Society today has truly become a place of satisfying any and every whim and temptation. We are often immersed in gatherings that distract us from our true purpose and are far from conducive to the purification of our hearts. The accepted norm is that due to changing times, Muslims must adapt to dominant ideologies, social constructs and mores and thus we try to find obscure views within Islām to support this so-called “modernisation” or “progress”. A sensitive yet relevant topic that characterises this is our interactions with people of the opposite gender. Islām has set boundaries between men and women as defined by Allāh to protect us and to keep our hearts and thoughts pure. To some, these limits might appear to be very strict, but with sexual assault and scandals becoming rampant, the divine wisdom underpinning the limits set down by the Sharīʿah is made even clearer; and in adhering to these defined boundaries, we can free our minds, maintain our modesty and purify our hearts – all of which are crucial in obeying Allāh and His Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam).
Before we speak about what is permissible and impermissible, let us first understand our value and purpose as Muslims. As the rain gives life to the land, revelation (the Qur’ān) gives life to the hearts of people. Allāh says in the Qur’ān “Know and understand that is it Allāh that brings to life the dead barren land and in that way Allāh has made clear to you the signs; so that you can use your intellect and understand.” One of the most senior commentators of the Qur’ān interpreted the meaning of this verse as symbolic in nature, because it is used in resemblance to the dead heart of a person who is spiritually dead. In the same way that rain and land are made for each other, Allāh’s religion and the hearts of human beings were made for each other; with no conflict with the human mind or human nature.
There is another verse in the Qur’ān speaking about the human conscience (Fitrah). This is defined more clearly as the natural disposition of human beings and it is this human fitrah that gives a person awareness of their Creator. Allāh says in the Qur’ān: “Direct your face towards the religion, inclining to truth. Adhere to the fitrah of Allāh upon which He has created all people. No change should there be in the creation of Allāh. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.” In this verse, Allāh has mentioned 3 key principles: Set your face towards the dīn of Allāh, the fitrah (natural disposition and moral compass of human beings) and creation. They have been used interchangeably to show that they are in harmony with one another and if you distort one of them, it will affect its relationship with the others. So if you disturb or manipulate human nature, it will be impacted such that it won’t be able to interact with revelation in the same way.
Morality and especially modesty also make up key parts of human character. Modesty is not something you can learn because it is an intrinsic part of human nature. And although we usually associate modesty with the way one dresses, the reality is that it applies to the way we eat, sleep, speak, and interact with people. All prophets encouraged modesty as “Every religion has a character and the character of Islām is modesty.” Modesty refers to a sense of shame or shying away from that which could cause us to behave indecently towards one another, because behaving inappropriately with others will only lead to the displeasure of our Creator. The Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said that among the well-known principles previous prophets were sent with is: “If you feel no shame, then do whatever you wish.”
How is all of this related to how we interact with people of the opposite gender? What then is the need for revelation when the fitrah helps us to achieve all of these amazing things? The simple answer is in the detail; human beings would not be able to distinctively figure out through trial and error, how exactly to safeguard their fitrah and make it flourish. We are aware of God, but how do we worship God? The revelation gives the finer detail that comes along and builds on the fitrah; they are made for each other.
One may then ask how the religion helps the fitrah to live to the letter of the law. For this there are three principles, the first of which is cultivation; instilling divine values in the hearts of the believers to make a person understand the value of the Hereafter so they live in preparation for that life more so than the worldly life. The second is prevention, which are laws and traditions to help us keep within the parameters of these values. Imām Ghazali said that “Masālih are at the core of every divine law and teaching.” One of the meanings of the word ‘Masālih’ is ‘interests’ and in the context it is referring to the benefits and interests of human beings. In short, whatever Islām tells you to do, it is for your own good. It is either there to save you from potential harms or for you to acquire some benefit. Finally, is the cure; seeking forgiveness. Mankind by our nature will inevitably violate the laws Islām has prescribed upon us, but the doors of forgiveness are always open.
Thus we have understood that Islām has put up barriers to help us keep away from any possibility of being harmed. But what harm could possibly arise from being engaging and over-friendly with people of the opposite gender? Allāh spoke in Surah Al-Isrā: “And do not approach unlawful sexual intercourse (zina). Indeed, it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way.” To understand the gravity of this sin and the magnitude with which it can hinder our relationship with Allāh, let us look at the linguistic meaning of this verse. The verse prior to it mentions “do not kill your children for fear of poverty” but the verse in question uses the term “do not approach or do not come close to…”. Why is this? Both are serious offenses, so wouldn’t the same phrase, i.e., “do not do…” have sufficed for both verses? This is because the nature of zina is such that, if you come close to it, you may easily end up falling into it. If you were to trace the path a person takes before they go on to commit this major sin, a common finding will be that they did not plan for it and that ‘one thing led to another’; yet this Qur’anic verse already told us that ‘one thing will lead to another’. This is why Allāh has surrounded the act itself with many other prohibitions and obligations, and surrounded those with a grey area.
To further understand the significance and the gravity of zina, we can look at the examples from the Qur’ān and Sunnah through the story of Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-salām), when he was a young slave in Egypt, away from home, under a powerful lady who attempted to seduce him. When this failed, she plotted to convince him to engage in this sin with her and if he didn’t accept, he would be jailed. In the face of all of this, his response was: “My Lord, prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me.” In other words he was willing to sacrifice the rest of his life, just to avoid this one sin. That is how serious it is in the sight of Allāh.
