The Concept of Men - a Woman’s Reading of Qur’an

The Concept of Men - a Woman’s Reading of Qur’an

by Sheikha Halima Krausen

First of all: I am happy that finally “Men in Islam” is the theme of a conference. Every so often, I have been invited to speak on various aspects of “Women in Islam”, a theme on which you nowadays find enough material to stock a library. Besides, quite some effort has been invested in girls’ education, demands for women’s rights, women’s helplines and shelters and the like (although not always enough and sometimes not exactly to the point). There have also been many lectures on the theme: both by men praising women’s good qualities, especially as self-sacrificing mothers and wives, and by women affirming their rights either according to secular standards or according to religious ideals, or outlining grievances like domestic violence, so-called “honour killing”, forced marriage and the like. In my experience, it has very much been the same pattern for the past 40 or so years.

And I was just as conditioned to take this for granted until I found a booklet on “Men in Islam” in Urdu alongside a similar one on “Women in Islam” on a bookstall at the gate of a mosque in Lahore. It was only then that the imbalance struck me. Ever since I can think, women, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have been involved in a lively discussion about their self-image and their role expectations in the modern world, and at some point I frantically started researching women’s achievements in Muslim history in order to be able to use their possibilities to unfold their potential for educational purposes.

At the same time, men hardly ever seem to be doing the same on their side. At least I don’t hear anything new from the “Brothers Only” study sessions at the mosques. Most of what is accessible are apologetic attempts to affirm that men are “guardians” of women or have a right to polygamy, to beat their wives, or that they inherit twice as much as women, or that they are more qualified as witnesses.

As for history, it seems full of male famous figures, but I can hardly see Salahuddin Ayyubi, Mehmed the Conqueror, or Muhammad Ali Jinnah as relevant role models for modern Muslim boys. “The Self-image and Role Expectations of Muslim Men in the 21st Century” is not a theme that is widely discussed (at least not in a wider public). Men clearly seem to be at a disadvantage here.

Gradually there is some awareness of the problems. Referring to the Crime Statistics, Yahya Birt, in an article of 2000 “Being a Real Man in Islam”, contrasts negative masculinity where energy is focused on selfish and destructive activities and the concept of positive masculinity or manliness as described in the code of Noble Islamic Youth by Imam Abul-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 1072). On a more practical level lies the successful Fatherhood Project by the London-based An-Nisa Society in partnership with Fathers Direct in 2005. And recently the theme has been addressed in a talk on “Manliness vs. Maleness” by Shaykh Habib Ali al-Jifri in the framework of the Radical Middle Way.

What I am trying to do is to make a contribution to a general rethinking process by looking at our religious roots in order to explore what can be cultivated from them beyond the habits of our traditions. In this case, that is the concept of Man in the Qur’an, both with a capital M and with a small m. I apologize for bothering you with etymology and grammar in the process, but this is one of the basic tools for understanding the text beyond our traditional lens even if we are otherwise fluent in the language.

The most obvious term to start with would be the term insân that is known to mean Man or human being not only in Arabic but also in a number of other languages spoken by Muslims. Its root in Arabic indicates friendliness, politeness, sociability. Playing with the word, the mystic Ali al-Hujwiri (d. 1077) explains that “lack of positive religion and morality arises from ghaflah (carelessness)” that makes people forgetful until you get the impression that insân is related to nisyân (forgetfulness); it needs spiritual training of attentiveness and care that enables them to become really human, to reach a stage where insân is related with uns (nearness, familiarity with each other and with the divine)(as is fitting with the real etymology). However, this is not specific for the male of the species, and in fact ânisa is a young lady and nisâ’ is the collective for women (and family members in general).

The next Qur’anic term to consider is adam - and before you now start taking this simply a male proper name and start speculating on the “historical Adam” as the one “before whom the angels bowed down”, be reminded that the word is related with adîmah (or also adamah in Biblical Hebrew), the surface of the earth, and traditions in Tabari (d.923) explain how the different skin colours can be traced back to the different colours of the surface from which earth was taken for the creation of the human being. The word is also related with adîm (skin), the surface that limits the space that we take up in existence and, at the same time, is the interface for our physical contact with each other. In the Qur’an, the word is often used in the context of human potential, e.g. in Surah 2:30 where this particular project of creation is described as “God’s trustee on earth” and we hear that “God taught Adam all the names”.

However, the passage also mentions the ambivalence, the possibility of evil that may proceed from the actions of humans if they forget their responsibility and start “causing mischief and shedding blood.” Adam is further presented as the human prototype who learns from mistakes in contrast to Iblîs, the demonic element that denies and blames others (cf. Surah 2:35 ff; 7:12-24; 20:116-124; 38:72-84).

