There is no doubt that modernity has played an integral role in the rapid development of cultural norms in Muslim-majority societies following the eighteenth-century (Wilson 2005, 6111). In this specific milieu, modernity can be defined as a response to the European political and normative hegemony over Muslim territory during the modern era (Majeed 2004, 456). Faisal Devji notes that this response was unique because “[t]he closeness of [Muslim modernist] thinking to European thought, together with its inability to engage with and integrate [European thought] intellectually, made Muslim modernism essentially apologetic” (2007, 62). As a result of this “apologetic modernity,” Devji argues that “[M]uslim debates over modernity generally took the form of defining a relationship, whether of acceptance, rejection or compromise” (2007, 61). In the more specifically religious context, responses to modernity fall into this same apologetic category in which some sort of relationship is defined, but with unequal levels of engagement (Wilson 2005, 6110-6111). This apologetic view can assist in the understanding of the multifaceted religious responses to modernity, in particular for this blog post, the Islamic response to the proliferation of new modern norms of masculinity in Muslim societies.
Like modernity, masculinity is a problematic and difficult term. As the scholars, Scott Kugle and Stephen Hunt write, “[m]asculinity is not self-evident and self-sustaining.” (2012, 256). Instead, masculinity is a fluid and “negotiable” norm, which changes to match the circumstances of its environment (Maleeha 2014, 135). Because of its fluidity as well as its dependency on its environment, it is appropriate to draw upon the work of the sociologist, Raewyn Connell, who posited that the view of a singular prevailing masculinity is mistaken; instead there are multiple masculinities (Aslam 2014, 136; De Sondy 2015, 8-9). This is an important distinction to make because the idea of a singular masculinity suggests that gender construction does not change depending on the time period or society in which it operates in (De Sondy 2015, 8). Masculinities, then, can be defined as the varying and dynamic social constructions of an ideal man, how he is expected to act, and what role he is expected to play in society.
The modern context is important to understand in order to determine how the definitions of masculinity have been recently challenged (De Sondy 2015, 1). In Muslim societies, definitions of masculinity are heavily shaped by the religious environment of Islam (Aslam 2014, 138), and this religious environment has been challenged by modernism (Wilson 2005, 6108). The threat to religious traditions and the conventional traditions of Islamic masculinity by modern norms has resulted in an influential neo-traditional religious response. This response is Islamism, a pluralistic religious ideology advocating for strict adherence to Islamic traditions (Kugle and Hunt 2012, 264). Islamism represents a component of the Muslim apologetic response to modernity, as Islamists often reject modern norms and participate in intellectual exercises such as scriptural exegesis in order to justify their beliefs but are unable or unwilling to equally engage with the “West” (De Sondy 2015, 52). The prominence of Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Abu’l A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926-present) have greatly influenced the debate over the ideal Islamic masculinity and have shaped the views of many impressionable Muslim men through well-articulated apologetics (De Sondy 2015, 17-18; Kugle and Hunt 2012, 256).
Sayyid Abu’l A’la Mawdudi was a British-Indian and later Pakistani Islamist ideologue whose notions of ideal Islamic masculinity were founded in the modern context. His primary work on the topic of Islamic masculinity was Purdah (1939) (De Sondy 2015, 17). Despite the fact that the work focuses on the role of women in society and not men, the scholar, Amanullah De Sondy argues that Purdah provides ample resources to determine Mawdudi’s vision of the ideal Muslim man (2015, 17). In it, Mawdudi articulates his belief in the divinely ordained superiority of men over women, and how observing this so-believed divine truth is “indeed [a form of] submission to God – the heart of masculine commitment to Islam” (De Sondy 2015, 40). In addition, Mawdudi articulated the family as a “political mechanism,” where marriage represents the supposed dualistic roles of men and women in society (De Sondy 2015, 35, 39). The superiority of men, he argued, would offset “womanly deficiencies” with “masculine competencies” and assert the natural roles of men as breadwinners and leaders, instead of homemakers (De Sondy 2015, 41, 48, 50).
