Muslim Masculinities: Men Have Gender Too by Kecia Ali

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.

Categories: Academy, Family, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Islam, Men and Feminism

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14 replies

  1. The term “love patriarchalism” comes to mind–when patriarchalism trumps love and push comes, shove may follow…sadly.


  2. Please forgive me, but I simply don’t understand how anybody calling themselves a ‘feminist’ can make her life within these traditions.

    The mere idea that a man should ‘correct’ his wife/ves behaviour/s is itself an obscenity, reducing her/them to the status of children. And this apart from the pornography of the actual hitting, striking etc. For Muslims who argue that the hitting ‘should be as light as a feather on her buttock’ , are as collusive in this pornography as those who advocate slicing her nose off, Taliban style.If the punishment is to be effective, the man doesn’t have to even smack his child/wife (let us recognize that a woman of eighty who is subject to punishment by her husband is no more than a child) but simply assert his god-given authority over her by a timely telling off or the refusal to sleep with her. The point is domination and humiliation. That is, of course, more than enough to keep any woman, and her daughters, subject to the whim (if not the whip) of the father.

    Now, there are some pretty obscene teachings within certain Christian groups about men, women and punishment. But only in the holy writ of Islam will you find precise and detailed instructions about how and when to humiliate and subjugate your wife until she is obedient to your will.

    To my way of thinking, it is impossible for a woman to live as a feminist within these teachings, as the first need for a feminist is to think and, so far as possible act, for herself. How can she do this if she must always be obedient to the will of another ? To ask her husband if she may please be a feminist is a radical contradiction in terms. The point is not whether he will allow her to do so (you only have to ask dear, I promise not to get cross) but that, like a child, she has to ask in the first place.

    The Koran and the Bible both claim to be the word of God. And both reduce women to the condition of children, dependent for their happiness on the good will of their husbands and fathers. How can any woman trying to create an autonomous, authentic life for herself accept a God who would deny her essential humanity in this way ?

    I wonder if anyone will answer this ? Last time I raised these questions I was greeted by a wall of silence. Come on, its only personal if you let it be !!

    Goddess Blessings on you all (She doesn’t think any one of you are the least bit inferior. Quite the opposite, in fact) J


    • June: my guess is not that women are taking your words personally, so much as they don’t know the answer for all women — only for themselves.

      Speaking only for myself: my family moved approximately every two years, so I was not raised in only one religious “meme” or “strand” — for lack of a better word. That meant I was able to be relatively objective about all of them, and leaving was easy once I realized they all saw me as a second-class citizen.

      I hope readers will take the following as simply my observations, rather than statements of fact on their lives, about which I know nothing: I’ve spoken with friends who lived in domestic abuse situations. According to them, what makes leaving so incredibly difficult is twofold: they remember the love they once felt towards and from their abuser; and they really want to believe that the abuser is telling the truth when he tells them, often with tears in his eyes, that this time he really will change — things will be so much better! There is much about the deity of the Religions of the Book which reminds me of an abusive father/husband.

      I think I’ll stop there. I don’t want to be offensive, just thought-provoking.


  3. To be truthful to myself and other women, the denial of the ‘gender of men’ is not the issue of the real condition. Rather, historically, and enforced by the major religions of Islam and Christianity, male gender has been recognised/acknowledged/honoured to the detriment of female gender – with long-term and continuing effects in all areas of social life. Educated, thinking persons (especially women) must acknowledge this well-
    documented, experiential fact. I would suggest that the contemporary experiences of women carry greater weight about female experience than the theoretical exhortations of many of those of the male gender, even though they may have been considered to be son of god, prophets or saints.


    • Amina Wadud’s more recent work on “The Authority of Experience” gets at the dynamic you describe. But to address the larger point, it’s my sense as a new contributor to this blog that quite a few educated, thinking women are actively engaged in the process of transforming patriarchal religions, though others think it impossible or simply not worth the effort.


