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Can we really say Islam is not patriarchal?

Can we really say Islam is not patriarchal?


Can we really say that Islam is not patriarchal when Muslim wives are instructed to obey/be obedient to their husbands (because the man is the head of the household and in charge of feeding them, clothing them, guiding them and disciplining them)? There is even a hadith of the Prophet telling women that if it were allowed, he would tell women to make sujood to their husbands. Or is the main take away from all of this that who ever is “breadwinner” in the house holds more sway (man or woman)?

Salaam alykum,

Yes, we can definitely say that.

I think the patriarchal structures you have mentioned are not unique to any culture. These patriarchal paradigms are utilized in various cultures, among Indian Hindus, Christian Arabs, or Buddhist Sri Lankans, among many other societies. Take the former Japanese Health Minister who described women as “birth-making machines.”

However, what bothers me is that it is exceedingly rare, for people to essentialize the behavior of other communities to socio/religio/cultural factors. This process is distinctly done to Muslims, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, sadly enough.

While I think the discourse on Muslim women “being obedient” is rather complicated, and since I’d like to change my Tumblr’s theme (as of late) from being about women, because, quite frankly, I’m not a woman, but also because I have unfortunately ignored other questions, therefore I’d like to keep this as short as possible.

Therefore, I will explain the concept of “obedience” in Islam, or any other social arrangement, for that matter:

You must understand something critical about any Islamic injunction, punishment, or idea. It is a process of reciprocation, by that, I mean that no right, no expectation, no law, can be understood in a vacuum or without its opposite.

In Muhammad Asad’s tafseer, and as understood by most scholars, we cannot understand any truly Islamic concept without the following:

For every duty (taklif) imposed upon a Muslim there is always a corresponding right (haqq).

If one’s rights are not fulfilled, than a duty cannot be imposed. Therefore, if(please take note of this word, “if” that I am writing) we are even contemplating accepting this discourse on “obedience” then we can only understand it within this fundamental conception in mind.

Therefore a wife’s obedience to her husband is predicated completely upon his fulfillment and sustaining of her rights. Obedience is not a blind matter, nor does it come from thin air. So,to understand this conception of obedience in a simplistic, “one-way” method, is not only counterproductive, but actually contradicts the framework of The Qur’an and Islam.

So, those who try to do mental jujitsu by citing obedience in the simplistic forms of “head of the household, in charge of feeding them,” etc this denies the actual history of The ProphetThe Prophet, while a successful merchant in his own right, was married to a woman, Khadijah, who not only came into knowing him and admiring him through their business dealings, but also as his employer, and seeing as she was wealthier than him, this clearly illustrates that to understand this idea of “obedience” through the simplistic means of the material denies the very life of The Prophet himself.

It was Khadijah’s financial resources that allowed The Prophet to be, well, a Prophet. It ensured he had resources, beyond his own, to help free slaves, to help feed the poor and the destitute, and therefore by looking at the simple historic outline of The Prophet, we see that this relationship between husband and wife is not simply predicated on material maintenance, rather it is a process that is based upon synergy between a wife and her husband.

Furthermore, The Qur’an describes the relationship, sexual, emotional, physical, and so on, between a husband and wife as the following:

“they are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them.” [2:187] Muhammad Asad

This ayah is routinely ignored, for some reason, and I think it explains the relationship between husband and wife in the most succinct, and beautiful way.

As far as the Hadith that you are talking about, found in Abu Dawud, has two parts. The first part is where Qais bin Sa’d describes to The Prophet that he has witnesses people who prostrated to their chief, he then said that if those people do that to their chief, he asked if Muslims should do this to The Prophet, to which The Prophet firmly rejects this notion.

The first part of this Hadith is widely considered authentic.

The second part, is disputed by many, where there is a range of its classification. If such a range exists, it is better to not use the Hadith, and that is why, within scholarly circles, it is seldom used.

The Internet, however, has ensured that we discard this caution. (Yay?)

