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Social Interaction in Islam

by Muslim Women's League
September 1995

Social behavior, like all facets of the life of Muslims, is influenced by Islamic principles. The manner in which one interacts with others is a manifestation of her or his faith in God. Muslims follow the guidelines outlined in the Qur'an and Sunnah, not simply as an act of worship, but as an acceptance of the wisdom of God in guiding them to achieve their greatest potential in this life and salvation in the Hereafter. An analysis of the Islamic principles regarding the relationships between men and women will further clarify this point.

The Qur'an outlines essential components of all relationships between all people. These include, among many others, respect, kindness, honesty, tolerance, self-restraint, patience, forgiveness and compassion. Such virtues apply between parents and children, spouses, business partners, neighbors and friends, regardless of gender. The following Qur'anic verses illustrate these ideals:

And as for the believers, both men and women, they are close unto one another: they (all) enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and are constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues, and pay heed unto God and His Apostle. (9:71)

And vie with one another to attain your Sustainer's forgiveness and to a paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth which has been readied for the God- conscious who spend (in His way) in time of plenty and in time of hardship, and hold in check their anger, and pardon their fellow men because God loves the doers of good.(3:133-134)

And among his wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold there are messages indeed for people who think.(30:21)

And do good unto thy parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in thy care, never say (a word of disdain) to them or scold them, but (always) speak unto them with reverent speech, and spread over them humbly the wings of thy tenderness, and say: "O my Sustainer! Bestow Thy grace upon them, even as they cherished and reared me when I was a child!"(17:23-24

Numerous hadith also address the issue of relations among people, such as the following:

Let him who believes in God and the Last Day either speak good or keep silent, let him who believes in God or the Last Day be generous to his neighbor, and let him who believes in God and the Last Day be generous to his guest.(An-Nawawi, Hadith 15)

The purpose of these guidelines is to enhance and purify relations consequently resulting in a positive effect on the community as a whole. They apply regardless of age, race, sex or social status. These ideals of behavior, unfortunately, have become less commonplace among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. One area in which the situation has deteriorated continuously since the first one hundred years after the death of the Prophet concerns the interaction between the sexes. Ironically, it is in the name of Islam that many societies have deviated from the original teachings and practices of Prophet Muhammed and the first Muslims.

Social Interactions

In some communities, social contact between men and women who are not related is completely forbidden, thus resulting in segregated schools, businesses, government offices, and the virtual exclusion of women from positions of power or control. The domination and oppression of women has resulted from restrictions on social interactions enabling the leadership in governments to deny basic human rights and use Islam to support their position. In general, many Muslims have adopted the justification for such separation, inspired by the fear that allowing social contact will encourage and undoubtedly lead to illicit sexual behavior.

There are a few Qur'anic verses which address the interaction of men and women in the social context:

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity - (and,) verily, God is aware of all that they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.(24:30-31)

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all (other) believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (when in public): this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not annoyed.(33:59)

Implicit in these verses is the expectation that men and women will be interacting. Muslims are instructed to do so in such a way as to focus on attributes other than the physical, namely the spiritual and intellectual.

The Prophet's first wife, Khadija, was a well known businesswoman in Mecca. There is no evidence that, after her marriage to Muhammed and after he received revelation that she ceased conducting her affairs which included negotiating with men. Aisha was an extremely important source of the traditions of the Prophet which were transmitted by her mainly to other men. In addition, the women of the community, particularly in Medina, approached the Prophet directly, without being hidden by a veil or curtain. Muhammed made a point to spend time with the women to teach religious matters and answer questions (Bukhari, Vol.1, No. 101). The following hadith indicate that the separation practiced today has little precedence in early Islamic practices:

Narrated Sahl: When Abu Usaid As-Saidi got married, he invited the Prophet and his companions. None prepared the food for them and brought it to them but his wife. She soaked some dates in water in a stone pot overnight, and when the Prophet had finished his food, she provided him with the drink.(Bukhari, Vol. 7, No. 111)

Narrated Anas bin Malik: Once an Ansari woman came to the Prophet and he took her aside and said (to her), "By God, you (Ansar) are the most beloved people to me."(Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 161)

