Balance of the Sexes: Submission to the Natural Order of Allah's Design
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
اللهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنْ عِلْمٍ لَا يَنْفَعُ، وَمِنْ قَلْبٍ لَا يَخْشَعُ، وَمِنْ نَفْسٍ لَا تَشْبَعُ، وَمِنْ دَعْوَةٍ لَا يُسْتَجَابُ لَهَا
اللَّهُمَّ انْفَعْنِي بِمَا عَلَّمْتَنِي وَ عَلِّمْنِي مَا يَنْفَعُنِي وَ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا
O Allah, I seek refuge from knowledge which does not benefit, from the heart that is not submissive to you, from the soul that does not feel content and the supplication that is not answered. O Allah, benefit me from that which You taught me, and teach me that which will benefit me, and increase me in knowledge.
In a meta-analysis that was conducted by sociologist Paul Amato, of all the family changes that occurred during the 20th century, the single most dramatic and far-reaching in its implications has been divorce. Most children of divorce suffer from poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, less quality contact with their parents, their standard of living decreases. On average, they tend to have less satisfying relationships with their parents later on in life. They have more difficulty in their own marriages later on and are much more likely to get divorced themselves.
There is a moral imperative for us to have honest dialogue and to take fruitful action. Three failed marriages are not my business. Thousands of failed marriages are everyone's business. When the demise of the smallest social unit becomes an epidemic, we all stand to lose a great deal.
Insh'Allah, in an effort to address this problem, I hope to provide a look at gender dynamics among present-day Muslims from the Islamic worldview.
To that end, I have written four essays which are meant to be a reminder for myself and fellow Muslims about objective truths, which Allah ﷻ has communicated to us through the Qur’an and His Messenger ﷺ, and which have been explained to us by our long line of righteous scholars. The essays in this series are:
1) Balance of the Sexes: Submission to the Natural Order of Allah's Design
2) Balance of the Sexes: From Boy to Man
3) Balance of the Sexes: From Girl to Woman
4) Balance of the Sexes: Clarifying Common Misconceptions
Insh'Allah, essays 2 - 4 will be available in the fall. (Scroll down and subscribe via email to be notified of updates.)
As the opener to the collection, the purpose of this first essay is to clarify the correct worldview from which we must discuss and seek to understand the issue of gender dynamics, and indeed all matters. By the end of this essay, we should be able to:
recognize competing worldviews as a root cause for the discord between today’s Muslim men and women in the West;
articulate the connections between Allah’s ﷻ balanced and orderly design, fitra (natural disposition), and gender dynamics; and,
understand how submission to Allah’s ﷻ design inevitably and inherently brings about justice, balance, order, and harmony on all levels.
We should acknowledge that for some time now, our conversations on gender and related issues have been fraught with confusion and misunderstanding. In large part, this is due to competing worldviews: Islam and secular liberalism (1).
As the Yaqeen Institute explains, "The ideological underpinnings of contemporary movements that may contradict the foundations of Islamic doctrine are often lost on most young people who gravitate towards vehicles they find empowering." Today, secular ideologies like feminism and gender studies have been absorbed by young Muslims to the extent that most are unable to even think about the subject outside of that framework.
Like our non-Muslim counterparts, we have come to view our Western undergraduate and graduate studies as unquestionable sources for objective truth. Professors are taken for granted as truth-bearers, masters of valuable knowledge. Some are admired as stoics, while others are idolized as social justice heroes.
We fail to understand that, by virtue of the fact that our academic studies belong to a tradition of secular philosophical and political thought, so much of what we ingest in Western colleges and universities are the decaying innards of a godless value system. This tradition, which builds upon itself with each passing era, rests on the premise that man is his own raison d'etre, the highest good for which he should strive. In this way, what we learn in our academic training conditions us to adopt and defend social and political theories, the premises of which are not always explicitly stated and the complexities of which most of us simply do not comprehend. While studying these theories, we find grains of truth that resonate with some of our personal experiences, and thus, we make the hasty generalization that such theories must therefore be true. Too many of us have accepted the West’s definition of “equality,” which is both superficial and paradoxical. “Equal rights for all people” has left looming practical questions that ironically subject individuals to injustices. Truly, what have been the implications of liberalism’s attempt to erase human differences under the guise of social equality? (2)
Divine revelation has become secondary knowledge at best, and at worst, it has gone out the window. This will never bring justice, balance, order, and harmony.
