Mixed-Gender Interaction in Islam – Have we deviated from the path?

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SHAFAQNA – Segregation of the sexes is a hot topic, especially in the context of worshipping at the masjid (mosque). Should there be a barrier or not? Is it enough for a curtain to separate men and women, or should they be kept in utterly separate rooms so as to prevent some kind of wild hormone-fuelled orgy? Or… or is it possible, just maybe, that Muslim men and women can share the same space and interact in an inherently civilized manner?

Many make the argument that hijab and segregation work towards a common end: to prevent weak, lustful men from preying after beautiful women. Yet a brief look at both hijab and the concept of segregation at the time of the prophet (PBUH) paints a very different picture.

Ibn Abbas narrated: A beautiful woman, from among the most beautiful of women, used to pray behind the Prophet. Some of the people used to go to pray in the first row to ensure they would not be able to see her.

Others would pray in the last row of the men, and they would look from underneath their armpits [in rukoo’ and sujood] to see her. Because of this act, in regard to her, Allah revealed, “Verily We know the eager among you to be first, and verily We know the eager among you to be behind.” (Qur’an 15: 24)

Why is this narration so fascinating? Because it reveals how even in the time of prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Sahabah (companions) had differing levels of faith and even in prayer – a time when all worldly desires are meant to be put aside – they still acted upon their desires.

The blame does not fall on women

One of the most interesting aspects of this narration is that when Allah sent down a revelation concerning this situation, He did not rebuke the woman – He rebuked the men who forgot their khushoo’, the men who forgot that Allah is Ever-Watching, the men who forgot that Allah can easily expose those who claim piety yet act in a contrary manner. Allah is the One Who reminded these men that their intentions are fully known to Him. Note the way that Ibn ‘Abbas shared this story.

This woman was publicly known, and though her name is not mentioned in the narration, her identity was obviously common knowledge amongst the people of Medinah. It was also known that the pious men were those who made a point of fighting temptation by removing themselves from a situation where they would feel weak, whereas those whose faith was weaker were those who purposely lingered behind to indulge their desires.

Now, can you imagine the embarrassment and shame of those men who were publicly rebuked by Allah? Can you imagine having all of Medinah and those who were visiting Madinah at the time, knowing that your weak and sinful behavior was the cause of Allah sending down Divine Revelation to warn you of His Knowledge?

This verse was and remains a public reminder and rebuke to all Muslim men who attempt to dress up their inappropriate behavior with a guise of ‘religiousness.’ It is a reminder that Muslim men are responsible for lowering their gazes, for controlling their behavior, for removing themselves from a situation where they feel weak.

It is a reminder that they cannot blame their own weakness of faith, character, or actions on women! This anecdote, combined with other narrations that discuss the relationship of men and women in the public sphere (the masjid), display how the prophet (PBUH) trained his Companions in the appropriate way of interacting with the other gender.

For example, the prophet (PBUH) made it a habit to remain sitting forward (towards the qiblah) even after finishing prayer, giving the women a chance to leave the masjid before the men (remember, there was no physical barrier between the men and women at the time). He displayed respect towards these women and thus trained his male Companions do act similarly.

What Happens Today?

In reality, Muslim men and women alike have forgotten the beautiful manners that should mark our actions, especially in mixed-gender interactions.

In many mosques around the world, especially those which are segregated – extremely inappropriate behavior takes place between men and women who attend.

There are numerous horror stories of men who prowl around the women’s entrances, trying to establish verbal or even physical contact under the guise of innocuous ‘conversation’; women who show up to the masjid in full regalia, eager to hunt down a man; and so much more.

Muslim women as well as Muslim men have forgotten their obligation to conduct themselves with the honor and dignity that behooves true believers.

Just as Muslim men have the obligation to lower their gazes and treat all women with respect, honor, and dignity – so too are Muslim women enjoined to lower their gazes and treat men with respect, honor, and dignity.

Looking back at the interactions between men and women companions, we see that – whether they were discussing religious matters or arguing a difference of opinion, every instance of contact was marked by a striving for chastity, for spiritual strength and purity.

They understood that every individual is held accountable before Allah, questioned as to whether they played a role in improving society… or making it worse. Was the purpose of their communication a positive one, a beneficial one, one that would add to their book of good deeds? Or was it merely to indulge their baser human desires, the desire to be admired by the other gender, to be flattered, to attract attention, to coax interest not in a subject of import, but of a more personal type?

Whether in the masjid or the mall, school or on the sidewalk, men and women alike are enjoined to be keenly aware of themselves and their roles in creating, encouraging, and maintaining a society that values spiritual purity and chastity.

{Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is acquainted with what they do.

And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment…And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.} (Qur’an 24: 30-31)

A balanced interaction, possible?

Unfortunately, the concept of spiritual chastity (especially with regards to mixed-gender interaction) has been mocked, criticized, and rejected by many who consider themselves ‘progressive’ and yet fail to recognize that the loss of spiritual chastity has resulted in the detriment of society as a whole.

Respect and dignity can only exist when these values are encouraged, and the current environment of hyper-sexualization does nothing to foster pure, honorable relationships between men and women that are independent of sexual intentions.

As a result of our gross misunderstanding of Islam, we have gone to two extremes: attempting to segregate the genders to an unhealthy level, to the point where a simple, innocent conversation is considered sin; or throwing out any notion of hijab, lowering the gaze, and considering any and all behavior between the genders to be acceptable. In both cases, diseased hearts are created and fostered, because there is no holistic understanding of the Qur’an. Islam came to transform the community from one of ignorance to one of beauty, honor, dignity, and respect.

To reach that state, we must go back to the understanding of the Qur’an. Only then can we possibly start seeing the men and women of this community coming together, as they were meant to be, to cooperate upon goodness and righteousness.

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