Influences upon Islamic conceptions of masculinities

A discussion I wrote for uni focussing on Islam and masculinity. Apologies for the format, i have tried everything to get it sorted but its not playing ball...

The Qur'an, at first glance, appears to promote a contradictory stance on the equality of genders. On
the one hand, it states that men and women are equal, that the Qur'an was revealed equally for
women (33:35), but on the other hand, appears to support a hierarchical ordering of the
family(4:34). With regards to the role of men, the Qur'an takes it upon men to have more economic
power, but with the corresponding greater responsibility of providing for all members of the family.
From this standpoint patriarchy, albeit a benevolent form of patriarchy, appears to be a part of the
Divine Order. In this conception, masculinity as a role would appear to have little scope for change.
However, there are also criticisms to be made at this reading as an accurate portrayal of what the
Qur'an prescribes. This view posits that the apparent contradiction between the goal of equality and
its promotion of specific hierarchical gender roles is because the Qur'an has an eternal message
affirming equality, but that it was revealed in a temporal context of a highly patriarchal society.
Thus, its specific commands are reforms to equalize relations between the genders in such a
context. The consequence of this viewpoint is that gender roles are ultimately performative social
constructions, rather than essentialist categories and from this it follows that there is scope for the
establishment of new ways of being for men and women in line with the Qur'anic norms of equality.
In what follows, I will discuss some influences upon what constitutes Islamic concepts of
masculinity. Firstly, I will begin with what Murata calls traditional Islam's view of cosmology and
its implication for gender. Next there shall commence a discussion of how this model, and Duree
Ahmed's adaptation of this model, can be applied as a psycho-social diagnostic tool to determine
the situation of masculinity in the Muslim world today. A brief critique of this model will follow,on
the grounds of it as a potential limitation to the scope of possibility for gender, which will set the
frame for a discussion of how people on the margins of power have been utilising Islamic discourse
to formulate new modes of being for men that are not constrained by an idealisation of a
heteronormative patriarchal family model that prevailed in seventh century Arabia.

In her discussion of what constitutes traditional Islam, Murata (Murata:1992) makes a distinction
between two intellectual currents, the legalistic tradition and the sapiential tradition. The legalistic
tradition places emphasis upon the outward dimension of Islam which is command based, it asks the
question of the 'what' is Gods Will. This strand places emphasis on the incomparability of the Deity,
and posits a normative idea of human being's having a slave-like relationship to this Deity. The
sapiential tradition, Murata states, encompasses various strands from emotional based Sufism to
speculative philosophy. This tradition places an emphasis upon the nearness and similarity of God
to creation, a positive theology, which compliments the negative theology of the legalistic tradition.

These two traditions can be situated within the overall context of Islamic cosmology which
elaborates upon Qur'anic themes of everything in existence being created in pairs, that operates in a
dialectical process as the means of creation to exist. This cosmological schema is akin to Chinese
Taoist and Confucian notions of cosmology. This cosmology posits that underpinning the
multitudinous nature of existence there is an underlying Unity, known as the Great Ultimate, or Tai
Chi, that brings existence into being through the interplay of active and receptive principles, known
as yin and yang. Everything revolves around the fluctuation of those changes, and can be observed
by looking at nature, e.g. when the sun rises, the moon disappears etc.

Islamic cosmology, likewise is based upon a process of a complimentary between active and
receptive principles. The Qur'an is constantly calling upon people to meditate upon this polar nature
of existence to find signs for the underlying Unity from which the universe relies upon for its
existence. Within Islamic discourse, two conceptions of God have arisen, the God of negative
theology, the transcendent, which bears resemblance to yang principles. In this yang conception,
there is an emphasis placed upon Gods wrath and Severity etc. The other conception of God places
emphasis upon the God's of similarity, nearness, and mercy. The famous ninety nine names of God,
counts as an elaboration of this framework and have been categorised traditionally under the
headings of majesty/yang (jamal) and beautiful/yin(jalal)

Applied to society, the legalistic tradition focuses upon creation as everything other than Allah.
This places emphasis upon a world of multiplicity and difference. In the sapiential conception, there
is an emphasis placed upon the nearness of God. This promotes a more integrated relational attitude
towards social relations (Murata:1992). Human sexuality, in the pairing of female and male,
initiates a process which God participates in, and manifests the attribute of Creator. Physical love, in
a human agent becomes spiritual by transcending itself towards the social. (Boudibah: 1975)
Boudibah notes, however that the diversity of social life does not entail an equality of roles and
similarity of status. Each thing in creation has its own role to play in the cosmos, and this, to
Boudibah, explains the Quranic verses indicating a hierarchy of sexes. This would appear to provide
a Divine Mandate to a hierarchical gendered order. However, Murata (Murata:1992) notes that in
this overall schema, Humankind represents the microcosm, and unlike the rest of creation, which is
only created in one of the hands of God, humans are created with both hands. Thus, whilst the
Qur'an draws on the the pairing of sexes as signs for the divine disclosure, humans, male or female
possess both sets of qualities of beauty and majesty. This is in line with the Taoist observation of
everything being relational and thus entities will bear yang attributes in one relationship, and yin
attributes in another. This provides scope for gender roles to be contested.

