“We need to not stigmatize social interaction”

Yes, folks, marriage is still the talk of the town. From college campuses to young professionals networking events, and even crossing over to unlikely territory such as charity fundraisers, the conversation is unending; Muslims across the country seem to be preoccupied with getting, being, and staying married. To explore this issue further, we interview Shaykh Abdallah Adhami, who has been one of the most outspoken Muslim scholars on gender relations within Islam.
With a burgeoning Muslim population in the United States, marriage is but one of the many gender relations issues that stands to challenge the Muslim community today. A quick glance around the AltMuslimah website reveals a myriad of other obstacles that Muslims in the West face within gender dialogue- gender equality, cultural demands, and assimilation for converts, amongst others.

As the population ages and grows alongside a rapidly changing global political and social climate, Muslims in the West find themselves in unprecedented positions of leadership in the community, collegiate, and professional levels. At the forefront of tomorrow, youth and professionals alike are thus confronted with challenges in upholding their Islamic modesty while striving to achieve their own particular ambitions.

Several years ago, Shaykh Abdallah Adhami gave a beautiful and poignant speech before an audience at Columbia University. Though the theme of the lecture (appropriately scheduled for Valentine’s day) was centered around the Islamic understanding of love, nearly 5 years later, one of Shaykh Adhami’s universal gems still resounds in my head: “We need to teach our boys how to be men so that they can recognize that a woman is the embodiment of divine love on this earth.” That night was the very first time I had ever heard an Islamic leader, a most reputable one no less, suggest that the level of gender-relations education among youth leaves much to be desired.

Shaykh Abdallah Adhami was born in Georgetown, Washington, DC, into the noble lineage of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. As a certified narrator of hadith, he is honored with the highest doctoral credential in the interdisciplinary legal canon. His works center on exploring the legal, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the linguistic implications of shari’ah texts. His works also strive to relate the eternal relevance of the essence of shari’ah laws as a vehicle to enhance modern lived experience. He is the founder and chairman of SAKEENAH, an organization committed to devoting knowledge to the enhancement of human lived experience.

Shaykh Abdallah has been one of the most outspoken Muslim scholars on gender relations within Islam. His groundbreaking lecture series, “Gender Relations – An Islamic Perspective on Issues Facing Men and Woman”, was released nearly eleven years ago, and is still widely circulated and referenced. I had the distinct honor of sitting down with Shaykh Abdallah to discuss the evolution of gender relations since his lecture series, and the pertinent issues being faced by Muslims today.

Your original audio series on gender relations, which quickly became a bestseller, came out almost 11 yrs ago – how, if at all, do you think the challenges facing Muslims in the West with regards to gender relations have changed since then? For example, can you mention new issues that may have arisen regarding gender relations, or maybe the way the leadership has changed in regards to how it addresses them, creating challenges of its own?

I don’t honestly think there has been any major change, because the critical question of “mindset” is the most urgent issue here. And if we are looking to ask the question of change, we are assuming a readiness to change on the part of the people who hold the reigns, whether it be the leaders or the scholars. When there is no perceived need for change, we have a major issue – this is the major paradigm shift that needs to happen. And what it is that needs to change needs to be answered by us first. Too often we address the ”invading campaigns”’ as anti-Islamic, when in reality they could very well be a divine clarion call for us to seek a higher level of refinement. So instead of taking the high road and saying, “Muslims have – within the Quranic and prophetic tradition – the most humane exegesis and the most sensible hermeneutics for other (religious and secular) traditions in the world. We should be inspiring, if not leading, the public discourse,” we do the exact opposite: we become reclusive and we feel Islam needs to be defended.

Discussion regarding gender relations in Islam has generally been within the scope of marriage. As the Muslim community continues to grow and youth become more mobilized, is there a way for Imams and other spiritual/community leaders to come together as resources for youth searching to understand gender relations outside the context of marriage (i.e. school, community activities, etc.)?

We need desperately, on the level of leadership – and parenting, before leadership – to not stigmatize social interaction. The issue here is to really address issues from the perspective of their humane context. If God ordained the men to be protectors and maintainers, and ordained the women to be protectors of the unseen, there has to be some synergistic communion here for that to happen. It’s in Surah Tawbah, the ninth chapter of the Quran – where God has revealed that the believing men and believing women are maintainers and guardians of each other. All too often what you have is the overemphasis of the males being the maintainers and protectors – invariably “and believing women are devout ‘to their husbands.’” That last part (‘to their husbands’) is not in the Arabic Quranic text — and qānitāt actually means, “devout to God.” It has to come from an earnest discussion about how the Quran helps us to navigate humanely within the societal hierarchy and its power structures, without dismantling it, but by defining it more humanely.

