I disengage with any commentator, influencer, preacher, scholar, imam or community sage who speaks of real men or real women. Religious types tend to have an obsession with both, imposing their cultural archetypes on all people, everywhere.
I disengage, not because I’m a lefty-liberal snowflake (although that may well be true), but because I dispute the notion that there is such a thing as real or normal. We are all influenced by so many factors: environmental, cultural and biological. What one society considers the ideal man or woman may not be the same elsewhere.
I disengage mostly due to my own biology and its impacts, which cause me to fall foul of the righteous censors’ definition of manliness by default. About 1 in 150 babies are born with a chromosomal aberration. From a scientific or medical perspective, these aberrations are considered mistakes, as a result of errors in cell division. From a religious perspective, however, there are no mistakes.
Not even a leaf falls without His knowledge, nor a grain in the darkness of the earth or anything—green or dry—but it is written in a perfect record.Quran 6:59
Contrary to the pontifications of the real men brigade, we are all created just the way we are, by design, by the One in whose hand is our soul. We are as we are, not because our mindset is at fault — because we refuse to conform to some golden norm — but due to biological and environmental factors completely beyond our control.
Some people have major life-impacting conditions as a consequence of having too few chromosomes. Others, like me, have milder manifestations, resulting from having too many. All of us, I suppose, with growing familiarity with the process of cell division stand in awe of the process of replication by which each new generation comes into being.
The idea of real or normal is very problematic from a religious perspective, wherein we believe God is the creator, originator and sustainer of all things. Believers, more grounded in their faith, once held fast to the idea of rida, wherein they would be found deeply accepting of divine decree. They were not agitated by their state of being — neither by the impact of their environment nor by vicissitudes of the self.
Throughout my life, I have been forced by societal pressures to deal with the idea of normal — mostly as a result of falling foul of those notions. From my earliest childhood, like many of the 0.2% of boys born with that extra chromosome, I will have been reminded repeatedly that I am unmanly. Muscles: too small and too weak. Character: extremely shy and sensitive. Energy: nonexistent. Confidence: completely lacking.
The Alt-Bro movement demands that a man is physically strong, athletic, aggressive, self-confident. Everywhere is this rendition of manliness promoted in our community, whether amongst the cuddly sufis or brash literalists. After the archery contests come the jiu jitsu tournaments, as the local ustad demands that young men man-up.
No wonder I have been greeted with so much suspicion by my fellow believers — both men and women — through the years. I long believed that I was anathematised by my brothers at a conference I attended in the months after becoming Muslim for sectarian reasons, but looking back now it seems obvious that it was my perceived unmanliness that was the problem. Twice I was called out for my lack of facial hair, and then completely shunned.
For both the scholars present and their disciples, my physical form and character was of more significance to them, than the fact I had embraced the faith three months earlier. For them, belonging was predicated on me having a big bushy beard, and strong muscular arms. This despite all of us having heard that well-known narration attributed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, in which he is reported to have said:
“Verily, God does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and deeds.”Hadith recorded by Muslim and Ibn Majah
Throughout my life I have been judged inadequate by others based upon my character and physical form. Throughout my youth, it materialised in bullying behaviour at the hands of peers and strangers alike, which only ceased because I removed myself from those environments. But my faith — in my relationship with my Lord, if not community — enables me to move beyond those constraints, accepting that I am as I am because that is how I was made. How I am is not a mistake in the divine cosmos: it is what was decreed for me.
That my body does not naturally produce enough of the hormone necessary for brain development, strong bones, muscle growth, energy and so much more has naturally been deeply problematic in how I have developed as a person. And yet it has also bestowed traits which, contrary to the declarations of those leaders of opinion obsessed with notions of manliness, were traditionally considered commendable by believing men and women.
However much our talking-heads insist on emphasising physical strength, we must acknowledge that our tradition also extols the virtues of gentleness, mildness, good manners, shyness and speaking softly. It may well be that modern representatives of authentic manhood are brash, self-assured, loud, aggressive and straight-talking, but it remains the case that our Prophet — who is our guide — did not denigrate people, spoke quietly and praised modesty and shyness in both men and women.
I suspect that few of us on either end of the spectrum, whether men or women, are anywhere close to being real in terms of what is actually expected of us as human beings. Whatever we decide to be authentic will be a social construct, however we try to market it. Just as notions of race and racial supremacy have evaporated with increased understanding of the human genome, so too will other behavioural phenotypes. What is normal, for example?
In the understanding of our preachers and proselytisers, I am neither normal nor real. However, in my relationship with my Lord, I am content with His decree. I am content with the way I was made, and my innate nature, however much some people may dislike it. By virtue of having been born in the latter years of the twentieth century, I have been able access interventions that would have been unavailable to men in earlier ages. Thus has my physical form normalised a degree.
But beyond this, what can I do? I cannot be what I’m not. Nor are you required to be. Most of our vociferous guides, I feel, have completely missed the point of our faith. What we are called to be or become is far simpler than they make out.
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember God often and the women who do so — for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.Quran 33:35
If we are to become real then let it be by holding to an equality such as that. Be obedient, truthful, patient, humble, charitable, modest, remembering God. Perhaps we might then be successful and, yes, real.