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To Shake or Not?

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What do you say? Or do you?Imagine the moments of your first job interview. Your palms are sweaty, your briefcase feels heavy, and every strand of hair on your head is to be inspected. Or, you hope so anyway. As you sit on the train, you daydream about the office space and the warm cup of coffee that you hope you will win after presenting your portfolio.

Rushing along to the 31st and Lexington, your heart is beating, and you recite a quick prayer that you hope will win you the job. Entering into the reception area, you think about walking into this space every morning. Not a bad place to be, you think and smile at your potential boss as she welcomes you into her office.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she warmly says and extends her hand to you at the door.

Now take the above scenario and imagine yourself as the interviewee. Would you extend your hand to your potential boss despite him or her being non-Mahram to you?

Surprisingly, this situation has been debated upon for a long time, even though some strongly believe that there really is not anything to argue about. Living in any environment where hand-shaking is a common practice can be a challenge to those who wish to integrate although at the same time would like to uphold Islamic values.

In order to see how Muslim brothers and sisters approach this issue, several were asked standard questions with regards to their value system as well as what they would do in the situation that they had to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex that are non-Mahram (unrelated).

Take Sajjeda Sulayman*, who works in a Human Resources department on her college campus and is in constant contact with non-Mahrams. When asked what she thought of the issue, she replied that hand-shaking is fine and that there is nothing immodest about it.

"I don't believe handshaking is forbidden, because I have not found sufficient evidence to believe that it is," she said. "I think it is a deeper issue than just answering yes or no too. Islam is about modesty and decency. I do not find it immodest or indecent to shake another man's hand who is not Mahram to me. I think the Hijab and the way you carry yourself will tell the man there is a limit to the relationship between them."

On the other hand, Mohammed-Ali Nasser thinks drastically differently and is very adamant about his views on whether or not hand-shaking is permissible.

"Islam has a very clear position with regards to maintaining separation of the sexes, which becomes evident when one analyzes the concept of Hijab in Islam," he said. "In addition, the integrity of the interaction between a male and a female that are Mahram (i.e. husband and wife, mother and son, etc.) is highly valued and its position is maintained in Islam by providing those involved with certain privileges."

Although many of us might have our own personal views on the issue, it is important to see what our Religious Authorities (Maraja Taqleed) have to say in this regard. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani represents the view of the majority of our scholars when he states that a Muslim man is not allowed to shake hands with a woman without a barrier, such as gloves, unless refraining from shaking hands will put him in a considerable harm or unbearable difficulty. In the latter case, he is allowed to shake hands to the extent of necessity only. Therefore, in certain rare circumstances, there are exceptions to the rule.

As most in the corporate environment do not have the option of wearing gloves, or choose not to out of convenience or personal taste, the question then arises as to how this view is manifested in day-to-day actions. In reality, a brief explanation of the common Islamic belief is given to enable the other person to understand that the refusal to shake hands should not be taken personally.

Zaineb Rizk, like many, does not have a problem being upfront about her reasons.

"When approached by a non-Mahram, I refuse to shake their hand," she said. "I say something along the lines of "Please pardon me, but I do not shake hands with men.'"

Similarly, Mohammed-Ali Nasser is quite open to discussing his reasons and maintaining a distance.

"A simple explanation of the inability to have any form of physical contact with those who are not my close relatives usually suffices," he said. "But I try to keep it exciting by using different variations of that explanation."

Besides the verbal explanation expressing the underlying reasons why a Muslim cannot shake the hands of a non-Mahram, body language can play a very important role in communicating the codes of behavior that a Muslims abides by. For example, besides just explaining the reasons why one cannot shake hands, it is necessary to pay particular attention to one's hands at the time. When a non-Mahram extends his or her hand, many find it easy to place their hands on their chest as a sign of respect all the while carrying on with an explanation.

Furthermore, it is wise to not lean forward at the time of meeting a non-Mahram, as this gives the impression that you are about to shake hands or welcome such an action from the other person. Many have found this method of observing body language to be an extra form of respect, especially with regards to acknowledging that the other person has extended their hand as a sign of friendship.

There are obviously ways to go about maintaining Islamic values and laws in a secular and co-educational environment, but what does that say about integration into and survival in Western society? In fact, some individuals believe that integration is affected by not shaking hands with non-Mahrams.

"I know that I lost my job and was not re-hired because I refused to shake the hand of the boss," said Maryam Kobeisi.

Despite fears of not being able to integrate, it is refreshing to know that there are many individuals who are able to carry on with their day-to-day lives without much difficulty. In fact, they think that tolerance is one of the values that is in general not a problem worldwide.

Said Rizk, "I don't think it poses a problem to integrate, because I am only disagreeing to make physical contact with them and not any other communication etc. We all must learn to respect each other's different beliefs and cultures. Sometimes we give, and other times they give."


* Some of the names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.

Author of this article: Zahra Khimji
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