A standout moment from early Islamic history is that of Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) who upon being challenged by a woman in a public place, famously declared, “The woman is right, and Umar is wrong.” Muslims, when affirming the position of women in Islam, often repeat this event, which took place when Umar was the Khalifa. The pre-colonial Muslim world is littered with examples of women who were warriors, scholars, and even in positions of governance. Today, we cite these examples in attempt to thwart accusations of misogyny. However, citing these examples is not sufficient without an understanding of the societal framework that allowed women to attain these positions. We must recognize the values the Sahaba established and how they offer solutions to many modern ills. The Khalifa being challenged highlights the humility that the most powerful man in the Muslim world had upon having his mistake pointed out–the willingness to admit that he was wrong and to be held accountable. Contrasting these attitudes to popular modern conceptions of masculinity is of particular importance when considering the rise and establishment of toxic forms of masculinity.
Early Muslim societies saw women in various aspects of society. For example, women were key in Hadith transmission, and their narrations serve as crucial components of our faith today. The pirate queen Sayyida al-Hurra governed her own city and formed an alliance with Barbarossa to exact revenge on the Spanish who had driven her out of her original homeland of Granada. Queen Amina of Zazzau was a warrior queen who ruled in parts of West Africa for over three decades. These things were possible because the men in those societies did not suspect or thwart women assuming these roles. While Western notions of a patriarchal society erased these views, early Islamic societies maintained Divinely-inspired roles for men and women while uniquely offering women opportunities for societal advancement.
Discussing the flaws of popular conceptions of masculinity can be difficult because of its conflation with traditional masculinity. Challenging what it means to be a man can lead to liberal, un-Islamic views on masculinity and femininity. However, the conservative views that many subscribe to were never Islamic views, but remnants of colonial influence. For example, English common law did not recognize a married woman as a distinct individual and thus any property she acquired automatically fell under control of her husband (similar norms existed amongst the other European colonial powers as well) . This policy, which was known as coverture and was not repealed until the 1880’s, contrasts starkly to Islamic rulings on the rights of a married woman regarding her property . The autonomy that a woman (especially a married woman) may have experienced would thus be limited. These laws existed while European countries actively colonized large swaths of the Muslim world, and thus were influential in establishing the norms of modern states. Honor killings provide an extreme example. British law, imported to the Indian subcontinent in the mid-1800’s, “granted leniency to a man who killed his wife due to grave and sudden provocation” . Pakistan reformed this British law in 1990 in an attempt to align with the Shar’iah .
These imported attitudes contrast with the Islamic tradition, as the pervasive toxic masculinity of today’s world is an affront to Islamic masculinity. A trait of toxic masculinity is the inability to show emotion. Men are not supposed to cry, feel sad, or even show too much excitement, as showing or feeling emotion is supposedly feminine. This denial to process emotion damages personal relationships and manifests itself in violence-particularly against women. A 2007 study found that an intimate partner was responsible for 45% of American women murders . Perpetrators of domestic violence carried out over half of the mass shootings in the US . While most reasonable people can appreciate the physical harms that arise from bottling emotions, there are spiritual issues too. The Quran and the Hadith repeatedly emphasize the importance of crying. Tears are “a mercy from Allah,” a source to “extinguish the fire of Allah’s wrath,” while a “lack of tears” and “hardness of the heart” are signs of wretchedness [6,7,8]. The Sahaba were moved to tears often by just thinking of Allah’s Greatness. Umar (RA), a man known for being strong and fearless is described as having “two black lines on his face out of his crying” . If we adopt modern notions of masculinity and shut ourselves off emotionally, how can we expect to have the emotional connection to Allah that we desire? The Prophet (SWS) was loving, affectionate, and jovial with his wives, children, and grandchildren. His care and intimacy towards his family starkly contrasts with the way many feel men must behave in their roles as fathers, brothers, and husbands.
