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Be sincere in your interactions

 

The Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught us, “Truly, actions are according to their intentions.”1 All interaction with God’s creation is a reflection of our interaction with the Creator. When a person truly relies on God and seeks Him first and foremost, they let go of the need for approval from others and seek it only from Him (swt). As a result, the way they work with others has to do with God’s approval, not that of others. When we deal with the opposite sex, it’s important to make sure we are not *needy for some form of approval from them, and especially the kind that should only be sought from a spouse (ie: sexual attention, seeking their admiration). However, God loves for us to love and respect our brothers and sisters. If we’re seeking God’s approval in our interactions, then we open our hearts in a noble way towards one another with the best of manners. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and the general energy brought into interactions should be respectful and professional. One who is sincere in seeking only Allah’s approval and not wanting something from the people will find it very natural to follow the rest of the guidelines.

 

Make your interaction purposeful and professional

 

There’s an Islamic legal maxim that states, “The origins of things is permissibility.” In other words, unless there is something that is expressly prohibited when it comes to interactions and worldly issues, it is allowed. However, when it came to the issue of gender relations specifically, some scholars used a different maxim: “The origin of inter-gender interactions is impermissibility, unless expressly permitted.” In other words, inter-gender interaction, unless there was an absolute necessity, major benefit attained, major harm prevented, or something not considered harmful in a particular cultural context, would generally be avoided.

 

These scholars also cited the principle of sadd al-tharee’ah—that whatever leads to a prohibited act in and of itself becomes prohibited. In this regard, cultural context becomes increasingly important. This is because in some cultures, specific actions may be misunderstood as an invitation to something prohibited, while in others, it is simply a respectful interaction.

 

Cover your ‘awra (nakedness)

 

An important point of clarification is needed here. When we think of a woman’s public dress in Islam, the Prophetic understanding was that it was a level more modest than that of men. There is an incident where the Prophet gives a companion a thawb (dress) and later sees that companion and asks him why he does not wear it. The companion says he let his wife wear it. To this the Prophet encourages him to tell his wife to wear something under it because he fears that her form would show if she wears it without a layer under it (the way a man would). In other words, the ‘awra of a woman requires an additional standard of looseness.

 

Lower your gaze

 

God commands the believing men and women to lower from their gazes in the Qur’an.5 The imperative word here is “from.” Scholars have commented that looking at each other in and of itself is not prohibited, for if it was the word “from” would have been omitted in the command. However, the command indicates there are some gazes that are not allowed, and this based on Prophetic guidance includes the lustful gaze as well as looking at what is considered ‘awra. Yet, it is common practice for men and women in Muslim activist settings to avoid looking at one another directly in the eyes or in the face, and they are dressed modestly. Some scholars have mentioned that this is praiseworthy as a form of respect. However, in the greater western context, not making eye contact is usually considered awkward and can be seen as distrustful and in an instance like this, we can take our general cultural custom to inform the way we interact within the aforementioned Islamic boundaries.

 

Keep it public

 

The Prophet taught us “…Satan is the third person in an isolated area (khalwah) where there is only a man with a (non-mahram) woman…” (Ibn Al-Atheer – Sahih).

 

This narration indicates that being alone with one person of the opposite gender equality in Islam who is not a direct relative (mahram) is prohibited in Islam. Being alone constitutes any space which is locked and opaque, or open but totally isolated.

 

Protect your reputation

 

At the outset, it must be stated that the concept of a reputation is misused at times. Sometimes, parents do not allow their daughters specifically to do certain things that they consider immodest or immoral within a specific cultural context due to a fear of what others may say about them. This sometimes causes young women to feel angry and frustrated and often blame Islam for being restrictive when in reality, it’s a specific concept their family has about what is and isn’t appropriate. Misusing the concept of protecting one’s honor has negative and unnecessary ramifications. And yes, people should make 70 excuses for what they see or hear about others. However, at the same time, there is a place in Islam for protecting our reputation and not putting ourselves in situations where another believer may feel concerned about us.

 

No touching

 

The Messenger stated, “It is better for an iron rod to be driven into the head of a man, than for him to touch a woman who is not permissible for him.” (Mu’jam al Kabir) Though the word ‘touch’ here is understood by some scholars to be a euphemism for fornication, generally the principle is applied for all unnecessary (non-medical, etc.) touching, as derived from the Prophetic biography.

 

God tells us, “And do not come near unlawful sexual intercourse.” Not touching is a preventative measure as to what can come that’s greater. The Prophet never shook hands when he took the Pledge of Aqaba from the female companions, though he did with the men. This shows at the very least that touching, even by shaking hands with the opposite gender, is not generally encouraged. There should be no casual high fives, no hugs, no physical interaction between sexes who are not closely blood related or married. Not even if you’re “promised” to one another and going to be married soon. Unless you have your written marriage contract (known as the “katb al-kitab” or “`aqd” or “nikah” in different cultures and sometimes considered an engagement after the contract is signed), no physical touching should happen.

 

Be respectful of people’s personal space and levels of comfort

 

We deal with different Muslims from different backgrounds. We do not want to impose our gender interaction cultural norms on them. We should try to engage them with what is comfortable for them, without giving up our own rights. This is just basic consideration for how others feel, male and female. Once the Prophet even changed the way he was sitting out of his consideration for the modesty of Uthman (ra):

 

Aisha reports: The Prophet was lying down in his house with his thighs or his calves exposed. Abu Bakr asked permission to enter and was permitted while the Prophet was in that position and he came in and spoke with him . Then, Umar asked permission to enter. He was granted permission and came in and spoke with him while in that position. Then, Uthman asked permission and the Prophet sat up and straightened his clothing. He was then permitted and came in and spoke with the Prophet . After he had gone, Aisha said: Abu Bakr entered and you did not get up for him or worry about him and Umar came in and you did not get up for him nor worry about him but when Uthman came in, you straightened out your clothing! The Prophet said: “Should I not be shy of a man around whom the angels are shy?” (Muslim)

 

Speak in a decent manner

 

Perhaps there is no single behavior that more clearly defines our manners than speech. Allah (swt) has many commands about speech in the Qur’an. Its content should be good and decent (2:235). Its tone should be straight-forward (33:70). It should not be made soft on purpose (33:32). It should not be loud and arrogant (31:19). There should be no vain or excessive speech (23:3).

 

This is interesting as 90% of communication is non-verbal, and most perception comes from our tone of voice. And nothing affects tone of voice like intention. When the intention is good, speech is naturally unaffected and straight-forward, good in both content and delivery. The best way to examine our own hearts sometimes is to use our speeches as a window to ourselves so we can ask, “What is going on inside?”

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