Early last month, Kate Middleton went over to visit the Hayes Muslim centre in London where she was introduced to a number of guests, Imam Sufyan Iqbal, being one of them. Kate, unaware of the Islamic way, reached out a hand to the Imam who politely declined and offered a warm bow instead. The rationale? Islam, according to some circles (which it appears the good Imam belongs to) does not permit a man to have physical contact with a woman who is not his wife, including handshakes.
Why? Do I hear you ask? Because it is “haram” or “sinful”. Islam does not want a man to be tempted to be inappropriate with a woman who he is not married to. While this sentiment is all well and good, it is difficult to square this up with some other teachings of the religion. Consider the following;
First, Islam permits intercourse with slaves captured during battle. The Quran endorses sex with these,
“Also ˹forbidden are˺ married women — except ˹female˺ captives in your possession.” (Surah 4:24)
In fact according to Islamic sources, this verse was inspired by the below chain of events,
“It was narrated from Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri that the Prophet of Allah sent an army to Awtas. They met the enemy, fought them, and prevailed over them. They acquired female prisoners who had husbands among the idolaters. The Muslims felt reluctant to be intimate with them. Then Allah, the Mighty and Sublime revealed:
“Also (forbidden are) women already married, except those (slaves) whom your right hands possess,” meaning, this is permissible for you once they have completed their ‘Iddah.
(Sunan An-Nasai Book 26 Hadith 138),
This is repeated in Sahih Muslim,
“Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (Allah her pleased with him) reported that at the Battle of Hanain Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) sent an army to Autas and encountered the enemy and fought with them. Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:
“ And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end).”
(Sahih Muslim, Book 17, Hadith 41)
Secondly, when it comes to marriage, the Quran does permit marriage to children, Surah 65, the chapter of divorce reads,
“O Prophet! ˹Instruct the believers:˺ When you ˹intend to˺ divorce women, then divorce them with concern for their waiting period, and count it accurately…
As for your women past the age of menstruation, in case you do not know, their waiting period is three months, and those who have not menstruated as well.” (Surah 65:1–4)
This practice is further given authority by the fact the prophet of Islam married his wife Aisha at the age of six and consummated said marriage at the age of nine.
that the Prophet (ﷺ) married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old. Hisham said: I have been informed that `Aisha remained with the Prophet (ﷺ) for nine years (i.e. till his death).”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 67 Hadith 70)
There is sometimes the argument that Aisha was unusually mature for her age and thus was ready for marriage at the time. However, the Islamic sources report that she was playing with dolls at the time, for example,
“It was narrated that ‘Aishah said: The Messenger of Allah married me when I was six, and consummated the marriage with me when I was nine, and I used to play with dolls.”
(Sunan An’Nisai book 26 Hadith 123)
I used to play with the dolls in the presence of the Prophet, and my girl friends also used to play with me. When Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) used to enter (my dwelling place) they used to hide themselves, but the Prophet would call them to join and play with me. (The playing with the dolls and similar images is forbidden, but it was allowed for `Aisha at that time, as she was a little girl, not yet reached the age of puberty.)”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 78, Hadith 157)
Third, the prophet of Islam was given a very special privilege in respect of women he was allowed to sleep with, and it included a broader range of women than just those (emphasis on “those” because he had 14 wives) he was married to, the full list is reproduced below,
“O Prophet! Indeed We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those whom your right hand owns, of those whom Allah gave you as spoils of war, and the daughters of your paternal uncle, and the daughters of your paternal aunts, and the daughters of your maternal uncle, and the daughters of your maternal aunts who migrated with you, and a faithful woman if she offers herself to the Prophet and the Prophet desires to take her in marriage, (a privilege exclusively for you, not for [the rest of] the faithful; We know what We have made lawful for them with respect to their wives and those whom their right hands own so that there may be no blame on you,) and Allah is all-forgiving, all-merciful.”
If it was important for a man to only have physical contact with his wife, one wonders why the prophet of Islam did not model this. Even in the above chapter, the fact that a man is allowed to have sex with his female slaves is re-emphasised. Why is there this “and” ? Why did it not stop at wives?
But back to the issue of shaking hands with women. If the entire point of refraining from shaking hands is to prevent temptation and foster a strong relationship between a man and his wife, why permit a man to have sex with female captives? Why were women outside the circle of the prophet of Islam’s marriage made permissible to him? If the religion is concerned about decency how could it on the one hand condemn shaking of women’s hands but on the other hand advocate marriage and sex with girls who are children?
Why would a Sheikh not shake a woman’s hand? Sheikh Uthman Ibn Farouq (who found himself in a similar situation and was made to justify his refusal to shake hands) for instance has stated that Islam honours women and respects their bodies. It is for this reason that men should not touch them or shake their hands. What does the Quran say about women though?
“Men are the managers of women, because of the advantage Allah has granted some of them over others, and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth. So righteous women are obedient, care-taking in the absence of what Allah has enjoined to guard. As for those whose misconduct you fear, advise them, and keep away from them in the bed, and beat them.”