The Quran is complete in its entirety, but there are nuances in our daily lives, our culture, and our society that are not dealt with directly in the Quran or Hadith. Specifically, with this onslaught of technology and social media, Facebook, Twitter, etc., how do you feel these have changed Muslim youth’s perception of what is acceptable interaction with the opposite sex? What are some guidelines the youth can consider to ensure they’re staying well within the confines of what is acceptable virtual interaction?

Social media seems to me a microcosm of our greater social pathologies. It basically takes the irreverence, the arrogance of our culture, and promotes it. In addition to addressing how far the deviation is from the core and from the soul of Shariah, and how far have we deviated as an Ummah collectively, let’s also address our socio-anthropological dimensions, which are in many ways pathological and antithetical to human progress. There is no way that anyone would agree, within a humane discussion, that the arrogance that our culture in America promotes is healthy. No one can disagree that the narcissism which exists in this culture is destructive to the planet. In my perception, all Facebook or the social media does is that it takes that narcissism and gives it a vehicle. But take away Facebook or any other social media that I may not be aware of, and guess what? We have the same pathologies with or without Facebook – we are vain with or without it; it just gives us a platform to flaunt it. In the Quran it also says you have to be upright and you have to say the truth against yourself. So this is the issue that I think we need to highlight – the sensitivities in the social media are but a reflection of our general hegemonic arrogance, which are reflective of our policies in the world. However, we have no moral authority to criticize our nation’s policies if we are not providing a humane alternative in our own manners.

In today’s increasingly global society, as Muslims are professionally venturing into different industries, how can we maintain Islamic hayya and modesty as we try to advance our careers?

I’m telling you from experience, in corporate life, I have witnessed a very fascinating decline in social values in the workplace. And this is not something that can be ignored but it can be anchored, it can be made more humane by us. If we’re Muslim, our responsibility – and this is [observing] qawama – it means to be upright, and firm, and a pillar for all the women around you in the workplace. That means I am responsible for making sure she feels safe with me, so that she trusts me to take care of things; and in a corporate environment, taking care of things means helping her to do her job and helping her to look brilliant. Qawama means space – don’t intervene in the woman’s space unless you have something to contribute that’s constructive to her wellbeing, or if you’ve been called upon by her. That’s qawama in a sentence.

Really, honestly, subhan’Allah, the responsibility is on you as the man to be upright and to be chaste and to never ever allow any innuendo. If you’re just whining [about supposed office prejudices] and nagging and you want to do your dawah thing at work when you should be working, you would have zero pedigree and zero credential to build upon. So don’t make this Islam thing to be some impediment or some crutch, when you should be doing everything to be the most competent person, first, and you should be doing your job. And if you’re not doing your job, you are neglecting a critical responsibility that you are entrusted with as a Muslim.

People in business environments say, “there’s a conflict when there’s a meeting at a bar.” And of course some sheikhs will say “Astaghfirullah, you should not go and you should find another job.” But if you know anything about corporate life, no meeting ever happens at a bar. The bar might be over there, but we are having our meeting over here. The wine is not going to pollute our ‘mojo’ over here, twenty yards away. Others will say, “Sheikh, conflict: I’m supposed to go to a meeting with all females.” But that is not a conflict for a Muslim. If your team is all females or all monkeys, you’re supposed to help them; it’s your team. So if you have an issue sitting with all females, that’s your issue, its not Islamic – and you can’t make it an Islamic “ethical dilemma.” I absolutely refuse to call all of these things conflicts – when they are our ineptitude and lack of humane sensibility and lack of understanding of the spirit of Islam.

Along those lines, you were saying that a man’s duty to understand and do everything in his power to ensure the women around him are comfortable and not threatened doesn’t end at marriage. What are three or four things that you believe are the most important for a husband and wife, in this day and age and in this society, to build a strong foundation for a lasting marriage? Part two of this question is: There was a recent study conducted that cited divorce rates in the Muslim community as being on the rise, with a statistic of 1 out of every 3 marriages. Do you have any insight into this trend? How can it be combated in the coming years?

