In this talk, Shaykh Surkheel (aka Abu Aaliyah) explores the most comprehensive verse in the Qur’an, as it relates to the core character of a believer. He then looks at three scholarly wisdoms which, taken collectively, sum-up the content of character for a Muslim. The first of them is Imam al-Zarnuji’s words: “The best knowledge is knowledge of one’s state, and the best action is to safeguard that state.” The next is the saying of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani: “Be with the Real [God], without creation; and with creation, without ego.” The last is this gem of an advice from Yahya b. Mu‘adh al-Razi: “Let your dealing with another person be of three types: If you cannot benefit him, do not harm him. If you cannot gladden him, do not sadden him. If you cannot speak well of him, do not speak ill of him.” Watch here.
Allah ﷻ informs in the Holy Qur’an: Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14] Although such things are elsewhere spoken of positively in the Qur’an, as blessings for which people should be thankful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet. Unsurprisingly, women top the list. This fact rings loudly in a hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ informed: ‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’1 It’s a warning that only a fool or a fasiq would be keen to overlook or take lightly. Another hadith states: ‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was to do with women.’2
If alcohol breaks inhibitions such that people will sexually behave in ways they usually wouldn’t when they are sober, then the devil is even more potent in removing modesty, boundaries and inhibitions between the sexes. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘A woman is ‘awrah; whenever she goes out, the devil beautifies her.’3
The word ‘awrah, often translated into English as ‘nakedness’, can also mean weakness, vulnerability or something that is unseemly and indecent.4 Women are considered to be ‘awrah because of their desirability. In Islam, the feminine form – desirable, alluring and sensuous in the privacy of the marital home – should not be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves.
Of course, in our e-world awash with sin, porn and the sexualisation of even children, such revealed wisdom is unlikely to be received with the openness it would have done in a not so long ago age. Notions of modesty, decency or respectability with regard to how the sexes should interact are utterly alien to our consumer-driven, sexually-charged culture. To even suggest, as Islam does, that there could be a modest or dignified way of being a ‘lady’ (and, of course, a ‘gentleman’) is to court ridicule or scorn from an often uncritical public: some may even shout misogyny. I’ve previously written on contemporary gender interactions in Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: Gender Relations,so I’ll confine myself to these few remarks:
The principles of modesty, restraint and respectability have long been written out of our social norms and mores, and this was bound to impact Muslim attitudes too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions; if one of them is removed, the other follows.’5 Indeed, as Muslims themselves begin to relax these principles, or compromise them in the hope of being welcomed to the table of liberal sensibilities, can we perhaps see in where it has led others, where we too could be heading?
It’s not just the hijab or niqab we’re talking about. It runs far deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; it’s about how one carries themselves; of how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender. Ultimately, it’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to its Lord.
Allah ﷻ commands: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do.[24:30]. On citing this verse, Ibn al-Qayyim noted:
‘Allah put purification after lowering one’s gaze and guarding the private parts. This is why restraining the gaze from the forbidden necessitates three benefits of great worth and tremendous significance. Firstly, [experiencing] the sweetness and delight of faith that is far sweeter, pleasant or delightful than that which the gaze was left, or averted from, for Allah’s sake. Indeed, whoever leaves a thing for Allah’s sake, He shall replace it with what is better than it.6 The soul is deeply enamoured with gazing at beautiful forms. The eye is the scout for the heart, and it sends its scout out to see what’s there. If the eye informs it of something it finds visually attractive and beautiful, it is moved to desire it … Whoever allows their gaze to roam free will constantly be in regret. For the gaze gives rise to love, which begins with the heart having an attachment (‘alaqah) to what it is beholden too. As it strengthens, it becomes an ardent longing (sababah); the heart now hopelessly besotted with it. Growing more, it becomes an infatuation (gharam); it sticks to the heart as a creditor (gharim) sticks to his debtor (gharimah) from whom he doesn’t part. Growing stronger, still, it becomes passionate love (‘ishq); an excessive love. Then it becomes a burning love (shaghaf); a love which reaches to the very lining of the heart and enters it. Intensifying further, it becomes worshipful love (tatayyum) … the heart becoming a slave [worshipper] of that which it isn’t worthy of being enslaved to. And all of this is because of the harmful gaze.’7
Leave aside the debate on whether the greater onus is on women dressing modestly, or men lowering their gaze. There’s no doubt that in today’s ambiance it falls upon men to lower their gaze and to refrain from the lustful, illicit and harmful glance. Shaykh Jaleel Akhoon recently remarked that sins usually leave a black stain on the heart, that can be cleansed through the act of contrition and repentance. But if the heart is captive to the object of its love; enslaved to it by its ‘ishq, then this is worse than the ‘usual’ sin. For the heart isn’t just stained or darkened, he stressed; it is inverted. This has certain echoes of Ibn al-Qayyim when he said: ‘Many a passionate lover will admit they have no place at all in their heart for other than their passionate love. Instead, they let their passionate love completely conquer their heart, thereby becoming an avid worshipper of it … There is no comparison between the harm of this dire matter and the harm wrought by sexual misconduct (fahishah). For this sin is a major one for the one who commits it, but the evil of this ‘ishq is that of idolatry (shirk). A shaykh from the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) said: “That I be tested with sexual misconduct by this beautiful form is more preffered to me than to be tested with it through ‘ishq, by which my heart worships it and is diverted from Allah by it.”‘8
The cure, Shaykh Jaleel says, is that as soon as the heart is tempted by what it must not gaze at, one reins in the gaze and diverts it from the haram or harmful. No effort can be spared in doing so, lest the forbidden glance secretes its poison into the heart, causing it irreparable injury, anguish and torment.
We Ask Allah for safety, sensibility and success.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5096; Muslim, nos.3740-41.
2. Muslim, no.2742.
3. Al-Bazzar, no.2061; at-Tirmidhi, no.1173, who said it is hasan gharib.
5. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who declared: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’
6. Possibly paraphrasing the hadith: ‘Indeed, you will not leave anything for the sake of Allah, except that Allah will replace it with something better.’ Ahmad, no.22565, and its chain is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), 1:62; no.5
7. Ighathat al-Lahfan fi Masayid al-Shaytan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 75. The other two benefits he discusses are: Secondly, the heart being illumined and given to see with spiritual clarity and insight; thirdly, the heart is given strength, courage, firmness and honour.
8. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Saudi Arabia: Imam Dar al-Hijrah, 2014), 514-5.
Imam al-Hajjawi (d.968H/1561CE) – author of a celebrated Hanbali fiqh text, al-Iqna‘, and its abridgement, Zad a-Mustaqni‘ – wrote the following as part of his commentary to a famous Hanbali adab-poem:
‘It has been said: The allegory of faith (iman) is as a fortress having five walls. The first [innermost] is made of gold; the second of silver; the third of iron; the fourth, baked bricks; and the fifth [outermost wall] from mud bricks. As long as the inhabitants of the fortress are diligent in guarding the clay wall, the enemy will not set its sights on [attacking] the next wall. But if they become negligent, they will attack the next wall, then the next, till the entire fortress lays in ruins.
‘In a similar way, faith is defended by five walls: certainty (yaqin), then comes sincerity (ikhlas), next up is performance of the obligations (ada’ al-fara’id), after which are the recommended acts (sunan), and lastly guarding beautiful behaviour (adab). So long as adab is guarded and defended, the Devil will not find a way in.
