Shaken over the Shaking of Hands?

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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shake hands at the White House in front of President Bill Clinton in September 1993. The new play OSLO is a dramatization of events that led to a historic agreement

A handshake can be a powerful thing. I grew up learning that “a gentleman’s word is his bond” and that my handshake was the guarantee of that word. Handshakes symbolise the beginning or renewal of relationships so the refusal to shake hands can be seen as being anti-relationship and therefore insulting.

[blockquote quote=”Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem. ” source=”Paul Celan” align=”right”]

This week I spent many hours in the car driving between meetings and, as I often do, tuned in to a local talk radio station where the hosts of all 3 shows I listened to were incensed about the same thing

A public school in Sydney’s west has adopted a policy permitting Muslim male students to decline to shake hands with females, despite­ the practice having been denounced by many senior Islamic figures.

The Hurstville Boys Campus of Georges River College in Sydney recently hosted an awards ­ceremony at which female present­ers, including several accom­plished and respected members of the local community, were told by one of the school’s two principals that some students would not shake their hands because of their Muslim faith.

As you might imagine the shows’ hosts were upset, along with a good number of their listeners; every single person who phoned in on the topic filled up the echo chamber of outrage. It was un-Australian, it showed great disrespect to the guests, it didn’t prepare these boys for the reality of life in Australia (how were they even going to get a job when they couldn’t shake the hands of people on an interview panel?) and so on.

So what is this all about? The Australian article goes on to explain…

The instruction is understood to derive from an Islamic hadith — a report describing the words, action­s, or habits of the Islamic prophet Mohammed — stating that “it is better to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you”.

Well there you have it. But why? To find out I did a bit of browsing and came across a number of Islamic sites discussing the wider issue. First, islamonline:

Firstly, it is prohibited to shake hands with a woman if there is fear of provoking sexual desire or enjoyment on the part of either one of them or if there is fear of temptation. This is based on the general rule that blocking the means to evil is obligatory, especially if its signs are clear.

Secondly, there is a dispensation in shaking hands with old women concerning whom there is no fear of desire. The same applies to the young girl concerning whom there is no fear of desire or temptation. The same ruling applies if the person is an old man concerning whom there is no fear of desire. This is based on what has been narrated on the authority of Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (may Allah be pleased with him) that he used to shake hands with old women.

Here the object of discussion deals with other than these two cases. There is no surprise that shaking hands with women isharam(unlawful) according to the viewpoint of those who hold that covering all of the woman’s body, including her face and the two hands, is obligatory. This is because if it becomes obligatory to cover the two hands, then it would becomeharam for the opposite sex to look at them. And, if looking at them is unlawful, then touching them would becomeharam with greater reason because touching is graver than looking, as it provokes desire more.

But it is known that the proponents of this view are the minority, while the majority of Muslim jurists, including the Companions, the Successors and those who followed them, are of the opinion that the face and the hands are excluded from the prohibition. They based their opinion on Almighty Allah’s saying, “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent …”(An-Nur: 31) So where is the evidence on prohibiting handshaking unless there is desire?

In fact, I searched for a persuasive and textual proof supporting the prohibition but I did not find it. As a matter of fact, the most powerful evidence here is blocking the means to temptation, and this is no doubt acceptable when the desire is roused or there is fear of temptation because its signs exist. But when there is no fear of temptation or desire, what is the reason for prohibition?

Lots to process. Just Ask Islam takes a more conservative view:

First: It is not allowed for a believing man to put his hand in the hand of a woman who is not allowed for him (mother, wife, sister, daughter, etc.). Whoever does this has wronged himself (sinned).

There is a Hadith from Ma’qil ibn Yasar, saying; The Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) said, “It is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you.”

This alone should be enough to keep away from this action and to instill obedience to Allah, as it implies touching women may lead to temptation and immorality.

Second: It’s not permissible to shake hands even with a barrier (such as a garment) in between. There is an unacceptable narration (Da’if; not authentic) saying the Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon him) used to shake hands with women from beneath a garment. Al Haythami said: ‘This was narrated by At-Tabarani in Al-Kabir and Al-Awsat. The chain of narrators includes ‘Atab ibn Harb, who is Da’if (weak in narrations).

Waliyyud-Din Al-Iraqi said: ‘The words of Ayesha, “He used to accept the women’s oath by words only” means he did so without taking their hands or shaking hands with them. This indicates the Bay’ah (oath) of men was accepted by shaking hands, as well as words, and this is how it was. What Ayesha mentioned was the custom.’

So where does that leave us? Well on this brief (and clearly not scientific) survey it appears that the decision by these boys not to shake hands is perhaps a minority position within Islam. Having said that, it’s something that many of us have come across and my own personal experience is that the more conservative and committed the Muslim, the more likely it is that it will occur (and also the more likely that Muslim women will gently and respectfully not take an offered hand but, instead, place their own hand over their heart).