  4. Maybe the Prophet was a good husband, but what about today’s husbands? I still don’t understand what they call “modesty” or what kind of god cannot stand the sight of a woman’s hair or arms or face. We’re all the daughters and sons of the Goddess, but does She tell us to hide? Patriarchal extremes, alas, are hard to understand. I wish you luck in changing the extremists!


  5. A more complete discussion is yet to be fully mined within a theological discourse when examining the construct of masculinity as it is groomed within diverse religious traditions. Feminist theologians have given women the hermeneutical tools to see how religious (T)raditions influence and shape our self-understanding as lesser beings in order to empower and reorient the self. The same paradigm shift needs to occur with how men see their roles as husband, father, son, etc. within their religious context. Does it produce power over or equality with? In other words, much attention has been given to the effect of religious discourses on women but can the same be said for men?


    • Has much attention been given to the effect of religious discourses on men? Not (to my knowledge) textually, but I believe you can find the answer to your question by looking at the world around you: almost entirely patriarchal and self-servingly androcentric, and all thanks to religious justification.


  6. Masculinity and femininity are simply the building blocks of patriarchy. “Gender” is about male dominance and female subordination. Gender is enforced and policed by men, women are subjected to it in the masculinist “traditions” of malestream religions. And there is no reforming any of these religions, their is only collaboration and go along to get along femininity.
    So basically masculinity within Islam is like any other patriarchal male supremacy. It might shed more light on the machinations of patriarchs, giving us data we need to overthrow the patriarchy…. unearthing the tools to dismantle it, the way Mary Daly did in Christianity.

    Gender is about dominance and submission. If women are in these marriages plural or otherwise, they are simply in a system of dominance and submission. In this case, the sadospiritual rituals of all patriarchal religions.


  7. Kecia, I would love to hear more about feminist understandings of Muslim masculinity. I interpolated some ideas based on your description of neo-traditionalist understandings (i.e. NOT like those), but I think much of the reaction in the responses may be based on that missing feminist piece. To answer your question, there are some women who write here who are trying to reform patriarchal religion from the inside and some of us who have left those institutions.


    • Nancy,

      You’re right that I didn’t say much about feminist Muslim masculinities. Partially that was due to the limitations of a blog post but partially, maybe primarily, that’s because it’s not within my area of competence. I see criticism of extant models of masculinity that are damaging to women as an essential component of my own work, but I do not think that I am best situated to formulate new ideals (just as I don’t think men should have a dominant voice in constructing ideals of femininity).

      As I raise my son, I work hard to keep in mind a few crucial things: being male, or “manly,” is not about having power over others (regardless of gender), nor is it about having a limited emotional repertoire. There are things I can draw from Muslim tradition to counter unhealthy elements of (some strands of) popular American culture. For instance, there are models of men who weep openly, and celebrated male friendships. But as for what it means to be a Muslim man, that’s something he’ll have to sort out for himself and there are a wide range of models, in the texts and the world, from which to choose.


  8. but what if i find it wonderful that my man wants to mentor me, mold my personality, correct my missteps? how am i oppressed? i actually feel awesome about a man who feels this way about my wellbeing and can dominate the negative parts in me. we pay money to get personal trainers to discipline us….why not take advantage of having one’s own loving companion play this role to help one move towards greater self-actualization. i am amazed that so many women commenting here find something wrong with that. are you also women who would condemn (non muslim) women who go for the dom-sub relationship style, or male head of household lifestyle? these are functioning and useful relationship types and ppl enter into them willingly and enjoy the dynamic they offer. not sure why other women should have a problem with this.


    • Because the whole point about feminism is that you have to grow up: you have to take full and autonomous responsibility for your own self. Of course it’s easier ( and quite erotic in some ways) to hand the whole thing over to a daddy substitute, but it ain’t feminism.

      A submissive wife is an insult to the Goddess. Every act of male domination is spit in Her face. You want to collude in that ? (And before anyone jumps down my throat, let me remind you that this was exactly how Christianity imagined the nature of sin – as spitting in the face of Christ)



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