Note: This post is an excerpt from the full Reviewing Yaqeen Institute report.
Jonathan Brown writes “An Open Letter to Muslim Men: The Sunnah Trumps Toxic Masculinity.” The term “toxic masculinity” is a highly politicized term used by contemporary feminism to attack notions of patriarchy and traditional gender roles. Brown’s contrasting the Sunna with toxic masculinity implies that the Sunna is aligned with this feminist project.
According to feminist thought, the “traditional man” and the “traditional woman” are nothing more than constructions created by “the Patriarchy” used to oppress women and lock them into demeaning roles of domestic drudgery — cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, while men sit back like kings, enjoying life with a cold drink in hand. The feminist, therefore, fights this oppression by teaching women and men that there are no defined gender roles, domestic chores must be divided equally, and women must be front and center leading the Ummah into battle.
Brown caters to this feminist fantasy throughout his essay. We might as well start with where he speaks about gender roles or lack thereof in Islam:
“In light of ongoing debates about differences between sexes and expectations of gender roles, it’s worth looking at how the men and women of Islam’s ideal, founding generation conducted themselves. In the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ, men and women are distinct in their duties of prayer and fasting (women don’t do either when menstruating), in their dress (they must cover different areas of their body), and other legal issues. Men have the duty to guard and protect (qiwāma) their womenfolk because of some of the capacities that God generally grants one sex to a greater degree than the other.
“But what surprised me when I reflected on it was how little difference there was otherwise between the conduct of men and women in this noble community. Both were deeply pious, decisive, courageous in word and deed, proud of themselves but humbled by the charge God put upon them, confident when they believed they were right but also utterly deferential to the instructions of God and His Messenger ﷺ. Both were dynamically involved in public life. And both men and women were extremely conscious of their code of sexual propriety.”
Yes, if one focuses on piety, courageousness, propriety, and other qualities that apply to both genders, don’t be surprised when you don’t find much difference between the genders in Islam.
Contrary to Brown, obviously there were significant differences between typical male and female roles during the time of the Prophet ﷺ and the vast majority of the Ummah’s history. These differences were all but necessitated by the different shar`i duties assigned by Allah to each sex.
Brown hand waves all these major differences with the phrase “and other legal issues.” But these issues are significant. Which gender is responsible for jihad? Which gender is responsible for taking care of children and other domestic duties when the opposite gender is fighting jihad? Which gender is allowed to be the wali al-’amr? Which gender can only leave the home in certain conditions? Which gender is generally allowed to serve as judges? Which gender can declare talaq? Which gender has an iddah? Which gender can marry multiple members of the opposite gender? And on and on.
These are the “other legal issues” that are not significant enough for Brown to mention apparently, but they make a big difference in how Muslim men and women live their day to day lives together. It is impossible to understand Islamic Law and not recognize that distinct gender roles are assumed by it and established through it. The Muslim feminist attempt to paper over this reality is bound to fail.
“They also see in the hyperbolically re-imagined ‘Traditional Man’ a near image of the Third World alpha male that many grew up with in the immigrant cultures their parents and grandparents brought with them to the West. Many a young Muslim man in the West grew up watching TV while his sisters cleaned up after him and took turns with their mother serving him food and drinks. Many grew up with at least some notion that a real man was one who ruled over and enjoyed the devoted service of his womenfolk.”
It is interesting how Jonathan Brown refers to the image of the “Traditional Man” as originating with Western TV, which then influenced “immigrants,” who were apparently the original misogynists in the Muslim community.
Brown raises an interesting question with his last point. Do “real men” enjoy the devoted service of womenfolk? Well, let’s ask a parallel question. Do “real women” enjoy being provided nafaqa, being protected by men, etc.? If men are supposed to feel guilty or somehow less than “real men” if they enjoy their wives serving them and obeying them, then why shouldn’t women feel guilty or less than “real women” if they enjoy complimentary services from their husbands?
“The problem is that this ‘Traditional Man’s Man’ is not inherently Islamic at all. Taking the question of wives cooking and doing housework as an example, according to the Sunni schools of law this is either not required of her, required only if her husband is poor and she does not see the job as beneath herself, or her duties are based on the customary expectations in her particular society (this was recently discussed by my teacher Shaykh Musa Furber as well as others).”