So how should we respond? Are the talk show hosts right that these boys should be forced to shake hands or otherwise not receive their prizes and any other academic awards due to them? Is it “un-Australian” to refuse to shake hands? More importantly for many of my readers, is it somehow an “un-Christian” thing to do and how should Christians respond? Many of the people phoning in the other day spoke of this “Christian” country we live in and how this action stands against it.

Really? Christians, I think we need to think again.

  1. The principle of doing whatever you can to avoid temptation to sin is something we can sympathise with. Somebody once said “…if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away…” (Matt. 5:30). Was he wrong because that sounds like an even more drastic (if hyperbolic) solution to sinning than simply holding your hand back.
  2. Of course, simply not shaking hands doesn’t deal with the problem. As Jesus notes our problem is the heart, not our hand (Mark 7:20-23). Refusing to shake hands is perhaps a slightly mechanistic (or non-mechanistic, pardon the joke) means of avoiding sin but it doesn’t really deal with the problem. Nevertheless, the intent is honourable and one we can understand.
  3. This is not about dishonouring women but actually seeking to honour them by not even contemplating sin against them (notwithstanding my comments in 2. above). This is something that Muslim women themselves also participate in, freely and willingly.
  4. More fundamentally, surely this is really an issue of freedom of religious expression? As I’ve argued before the right of a Muslim to act according to their religious conscience is also the right of the Christian to act according to theirs, both of us in the face of a majority who, it would seem, are at times increasingly persuaded to coerce us into agreement with them in action and thought.
  5. Nor will it do to argue that this is a minority Muslim position and therefore does not need to be protected in the same way. I can imagine the following only a few years in the future, “yes, your honour, defining marriage as only between a man and a women is a Christian position but the latest online GALLUP opinion poll shows us that only a small percentage of people who identify as Christian actually think this way. In our modern tolerant society we don’t allow people to act like this …”

So, Christian, before we are so quick to express outrage about a group of schoolboys not shaking hands let’s consider what’s really at stake.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Andrew W

    In mainstream Australian culture, refusing to shake someone’s hand is generally considered a snub. In the awardee’s culture, it’s a matter of purity. Beyond a simple refusal to shake hands, there are other options:
    * substituting some other mutually understood sign of respect (e.g. Japanese bowing)
    * announcing the award rather than presenting it
    * giving the award to someone else (assuming that it is an accolade, rather than a certification)

    The former preserves honour in a mutually acceptable form. The latter two recognise that there is inconsistency (and perhaps a degree of arrogance) in being willing to accept accolades in a particular cultural context without being willing to present a culturally appropriate response.

    Beyond this, I note that multiculturalism – in the sense that all cultures are worth of equal welcome and recognition – is a peculiarly modern western virtue, likewise freedom of religious expression. Many cultures have been willing to tolerate or humour cultural quirks of visitors as a measure of hospitality or compassion, but it is the modern west that suppresses its own culture not out of pragmatics but as a good in and of itself. Whether this is a mark of strength or weakness is an interesting discussion.

    Similarly, it’s common for cultures to severely limit foreign religious expression. Even syncretist Rome objected to the Christians being unwilling to present their god as one-among-many. In the modern era, Islamic and Communist states actively suppress religious variation, and even in more pluralist cultures, many families will censure children who will at least give lip-service to the religious practices of their parents.

    “Freedom of religion” is not a Christian doctrine. As a social doctrine, it emerged from Enlightenment dismissal of religion (specifically Christianity) as a primary doctrine. In the US, it originally took a Christian slant; forbidding the government from acting as an agent of religious establishment was seen as protection from the consequences of the mixing of the European governments with various conflicting Christian sects. However, neither Israel or the NT church is urged to welcome diverse religious practices within their culture. We do, however, see situations where God’s people struggle to remain faithful in situations where they are subject to whatever tolerance may be granted by the culture in which they dwell. We also see that God will bless those who are faithful despite the opposition of culture (e.g. Daniel, NT).

    There may well be pragmatic reasons for supporting religious freedom. But supporting it as a moral good is an appropriation from our host culture, and not a Christian teaching. If anything, it is to our shame that the Church allowed cultures steeped in Christian thought – I’m specifically thinking US and UK, though the same might be said of other places in Europe – to be led away into religious and moral pluralism, with the Church offering no more than mild disapproval while trailing along in their wake.