A word that the Qur’an uses rather often when pointing out the humanness of prophetic messengers is bashar. It comes from a root that means to shave, to rub, to grind - a fact that tempts me to think of Desmond Morris’s “The Naked Ape” (sorry for being cheeky - but actually already al-Jahiz (d. 869) describes humans along with other mammals in the category of “animals that walk” in his Kitab al-Hayawan). The Qur’an links the word with a number of central anthropological statements: that God created Man “with His two hands” (Surah 38:72), that is, with utmost care, out of clay, that is, base matter, whereupon “He breathed of His spirit into him” (Surah 15:29); that God does not speak to human beings other than “through inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger” (Surah 42:51), but such communication does not give the receiver the privilege to claim a superhuman status or semi-divine authority (Surah 3:79). It also uses another related word, bushrah (good news), for one of the prophetic tasks which is being a bashîr (someone who announces good news). Since the word bashar leaves us with the same problem as the English word Man (or man), we might still wonder what exactly to make of the statement that God sent His spirit to Mary “and he appeared to her as a complete man (basharan sawiyan)”.

The term mar’ for man does not occur often in the Qur’an. It is used to tell us that “God intervenes between a person and his heart” ( Surah 8:24) and about “a day when a person will see what his hands have sent forth” (Surah 78:40). Its feminine form mar’ah or imrâ‘ah occurs several times to describe a woman from someone’s family. The word is related with marî’ (healthy, wholesome). Another word derived from the same root is muru’ah (manliness) that was mentioned before by Imam al-Qushayri and that I will get back to later.

However, when Shaykh Habib Ali al-Jifri speaks about manliness, he does not use the classical term muru’ah but a term that has become more common in contemporary Arabic, that is rujûlah. This comes from an interesting semantic field. The root is rajila, to walk on foot, and one of the words derived from it is rijl (foot or leg). Consequently rajil means walking, pedestrian. If I were here as a comedian, I would say that this clearly shows that men are destined to be pedestrians, therefore we should not allow them to have a driving license. Well, this is not comedy, and we better get back to being serious in order to understand the problem. One of the verbal forms means descending (from an animal one has been riding), and to behave like a man. It reminds me of the German idiom that is nowadays avoided for the sake of political correctness, seinen Mann stehen, that is, to deal with something in a competent way. Rajul is that key word that has a role in several problematic Qur’anic verses; according to the dictionary, it means man, personality, but in today’s Arabic it is often unquestioningly thought of describing exclusively a male human being, and Qur’anic texts are interpreted accordingly. It was one of my teachers, Abdul Javad Falaturi (d. 1096), who first pointed out to me that this is not a biological but a social term that applies to everyone standing on their own feet (in most societies more men than women even today but nevertheless) as opposed to those who are dependent on others. And indeed this is how it has been used in history.

The branch of science that is called ‘ilm ar-rijâl, literally, the science of the men, deals with biographies of scholars and chains of authority for hadîth and other branches of knowledge and considers the male and female professionals on the same level. In that sense, Farid ad-Dîn Attar (d. 1221) said of the mystic Rabi’ah al-Adawiyah (d. 801), that a woman like that “who is constantly in the presence of God is a man.” This might eventually cause us to rethink a certain dogmatic understanding of the Qur’anic statement that God did not send anyone before the Prophet Muhammad “except rijâl (personalities) whom We inspired - do ask the people of remembrance if you do not know” (Surah 16:43). Perhaps we should not forget here that “the people of remembrance” includes people from older monotheist traditions, and the Bible does mention Miriam (Moses’ sister), Hulda, and Deborah as women prophets. Besides, Nabia (woman prophet) is a frequent girls’ name in the Muslim world.