This view of masculinity is obviously problematic. For one, Mawdudi’s sexist biological justification for the superiority of men over women — and thus the different roles men and women should play — ignores the observed fact that women can operate in society if given the opportunity to and perform just as well as men. Secondly, Mawdudi seemingly ignores men who do not or cannot fit into these roles. Mawdudi is therefore suggesting that men who do not fit into these roles are not good Muslims. As a consequence, Mawdudi’s ideas can alienate Muslim men and pressure them into a view of masculinity they may not be able to or want to fit into.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi is a contemporary example of an Islamist who argues in favor of a specific ideal of Islamic masculinity, but he does so in a different way from Mawdudi. In an analysis of Qaradawi’s talk show on the tv-station Al Jazeera Arabic, Kugle and Hunt argue that Qaradawi presents a view of masculinity that excludes homosexual men, and this exclusion is representative of “an agenda to reinforce perceived threats to Muslim masculinity” (2012, 256, 259). Kugle and Hunt finds that Qaradawi views homosexuality as a “perversion” and a sin that ought to be “cured” as if it were a disease, and whose prevalence in Muslim societies has been exacerbated by so-believed decadent “Western” norms, i.e. modern norms (2012, 266-268). Further, Qaradawi argues that homosexuality is incompatible with Islam; that you cannot be gay and a true Muslim (Kugle and Hunt 2012, 269). This is a very problematic idea for the Muslim community. Homosexuality is inseparable from masculinity, as often societal norms around masculinity suggest that to be masculine is to be heterosexual (Kugle and Hunt 2012, 269). For Qaradawi’s vision of an ideal Islamic masculinity, being heterosexual, both in thought and in practice, is a prerequisite. To exclude someone from a religious identity because of their sexual preferences and or practices can be very harmful, especially when religion plays such a large role as in Muslim societies. This apologetic rejection of homosexuals and homosexuality is a key component of Qaradawi’s idealized discourse.
Both Qaradawi and Mawdudi are unwittingly participating in apologetic exercises by forming a relationship of rejection with modern norms of masculinity. Neither Mawdudi nor Qaradawi would be able to construct their masculinities without the methodological basis of rejection. Their apologetics would not function without the modern and thus, Western normative framework, and their efforts to promote their unique versions of a self-sustaining and hegemonic Islamic masculinity, have only succeeded in adding to the existing compendium of masculinities. This is the unintended consequence of the apologetic response.
Consider this eighteenth-century manuscript from the Turkish artist, ‘Ata’i. The image titled, A King Looking at a Picture of His Son and His Tutor, who Fell in Love with Him, depicts some sort of close, perhaps sexual, homosocial relationship between two men. It is unclear what the figure to the left thinks of this relationship, but he points at the couple, drawing the viewer’s eye to them. The fact that there were possible homosocial romantic relationships represented in the pre-modern era is significant as it suggests that there has always been a debate over masculinity in Muslim societies; it is not just a modern phenomenon. It is apparent that modernism and the apologetic Islamic response to modernism has only made this debate louder. Even with the intensification of the debate, however, norms of masculinities will continue to be diverse and dynamic. Masculinity is an ever-evolving definition, dependent on its context to have meaning. In the modern era, the response of apologetic Islamism only adds to this dynamism.
Aslam, Maleeha. “Islamism and Masculinity: Case Study Pakistan.” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 39, no. 3 (149) (2014): 135-49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24146118.
‘Ata’i, ‘Ata’ullah bin Yahá and Khayr Allah Khayri Jawush Zadah. A King Looking at a Picture of His Son and His Tutor, who Fell in Love with Him, 1721. Ink and pigments on laid paper, 21 x 15.5 cm. Baltimore: The Walters Art Museum. Accessed March 31, 2018. http://art.thewalters.org/detail/84860/a-king-looking-at-a-picture-of-his-son-and-his-tutor-who-fell-in-love-with-him/.
De Sondy, Amanullah. The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities. London: Bloosmbury, 2015.
Devji, Faisal. “Apologetic Modernity.” Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 1 (2007): 61–76. doi: 10.1017/S1479244306001041.
Kugle, Scott and Stephen Hunt. “Masculinity, Homosexuality and the Defense of Islam: A Case Study of Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Media Fatwa.” Religion and Gender. 2, no. 2 (2012): 254–279. doi: 10.18352/rg.7215.
Majeed, Javeed. “Modernity.” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Ed. Richard C. Martin. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 456-458. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Wilson, John F. “Modernity.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library.