This model can be a useful a diagnostic tool to analyse social malaises. Murata (Murata:1992)
argues that the western-feminist critique of Islam, can be characterised as an masculinist will to
power over a civilisation of which it has little understanding. She equates such notions as serving as
an ideological justification, as part of the array of the concerns of the white man's burden to civilise
the native of colonial history. Leilah Ahmed (Ahmed,L:1992), in her survey of gender issues in
Muslim societies has demonstrated that seemingly feminist concerns where utilised as justifications
of the colonial project. This had a knock on effect in post colonial nationalist modernisation
programmes which internalised outward symbols of western gender roles, such as how women
dressed as symptomatic of an advanced society that could rival the west. The Shah of the Iran and
Attaturk's suppression of hijab in public life can be seen in this context.

This reveals that Muslim conceptions of gender roles can evolve in correspondence to the power
politics of empires, civilisations, and nation states. In this vein, we can locate Ruth Roded's account
of alternate images of Prophet Muhammad's virility that developed in Muslim society in response to
colonialism (Roded:2006). According to Roded, the earliest sources of Muhammad's life abounds
with accounts of him having a very active sex life which required a level of sexual fortitude that
could only be achieved as a divine gift. In Ibn Sa'ds biography, Muhammad’s virility was a result of
a dish provided by the Angel Gabriel. Regardless as to the truth of these legendary accounts, this
points to a conception of masculinity where sexual pleasure of men and women was not seen in
opposition to religion, in contrast to the Christian conception of celibacy as an ideal. These
accounts, were distorted by Christian polemicists in the medieval times to infer the fraudulent
nature of Muhammad's claim to Prophet-hood, providing justification for the crusades. The
Orientalist study of Islam inherited this tradition to an extent. (Roded:2006). Roded argues that
following the decline of Muslim civilisation in the post-colonial aftermath, many Muslim thinkers
sought to reconfigure accounts of Muhammad life as an austere character, reshaping Islamic ideals
of masculinities.

Duree Ahmed (Ahmed, D:2006) builds on Murata's Taoist delineation of the Islamic cosmological
system with a post-Jungian psychological analysis to gender. According to this framework, religion
forms part of a basic 'creative imagination' that humans conform to when making sense of the
world. This, Ahmed notes, is not flights of fancy, but is rather a “complex epistemological
framework. Within this framework, our inherently poly-centric psyche of multiple emotions,
moods, and obsessions is reified into the form of the multiple religious festivals that occupies our
outer space. Religion, thus refers to archetypes, which constitutes the “foundations of our basic
assumptions regarding life and relationships.” Male Gods, according to this framework, provide
different modes of masculinity, wherein each archetype contains an embodied attitude.
Gender, rather than being reducible to the biological categories of male and female, is instead
conceived as a psychological-symbolic construct. In contrast to the Freudian literalistic account of
dreams wherein pointed objects refer to male genitalia, and hollow objects refer to female genitalia,
post-jungian psychology regards them as attitudes of consciousness that can be termed culturally
liked to gender. Thus masculine symbols refer to concepts like, mastery, abstract thought, whilst
feminine symbols refer to qualities such receptivity, reflection etc. Like Murata, Ahmed conceives
of the the exoteric tradition in Islam, is part of the masculine/yang stream, whilst the esoteric,
represents the feminine/yin stream. Like Murata's concept of evil being an imbalance of yin or
yang, social malady can be diagnosed as an imbalance of such attributes.

Modernity, to Ahmed has reduced the power of the symbolic towards the literal which has entailed
an increasing hegemonic grip of exoteric literalistic discourse over the esoteric. Furthermore, due to
political developments in the past fifty years, the development of the Islamic state, has entailed a
modernisation of Islam which is in actual fact has constituted a masculinisation of Islam. This
reveals, Ahmed argues, a deep seated fear of the feminine in the Muslim male psyche, with a
consequent suppression of feminine strands of Islam, as well as a suppression of women. Ahmed
states that such programmes have “less to do with the teachings of islam and more with literalism
and the pursuit of patriarchal power agendas in the name of Islam”. There have been two aspects to
this development. Firstly, the states professionalisation of an ulama class, who facilitate the
promotion of an orthodoxy that suits the states interest, and secondly, the islamizisation of the
armed forces.

The consequences of this suppression of the feminine are manifold. For example, the externalised
view of God places the body as a focus of control and domination. Obsessions such as clothing and
beards, veils etc arise in this context. A world without the yin relational view can only promote a
paranoid mindset that when coupled with unstable social and political contexts will, as in the case
of Afghanistan, beget a “self perpetuating connection between the initial internalising of a genuinely
hostile environment and an externalising of this hostility onto the world”. Given that such
masculinist agendas are promoted by the Saudi Dynasty, with the backing of it's oil dollars, it seems
that the suppression of the feminine relational view of the world and a highly patriarchal view of
masculinity will become the increasingly dominant view in the Muslim world.

