This week, I said a fateful five words in class: “Islam is a patriarchal religion”. This one sentence brought on incredulous laughter from my teacher, fiery objections from my classmates, popcorn GIFs, and claims that such a statement is not only wrong but also harmful. “To use it is irresponsible! It will push people away from Islam!”
I deliberately choose to use the word patriarchal when describing Islam – neither to complain nor to be edgy or contrarian, but because I don’t believe that there is any other way of putting it.
Let’s look at the facts:
- All of the prophets – the pioneers of our religion – were male;
- The Prophet (ﷺ) said in an authentic narration that no nation will prosper with a woman as leader;
- Allah said that men are qawwāmūn over women;
- Mixed congregations should only be led by men;
- Inheritance is primarily patrilineal.
And the list goes on. It’s undeniable. It’s as clear as day. To deny that Islam is patriarchal is to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the very cornerstones that this religion is built upon.
I felt drained and depleted after debating with my classmates about it, as if I had just spent a considerable amount of time and energy defending my use of the word blue in describing the sky. Of course, the difference is that blue doesn’t carry so much baggage.
Bad boys & daddy issues
I am sympathetic to the fear that calling Islam patriarchal will deter people from the religion. After all, the word sounds very similar to its big bad brother, The Patriarchy.
The Patriarchy looms over us all. It abuses its power. It kills, rapes, and sexually harasses with little to no accountability or consequence. You’ll be happy to hear that patriarchal, its lower-case little brother adjective, has nothing to do with any of that. Like blue, it paints a picture of a much less sinister reality. It describes, as adjectives do.
Adjectives do not deter people from religion – abusers do. The effects of their abuse are persistent and traumatic. Just as a father’s abuse can condemn his daughter to a lifetime of toxic romantic relationships, men of God who abuse their power can cause their victims to be attracted to ideologies inconsistent with Islamic values and harmful to their faith.
These ideologies – typically feminism and secular liberalism – are the attractive bad boy. The disenchanted pack their bags and flock to them in droves. And why wouldn’t they? The promise of enjoying freedom and equal opportunity shines bright. However, like an oasis in the desert, this sparkle is illusory.
For a long time now but especially in light of the senseless killing of Mahsa Amini, many Muslims – hijabis at that – have been jumping on the down-with-the-patriarchy bandwagon. They incorrectly use the verse “There is no compulsion in religion…” to espouse “my body, my choice” narratives. They support and celebrate women publicly removing their hijab as an act of protest, not realising how strong a nefarious grip secularism and feminism have come to have on their headscarf-covered necks.
These are women who love their religion. They covet Islamic teachings about truth and justice. Unfortunately, in adopting these ideologies, they unknowingly begin to compromise the very faith they hold so dear to their hearts. The relationship becomes toxic.
My argument is that in using the word patriarchal, it becomes clearer that Islam and ideologies like feminism are at odds – a premise that is not apparent to many well-meaning Muslim victims of male oppression. It is not immediately apparent because both Islam and feminism seek to protect women’s rights, but they differ in that Islam very clearly and exclusively places men at the top of a social hierarchy that must be respected.
In recognising that Islam at its very core is a patriarchal religion, we think twice about adopting worldviews like feminism, which seek to dismantle the very systems it upholds, and seek out healthier ways of coping with injustice. We stop falling for the bad boy because of our daddy issues. We enter into our healing phase.
In our current political climate, where the allure of these ideologies is stronger than ever, this Patriarchal Religion – up against feminism and secular liberalism – is in need of some good PR. In come the nice guys.
If these ideologies are the attractive bad boy, then apologists are the nice guys. Nice guys aren’t as suave, but they use flowery words and are very polite. They swoop in to save the damsel in distress. They seek to defend Islam from its detractors, and to protect women from the attractive bad boy in the black leather jacket. They are the white knights.
The problem is that these apologists are armchair experts. They are not scholars. They are made of flesh, bones, and good intentions. These are the guys who think that having a YouTube channel and a following gives them the authority to talk about the religion.
Nice guys do a lot of emotional placating when it comes to the topic of gender.
“My dear sisters, you are like precious pearls. You are so valuable. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not equal to men.”
“My brothers and sisters, men and women are equal in Islam. Some feminists claim Islam is a misogynistic religion. Secularists want to convince you that Islam holds you back. Actually, Islam gave Muslim women rights hundreds of years before Western women were even considered human by their male counterparts. Islam is not misogynistic. Islam does not hold you back. In fact, Islam is the MOST feminist religion! Yes!”
Their words are like honey; Muslims and non-Muslims alike eat it up. Well-intentioned as they are, they cause a sticky mess. Muslim communities invite these apologists to conferences, where they put them centre-stage and seats are sold out fast. Their videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views; their emotive assertions become mainstream.
