بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
The Prophet (ﷺ) never saw his father, and still developed into the paragon of human excellence. How many Ṣaḥāba were orphans due to their fathers being martyred? Weren’t greats like al-Ḥasan al-Baṣri, Abu Yūsuf al-Qāḍi, Imam ash-Shāfi’i, Imam Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Imam al-Bukhāri, all orphans? None of these were hindered by the absence of their fathers. So do fathers even matter?
Obviously they do (we will revisit exceptional orphans later), but pinpointing why can be quite difficult, considering the politically charged nature of this subject and the emotion it provokes. After all, the significance of fathers extends from the “significance of men” discussion, and that is not the most popular, progressive, woke subject in today’s world. However, the bottom line is that there is no utility or relevance for men unless there is something unique about them. There must be a difference between men and women, and by extension between fathers and mothers. Otherwise, a father is essentially disposable; you might as well have a single mother, or two mothers. It would not matter.
Unfortunately, this is the fatherlessness experiment many are conducting right now, wherein many fathers are reduced to biological contributors or at best uninvolved financiers. According to the Pew Research Center, the 2-parent household is facing rapid decline in the U.S., the double-mom parenting model is demanding acceptance, and children outside of wedlock have reach 1/3rd of all births since the year 2000.
How detrimental is this? Many studies suggest that the consequences of fatherlessness have reached epidemic proportions, and that so many developmental crises in children and adolescents are directly linked with fatherlessness. To name a few:
- 80% of adolescents in psychiatric institutes stem from fatherless homes
- 90% of all runaway and homeless children were from fatherless homes
- People are 2x as likely to commit suicide (especially boys) after a fatherless childhood
- Children are 9x more likely to be sexually abused (especially girls) in a home without the biological father present
For a Muslim, these alarming numbers are telling you what you already know, because the Creator spared you of being dependent on extensive surveys, statistics, and their margin of error. A Muslim is informed that though all are equal before God in terms of salvation and human dignity, there remain differences between men and women when it comes to certain sectors of the social realm; “And the male is not like the female.” [3:36] Ignore these nuanced differences, and you will create new problems while trying to solve the current ones. The Quran also calls our attention to God’s cosmic patterns, and the dynamic interplay between opposites in His universe; “By the night as it covers, and by the day as it brightens, and by the spectacle creation of the male and the female; your strivings are immensely diverse.” [92:1-4] In other words, the complementary existence of night and day, male and female, good and evil, are all necessary components of balance in the universe. Applying this to parenting: just as fathers can never fully offer their children what mothers can, mother can never fully offer their children what fathers can.
Nowadays, however, such elemental truths are challenged under the influence of modern secular thought, where the “open mind” and “objective human intellect” are accepted by many as the ultimate authority for governing people’s ideas and lifestyles. Embracing human intellect is not wrong, so long as its limitations and biases are recognized. Consider the gender debate, for instance; it will be “thought-out” by either a man or a woman, making non-bias impossible since the disputing parties are the judges. Is it coincidence that most men are biased pro-men and most women are biased pro-women? In Muslim circles, how many women scream injustice when hearing the “your mother 3x” hadith? How many men scream injustice when hearing the “husband’s leadership” hadiths? When a contention to these texts arises, it is always from the “opponent’s corner,” whose bias generates a misperception of injustice in that flawless sacred text. Even those who nobly try to escape their biases, they usually stumble into the opposite bias. Their greater focus on their inherent bias generates a pendulum effect heading for the opposite extreme. Consider, for instance, how some valiant women while trying to escape the pro-woman bias are usually found hastily dismissive of the very legitimate grievances feminists sometimes have. Case in point: only Allah can assess fairly, with full wisdom and neutrality, and not the human intellect, for only Allah transcends all biases. “Transcendent is He who created all the pairs; of what the earth sprouts, and of your own selves, and of things you do not know.” [36:42]
Add to the bias of your predisposed sex that of cultural conditioning. Our strongest notions of acceptance and rejection were not developed in a vacuum. Take our perception of fatherhood, for instance; it was not constructed in isolation of the foolish sitcom dads we grew up watching. Homer Simpson is a certified buffoon. Family Guy is a lowlife. In Everybody Loves Raymond, he evades all duties to play golf. In Stranger Things, the Wheeler’s dad is oblivious to who lives under his roof. In the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will’s father returns only to traumatize his son one last time.
