Is There a Special Etiquette in Dealing with Muslim Females?

Name of Questioner: Rolando

Date: 30-12-2019 10:22:56 PM

Consultant: Ask About Islam Editorial Staff


I am a non-Muslim who teaches in a public school. First, let me express my respect for your religion as one of peace, and the hope that all people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, can learn to live together in a mutually respectful way. My question involves the appropriate way for a non-Muslim male to address a Muslim female, particularly mothers of my students. Is it appropriate for me to casually speak to them when I see them in the hallway? Does it matter if their husbands are with them or not? Additionally, I see some Muslim mothers wearing beautiful headscarves or other clothing. Is it ever appropriate for me to make a positive comment about what these mothers are wearing, such as, "What a beautiful scarf?" I absolutely would mean these comments in a non-salacious way. Blessings

Dear Rolando,

Answering your question, Dr. Jasser Auda, Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, states:

Thank you for your expressions of respect and hope which I truly appreciate and share.

First of all, please allow me to re-word your question about the appropriate way for a non-Muslim male to address a Muslim female, as you put it; by saying that the issue at hand is not about a 'non-Muslim male' addressing 'a Muslim female', but it is about two kinds of dealing: (1) a male addressing a female, from an Islamic point of view, and (2) an 'American male' dealing with a female from a 'non-American' or 'mixed-American' culture!

(1) There is a specific code of interaction between men and women, according to the Islamic point of view, which applies regardless of one's religion, and whether it is initiated from the male or the female side.

First, there is no 'prohibition' of 'interaction between men and women; itself. What is prohibited is an interaction that has any 'physical' dimension, by way of touching, talking, or even starring, which are all unacceptable in the Islamic code of morals. The Quran states:

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. (Quran 24:30-31)

And the wisdom behind these rules is 'blocking the means' or 'cutting the roots' of adultery, which is a threat to the family structure and the morals of the society, according to the Islamic point of view.

However, 'normal' interaction within a pure and decent atmosphere of politeness is absolutely fine. The Quran itself is full of incidences where men and women 'interact' within these boundaries, for example:

Now when he [Moses] arrived at the wells of Madyan, he found there a large group of men who were watering [their herds and flocks]; and at some distance from them he came upon two women who were keeping back their flock. He asked [them]: "What is the matter with you?" They answered: "We cannot water [our animals] until the herdsmen drive [theirs] home - for [we are weak and] our father is a very old man." So he watered [their flock] for them: and when he withdrew into the shade and prayed: "O my Sustainer! Verily, in dire need am I of any good which You may bestow upon me!" (Quran 28:23-24)

She [The Queen of Sheba] added: "O you nobles! Give me your opinion on the problem with which I am now faced; I would never make a [weighty] decision unless you are present with me." (Quran 27:32)

In fact, decent 'interaction' happened everywhere during the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him); in the mosque, in the street, in the market, and on the front lines in wars.

The idea of 'segregation of sexes' simply did not exist at that time! I will site a few hadiths and companions' practices below (out of thousands of similar narrations that one finds in hadith collections).

Qaylah al-Anmariyyah came to Prophet Muhammad and said: 'O Messenger of God! I am a woman who buys and sells'. And then she asked him about bargaining. (Ibn al-Atheer, Usd al-Ghabah, 5/535)

Anas narrated about the day of the battle of Uhud: I saw Aishah, the daughter of Abu Bakr, and Umm Sulaym rolling up their dresses, and I saw their leg-bangles, while they were carrying water skins on their back and emptying them in the mouths of the (wounded) people. They would return to refill them and again empty them in the mouths of the (wounded) people. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Abu Usaid Al-Sa`idi came and invited God's Messenger on the occasion of his wedding. His wife, the bride, was serving them. Do you know what drink she said she prepared for God's Messenger? She had soaked some dates in water in a sack overnight. (Al-Bukhari)

Umar appointed Shifa bint Abdillah as the administrator (ameer) of the Market of Madinah, which was the main market. (Ibn Hajar, Al-Isabah, 8/121)

Umar appointed Samra Bint Nuhayk as a muhtasibah (police officer). She carried a 'whip' to use in order to 'enforce good and forbid evil'. (At-Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Kabeer)

Abu Hurairah reported: "The Prophet (peace be upon him) had just finished his prayer with us, when he directly turned and asked us to keep sitting, and then asked: 'Is there amongst you any who would shut doors and draw curtains when he approaches his wife, but would later go out and tell everybody how he did so and so?' All men present kept silent. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) turned to the ladies and said: "Does any one of you openly discuss her conjugal matters with other women?" A pale-faced lady in the audience, when she heard this, knelt up on one knee and craned her neck so that the Prophet (peace be upon him) might see her and hear her speak. She said: 'Yes by God, all men discuss these matters among themselves and so do all women, too'" (Ahmad, Abu Dawud, and al-Bazzar)

Narrated by way of Ibn Juraij that Abu al-Asba' informed me that Jamilah the singer informed him that she asked Jabir ibn Abdullah (a companion) about singing.  So, he replied, "Some Ansari married some relation of Aishah, so Aishah led the bridal procession. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, have you presented your bride?  She said, yes. He said: 'Have you sent her off with singing? For the Ansar love singing'. She said, no. The Prophet said: 'You should have sent for Arnab' [a woman who used to sing in Madinah]." (Ibn Hajar, Al-Isabah, 8/4)

Having said that, there are issues to consider when (2) an 'American male' deals with a female from a 'non-American' or 'mixed-American' culture!

The examples you mentioned, such as talking to your students' mothers casually in the hallway of the school, with or without their husbands' presence, or admiring their clothes or scarves, etc., are perhaps no issues if these mothers were American (I mean by culture, whether Muslim or non-Muslim).

I am aware, however, that 'culture' is a very complex concept and even if we narrow things down to some 'American culture', it would be even hard to define that exactly!

However, from what I know about the Arabic and Asian 'Islamic' cultures, which manifest themselves very strongly amongst Muslim communities in the West, I would advise you not to admire these ladies' clothes or scarves, and not to talk with them without the close presence of other people who could hear the conversation.

But I hope that this answer has elaborated on the rules in the Islamic law related to this matter.

Keep in touch.