Narrated Ar-Rabi' bint Mu'awidh: We used to take part in holy battles with the Prophet by providing the people with water and serving them and bringing the killed and the wounded back to Medina.(Bukhari, Vol.4, No.134) (See also Nos. 131-133 and Muslim, Nos. 4453-4460)

Women in the Mosques

In many Muslim communities today, women are discouraged or prohibited from going to the mosques. Yet, the Prophet specifically admonished the men not to keep their wives from going to the mosques:

Ibn Omar reported: The Messenger of God said, "Do not prevent the maid-servants of God from going to the mosque."(Muslim, No.888) (See also Nos. 884-891 and Bukhari Vol.1, Nos. 824, 832)

Also, it is clear from the following hadith that the women simply prayed behind the men and were not sequestered in a separate room or even concealed by a curtain or partition as is practiced in so many mosques today:

Asma' daughter of Abu Bakr said: I heard the Apostle of God say, "One of you who believes in God and in the Last Day should not raise her head until the men raise their heads (after prostration) lest she should see the private parts of men."(Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 850)

The subsequent exclusion of women from the mosques is perhaps based on the following hadith which is attributed to Aisha, but was never actually said by the Prophet:

Amra, daughter of Abdul-Rahman, reported: I heard Aisha say, "If the Messenger of God had seen what new things the women have introduced (in their way of life) he would have definitely prevented them from going to the mosque, as the women of Bani Israel were prevented."(Muslim, No. 895) (Also reported in Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 569 and Bukhari, Vol.1, No. 828)

Although Aisha's opinion has merit, it is not binding as a source of shari'a.

Also, another variation of the above hadith regarding attendance at the mosque is found in Sunan Abu Dawud:

Ibn Omar reported the Apostle of God as saying, "Do not prevent your women from visiting the mosques; but their houses are better for them (for praying)."(No. 567) (See also No. 570)

Although one can argue about whether women should or should not go to the mosque, they were not prevented from attending, nor were they hidden from view when carrying out their daily routines. While the Prophet was very explicit in telling men that they were not allowed to prevent their wives from going to the mosque, this advice was met with significant resistance (see Muslim, Nos. 884-891, Al-Muwatta, 14.6). Since the early days of Islam, the negative reaction of men regarding women in the mosques has prevailed, thus denying a right that was clearly stated by the Prophet. The right of individuals to worship in the mosque is also stated in the Qur'an, "Hence, who could be more wicked than those who bar (people) from the God's houses of worship wherein He is remembered... (2:114).

For Muslims who go to the mosque only to perform Juma'a and other prayers, focusing on attendance at the mosque may seem trivial. In predominantly Muslim countries, the mosque rarely serves a purpose other than as a place to pray and hold Friday services. But in countries where Muslims are a minority (such as the United States), the importance of the mosque as a community center and focal point for congregation cannot be underestimated.

The mosque is often a center for learning about Islam, meeting other Muslims, developing support systems (especially for new converts), and carrying other religious activities. The congregation needs to feel welcome if they are going to become active participants who can positively impact the growing Islamic movement. Also, meeting at the mosque provides an opportunity for women and men to voice their concerns and assist one another in areas such as adjusting to living in a new culture, domestic disputes, problems at school or in the workplace.

Acceptance by immigrant Muslim women of the norms in their home countries that discourage women from attending the mosque, further contributes to their absence and subsequent silence in the community. This often limits their opportunity for self -development through increasing their knowledge about Islam.

Most Muslims believe that attendance at Juma'a prayers is not required of women (as it is of men); yet, it is important to realize that women are not discouraged or prohibited from attending. A woman can choose to attend or not, but when the environment is unwelcoming (e.g. no suitable place to pray) or hostile, she might prefer to avoid the situation altogether and refrain from struggling to achieve her right.

Segregation or Integration

At mosques or at Muslim gatherings, emphasis is often placed on keeping men and women separated with minimal to no interaction. In some Muslim countries, complete segregation is still practiced as well, although to varying degrees throughout the Muslim world. Interestingly, for Muslims in America, it is somewhat ironic to witness a zeal for keeping men and women separate in the mosques or gatherings, when the same Muslims interact in integrated settings with non-Muslims at school or work on a daily basis.