In one word, we go back to the selfishness and arrogance that our culture promotes. And if we want to build a foundation as a Muslim couple, we need to be very cognizant of the dangers of selfishness. Before you come into a marriage, make certain you are solid – that you are an anchoring person, that you can be the best friend and spiritual support for your spouse, because that’s your responsibility. You don’t come into a marriage and then impose upon your spouse, “You have to do this for me because I am your husband or I am your wife.” Where is the selflessness and the sacrifice? Where is the “We are growing together?” Where is the “I feel safe to be vulnerable in front of you because you are my bastion and you are my protector and my fortress?” We can elaborate on this forever, but ultimately it goes back to the idea of this self-indulgent, this overweening narcissism, and self engrossment and self-pity. You have to decide, “I’m going to grow up. I’m really going to do everything in my power to be someone who can be reliable for someone else, period.” And I really think if there’s anything that’s behind this gross statistic [of Muslim divorces], you will probably find a direct correlation with the rise in selfishness and the rise in hedonistic irresponsibility in our culture. Just because we’re Muslims, doesn’t mean we’re immune from all that toxicity. We should be cautious, we should be vigilant against these forces, even if we’re not married, because they can wreck our life.

And when we have a problem, God forbid, and we’re married, it’s important that we don’t fight. That we don’t lose all manner of affinity and respect – we’re a team. In any environment, in any context, we’re responsible for each other. Islam tells you to encompass the entire universe within your heart, and we shouldn’t lose our sense of affinity for each other if there is a disagreement. We have to grow up.

You’ve identified hedonism, selfishness, arrogance, and this overwhelming sense of narcissism as being some of the biggest root causes of some of the larger debilitating issues in our society. On a very basic level, these are things that need to be confronted by each individual, but that’s not necessarily always possible. It’s not very easy for one person to just have a profound clarifying moment where they decide to fix their arrogance. What can the community do as a whole to ensure we are progressing in the right direction? What can we all do to support each other to make sure we are moving beyond this narcissism and hedonism? Is it possible for this to be a community effort, or does it come down to each person just fighting their own fight?

It has to be both. It has to be the personal self inducement to say, “you know what, I want to grow up.” That takes a heartbeat; that literally takes a heartbeat. Once you make that shift, you have to work on your soul, you have to realize, “I’ve really put so much refuse upon this precious gift of God, my creator, that it needs to be unsullied now, it needs to be cleaned up. And I have to have the courage to understand that the work is just really to not indulge my vanity.” Just please, ladies, gentlemen, everybody – kill the vanity, kill the narcissism and its promotion. And if the community was smart, you know what we would do? We would do like the Medinans. We would have public conferences and talk about love, and talk about conjugal etiquette. And the key is to keep it dignified and elevated.

It’s just this image that girls are built on vice – wallahi it’s entirely the opposite. They are built on loyalty and selfless wholehearted devotion to everything in our life. When the formula is messed up, they rebel because they are the anchors of the unseen.
Mehak Jamil graduated from NYU Stern with a BS in Finance and International Business. After working in finance for several years, she recently made the switch to law, and is now pursuing a JD at Fordham University in New York. Mehak is an avid reader and writer, who looks forward to graduating law school so she can finally have time to work on a novel. She is also a huge fan of chai, Abida Parveen, and shawls.


  • zulu2 says:

    Great article! It shows that you have to keep things in perspective. I see too many individuals limiting their full potential by having too many mental blocks! I love your example of the wine issue. Just had a recent episode where a cartoon book of “Piggy” causing some havoc in the background! Could not believe it!

  • Saadia says:

    Advice I give to those faced with social pressure, whatever beliefs they freely choose, is to be true to themselves. One example is if an immigrant wants to stay true to their American personality as well as their heritage, then the goal is to create a harmonious mindset, not to change in order to please everyone. This is in consonance with professors who have said that what American Islam has in common with the mainstream is individuality. One has to work to find their truth and see what makes sense to them.

  • Saadia says:

    zulu: Can you elaborate on what you mean by saying that individuals limit their full potential by having mental blocks? Please provide some examples. And where does “Piggy” play a role in your comment?

    The Shaykh’s answers are thoughtful, especially when read in entirety. He emphasized that humanity is inherent to Islam, like in other faiths, and is a central precept to dawah/teaching, even if cleverness is there sometimes too.

    I remember also that despite being called “the romantic shaykh” and having a throng of women around him asking Islamic questions, which I do believe were serious, (even the ones about whether its necessary to perform ritual prayers during labor), he was able to maintain the women’s comfort level and balance that with his wife’s presence in the classes.

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