One could incredulously believe that Islam is a faith apart, a faith unlike its Abrahamic or Far Eastern filial traditions, a faith so at odds with the modern world as to make it exclusive to the stalwart and recessive to the observer. Allah's Messenger ﷺ famously said: 'You will indeed follow the ways of those before you, hand span by hand span, and an arm’s length after another’” [Bukhari]. Today no issue, aside from the spectacle of violent extremism, garners as much attention, abhorrence—and yet empathy—as does the situation of Muslim women as both a marginalized minority targeted by nativists, or as an oppressed majority in their societies of origin. Moral relativism fails to stymie the occidental moral outrage of verses or supposed Prophetic Conduct. Domestic violence, honor killings (as depicted in the recent Oscar winning documentary “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”), and legal rights are as much part of the critique of Islam as is the implied impropriety of the age and number of Muhammad’s ﷺ wives. All of that being said, the current communal discourse on equity in prayers spaces and women’s leadership in the community should force Muslim men to really question their hand in the current and historic predicament of Muslim women. Faith in America has moved collectively more progressive, unfettered by cultured tradition or any sense of authority. Millennials steadily move away from any affiliation, and male attendance has increasing become sparse in all faith traditions, except curiously for Islam.1 Why? What are the deeper ramifications of the imbedded culture of “HISLAM” on American Islam?
Religiously sanctioned individual obligation (fard ‘Ayn) that emphasizes male attendance cannot supercede the communal need (fard kifayah) to accommodate an ever increasing number of Muslim women in the workforce or those desiring to leave the home and be a valued part of the congregation. Two of the five legal maxims (al-qawāʿid al-kulliyya al-khams) serve as the core for the legal basis of altering mosque and leadership configurations: “Hardship must be alleviated” (al-ʿusr yajlib al-taysīr) and “Custom has the weight of law” (al-ʿāda muḥakkama). Commenting elsewhere on the five legal maxims, the noted American scholar Dr. Umar F. Abd-Allah stated:
Muslim women must have opportunities equal to their male counterparts in all concerns. The disempowerment of Muslim women is a major reason for the retrogression of many Muslim societies. Degradation of the status of women has the same debilitating effect on Western Muslim communities that countenance it, and it must be corrected. Islam has a rich legacy of accomplished and actively engaged women. Great Muslim women excelled as political and military leaders, poets, scholars, philanthropists, spiritual guides, and in other capacities. Renewal of their legacy is essential for the future of Muslim communities everywhere.2
So why are so many men the only people going to Jummah?
It is doubtful you could actually force or impress equitable space and leadership when boards and worshippers see an absence of women at Jummah (Note: There is a strong view that if you work you should attend prayers). Today pews, not rows, are short of men. In Christian America today we see the opposite issue. There are efforts to garner male attendance by creating “male” churches as many men feel “neutered”. A pastor noted, “We're not saying that we shouldn't be gentle and humble and serve people. But there's a flip side to that, which says we have to be aggressive in the world when it's appropriate. We are warriors"3. A good childhood friend was at a loss as he expressed to me that during football season his church now promises a shorter more direct sermon, less fundraising, and peppers in language and references to make male congregants more comfortable and valued (this is in contradiction to the recent fad of Women mosques/services). Today as little as 45% Muslim men and a lesser amount of women willfully sacrifice their Friday lunch hour to either check the box or be inspired. Yet does having your weekly service on a workday enshrine masculinity and eschew the obligation of women attendance in demanding fairness? Today 65% of American Muslim are male versus the 35% who are women4, which may be the basis for the described unequal space for Friday prayers. However, few would argue that the gender status quo will be tenable over the next decade or more.
The question then becomes: “Have we thought of what would happen if, like other faith traditions, American Islam and mosques devalued that male participation and started to see a decline?” Would mosques dare become more civil and organized without board tantrums, would we only hear of love and mercy? Or would we see the emasculation of Muslim men and more harrowing realities, like depression, increased domestic violence, drug use and suicide, in homes and communities? Stark realities borne out of data of other faith traditions, particularly “those who came before you”, link a lack of participation with suicide.5 We could even see a gravitation to “male mosques” where men can be “warriors” and not be ashamed of their aggression, but I doubt that would play well in the current landscape. Far from “Where would the uncles go?”, losing your position in society can have unforeseen dramatic consequences for all.
Muslim women notoriously run many of our events and activities today, and yet hold a dismal presence in leadership board roles. This was addressed in a statement last year put out by one of America’s largest umbrella groups and signed by many leading figures. It tackles creating a welcoming environment, prayers spaces without barriers, and the inclusion of women into the decision making process. Much needed, but is not the fact that it is so needed the real failure? Today Muslim men, much maligned and never empathized with (No Man with Scraggly Beard Day for us), can relish the privilege they have in their prayer space, but all of us, especially women, should worry about Muslim men when that privilege is threatened or taken away. Masculinity is enshrined in the facets of the Prophetic character that attract men, the Companions they like. Umar ( رضي الله عنه) or Khalid ( رضي الله عنه) for example, have long been archetypes of machismo. Even the scholars they read, like Ibn Taymiyyah (may Allah have mercy on him) for example, are seen as being macho, although he was never married per se. And yet Islamic architecture of Mosques and decor is marked by feminine finery.6 What heroes and scholars will men romanticize in this revisionist gender-equitable Islam? Mosques may be ill-equipped to respond to male congregants who see such changes as emphasizing the softer side of Prophetic conduct as a means to deconstruct gender roles in the mold of Western Liberal infatuations. Some may even lose financial support.
The solutions lie in valuing the contribution of Muslim men, and asking those men, engaged in their families and communities, to step up and lead change emanating authentically from within the tradition. We should be asking our Imams, boards, and financiers to be chivalrous enough to step aside and open doors for our wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. They deserve the same privilege, obligation, and pain we as men feel at Jummah, and in board meetings. Many of us as fathers want to afford for our daughters the best of religious and secular education; hold high professional and spiritual aspirations for them; and want them to marry righteous men of their choosing who will give them their full measure of dignity. Yet we fail to sacrifice our own sense of privilege for their dignity when we lack the courage and moral fortitude to challenge the status quo and rethink our new role in the community at large. In times of increasing demonization of Muslims we need to be standing metaphorically shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim sisters. We have allowed them for too long to be the societal symbol of the best and worst of our faith on the streets of the public. Now it is time to give them the communal dignity and comfort they deserve in the carpeted rows of our Masajid.
1. Retrieved from http://interfaithradio.org/Archive/2011-December/Why_Men_Hate_Going_to_Church,
2. Umar F. Abd-Allah,”Living Islam With Purpose” http://www.tabahfoundation.org/research/pdfs/Tabah-Paper-5-En-Living-Islam-with-Purpose.pdf
3 .Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/11/17/november-17-2006-men-in-church/19794/
4. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/muslim/
5. See Realized Religion: Relationship Between Religion & Health page 174.
6, See Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, “Islamic Art and Spirituality”.