‘If, however, adab is neglected, Satan makes inroads into the sunan, then the fara’id, then ikhlas, and finally yaqin itself.’1
Given that ours is an age in which the distinction between halal and haram are being ever more blurred; and given our age also challenges religious conviction and seeks to undermine the foundations of revealed faith, believers must always be on their guard against this encroaching onslaught. Crucial to all this is to ensure we are well-rooted in: knowledge of God, knowledge of Self, and knowledge of Sin.
1. Sharh Manzumat al-Adab (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 36.
In this tafakkur or ‘meditation’ upon the Qur’an, we explore the Islamic teachings on justice – what it means, its place in our religion, how it permeates the entire shari‘ah, and the dire consequences to nations and societies when justice is ignored or thrown to the wind. In fact, as we’ll see, the current state of the Muslim world owes much to a lack of justice. For as far as worldly affairs go, Allah’s help is with societies wherein justice prevails, even if it is a non-Muslim one, more than it is with societies wherein justice is lax, even if they be Muslim ones. The meditation will also contrast notions of justice with that of equality, and touch upon the view of ‘Islamic Feminism’. Below, then, is the verse around which the meditations will revolve:
O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. [5:8]
Meditations upon the above verse about justice (‘adl), fairness (insaf) and equity (qist) include:
1 – This verse comes a few verses after Allah commanded the Muslims: Let not hatred of a people that barred you from the Sacred Mosque cause you to commit aggression. [5:2] Here, believers are told to restrain themselves and not to retaliate, even against those who had barred them from visiting the Ka‘bah in Makkah; especially during the year known as the Year of al-Hudaybiyyah. This, undeniably, is a high standard of restraint and tolerance that Revelation elevated them to. But the verse we are meditating upon demands an even higher standard. For the first verse [5:2] required reigning in feelings of revenge and retaliation; the second [5:8] requires maintaining justice towards one and all, even when there is enmity or animosity. The first verse demands passive self-restraint; the second, a proactive establishment of justice towards even those who are hostile and belligerent to believers. Such is Islam’s bidding to justice.
2 – The Quranic insistence on justice can be found in many verses, like the following: Allah commands you to render back things held in trust to their rightful owners, and if you judge between people, that you judge justly. [4:58] In the next verse we are warned not to swerve from the demands of justice, whether for family, financial, social or personal gain or desire: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and weather it be against rich or poor. [4:135] And: Then, if it returns, make peace between them fairly, and act justly. Surely Allah loves those who act justly. [49:9] Such is its virtue, that those who stand up for justice or act justly are admitted into al-maqam al-mahbubiyyah – “the Station of Being Beloved to Allah” and, in the Hereafter, ‘will be with Allah, seated on thrones of light at the right hand of the All-Merciful.’1
3 – Before moving on, let us pause for a minute in order to consider what we mean by the word ‘justice’. The Arabic term for justice, ‘adl, pretty much conveys the sense of what it does in English. ‘Adl can mean: justice, fairness, rectitude, equivalence, equity, or balance.2 Another way of understanding justice is to contrast it with its opposite: injustice. Arabs say: bi didiha tatabayyan al-ashya’ – ‘By their opposite are things best clarified.’ The Arabic word for injustice is: zulm, which Arab lexicalists define as: wad‘ al-shay’ fi ghayri mawdi‘ihi – ‘Putting something in other than its proper place.’3 Thus justice is to put a thing in its proper place. Which is to say, justice is to give each thing its due – at its due time, its due place, and in its due measure. Preliminaries over, let’s ponder the verse in a bit more detail:
4 – Addressing people of faith (iman), the verse states: O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. Which is almost identical to another verse: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to Allah. [4:135] The only difference between the two is a slight shift in word order. In 4:135, the word qist (justice, equity) is placed towards the beginning of the verse; in 5:8, it is placed towards the end. The subtle distinction was explained by some scholars as follows: There are two causes why someone will swerve from the dictates of justice and equity and fall into injustice and oppression. The first is a bias towards one’s self, one’s family, or one’s friends. The other is enmity towards someone. Verse 4:135 addresses the former; 5:8 tackles the latter. Thus, after the order to be just, 4:135 specifies: even though it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and weather it be against rich or poor. While 5:8 insists: And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just. The gist of 4:135 is that one never sides with one’s self, family, relatives of friends if it means being unjust. In other words, if they oppose justice, side with justice and oppose them. The gist of 5:8 is that one must never allow animosity or ill will against people to be a cause for behaving unjustly or violating their rights. In 4:135, Be upright for justice comes first so no one is led to think that by siding with self-interests, family or relatives, over justice, one is maintaining family ties and hence is being obedient to Allah: they certainly are not! In contrast, 5:8 begins with Be upright for Allah so that feelings of revenge and retaliation are guided and regulated by Allah’s command, so that no injustice is perpetrated; not even against an enemy.4
5 – Some of the ramifications of the above Quranic call for justice may be seen in the following hadiths: Al-Numan b. Bashir reported how he once gave a gift to just one of his children, but the wife said she would not accept this unless the Prophet ﷺ was a witness to it. So he went to the Prophet ﷺ to request him to witness it. The Prophet ﷺ asked him: ‘Have you given gifts to all your children?’ He replied that he hadn’t. So the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Fear Allah, and be just between your children.’ He ﷺ then said: ‘I do not bear witness to injustice.’5 So parents displaying outward favouritism to one child over another is considered an injustice (zulm) and is thus detested in Islam, due to the psychological harms, resentment or ill feelings it often breeds. The Prophet ﷺ said that Allah ﷻ said: ‘O My servants, I have forbidden injustice for Myself and have made if forbidden amongst you, so do no injustice to one another.’6 Also the hadith: ‘Beware the supplication of the oppressed one, even if he is an unbeliever; for there is no veil between it and Allah.’7
6 – Justice, as the saying goes, must be blind. There can’t be any favouritism, tribalism or partisanship, except to the truth. Justice, as we have seen, must be sided with; be it to friend or foe. And just as the Qur’an forbids injustice towards hostile non-Muslims, then more so the case with Muslim brethren who may be open sinners or innovators. Ibn Taymiyyah has written: ‘The leading scholars of [ahl] al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah, and the people of knowledge and faith, have in them knowledge, justice and compassion. They know the truth that accords with the prophetic guidance and that is free of any innovation. They act justly toward those who depart from it [orthodoxy], even if they have been wronged; just as Allah, exalted is He, says: O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. They show mercy to others; desiring for them goodness, guidance and knowledge. They do not intend harm for them at the outset. But if they do have to bring them to book, it is only to clarify their error, ignorance or wrong doing. Their intent in this is to clarify truth, show mercy to others, enjoin good and forbid evil, so that religion is purely for Allah and the Divine Word is made supreme.’8 So our da‘wah must be corrective – in other words, our teaching and outreach must entail clarifying and defending revealed truths from doubts, distortions, fabrications and baseless interpretations. This must only be undertaken with righteous intentions; seasoned knowledge; justice, balance and proportionality; courage, compassion and mercy; and seeking the good of people. Anything else will entail ignorance, injustice and the following of false desires.