This narrative has even crafted men’s perception of themselves, for art and literature have always been prescriptive of a culture and not just descriptive of it. Some men have internalized this narrative, becoming the runaway and video-game dads. Many others have rebelled against it, deciding that if society does not appreciate them, and has already written them all off as loser husbands and deadbeats dads, then to hell with husbandry and fatherhood. “I can fulfill my hormonal needs without the commitment of marriage and family, and dinner and a motel are far less costly anyway,” he tells himself. And though women suffer far more from the delayed marriage phenomenon than men (female infertility far precedes male infertility), the vicious downward spiral ultimately spares nobody.
Therefore, only by agreeing on an external reference point – conceding to God’s wisdom and submitting to God’s authority (Islam) – can we escape this chaos. “Does He not know what He created, and He is al-Lateef (the Most Subtle) al-Khabeer (the Best Acquainted)?” [67:14] With Allah’s guidance, the role confusion and identity crisis which becomes a family crisis is prevented. Man and woman are different, and so it is not about who can outdo the other in the same task, but who can fulfill their God-ordained duties in a superior way. Also, since this world is a finite realm, it naturally lends itself to greed and the dog-eat-dog mentality. But when reorienting our pursuits for God’s mercy which is infinite, there becomes plenty for every seeker. Only then is there no petty bickering and power struggles between the rich and poor, strong and weak, man and woman.
So again, just as fathers can never fully offer their children what mothers can, mothers can never fully offer their children what fathers can. As for those who grew up orphans or with negligent parents, Allah may intervene in ways that compensate, like He did with our Prophet (ﷺ), for only Allah is truly irreplaceable. But destiny is what we believe in, while the Shariah is what we determine our conduct by. Those who ignore the Sacred Shariah should not expect destiny to rescue them. Obey the laws of His universe, surrender to its King, or invite so much suffering into your life and that of your children.
What Do Fathers Uniquely Offer?
What benefits does a child receive from his/her relationship with dad that are notably different from those derived from their relationship with mom?
- Paternal Authority. In a well-functioning family, the very presence of the father embodies authority and discipline, and it is conveyed simply by his daily involvement in family life.
The dominant role of fathers in preventing misconduct and even psychopathology is well-established. Over fifty years ago, this phenomenon was highlighted in the classic studies on the causes of delinquency by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of Harvard University. They described in academic terms what many children hear their mothers so often say: “Wait till your father gets home!” Fathers are needed to provide that paternal authority and discipline, or else mom will have to choose between being primarily an enforcer or primarily a loving nurturer, when the kid requires both. We must accept that each parent has a primary role, even if they will inevitably wear the other hat on lesser occasions.
A major challenge in the face of capitalizing on paternal authority is that our children are a reflection of us, and so they must first see their mother respecting dad’s authority. Otherwise, the kids will begin to use mom to undermine dad, and then dad will eventually gravitate away from family involvement due to alienation or simply to avoid conflict. Outcome: paternal authority is lost and the children suffer for a lifetime.
I know “men’s authority over women” is a trigger-word for many, so let me clarify and qualify:
- Allah designated this, not men. Allah who transcends gender and is never biased. What is the wisdom behind this? Perhaps men have a greater capacity for leadership, perhaps women have a greater capacity for humility; likely both and more. However, there is a huge difference between exploring the wisdom and objecting to God.
- Authority here does not mean a powerless sex-slave who is not allowed to have an opinion. It does not even mean a parent-child dynamic, nor that mom is a robotic arm for dad’s micromanagement at home (will address men’s abuse of authority later). In Islam, absolute authority belongs only to God, but for the sake of social order, God placed some in authority over others and demands compliance for the collective good. Thus, the Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Every one of you is a shepherd and is questioned about his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is questioned about his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and is questioned about them. A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is questioned about them.” [Bukhārī 6719, Muslim 1829] Some may argue that shepherd only means responsibility, not leadership. It certainly does mean responsibility, but responsibility cannot be separated from authority. Where is the justice in a person being responsible for something they have no degree of control over?
- No joint-enterprise can ever work without authority, or else the arguments will never end, decisions will never be made, and there would be utter stagnation. Can you imagine presidential debates not ending with elections, but rather until one of the two parties convinces the other? For that reason, Allah placed a mechanism wherein authority / ultimate responsibility rests in someone’s hands. Allah designated that it be the husband, and that he gets interrogated for it. Also, remember that Islam teaches fleeing from leadership, and that those competing for it are least qualified for it. But when it is imposed upon you, do not dare fumble it, for your questioning is not like anyone else’s.
