By Alexandra V. Maragha
The Holy month of Ramadan is a time of worship and reflection for over a billion Muslims around the world. Fasting, or not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset, is an act of worship meant to purify the body, mind, and soul, from temptation while building humility through thanking God. In Islam, there are many other elements which are deemed as acts of worship, to when such actions are practiced by Muslims, are believed to bring rewards towards reaching heaven after death. One act of worship that many Muslim men and women choose to follow is not to touch or have any physical contact with the opposite sex, including shaking hands, which in secular societies, can become awkward.
The most common problems with not shaking hands come in those of professional settings such as work, educational institutions, doctor offices and so on where common greetings and introductions come with a handshake. While some non-Muslims are aware of Islamic protocols, many are not, leaving a moment of education to take place.
The Holy Quran states, “Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision 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 except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.” (The Qur’an 24:30-31)
God is first instructing men to lower their gaze and dress accordingly to where both appearance and action are that of modesty. The next verse is instructing women to also act and dress modestly, to which the headscarf and clothing that covers any “adornment” is required. Women have more features of beauty such as their shape and hair and beautify themselves through clothing, jewelry, and even accessories. However, not to draw lustful attention, measures are taken by practicing women to veil and wear layers over attractive bright clothing and even not to wear anything that makes noise, such as anklets to preserve modesty. The verse continues stating the exceptions for men and women to the presence of whom being relaxed in slightly less modest appearances as well as interactions are permitted. Finally, the verse concludes with confirming that embracing modesty is an act of worship where God offers repentance for those who before neglected and now turned towards acts of modesty.
“It’s not anything against anyone personally, it is simply that I am choosing to worship and follow the laws and teachings of Islam, so I can gain the highest rewards to go to heaven”, says Omar Yousef. “There have been many times where I have gone to appointments and even having a female nurse touch my arm to take my blood pressure or draw blood, breaks my state of purity to be able to pray. If I am out working all day, I might not be able to find a place adequate to use water to make wudu.”
As Muslims pray five times a day throughout the day, a requirement of prayer is to be in a state of purity, or “wudu”. One makes wudu by washing their hands, rinsing the mouth, nose, face, forearms, wiping the head, ears and washing the feet. While prayers can be performed in any clean location, the challenge is to perform the purification wash, especially if socks and shoes need to be removed in not so sanitary public washrooms. While other actions such as using the washroom nullify wudu, many Muslims try to maintain their state of purity as long as they can to avoid the struggle to find a place to wash and make it again.
While many Muslims adhere to not shaking hands, there are some men and women who do shake hands to avoid social embarrassment and simply because they want to “fit in”. Many say they don’t know what else to do to avoid a handshake, especially in a business setting where their jobs might be on the line. Likewise, they do not want to become ostracized as Islamophobia is on the rise, especially in the United States.
And while critics might tell Muslims to “go home” or “Islam is not a real religion”, it is practiced by over 1.6 billion people around the world and is growing. It is a complete thought that many Muslims in the United States already are home and have chosen Islam.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, they estimate “there were about 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the U.S. in 2017, and that Muslims made up about 1.1% of the total U.S. population.” The number of those Muslims who “were raised in a different faith tradition and converted to Islam” is “about one-in-five American Muslim adults.”
Many Islamic scholars have offered suggestions to Muslims, such as simply taking the time to explain to a co-worker, boss, client, medical professional or any other figure, the Islamic reasoning behind not shaking hands. Even letting someone know in advance, first hand or through someone else, that one does not shake hands can avoid a misunderstanding and a negative tone to be set for the rest of the encounter. Being honest and upfront is the best approach, to make it clear that it is a religious reason not to offend others. For example, a simple statement like, “I do not shake hand with men/women due to of my religious practices” is enough to where someone will agree or follow up to ask more details as to why.
Most of the time, taking the time to educate others and inform does have a positive effect. And while Muslims, especially in the United States and the west are not calling for Shariah Law to be the “law of the land”, they just want to have the same freedoms to practice their beliefs. While shaking hands is a social norm, most Muslims would prefer not to, and they will greatly appreciate the understanding.