Excerpt from article by Prof. Jonathan A.C Brown
In light of ongoing debates about differences between sexes and expectations of gender roles, it’s worth looking at how the men and women of Islam’s ideal, founding generation conducted themselves. In the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ, men and women are distinct in their duties of prayer and fasting (women don’t do either when menstruating), in their dress (they must cover different areas of their body), and other legal issues. Men have the duty to guard and protect (qiwāma) their womenfolk because of some of the capacities that God generally grants one sex to a greater degree than the other.
But what surprised me when I reflected on it was how little difference there was otherwise between the conduct of men and women in this noble community. Both were deeply pious, decisive, courageous in word and deed, proud of themselves but humbled by the charge God put upon them, confident when they believed they were right but also utterly deferential to the instructions of God and His Messenger ﷺ. Both were dynamically involved in public life. And both men and women were extremely conscious of their code of sexual propriety. Aisha رضي الله عنها became a major political leader in the first decades of the Muslim community and one of its most respected sources of knowledge. When the Prophet’s ﷺ wife Umm Salama رضي الله عنها heard him addressing the people outside, she went out to join the crowd. When she was asked why she thought she was meant to attend, she replied, “Are we not among the people?”During the caliphate of ʿUmar رضي الله عنه, a female Companion interrupted his Friday sermon to correct him on a point, and he admitted she was right. A whole slew of female Companions fought in battle, the most notable among them Nuṣayba bint Kaʿb رضي الله عنها, who defended the Prophet ﷺ with her sword at the Battle of Uhud and later died on campaign. The great enemy of the Prophet ﷺ, Abū Lahab, was killed by Umm al-Faḍl رضي الله عنها, who smashed his head with a tent-pole. During the Battle of the Trench, Ṣafiyya bint ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib رضي الله عنها was among the people defending the small fort of Fāriʿ. When the senior man there would not go out and confront an enemy soldier who was about to find the fort’s secret entrance, Ṣafiyya took matters into her own hands. She leapt on him from the fort’s walls and clubbed him to death. But she demanded that one of her male comrades strip off his weapons and armor since he was an unrelated man she would never touch with her own hands.
The Prophet ﷺ and his community did not leave a legacy of ‘Traditional Man’s Men’ and subservient women. Their legacy is one of courageous, committed, humble, and engaged individuals, men and women alike. At their head was not an angry alpha male whose masculinity made him mock or subordinate others. He ﷺ was a man who saw that a man’s role is to serve his family and that letting others serve you is something a real man would prefer to avoid.