A review of the life and times of Prophet Muhammed reveals little or no evidence of complete segregation of men and women living in Mecca and Medina. In fact, many hadith support the opposite as can be seen in numerous of hadith of Bukhari and others that confirm that women had a presence in all facets of community life. They appeared in court, participated in battles, went on Hajj, conducted business in the marketplace, joined in Eid celebrations, attended funerals and carried out their tasks of living without appearing to avoid contact with the opposite sex.

In addition, numerous other hadith exist in which women addressed the Prophet in person about a variety of issues from sex to participation in jihad (see, for example, Muslim, Nos. 607-613, 4453, Sunan Abu Dawud, 1132, 5185). Why then do so many Muslims practice complete segregation and purdah (concealment)? Perhaps these traditions are based on the following verses of the Qur'an which were addressed to the Prophet's wives:

O you who have attained to faith! Do not enter the Prophet's dwellings unless you are given leave; (and when invited) to a meal, do not come (so early as) to wait for it to be readied but whenever you are invited enter (at the proper time); and when you have partaken of the meal, disperse without lingering for the sake of mere talk; that, behold, might give offence to the Prophet ....And (as for the Prophet's wives,) whenever you ask them for anything that you need, ask them from behind a screen (hijab): this will but deepen the purity of your hearts and theirs.(33:53)

This verse was revealed at a time when the Muslim community was growing rapidly, imposing itself on the Prophet and his household without regard for their need for privacy. Thus, "by instituting seclusion Muhammad was creating a distance between his wives and this thronging community on their doorstep..." (Women and Gender in Islam, Leila Ahmed, p.55) However, the following verse points out the unique position of the Prophet's wives:

O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the (other) women, provided that you remain (truly) conscious of God. Hence, be not over-soft in your speech, lest any whose heart is diseased should be moved to desire (you): but, withal, speak in a kindly way. And abide quietly in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to flaunt them in the old days of pagan ignorance.... for God only wants to remove from you all that might be loathsome, O you members of the (Prophet's) household, and to purify you to utmost purity.(33:32-33)

Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the restrictions imposed upon the wives of Prophet Muhammed do not necessarily apply to the remainder of the Muslim female population. While the Muslim women were quick to adopt modest dress, there is no historical evidence that women other than the Prophet's wives concealed themselves behind a veil or screen after the revelation of the above verse. Even though the wives were concealed they were definitely not invisible as they continued to participate in a variety of activities including Hajj, accompanying the Prophet on expeditions and so on (Bukhari, Vol.7, Nos.685-6, Vol.4, No. 130,). Aisha led a very active life before and after the death of the Prophet in which she served as a leader of the community, teacher of Islam, and transmitter of hadith to men and women alike.

By following the Islamic guidelines for respectful appropriate behavior, many Muslims feel comfortable working and studying in integrated settings where men and women can mutually benefit from the input and differing points of view that each has to offer. Complete segregation of the sexes as practiced in some communities is based on the individual opinions of some contemporary Muslim scholars who claim that in today's depraved society, achieving healthy, decent coexistence is impossible.

For example, regarding the hadith in which a woman serves her male guests, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, in The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, quotes Shaikh al Islam Ibn Hajar who said, "From this hadith we see that a woman is permitted to serve her husband....It is evident that her serving visitors is allowed only if there is no fear of temptation and if she is properly dressed; if the wife is not properly dressed (as is the case with the majority of women in our time) her appearing in front of men is haram." This is a clear example of how a sheikh, based on his own opinion regarding a hadith, declares a certain behavior haram when the evidence to support such a view is virtually non-existent. The Qur'an clearly states:

Hence, do not utter falsehoods by letting your tongues determine (at your own discretion, "This is lawful and that is forbidden", thus attributing your own lying inventions to God.(16:116)

Sexual Responsibility

As mentioned earlier, the desire to avoid intermingling is related to fears of encouraging illicit sexual conduct. Whether or not integration in schools and the workplace will cause individuals to behave in such a way is highly debatable. Also, there is no guarantee that segregation absolutely ensures sexual responsibility. Men and women are responsible for their actions regardless of the circumstances. But God is ever aware of our weaknesses as human beings, so certain guidelines do exist to help us avoid temptation and maintain pure relationships. Requiring complete segregation is an extreme method that has no solid precedence in Islam and may serve to heighten one's interest in or anxiety about the opposite sex.