7 – Expounding on the essence and inherent nature of Islam’s Sacred law or shari‘ah, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim reveals that justice is its essential feature. He explains: ‘Indeed, [Allah] transcendent is He, has clarified in the paths He has legislated that its purpose is: to establish justice between His servants and equity between people. So any path by which justice and equity are drawn out is part of the religion, and can never be in opposition to it.’9 Elsewhere he writes: ‘The shari‘ah is based and built upon wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in both this life and the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue that departs from justice to injustice, mercy to its opposite, public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly cannot be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’10
8 – In speaking of justice, many well-intended Muslims are unconsciously secularised. Their discourse is often scarred by failing to grasp its Quranic essence – to put a thing in its rightful place; to give things their due. This requires knowledge about the value and measure of things, as Islam assigns to them, so as to give them their due. ‘Hence,’ Ibn al-Qayyim says, ‘knowledge and justice are the root of every good, while injustice and ignorance are the root of every evil.’11 But talking more from a marketable take on Islam than a textually-versed or well-studied one, they mistakenly equate justice (‘adl) with equality (musawa). This, though, isn’t quite Islam’s story. For sure, there are areas of overlap between the two. But the Qur’an is couched in the language of justice, not equality. To describe Islam as ‘egalitarian’, or to claim it advocates ‘equality’, is not just highly reductionist, the concepts are also not very meaningful. For while some verses of the Qur’an have an egalitarian temper to them,12 others verses insist on difference, distinction and divine disparity. In speaking of the disbelievers who have transgressed against their own souls due to their disbelief, the Qur’an asks this rhetorical question: Is he who is a believer like he who transgresses? They are not equal. [32:18] And: Not equal are the people of the Fire and the people of the Garden. It is the people of the Garden that are the winners. [59:20] Emphasising quality rather than quantity and that excess does not equal worth, the Qur’an states: Say: ‘Evil things and good things are not equal, even though the abundance of the evil may please you.’ [5:100] And: Say: ‘Are they equal, those who know and those who do not?’ [39:9] Then there are verses to do with gender roles, functions and natures: And the male is not like the female, is what the Qur’an says [3:36] And: Men are protectors of women because of what Allah has given the one more than the other, and because of what they expend of their wealth. So virtuous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [their husband’s] absence what Allah has guarded. [4:34] And lastly, because men are legally obligated in Islam to spend of their wealth to maintain family and household, while women have no such financial burden, there is this verse: Allah thus commands you concerning [the division of inheritance for] your children: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. [4:11] All this is just to say that the Qur’an speaks of justice and equity, not the nebulous social construct of equality.
9 – Of all the modern voices calling for equality, few are as muscular or more strident than feminism. Despite a mixed bag of views and approaches within today’s feminist movement, it does coalesce around certain core tenets and assumptions. All forms of feminism agree women have to be liberated from the tyranny of organised patriarchy that still shapes the world today, causing men and women to often live very different realities. They see patriarchy as being wholly unjust and indefensible, being nothing more than a social construct rather than an inescapable fact of nature. Feminists of all persuasions are, therefore, committed to dismantling patriarchy so as to construct an equal gender society. Beyond these shared beliefs, there are disparate feminist voices about how patriarchy has arisen and how it must be tackled and torn down. Secular feminists reject God, Revelation, and Religion in the narrative of feminism. They view religion and religious scripture as root sources of chauvinist ideas; baleful relics of an oppressive past that have no relevance to the debate about gender equality in modern society. Those who, in more recent times, come under the rubric of Islamic feminists are people who believe in the truth claims of Islam; believing that the Qur’an, when it is rightly understood, supports feminist claims about gender equality and abolishing patriarchy. They are convinced that the ‘ulema, starting from the time of the Prophet’s Companions (sahabah), throughout all the ages of Islam, have strayed from a correct understanding of God’s will for women, as espoused in the Qur’an. The strategy these feminists use to prop up their claims is the reinterpretation of the Qur’an, in order to bring it in line with their privileged, and arguably hubristic, insights regarding gender functions and equality.
10 – That violence, abuse and bigotry against women happen in every society globally, including Muslim ones, is tragic as it is shameful and abysmal. Feminists of all stripes have been at the helm of bringing gender inequities (both real and perceived) to the fore, and key in oiling the wheels of social change too. Islamic feminists, for their part, have set out to retrieve what they feel to be the original egalitarian message of Islam, one unencumbered by patriarchy and hierarchy. Their courageous efforts must surely be welcomed when they focus their energies on asserting the inarguable rights given to women within the established rulings of Islam, but that may have become obscure due to people’s ignorance, men’s egos, or cultural norms. Again, they must be thanked when they stress that marriage (nikah) in Islam is a contract between two consenting parties, neither can be forced, with both sides entitled to stipulate certain conditions (whether about polygamy; custody of children in the event of divorce; moving away from the parents’ city or country; or whatever other lawful condition that can secure their welfare) which, after mutual agreement, become binding on the two sides.13 The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The conditions most deserving to be fulfilled are those by which the private parts become lawful to you.’14 Indeed, only the weak or the wretched will fail to appreciate respectful reminders about men having a Quranic commitment to treat their wives warmly and amiably: And give women their dowries graciously [4:4]; And live with them in kindness [4:19]; Lodge them in your own homes, according to your means. Do not harass them so as to make life intolerable for them [65:6]; and also: Either retain them in kindness or release them in kindness [2:231]. In fact, after their response to Allah and His Prophet ﷺ, our Prophet made how men treat their wives to be the true measure of manliness, status and excellence. He ﷺ said: khayrukum khayrukum li ahlihi – ‘The best of you are those who treat their wives the best.’15 And of course, we must accept the shari‘ah reality, whether pointed out by Islamic feminists or other than them, that a woman is not duty bound at all to remain in a violent or abusive marriage – despite entrenched cultural pressures that may insist otherwise. If their motives are truly for seeking Allah’s pleasure and acceptance, the work of Islamic feminists to help women acquire their existing rights in Islam must be seen as nothing short of deeds of valour, service and jihad in the path of Allah.
11 – Giving a robust nod to the above, some questions still need asking. How Islamic, for instance, is Islamic feminism? And how valid are feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an? And does the Qur’an really endorse feminism’s dual core beliefs: doing away with patriarchy and dethroning hierarchy to create an egalitarian social order, so that women may be put on equal footing with men – socially, politically and economically? Here I wish only to draw attention to a few incongruities between loyalty to feminist principles and certain passages of the holy Qur’an.16 For example, how can one claim every form of patriarchy to be wrong, given that the Qur’an is pretty specific when it says in the context of marriage and family life that: Men are protectors of women [4:34] and that: Men have a degree over them [2:228]? Of course, such verses aren’t saying that every man is intellectually, morally and spiritually superior to every woman. But they are sanctioning patriarchy, at least in the marital and family context. Our Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is responsible for their flock. The ruler is a shepherd over the people, and is responsible for his subjects. A man is a shepherd over his family, and is responsible for them. A woman is a shepherd over the husband’s home and children, and is responsible for them.’17 Surely this hadith is not just speaking about patriarchy, but to a sense of hierarchy too? Hierarchy makes more than a guest appearance in the Qur’anic command: O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. [4:59] We see hierarchy again in the verse which tells us who does and does not have the right to speak about matters of wider public welfare: If any matter comes to them concerning security or fear, they spread it around. But if they had only referred it to the Messenger or to those charged with authority, those amongst them who are able to investigate and reason out the matter would then know [what to do with] it. [4:83] At some point – be it the hierarchy present in a head of state’s authority over the subjects or citizens; or a wife’s obedience to her husband and her yielding to some level of patriarchy; or the non-egalitarian, unequal right of parents to receive kind and dutiful treatment from their children – feminists will encounter an epistemic impasse. Do they honour the clear-cut injunctions of the Qur’an, or do they remain glued to the key feminist principles and say ‘No’ to the holy Text? Do they acquiesce to some degree of Quranic patriarchy and hierarchy, or put the feminist quest to abolish these two ‘evils’ ahead of Revelation? Professor Jonathan A.C. Brown deftly notes: ‘The move to assuming that scripture contains the truth but need only be understood properly to saying ‘no’ to scripture because it says something unacceptable or impossible is a blow that shatters the vessel of scriptural reverence. It means that some extra-scriptural source of truth has been openly acknowledged as more powerful and compelling than the words of God in scripture.’18 So how ‘Islamic’ is Islamic feminism? Any creed, philosophy, ideology, value-system or ism – including Islamic feminism – that is given final authority to decide what is or isn’t good or bad, relegating Islam’s Revelation to a secondary place, forfeits any claim to be considered ‘Islamic’. For loyalty to feminism’s core doctrines and loyalty to Islam’s revealed truths are at odds with each other. Loyalty to one will undeniably necessitate disloyalty and disbelief in the other. This much is clear.