As Umar ibn al-Khattab (رضي الله عنه) said:
“Verily, we were a disgraceful people and Allah honored us with Islam. If we seek honor from anything besides that with which Allah honored us, Allah will disgrace us.”
Self-accountability from brothers and sisters alike is the only solution for improved gender dynamics within our ummah. This means recognizing and rectifying our transgressions of Allah’s ﷻ Word.
I do not believe in the claim that "men must change first." As I will elaborate in the essays to follow, this is an exercise in futility and goes against Islamic principles. Nevertheless, it is incontestable that without men doing their part, neither group can expect justice, equity, balance, and harmony to prevail.
Allah ﷻ Almighty said:
ٱللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا۟ مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ
Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. (Surah Ar-Ra'd, 13:11)
To be sure, secular ideologies have their significance as key factors in the destruction of families. However, the claim that women, and women alone, are to blame for the decline of marriages and families is both false and unjust. As will hopefully become clear from this essay collection, it is only when both genders respect and own their fitra (God-given natural dispositions) that justice, balance, and harmony can exist.
May Allah ﷻ purify our hearts and increase our taqwā (God-consciousness), reminding each of us that we are always under His ﷻ watch and ward.
Long ago, the word “cosmos” was commonly used to refer to the universe. “Cosmos” comes from the Greek kósmos, meaning “order,” the opposite of chaos. It implies recognizing the universe as a complex, well-ordered whole.
Man’s universal existential question is a cosmic one--Why am I here?
Maria Montessori, the celebrated Catholic educator and founder of the timeless method of education which bears her name, observed this natural force within children from the moment of birth. Her educational philosophy and methodology hinges on respecting man’s natural disposition, or fitra. She wrote extensively on the natural force with which man is born, and she believed that the purpose of education was to prepare for life. To do so effectively, Montessori maintained, we must first understand and never lose sight of the fact that man possesses a natural force that guides him towards self-actualization. In this way, we should provide the conditions that satiate this innate urge.
In one of her most profound books, To Educate the Human Potential, she wrote:
“Let us give [the child] a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity. This idea helps the mind of the child to become fixed, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge.”
From early childhood, we seek to understand our place in the universe. The vital task of the adult in the child’s life is to make reality known to the child by not interfering with the natural force that guides the child toward truth.
Abu Huraira (رضي الله عنه) reported Allah's Messenger ﷺ as saying:
"Every person is given birth to by his mother while pure-natured. His parents then make him a Jew, Christian, or Magian. Had they both been Muslims, he would be Muslim.”
That every man and woman is created a believer and a servant of Allah ﷻ means that our natural inclination is to submit to the balance and order of all things He ﷻ has created. We should now pause and reflect on what "submission" means. What does it mean to be a servant of Allah ﷻ?
It is first and foremost adherence to the five pillars of Islam.
Submission then means recognizing that Allah ﷻ has created a design according to divine power and wisdom unfathomable to the human brain. Though we may not be able to grasp it, we are told that this divine design is balanced and perfect, and very importantly, that we must not tamper with this balance, lest we wish to bring calamity upon ourselves.
Allah ﷻ says in Surat Ar-Rahman:
لشَّمْسُ وَٱلْقَمَرُ بِحُسْبَانٍۢ
وَٱلنَّجْمُ وَٱلشَّجَرُ يَسْجُدَانِ
وَٱلسَّمَآءَ رَفَعَهَا وَوَضَعَ ٱلْمِيزَانَ
أَلَّا تَطْغَوْا۟ فِى ٱلْمِيزَانِ
وَأَقِيمُوا۟ ٱلْوَزْنَ بِٱلْقِسْطِ وَلَا تُخْسِرُوا۟ ٱلْمِيزَانَ
The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for each (for reckoning, etc.)
The stars and the trees prostrate.
And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance
In order that you may not transgress (due) balance.
So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance. (5-9)
The natural world behaves instinctively, having no free will to do other than what Allah ﷻ created each living and non-living thing to do. From microscopic unicellular organisms to the immeasurable cosmos, all of creation bows down to the One and Only God, Allah ﷻ.
Animals fulfill their roles according to their God-given instincts from the moment they come into existence. The instincts of a hawk, a cow, and an ant, which vary by species, guide each creature in its respective environment; to eat and be eaten, thus ensuring the continued balance and order of life. As we are told in Surat Ar-Rahman, the celestial objects orbit according to Allah's ﷻ perfect design, which is inherently one of balance and order.