Another prevalent form of toxic masculinity is the dominion men believe they have over women’s bodies. While the Quran tells men and women to dress modestly and lower their gaze to preserve modesty, many focus solely on the perceived faults of women. If the Prophet of Allah, someone with the authority to advise his people on how to behave, did not see fit to yell at women about their clothing, then what right do we have? This is tied to the sexualization and objectification of women that toxic masculinity enables. The most obvious result of this is sexual assault or rape, with one in three women being sexually assaulted (the vast majority of which will go unreported) . Often there is false equivalency between the abused and the abuser. An Islamic society both protects from this behavior and brings those culpable to justice, without shaming the women who were abused. The language used towards women often dehumanizes them, comparing them to food or animals (ex: the infamous lollipop analogy). This type of language perpetuates culturally defined roles for women  and the lack of hayaa that arises from these interactions is far from the bounds of Islam where we are commanded to speak to others with respect. How can we uphold the Prophetic tradition of women being partners of men if the default is to consider our sisters in faith less than us?
Addressing and challenging toxic masculinity needs to start with the men of our ummah. While the voices of women need to be elevated and deferred to regarding women’s rights issues, we as men need to challenge the notions that have been engrained into us if we are to make progress. The first step is to acknowledge the existence of toxic masculinity. The refusal to admit its presence stems from a fear of having to challenge ourselves to be better men. Self-growth is important. Being critical of the norms of society, especially when they are oppressive, is critical. According to the Quran, men are the protectors of women. What type of protector hears about the shocking level of sexual abuse and decides to not believe women, or worse, blame a woman for not covering herself properly?
Why and how is toxic masculinity spreading within the ummah in lieu of Islamic masculinity? As the world rapidly changes, dynamics of gender and sex correspondingly change. This is not only true for Muslim men, but all men, and the internet in particular creates a space where men who are frustrated with such changes can reaffirm their biases. These online “Red-pill” or Incel communities amplify toxic views . In a self-renewing cycle, popular culture gives rise to the idea that “society was built around men catering to women in return for sex,” an idea that is perpetuated in these communities . Muslim men exposed to these ideas draw examples of what masculinity and femininity are meant to look like from the point of view of modern, Western-influenced standards. As Islam is not the dominant culture of the internet (or global society as a whole), pundits like Jordan Peterson have greater influence in the cultural zeitgeist than stories of the Prophet (SWS) or the Sahaba. Some Muslim men may even align with alt-right figures who are abundant in toxic masculinity, thus siding with racists and Islamophobes, something that should be alarming in its own right.
Ultimately, the evolving role of women in society is not a challenge to Islamic masculinity, but to Western patriarchal notions. The Islamic tradition when applied correctly offers a template for how we can tackle these issues. By looking to earlier Islamic societies, reflecting on the Divinely-inspired rights for women, and most importantly, holding ourselves to the standards of men like the Prophet (SWS), we as Muslim men can and must be at the forefront of fighting the ills of toxic masculinity.
- Blackstone, W. Commentaries on Laws of England. 1765-1769
- Married Woman’s Property Act 1882 (45&46 Vict. c.75)
- Brown, J. A.C. Islam is not the Cause of Honor Killings. It’s Part of the Solution. Yaqeen Institute. 2016
- Catalano, S., et al. Female Victims of Violence. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvv.pdf
- Everytwonresearch.org. Analysis of Mass Shootings. https://everytownresearch.org/reports/mass-shootings-analysis/
- Mustadrak al-Wasa’il, vol. 11, p.245, Hadith 35
- Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 79, p. 91, Hadith 43
- Ibid., p.164, Hadith 21
- Daleel As-Sai’leen, p.270, No. 2
- RAINN. The Criminal Justice System: Statistics. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
- Tipler, C. and Ruscher, J. Dehumanizing representations of women: the shaping of hostile sexist attitudes through animalistic metaphors. Journal of Gender Studies. 2019
- Tait, A. Spitting out the Red Pill: Former misogynists reveal how they were radicalized online. America’s Current Affairs & Politics Magazine. https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2017/02/reddit-the-red-pill-interview-how-misogyny-spreads-online
- Photo Credit: fotograffika via tumblr
About the Author: Newaz Ahmed is a guest contributor. He is a graduate student pursing a PhD in Neuroscience. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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