12 – ‘Certainly a scriptural tradition still has its uses even for those who have moved on to believe that truth comes from secular sources. It can be drawn on and quoted to move an audience or bolster ideas rooted elsewhere. But sooner or later, it will clash with secular truths and become a burden. In such cases scriptural tradition can be reread and picked from selectively to reconcile it with the recognized sources of truth. But it must be substantially reconfigured, as the Qur’an Only movement has done with Islam’s scriptures, or else at some point one must say ‘no’ to the text.’19 Islamic feminism (and we must now utilise the adjective ‘Islamic’ with great reservation), like other variants in feminism, is coloured more by secular philosophies and more awash with modern epistemologies than it is one rooted in Islam’s Revelation. The idea that one can simply reread the Qur’an, twisting the texts so as to sync them with certain secular dogmas of our age, is closer to the Nietzschean claim that there are no truths [facts]; just interpretations, than it is the Quranic starting point: It is He Who has sent down to you the Qur’an. Some of its verses are clear-cut; they are the Mother of the Book; whilst others are open to interpretation. [3:7]. Again, feminist talk about the dynamics of domination related to gender is more in line with Foucault’s notion of a power nexus that constructs and sustains social control over women’s bodies and minds, than it is the Quranic view that expects both sexes to rise above their petty egos; submit to the divine demands sincerely and wholeheartedly; honouring and celebrating the virtues, rights, relative merits and intrinsic inclinations of one another. Having explained the pro-feminist claims and arguments, Scruton wrapped-up his entry on ‘feminism’ with this note: ‘Anti-feminist arguments usually rely on the thought that it is no accident that the relations between men and women are as they are, and that there’s a ‘natural’ order in which both sexes are fulfilled by mutual dependence. They may add that the appearance of male dominance is only an appearance, and perhaps it is part of the bourgeois nature of feminism so easily to mistake appearance for essence.’20 Now this is a secular blasphemy worth giving some thought to!
13 – The Qur’an says: So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man. [30:30] Islam’s insistence on the fitrah; this innate, primordial nature that defines and sculpts our authentic belongingness to the natural order, lies at the root of much of Islam’s gender ethics. Talk of gender equality is too simplistic a take on things. Islam’s language isn’t about equality; it’s about complementarity. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal: rather they complement each other. So on the one hand we have the Qur’an celebrating gender differences: And the male is not like the female [3:36], while on the other, the Prophet ﷺ spoke of ethical similarities: ‘Indeed, women are the twin halves of men.’21 Alien calls for equality, therefore, are less helpful than indigenous calls for justice, respect and opportunity. Equality, where it does actually count in terms of justice, is equality in becoming recipients of Allah’s salvation, forgiveness, mercy and grace. This, above all else, is what ultimately counts and what Islam ultimately offers both men and women – equality of opportunity and agency in terms of salvation: And their Lord answered [their prayers, saying that]: ‘Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, whether male or female, the one of you is as the other.’ [3:195]
14 – Cruel and unjust treatment of women continues to be a problem the world over, including Muslim societies and communities. Despite the Qur’an insisting otherwise, mens’ egos can all too often turn a deaf ear to the divine commands in this regard. If we Muslim men wish to fare well in the Divine Court, we’d do well to scrub ourselves clean from the stench of male chauvinism and learn the virtue of chivalry (futuwwah). If we Muslims wish to draw down Allah’s favours on our societies or states and climb out of this pitiful state that is currently ‘the Muslim world’, we must put working for social justice at the heart of our concerns: Be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. But it’s not just about fairer treatment of women. It’s about justice and fairness for the other voiceless and vulnerable members of society too. In fact, scholars like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah hold that it is the absence of justice that is the main reason for Allah’s help and support to be withdrawn from any Muslim polity, thereby causing it to descend into tyranny, weakness, or rack and ruin. Ibn Taymiyyah puts it thus: ‘The affairs of people in this world are kept in order with justice and a certain measure of sin, more than with infringing peoples’ rights even when no other sin is involved. This is why it has been said that Allah upholds the just state even if it is disbelieving, but does not uphold the unjust one even if it is Muslim. It is also said that the world can endure with justice and disbelief, but cannot endure with injustice and Islam.’22
15 – Our final meditation follows on from the above. Ibn Taymiyyah presses on with the theme of justice and social stability when he writes: ‘The reason for all this is that justice is the universal order of things. So when worldly administration is established upon justice, it works; even if the person in charge has no share in the Hereafter. But if it is not based on justice, it doesn’t work; even if the one in charge is a believer who will be rewarded in the Hereafter.’23 Of course, corruption and injustices perpetrated by a government or ruling elite will certainly have its negative impact upon the social order. But it’s when injustice becomes endemic; when not only the regime, but public servants or the general public play fast and loose with the shari‘ah and with matters of justice, that things really fall apart. When corruption becomes normalised in society; when bribery becomes firmly rooted among public servants; when parents internalise oppressive control mechanisms in the way they raise their children; when patriarchy of husbands crosses a line from being benign and compassionate to being unjust and tyrannical; and when boys are taught to objectify women or to be chauvinistic rather than to respect them and learn to be the gentleman that the Sunnah demands, then it matters little how corrupt or not the actual government is. For by then, the victims of corruption learn to live with it, the perpetrators continue out of habit or because they can, and everyone rationalises their guilt away by blaming the system, saying: “Well everyone does it!” If we add to this list of injustices the crimes of neglecting salat or zakat; lying, cheating and slandering; and sexual misconduct and immoral behaviour, then to blame only the regime for the country’s failings and miseries is nothing short of delusional and a grand lie! Consider wisely and dispassionately the following words of Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz when speaking about tyrannical rulers that are Muslim:
‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from injustice and doing wrong.’24
3. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 537; under the entry, z-l-m.
4. See: Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Karachi: Idarat al-Ma‘arif, 2008), 3:68-9, including as part of his commentary the treatment of Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, Tafsir al-Bahr al-Muhit (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1993), 3:454-55.
5. Al-Bukhari, no.2587; Muslim, no.1623.
6. Muslim, no.2577.
7. Ahmad, Musnad, no.12510. It was judged to be hasan by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.767.
8. Al-Istighathah fi’l-Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 2005), 251.
9. Al-Turuq al-Hukmiyyah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2007), 31.
10. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.
11. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 4:556.
12. See: Qur’an 4:1 on the origin of humankind from a single soul; 3:195, 16:97, 33:35 on the spiritual and moral equality of both sexes; 4:32 on men not having a right to take the money women earn; and 17:70 on each human being’s intrinsic dignity, regardless of creed or colour.
