Physical contact between members of the opposite gender in Islam
This is a 6th entry in the series of Things that are good to know about your Muslim friend. Make sure to read the first five entries if you missed them, and which had to do with:
Physical contact between men and women
Physical contact between men and women is forbidden in Islam, unless it is necessary (saving someone’s life for example) or between two people who are related by blood or marriage. This means that men and women are not allowed to hug, or kiss, or even shake hands.
For some reason, some people who really do not understand Islam mistakenly provide completely false rationales for this Islamic teaching. For example, some claim that since men are considered superior in Islam, they must not lower themselves and touch women. Another version of this false claim is to confuse this teaching with the topic of purity and impurity, and mistakenly think that Islam considers women impure, so men are not allowed touching them as a result of that impurity…
So to set the record straight about these claims before actually explaining the rationale:
- Islam does not consider men superior. In fact, the only criterion of superiority that is clearly mentioned in the Qur’an is that of piety, and it is purely spiritual, which means that it is only God who can assess it. And what is striking in this claim (that men cannot touch women because they are superior) is that it is presented as though this prohibition of touching is directed at men, as the “superior ones”. The prohibition is NOT that men cannot touch women; it is that people of a different gender may not touch (unless they are family members, etc). In other words, there is no implication or connotation of superiority at all.
Those who want to portray Islam as saying that “men are superior, therefore no touching between genders,” are mistakenly thinking that Islam has something akin to the caste system in Hinduism where Untouchables may not enter temples, read, live with others in the same villages or cities, or even be in the residence of those of the other castes.
These kinds of beliefs and social divisions are not exclusive to Hinduism, and other places and cultures in the world do ostracize certain other groups because of the “unclean” jobs they or their families perform for example… but Islam is not one of them, and this notion of untouchability has nothing to do with Islam, and has even less to do with our topic of men and women not touching. (In certain parts of India, where Hindu culture is very present in Muslim communities, Muslims will attend the mosque together, but will not marry or mix socially outside of the mosque, as a result of the influence of the caste system. This however is clearly forbidden in Islam…)
- Secondly, Islam does not consider women impure anymore than it considers men impure. Purity and impurity have nothing to do with one’s gender, or race, or age, or… yes there are internal and external situations and factors that can render something or someone impure, such as if it comes in contact with urine, pig, or blood, but none of those are gender-specific… (see entry on purity and impurity).
So if Islam does not consider women inferior, nor does it consider women intrinsically impure, why can’t men and women touch?
The reason that Islam forbids touching between genders is very simple: it is a preventative measure for society to keep functioning as it should. This rule applies in the same manner to both men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, and simply closes one more door on situations that may lead to things like adultery to take place. Islam recognizes that in daily life, men and women will share space. In order for this co-presence to be perfectly healthy and respectful to all, Islam asks of both men and women to keep their hands (and eyes for that matter, but that will be another entry) to themselves. So a man may not shake the hand of a woman, nor give her a hug, nor a kiss, nor a pat on the back, not a high-five… unless she is a blood relative (mother, sister, aunt, grand-mother, daughter) or his wife, or physical contact is necessary to save her life for instance. And the same goes for women, in the same exact manner; no hugging, or kissing, or high-fiving, or handshaking unless the other person is a woman, a blood relative (father, brother, uncle, grand-father, son) or the husband. Apart from these exceptions, and situations requiring absolutely essential physical contact (the only physician who can perform a necessary surgery is of the opposite gender, which is quite hard to imagine nowadays…), physical contact with members of the opposite gender is forbidden.
This is Islam’s way of creating a society with men and women who interact with modesty, chastity, and respect with each other in all situations. Islam considers all physical contact between the genders as carrying great significance, to the point of sacredness (which also happens to be in line with much psychological and scientific studies such as this thesis called Understanding Handshaking, which I recommend, in addition to common sense as seen by much of the world’s population…).
It is therefore only allowed within the confines of a special relationship (such as marriage or family bonds), and not to be shared with everyone. For instance, speaking as a husband, I know that my body is only to be touched by my wife, and I know that my wife’s body will only be touched by me, and as a result, I feel that any physical touching is a special privilege. This is a realistic outlook on life, one that recognizes the potential power of every touch, as innocent (or not) as both parties may want to make it, and the problems it can generate in society. I don’t think that it is necessary for me to spend more time explaining, for instance, how you special and significant that “first touch” is for someone who likes someone else, and how many poems, novels, and movies have seen the light day based on this single image…
The difficulty that many Muslims express about this teaching is that, in many instances, non-Muslims are not aware of it. So when a well-meaning person of the opposite sex gives their hand to shake the hand of a Muslim, it places the Muslim in the difficult position of leaving the person’s hand hanging while they explain why they are declining to give their hand in return. Islam asks of its believers to be as well-mannered as they can at all times and in all situations, and the last thing they would want to do is to cause embarrassment to the person by declining their handshake, which still carries significant cultural weight in most societies and in many situations of social interaction, pretty much all over the world. Muslims who wish to respect this teaching will most often simply bow their head down while placing their hands on their chest, as a sign of cordiality and respect, in response to the hand that has been extended in their direction.
But Muslims do have a responsibility to educate non-Muslims on this topic, as they do on everything else about their religion. In many respects, this should not be seen too differently from presenting meat to a vegetarian, or a cream-filled chocolate cupcake to someone who is on a diet; the rejection is not a sign of disrespect, or some inferiority or superiority complex, nor of subordination of women, nor their impurity… simply the sign of a disciplined person who wishes to share a common space with others in respect, cordiality and professionalism, and avoid any potential situations of flirtation, and unnecessary or even inappropriate physical contact…
“No thank you, I’m vegetarian,” however, is not an appropriate reply to someone offering a handshake, we all agree.
I remember that a couple of years ago, when the swine flu and bird flu were growing concern, many health professionals started advising people not to engage in any “casual physical contact (for example, handshakes, social hugs or kisses) […]” with anyone else, as a precaution. At that time, I would see people refraining from handshakes all around me, even in my work environment, which is highly formalized and such etiquette as handshaking are a given under normal circumstances…
Of relevance is also to note that, although there are nuances and differences, fundamentally, this same principle of no physical contact between men and women is taught by the Jewish Torah (see Negiah, Leviticus 18:6…), as well as by Hindus, Theravda Buddhists, Sikhs, in addition to Western customs prior to recent times.
And to anyone who wishes to reduce any serious and realistic discussion about the validity or utility of such religious teachings, you cannot dismiss these teachings because you may not agree with them… and please realize that science is only beginning to understand some of these dimensions (see this article entitled Topography of Social Touching for instance). You do not need to agree with such teachings, but respect them as another, respectable point of view, even if it is one with which you may disagree.
Let me know what you think!