Why are there concerns and dispute over this Hadith? There are many reasons. First of all, if we look at The Prophet, it would not make sense for him to make any statement like this. There is no record of him speaking about how out of his desire he would rather have Muslims do something that would contravene Islamic values. I mean, seriously.

However, even beyond the inconsistent nature of such a statement with The Prophet’s sayings and actions and the theme of The Qur’an, the scholars of Hadith condemn parts of this Hadith as weak (Da’eef) and say that it is a fabrication.

People like to think that this is my “liberal yay for kittens and Whole Foods Muslim” opinion, and they disregard the issues I raise, but, one of the most conservative scholars of Islam, Al-Albanee, in his work “Da’eef Abi Dawud” which covers the weak Hadith found in Abu Dawud, he raises concerns about this Hadith, specifically, as WEAK. 

Again, the rule with Hadith is that when there is doubt over a Hadith’s soundness, whether from its chain of narration (Isnad) or its content (matn), it is best to leave such a Hadith alone.

Even if we took this Hadith as authentic, we also must understand that this is not about gender as much as it is about relationships, and that it is set out in contrast towards those who would prostrate to their chief, thus reflecting on the absurdity of such a concept.

Proof that this is not about gender is reflected in the Hadith in which The Prophet is asked “And who has the greatest rights over a man?” He said, “His mother.” This Hadith found in Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami’s Majma al-Zawa’id illustrates that the simplistic gender-roles that are associated as “Islamic” are clearly wrong.

Another example is when The Prophet is helping a woman with some problems. He asked her is she had a husband, she said she did, he then asks her how she treats him, and she says that she preforms all her duties to the best of her abilities, to which he responds “pay attention to how you treat him, for he is your paradise and your hell.”

This Hadith, found in the collection of Ahmed and Nasa’i, is generally abused by saying that women must be good to their husbands, but this is simplistic, and denies The Qur’an, which underlines that all things, both good and bad, will be tests in our lives. It describes wealth, children, things that we associate with goodness, not as simple blessings, but tests. Look:

“and know that your worldly goods and your children are but a trial and a temptation, and that with God there is a tremendous reward.”[8:28] Muhammad Asad

Therefore, rather than understanding this Hadith, and others like it, in simple methods, or by the sole interpretations of some scholars, we should always compare the Hadith to The Qur’an, and by doing so they make sense. This Hadith, therefore, is clearly not about women’s fate being determined by whether their husband is happy with them or not, what if he’s horrendous? What if he’s a horrid human-being?

Therefore, when people look at statements which talk about a “husband being pleased with his wife,” this is not about simple pleasure on the part of the man, this is about a man who has fulfilled his duties to his wife, which has been reciprocated by his wife in her actions, which would, logically, result in his happiness.

The Hadith about “paradise and hell” is not about a woman simply appealing to her husband, rather it is that the onus is upon her to treat her mate with justice, because how we treat those closest to us is central towards our afterlife, as underlined by The Qur’an.

This duty is shared by men and women, but obviously, if The Prophet is talking to a woman, as is the case in this Hadith, he’s going remind her about her duty as a wife, just as he would remind a man about his duties as a husband.

Those who try and extrapolate further meaning, when we disregard the most basic elements of a Hadith, which are, at the end of the day, not injunctions and sayings that are said out of nowhere, they have a context, as do all things that are said, and to extract legal and religious perceptions without accounting for the most basic elements is detrimental, not just to society, but to the individual Muslim.

I wonder what the reaction would be if this Hadith had The Prophet remarking to a husband about how his wife is either “his paradise or his hell,” which is a question I raise simply as “food for thought,” as I tend to invert things to better understand them.

In sum, I think when people look at the actual Islamic Tradition, there are scholars, contemporaries of The Prophet, and of course, The Prophet and his interactions with his family, that clearly contradict the patriarchal structures that are described as “Islamic.” It is unfortunate that Muslims and non-Muslims are not given access to this tradition, but what hurts the most is that the process of “essentialization” is applied solely to Muslims and not any other religious group, because it obfuscates what are the true issues and challenges facing the Muslim world.

I hope this answered your question, insha Allah.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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