13. Cf. Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1997), 9:483-89.
14. Al-Bukhari, no.2721; Muslim, no.1418.
15. At-Tirmidhi, no.3895, where he stated: ‘This hadith is hasan.
Ours is an age of unparalleled spiritual pollution and deeply instilled ignorance about the human purpose. It’s an age in which religious practitioners of all faiths are feeling more and more claustrophobic, as society accords them less and less breathing space and loses interest in their concerns. The pressures now brought to bear on Religion to keep chipping away at the Sacred to concede ever more to the profane, are immense. This series of reflections and musings are offered as part of an ongoing conversation about how we Muslims can best engage these turbulent times, in a way that allows us to cultivate an Islam that is true to its time-honoured tradition, relevant to its current context, and of benefit to the deepest needs of humanity. (Earlier meditations in this series of “Footprints” may be read here,here and here).
On appealing to hardened hearts: The councels of Revelation and the warnings of the wise are often, in and of themselves, insufficient for those whose hearts are encrusted in sins and worldliness. Allah then makes them taste the turmoils of worldliness and the anguish of sins, that they may become disillusioned by them. Avoiding them then becomes easier.
On the ego’s infamies: From the vulgarities of the ego (nafs) is that whenever a person loves attention or prominence, he actively seeks out the faults of others.
On being lulled into a sense of comfort, then carelessness, then kufr: The whole point of the monoculture is to make us as comfortable – and thus as forgetful – as possible; to live as cattle concerned only about the patch of grass under our noses. Abrahamic monotheism, however, teaches us that it’s not that this present life is worthless, but that there is something beyond worth infinitely more. It asks us to stop looking down on our small chewing patch and lift our eyes towards the far horizons.
On being driven mad through turbo consumption: “Insan with the e-culture becomes insane.” – Abdal Hakim Murad
On how to select a spouse and have a blessed marriage: Religiousness, piety and good character must be the touchstone for spouse selection. Much good can come from a God-fearing heart, and a pious disposition is essential for attracting divine grace and blessings from heaven. But being on good terms with God does not always translate itself into good behaviour with others. Hence the prophetic advice to select someone whose “religion and character pleases you.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.1088]
On the essence of Islam:Taqwa can be rendered into English as piety, mindfulness of God, guarding against evil and fearing God. Its essence lies in being profoundly aware of God and moulding one’s life in the light of this awareness. In other words, taqwa is God-consciousness.
On the prophetic way of engaging the monoculture: In engaging the monoculture, let us have a heart of ‘izzah, the eye of rahmah and the hand of khidmah.
On the question of Muslims ditching science and being Creationists: Muslims are, by definition, “creationists” – in the sense that they believe in a Creator-God; not in the sense that they are tied to a belief that the earth is a mere five thousand or so years old. Since there is nothing definitive in Islam’s Revelation about the age of the earth, it’s age is thus a question for emperical data and science to answer.
On the voice and valour of the Abrahamic Call: Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the true Abrahamic legacy; and failed to heed the discontent and suffering of the many at the hands of the elite few, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, understood it and gave voice to it.
On jihad in Islam: In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’ Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following proclamation of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. But if you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172] That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.
Let’s not forget this martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the leader carefully evaluate the potential benefits and harms of armed struggle; ensure civilians and non-combatants are not killed or wilfully attacked; abide by the other sanctities upheld in Islam; and keep in mind receptivity to the call (da‘wah) to Islam.
On working towards realities, not just claims: Scholars say: al-‘ibrah bi’l-haqa’iq wa’l-ma‘ani la bi’l-alfaz wa’l-mabani – “What counts are realities and meanings, not merely wordings or labels.” Consider the following limerick:
There once was a sufi with beads, Who was terribly impressed with his deeds, The salafi, he scorned “You’ve no purity” he warned, With his self he was O so well-pleased.
On shared morals as social glue: For all our urbanised airs and graces, in the absence of laws obeyed and a strong sense of a shared moral code, community and society will undoubtedly begin to fray at the seams.
On visiting the ahlu’Llah – the “people of Allah”: One sits in their presence to listen, observe, learn, practice service (khidmah) and gain self-knowledge; not pursue worldly ambitions, promote one’s ego, or encounter “exciting” spiritual experiences.
On the monoculture’s manufacturing of consent: How many cherished convictions of the masses in today’s “advanced” democracies are actually well-informed, fact-based certainties? And how many of them are mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of media soundbites, entertainment education and the passing trends of the time?
On the different kinds of drunkenness: It was once said to the distinguished sufi and venerable Imam of Ahl al-Sunnah, Sahl al-Tustari, that intoxications are of four kinds. So he asked: “Tell me what they are.” The man replied: “The intoxication of drink, the intoxication of youth, the intoxication of wealth and the intoxication of authority.” Sahl replied: “There are two more kinds: the intoxication of the scholar who loves this world, and the intoxication of the worshipper who loves to be noticed.”
Revolutions are just a tweet or a T-shirt away: Revolutions are messy and bloody. And although you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, Islam insists that there can be other things on the breakfast menu besides eggs. Revolutions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose sought-after outcomes are seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world; wealthy and powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape final outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni Islam has long been suspicious about revolutions; and with plenty of reason to be so.
On seeking a murshid; a “guide” to God: The murshid instructs, advises, trains, arouses sleepy souls, revives decaying hearts and, above all, leads by example.
On a believer’s love of martyrdom: In one hadith, we hear the Prophet ﷺ declare the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way, then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; and then be killed.’ [Muslim, no.1910] Indeed the Prophet relished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; neither for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest act of service and ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to God one’s life, for a cause God loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving God. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whosoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6830] Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a saintly life. For how can one sincerely desire to die for God, if one doesn’t truly try to live for God?
On where to find one’s heart: “Seek your heart in three places: where the Qur’an is recited; in the gatherings of dhikr; and in times of seclusion. If you do not find it in these places, then ask God to bless you with a heart. For you have no heart!” – Ibn al-Qayyim
On the changing tides of our times: The first chords of the monoculture’s swan song began a few centuries back. We are perhaps now on the final encore.
On luminous souls: Be kind, be courageous; seek the good in everything, harm none, show courtesy to all living creatures; be enchanted with creation, take responsibility; and be learned in the ways of God and godliness – or at least sincerely try.
Ever since Kubric’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the 1983 film War Games, or the desperate attempts to stop Skynet going live in the Terminator franchise, we’ve grown more and more accustomed to machines having the commanding edge when it comes to making logical decisions about space flight or warfare. But for the past few years, scientists in the United States, upping the anti in this steadily evolving field, are working on teaching artificial intelligence how to make moral and ethical decisions too. That is immensely mind-blowing as it is scary.
But what does it mean to make ethical decisions or reason morally? Moral reasoning can be thought of as the ability to learn, reason with, and act on the laws and societal norms on which humans tend to agree. What these programers and scientists hope to do is to get machines; artificial intelligence, to emulate these abilities. Not everyone is keen to create machines to match or surpass human abilities. Stephen Hawking, for instance, warns that doing so could spell the end of humanity. He fears that at some point of complexity, artificial intelligence would take off on its own, redesigning itself at an ever-inreasing rate. In contrast, humans, who are constrained by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would swiftly be superseded.
