The Shadows of Muslim Men by Ziauddin Sardar

A confession. In case you did not know I am a man. A generic, universal entity about which the seventeenth century French aristocrat Madame de Sevigne knew a thing or two. ‘The more I see of men’, she declared, ‘the more I admire dogs’. Knowing myself as well as I do, I appreciate her preference. 

My gender has moulded the world in its own image. Everything from politics to finance, law to science, art and architecture, sports and entertainment are shaped, structured and led by men – and contain the fingerprints of masculinity. History is almost exclusively made by men; and it is always His story. Men hold a virtual monopoly in the corridors of power: whether in political institutions or banks, the judiciary or the media, universities or research laboratories, businesses or corporate organisations – anywhere where policies are made, decisions are announced, and all life on Earth is regulated. 

Not surprisingly, statistically men also perpetuate more crime than women, conventional as well as white-collar, from murders and killings, to football hooliganism, to nasty and greedy bankers ripping off the rest of society. The favourite pastime of men is, of course, war, perpetuated in the name of religion and ideologies but always focused on power and territory. And war imagery is integral to the sports that real men — that is ‘men with added man’, as an advertisement for chocolate milk playfully suggests — play: rugby, boxing, ice hockey and American football, which function as endlessly renewed symbols of war and masculinity. ‘Machismo’ is the foundation of most national narratives. Violence and men go together; and a great deal of violence, in this truncated half-human world that men have fashioned, is directed against women. 

Worse: I am a Muslim man. So it can be taken for granted that I am a power hungry, frustrated misogynist, the archetype and ideal contemporary representative of what sociologists and geographers call ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Everything that Muslim men have produced, from scriptural interpretations to Shari’a Law to even our mysticism, is designed to keep women subjugated and isolated in a confined space. And our historic gift, patriarchy, ensures that things remain as they should. Even those who do not consciously enact their God-given right to hegemony (such as more liberal minded Muslims and enlightened scholars) receive the benefits of patriarchy. 

From the women’s perspective, the history of Islam is not unlike the story of Dave, the protagonist of Stephen Collins’ wonderful graphic novel, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Dave lives in a rather clean and sensible land, where not everything makes sense but people struggle to discover the meaning of life, called the island of Here. Then one day, he wakes up to feel a ‘roaring black fire climbing up through his face’ as his beard appears from nowhere. It is an extraordinary beard from a place far, far beyond the tidy and reasonably rational abode of Dave. And it grips Dave in a suffocating embrace. A bit like how Shari’a Law, based on the misogynist interpretation of the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad, is suddenly canonised in the ninth century and acquires a stranglehold on the Muslim imagination. Dave trims his beard all night, hoping to bring it down to manageable proportion, but at sunrise it is back to its mammoth and monolithic self. Soon it spreads everywhere and becomes a petrifying spectacle. The hairdressers of Here, working on scaffolding around the beard, are defeated. The police and the army try to contain it but to no avail. Soon the beard takes over the whole of the island Here. Other citizens start to experiment with their own beards, hairstyles and clothes. And an island that was once a neat and tidy place comes to resemble a bearded jungle. It becomes obvious that the gigantic, evil beard will kill its host. Like Dave’s beard, the hegemonic masculinity of Muslim thought, exegesis, law, history, and piety is threatening to turn Islam into a wasteland. 

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