The Arabic word that the Qur’an unambiguously uses for man or male in the biological sense is dhakar (which also means the male organ). The root dhakara basically means to remember, to mention, hence the rather well know word dhikr, remembrance. Now before you start wondering if men have a better memory than women, or in what other way these two ideas might be connected, you should know that one of the verbal forms means to pollinate, and the derived word tadhkîr means both pollination and remembrance. Mudhâkirah means conversation, conference, and study (remember that studying was usually done by discussing a matter until it was understood). Meditating on this semantic field, it occurred to me that remembrance pollinates thought, while the consequence of forgetfulness would be dry dogmatism or barren ignorance. The word dhakar and its counterpart unthâ for the biologically female is used when Mary’s mother, obviously shocked at the birth of a girl instead of the expected boy whom she had dedicated to God, states that “the male is not like the female” (Surah 19:36), or when the Qur’an tells us that God does “not let the work of any of you get lost, be it man or woman” (Surah 3:195); or that God “created you from male and female and made you into peoples and tribes that you may recognize each other. The most honourable of you before God is the one of you who is the most concientious” (Surah 49:13). The latter quote indicates (among other things) the same ontological status of the male and the female of the human species. This is also becomes obvious in other basic passages in the Qur’an, e.g. Human beings, be conscious of your Creator and Sustainer who created you from a single being (nafs), and from that He created its mate (zawjaha) and from both He brought forth many men and women. Be conscious of God in whose name you ask each other, as well as the bonds of kinship. God is watching over you (Surah 4:1). For those who still cling to a literal understanding of the traditional image of Adam and Eve, please remember that the “single being” (nafs) is grammatically feminine, and “its mate” is grammatically masculine (lit. “her mate”), hence my attempt to translate it in a neutral, inclusive way. Some of this may sound quite unsettling for those who insist on fixed role expectations and immutable categories as “Islamic”.

Consequently, the Qur’an presents the basic ethical values and religious obligations for men and women (as well as the corresponding responsibility) as the same: The men who surrender to God and the women who surrender to God, the faithful men and the faithful women, the devoutly obedient men and the devoutly obedient women, the truthful men and the truthful women, the patient men and the patient women, the humble men and the humble women, the generous men and the generous women, the fasting men and the fasting women, the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard their chastity, the men who remember God often and the women who remember (likewise) - God has forgiveness and a noble reward in store for them. (Surah 33:36)

Along with this goes the statement of the Prophet, “Acquiring knowledge is a religious obligation (farîdah) for every Muslim, man and womanIt struck me how the masculine and the feminine forms of each attribute are mentioned side by side. Strictly speaking, this would not have been necessary: in Arabic (like in French), the masculine includes the feminine (unless otherwise stated) whereas the feminine is exclusive. In order to get the qualities of faithful men and women across, it would have been enough to say, “those who surrender and have faith and are devoutly obedient ... etc.” in the standard masculine terms. The fact that the feminine forms are used alongside makes it almost sound like, “dear siblings and sisters!” To me, this looks as if the Author wanted to emphasize once and for all that these are values for men and women likewise.

Now “a text without a context is a pretext”. This goes back to the New Testament scholar Donald Arthur Carson, but it is equally true for the Qur’an. Not even a divine revelation would be understandable if it would not consider the background of the recipients. In that sense, the Prophet advised to “speak to everyone in their own language,” and the Qur’an points out that every messenger was sent in the language of his people (Surah 14:4). Even the Qur’an did not come out of the blue to preach into a vacuum but builds up on existing concepts and experiences, correcting and reforming what was ontologically and ethically untenable. Therefore history (or the “Occasions of Revelation”, asbab an-nuzul) has always been one of the most important tools in Qur’anic exegesis alongside the language (although I think that it should now be supplemented by modern methods of historical research). This is quite obvious when the Qur’an refers to a particular event, situation, or person at the time of the revelation.

But the background is also helpful when it comes to verses that contain a very basic, general meaning like the one just quoted. The qualities mentioned in the verse are a modified list of something that was known as muru’ah (manliness) in pre-Islamic Arabia, virtues that the Prophet grew up with and that had a role in the attitude of the Hilf al-Fudûl (League of the Virtuous) who intervened in cases of conflict and stood up to restore justice especially for the poor. They included courage, generosity, hospitality, solidarity, honesty, reliability, self-control, gentleness, and the ability to make peace - in short, qualities that make you a decent human being. Beyond the dos and donts, they had an essential role in Muslim education. This becomes obvious in the medieval system of futuwwah (lit.: young-manliness, chivalry; the term came to replace murû‘ah) that was cultivated in urban organizations comparable to the European guilds or in sufi circles and similar social groups.

Farid ad-Dîn Attar gives us a brief taste of such principles in his Pandnameh: Know, my son, what it means to be a man: first of all, it means to be in awe of The Truth (God) in your heart. The man who asks (God) for forgiveness for his shortcomings has (actually) more fulfilled obligations (to show) than shortcomings. The one who busies himself with the actions of the men shows favour and kindness to the weak. The one who belongs to the men of God is generous even when in need. My son, enter the company of the men that you may experience the glance of God’s kindness. Anyone who bears the signs of the men of God has no reproach for his enemies on his tongue. Since the man of God does not wish for the destruction of his enemies, he feels sad at the grief of the people. The man does not seek revenge from anyone even if he experiences much injustice and hurt. Someone who sets his foot on the path of the men, how could he ever walk after his selfish wishes?

