Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, another student in a history seminar casually referred to women as “people of gender.” He was not being ironic. At the time, I felt amused and superior and frustrated: not only did he not get it but he really didn’t get it. Two decades later, my amusement has taken on a rueful tinge: despite the formulaic acknowledgment that masculinity and femininity are reciprocally constructed, “gender” scholarship in my field, Islamic Studies, has focused almost exclusively on women.
That is, until recently. Scholars, especially anthropologists, have begun serious work on Muslim masculinities; increasingly, those of us more historically and textually inclined are joining the party. My own first forays into these waters treated the equivocal masculinity of enslaved males as part of a larger project on marriage in early Muslim law. In my current project on views of Muhammad, the question of masculinity emerges much more centrally, and in strikingly different ways in works by feminists and neo-traditionalists (who lay claim to reproducing the “authentic” tradition even as they are thoroughly modern in many ways).
Masculinity, in all treatments of Muhammad’s life, is bound up with marriage and sexuality. Muslim apologetic literature of the last few decades frequently notes that, unlike Jesus who remained celibate his whole life, Muhammad – by anyone’s standard, a much-married man – can serve as a model for husbands.
Incidents from the Prophet’s marital life pepper pious advice tomes and missionary tracts; I’ll give examples from two, which together illustrate crucial differences from feminist writings: the positive presentation of polygamy and the stress on male authority as compatible with gentleness.
I picked up “El Profeta como marido” (“The Prophet as a Husband”) in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili bazaar a few weeks before the revolution. (They had run out of English copies.) This pamphlet, and its more substantial cousin The Prophet Muhammad: The Best of All Husbands, put out in subsidized hardcover by a Saudi press, contain material which overlaps with that presented by feminists intent on depicting the prophet’s gentleness. The pamphlet presents a tradition (hadith) according to which Muhammad said “The best of you is the best to his wife, and I am the best of you to my wives.” (The same saying appears, translated slightly differently, in Amina Wadud’s pathbreaking Qur’an and Woman.)
Rather than downplaying his polygamy, as Muslim feminists do when they stress his first monogamous marriage to a wealthy, older businesswoman, these works highlight it. For instance, where the quoted tradition says “wife” and “wives” the Arabic original uses “ahl” – meaning family, but commonly used as a euphemism for wife or wives. The translation highlights the singular “wife” for ordinary believers but plural “wives” for the Prophet.
At the same time, the authors take pains to point out that his polygamy coexisted with kind and fair treatment of wives; he was equitable and just between them and did not unduly favor one over others. The fourth chapter of The Prophet Muhammad bears the title “He was good-natured with his wives.” The reader is informed that he “was not a man who was dominating and selfish at home.” So far, this coheres with feminist attempts to present an egalitarian Prophet.
They diverge, however, where neo-traditionalist authors insist that the Prophet’s usual good humor did not prevent him from meting out necessary correction to misbehaving wives. The Prophet Muhammad contains a wealth of advice concerning women’s nature and men’s responsibility: it recounts a number of “crooked rib” traditions, reminds men that the best of men is good to his “family” (ahl, again), and then notes that “the Prophet disciplines his wives if it is necessary.” As a prelude to a Qur’anic quotation (Q. 4:34) which begins by affirming men’s “authority over women” before discussing reparative measures when women go astray, it says of Muhammad: “Amiability and good relations” are all well and good when circumstances call for them, “but if discipline, punishment, and abandonment were necessary, he chose them.” They do not report Muhammad hitting a wife, but neither do they make the point, as feminist texts typically do, that not only did the Prophet never hit any of his wives but he strongly opposed others doing so. The model husband depicted here has a keen sense of a manly responsibility to oversee and correct his wives’ behavior.
These texts – and I could draw similar examples from a dozen others selected at random – differ from their feminist counterparts in their selection and emphasis of materials from the classical biographical and scriptural sources. The extreme malleability of these sources suggests the vital importance of attending closely to the new texts in which they are embedded, in order to understand more fully the underlying models of masculinity that shape authorial choices. It turns out that if we look closely enough, men are people of gender too.
Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She lives in the Boston area with her family.