People become so used to hearing all this hot air about Islam being feminist and everyone being equal, that when the glaring differences between men and women show up in Qur’ānic verses and aḥādīth, confusion and curiosity creep in… What’s the reasoning? Aren’t men and women equal in Islam? Isn’t a woman just as capable as a man is? This curiosity and confusion creeps in, only because they’ve inaccurately placed men and women on an equal plane.
Nice guys are near-sighted in their ambitions to help the community. Wearing their rose-coloured glasses can cause headaches when reading the fine print. Topics like polygamy, the extent of a husband’s authority over his wife, concubinage, male vs. female witnesses, narrations about deficiency, inheritance laws, taking positions of power, and so on – how do we reconcile their nice, PC rhetoric with all of the above? It’s the perfect setup for perpetual backpedalling and talking in circles. It makes your head spin. The glasses come off.
Let’s be clear. We are all equal, but only in the afterlife. In the ākhirah, there will be no social hierarchy – we will stand before God and the only thing that will matter is our deeds. On that Day, everyone will be on an equal footing. This is not the case in the dunya.
In Islam, a patriarchal religion, men are placed at the top. They inhabit a number of leadership positions in our communities – imām, caliph, qādi, and head of the household. As a result, they often have greater authority, social status, political power, public privileges, and financial responsibilities. They are very different to women in practical, legal, and quotidian matters. In the dunya, men and women are not equal.
As women, we can constantly feel this disparity in our bones. We can feel that we are not equal to men, so although at first it may feel nice to hear a nice guy tell us that we are, it starts to feel insulting once the cognitive dissonance kicks in. Nice guys have good intentions but good intentions are not enough. The nice guy ends up being no less toxic than the bad boy with the flashy car. Nice guys tell us nice things, but deep down we can feel that their words are empty. We yearn for honesty.
Real love heals
Real love is 100 per cent honest. Real love tells it like it is, even if you don’t want to hear it. It would rather tell you hard truths than soften the blow, if it means keeping your trust.
To experience real love, you have to trust. You have to let go to fall backwards into the arms of another. This can feel terrifying – “What if they don’t catch me? What if I fall? What if I never get back up again?”
To experience real love that heals, you need to trust that you can put yourself in that vulnerable position – even if it feels difficult, even if it means that you might get hurt. It means giving up control, letting go, assuming responsibility, submitting.
In an Islamic system – a patriarchal system – men have authority over women. Each must submit to the system in their own way.
For men, submitting to this system means leading, and leading means more responsibility. The P word can sound like privilege, but also like crushing pressure. As they say, the higher the rise, the greater the fall. Men must step up, anyway.
For women who have witnessed or suffered abuse at the hands of men, the P word sounds petrifying. The body stiffens and seizes up; trauma says “No way!” These women must learn to soften.
For women who have bought into the sweet nothings of nice guys, the P word sounds like a prison sentence. “Why should I relent when I can do anything a man can do? Or do it even better?” These women need to realise that sweet nothings are worth nothing at all, and that true empowerment lies in having integrity – if we really want to claim Islam as our own, we need to be true to following its tenets. Commit.
The P word is not sexy or nice. It can bring up a lot of pain and discomfort. This begs the question: why on earth should anyone associate this word with Islam? Since it is charged language that delivers a proverbial shock to the system, it restores a healthy pulse to a faltering heart. Think of it as a metaphorical defibrillator of sorts. Islam is a patriarchal religion. Clear!
يا مقلب القلوب ثبت قلوبنا على دينك
O Changer of Hearts, keep my heart firm upon Your religion.
Remember, in using the P word, we highlight our worldly inequality. It reminds us of this uncomfortable reality. We face it head-on, anyway. When healing, pain is nothing to run from. A heart that feels pain is a heart that works.
This is no masochist manifesto. This is the recognition that in our political climate, equality between the sexes is increasingly dissolving gender roles and eroding the lines drawn by the Sharī’ah. Without the structure of these roles, we sink deeper and deeper into our cushy, secular-liberal-feminist seats, believing things to be running smoothly. They’re not.
Our muscles have deteriorated from sitting on this cushy couch. We’ve lost our individual strengths as men and women. We’ve subconsciously accepted the belief that men and women are equal in this life. We’re not, and we never will be – it’s in our biological makeup. Islamic law takes this into consideration by assigning us differing roles. The farther we stray from these roles, the farther we stray from our religion, and the weaker we become as Muslims. We’ve gone soft.
Well, the best antidote for weakness is resistance. Pain is gain. This is the benefit of using such emotionally charged language. In the words of author Julia Cameron,
“We must allow the bolt of pain to strike us. Remember, this is useful pain; lightning illuminates.”
The right words lead to flashes of insight. They might feel painful but can make us clearly see what has been there all along. They clarify what is and what isn’t. They are a form of action, capable of influencing change.
Isn’t patriarchal problematic, though?