By following the guidelines of Islam, men and women can achieve positive relationships that incorporate respect and understanding. It is important, however, to limit factors that reinforce or encourage physical attraction outside of marriage, as this may be a prelude for physical intimacy that is lawful only between a married couple.

The Qur'an and Sunnah provide several recommendations to enable Muslims to know one another in an appropriate and responsible manner without necessitating physical separation. Some examples of Qur'anic verses and hadith that stress the importance of chastity follow:

Verily, for all men and women who have rendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, .....and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for (all of) them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.(33:35)

(In the nature of things) corrupt women are for corrupt men, and corrupt men, for corrupt women - just as good women are for good men, and good men, for good women.(24:26)

And as for those who are unable to marry, let them live in continence (be chaste) until God grants them sufficiency out of His bounty.(24:33)

And do not commit adultery (or fornication) * for behold, it is an abomination and an evil way.(17:32) (*zina refers to sexual intercourse between a man and woman who are not married)

The Prophet is reported to have said, "Those of you who own the means should marry ..... for this should keep their eyes uncraving and their chastity secure. Those who don't may practice fasting as it curbs desire." (Bukhari, Vol. 3, No. 129)

It is clear that the injunction to maintain chastity applies to both men and women. The wisdom of the prohibition of sex outside of marriage is evident when considering the consequences of pre- and extra-marital sexual relations. Unwanted pregnancy, spread of sexually transmitted diseases, disruption of the family, emotional confusion and anguish are but a few of the negative ramifications. Therefore, it is no surprise that God would forbid such behavior which is so detrimental to the individual and society as well.

Islam also recognizes the extreme importance of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife as a means of fortifying the marriage and ensuring happiness and mutual satisfaction. This will be discussed in more detail elsewhere in the chapters on Marriage and Sexuality. In essence, Muslims are advised to avoid sex before marriage and develop an active and enjoyable sex life during matrimony.

The question then remains: How do Muslims develop relationships and avoid the temptation to follow through on sexual impulses? For some the answer is to avoid any contact whatsoever with any person of the opposite sex who is not related, and to meet prospective spouses only when pre-arranged by others. Another approach is to expect men and women to behave maturely and interact according to the guidelines of Islam outlined in the Qur'an and hadith. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, there is little evidence to support the view that Islam prohibits interaction between unrelated men and women. The solution of complete avoidance of the opposite sex is impractical for many people and not a necessary requirement of Islamic social behavior.

Guidelines for Appropriate Behavior

Guidelines for appropriate behavior generally operate on the concept of avoiding situations that would lead to temptation. Much of the advice is based on the premise that physical attraction is an important precursor to relationships that result in a desire for physical intimacy. Therefore, when reviewing the texts, one is aware of the emphasis on minimizing factors that promote physical attractiveness. In order to ensure healthy relationships between the sexes, four basic recommendations can be made:

1) Treat one another with respect at all times in all situations

This recommendation is based on the Qur'anic verses quoted at the beginning of this chapter which emphasize the importance of respect for all people. Respectful behavior is the key to enabling Muslims to interact with one another in a productive and pure manner.

2) Behave modestly

Essentially, Muslims are advised to behave in a way to maintain purity in a social context. This includes avoiding provocative behavior such as flirtation, unnecessary physical contact, ogling or harassment. This chapter will focus here on general transgender relations (premarital courtship is discussed in the chapter on marriage). The most direct reference regarding modesty is found in Surah Nur (24), verses 30-31:

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity, verily, God is aware of all that they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their charms (zeenah) (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings (khimar) over their bosoms. And let them not display more of their charms (zeenah) to any but their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands' fathers, or their sons, or their husband's sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of women's nakedness ('awra); and let them not swing their legs (in walking) so as to draw attention to their hidden charms.

