and their relationship to the household. ‘What did the Prophet (PBUH) do in his house?’Aisha was once asked. She replied, ‘He used to keep himself busy serving his family and when it was the time for prayer he would go for it.’ On another occasion, she said, ‘He did what one of you would do in his house. He mended sandals and patched garments and sewed.’ Such narrations, part of cultural memory, fly in the face of modern-day ideals of the division of labor in Muslim households, ideas which hold that the man is responsible only for bread-winning and must never do anything in the house—whether its cooking food or setting the table or washing the dishes or cleaning the baby—because, after all, he’s the man. If, as a society, we do not see more men performing household chores, what have we done to these beautiful Sunnahs? And what are we doing to revive them?

Rethinking Masculinity

Hence, the Muslim masculine self—as seen through the prism of earlier prophets, Quranic verses, and hadith narrations—is not shy of expressing his emotions. It’s okay to feel fear and to display one’s vulnerability. We must also re-emphasize the importance of softness, humility, and the expression of desire. Such a rethinking of Muslim masculinity is central to better marriages, happier families, and the liberation of marginalized communities. I will conclude with one other instance from the Prophet’s life, one of the most important moments in world history: the first revelation.

The prophet’s reaction to receiving the first revelation is well-documented. He rushes home in fear, asking his wife Khadija to cover him. Once he narrates his experience, Khadija comforts him emotionally by pointing out the good deeds he performed. She then takes charge of the situation, taking the prophet to her learned cousin, Warqa bin Naufil. Contrary to our contemporary conceptions of masculinity and femininity, where the ‘rational’ man must care for the ‘emotional’ woman, in Islam’s originary moment, the roles are reversed. It is the woman, Khadija, who—to borrow a phrase from Laura Mulvey—is moving the narrative. Cultivating a healthy idea of masculinity, then, far from being of minor concern, is actually central to the story of Islam itself.

[1] This is by no means to suggest that the qualities of the ?ib?d al-Rahm?n do not describe believing women; I am simply focussed more on their application for thinking about masculinity.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Muslim Masculinity

  1. Talha R says:

    All the points you addressed are completely accurate and very true. It is very sad to see what Islam preaches and what is being practiced by the majority in the Islamic Republic are quite the polar opposites. Quite unfortunate how those men that act as such are unaware of what is actually the right teachings of the religion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.