While we may be a long way from teaching robots to process Kant’s moral imperative, or to feel compassion, let’s turn to a moral issue closer to home; the question of law & morality and the changing tides of time:
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ told us about the following: ‘From the signs of the Hour is that the virtuous shall be demeaned and the wicked elevated.’1
The above prophecy alerts us to a highly disturbing phenomenon. It is difficult to see how virtuous people could be devalued, unless you first demote and demean morality and virtue itself. And yet this is precisely what has happened. For ours is an age (and it has been so for quite some time now) where the old certainties, and the morality that flowed from them, have been dealt a crushing blow. Although long in the making, the liberal revolution of the 1960s was the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country in terms of Christian ethics being reflected in law and Christian morals being the glue that bound society. Against the backdrop of the swinging sixties, the country witnessed a series of liberalising laws that would usher in the start of a Post-Christian milieu: suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961; and in 1967, abortion was legalised, as was homosexuality.
Hereinafter, within Britain, there would be a parting of the ways for law and morality: the law would now intervene only to prevent individuals from harming each other. As for morality, it could no longer be thought of as the code for society. Instead, it would be relegated to an individual choice, and people would be free to indulge in whatever experiments in living they desired. Rights would soon replace responsibilities, desires would eventually trump duties and, by the 1990s, society would begin to significantly fray at the seams. There is no other choice for believers, driven as they must be by the healing lights of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism, than to seek society’s redemption and moral restoration.
How much morality should be translated into law, and how much is to be left to the individual conscience, is a question which all civilised societies must grapple with. In Islam’s Sacred Law, ‘sins which involve injustice to others and injury to them, be it in the religious or worldly sense, are more severely punished in this world than those not entailing harm to others; despite the fact that the punishment for the latter may be greater in the Hereafter.’2 This is why, despite disobedience to parents being more morally wrong than, for instance, fornication, the shari‘ah has no fixed penalty for the former, but it does for the latter. Again, arrogance is a far greater sin than consuming alcohol; and yet there is no prescribed worldly punishment for the first, but there is for the second. ‘The reason is clear: such punishments are there to safeguard religious and worldly interests from the wrongdoing of wrongdoers, whereas the punishment of those who wrong only themselves is left to their Lord.’3
As the assault on traditional morality and virtue continues to intensify from, among other quarters, the media, movies and trash TV; and as more and more of the world is exposed to the mediocrity and moral bankruptcy of the monoculture and is gradually ‘normalised’ into it; we Muslims should be clear that ours is a religion of meritocracy. That is to say, in Islam people are valued, respected and held in high esteem according to their piety, virtue and merits. People of corrupt morals, or who lack basic adab and decency, or who wallow in self-inflicted ignorance of even the basic teachings of the faith – they may be looked upon with the eye of pity, tolerance and charity; but never with honour, distinction or approbation.
Those who have even a slight insight into the gravity of the Quranic message, or who recognise that the Sunnah came to elevate humankind and restore us to our Adamic dignity will, in all likelihood, find today’s crass (and oftentimes, vulgar and irreverent) celebrity culture more than a trifle troublesome. Surely ones ease with, or acceptance of, it simply reflects how much souls have become desensitised to virtue or how much hearts have cozied up to vice; doesn’t it?
This is why Islam puts great weight on al-amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa’l-nahi ‘ani’l-munkar – the duty of “commanding good and forbiding wrong.” Allah, exalted is He, declares in the Qur’an: The believers, men and women, are allies one to another; they enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil. [9:71] If we are to continue to recognise and honour people of virtue and piety, so as to be inspired by their conduct and be guided by their example, then we must collectively ensure that the lines between halal and haram, virtue and vice, and morality and immorality, are not blurred or made fuzzy. For if knowledge of what constitutes virtue and vice is lost to us; if Islamic morality is made subjective to the tastes and fashions of the times, and is no longer a rock firmly planted, we shall have brought about our rack and ruin in both worlds. Immense pressure is now being brought to bear upon Muslims to do precisely this. Ibn Mas‘ud, one of Islam’s earliest converts and one of its most illustrious scholars, once heard a person say: ‘Whoever doesn’t enjoin the good or forbid evil has perished.’ To which Ibn Mas‘ud responded: ‘Rather, one whose heart doesn’t recognises good from evil has perished.’4
These words become even more significant or consequential if we recall the following hadith: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’5 If the heart no longer recognise evil, let alone detests it or seeks to change it, then what type of faith is there? For let us not forget, in all this it is faith that is at stake.
As highly complex algorithms are currently being formulated, written and tested so as to give machines the gift of moral reasoning; if successful, it’s hoped that this robotic morality won’t be as open to abuse as it was in I, Robot.
1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:554. Its narrators are all those of the Sahih, as stated by al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 7:326.
2. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:181.
3. ibid., 28:182.
4. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8564. Its chain is sahih, as Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut said in his crititical edition of Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:245.
What does Islam say about gender relations? How are the sexes meant to interact in a healthy manner with each other? How can we instate the wisdoms of the shari‘ah and the guidelines of Islam in our everyday lives in this regard? This is what this brief post intends to explore. I’ll begin by fleshing out some of the core shari‘ah principles first, after which we’ll move on to discuss some practical (and hopefully, contextual) codes for gender conduct:
1.Lowering the Gaze: A good place to get the ball rolling would be with the following passages from the Qur’an: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do. And tell believing women t0 lower their gaze, and to guard their modesty, and that they not display their ornaments beyond what [ordinarily] appears of them, and that they draw their [head] coverings over their chests. [24:30-31] Given the place and times we live in; given also how the idea of traditional morality seems something antiquated and distant to many of us moderns; in fact, given how a growing number of traditional morals are at cross purposes with current liberal dogma and ideas, it’s quite easy for us Muslims to become complacent, absent minded or too immoderate on this issue. Yet the idea of averting one’s gaze, or of lowering it, is there in the Qur’an; and as such, we believers are required to honour and remember it.
Writing about the above verse, the medieval historian, hadith master and exegete, Ibn Kathir, said: ‘This is a command from Allah, exalted is He, to His believing servants to lower their gaze from looking at things prohibited to them. Instead, they should only look at what is lawful to them, not what is forbidden. But if it happens that one’s gaze accidentally falls upon something illicit, he should immediately avert his gaze.’1 Jarir b. ‘Abd Allah al-Bajali narrates: ‘I asked Allah’s Messenger ﷺ about the unintentional glance, so he instructed me to avert my gaze.’2 Also, the Prophet ﷺ once said to ‘Ali: ‘Do not, O ‘Ali, follow up one look with another. For while you aren’t to blame for the first, you have no right to the second.’3 There’s also these words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Beware of sitting in the streets.’ They said: O Messenger of Allah, we’ve no choice but to sit in the streets so as to converse with each other. So the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘If you must, then give the street its rights.’ They inquired: ‘What is its right, O Messenger of Allah? He ﷺ instructed: ‘Lower your gaze, do no harm, return the greetings of salam, enjoin good and forbid wrong.’4 Thus lowering the gaze (ghadd al-basr), and averting it from whatever is indecent, immoral or illicit, is key in such matters. For the eyes are the inroads to the heart. And we all know how the heart can be corrupted, distressed and poisoned by images that enter it by way of the unlowered gaze.