The only other verse which specifically addresses behavior between the sexes is that which addresses the Prophet's wives (see above 33:32-33). Only a few hadith exist which further outline proper behavior:

Maqal ibn Yasar narrated that the Prophet said, "It is better for one of you to be pricked in the head with an iron pick than to touch a woman whom it is unlawful to touch."(Al-Tabarani, according to The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, p.165)

Abu Huraira relates that the Prophet said, "A man commits adultery with his eyes when he looks at a strange woman; the adultery of the ears is listening to sexual dialogue; adultery of the tongue is talking about sex; the adultery of the hand is to catch which is unlawful; and the adultery of the feet is going towards a strange woman; the heart ardently desires adultery; and the sexual organs confirm or contradict the act."(Riyadh us-Salaheen, No. 1622)(see also Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 260)

Jarir said, "I asked the Holy Prophet as to what should be done when our glance accidentally falls (upon somebody forbidden) to look at. He said, 'Turn your eyes.'"(Riyadh us-Salaheen, No. 1625)

Urwa narrated that Aisha said, "The Messenger of God never touched a woman with his hand. He would only take a vow from her, and when he had taken the vow, he would say, 'You may go. I have accepted your fealty.'"(Muslim, No. 4603)

Based on these hadith, many Muslims will not shake hands with someone of the opposite sex. Others feel that the hadith mainly refer to physical contact that has sexual overtones and do not apply to a simple salutary handshake.

In view of the above hadith, the following tradition is interesting and appears to be contradictory:

Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, reported that one day while she was walking home carrying a heavy load of stones of dates, the Prophet passed by and suggested that she sit behind him on his camel to ease her burden. She refused, fearing her husband's jealousy. When she told him of this her husband said, "By God, the carrying of the stone dates upon your head is more severe a burden than riding with him." (Muslim, No. 5417)

In the footnote to this hadith, the commentators are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a man and woman riding together on a camel. They are quick to state that only the Prophet would be allowed to do such a thing because he was pure and not like other men. Nevertheless, this hadith does point out that Muhammed was not overly concerned with avoiding contact with other women of his community.

3) Avoid situations of seclusion (khalwa)

Several hadith found in various sources caution against a man and a woman spending time alone together in an isolated place. When two people are attracted to each other, the opportunity for intimacy is most apparent when they are alone. Therefore, the advice is to avoid the situation that will naturally lead to temptation. This does not apply when men and women are related as delineated in the verse quoted above (24:32).

Jabir reported God's Messenger as saying, "Behold, no person should spend the night with a married woman, but only in case he is married to her or he is her mahram." (Mahram is a male relative as specified in Qur'an, 24:32) (Muslim, No.5399)

The Prophet is reported to have said, "Whoever believes in God and the Last Day must never be in privacy with a woman without their being a mahram (of hers) with her, for otherwise Satan will be the third person (with them)." (Ahmad, as quoted by Qardawi, p. 150)

Ibn Abbas reports that the Prophet said, "None of you should meet a woman in privacy unless she is accompanied by a relative within the prohibited degrees." (Bukhari and Muslim as quoted in Riyadh us-Salaheen, No. 1629) (See also Muslim, Nos. 5400, 5403)

Based on the above hadith, it is clear that dating, if it involves the seclusion of the couple in a place where they cannot naturally and easily be approached by others, is prohibited.

Not every encounter between a man and woman is bound to lead to sex. Muslims must develop a sensible and balanced approach to relations between the sexes. We must shun the attitude of paranoia that plagues some Muslims who feel that working alongside the opposite sex will only inspire uncontrollable sexual desires. In addition, we must also avoid adopting an attitude of excessive permissiveness prevalent in Western culture whereby the boundaries between unmarried men and women disappear. It is our belief that God has provided us with the tools that, when incorporated properly, enable us to take advantage of the most and best that our fellow human beings have to offer.