- Some may argue that men cannot be trusted with authority, since most are drunk with power. There is some truth to this, but you might as well say they cannot be trusted with money either, since most rich men are corrupt. In fact, one may even claim that men cannot be trusted with women, since most battery cases are men against women and not women against men. See where this is going? In reality, the problem is not in the presence of authority, but the absence of the greatest safeguard against human transgression and the abuse of authority: the fear of God and the cultivation of conscience. I must admit that this can be scarce in an age when Islam is largely a mere a cultural identity for many, and thus our mothers, sisters, and daughters are oppressed in many Muslim homes before our very eyes. However, whenever and wherever Islam is embraced holistically, we find shining examples that embodied “the best of you are those best to their wives.” [Sunan at-Tirmdihi]
Be certain that if a child does not experience a clear power structure at home that must be conformed to, it is so much harder for those children to grasp even God’s authority in their lives. Why? They were not accustomed to feeling that they must answer for things in life, and restrain themselves from things to avoid unwanted consequences. Consider that 85% of youth in prison had fatherless homes, and 71% of high school dropouts stem from fatherless homes. [See: Infographic] These kids desperately needed someone to instill in them frustration tolerance, and accustom them to hearing a non-negotiable “no” at times. This is a priceless developmental contribution, and none can effectively provide it like the father figure.
- Paternal Affection. These indispensable expressions of warmth enhance a father’s ability to fulfill his primary role; they offer a constant non-verbal reassurance that dad is not disciplining because he hates me. Paternal affection also has intrinsic benefit for a child, since kids thirst for different kinds of loving care; paternal and maternal. Absentee fathers create an emotional void that leaves youngsters particularly vulnerable. It should be no riddle why 2/3rd of teen pregnancies happen among girls from fatherless homes, girls who sought masculine protective love, while the wolves hunted her for other aims. In boys, their initiation into manhood is obstructed if they feel inadequate and unaccepted around their fathers. To compensate, they are found turning to sports, gangs, and gaming, seeking through them transcendence into something bigger than boyhood.
- Financial Security. Without the father’s presence, children have a 40% chance of growing up in poverty. But have the 60% who escaped poverty survived the tragedy? Far from it, for a sizable portion of financially secure fatherless homes still suffer from emotional hunger. After realizing just how consequential paternal affection is, one can only imagine how much more of a necessity a mother’s mercy and unparalleled compassion can be for a child. Now calculate what securing the finances (escaping the 40%) costed that child when mom’s presence is usually sacrificed for it (in addition to dad already being absent). Should it still then surprise us to hear that 69% of suicide deaths were from fatherless homes?
For this reason, I am just staggered by the whole role-reversal debate. Do people not see what emotional wrecks their kids would be if she worked all day while dad stayed home with the kids? As some Muslim scholars explained, God created the mother *generally* having a greater capacity for mercy, and the father *generally* having a greater capacity for justice, and hence each is tasked accordingly. Or as Dr. Jordan Peterson frequently puts it, even if from an evolutionary-survivalist paradigm, studies consistently show that women are far more agreeable (able to sacrifice self for child) while men are far more conscientious (task-oriented, industrious). The point here is not that women should never work, but that they should never feel their work at home is inferior, or that the father can substitute just as well.
Where Do Men Need to Man Up?
- Revisiting Authority. Men must own the task of trimming their own feathers and dieting their own egos. Allah entrusted you with this leadership, to invoke it for the betterment of the family, not for selfish interests. Even if your heart may be in the right place, people rebel without breathing room and under excessive constraints. Remember that the same man (ﷺ) who deemed you head of the family showed us that this is a duty to serve and protect. Would he (ﷺ) not milk for himself, and stitch for himself, whenever he could? Would he (ﷺ) not outdo everyone in forgiving infringement on his rights, and outdo everyone in restraining anger? Would he (ﷺ) not simply say “Then I’m fasting,” [Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim] when food was not available in the house?
Leaders complain least and get served last. Leaders lead by example. What made people accept Umar ’s strict leadership? Simply put, they were compelled by his genuineness, for they saw him tougher on himself than he was on them. Certainly, a wife may be wrong for defying you, and is defying Allah in the process, but are you so certain you did not encourage this, perhaps by missing prayers, uttering profanity, watching obscenity, or acting violently? When this is the case, then you come along and selectively cite an ayah or hadith, do not be very hopeful. You may have denied your own request, and failed your family in the process. Leaders lead by example.