This point about Sunni schools is false. Interestingly, Sh Musa Furber has translated a section from a contemporary book — Al-Siraj al-Wahhaj fi Khidmat al-Azwaj — which summarizes the positions of the Sunni schools on this question of a wife’s domestic duties. He writes:
1. One group considers it obligatory. It is the opinion of Ibn Abi Shaybah, Abi Thaur, some Hanafis (e.g., al-Juwzajani), Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim. Al-Tabari inclined towards it, and Muhammad bin Ali bin al-Ityuni preferred it in Qurrat al-ayn al-muhtaj (2:415).
2. The Hanafis consider it a non-compulsory religious obligation.
3. The Malikis consider it obligatory if the Husband is poor or she is not from the upper echelons of society.
4. The Shafiis, most Hanbalis, and some Malikis consider it non-obligatory. Abu Hanifah and Muhammad bin al-Hasan gave this opinion. Ibn Qudamah was certain of it, though he preceded his opinion by saying, “However, it is best that she perform whatever is customary for wives to perform because it is the custom, the situation won’t be right without it, and society won’t function without it.”
So contrary to Brown’s assertion, more than a few scholars considered domestic chores for wives as obligatory, and others considered it obligatory if the husband is poor or if the custom dictated it so, since “society won’t function without it.”
Keep in mind also that daughters and sons would grow up with different roles and responsibilities in the family context as well, so even if a wife wasn’t obligated to do chores like cooking and washing, that didn’t mean her daughters weren’t responsible for doing them. Also, the families that were wealthy enough for the wife not to have to do any chores would rely on slaves or servants, who also tended to be female.
“The Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ certainly instructs wives to respect and obey their husbands but it also clearly states that respect is only due in what is known as right in that context. Husbands can expect their wives to heed them to the extent that such heeding is accepted in the culture they live in.”
What does this mean? In present Western monoculture, women are not expected to heed and obey their husbands. In fact, the very concept of a wife having to obey her husband is seen as repugnant and morally offensive. So, given this cultural background, is there no Islamic obligation for wives to obey their husbands in present times according to Brown’s logic?
Secondly, where in the Sunna do we find that “respect is only due in what is known as right in that context”? What does Brown mean by “right in that context”? When we check his citation, he lists hadith chapters without comment: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-nikāḥ, bāb idhā bātat al-mar’a muhājira firāsh zawjihā; kitāb al-aḥkām, bāb al-samʿ wa’l-ṭāʿa li’l-imām…; Jāmiʿ al-Tirmidhī: kitāb al-riḍāʿ, bāb mā jā’a fī ḥaqq al-zawj ʿalā al-mar’a.
This is strange. Why didn’t he cite the actual hadith in those chapters that support his point? The actual hadith in the three hadith chapters he lists that mention wives are as follows:
“If a man Invites his wife to sleep with him and she refuses to come to him, then the angels send their curses on her till morning.”
“Whichever woman dies while her husband is pleased with her, then she enters Paradise.”
“When a man calls his wife to fulfill his need, then let her come, even if she is at the oven.”
“If I were to order anyone to prostrate to anyone, then I would order the wife to prostrate to her husband.”
These hadith support the obligation of obedience but do not support the added qualification of “right in that context” that Brown attributes to the Sunna.
“[Muslim men] should heed the ‘goodly example’ given them by the Qur’an (33:21), whose conduct should be compelling for all believers: the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. And he did not sit around letting his womenfolk serve him. As his wife Aisha described him, he would mend his own clothes, milk his own sheep, “and serve himself.” He would help his wives prepare meals. “He was,” she said, “in the service of his family (kāna fī mihnat ahlihi).” When the Prophet’s daughter Fatima came to him complaining of how her hands had been calloused by domestic work and asking for a servant, he dismissed her complaint by telling her that praising God was better. This is just my interpretation, but it seems almost as if the Prophet ﷺ felt that being served was a self-indulgence that is better avoided.”
Yes, there are many examples of our Beloved Prophet ﷺ working in the home and for his family. But part of truly following an example is recognizing what are norms and what are exceptions to the norms. If a person takes the exceptions and treats them as the norm, he will not be following the example of the Prophet ﷺ and the Mother of the Believers. He will be drastically deviating from that example. The examples from the Quran, Sunna, and the lives of the Companions that collectively establish what are Islamic gender norms far outnumber the handful of exceptional examples that Muslim feminists and their allies recycle in every article and speech on the topic.