Whilst the overall conceptual apparatus of traditional Islam, as expounded by Murata, appears
attractive with regards to its seemingly dialectical attribute based conceptions of genders, there are
also a number of problems with it. Firstly, its preoccupation with humanity to establish equilibrium
bears resemblance to a Durkheimian functionalist view of society, where everybody has their place
within society and that an upsetting of a natural balance leads to catastrophe. This has the
consequent danger of promoting a conservative agenda whereby challenging the power ascribed to
men in surah 4:34 would be seen as upsetting the natural balance of the universe. It would be very
hard to conceive of a more fluid and egalitarian viewpoint of masculinity, if one is sets oneself
against the very laws of the Universe in doing so.

A second problem is it can be accused of being an inherently heteronormative framework with its
emphasis upon everything being created in pairs. This idea of the law of the universe being in
accordance with principles of yin and yang may at best contribute to a culture of invisibility that
homosexual Muslims have faced until very recently (Siraj:2006), or at worst provide a justification
for the persecution of gay Muslims. Whilst one could counter with the proposition that these are in
reference to qualities rather than tied to the biological category of sex, the fact that such a
framework is vulnerable to being utilised by those with a conservative agenda means that
alternative hermeneutic strategies of the Qur'an, unconstrained by a polar paradigm, ought to be
utilised to widen the scope.

Whilst it seems credible that Murata has given an accurate exposition of 'traditional Islam', to rely
on this notion as an essentialist category of 'true Islam' suppresses the history of how such traditions
came to be formulated, and the embedded power agendas promoted in such formulations. Barlas
(Barlas:2007) demonstrates how various power interests were welded into the institutions of Islamic
epistemic authority. For example, the development of the ulama class, particularly in the Abbasid
period ensured the development of a brand of Islam that would be amenable to the interests of the
Abbasid state. This period is one where women in public life were becoming increasingly invisible,
and thus, the rise of the ulama class as exclusively men ensured a closed patriarchal reading of the
Qur'an. The sapiental tradition evolved out of the same context, and apart from the notable sufi
Rabia, there appears to be little in the way of written sources to a signify a significant level of
contribution from women to the sapiental discourse. Thus the likihood of the sapiental tradition
containing limiting assumptions regarding gender remains high.

Muslim feminists such as Barlas (Barlas:2007) have formulated new epistemological frameworks
that radically challenge hitherto held beliefs about gender. Siraj (Siraj:2006) in her survey of
homosexual Muslim men has discovered that some are beginning to formulate nascent interpretative
strategies of the Qur'an that affirms their sexual orientation. Ayatollah Khomeni (Tait:2005) in
response to a call from a transgendered Muslim, issued a fatwa allowing for gender reassignment
surgery to commence if one felt that they were trapped in the wrong body. What is notable about
this fatwa is that it has arisen in the Ithna Asheri Shia tradition, a tradition in its jurisprudence that
has not closed the doors to independent reasoning (Momen:1987). Thus, differing interpretive
strategies from the margins of power can have influence to bear on what is possible for Islamic
conceptions of masculinity.

In conclusion, there are a wide variety of influences to bear on Islamic conceptions of masculinity.
These include the two arms of the traditional brand of Islam, which Murata calls the legalist and
sapiential tradition. Both can be situated within two differing emphasises upon God, one which
appears 'feminine' and Immanent, the other 'masculine' and Transcendent. Human relations with each
other and the cosmos works well when both arms work in harmony, but if imbalance arises, chaos
comes into being. The present situation, Duree Ahmed argues, is a hyper masculine context where the
feminine tradition is suppressed and gender possibilities are highly limited. Other influences upon
Islamic conceptions of masculinity can include geopolitical tensions that call into play identity
politics and/or internalisation of other cultures norms on masculinity. Finally there is the influence
of differing readings of the Islamic sources of knowledge which depending on the orientation can
lead to conservative narrow possibilities for masculinity or liberatory possibilities encompassing
wider modes of being.

Ahmed Durie, Gender and Islamic Spirituality: a psychological view of 'low' fundamentalism,
2006, in Ouzgane L (ed), Islamic Masculinities, Palgrave, London, 2006

Ahmed Leilah, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate, Yale, New York

Barlas Asma, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading patriarchal interpretations in the Qur'an,
University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002

Boudibah Abdelwahab, Sexuality in Islam, Saqi Books, 1975

Momen Moojan, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The history and doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism, Yale
University Press, New York, 1985

Roded, Ruth, Alternate images of the Prophet Muhammad's virility, 2006, in Ouzgane L (ed),
Islamic Masculinities, Palgrave, London, 2006

Siraj Asifa, On being homosexual and Muslim: conflicts and challenges,in Ouzgane L (ed), Islamic
Masculinities, Palgrave, London, 2006

Online Sources:

Tait Robert, A Fatwa for Freedom, the Guardian, 2005,, Accessed: 8/12/11

Online Qur'an,, Accessed 8/12/11

Posted By

Jul 27 2012 16:51


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