    I’m not saying that it’s easy to specify how the Church, a Christianised culture and the State should interact. But we must also remember that Scripture clearly teaches that Christ is the risen King who will return in judgement against all who resist his rule, and that in this age the role of his Church is to bear witness to this and to proclaim to the world repentance and forgiveness. The Day of the Lord will not be tolerant in the slightest. When tolerance and welcome – whether of other religions or of secular humanism – becomes a motivator rather than a pragmatic consideration, then the Church has forgotten to whom she is promised.

    (I should also observe that secular humanism and not Christianity characterises the host culture here, and we should be watchful against using Christian language in defense of one pagan culture against another.)

    1. David Ould

      hi Andrew. Lots to respond to here. Perhaps I will pick up on one thing. You write:

      However, neither Israel or the NT church is urged to welcome diverse religious practices within their culture. We do, however, see situations where God’s people struggle to remain faithful in situations where they are subject to whatever tolerance may be granted by the culture in which they dwell. We also see that God will bless those who are faithful despite the opposition of culture (e.g. Daniel, NT).

      I entirely agree. But we are talking about neither Israel nor the church but rather the state. We (Christians) are one of many diverse religious practices within the state.

      1. Andrew W

        Indeed. Yet for the better part of a millennium Europe’s religious diversity was much more narrowly constrained. Religious and social diversity brings disruption, but this disruption can spur growth or provoke collapse. Diversity as an inherent good is itself a cultural norm from a particular cultural mindset.

        And, yes, my focus is on state and culture, not the Church. It’s quite clear that the end game for the Church is the rule of Christ, not human rulers of a human State. And yet, I think moderns are misled into the opposite error – of thinking it as a good that the State should exist independent of the one who holds all earthly authority in his hand.

        The NT writings are of an era where the attitude of the State (two States actually, Rome and the Jewish leaders) toward Christians ranges from suspicious to hostile. And it’s clear that OT Israel was not (and never could be) a full earthly realisation of the Kingdom of God. Yet Acts records various Roman lords and governors and Greek political leaders turning to Christ. At this point, should they say “Government is of the world, and thus no place for the people of God?”. Hardly. Both OT and NT present government as doing God’s work of justice, even if unwittingly or unwillingly. In fact, one key task of Government is to coerce justice (Rom 13).

        If we believe that the moral law of scripture is in and of itself a blessing given by a good god, it would be foolish for a governing authority who acknowledges God to govern as if that moral law was either irrelevant to human well-being or disconnected from God himself. God doesn’t save by earthly government or culture, but it doesn’t follow that keeping God out of government and non-church culture is a good thing.

        What is good for the church as a cultural minority might be quite different to what is good for the culture when the church has influence.

        [In less abstract language: I assert that cultural Christendom is a significant net advantage to a culture and state, except that it can lead people to trust Christendom rather than Christ for their salvation. Encouraging the State to abandon Christ is not the wise solution to this dilemma.]

        1. David Ould

          I think we’re speaking at cross-purposes. You appear to be repeatedly advocating for the government to be “more Christian” (for want of a better phrase).

          I’m speaking to the situation where I recognise that the government will never be “Christian”. I’m not “encouraging the State to abandon Christ”, I’ve simply recognised that they were never with Christ to begin with and no legislated morality will improve upon that situation.

          Of course, both of us long for the day when the only true King returns to establish his reign.

          1. Andrew W

            Some final points:

            (1) Culture is propagated by both formal means – including law, religious instruction and other education or indoctrination – and informal.

            (2) A culture is under no obligation to include other cultural practices. A culture can benefit from exposure to other cultures in case they have advantageous practices to adopt, but there’s no inherent reason to prefer or even accept foreign practices to local ones.

            (3) Acceptance of *people* is an orthogonal discussion.

            (4) When members of one culture are guests of another, it’s generally up to the host to decide what cultural norms are negotiable. If I think it’s important to remove shoes at the door, and you are visiting, then your choices are ultimately to remove your shoes or to decline the visit.

            Broadly speaking, it is *right* to say “if you want to dwell in this ‘house’, you will follow its norms”. This applies to houses and to cultures. This is how we do things, and if you want to stay here, you’re expected to conform (even if we tolerate non-conformance for a little while).

            Cultures normalise beliefs and behaviour. That’s what culture is and does. If you don’t normalise, you (by definition) don’t have a culture.

            The problem is that this discussion conflates three things:
            * culture and cultural normalisation
            * whether a particular expression of culture is good
            * whether it is to the advantage of Christians to support or discourage particular areas of cultural normalisation

            From a Christian perspective, a strong culture with good norms is good, as it benefits all people (see previous posts). But if the norms are bad, it is advantageous for the culture to be weak, as this reduces push-back against the church when it encourages nonconforming behaviour. The other locations on this grid (strong bad culture / weak good culture) are both unadvantageous – one persecutes the righteous, the other provides only weak incentive for good behaviour.

