Living in the west where the general mixing of men and women is common in every level of society, it is often difficult as a practising Muslim to negotiate the halal and haram of the situations we are presented with.
From the billboards at train stations to the advertisements on television and the popular culture permeating society, there sometimes seems to be little restricting the behaviour of men and women when viewed through Islamic mores of decency and humility.
As Muslims growing up in such an atmosphere, it is essential to grasp the Islamic viewpoint on this issue. While it is often stated (with a deafening echo) that Islam is a way of life not just a religion, in practice one may overlook the fact that Islam has not remained silent on any matter. As a comprehensive way to organise life in accordance with divinely ordained needs and instincts, Islam has clear guidelines for the interaction between men and women.
Muslims firmly believe that Allah created the procreational instinct in humans as a natural phenomenon that ensures the continuation mankind. Celibacy, under some misconstrued notions of reaching higher levels of spirituality, is a sure way to bring human life to a silent end and is an unnatural suppression of our natural disposition (fitrah).
As we briefly discuss in this article, Allah has provided divine guidance on how to channel the desires and instincts that exist in a way that guarantees not just individual salvation but also stability in the social fabric of society.
The Islamic approach on all matters is a preventive one, meaning it simultaneously builds the individual and organises society in a manner that prevents problems from emerging. In terms of the interaction between genders, then, the Shari’ah sets the norm and deviation from it is considered an exception.
In this case, separation between men and women in society is the norm. Instances where men and women are allowed to mix are the exception. When they do mix, Islam defines a specific code of behaviour that men and women are obliged to follow in their interaction.
Our scholars throughout history have appreciated this fact and thus prohibited unnecessary interaction between men and women that may become a source of temptation and fitnah.
Imam al-Sarakhsi, the great Hanafi jurist of the fourth century, writes:
“The judge should try women separately from men since people tend to crowd together in the courtroom. It is quite obvious that the mixing together of men and women under such crowded conditions is conducive to temptation and other distasteful consequences.” [al-Mabsût (16/80)]
Imam al-Nawawi, the great Shafi’i jurist of the seventh century also, writes:
“Ibn al-Mundhir and others maintain that it is a matter of unanimous agreement that women are not obligated to attend the Jumu’ah prayers. However, his argument that this is because it brings about the mixing of women and men is not correct. The attendance of women at the Jumu’ah prayers does not necessarily bring about such mixing since the women stay behind the men.” [al-Majmu’ (4/350)]
Imam Al-Nawawi further notes:
“One of the vilest innovations, that some ignorant people today are involved in, is the habit of lighting candles on Mount `Arafah on the ninth night. This behavior is gravely misguided and is full of improper goings-on such as the mixing of men and women.” [al-Majmu’ (8/140)]
In his commentary on al-Qayrawani’s Risalah (a compendium of Maliki fiqh) entitled al-Fawakih al-Dawani Imam al-Nafrawi discusses when it is permissible to refuse an invitation to a wedding party, noting:
“An invitation may be refused if there is any clear wrongdoing at the party, like the mixing of men and women.”
What is pertinent to note here is that the free-mixing that the scholars warn against is not the mere presence of men and women together in the same place, as Islam definitely does not prohibit this. During the time of Rasulullah (ﷺ) men and women used the same public thoroughfares, walked down the same roads, gathered in the same marketplaces and masajid.
Men and women present in the same public space is not a cause of temptation in and of itself and cannot be treated as unlawful mixing as the reason for prohibiting free mixing does not exist in such circumstances. Preventing men and women from frequenting the same public places would be imposing unduly severe restrictions. On the other end of the spectrum, circumstances where unrelated men and women are seated together and chatting are indisputably cases of unlawful mixing.
Although men and women can potentially become a source of temptation for each other, this does not mean that every incident where a man meets a woman is one of temptation and desire. It is unreasonable and contrary to the Shari’ah to seclude man from woman completely in public life based on this reasoning. Rather, the examples set for us by the society established by Rasulullah (ﷺ) reveal a co-operative relationship between man and woman that is essential not just for public life but society as a whole. However, such co-operation cannot be attained in the absence of a framework to regulate the relationship between them.
The relevant rulings
Although people might differ as to the degree of mixing that is prohibited, we can get a good approximation of proper limits by reviewing the laws of Islam that govern the relationship between men and women. The sacred texts provide ample evidence about how and when men and women can meet, how women should dress and conduct themselves when they go outside, and many other pertinent matters.
Among the derived rulings laid down by Allah (SWT) are the following:
- The command for men and women to lower their gaze
Allah (SWT) says:
“Tell the believing men to lower from their gaze and to protect their private parts; that is better for them. Allah knows the details of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower from their gaze and protect their private parts.” [An- Nur: 30]
- The command for women to dress modestly in a jilbab (outer garment) and khimar (head cover)
Allah (SWT) says:
“And they are not to show their charm except that which is apparent. And let them cover their chests and necks with their head covers (khimars)”. [An- Nur: 31]
He (SWT) also says:
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to drape down their outer clothes (Jilbab)”. [Al- Ahzab: 59]
- The prohibition of women from travelling from one place to another for over one day and one night without a mahram (unmarriageable man)
The Messenger (ﷺ) said:
“It is not permitted for a woman who believes in Allah and the Day of Judgement to travel one night and one day except with a mahram”.
