At the outset I must say that it’s very hard to write just a single article on a topic that requires a lot of nuance. This is because anytime we deal with human interactions (mu’amalaat), context is essential to having a balanced understanding. Major values are universally applicable but the specifics of how they are expressed can be vastly different, taking into account different times, places, and circumstances. When it comes to living a balanced approach to gender relations as a Muslim, this is especially the case. This article is in two parts, and both are required in order to have a balanced understanding of this important subject.
Often times within our community, we become so focused on avoiding evils and harm that we forget to strive for the ideal, the enjoining of something beautiful and valuable in our society. At the same time, the ideal can only be achieved when it accompanies a genuine consciousness and understanding of what boundaries we seek to respect. Such is the case with beautifying gender relations within our community.
The ideal spirit which we aspire to within our communities is one of mutual love and respect for the sake of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He). Allah (swt) describes this relationship:
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah [charity] and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those—Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” (Qur’an 9:71)
The word that is used is awliyaa’, which is also translated as helpers, supporters, friends, and protectors. This is how Allah (swt) Himself describes how the believing men and women should regard one another. It is the spirit of who we seek to be towards the other gender. Yet, this spirit does not mean interaction between genders is a complete free for all, as the word ‘friend’ tends to imply especially in a western context. Rather, this spirit of love for the sake of Allah (swt) is *only* achieved when it is governed by the letter of the law. The basic guidelines for this interaction include:
- Your intention of dealing with the other gender is sincere.
- Your interaction is purposeful.
- Your ‘awra (nakedness) is covered.
- You lower your gaze at the appropriate times.
- You are not totally secluded with someone of the opposite gender.
- Your reputation is protected.
- You do not physically touch one another.
- You respect each-other’s personal space and comfort levels.
- You speak in a decent manner.
- Your circumstances are safe.
If the first guideline is truly achieved, the following nine become natural and easy to achieve. Each of these ten guidelines is based on Islamic texts and will be discussed in the next part in more detail insha’Allah (God willing). For now, I want us to go back to the verse. The relationship of awliyaa’ to one another is described in this context: “They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger.” You love and respect in one another those qualities which Allah (swt) loves. When people are united in a mission and struggle together for it, they can’t help but respect and honor the struggle of those who strive with them towards the common goal which unites them all. If the goal is the pleasure of Allah (swt), then the one who loves pleasing Allah (swt) will love the ones who please Him. It’s why we love the male and female companions so much, why we love different male and female figures in Islamic History. This love is pure and has nothing to do with the infatuation, desire or the physical attraction that might lead people to zina (unlawful physical intimacy). This love isukhuwwah (brotherhood and sisterhood) for the sake of Allah (swt).
Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali discusses the different levels of ukhuwwah as the following:
- The lowest level: Giving the other only when you have surplus
- The second level: Sharing what you have equally with the other
- The highest level: Preferring the other over yourself while you are in want/need of what you give. ((The Duties of Brotherhood in Islam, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali p.22 http://www.scribd.com/doc/62967268/The-Duties-of-Brotherhood-in-Islam-by-Imam-Al-Ghazali))
The highest level of ukhuwwah is ‘Ithaar, preferring others to oneself. Allah (swt) describes this beautiful quality in the Qur’an in reference to the generosity which the Ansar (Helpers) of Madinah showed to the Muhajireen (immigrants) from Mecca:
“And [also for] those who were settled in al-Madinah and [adopted] the faith before them. They love those who emigrated to them and find not any want in their breasts of what the emigrants were given but give [them] preference over themselves, even though they are in privation. And whoever is protected from the stinginess of his soul—it is those who will be the successful.” (Qur’an 59:9)
One of the most touching cases of ‘ithaar between an unrelated believing man and woman, struck me when I had the opportunity to make ‘umrah. I approached the Prophet’s ﷺ (peace be upon him) grave and as I was sending my salaam (greeting of peace) to him ﷺ and Abu Bakr radi Allahu ‘anhu (may Allah be pleased with him), I realized that where Aisha (ra) would have been, Umar (ra) lay in her stead, receiving the salaam from not only me, but everyone who visited the Prophet’s ﷺ grave for over 1400 years. This place had been reserved for Aisha (ra) but as the narration in Bukhari states, when Umar (ra) died, she gave to him her burial place next to her husband, who was the greatest man to walk on this earth, the final Messenger of Allah ﷺ, and her father, who was his greatest companion, someone whom the Prophet ﷺ had once described as having greater iman (faith) than that of all of his ummah (community) combined! Can you imagine it? Can you imagine doing what she did if you were in her shoes?
