CommentaryFatherhood & Family

For a model of Muslim masculinity, maybe don’t look to the manosphere

May 13, 2024
Haroon Moghul

Over a year ago, I started teaching Islam to young Muslim tweens and teens. Each week I work with around forty students, around twenty or so of whom are young men of high school age. Last year, we covered the life of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, which provided the foundation for this year’s theme: Islam and masculinity.

America’s Muslim boys and men are not immune to the contemporary crisis of masculinity, which is amplified by the dramatic polarization of our politics. Like many men, they are grappling with some profound changes and challenges in the society around them, and struggling with the fundamental question of what it means to be a good man.

Islam provides a deep well of wisdom on this question. Not just in terms of ideas but in ways of living, of being in the world. In this regard, I’m less interested in Islam as identity, community, or even an abstract creed than as a moral discipline for individuals and the communities we live in and with.

That process begins—as will any conversation on Islam and masculinity—with revelation, with an examination of the Qur’an and the blessed Prophet’s life. But that is only the start.

Books not clicks

Just as for other faith traditions, there are a small number of very loud voices online promulgating narrow and obsolete ideas of masculinity and claiming the mantle of the Muslim tradition. Their goal is not to cultivate an authentic Islamic vision of modern manhood. It is to win ground in the culture war. At worst this trend can lead to an embrace of reactionary figures such as Andrew Tate, who announced in 2022 that he had converted to Islam.

Andrew Tate is not on our curriculum. Nor are any of the other algorithm-chasing culture warriors who are doing so much harm. Instead, we set out to read Muslim men writing about what Islam and manhood meant to them.

I’m hoping that by diving deep into these works, these young men will begin to reconcile themselves, their faith, and the world around them. To go from asking the abstract question “what is a good Muslim man?” to “how do we become good Muslim men?”

Through the likes of Malcolm X and Muhammad Asad, Paul Pringle and Tahir Izgil, these young men will, I hope, appreciate the richness of their faith tradition, the timeless principles upon which a faith meant for all times is built, and aspire to live by them.

Men in community

A key lesson that is already coming through these readings is that while it is hard to be a good Muslim man, it’s much harder without other Muslim men. That’s why we do faith in immediate, proximate, and embodied ways. Who we are, including our gendered bodies, is intended by God. But like anything else, what we do with who we are matters more.

Islam may be a technology of the self, as Michael Foucault would frame it, but Islam is also a technology of community. We’re each material and spiritual beings. We are also interdependent on each other. And all of us on God. In this moment of painful disconnection, from God and from each other, consider what one Muslim practice alone—praying together—cultivates.

Even if we do these things only a few times a week—men with other men, men of all ages and backgrounds, coming together, even alternating who leads prayer (we have no clergy), stepping away from routines, reconnecting to a higher purpose, checking in on each other, seeing more of one another, standing side by side—they are ways of rendering life a shared project that is urgently needed.

Men, women, marriage

Certainly, Islam’s religious prescriptions reflect a broad commitment to a gender binary. In ritual prayer, for example, certain responsibilities are mandated if not reserved for men. Some normative differences around modesty in dress, for example, have been—and still are—exploited to oppress and marginalize women. But what Muslims do is not always what Islam teaches (and of course the same can be said of all religions).

But long before any consideration of masculinity or femininity, or even humanity, a Muslim begins with Divinity. The Creator created gender even as the Creator transcends gender. God is neither a Father or a Son in the Islamic conception or indeed any kind of parent or child. That does not mean, however, that we don’t depend on or come to adore God. While the Creator is revered as entirely “self-sufficient” and “eternal,” people need God. People also need one another

Some of those needs are biologically mandated. Others are socially constructed. And some, like marriage, are both. Marriage exists not to subordinate women to men (incidentally, mothers trump fathers) but to develop the love and compassion through which life becomes more mature, and meaningful communities grow, children are raised well, and humans, God’s Caliphs on Earth, endure.