- The prohibition of a man and a woman to be in seclusion (khalwah) except in the company of a mahram
The Messenger (ﷺ) said:
“No man should be in seclusion with a woman without her mahram.”
Ibn Abbas (RA) reported that he heard the Prophet (ﷺ) give a speech in which he (ﷺ) said:
“No man should be in seclusion with a woman except with her mahram. Also no woman is to travel but with her mahram.”
Upon hearing this, a man stood up and said: “O Messenger of Allah, my wife is out to perform Hajj and I have been conscripted in such and such battle”. The Messenger said:
“Go and perform Hajj with your wife.”
- The separation of the community of women from the community of men in private life and in the mosques, schools and their likes
This means that in private life, that is, in the homes, men and woman who are non-mahram to each other must be segregated, by a curtain or so. But in public life, men and women may be in the same place at the same time, so long as their interaction is within the limits that we are talking about here.
- The co-operative relation between men and women public in all transactions
The correct etiquette must be applied when men and women who are not immediately related are interacting. Only when there is a genuine need (such as work or education) to talk is interaction to take place. In such cases the conversation should be in a modest, restrained manner, and be limited to the extent of the need. All this is permissible provided the above mentioned conditions also apply, namely, not alone, proper Islamic dress observed, and with genuine need for meeting. Otherwise the following saying of the Messenger (ﷺ) applies:
“O men and women separate yourselves, it is not allowed for you to be in the same place.” (Abu Dawud)
The Allowed Interaction
We list below some of the circumstances or situation in which interaction between men and women is allowed in the public sphere (with requisite conditions, as noted above) as elaborated by scholars and deduced from the texts:
This includes markets/shops, buying, selling, hiring, borrowing and lending. However, if a group of women are together the permit does not extend to passing between them. Imam Tirmidhi narrated that the Messenger (ﷺ) traded with women, and Abu Bakr saw the Messenger Muhammad (ﷺ) trade with a woman.
If the actual work itself is haram, it is haram to mix but if the nature of the work means that one needs to mix then it is allowed. Evidence for this is that the Messenger (SAW) permitted Zubayr Ibn Awwam’s wife to work. She carried water both to men and women. The Messenger even offered his camel to assist her.
Many examples from the time of Rasulullah (ﷺ) reveal the permissibility of this. However to see the ‘Awrah there must be an emergency and no alternative. Medicine will involve sickness requiring treatment not, for example, pregnancy. In Jihad the women used to treat the men.
For the purpose of marriage it has been encouraged for the man and woman seeking to marry to enquire about each other and to meet in the presence of someone who is a mahram to the woman. A man came to the Messenger (ﷺ) to ask about marrying a girl and the prophet (ﷺ) told him, “Go and look at her for it is more likely to engender love between the two of you” [Ahmad] i.e. see her in her father’s presence and therefore mixing in this circumstance is allowed provided all other conditions of interaction are met.
6. Studying/teaching Islam
Umm Salamah and Aisha (RAA) used to teach Islam to men and women. Umm Darda (RAA) was another example of a female judge who gave talks publicly. The Messenger (ﷺ) used to address men and women in the mosque in Medina (men in front and women behind) and in public and private places. However, in the private realm it is a requirement for women to have her mahram present to study or teach Islam in a private place.
While it is important to note that the above is not an exhaustive list and other situations are also allowed, e.g. to visit the sick etc, caution is needed when applying these necessary interactions to the modern context.
It is not uncommon to see brothers and sisters gathering together to study for exams, assisting each other in assessments and the like. Other instances include sitting together for lunch or even socialising over a coffee in the community. Such situations must really be placed under the microscope and scrutinised in an effort to establish their position vis a vis Islamic principles.
While it may be argued that the men and women in question are of high iman and there is no violation of correct Islamic adab, the question is one of adhering to the Shari’ah rules. While the ends do not justify the means, the reverse can also be argued: the means do not justify the ends. One cannot work through halal means if the outcome is a known haram. Correct adab observed in situations that are not from the necessary ones still constitutes free-mixing.
This is not a matter to be treated lightly. There is a consensus of the Sahabah on the issue of free-mixing being haram as a general rule. The Sahabah, Tabi’een and Tabi Tabi’een have no difference of opinion concerning free-mixing, nor do the classical scholars.
In closing, Islam recognises the innate nature of humans and does not suppress instincts; rather, it guides them into fulfilling them in a way that ensures harmony in the community, society and in turn the individual. And who is a better source for these norms than the Creator of human beings Himself?
“Say: the good and the evil are not alike, even if the abundance of evil lures. So fear Allah, O you that understand; that you may prosper” [TMQ, Al-Ma’idah: 100].