Along similar lines, al-Ghazzâli describes a detailed road of self-education in his Ihya’ ‘Ulûm ad-Dîn where he diagnoses and describes treatment for “destructive evils” like greed, excessive anger, hate, envy, miserliness, pride, self-praise, power etc. and, beyond that, gives instructions how to build up positive characteristics like patience, gratitude, attentiveness, hope, self-control, trust, and love.

It must be said that, although such qualities are universal, al-Ghazzâli, as a child of his time and age, focuses on male readers and students and is known for occasionally dropping derogatory remarks about women. Nevertheless his point is not constructing a negative identity, as of men as opposed to women (oralso, as is very often the case in today’s identity debate, of Muslims as opposed to the Others). Nor is this done by the authors of futuwwa instructions. Emphasizing one’s own qualities and strength by negating the same qualities in others is the opposite of good education according to these standards, and speaking bad of others amounts to backbiting which, in Qur’anic terms, is compared to cannibalism (Surah 42:12). In fact, consideration and appreciation and even admiration for women appears in scholarly works like the aforementioned collections of biographies. Manliness is not chauvinism but concentrating on one’s own efforts with moral strength and a healthy self respect based on the confidence that one is well able to control one’s base instincts and use the energy for a higher purpose.

Such insights from language and history can now be applied to reading the Qur’an in order to get beyond our habitual thought patterns and approach some of today’s issues from new hermeneutic perspectives - for example in order to address structural imbalances that appear to be based on or are justified with “Islamic law” in a number of countries. Not in order to “rewrite” the text, but in order to understand its spirit and utilize it to clarify misunderstandings, deal with misuse, and do the long overdue ijtihâd that would enable us to express our ethical and legal norms in consonance with the purpose of Islamic law that has been defined as sa’âdah fid-dârayn, “happiness in both spheres”, the material and spiritual wellbeing of individuals and society in terms of today’s demands of justice.

This idea is not even new. Islamic law has always been adapted to deal with new challenges. For example, the instructions regarding witnesses in Surah 2:282 are today often understood as a gender-specific general rule (two male witnesses or one male and two female witnesses). This understanding ignores two things: 1) The verse itself refers to the particular situation of loan agreements, originally in a society where business was, with a few exceptions like the Prophet’s first wife Khadîjah, conducted by men who were consequently more familiar with the relevant terms and conditions. It cannot readily be expanded into a general rule, and in fact, no such difference has been made for much more important testimonies: the eyewitness accounts of the Prophet’s male and female companions that have become sources for Islamic law itself. 2) That the question of witnesses is a matter of competence rather than gender becomes obvious when we consider that, in the course of history, scholars have always determined the number of witnesses, male or female, according to the principles of their respective schools of law and the types of cases and societies, the main emphasis being on trustworthiness, and the numbers of men and women vary. In cases to which men traditionally had no

access (like childbirth and female health questions), they even decided that men could not be accepted as witnesses.

Questioning the traditional development of ideas and practice can be very unsettling because it takes us out of the comfort zone of familiar habits and expectations. And let’s be honest: religious tradition is very often perceived as a kind of “home zone” with familiar terminology, rituals, and expectations where we can find some stability and rest from the challenges of today’s world where so many things are constantly changing.

But even this is not new. It must have been similar when the Quraish felt challenged by the new and yet timeless message of the Prophet Muhammad. True, as Muslims, proud of our religion, we don’t like to be compared with the pre-Islamic Quraish but would rather think of that time as something alien, as “jahiliyah”, the time of ignorance. Well, the Qur’an agrees with that but presents it not as the completely Other but as a time when the ancient Abrahamic principles were ignored and lost in decadence. It actually reminds of those lost timeless principles and experiences. Consequently, the

Prophet was scoffed for the asâtîr al-awwalîn, the “old stuff that you are bringing”. And the change did not come about by a set of laws and rules of conduct that was imposed but a new self-understanding as human beings and as men and women with a responsibility for themselves and their society. This spirit waits to be revived.

True, there is no copy-paste blueprint to apply to our lives as the 21st century individuals that we are. Not even the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad is meant to be that. On the day of judgment, nobody is asked why he was not Muhammad, but he will be asked why he was not the person he was created to be. “Know yourself, and you know your Lord.” But it is helpful to contemplate and get inspiration from those narratives that are presented in the Qur’an - not in the familiar traditional fairytale style, focusing on miracles and idealizing prophets. Idealizing a person can be just as dehumanizing as demonizing them. But trying to visualize them as human beings in a human environment, asking unconventional questions from different perspectives, putting ourselves into their shoes. Men might as well focus on the male figures for the time being.

