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.
11. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:498.
12. Al-Bukhari, no.3483.
13. Al-Bukhari, no.6117.
14. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1:501-2.
15. Al-Bukhari, no.3562; Muslim, no.2320.
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.’