Formality between men and women

male female

The proper etiquette of interaction between men and women in Islam is spelled out clearly and is based on the best interest of the individual and the family and on their peace of heart, mind and soul. One reading Quran is sobered by the seriousness with which this subject is treated. One studying hadeeth receives a confirmation and elaboration upon the message in Quran; and one reading seerah cannot help but see how this was implemented in a balanced manner that neither secluded women from participating actively in society, nor allowed for free interaction to become a source of distraction, dissatisfaction and distance from one’s Lord.
Today, more than ever before there is a need to remember and understand Islam’s position on this very delicate matter. There was a time when mere tradition and custom worldwide guarded in various degrees the mental, emotional and spiritual health of people by drawing limits and setting rules. Today, most of these rules have disappeared and where they exist they are questioned. There was a time when the unhappy results of unregulated interaction mostly affected Muslims who didn’t practice Islam; today however, the woes of crossing the boundaries of Islamic manners are common amongst the most religious and pious of Muslims. There was a time when non-Muslims deemed our views on the subject as sexist, dirty-minded and backward, now some of the soundest and most ‘Islamic’ opinions come from non-Muslims who have witnessed the folly of unregulated ‘free’ interaction. It is time we treated this subject with the seriousness it deserves, drawing on Quran and sunna in an objective, intelligent and God-fearing manner.

It would be far more effective if instead of an article on the subject one could hold a workshop. Different groups would collect different material. One would document all they could on the subject from Quran, Hadeeth and Seerah. Another group could collect opposing views of non-Muslims (and Muslims). Another could be responsible for documentaries, statistics, books related to the subject even fictitious works such as movies and novels. From the texts telling us what to do and what not to do, the rules may be concluded. From statistics and anecdotes one may partially glean the reason behind each rule. Together the groups may come up with new ways to practice old decrees, to avoid old prohibitions and to explain these regulations to others. But that is not possible through this venue so a much less interactive and less interesting method must be followed.
When we speak of formality, what is it exactly that we mean?


  • Formality’s effect upon the Eyes:
  • The eyes rank foremost on the list of how to interact with propriety. Allah SWT says in the Quran, “Tell the believing men to guard their gaze and protect their private parts. And tell the believing women to guard their gaze and protect their private parts.” Prophet Muhammad says, “The glance is a poisoned arrow of Shaytan. He who leaves it in fear of me, will I exchange him a sweetness he finds in his heart.”
    Think now of the relief that would descend upon humanity were this practiced. Starting with the most extreme form of gaze abuse which would be watching porn in it various degrees, to allowing oneself to satiate their gaze of what is not permissible to him, to turning for that second fleeting glance, to keenly observing and comparing a person to one’s spouse or imagining that that person were their spouse…all of this visual sin will ultimately lead one to a path of misery.
    Think of those who sow seeds of comparison only to reap fruit of dissatisfaction. Think of those you see often and make eye-contact with; is there not a lot that is said without words? Is there not a language of eyes that can communicate and insinuate much? And is the result a prayer with more concentration/an urge to read more Quran/a desire to fast a voluntary day? Sadly, the result is that a certain look may haunt you and urge you to seek more as it becomes an excitement you allow yourself to be addicted to. A look that may lead you to such familiarity that it may develop into a desire for intimacy. Only the first step is the one you can effortlessly and painlessly control – guarding your gaze; all that comes after that is painful and requires extreme effort.


  • Formality’s effect upon one’s Speech:
Allah SWT says in the Quran, “O Wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women if your fear Allah; then do not be soft in speech (to men) lest he in whose heart is disease should covet, but speak with appropriate speech.” If the wives of the Prophet (s), who are above other women, are requested to not manipulate their speech causing those who have sick hearts to become wishful or hopeful for more, it goes without saying that we are requested to do so even more. It is not a woman’s voice that must not be heard but speech of a specific type: a certain choice of words, an inviting or coy tone. This type of speech which is forbidden may be spoken or written. Therefore all forms of communication such as emails or texting should abide by the same rules so that our choice of words, tone and diction always convey business. Playfulness may give those who wish to interpret your intention an excuse to read into it what gives them hope or greed and desire for more.