4) Dress modestly

Although dress in general does have influence on the reactions and interest of the opposite sex, it seems that the attention given this issue by Muslims and non-Muslims alike is grossly out of proportion to the attention given the subject in Qur'an and hadith. Women's dress represents different issues to different people at any given place and time; subsequently, social and political issues are often at stake in many communities when discussing and developing policy on women's dress (for an excellent discussion of the historical background regarding the politicization of women's dress see Women and Gender in Islam, by Leila Ahmed).

Setting aside social and political agendas, one must put the issue of women's dress in its proper perspective as far as priorities and degree of importance are concerned. Fewer than five Qur'anic verses (out of more than a thousand) and only a fraction of the hadith literature address this topic. This is in contrast to an abundance of Qur'anic verses and hadith dealing with the major acts of worship- acts so important that they constitute the five pillars of Islam, such as prayer and alms-giving. It would be wrong and illogical, therefore, to put adherence to a particular form of dress on par with the five pillars of Islam, as many Muslims unfortunately do. However, because this topic has generated tremendous controversy and debate, it will be addressed here with a review of the relevant passages from the primary sources.

In addition to the verse quoted above (24:31), the Qur'an also says:

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all (other) believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (jilbab) (when in public); this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not annoyed. But God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace! (33:59)

And know that women advanced in years, who no longer feel any sexual desire, incur no sin if they discard their (outer) garments (thiyab), provided they do not aim at a showy display of (their) charms. But (even so,) it is better for them to abstain (from this): and God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (24:60)

In Surah 24, verse 31, where it says "And tell the believing women...not to display their charms (zeenah) (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence let them draw their head-coverings (khimar) over their bosoms," most interpreters agree that khimar refers to the loose fitting scarves that the women in Arabia wore over their heads and shoulders. It is clear that the injunction here is to cover the breast as the women of pre-Islamic Arabia also were bare-chested in that both breasts were totally exposed (Muhammed Asad translation, footnote to above verse 33:59). Whether a woman must also use a scarf to cover her head is not totally clear from this verse; what is clear is that the practice of exposing the breasts was abolished with this revelation. Thus, the Muslims were advised to use a garment which they were wearing at the time to cover their breasts. Does this mean that covering the hair is also required? If so, it is an implied, not stated, injunction.

Also in this verse, women are advised not to display their charms or beauty (depending on how one translates zeenah) except what may decently or naturally be apparent. Other than specifications regarding covering of the breast, the Qur'an is not very detailed in its description of proper dress. But if Muslims were to refer to Qur'an alone, the following conclusions are most clear:

bullet Modesty in dress and behavior is of utmost importance when interacting with the opposite sex;
bullet Women and men are advised to avoid dressing or behaving in such a way for the purpose of drawing attention to their physical attributes;
bullet When in the presence of family, women can be less stringent in their dress; and,
bullet One main purpose of dressing modestly is to protect the woman from unwanted advances and harassment.

Many questions remain, What is modest dress? Is the Qur'an vague in terms of the exact definition for a reason? Is it to be defined anew by each advancing generation of Muslims? Some guidelines are available when reviewing the various hadith which address this subject. The most well-known as quoted in Sunan Abu Dawud is as follows:

Aisha said, "Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of God wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of God turned his attention from her and said, "O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this," and he pointed to her face and hands.(No. 4095)

According to Abu Dawud, this is considered a weak hadith because the narrator who transmitted it from Aisha is not known (mursal).

Several other hadith, particularly in Sunan Abu Dawud, also address issues related to women's dress.