Unlike Allah's ﷻ other creations, man and jinn have been endowed with free will. Nevertheless, even free will remains limited. It is not an open invitation to do whatever we will without consequence.
Free will, or volition, is the choice to obey or disobey God. It is the option to either act in accordance with the natural order of things or to tamper with it. Both options have their sets of repercussions. Still, we remain confined to the natural order of things in the sense that we cannot reorder or recreate God's design. Try as man may, his attempts at doing so consistently fail. These failed attempts at assuming the role of the Creator cause disorder. By choosing to tamper with God's design, or the natural order and balance, we bring onto ourselves and others injustice, imbalance, disharmony, and the like.
Our natural tendency is towards sensing and obeying the balance of everything, beginning with our fitra (natural disposition). It is our God-given free will which can serve our souls by enhancing our understanding of what it means to be 'ibaad (servants of) Allah ﷻ. Likewise, it is our free will which can also lead us astray.
Fortunately, our free will comes with safeguards. That is, measures which correct us when we diverge from the natural order of things. Al-'Adl ﷻ (the Just One) creates each of us with the propensity for righteousness. Al-Muqsit ﷻ (the Upholder of Equity) has provided us the divine message of the Qur'an, as well as the lived example of a perfect human being ﷺ so that we may remain rightly guided within our temporary environment (the dunya).
When we begin to err, we are redirected in various ways towards goodness and truth, toward acting in accordance with Allah’s ﷻ design, which is inherently just and balanced. We can choose to heed or ignore these reminders. When we choose the latter, we bring injustice upon ourselves and others.
If we realize that to disobey is to resist the balance and order, we can see how sinning is disorder in itself as well as the cause of injustice. The Arabic term ظلم (ẓulm) refers to injustice and unfairness, which we can inflict upon others as well as ourselves.
Let us consider a way in which our fitra guides us towards what is good and true.
Ḥayâ’, loosely translated as shyness, modesty, or shame, is a human quality of complex and subtle meaning that cannot be adequately conveyed in the English language. Nevertheless, we should understand that ḥayâ’ is an instinctive and learned safeguard with which Allah ﷻ has endowed each of us (3). “Allah has deemed this quality to be specific to human beings, so that they may be deterred from the shameful acts provoked by their desires; they should not be like beasts that pounce without shame upon whatever they desire” (4). In this way, ḥayâ’ is one of the safeguards that keeps us from using our free will to our detriment. Maintaining ḥayâ’ prevents us from falling into sin, and what is sin but disobedience of Allah’s natural order of things?
As an instinctual quality, ḥayâ’ is a part of our fitra. Much of our fitra is universal to both male and female. For instance, faith in a higher power is a universal predisposition. Through our free will and through our interactions with others, (all of whom are also endowed with free will), we may become lost or misguided.
At the same time, fitra includes gender-specific inclinations.
In the Qur'an, Allah ﷻ said:
وَلَيْسَ ٱلذَّكَرُ كَٱلْأُنثَىٰ
And the male is not like the female. (Aali-Imran, 3:36)
Numerous ayat and ahadith establish the fact, no longer taken for granted, that gender is biologically and metaphysically real. Islam clearly directs both genders on the acceptable ways in which they must dress, interact, and carry themselves.
While ḥayâ’ is no doubt a natural disposition among males and females alike, at times it manifests in different ways based on gender. Moreover, Allah ﷻ Has provided both men and women practical safeguards for their gender-specific fitra.
Allah ﷻ instructed His Messenger ﷺ:
يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّبِىُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَٰجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَآءِ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَٰبِيبِهِنَّ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰٓ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ ۗ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. (33:59)
We must unsee hijab through Western eyes, and instead begin recognizing it for what it is: a guardian of ḥayâ’. And because hijab is a guardian of ḥayâ’, it is the divinely-decreed functional safeguard of a more instinctive safeguard.
In a well-known hadith, it is narrated:
"The Prophet forbade us to wear silk, Dibaj, Qassiy and Istabraq (various kinds of silken clothes); or to use red Mayathir (silk-cushions)."
The banning of silk is a rule that relates to men only, as it is seen as effeminate. Muslim men are also forbidden from wearing gold jewelry for the same reason.
Ibn 'Abbas narrated:
"Allah's Apostle cursed men who imitate women and women who imitate men."
The Prophet ﷺ describes as cursed the one whom “God has made a man then he feminized himself and imitated women.”