Some people may say that they know their limits and they would never commit zina, so it’s okay for them to be in mixed gatherings with various interactions. Them I would remind that the companions of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam)—the heroes of Islām—would actively remove themselves from situations of trials and temptations out of the fear of disobeying their Lord. If this was the attitude of some of the greatest men and women to have ever lived, what then should people like me and you do? And I will conclude this point by making mention of famous the story of Barsīsa, a pious worshipper of Allāh who some narrations mentioned worshipped Allāh day and night for 60 years! Yet this monk allowed himself to fall for Shaytān’s step-by-step plot and ended up committing zina with a woman he was supposed to look after, subsequently murdering her. May Allāh and protect preserve us all.
Another life-crushing sin we are commanded to not even come close to is being alone with a member of the opposite sex. The scholars unanimously agreed that “No man should be alone with a woman unless there is a mahram with her.” There are two perspectives behind this rule. The first is that one may behave inappropriately with the other; an issue that is a regular occurrence among the most famous of people nowadays. The second is that the one could falsely accuse the other of indecent behaviour, as we saw with Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-salām) when his female master initiated actions towards him and he ran away; she falsely accused him of indecency, leading to his imprisonment. Being falsely accused can ruin your family, career and various other aspects of life; so the prohibition of ‘khulwa’ (being alone) has many benefits. This also applies to online mediums, of course. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said “No man is alone with a woman but the Shaytān is the third one present.” Was this not the case with Barsīsa when Shaytān tricked him by placing doubts in his mind, causing him to get closer to the woman, not only in physical proximity but in affection too? Thus the prohibition of khulwa is clearly in the best interests of both man and woman.
Also read: A Sexually Harassed World
Another precaution we take to safeguard ourselves from zina is the lowering of our gaze. Allāh says in the Qur’ān “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts. That is purer for them, for Indeed Allāh is acquainted with what they do.” Guarding the gaze means to control where you look at all times, and don’t stare. But are we saying then that if someone simply looks at the opposite gender without valid reason, they will end up doing that which is made harām for them? One scholar responded to this with, “Tell me of a situation where zina occurred where the two parties involved never looked at each other.” If we were to go to the root cause of this problem, it almost always starts with the gaze because this is the stepping stone towards the greater problem. The Sharīʿah tackles this right from the beginning.
These are some of the prohibitions ordained upon us. On the other hand, there are obligations that Islām instructs people to fulfil that will help us to stay clear of this sin. These include both men and women wearing loose clothing; the hijāb; and fasting—if a person is struggling to lower the gaze, it is recommended for him to fast. Additionally, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said “O young men, whoever among you can afford to get married, let him do so.” These are examples of acts which Islām encourages not only to safeguard ourselves but also to increase in our attachment to Allāh and the Hereafter.
As witness the fallout of the #MeToo movement, this topic is particularly relevant more than ever. It is in times like these that we should have an even greater level of appreciation for the guidelines of Islām. The last few months have seen the media being dominated with stories of sexual assaults and abuse. Hollywood stars, politicians, and several other big names have all rightly had their worldly lives destroyed as a consequence of their behaviour being exposed. Did you know that $15 million of tax payers’ money was used to pay off people who had accused congressmen of sexual harassment? Society struggles with these issues, whilst Islām gives us the solutions needed. The teachings of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would go a long way in helping the world deal with such issues. There is infinite wisdom in why Islām prohibits certain things and advocates certain things, especially regarding this topic, which affects or will affect each and every single one of us at some point in our lives. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said “I have not left behind me any fitnah (trial) more harmful to men than women.” This is a very explicit hadīth but one with a lesson which is embodied in the purest act of worship; prayer.
The Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said “The best of the men’s rows [in congregational prayer] is the front row and the worst is the back; but the best of the women’s rows is the back row and the worst is the front.” The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) understood and taught that even in the prayer when you are close to Allāh, there needs to be some regulation and boundary between men and women, because without them, there is always scope for distraction and temptation from either side. Some people may say “this is segregation in the Salāh, not in the workplace, or on the street or outside.” The scholars responded with “If segregation is being talked about in the most religious place—in the Masjid whilst praying—what then do you think about outside of the Masjid?” The general rule is that you should take surrounding topics like this as one of caution, not indifference.
In conclusion, we need to be proud of our dīn. Almost all of our daily lives will involve us interacting with people of the opposite gender, whether that’s at work, in our business transactions or even within our extended families. The consensus between the scholars is that it is prohibited to interact casually with the opposite gender; men with women and women with men. However, if the situation calls for it, then interact on a necessity basis and do so with some respect and dignity. The guidelines mentioned above are only for our best interests. Whether it is to remove ourselves from dangerous situations if we feel temptation or to perfect our interactions to avoid marital discord; all of these instances just shine a light on the beauty of Islām and it is the traditions set from the time of our Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) that will help to safeguard us from problems that are increasing in our time.
And Allāh knows best.
 Al-Qur’ān, 57:17
 Al-Qur’ān, 30:30
 Al-Qur’ān, 17:32
 Al-Qur’ān, 12:33
 Al-Bukhāri 5233
 Ahmad, Al-Tirmidhī & Al-Hākim
 Al-Qur’ān, 24:30
 Al-Bukhāri (5096)