A woman can be beaten in Islam. Some translations of the Quran add “gently” to this verse so the admonition reads, “beat them gently”. In fact some Islamic scholars interpret this verse to mean the woman should be beaten very lightly with a tooth brush. However, this does not make sense for two reasons,
First, the verse seems to be building up a hierarchy of actions to be taken. Start by advising them, then keep away from them, then beat them. If the absolute climax of this is to beat them with a toothbrush or beat them lightly, then the instruction makes no sense.
The second and most important reason the “beat ’em lightly” interpretation makes no sense is because it does not line up with the hadith,
Rifa`a divorced his wife whereupon `AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. `Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complained to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating). It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) came, `Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!” When `AbdurRahman heard that his wife had gone to the Prophet, he came with his two sons from another wife. She said, “By Allah! I have done no wrong to him but he is impotent and is as useless to me as this,” holding and showing the fringe of her garment, `Abdur-Rahman said, “By Allah, O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! She has told a lie! I am very strong and can satisfy her but she is disobedient and wants to go back to Rifa`a.” Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, to her, “If that is your intention, then know that it is unlawful for you to remarry Rifa`a unless `Abdur-Rahman has had sexual intercourse with you.” Then the Prophet (ﷺ) saw two boys with `Abdur- Rahman and asked (him), “Are these your sons?” On that `AbdurRahman said, “Yes.” The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “You claim what you claim (i.e.. that he is impotent)? But by Allah, these boys resemble him as a crow resembles a crow,”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari Book 77 Hadith 42)
“It was narrated that Ash’ath bin Qais said:
“I was a guest (at the home) of ‘Umar one night, and in the middle of the night he went and hit his wife, and I separated them. When he went to bed he said to me: ‘O Ash’ath, learn from me something that I heard from the Messenger of Allah” A man should not be asked why he beats his wife, and do not go to sleep until you have prayed the Witr.”’ And I forgot the third thing.”
(Sunan Ibn Majah Book 9, Hadith 142).
In the first hadith, we do not see the prophet of Islam rebuke the husband of the woman who was beaten till her skin turned green. In fact, even Aisha, the prophet’s wife said she has not seen a woman suffer as much as a Muslim woman. In the second Hadith, beating a wife was so much of a man’s right that a man is not to be asked why he has beaten his wife.
Again, if women are respected, why can’t a woman be a witness in a capital punishment case under shariah law? and for matters where they can be witnesses, why are two women needed while only one man is needed? the prophet clearly explained the reason for this in a hadith,
“Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri:
Once Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of `Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) ?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.”
(Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book 6 Hadith 9)
So in summary, the reason you need two women where you will need one man is because women are “deficient in intelligence”. These are the words of the prophet.
Again, the prophet says of women,
“…A woman advances in the form of a devil and retires in the form of a devil…”
(Sahih Muslim Book 16 Hadith 10)
That is a great mother’s day slogan isn’t it?
Now what does the Quran say about a woman’s body, which Sheikh Uthman says Islam respects?
“Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will”
This is addressed to the man of course, he can have sex with his wife whenever or however he wants. Does his wife have a say in this? Well, let us refer to the full story of the “woman advances in the shape of the devil” hadith referenced above,
“Jabir reported that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) saw a woman, and so he came to his wife, Zainab, as she was tanning a leather and had sexual intercourse with her. He then went to his Companions and told them:
The woman advances and retires in the shape of a devil, so when one of you sees a woman, he should come to his wife, for that will repel what he feels in his heart.”
There was no “Hello? How are you doing?” from the prophet to his wife. The woman was tanning leather and he indeed went into her like a tilth. Does the honour for a woman’s body stop when you get married to her? Should you not honour the body of your wife more than that of any other woman? Again, speaking of wife…
If Islam respects women’s bodies, why does the Quran advocate marrying and divorcing girls who are not even old enough to understand their bodies? Is that not the ultimate act of depriving a woman control of her body?
Furthermore, the prophet of Islam institutionalised breastfeeding for adults, for example,
“A’isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported that Salim, the freed slave of Abu Hadhaifa, lived with him and his family in their house. She (i. e. the daughter of Suhail came to Allah’s Apostle (ﷺ) and said:
Salim has attained (purbety) as men attain, and he understands what they understand, and he enters our house freely, I, however, perceive that something (rankles) in the heart of Abu Hudhaifa, whereupon Allah’s Apostle (ﷺ) said to her: Suckle him and you would become unlawful for him, and (the rankling) which Abu Hudhaifa feels in his heart will disappear. She returned and said: So I suckled him, and what (was there) in the heart of Abu Hudhaifa disappeared.”
(Sahih Muslim Book 17 Hadith 34)
Where is the respect the prophet of Islam had for the woman’s body if he required them to give their breasts to a stranger? It was a practice Aisha adopted as well according to the hadiths.
So what have we learnt from Islam? it brings to mind the words of Jesus to the Pharisees,
“Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
So a woman can be raped as a slave, married as a child, beaten as a wife and can be suckled by a stranger but apparently the line of indecency is drawn at shaking a woman’s hand.
The camel of wife-beating, child marriage, polygamy and breast-feeding for adults are swallowed but the gnat of handshakes? That is the real problem in the world today…such is the beauty, wonder and wisdom of Islam.