Prophecy and Masculinities: The Case of the Qur'anic Joseph

By Sondy, Amanullah De | Cross Currents, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Prophecy and Masculinities: The Case of the Qur'anic Joseph


Sondy, Amanullah De, Cross Currents


Gender and sexuality in Islamic thought and practice are intertwined with ethics and morality. The Qur'an as a text is deeply entrenched in morals and ethics and to this end highlights this connection in an abundant number of stories and parables. This article is concerned with the prophet Joseph and how his story gives us an insight into Qur'anic models of sexuality and gender. The methodology is interdisciplinary and relies on theology, Islamic/religious studies, and, most importantly, masculinities studies. Contemporary masculinities studies present us with the challenge of a crisis in masculinity--that there is no one form of the masculine, often associated with the butch, virile, heterosexual man, or, simply put, hegemonic masculinity. Muslim societies and cultures are, of course, part of this masculinity crisis but possibly in ways that other societies are not.

"Be a man" might be a powerful general expression for the development of a young boy, but when one adds "because this is the way Allah wants you to be," it becomes a particular way of creating a center point of gender and sexuality. Even when "deviant" gender and sexuality constructions flourish, they are set aside, away from sight but not society. This has led to Islamic traditions that too often are based on hegemonic masculinity. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on how gender and sexuality have been constructed in Islamic history, the work of Muslim feminists must be highlighted. (1) Some may argue that it would be more useful to explore Islamic law since it has played, and continues to play, a dominant role in the lives of Muslims globally, despite the fact that Muslims revere the Qur'an as the literal word of God. When Muslims speak of "Islam," they are most often referring to popular understanding of Islamic law. Bearing such concerns in mind, I suggest returning to the Qur'anic narrative to see to what extent it would support traditions that developed subsequently.

Masculinities studies inform us that masculinity and femininity are constructed through a series of relationships between men and women, but the Qur'anic world pushes one to include the construction of "God" as an overarching creating/maintaining force, an additional power component that ideally aims to reduce the power of men and women to one of submission--the same submission that all of God's creation must comply with, be they created from dust, dirt, light, or fire. Such a power dynamic pushes one to consider the implications this has on constructions of masculinity and femininity. This in turn challenges hegemonic gender power to any of God's creation, since the Qur'an makes clear, on several occasions, that equating anyone or anything to God is a grave sin, an idolatry.

Joseph in the Qur'an

Exploring pluralist understandings of gender construction in a sacred text that is understood as the literal word of God to more than one billion Muslims pushes the question whether--given such rigidity in its position and construction in Islamic traditions and practice--one would inevitably find that the Qur'an upholds hegemonic masculinity. What does the Qur'an say about gender and sexuality? When addressing the issue of masculinity, one could critique that these are modern debates. Indeed, such criticism overlooks the many ways that Qur'an commentators and legal writers in the medieval period were interested in relating the text to the real lives of men and women. Another critique could be that Muhammad takes precedent over other prophets: although prophets are said to be equal in Islamic thought and traditions, Muhammad's connection to the Qur'an and his way being a source of Islamic law make it less important to explore other prophets. But we ought to consider why God would even bother revealing the stories of past prophets to Muhammad if their multiple forms of Islamic masculinities were not important. In a prophetic tradition, Muhammad talks about a building with many different bricks, and he states quite explicitly that he is but one of these bricks. …

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