Insh’Allah, the matter of ḥayâ’ will be discussed in more detail in the essays to follow. For now, let us recognize that our gender-specific inclinations are provided functional and practical safeguards by our Creator ﷻ.
By Allah's ﷻ balanced design, men and women were created as complementary parts in need of one another. His ﷻ divine design includes nurturance as a tendency that is far greater in women than it is in men. This does not mean nurturance is absent in men; but rather, that it is balanced in the direction of women. The tendency towards physical strength and physical courage is, by Allah's ﷻ balanced design, far greater in men than it is in women. Again, this does not mean that these proclivities are absent in women; but rather, that they are balanced in the direction of men.
Research reinforces that a balance between the sexes naturally exists. "When analyzing data from large numbers of previous studies—a procedure called meta-analysis—psychologists have found several sex differences in the realm of emotions. They have shown that women are somewhat more empathic than men, whereas men tend to more powerfully experience the emotion of sexual jealousy."
Additionally, a Stanford University study has shown significant cognitive differences between men and women.
These 2017 and 2018 Pew Polls on the traits deemed valuable across genders reinforce what we instinctively know to be true: men find certain traits attractive in women, while women find other traits attractive in men. To be sure, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, but rather a general tendency.
When we respect and own our fitra, both universal and gender-specific, we submit to Allah's ﷻ design, the natural order of all things. This directs our free will to the path of good. As we know, free will is the power to choose between good and evil, between that which is beneficial and harmful. The key to steering our will in the direction that will best serve us in this life and the next is to follow Allah's ﷻ commands, which exist as His ﷻ literal Word in the Qur'an and in the lived example of His ﷻ final Messenger ﷺ. These divine commands are also innate to us; they are our natural inclinations (i.e. fitra), which guide us and reinforce the truth.
Respect for our fitra can be understood by observing and studying children. All beauty and truth with which our Creator ﷻ has endowed us exists in children. Because they have not yet been tainted by external forces which direct free will in the direction of evil and harm, children provide us a sense of who we really are and from where we have come. They reveal to us our natural dispositions as honest, compassionate, fair, and intrinsically motivated creatures of Allah ﷻ.
Thus, it can be said that the child is man in submission to Allah ﷻ. Children serve Allah ﷻ by allowing their fitra to guide them. As children grow and gain consciousness about the world, their fitra does not disappear, but it must remain activated through continual stimulation provided by experiences that reinforce the truth with which they are born.
If our natural disposition, or fitra, is most easily seen in children, then we can recognize the universal human qualities that require limited effort. They are qualities which are inherent to us and which belong to the natural order of all things:
integrity (honesty in every way);
mutual respect (wanting for others that which you want for yourself);
empathy (seeing one's joy and suffering in the joy and suffering of others).
On the human quality of integrity, as the child develops, he learns on a more sophisticated and less primal level that he has choice in all things. He learns that rules can be broken, that his free will provides the opportunities for disobedience as well as for obedience. Therefore, we are ordered to continually cultivate our taqwā (God-consciousness). As Allah ﷻ has endowed us with the incredible power of free will, he has made Himself ﷻ known to us through the Qur'an and the Prophets in order to guide us in the direction of truth and righteousness.
And so, in asking ourselves what "submission" means, in deeply contemplating how we are "servants" of Allah ﷻ, we realize that through an unseen chain of forces that are integral to the perfect design Allah ﷻ has created, when we submit to Allah's commands, we submit to our fitra, and when we submit to our fitra and maintain its active status through worship and good deeds (i.e. experiences which reinforce the truth with which we are born), the necessary human qualities that make way for a just, equitable, and harmonious society become apparent and can be felt like a fierce energy source.
We should now recognize that submission to Allah ﷻ inevitably and inherently means exercising integrity, mutual respect, and empathy for all of His ﷻ creation, the noblest of which are our fellow sisters and brothers. Conversely, disobeying Allah ﷻ destroys our hearts, disabling us from being able to exercise the necessary human qualities that make way for a just, equitable, and harmonious society.