Aisha said, "May God have mercy on the early immigrant women. When the verse was revealed, "...that they should draw their veils over their bosoms" was revealed, they tore their thick outer garments and made veils from them." (No. 4091, see also Nos. 4089-90)

Dihyah ibn Khalifah al-Kalbi said, "The Apostle of God was brought some pieces of fine Egyptian linen and he gave me one and said, 'Divide it into two; cut one of the pieces into a shirt and give the other to your wife for veil.' Then when he turned away, he said, 'And order your wife to wear a garment below it and not show her figure.'" (No. 4104)

When Aisha was visited by women of Bani Tamim, who were wearing transparent clothes, she said, "If you are believers, these are not the clothes which befit believing women."(Al-Tabarani, as quoted in Al-Qaradawi, p.165)

In addition to the above hadith, there are several which define dress according to principles other than modesty. For example, the Prophet reportedly admonished women and men to avoid dressing like the opposite sex.. (See Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 4086-4088, 4103, 4105-4107). Also, women were advised not to do things to change their appearance such as filing their teeth or plucking facial hair in such a way to beautify themselves and thus change what God had created. (Muslim, Nos. 5295-5309).

Based on hadith, some general concepts emerge regarding dress. Basically, most agree that clothes that do not accentuate a woman's figure or reveal the underlying skin are most appropriate. Based on the hadith mentioned above regarding Asma, many Muslims have adopted a manner of dress which includes a head-covering. But not all Muslims agree on the definition of modest dress and mainly disagree regarding covering the hair. When reading Surah 24, verse 31, it is possible to interpret "...display not their charms except what may (naturally) appear thereof" to mean that the hair, like the face, would naturally appear and therefore does not have to be concealed. Details regarding dress are based on interpretation of the verses and understanding and acceptance of the hadith which are subject to rules to verify authenticity. Based on the text as mentioned above, the scholars from the major schools of thought have agreed by consensus (ijma'a) that a head-covering is a requirement for the dress of the Muslim woman. Minority views have argued that the type of dress and definition of modesty is based on the culture and country in which the Muslim woman lives. Clearly, this subject requires further, open discussion among scholars and activists alike.

Based on Qur'an, the purpose of modest dress is twofold:

bullet to be recognized as a decent person, and
bullet to avoid harassment.

Both of these goals need to be considered when a woman chooses what to wear. Each Muslim must study every issue thoroughly by reviewing the available information critically and analytically before deciding how to practice Islam.

Ultimately, God is the final judge and we do the best we can with the best intentions. In concert with the verse "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) Muslims are able to make choices, free of coercion. Based on the Qur'anic verses and hadith mentioned above, can we conclude that a dress code exists that can actually be enforced, or is it up to the discretion of each individual Muslim? There is no evidence that women were excluded from activities based on the way they were dressed, nor is there precedence to justify the punishment of women because of their attire. It would be easy to assume that all of the Muslim women in the Prophet's time immediately adopted a universal way of dress. But if someone chose not to, would the Prophet harass her in front of others, humiliate her, forbid her from participating in certain activities, imprison or execute her? There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that he would employ such punitive measures. Such methods would be totally contrary to the known demeanor of the Prophet; therefore, it is very difficult to understand how Muslims today can justify these practices based on religious grounds.

While Muslims vary in their approach to implementing modest dress, there is virtual unanimity regarding dress at prayer which is the same whether one is praying at home alone or in the mosque. The practice of covering entirely, except for showing the face and hands, is most likely based on the following hadith (the Qur'an does not address the issue of how to dress when praying):

Aisha reported the Prophet as saying, "God does not accept the prayer of a woman who has reached puberty unless she wears a veil." (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 641 and Nos.4105-07)

The practice of covering one's hair during Qur'anic recitation is based on the understanding that recitation is the equivalent of prayer. But if a woman is listening to recitation she is not praying, because if that were the case, all menstruating women would not be allowed to listen to Qur'an since they do not pray while on their menses. Therefore, the practice of covering one's hair while someone else is reciting Qur'an is not based on solid Islamic evidence.

Similarly, many Muslim women feel that after they perform Hajj, they are required to cover their hair. Some even choose not to go on the pilgrimage because they say they are not ready to wear a head scarf. While one may feel more committed to one's faith upon returning from Hajj, the practice of associating the scarf with the pilgrimage is artificial and not Islamically justified. It is unfortunate that covering one's hair has been placed at the same level as a major pillar of Islam, and has, in effect, pre-empted Hajj for many women.