The Qur’an even describes spouses as “garments,” underscoring a collaborative vision; garments protect the body, of course, but also ennoble us in line with the dignity Islam believes all believers should aspire to. Along similar lines, the Qur’an describes our human diversity as a means through which we might understand each other. Excellence is found neither in lineage nor gender, those attributes we are born with, but in character, what we make of ourselves.

Enter ‘Umar: a role model for Muslim men

That’s why men and women alike must pray. Give to charity. Perform the pilgrimage. Speak truthfully. Seek knowledge. Each Muslim must live and die in reverence of God and stand accountable for every act. Instead of presenting young men a vision of masculinity that is either hierarchical and combative on the one hand, or open-ended and inevitably hollow on the other, how about one that is collaborative and divinely intended?

Our shared humanity means we have shared obligations. Some of these are gendered. This is as it should be: the value of a tradition exceeds the horizons of our imagination. But most moral obligations are not gendered, nor is gender so narrowly conceived.

Consider ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 644), possibly the paragon of Islamic masculinity. Once an implacable foe of the first Muslims, who even set out to assassinate the blessed Prophet Muhammad, ‘Umar died years later having become Muhammad’s ardent champion, then his father-in-law, and finally his second successor. He was buried beside him in Medina.

‘Umar was enormously strong and mostly fearless. I had to suppress a laugh when one of my younger students described him as a merging of Aaron Donald and Aragorn. ‘Umar refused to be intimidated by any person, ruled with conviction, challenged injustice around him, pushed back against anyone who tried to take anyone’s rights, and changed the world.

But this same ‘Umar was up much of every night, sobbing before God, his face scarred by his incessant crying, his obsession with the many ways he feared he fell short. He was so humble he refused the protection that might ultimately have saved his life. He abhorred materialism, eschewed vanity, and rejected privileges of all kinds.

A true ascetic, he not only would never brag about his belongings but gave them away quietly. He recommended his son marry a woman based only on her remarkable honesty and character. ‘Umar served the early Muslim world well. But his story has much to offer young men in today’s world too.

A model of Muslim masculinity

A vision of masculinity must be anchored to core principles even as it must appreciate our individuality: “A man has only that for which he makes an effort,” the Qur’an preaches. ‘Umar was hardly the only man the Prophet Muhammad praised. Others stood out for their generosity, wisdom, scholarship, strategic brilliance—even kindness to animals.

These were all good Muslim men, too. They pulled on different strands of Muhammad’s character, which embodied traditional masculine virtues such as fortitude, courage, and sacrifice. But which also embodied other virtues we might too easily overlook: erudition, contemplation, asceticism, generosity to guests, friends, and strangers, affection for children, love for our wives, brotherhood in faith, and devotion to God.

Such a vision of masculinity is hardly compatible with the narrow perspectives offered by so much of the rhetoric of both left and right today. One can hardly imagine what an ‘Umar, let alone the Prophet, would make of absenting God from every significant discussion—or parading one’s wealth and property as if that was what God wanted of us. I hope my own students begin to learn this now. I also hope there are lessons here for all Muslim boys and young men.

But there is also an opportunity here for all believers, Muslim or not, to rise up to the calling of our faith rather than submitting to the lure of partisanship. If we can draw clearer lines between party and piety, between candidate and catechism, we may give ourselves more room to breathe and open ourselves to new perspectives, ways out of a debate and definitions of gender that are often hardly respectful or reasonable, let alone relevant.

When Muslims line up to pray, we form equal rows, the Imam calling us to stand foot to foot and stand shoulder to shoulder. There’s something for the modern world in that: masculinity being formed through habits, disciplines, and direction. What we build, not what we indulge in. To become a man, then, we need a goal, we need guidance, and most of all, other men—companions along the way.

Haroon Moghul is the Director of Strategy at The Concordia Forum and the author of How to be a Muslim: An American Story and Two Billion Caliphs: A Vision of a Muslim Future. He writes about teaching young Muslim men and women at his Substack, Sunday Schooled. 
Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul is the Director of Strategy at The Concordia Forum and the author of How to be a Muslim: An American Story and Two Billion Caliphs: A Vision of a Muslim Future. He writes about teaching young Muslim men and women at his Substack, Sunday Schooled.