What does it mean to be a man? What is masculinity? Is it everything? Is it nothing? Many people are troubled by discussions about masculinity. Ibn ‘Arabi (Allah have mercy upon him) said that there is no proper definition for love that is more obvious that what the word evokes.
Masculinity and its counterpart femininity are similar in that regard.
The words masculinity and femininity both suggest traits and qualities that are found in every culture (so no, they are not all culturally determined and relative). Ontologically, a man and woman are equal—equal in the sense that they are both “human” and created to fulfill the function of vicegerent on earth (khalifa).
Man-as-vicegerent therefore represents the qualities of vigor, rigor, majesty, force, activity, etc., and Woman-as-vicegerent represents the qualities of nurturing, beauty, softness, passivity, etc.
What we need to understand is that masculinity and femininity are complementaries, not oppositions. They are unitive and not separative like positive and negative. Masculinity involves elements of femininity, and femininity involves elements of masculinity—jalal (rigor) with jamal (beauty) and jamal with jalal (just as every Yang has an element of Yin, and every Yin has an element of Yang). Each has an ideal expression, and each faces the possibility of assuming a negative function. For masculinity there is a danger of contraction and hardening, and in femininity there is a danger of dissolving and indefinite exteriorization. (On a purely physical level, a man runs the risk of injury if he goes too hard too long without restoration and recovery, just as he runs the risk of being doughy and soft if he spends too much time lying around and inactive.) A very simple way of defining masculinity is to say that it is the ideal manifestation of jalal and activity, tempered by a degree of jamal and passivity. A masculine man possesses the universal virtues shared between men and women, but expressed in a manner that is consistent with the rigorous and active nature of masculinity. Likewise, a feminine woman possesses the universal virtues shared between men and women, but expressed in a manner that is consistent with the passive nature of femininity. If you define masculinity as just a collection of virtues that women also have, you are missing the point. And if you define masculinity solely in biological terms, you fail to define Man-as-vicegerent. The masculine jalali expression of the universal virtues shows up in all areas of a balanced man’s life—or at the very least he acknowledges them and tries to move in their direction. He does not join the cacophony of voices that call for a “rethinking of masculinity.”