  • Formality’s effect upon physical touch:
  • We are told that the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, never took the hand of a woman forbidden to him. This is not to be interpreted as him being cold, since he was known to be tender and loving to his wives and daughters.  And in accepting the pledge of believers, although he took women as seriously as he took their male counterparts, he would grasp the hand of a man as he pledged but never a woman’s.  He, peace and blessing be upon him says, “The zina (adultery) of the hand is touch.”  We also read in the Saheeh of Muslim that he says, “The child of Adam has ordained upon him his share of zina that he will commit. The zina of eyes is looking, the zina of ears is listening, the zina of the tongue is talk, the zina of hands is to seize, the zina of feet is to walk toward, and the zina of the heart desires and wishes for, and the private parts confirm that or belie it.” Therefore all forms of physical greeting are unacceptable in Islam, from high fives and patting to handshakes, hugging and kissing.


  • Formality’s effect upon meeting:
  • Any interaction with the opposite gender must be conducted in public, in full view and with others in the meeting as well. A private meeting whether real or virtual immediately crosses the boundary of formality and moves one into the realm of familiarity and intimacy.  So whether it is in a restaurant, a park, on chat, messages or Facebook, communicating with another person in private can quickly develop from a general topic to a personal one and from a perceived necessity to an emotional dependence upon such interaction.  Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him says, “Never is a man alone with a woman that is not his mahram but their third is shaytan.”


  • The role of haya’ or modesty in male/female exchange:
  • Haya’  is a characteristic of believers be they men or women.  The Messenger, peace and blessing be upon him, proclaimed haya’ as “an element of belief/faith.”  A woman, no matter how confident she may be or how strong her personality, is in Islam the embodiment of haya’.  The two sisters that Prophet Musa met waiting aside to water their flock did not do so because they lacked confidence in their importance nor because they felt they were second class citizens.  They waited for the men to finish and did not barge through the crowd out of a sense of modesty, and Musa who walked ahead of the two women did not do it in arrogance or naiveté, but rather out of a sense of modesty. A woman in Islam is the embodiment of haya’ no matter how strong her personality and a Muslim man is no less modest.  This protects both sides from a crass boldness in interaction, from a bantering and a comfort in communication that can lead to trouble.  The sahabah described the Messenger, peace and blessing be upon him, as more modest than a young girl in her room (a space in the farthermost portion of the back of the house).


  • Attentiveness to one’s spouse’s weaknesses:
  • Being aware of one’s spouse’s insecurities and avoiding what causes them is at once an expression of love and respect, of mawadah and mercy, towards the person you are bound to in marriage.  Prophet Muhammad says, “A believing man must not hate a believing woman for if he dislikes a trait in her there are traits that he does like.”  He also says, “The good person does not harm even the smallest of ants;” much less, then, your partner in marriage.  Asma’ bint Abu Bakr was once seen lugging a heavy load of date pits as fodder for her husband’s horse.  One day the Prophet (s) met her and he was with a group of people so he offered her a ride. She was happy to accept but then she remembered her husband’s extreme jealousy.  She did not reason that the Prophet (s) was above suspicion, nor did she fall back on the fact that her husband’s thoughts were unfounded.  Instead, she was merciful towards him and excused his weakness and avoided stirring his feelings no matter how far-fetched or ungrounded.  She did so out of love and respect and her action was expressed in formality.
The Sahabi and Amir al-Mumineen, Umar b. al Khattab used to say, “We would avoid nine-tenths of what was permissible for fear of falling into what was forbidden.”  Think of what is forbidden as a well-contained circle and what is permissible as ten circles surrounding it.  Staying in the outermost circle will guarantee your distance from haram and the closer you wander toward the center, the greater your chance of finding yourself in haram.
May we be able to bring back modesty and formality into the interaction between men and women.  May we be of those who seek closeness to their Lord by heeding His rules.  May we not be of those who live their lives poised perilously on the edge of the circle of haram.  May our lives and actions bring serenity and peace to all we come into contact with and may we never be the cause of strife or pain for others…ameen.



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