- Valuing Affection. Allah made receiving His mercy contingent upon having mercy on people at large, and youngsters in particular, for obvious reasons. Withholding expressions of love and affection from the kids, or leaving this to the mother alone, is devastating and merciless. When al-Aqra‘ b. Ḥābis (rA) witnessed the Prophet (ﷺ) kissing his grandson, he boasted of never kissing any of this ten sons, to which the Prophet (ﷺ) said, “What can I possibly offer you if Allah has pulled the mercy from your heart?” [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhāri] It is sad to see that in the United States alone, 20 million kids have no physical father present, but also millions more with a father who is physically present but emotionally absent. In Muslim communities, all too often do I encounter fathers who are not only callous with their children, but even mock the mothers for being tender with them.
At times, fathers employ roughness with their sons to avoid them becoming “softies”. Ironically, this very behavior is actually conducive to becoming a “softy” for belligerence breeds a lack of self-respect (succumbs to force). And at times, it purges from the child all traces of empathy, numbing him/her into a rebellious menace, and thus 70% of adolescents in juvenile correctional facilities come from fatherless homes. Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University, observed as early as 1959 that delinquents suffer from an absence of the father’s affection. (See: Albert Bandura and R.H. Walters, Adolescent Aggression (1959))
- Sacred Financial Duty. We have already established that in 40% of US homes, the mother is the primary breadwinner, and why that is dangerous, but why does it exist? We must recognize that no sensible woman wants to make her child choose between their emotional and financial needs, and that many only assumed the breadwinner role after the man neglected it. Here are two major reasons why men fall into this:
First, many men stipulate appreciation for service, so ingratitude yielded interruption of service. Certainly, the Prophet (ﷺ) severely cautioned women against being ungrateful to their husbands, but from the perspective of male duties, this is where the consistency of working for Allah comes into play. You are not earning money for them because they are thankful, but rather because you are bankrupt for Allah’s pleasure. Never forget that the Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Out of the dinar (gold-currency) that you spend in Allah’s path, that which you free a slave with, that which you donate to the needy, and that which you spend on your family, the one yielding the greatest reward is that which you spend on your family.” [Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim] A person may wonder why spending on one’s own family is a highly rewarded act of devotion in Islam. This is only fully understood by those who lived firsthand the fatigue of worrying about the family’s finances as they lay to sleep and once they open their eyes, whether healthy or sick, whether thanked or spited. For the stability of the home, Allah is telling the providers that I know your work behind closed doors may not be appreciated, but I appreciate you.
Second, many men simply exploit their wives, emotionally guilting them for staying home all day and “not helping the family with anything”. Such men have unwittingly bought into the “only worth is financial contribution” hype, in addition to the “all women sit at home idle all day watching soap operas” stereotype. This is particularly sad, especially coming from a Muslim, and even more so after his wife has undertaken the jihad of motherhood. “Working mother” is a redundant statement; a full time job and then some. Also, the mother is the child’s first teacher, who educates through her mundane yet profound daily interactions with the child, and through the earliest conversations with that child when they are discovering under mom’s wings what it really means to be human. Expecting mothers to earn wages outside for many hours, as the norm, is unfair to them and to the children, just as expecting fathers to be stay-at-home dads, as the norm, is unfair to them and to the children. And from a biological angle, we cannot ask mothers to work because we are not asking fathers to bear children. Again, this is not arguing that a mother should never contribute outside the home, but rather that men should never expect her to, just as she should not choose to at the expense of her children.
A Final Plea
Nothing can save our children from the storms they face and will face after us, not even two fully-functional parents. Only Allah can do this, and our appeal to Him starts with appreciating and embracing without resistance the definitive guidance He privileged us with.
The biggest threat to your children is not poverty, nor homelessness, nor drugs, nor prison, nor suicide. These tragedies are all dwarfed by the fact that 23% of US Muslims no longer identify with their childhood religion. It was for that very reason that Nūḥ , pleaded with son before the waves separated them by calling out, “O my dear son! Ride with us, and be not among the disbelievers.” [11:42] Notice that he did not say, “and do not be among those who drown”, because even the loss of life can be compensated for, while meeting Allah a disbeliever is the ultimate doom. This is what is at stake, and yet we are still trying to experiment and run away from our duties, selfishly pursuing our self-defined individuality at the expense of our family and community. Each of us needs a moment of pause; to swallow our pride a bit, and renew our confidence in Allah a bit. Allah will never disappoint us. We must look up to the heavens for guidance, not around to those equally in darkness.
It is quite possible that I failed at articulating my thoughts here. Forgive me if that be the case, and kindly extend your feedback on how this can be better explained, because the next batch of children are not waiting for us to get our act together. And all praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds.
After Allah, special thanks must be extended to Dr. Hussam al-Harash and Dr. Zara Khan for their guidance on this paper. I pray Allah repays you in ways that I never could for your time.