Narrated ‘Amr bin Maimun Al-Audi: I saw ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab (when he was stabbed) saying, “O ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar! Go to the mother of the believers Aisha and say, ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab sends his greetings to you,’ and request her to allow me to be buried with my companions.” (So, Ibn ‘Umar conveyed the message to ‘Aisha.) She said, “I wanted this place for myself but today I prefer him (‘Umar) to myself (and allow him to be buried there).” When ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar returned, ‘Umar asked him, “What (news) do you have?” He replied, “O chief of the believers! She has allowed you (to be buried there).” On that ‘Umar said, “Nothing was more important to me than to be buried in that (sacred) place. So, when I expire, carry me there and pay my greetings to her (‘Aisha ) and say, ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab asks permission; and if she gives permission, then bury me (there) and if she does not, then take me to the grave-yard of the Muslims.”
What is also beautiful in this account is how Umar (ra) was careful to make sure that Aisha (ra) was doing this great favor to him out of her own choice and will, and not because she assumed it was a command from the Khalifah (Caliph) that she had to obey. This is why Umar (ra) ordered his son to ask Aisha again, after he was dead to ensure that her permission was given voluntarily.
When different Mothers of the Believers passed away, there are accounts of male companions rushing to the masjid, crying in sujud (prostration)! ((“Mothers of the Believers” CD series, Imam Suhaib Webb)) There are other amazing examples of ukhuwwah between genders that were not from the Mothers of the Believers as well. Asmaa bint Abi Bakr was called Dhat al-Nitaqayn (the one with the two waistbands) because she used two waistbands to hide and carry food to the Prophet ﷺ and Abu Bakr (ra) when they were hiding in the cave of Thawr during the Hijrah. ((“The Sealed Nectar” by Saifur Rahman al-Mubarakpuri p.105)) The nick-name she was given had to do with her service to Islam, revealing a ‘team spirit’ in the early generation of Muslims.
Another heroic female companion, Nusayba bint Ka’b, called Um Umara was someone who defended the Prophet ﷺ on the battlefield with her son. She and her son truly fit the description of being ‘awliyaa’ to the Muslims. In the heat of the Battle of Uhud, the Prophet ﷺ saw that her shoulder was bleeding and he asked her son to bandage her wound. He then prayed that Allah (swt) would bless them, and that they would be his friends in Paradise as well. Later, the Prophet ﷺ witnessed Um Umara tending to her son’s wound and encouraging him to keep fighting. The Prophet ﷺ in his beautiful manners and character smiled when he saw the courage of both mother and son, and told her, “From where can anyone get courage like you, O Umm ‘Umarah?” ((“Great Women of Islam” by Mahmood A. Ghadanfar p.210-211)) What emotion do you think the Noble Prophet ﷺ was feeling for her in this moment?
There are countless stories, especially in the seerah (biography of the Prophet ﷺ) and in the early generations of Islam, in which we find a spirit of mutual respect and love for the sake of Allah (swt). ((See Tahrir al-Mar’ah fi Asr al-Risalah by Abu Shuqqah, Vol. 2)) The following tradition is sufficient as an example of how people were able to interact in the masjid of the Prophet ﷺ as brothers and sisters:
عن أسماء بنت أبي بكر رضي الله عنهما تقول قام رسول الله صلى الله عليه
وسلم خطيبا فذكر فتنة القبر التي يفتتن فيها المرء فلما ذكر ذلك ضج
المسلمون ضجة . رواه البخاري هكذا وزاد النسائي: حالت بيني وبين أن أفهم
كلام رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ، فلما سكنت ضجتهم قلت لرجل قريب مني:
أي بارك الله فيك ماذا قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم في آخر قوله ؟
قال: “” قد أوحي إلي أنكم تفتنون في القبور قريبا من فتنة الدجال “”
Amaa’ bint Abi Bakr (may Allah be pleased with them both) said that the Prophet ﷺ stood in an address (to the Muslims) and mentioned the trial of the grave with which a person would be tested. When he mentioned it, there was an outcry among the Muslims. (Bukhari) Imam al-Nasa’i’s version of this narration adds that Asmaa’ said: “I was unable to understand the words of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ so when they quieted down, I said to a man near me, ‘Ay, May Allah bless you, what did the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say at the end?’ He said, (the Prophet’s last words were),’ It has been revealed to me that you will be tested in your graves close to the trial of al-Dajjaal.’” ((Ibid.))