There is, for example, Abraham who is questioning his father’s tradition. Never mind it was polytheist: any tradition can gradually assume idol-like characteristics if considered an end in itself. The point is that he goes on his own journey of discovery that continues for the rest of his life (along with his complicated family), through many unforeseen tests and trials. It is no coincidence that the Qur’an points him out as the great model and enjoins us to “follow the attitude of Abraham”. But we could also imagine ourselves in the place of his father, with our children asking unexpected and perhaps even scandalous questions: do we just tell them off when we can’t answer them rather than taking them seriously and working through them together?

Or consider Jacob who bears his son’s conspiracy with patience and confidence, never giving up hope and finding encouraging words for others even when nearly blind with sorrow himself. And, in this context, his son Joseph with his resistance against temptation and blackmail, whose self-control and trustworthiness eventually earns him the highest office in the country where he started off as a slave. His integrity even enables him to make his brothers see their wrong ways and to reconcile with them.

Or imagine Moses with all the questions about his identity that are necessarily connected with being brought up at Pharaoh’s court. He is honest enough to admit that his act of blind violence against a representative of the oppressive power is wrong, and he learns to overcome the fear of his own potential (the stick turning into a snake). We might contemplate his moral courage to confront Pharaoh. We might also step into the shoes of Pharaoh who, because of his fear of losing power, resorts to cruelty.

Actually, any of our traditional stories could be approached from similar angles, including those about the Prophet’s companions and other exemplary figures in history. The main point is always to remain with our feet on the ground while doing so. Ultimately, their qualities are human qualities, aspects of our own potential, and they were confronted with limitations and challenges that they had to deal with just as we are ourselves.

This also applies to the Prophet Muhammad who is pointed out as “a beautiful model for those who hope for God and the last day and remember God often (Surah 33:21). Again - and even more than anyone else - not a copy-paste blueprint but an inspiration to learn from. It is certainly an expression of great love for him when people wear clothes that they heard he used to wear, and eat the way they learned he used to eat, and compose poetry about his noble qualities. But what we really need to consider is his experience and his ways of dealing with being a young businessman working for a wealthy woman colleague, with being honest and correct enough in business to earn the name Al-Amîn and yet - or perhaps because of that - being successful, with being a caring husband and father and yet concerned about the religious and social grievances in his native city. We need to derive inspiration from his practical ways of dealing with his family members, students, friends, colleagues, competitors, people of other faiths, critical relatives, people with whom he disagreed, strangers, and enemies; and from his visions of justice and peace. We are not mere spectators in the theatre of history but agents who have the possibility to shape the future, and “God changes the situation of a people only when they change what is within themselves.’ What is most needed in today’s Muslim community, both in order to make it work, to restore its reputation, and to make a meaningful contribution to the situation of humankind is the Prophet’s honesty and trustworthiness, his care and readiness to listen and cooperate, and his conscientious self-control - qualities that any man could very well be proud of.

Two concluding remarks:

Human beings are dependent on appreciation. In education, it helps and encourages enormously to praise the student for any progress and to be sparing with negative criticism. This is also one of the Prophet’s approaches, and he advised to express one’s love and appreciation for someone and to keep silent about someone’s bad actions or characteristics, especially in his absence. Our community would be in a better state if we were more supportive and appreciating to each other even if we disagree in one or the other idea or practice.

Men and women are not enemies in principle. Restoring the balance does not need yet another ingenious ideology that is imposed on people but conscientious introspection, work on ourselves, individually and within our own neighborhood group; a fruitful dialogue between men and women, old and young, between scholars in different fields and people with ordinary life experience, preservers of established traditions and people with fresh challenging new idea. According to the Qur’an, men and women are to be “each other’s reliable friends. They promote what is good and prevent what is evil and establish prayer and give charity and obey God and His messenger. God bestows mercy on them. God is a Mighty Friend, Wise” (Surah 9:71).

Shaykha Halima Krausen, is Imam of the German speaking Muslim community in Hamburg. Born in Aachen, Germany she became Muslim in her early teens. She read Islamic studies, Christian Theology and Comparative Religion at Hamburg University as well as pursuing a classical Islamic education. She was part of a team that produced a German translation of the Qur’an with commentary notes, and afterwards was involved in translating some volumes of Hadith and Islamic law. She is a founding member of the Inter-Religious Dialogue Circle in the Department of Theology at Hamburg University. She has contributed to several books on interfaith studies and written numerous articles. She travels and teaches widely, in Britain and across Europe.

This is the text of the paper she presented at the 2012 Muslim Institute Winter Gathering: Men in Islam.  Originally published on Muslim Institute site
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