            While sin abounds, so also does grace, but this is not a good argument for encouraging licentiousness within the church, and is an equally poor argument for encouraging it within the community. It is a good thing to work for the good of the culture, but this requires simultaneously working to strengthen the culture as well as to shape it. Shaping the culture without strengthening it is futile.

            None of the above addresses the *nature* of good culture. Is it good for a woman to take the place of honour at an awards ceremony? Is it good for a man to refuse to honour a woman? Is it good for a man to refuse to touch her? Are such things important to our culture, or an irrelevance? Just as for the church to declare something adiaphora is itself a significant theological question, so also declaring a particular cultural practice as important or unimportant makes a strong statement about cultural priorities.

            This matters. Using the biblical analogy again, Paul can say “eat whatever meat you like” but also say “but do not participate with idols”. He has made a clear moral distinction between the eating of the meat (culturally negotiable) and participating with idols (culturally non-negotiable). Similarly, it is right and good and proper for a culture to ask “Is the effect of tolerating this cultural deviation healthy or destructive?”. Just as “all things to all men” doesn’t mean “join in sin”, so “welcoming to foreigners” does not mean “prefer to defer to their culture”.

            Cultural differences should prompt us to examine our culture, not pre-emptively surrender it.

            Finally, let me strongly push back against “the government will never be Christian”. Strictly speaking, this is true. The State will never in and of itself be “Christian”, neither will it in and of itself be “good”. But are you really intending to suggest that the only alternative is total segregation?

            For the better part of two millennia, European government paid at least lip service to Christian morality. Without denying its faults, it was the influence of Christianity that changed laws on marriage, child-rearing and slavery for the better. It was the influence of Christianity that transformed European health-care and led to more benevolent government than was generally found in the ancient world. All of this occurred because the Church influenced European law, culture and state.

            Do you really suggest that it’s a good thing to surrender this? Let me instead suggest that a “more Christian” government is a good thing, and that the trend over the last 200 or so years to “less Christian” government has had some small benefits and large drawbacks, and is continuing on a trajectory towards the latter. I’m not specifically suggesting that you (David) are doing this, but many western Christians somehow think that “good” can be divorced from “God”, and that society can be changed for “good” without ultimately recognising the one from whom all goodness comes. This illusion is mostly because they have never experienced a society that is not still intermingled with two millennia of Christianity.

            (Ian, I found your thoughts helpful too)

  2. Ian

    I find this a difficult one. At a personal level, I adopt a relaxed approach. For example, I always tend to treat men and women the same when it comes to shaking hands, particularly in a business setting, but that is my preference in a social setting too (i.e., shake hands with all or none). However, in Australia, much more than, say, in the UK (or in England anyway), many women seem to find it odd that I want to shake hands. Obviously I don’t force the matter, and I try to make it unembarrassing for everyone; neither do I take offence.

    However, here we’re talking about a public or quasi-public policy, and it is moreover all mixed up with religion too. The policy as such is neither Christian or un-Christian, although it is being discussed in that way by some people (not people here necessarily). There is of course nothing inherently Christian about shaking hands or not – it is a social or cultural construct. A society could just as well have as its norm that people bow to each other, or raise their hands in a sort of salute, or whatever.

    So it seems to me that it comes down to the ability or “rights” of people to go against society’s norms for the sake of their beliefs, which could be (and are here) religious beliefs. They can also be cultural beliefs when people are settled in a country of a different culture. This is something that society is grappling with. It involves Christians too – we read about this quite often, and no doubt sometimes the examples seem almost comically Gilbertian to outside observers: cake-makers who refuse to ice cakes for same-sex weddings and the like.

    But such matters are going to become more common, and more significant, for Christians – for example, the question of churches, or individual members of the clergy, performing same-sex weddings is likely to become more of an issue rather than less of a one, and as we are seeing it is an increasingly pressing concern for the Church of England, which is operating in a legal environment (England) where same-sex marriage is allowed. Western societies are seemingly rapidly moving towards a position where same-sex marriage is seen as an acceptable and normal part of life. Do individual Christians and the church follow?

    Shaking hands or not shaking hands is trivial compared with issues such as this and many others. I think I would take the view, in a school setting, that the students should be educated that in Australian society, shaking hands on greeting or on receiving an award of some sort is the norm, with explanations of how the custom developed and what it signifies, as well as proper warnings that some people will take offence at a refusal. Beyond that, I suppose it is up to the individual person to decide what he or she wishes to do.

    More difficult, I think, are the bigger issues that might confront people of various religions or cultures. In the case of Christians, I think we need to try to be very clear whether the issue at hand involves our fundamental beliefs as Christians or whether it involves customs that we follow as part of what has been historically a supposedly Christian society. Sometimes of course there will be an overlap. As I said at the outset. a difficult one…

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