Allah ﷻ has cautioned:
وَٱلَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا۟ بِـَٔايَٰتِنَا صُمٌّ وَبُكْمٌ فِى ٱلظُّلُمَٰتِ ۗ مَن يَشَإِ ٱللَّهُ يُضْلِلْهُ وَمَن يَشَأْ يَجْعَلْهُ عَلَىٰ صِرَٰطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
Those who reject Our Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) are deaf and dumb in darkness. Allah sends astray whom He wills and He guides on the Straight Path whom He wills. (Al-An'am, 6:39)
And He ﷻ said:
وَمِنْ ءَايَٰتِهِۦٓ أَنْ خَلَقَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَٰجًا لِّتَسْكُنُوٓا۟ إِلَيْهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَكُم مَّوَدَّةً وَرَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٰلِكَ لَءَايَٰتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. (Ar-Rum, 30:20)
Thus, when we choose to resist, in whatever way, the natural order of Allah's ﷻ design, we transgress and disobey Allah ﷻ, which necessarily means disabling ourselves from being able to exercise respect, compassion, love, empathy for all of His ﷻ creation. From these timeless values and principles, which are craved by every man and woman throughout time and space, and which, again, naturally unfold when both parties own and respect their fitra, harmony between the sexes is achieved.
Standing upon the firm ground of the reality of Islam and seeing the issue of gender in this way may draw intense criticism. May Allah ﷻ enable us to endure with patience such critical voices, for only He ﷻ knows best. We must remember that the Prophet's ﷺ own blood relatives defamed, harassed, and fought against him in battles. Let us not be deterred by insults, slanders, and obscenities. We are commanded to speak truth and leave the rest to Allah ﷻ:
وَأَطِيعُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۥ وَلَا تَنَٰزَعُوا۟ فَتَفْشَلُوا۟ وَتَذْهَبَ رِيحُكُمْ ۖ وَٱصْبِرُوٓا۟ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ مَعَ ٱلصَّٰبِرِينَ
And obey Allah and His Messenger, and do not dispute and [thus] lose courage and [then] your strength would depart; and be patient. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.
May Allah ﷻ guide us in doing right by each other. May we refrain from intentionally and unintentionally inciting each other, that we may instead hear and be heard through sincere empathy.
Finally, let us bear in mind that we cannot change the heart of every man and woman, for Allah ﷻ says:
إِنَّكَ لَا تَهْدِى مَنْ أَحْبَبْتَ وَلَٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَهْدِى مَن يَشَآءُ ۚ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِٱلْمُهْتَدِينَ
Verily! You (O Muhammad) guide not whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He knows best those who are the guided. (Al-Qasas, 28:56)
And He ﷻ says:
لَّيْسَ عَلَيْكَ هُدَىٰهُمْ وَلَٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَهْدِى مَن يَشَآءُ
Not upon you (Muhammad) is their guidance, but Allah guides whom He wills.
The most perfect human being to walk the earth, Allah's ﷻ Messenger ﷺ himself could not change the heart of every person.
فَٱصْبِرْ إِنَّ وَعْدَ ٱللَّهِ حَقٌّ ۖ وَلَا يَسْتَخِفَّنَّكَ ٱلَّذِينَ لَا يُوقِنُونَ
So patiently persevere: for verily the promise of Allah is true: nor let those shake thy firmness, who have (themselves) no certainty of faith. (Ar-Rum, 30:60)
And Allah ﷻ knows best.
(1) I call Islam a "worldview" in order to distinguish it from the dominant paradigm of our time. Were it not for this disparity, there would be no need to label Islam a "worldview," for it is in fact the ultimate truth of everything. Unlike secular liberalism, Islam is not a lens through which we can interpret reality; it is reality.
(2) See, for example, “The Injustice of Equality” by Russell Kirk, as well as the works of Jonathan Haidt on identity politics. Islam recognizes justice based upon difference. Some of these differences exist on large social levels, such as the biological differences between male and female, which, for instance, generally make men physically stronger than women. Other differences exist on more microlevels, such as the exceptions that may arise within a marriage between a diasabled man and a woman, or the right a wife has to leave an abusive husband. On every level, Islam offers equitable solutions that do right by each individual. Again, this should come as no surprise, for the Qur’an and sunnah have been afforded to humankind by the Dispenser of Justice ﷻ, the One who created us, and thus, knows us best. The one-size-fits-all approach of social justice theories, such as feminism, is foreign in Islam. Allah ﷻ created each of us as a complex being and ascribed to each of us trials and tribulations based on our individual capacities, which only He ﷻ knows. This necessarily means that any solution to social injustice - if it is to be truly fair and equitable to all people - must account for the complexities of every individual. No social theory is capable of this divine task. It is humanly impossible. For more on this, please see Zara Faris’s lecture here.
(3) M.I. Al-Muqaddim. (2015). Fiqh al-Ḥayâ: Understanding the Islamic Concept of Modesty. Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House. p. 29.
(4) Ibid, p. 25.