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.
Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.Paul Celan
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.