Serious Considerations in Mixed Groups: Interacting with Members of the Opposite Sex At Work

Posted on March 5, 2007


Source: Arab News. Reprinted here with permission.
Dr. Abd Al-Haleem Abu Shuqqah

Note from Rafik Beekun: This article is reproduced here because of the increased interaction between men and women in the workplace, and the need for Muslims and Muslimahs to understand and abide by the Islamic etiquette of conduct among members of the opposite sex.

Men and women frequently meet, even in the most segregated of societies. Therefore, Islam, a code of living that attaches much importance to moral values and looks at all aspects of life from a serious angle, provides clear guidelines to outline acceptable Islamic behavior when people meet socially or when attending to their needs. The first of these guidelines is that which the Qur’an terms as “lowering one’s gaze.” The Qur’an instructs the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the following way: “Tell believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity. This is most conducive to their purity. God is certainly aware of all that they do. And tell believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity.” (24: 30-31)

Scholars give clear explanation of what is meant by “lowering one’s gaze,” pointing out a fine point in the Arabic expression that is very difficult to render in the English translation of the Qur’anic text. The requirement is to lower one’s gaze a little, not to adopt an unnatural posture, such as looking at the ground all the time when one finds oneself in mixed company. However, a scholar like Ibn Al-Arabi explains that the “lowering” means that people should not stare fixedly at members of the opposite sex, while Iyad points out that to look at the parts of another person which Islam requires to be covered is forbidden, while lowering one’s gaze when looking at other parts may be required in certain cases. Ibn Abd Al-Barr mentions that “looking innocently at a woman’s face and hands is permissible for all, while a look that expresses how a man fancies a woman is forbidden, even though she is well dressed.” Ibn Daqeeq Al-Eid explains that the verse may be taken to refer to a situation where people may be infatuated with each other.

Al-Bukhari relates the Hadith in which a pretty woman from the tribe of Khath‘am stopped the Prophet (s) to ask him about certain things. The Prophet (s) had behind him on the same mount his young cousin Al-Fadl ibn Al-Abbas. The Hadith mentions that “Al-Fadl kept staring at the woman admiring her beauty and the Prophet (s) stretched his hand from behind to turn Al-Fadl’s face away from her.” In his commentary on this Hadith, Ibn Hajar, the author of Fath Al-Bari, quotes Ibn Battal, an earlier scholar, who says: “The Hadith indicates an order to lower one’s gaze when strong attraction is feared. If this is not the case, the order does not apply. It also indicates that the Qur’anic instruction requires lowering one’s gaze so as not to look at any part of a woman’s body other than her face.”

Ibn Abbas explains that minor sins are those indicated by the Hadith in which Abu Hurayrah quotes the Prophet (s) as saying: “God has assigned to every person his share of fornication which he is bound to have. The eye’s fornication is through its gaze, while the tongue’s is through speech. A person may wish and desire, but it is the genital that makes it all a reality or refrains from doing so.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.) This Hadith shows clearly that what is forbidden is a gaze accompanied by desire, which means that an ordinary look that is not coupled with desire constitutes no sin.

Another Hadith gives lady Ayesha’s (ra) report of an event that took place in the Prophet’s mosque. She says: “… It was a festive occasion when the Africans played with shields and spears. Either I asked the Prophet (s) or he said to me, ‘Would you like to watch?’ I answered in the affirmative. He placed me behind him.” In another version she adds: “He screened me with his robe.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.) Ibn Hajar, the author of a voluminous commentary on Al-Bukhari’s authentic anthology, the Sahih, says: “This addition indicates that the occasion took place after the order to the Prophet’s wives to be screened was issued. The Hadith indicates the permissibility of women’s looking at men.

To sum up, social meeting between men and women entails that they look at each other. This is perfectly all right, as long as they behave decently, not gazing hard at each other or coupling their gaze with desire.

Another important aspect is to avoid shaking hands between men and women at all times. If we are required to lower our gaze in the first place, avoiding touching each other is even more desirable, because physical contact is more likely to stir desire than a mere look. We have several Hadiths that show the preference to avoid such physical contact, although they do not prohibit it when needed.

The first Hadith shows that the Prophet (s) did not shake hands with women when they pledged allegiance to him. Ayesha reports: “The Prophet (s) used to test women who emigrated to Madinah with regard to their belief, in accordance with the terms of the relevant Qur’anic verse, ‘Prophet, when believing women come to pledge their allegiance to you, that they would not associate any partners with God, and would not steal, commit adultery, kill their children, fabricate a falsehood between their hands and feet, or disobey you in anything right, then accept their pledge of allegiance, and pray to God to forgive them.’ (60: 12) When a woman accepts these terms, the Prophet (s) would say to her in words, ‘I accept your pledge.’ By God, never did the Prophet touch a woman’s hand as he accepted her pledge of allegiance.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.)