2. Principles of Ease & Blocking the Means: Islam came to lighten many a burden that earlier believing peoples were obligated with, or that they had unduly imposed upon themselves. About this, the Qur’an states: Allah desires ease for you; He does not desire hardship for you. [2:185] And it informs: Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find described in the Torah and Gospel – he will enjoin on them good and forbid them evil, he will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them what is foul, and he will release them of their burdens and yokes that were on them. Those that believe in him, honour him, support him and follow the light that has been sent down with him; they are the successful. [7:157]
With that established, as Islam came to lighten many duties, it also came to intensify a few of them too. The logic for this lightening and intensifying is to help us navigate the times of confusion, spiritual pollution, unrestrained whims and predilections and ego-driven rationalisations which typify the End of Days in which we now live. One of those principles that has been intensified is the prohibition of drinking alcohol and consuming intoxicants. Another is gender interactions. In the setting of the latter, the Qur’an doesn’t just forbid zina – fornication, adultery and other illegal sexual liaisons, it forcefully declares: Come not near illegal sexual relationships, for it is an obscenity and an evil way. [17:32] Al-Qurtubi noted that: la taqrabu – “come not near” zina – is a far more emphatic and all-inclusive way of asserting the prohibition, than simply saying: ‘do not commit zina.‘ For this verse doesn’t just forbid zina, it makes unlawful all the means and avenues which lead one closer to it too.5 This, and other such sacred texts, is where the important shari‘ah principle of sadd al-dhari‘ah – “blocking the means” to a corrupting or harmful end – originates from.6
3. Virtue of Modesty: When it comes to gender interactions, the Qur’an, Sunnah and Islam’s scholarly community insist upon appropriate behaviour and dignified conduct between the sexes. In other words, gender relations must be built upon the virtues of modesty, dignity and respectability. Indeed, Islam very much sees itself as the religion about haya’ – modesty, shyness and a sense of reserve. The Prophet ﷺ stated: “Every religion has a distinctive quality, and the distinctive quality of Islam is haya’.”7 We are reminded in the next hadith that: ‘Modesty is a branch of faith (al-haya’ shu‘batun min al-iman).’8 There are also these words from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never is haya’ present in a matter except that it beautifies it.’9
Just to be clear. Although haya’ translates itself into English as modesty, or shyness, or of being unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities; in Islam, it does not translate into being sheepish, timid or socially anxious and insecure. Instead, haya’ is: ‘a quality which induces one to shun whatever is reprehensible (khuluqun yab‘athu ‘ala ijtinabi’l-qabih).’10 Or as Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali remarks: ‘What restrains acting in a shameful or deplorable manner is [the quality of] haya’. Hence one who has no haya’ will abandon themselves to every indecent and loathsome behaviour.’11 To this end, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘From the words still in currency from earlier prophets are: If you have no haya’, then do as you wish.’12
Ibn Rajab goes on to write that the sense of modesty and shame are of two kinds. The first is an innate character trait that one is naturally disposed towards. The second is a modesty that is acquired through the fear of God, and through the voice of religious conscience which the teachings of faith nurture. He explains: ‘Realise that haya’ is of two types: Firstly, that which is an innate character trait which is not acquired. This is one of the noblest of qualities that Allah bestows on someone and fashions him upon. For this reason, he ﷺ said: “Modesty produces nothing except good”13 for it restrains him from committing foul deeds and displaying depraved morals, and spurs him onto honourable and virtuous character … Secondly, that which is acquired via knowledge of Allah, knowledge of His greatness and nearness to His servants; His awareness and complete familiarity of them; and [His knowledge] of the deceptions of the eyes and what breasts conceal. This is one of the most exalted qualities of faith (iman); indeed, it is one of the loftiest degrees of spiritual excellence (ihsan).’14
Hence in the interaction between the sexes, a sense of modesty; haya’, is key. If innate modest is in short supply, modesty born of faith must prevail. Fear of God will make people think twice before acting indecently or immodestly. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Seeing. To believe in Allah is to believe that we, and whatever we do, are known. Allah sees, therefore we are seen.
4. Notions of Respectability: Islam’s insistence upon haya’ underpins Muslim gender interactions, defining their contours. The shari‘ah reflects this in its judgements and ethics and the Prophet ﷺ was once depicted like so: kana nabiyyu ﷺ ashadda haya’an min al-‘adhra’i fi khidriha – “He was shyer than a young maiden in her chamber.”15 In the absence of a deeply-rooted modesty, there can be little claim to be truly following the Sunnah.
Realising that modesty is no longer an asset in our money-driven, selfi-taking society, as it still is in Islam’s take of things. Even so, in Islam, haya’ is allied to another virtue we moderns also have difficulty appreciating: haybah – “dignity” and “respectability”. In Islam, these two qualities (modesty and respectability) are deeply intertwined, such that when one departs, so does the other. In their absence lies little more than divine displeasure, spiritual entropy, and a telling lack of moral restraint. As a result, socially damaging impulses and behaviours begin to run amok.
It is often claimed that in Victorian or Edwardian England, respectability essentially meant maintaining a reputable facade while encouraging all sorts of hypocrisies. How much or how little can one generalise in such a matter is up for debate. Yet at its core, the widely cherished notion that there was a respectable way to conduct oneself; that there was a decent and honourable way of being a true “gentleman” (as opposed to a hypocritical one) – well that’s a very Islamic idea. A gentleman was someone who was restrained, courteous, considerate, well mannered, had public dignity, and was aware of boundaries; particularly when in mixed company.
The Islamic concept of futuwwah, “spiritual chivalry,” is where we find the ideals of the true Muslim gentleman best expressed. Futuwwah embodies the virtues of dignity and respectability (haybah), refined and noble conduct (adab), and preferring others to oneself (ithar), along with courage (shaja‘ah), magnanimity (sakha’ah) and striving to destroy the idols of one’s ego (mujahadat al-nafs).
Society no longer speaks of a true gentleman. That’s of a bygone era – of Edwardian England; an Englishness long dead and buried. As a nation we need to review where this has led us: if it’s been, on balance, for our betterment? Furthermore, as Muslims themselves start to relax these principles, can we see in where it has led others, where we too might be heading?
5. Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: As many social scientists and commentators have shown, it was during the 1960s (the cliched “swinging sixties”) that a seismic cultural shift took place here in Britain in terms of public perceptions of morality, and of what it meant to be a good person; indeed, in our collective self-understanding as a nation. For it was then that notions of modesty, respectability and decency (which were key elements animating the well-rooted Christian ethos of Britain) began to dramatically alter. As a result, Britain’s Christianity, once at the heart of setting national standards and infusing public culture, began to unravel. And we moved from being a nation that stressed respectability to one which stressed the individual’s right to be respected.16
Now as far as religious observance goes, the injuries that ensue when the principles of modesty and respectability are lost to society will influence believers too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions, when one of them is removed, the other follows.’17
Here, it’s not the run of the mill Muslim issues, like hijab or niqab, that we’re talking about. Nor about how one dresses, as such. It runs deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; how one carries themselves; how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender.
It is possible for a woman not to be in hijab, and yet still have a strong sense of haya’ and haybah. It’s also perfectly possible for a young woman to be draped from head to toe in black and yet lack such modesty. Whether in coffee shops, shopping malls or on university campuses, you can clearly observe this. One can see many young hijabis in, say, London’s shopping malls, or burqa-clad girls in Jeddah’s burger shacks, with the ostensible trappings of outward modesty; but their body language suggests something else. Despite the exterior semblances of haya’ and haybah, they’re sending out signals to the contrary. Of course, the answer isn’t to give up the Quranic insistence of hijab: and that they draw their head coverings over their chests. [24:31]. Instead, hijabs should show and modesty should flow.