Some would argue that while using the P word to describe Islam has potential to influence change, the change would not be good – i.e. associating the P word with Islam is dangerous and problematic.
We did it before with feminism to fend off accusations of misogyny. We said, “Islam is a feminist religion”. We associated it with an ideology, with an -ism which can be at odds with Islam. Isn’t saying “Islam is a patriarchal religion” just as inaccurate or potentially harmful as saying “Islam is a feminist religion”? Or “Islam is a socialist religion”?
Well, I reject this premise. These -isms are standalone ideologies, whereas “patriarchal” is an adjective – it is as straightforward a descriptor as saying “Abrahamic” or “monotheistic”. If it is accurate and safe to say Islam is an Abrahamic or monotheistic religion, it is just as accurate and safe to say it is patriarchal. Do not allow this word to frighten you.
Using it in no way implies that Islam views women as inferior beings in any way. It does not link Islam to some misogynistic ideology. It will not jump out at you from a dark alleyway and hold you at gunpoint. Perhaps our fear of using this word comes from a fear of the unknown.
Let’s break it down:
Archon, in Greek, is a word that means “principal, chief, leader, ruler, foremost”. It is used as a root in words such as monarch, hierarchy, patriarchal, matriarchal, anarchy, archbishop, archetype, archenemy, archangel, and so on.
Knowing this, we can see that patriarchal is used as factually as one would use matriarchal to describe the Queen Mother of the Ashanti Empire; monarch to describe the United Kingdom’s new king; and archangel to describe Jibrīl (‘alayhi al-Salām). It is nothing more than a description. It simply brings with it a lot of baggage.
This emotional baggage it unearths becomes an obstacle that stands in the way of building the necessary strength to own it. Past traumas, ego, fear, whataboutism, self-consciousness, toxic positivity – until we are willing to face these things and look them in the eye, we will continue to remain weak.
Our strength lies in our differences as men and women. The P word states our gender roles loud and clear. It backs us into a corner. It makes us want to run and hide. If we shy away from using it, it means we lack the courage, to be honest. Remember, real love is honest.
If we shy away from using it, we fail to break the cycle of toxic relationships with the bad boys and nice guys to finally foster a healthy one – a healthy relationship with our religion. We miss out on real love, on our happily-ever-after.
Happily-ever-after comes at a cost
Ah, happily-ever-afters… do they even exist? The truth is: yes, but not in this life. This life doesn’t last forever. Ever only exists in the After.
As Muslims, we know that the only way to Jannah is through Islam (submission). Submission is the act of yielding to a superior force. By its very nature, it requires you to give up what you want. You do things you do not want to do for your own good. You tap like Conor McGregor. You humble yourself; what you want does not matter – put it aside.
This is not fun. You might get called a chicken on the international stage. This can feel difficult and humiliating. These negative feelings are a necessary part of the process. We submit to the system despite these feelings, because we choose to submit. We choose Islam. It is the only way we can save our necks.
I know that the P word brings up a lot of negative feelings. I put forward that we allow ourselves to feel the discomfort, sit with it, and accept it. We have to remember that the dunya is not meant to provide eternal bliss. In this life, we have to deal with social inequality and all the negative emotions that come with it.
That is why I plan on keeping this unpalatable P word in my arsenal, and why I plan on continuing its use in describing Islam. It serves as a reminder that while submission – to God, to religion, to roles and responsibilities, to figures of authority – isn’t always sweet, it is the only way to our happily-ever-after.
And so I say, “Islam is a patriarchal religion”.
An excellent article.
Sad to see the penny still hasn’t dropped for some ladies.
Excellent article that aptly presents Islam’s patriarchal hierarchy. Often the clear and unambiguous use of this term is helpful when it comes to addressing common criticisms of Islamic values of Male leadership and dominance. Openly describing Islam as a patriarchal system allows contenders to understand that patriarchy is an axiomatic value and hence suggests we shouldn’t be held to the popular understanding of equality of the sexes.
An interesting consideration should also be given to the noun ‘patriarch’ that is defined as the male head of a family and also has Biblical connections to the central male figures in Christianity.
Assalamu alaikum, very thought provoking article.
I have had these thoughts but in a jumbled, unclear way. You have laid them out in symmetry.
Our purpose on earth is to worship our Creator. He puts the rules for His creation as He sees fit and wants. We are reminded again and again in the Quran that Allah is the Sovereign Lord. Everything follows His command and orders. All worship Him in the ways He has written for them.
We are no exception but with one proviso; our limited free will.
There’s no need to call it patriarchal. Both men and women are servants of Allah first and foremost.
Men and women are equal before Allah.
Women who have been abused at the hands of men don’t need to learn to soften. Rather the issue of violence by men against these women needs to be addressed.
Calling it patriarchal or matriachal is incorrect, and frankly unnecessary . The beliefs and the overwhelming majority of the rulings in Islam apply to both genders. Quite and obviously simple.