Amaa’ bint Abi Bakr is able to depend on her Muslim brother, whose name she doesn’t know, to ask for clarification of the Prophet’s ﷺ words in his ﷺ masjid. The way she addresses him is with prayers for him, with a spirit of good will. Many more narrations from the time of the Prophet ﷺ will come up when the ten guidelines are discussed in more detail insha’Allah.
Throughout Islamic History, especially in the Tabaqaat literature (Islamic Biographical Dictionaries), in various contexts there are inspiring accounts of respectful ukhuwwah between genders. Here is one such touching account:
حدثنا سليمان بن أحمد ثنا محمد بن أبي رزيق بن جامع المصري ح وحدثنا
إسحاق بن أحمد بن علي ثنا إبراهيم بن يوسف ثنا أحمد بن أبي الحواري قالا
ثنا عبدالله بن سليمان أبو محمد الثبدي ثنا محمد بن يوسف الفريابي عن
سفيان الثوري قال دخلت على بنت أم حسان الأسدية وفي جبهتها مثل ركبة
العنز أثر السجود وليس به خفاء فقلت لها يا بنت أم حسان لا تأتين عبدالله
بن شهاب بن عبدالله فرفعت اليه رقعة لعله أن يعطيك من زكاة ماله ما
تغيرين به بعض الحالة التي أراها بك فدعت بمعجر لها فاعتجرت به فقالت يا
سفيان لقد كان لك في قلبي رجحان كثير أو كبير فقد ذهب الله برجحانك من
قلبي يا سفيان تأمرني أن أسأل الدنيا من لا يملكها وعزته وجلاله إني
أستحي أن أسأله الدنيا وهو يملكها قال سفيان وكان إذا جن عليها الليل
دخلت محرابا لها وأغلقت عليها ثم نادت إلهي خلا كل حبيب بحبيبه وأنا
خالية بك يا محبوب فما كان من سجن تسجن به من عصاك إلا جهنم ولا عذاب إلا
النار قال سفيان فدخلت عليها بعد ثلاث فاذا الجوع قد أثر في وجهها فقلت
لها يا بنت أم حسان إنك لن تؤتى أكثر مما أوتي موسى والخضر عليهما السلام
إذ أتيا أهل القرية استطعما أهلها فقالت يا سفيان قل الحمد لله فقلت
الحمد لله فقالت اعترفت له بالشكر قلت نعم قالت وجب عليك من معرفة الشكر
شكر وبمعرفة الشكرين شكر لا ينقضي أبدا قال سفيان فقصر والله علمي وفسد
لساني وما أقوم بشكر كلما اعترفت له بنعمة وجب علي بمعرفة النعمة شكر
وبمعرفة الشكرين شكر فوليت وأنا أريد الخروج فقالت يا سفيان كفى بالمرء
جهلا أن يعجب بعمله وكفى بالمرء علما أن يخشى الله اعلم أنه لن تنقى
القلوب من الردى حتى تكون الهموم كلها في الله هما واحدا قال سفيان فقصرت
والله إلى نفسي
Sufyan ath-Thawri (97-161/715-778)– a renowned traditionist and legal scholar relates that he once went to see the daughter of Umm Hassaan al-Asadiyya of Basra. She had a mark on her forehead like a goat’s knee, from so much prostration in prayer. He suggested that he would write to a certain man of means who might give her charity to improve her living conditions. “O Sufyan,” she replied, “Your excellence filled my heart but Allah has removed it. O Sufyan, would you bid me request worldly things from one who does not own them?” At night she went to her prayer area, closed herself in, and cried out, “O God, every person has secluded himself with his beloved, and I am alone with You. O Beloved, there is no warmth but the heat of the Hell for He who defies you, and no punishment but the Fire.” He visited her again three days later, and hunger had left its mark on her face, so he said to her, “O Daughter of Umm Hassaan, you will not be granted more than was given to Musa and Khidr, peace be upon them, when they asked the people of the village for food.” She said, “O Sufyan, say “Thank Allah.” He said, “Alhamdulilah.” Then she said, “Have you not acknowledged Him with your gratitude?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “You must be grateful for recognizing gratitude, and if you experience this double gratitude, His blessing will never cease.” Sufyan felt that his knowledge had failed him, his tongue became tied, and he turned to leave. Then she said, “O Sufyan, if a person boasts of his knowledge, this suffices to prove his ignorance. If a person fears Allah, this is enough to prove his knowledge. Know that the hearts will never be cleansed of evil until all intentions are united in one concern for Allah.” “I despaired,” Sufyan concludes, “thinking of myself.” ((Hilyat al-Awliyaa’ by Ibn Nu’aymas well as Sifat al-Safwa by ibn Al-Jawzi; Translation from Ruth Rhoded’s “Women in Islamic Biographical Collections.” p.91))