This is applicable to men too. It’s quite possible for a Muslim man to not have a beard, yet still retain a healthy sense of modesty and dignity in his dealings with the opposite gender. It’s possible too for a young Muslim man to support a beard, and yet his gaze is lustful and not lowered; or his clothes tight and revealing; or his body language and behaviour unbecoming and flirtatious. This bundle of contradictions, too, is growing more prevalent. Again, the response isn’t to oppose the Prophet’s guidance ﷺ: ‘Grow your beard and trim your moustache.’18 Or: ‘But my Lord has ordered me to grow the beard and trim the moustache.’19 Instead, let beards grow, and let dignified dress and modest behaviour flow.
Islam does not want such schizophrenia in the human personality. What it does want is for gazes to be lowered, for piety to be internalised, and for modesty and dignity to become our watchwords – for both men and for women.
6. Codes for Gender Interactions: Thus far we’ve addressed the main principles upon which interaction between the sexes must be based. We’ve seen the Quranic demand about lowering the gaze, and heard a number of counsels from the Prophet ﷺ about the virtues of modesty, shyness and dignity.
Some Muslims labour under the misconception that the shari‘ah requires us Muslims in Britain to replicate the obsessively strict gender segregation and interactions found in certain Muslim majority countries today. Yet there’s no proof for such an absurdity. The truth of the matter is that we are not duty bound to replicate, nor even to uphold as the ideal, any specific Muslim collective reality anywhere in the world today. What we are required to do is to look at the rulings and wisdoms of the Sunnah, and of the first community of believers, and take our cue from there. As for classical fiqh decrees in this regard, we should be guided by their insights and judgements, but not bound by all of their particulars. The words of sayyiduna ‘Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, are worth quoting at this point: ‘The faqih is one who doesn’t cause people to despair of Allah’s mercy, but nor does he give them licence to sin.’20
Given the principles spelled out above, let’s draw on a few more shari‘ah insights and prophetic wisdoms that shape interaction between the sexes:
Lowering the gaze (ghadd al-basr) was previously mentioned: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze. [24:30]. Scholars of tafsir have explained that not every kind of gaze is illicit. Instead, what this verse obligates is: ‘averting the gaze from what is unlawful.’21 Thus the objectifying look, the lustful gaze, or looking accompanied by attraction are unquestionably prohibited. So too is looking at a person’s ‘awrah, or “nakedness.” The following hadith puts us on notice with this caution: ‘Every person has their share of adultery, and the adultery of the eye is looking.’22 The Prophet’s words ﷺ to ‘Ali have preceded: ‘Do not follow up one look with another. For while you aren’t to blame for the first, you have no right to the second.’23 Such protocols don’t just apply to actual person to person looking, but looking on social media too. It can get a bit tricky when the Islamic norm of averting one’s glance during gender interactions meets Western expectations of eye to eye contact. In such cases, one simply does their best and finds ways to take the edge off any awkwardness or perceived rudeness. If eye contact more than is Islamically normal needs to be made, one does so keeping shari‘ah boundaries firmly in sight.
Making interactions purposeful and professional is vital. In Islam, the idea of ikhtilat, of unrelated men and women “mixing,” isn’t completely prohibited. Where it must or does occur, it ought to be for a licit (ja’iz) and well-intended purpose. Meetings related to work or connected with ISOC activities are good examples. Comportment between men and women is expected to be professional, courteous and dignified. ‘Actions are but by intentions,’24 said the Prophet ﷺ. Outwardly interactions may be purposeful, but things could be different on the inside. If meetings become means to seek gender attention or affection, or to indulge one’s infatuation, then the intention is unsound and the action simply wrong. Interactions on social media, if we’re honest, tend to be far less purposeful and often very improper, with levels of informality and frivolity far harder to justify in Islam.
Keeping gender interactions public is also compulsory in the shari‘ah. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Never is a man alone with a woman, except that Satan is the third of them.’25 In light of this, one not only keeps meetings and engagements between men and women purposeful, but also in a public place too. In the event of that not being possible, then a third person must be present. Seclusion (khalwah), whether anything untoward will happen or not, is a sin and must be given a wide berth. As for when contact between the genders via phone, texts or other social media is needed and justifiable, one keeps such interactions as purposeful, public, transparent and respectable as is possible. The shari‘ah guided caution dictates that texting is better than voice calls, and voice calls better than video ones. One should also be mindful of extending conversations just to remain in the presence of another person.
Being decent in speech. As the more enchanting of the genders are asked not to act in a way that invites the male gaze or attention: And let them not drum their feet so as to reveal their hidden ornaments [24:31], they’re addressed with these words too: If you fear Allah, be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease be moved to desire you; but speak honourably. [33:32] Speaking honourably (qulna qawlun ma‘rufan) was explained as: ‘words that are befitting, decent and respectable’ and ‘that aren’t tender; meaning, a woman shouldn’t speak to a man she isn’t married to, as she would [tenderly] speak to her husband.’26 One needn’t be curt, abrupt or monosyllabic when speaking to the opposite gender; only purposeful, professional, straightforward and respectable.
Our final gender protocol won’t come as any surprise: no touching. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘For one of you to be jabbed in the head with an iron needle is better for him than he should touch a woman who is unlawful to him.’27 In another hadith, we find the Prophet ﷺ saying: ‘I do not shake hands with women.’28 Such prohibitions about touching or shaking hands are instated for our own spiritual and social well-being, so we’d do well to heed and honour them. As to how one is to decline an extended hand from the opposite gender, let it be done politely, creatively and in a way which doesn’t nurture aversion or undue awkwardness. If caught off guard or compromised, then one immediately repents of the sin, learns from the mistake and resolves not to repeat the act again.
This, then, is a quick tour of what Islam has to say about gender interactions between the sexes. The entire edifice is built upon notions of modesty, restraint and dignified conduct. In an age in which the ethics of modesty and lowering the gaze are seen as offbeat, or even repressive, we Muslims need to be more vigilant and more spiritually rooted. One of the unique accomplishments of the Prophet ﷺ is that he taught men and women to lower their gazes from each other, so as to help them lift their gazes towards God.
1. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 3:292.
2. Muslim, no.2159.
3. Abu Dawud, no.2149; al-Tirmidhi, no.2777, where he stated that the hadith is hasan gharib.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.6229; Muslim, no.2121.
5. See: al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 10:165.
6. Cf. Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2006), 397-409.
7. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4181. The hadith was graded sahih, due to its multiple paths of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.940.
8. Al-Bukhari, no.9; Muslim, no.35.
9. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.601. It was graded sahih, al-Albani, Sahih al-Adab al-Mufrad (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Siddiq, 1994), no.469.
10. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 1:80.
16. See: Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005); Callum G. Brown, Death of Christian Britain (Oxon: Routledge, 2009).
17. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who stated: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’
18. Al-Bukhari, no.5892; Muslim, no.259.
19. Tabari, Tarikh, 2:655; Ibn Sa‘d, Tabaqat, 1:2:147; Abu Nu‘aym, Dala’il al-Nubuwwah, no.241; Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, 14:336. The hadith, with its collective chains, was graded hasan by al-Albani in his verification to al-Ghazali, Fiqh al-Sirah (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Hadithah, 1976), 389.
20. Cited in al-Qurtubi, al-Tadhkirah bi Ahwal al-Mawta wa Umur al-Akhirah (Riyadh: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 800.
21. Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 3:120. Also cf. Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 994.
22. Abu Dawud, no.2153, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.5161.
23. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2777, who said the hadith is hasan gharib.
24. Al-Bukhari, no.1; Muslim, no.1907.
25. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2165, where he stated: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih gharib.‘
26. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim, 3:491.
27. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 20:210. Al-Albani graded it sahih in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.226.
28. Ibn Majah, no.2874; al-Tirmidhi, no.1597, who said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’