In some Muslim communities, the women are required to cover their faces in addition to everything else so that only the eyes or nothing is showing. Based on all of the references cited above, the only one that refers to concealment behind a screen (hijab) pertains specifically to the Prophet's wives (33:53). After this verse was revealed, they kept their faces covered when they went out in public. It does not necessarily follow that this practice applies to all Muslim women especially when one considers the verse which says to the Prophet's wives, "...You are not like any of the (other) women" (33:32). In addition, there is no clear evidence that women other than the wives of the Prophet began covering their faces after this verse was revealed.

Indeed, Muslim women are told that they must not cover their faces during Hajj, according to several well-known hadith. Also, it is easy to see why covering the face is extremely problematic for legal reasons. With her face covered, a woman's identity cannot be verified under important circumstances, such as taking tests in school, testifying in court, acting as a witness to a transaction or even committing a crime. Clearly, the decision to cover one's face is up to the individual and should not be enforced by any authority, especially when it is obvious that there is lack of consensus on this issue.


If Muslims define a dress code for how to appear in public, they must also determine how to dress in the company of their family and others who are mentioned in the verse 31 of Surah Nur. Simply speaking, a woman could expose whatever she covers when she goes out. The word 'awra in the above-mentioned verse is translated by Muhammad Asad as nakedness, but most Muslims would not appear naked even in front of their immediate family. Therefore, the traditional scholars have determined that a woman's arms, hair, neck and lower legs can be exposed in front of family, while nudity is permitted only when with one's spouse. Considerable debate surrounds the exact definition of 'awra: to some it includes the entire body except the face and hands and to others it is limited to the area between the navel and the knees, sometimes including the breast.

Although dress is not a major issue when looking at the texts, Muslims nevertheless have very strong feelings about this subject. The focus on privacy and modesty in all settings permeates all facets of life. Several hadith refer to the importance of privacy and covering the genitals even when in the presence of members of the same sex (Muslim, Nos. 669-673, Sunan Abu Dawud, Nos. 3998-4008). Consequently, Muslims are confronted with difficult situations when privacy is not provided such as in public restrooms, locker rooms, and so on. Whether the breast is included with genitals as something that must be covered at all times is debatable because such a practice would interfere with breast-feeding which is often done in the presence of family members.

Participation in Sports and Performing Arts

Other issues that involve social behavior and generate considerable debate particularly among Muslim families include participation in performing arts, dancing and sports. Based on the aforementioned hadith and Qur'an, Muslims are advised to be modest and avoid attracting attention to their physical attributes. In addition, activities that involve intense physical contact between men and women should be discouraged. Each Muslim will have to decide for herself how involved she wants to be in a particular activity depending on how committed she is to carrying out the guidelines defining Islamic behavior.

The extent of one's participation in sports and other activities depends mainly on a woman's understanding and decision regarding Islamic dress. Most women can still dress modestly while being involved in a variety of activities. Some controversial areas include swimming, gymnastics, and ballet. Difficulties also arise when Muslim girls wish to compete on teams which require wearing a certain uniform which may not be consistent with one's standards. Some parents allow their daughters to participate, for example, in gymnastics or ballet, until they reach the age of puberty. At this point, for many parents, modest dress takes precedence over involvement, even if their child has exhibited considerable talent. The wisest approach would probably be to encourage one's children to participate in activities that they can continue into adulthood. If the parents are planning to discontinue the activity at a certain age, they should warn their daughters ahead of time and give them the opportunity to choose something else.


Hopefully, this chapter has shed some light on some of the more controversial issues surrounding Islam and Muslims by looking at the original sources that are the cornerstone of our faith Reading carefully through Qur'an and hadith, one is left with an image of the first Muslim community struggling to adapt to the revolutionary changes that permeated their individual and collective lives on every level. In a place where women were considered property and less than human, Islam elevated their status to that of a human being with rights and dignity, deserving of respect and consideration from others particularly men. Redefining roles was a great challenge that continues today. But we are left with a powerful example in the Prophet who demonstrated patience , compassion , friendliness and grace when dealing with the female followers of Islam. By applying those principles today, Muslims can restore the dignity that ought to prevail in all relationships, with God consciousness (taqwa) as the guiding force.

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