Muslim Masculinities by Abdennur Prado
There is no lack of books, pamphlets, scholarly tomes and polemical works on ‘Women in Islam’. Every genre is covered: classical, traditional, modernist and reformist. And we must not forget the digital media: a quick search on YouTube alone will generate over two million hits. Works on gender issues are, almost exclusively, about women. Yet any discussion of gender is incomplete without a consideration of masculinity. Despite this, there are hardly any studies that, as Limousine Ouzga notes, ‘render Muslim men visible as gendered subjects and that show that masculinities have a history and are part of gender relations in Muslim cultures’.
This may be due to the fact that we cannot define a unique and univocal Islamic concept of masculinity. The concept of masculinity dominant in a precise historical moment, in Islam as in any other religion or culture, is conditioned by economics, society, class, age, ethnicity, membership, history and political situation. Denying this would contradict the very nature of the gender studies that have led to the emergence of the category of ‘masculinity’. Moreover, highlighting the historicity of the concept of masculinity keeps us from falling into the trap of essentialism. It helps us avoid a Eurocentric reading, projecting the myths of Western culture on Islam.
We know a great deal about western stereotypes of Muslim women. But the image of ‘Muslim men’ in the West is also monolithic. Think of the billionaire Sheikh, the obscurantist Mullah, the vociferous young Muslim, the violent terrorist. Interestingly, these current images contrast with the Middle Age image of Muslim men as effeminate. The accounts of Western travellers in the Muslim world conveyed an image of sensuality and delicacy, of a refined and mannered civilisation. The history of Islam also offers a variety of models of masculinity. Some of them present us with a warrior conception of manhood, while others offer a model that incorporates aspects considered ‘feminine’: the use of perfumes, grooming, affection, the culture of the bathrooms, even crying as an expression of masculinity. In Persian and Ottoman miniatures, men are often portrayed as sensitive and sensual, rather than tough and uncompromising.
Theoretically, we can say that there is no single model of Muslim masculinity. Practically, we are aware of a dominant model that has existed in Muslim history and is prevalent today. It is the product of a patriarchal mentality that we can trace to the early phase of Islam during which man is constructed as the One and the woman as the Other. The man is considered as the paradigm of the human, and the woman is subordinated. And it is precisely to preserve this concept of ‘ideal masculinity’ that it is necessary to seclude women, segregate them in a differentiated mental and social space. We can argue that this ideal masculinity subjugates men, just as the concept of weak and untrustworthy women subdues women. Both models are instruments of pressure that society exerts over its members to maintain a cohesive social structure. This pressure becomes a repressive morality that is virtually impossible to escape; in the hands of patriarchal religious elites, it becomes an orthodoxy that has to be preserved at all costs.
The patriarchal model of manhood has always been in tension with another, less known, model of Islamic masculinity. In this model, both the feminine and the masculine are seen as an integral part of being human. One cannot be separated from the other. Both models have their origins in traditional Islam — and both have existed throughout history.
To understand the origins of these models we must first situate ourselves within the traditional paradigm. By ‘traditional Islam’ I mean the characteristics of Muslim society that are based, or are perceived to be based, on an unbroken chain of knowledge that can be traced to the Qur’an. Traditional thinking is constituted as a set of symbols deeply rooted in the collective psyche. A religion cannot be understood simply by analysing its doctrines and practices or by appealing only to a sociological perspective. There is a symbolic dimension that gives meaning to such practices and doctrines. A traditional society sees itself as an organic society in which each individual naturally takes his place as a part of a whole that is designed to fully develop the individual’s spiritual capacities.