This is an example of a beneficial conversation between a believing man and woman who are notmahram (related) to one another, and their total isolation is not assumed from the account. Sufyan al-Thawri is seeking to give charity to her, and the meaningful dialogue transpires which has a humbling effect on him.
As mentioned before, ukhuwwah is the ideal, but this ideal only exists when the guidelines are practiced. If people’s minds are in the gutter, if their interactions are not sincere and they are seeking sexual attention and approval from the opposite gender, naturally this makes respectfulukhuwwah difficult if not impossible. In an over-sexualized society, the message that is constantly suggested to men and women is to objectify one another’s presence and existence. This is an unhealthy way to live, and rather than purity of heart and purpose being pervasive between genders, excessive caution bordering on paranoia becomes the lived experience. The more stories people hear of harassment and lewd behavior within the community, the harder it is to speak or even hope of practicing an ideal. Yet, the ideal is possible and those who have witnessed this blessing understand it through experience. (( A personal account of experiencing respectfulukhuwwah http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2783109558017768305)) For those who have watched the Kung Fu Panda 2, it feels a lot like this:
We each have a role to play in developing the culture of our communities and providing a comfortable space for one another to experience the blessing of respectful love for the sake of Allah (swt). Especially in the western context, brothers and sisters work together for Islam in the MSA, in masajid (mosques), in large Muslim organizations, and in the greater society. When our hearts and minds are focused on greater causes, higher goals, and sincerity, our interactions will reflect the balanced approach of both the spirit and letter of what Allah (swt) asks of us. Let us beautify the gender relations within our community, and beautify our hearts with loving one another for His sake, in the manner which He is pleased with, and has designed for us. Part 2 will explore this manner in more detail insha’Allah.
There are a great many sisters and brothers whom I have had the privilege and honor of working with and learning from over the years. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you, I love you all for the sake of Allah (swt).
It is narrated by ‘Umar bin al-Khattāb that the Prophet ﷺ said:
“Among Allāh’s servants there are some who are neither prophets nor martyrs but on the Day of Judgement the prophets and the martyrs will envy their grades. The Companions asked: ‘O Messenger of Allāh, tell us, who are those people?’ He replied: ‘Those are the people who love one another on Allāh’s count. They are neither related to one another nor do they have any property to exchange. I swear on Allāh that they will have faces of light, they will be on pulpits of light. They will not have any fear when others will be afraid, they will not have any grief when others will be aggrieved.’ Then he recited the verse: Beware! No doubt, there is no fear for the friends of Allāh nor shall they be sad and sorrowful.” [Qur’ān 10:62] ((Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, b. of ijārah (wages) 3:288 (#3527); Bayhaqī, Shu‘ab-ul-īmān, (6:486#8998,8999); Khatīb Tabrīzī, Mishkāt-ul-masābīh, b. of adab (good manners) ch.16 (3:75-6#5012). [src: Ch3 of Beseeching for Help, Tahir-ul-Qadri]))
May Allah (swt) make us of His awliyaa’ just as we seek to be the awliyaa’ of one another. Ameen.