On the other hand, we have Hadiths that indicate the permissibility of physical contact when needed. Anas ibn Malik reports: “Any woman in Madinah could come to the Prophet and take him by the hand anywhere she wanted.” (Related by Al-Bukhari.) Ibn Hajar adds another version of this Hadith related by Ahmad: “Any woman servant from Madinah could come to the Prophet and take God’s Messenger by the hand. He would not take his hand out of hers. He would go with her wherever she wanted.”

Al-Rubayyi‘ bint Mu‘awwidh, a woman companion of the Prophet, said: “We, women, used to join the Prophet on jihad to give water to the fighter and serve them.” In another version she is quoted as saying: “We used to attend to the wounded, and send them back to Madinah.” (Related by Al-Bukhari.)

We can reconcile the different versions, one stating the Prophet’s avoidance of shaking hands with women and the other allowing physical contact. The Prophet avoided shaking hands because it is a significant contact, which would have become frequent, particularly in the Prophet’s case as he always met men and women in large numbers. That would have created numerous occasions for shaking hands, as a greeting, or to request his prayers, or to pledge allegiance to him. This does not preclude other forms of physical contact which served to fulfil certain needs that were less frequent, or with certain women who were unlikely to stir any feelings. This means that in the first type of contact, i.e. giving the pledge of allegiance, the Prophet did not exclude the element of feelings in relation to women coming in large numbers and did not find a strong reason for shaking hands, while in the second there was clear need. From another point of view, the Prophet frequently met Umm Sulaym and her sister, Umm Haram, the mother and aunt of Anas, his servant, respectively. In their cases, and some other ones, there was no suggestion of any desire element.

In summing up we say that the Prophet’s avoidance of shaking hands with women indicates that it is generally discouraged, but not forbidden. This discouragement is made by way of educating his community and to close the doors that lead to sin. Scholars agree that closing such doors is graded as preferable, not imperative. We think that we will be good followers of the Prophet’s guidance if we try to generally avoid shaking hands and physical contact with the opposite sex, while conceding that it can be done in cases where it is unlikely to stir desire, provided that there is reasonable justification for it. This is the case when such shaking hands is seen as a means of establishing trust or exchanging noble feelings between believers, as in the case of relatives and close friends, or on suitable occasions such as welcoming travelers on their return, or offering condolences, or encouraging good action.

In our present day society, where shaking hands between men and women is frequent when they meet, we may need to be a little flexible, particularly if this means avoiding causing embarrassment. Such flexibility may be needed, particularly when we consider that there is no clear statement prohibiting such contact.

Important note from Rafik Beekun: The reason why Allah in the Qur’an asks us to lower our gaze when dealing members of the opposite sex has now been substantiated by the latest discoveries in neuroscience. Please watch this amazing video about social intelligence below to understand the perfect knowledge of Allah that underlies His Commands:

Fatwa from Islam on line about man-woman friends at work:

On this topic, Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states:

“It is common knowledge that in Islam, fornication and adultery are grave sins and committing either bears serious consequences in this world and the Hereafter.

However, what is not so well known is that while declaring fornication and adultery as haram (forbidden), Islam does not merely forbid the actual acts, but it also declares as forbidden each and every circumstance or way that leads to fornication and adultery. Allah says, “Do not come near fornication, for it is indeed lewdness and an evil life-style.” (Al-Isra’: 32)

Explaining this, the Prophet said, “The fornication of the eyes is staring, the fornication of the ears is listening, the fornication of the tongue is talking, the fornication of the hands is holding, the fornication of the feet is walking, the fornication of the heart/mind is craving and lusting, and finally, the private parts confirm or negate it.” He also said, “Staring is one of the arrows of Satan.” In another report, he said, “You are allowed to have the first accidental look (which is unintentional), but do not continue to stare.” […]

Having friendship with members of the opposite gender may lead to staring, lustful thoughts, flirtatious behavior and seduction. Although it may not always be the case, there is no way to tell when it could happen and when it would not happen. That is why it is forbidden to mingle and mix freely with members of the opposite sex and to develop friendships with them. It is all part of zina (fornication), which Allah and His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) strongly ordered us to abstain from.

Allah, the Almighty has given us laws in order to guard us against the evils that are inherent in our own souls. One recent study conducted about male-female interaction in the workplace concluded that one in every three women had been sexually involved with a co-worker or boss.  (Note from Rafik Beekun: in another survey in 2005, 36% of men stated that they have had sexual relations with at least one female co-worker.) If this is the case in a professional, business-like environment, then the potential for illicit relations in more casual circumstances has much greater potential. Thus, Allah, the Almighty has been most gracious by not only forbidding fornication and adultery, but also by closing all the doors that lead to them.”