Spirituality of Gender Relations

by Mateen A. Khan (Trenton, NJ)

الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ ۙ أُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find described in the Torah and Gospel – he will enjoin on them good and forbid them evil, he will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them what is foul, and he will release them of their burdens and yokes that were on them. Those that believe in him, honor him, support him and follow the light that has been sent down with him; they are the successful. [Al-A`rāf:157]

In response to a du`ā by Musa, Allah states that the full extent of His mercy and guidance is for those that follow this Messenger, our beloved Prophet ﷺ. He is to be honored, supported, and most importantly, followed by anyone hoping for success.

Additionally, we are complete beings – physical, emotional, and spiritual. We can test the physical and emotional, and we can endeavor to understand it through pathophysiology and psychology, but what about the spiritual? Being outside of the empirical realm, we can’t test for it, nor can we understand it entirely.

وَيَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الرُّوحِ ۖ قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوتِيتُم مِّنَ الْعِلْمِ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا

[O Muhammad], they ask you about the spirit (rūú). Say, ‘The spirit is a matter of my Lord. You have only been given a little [knowledge]. 17:85

There is a whole world of the ghayb (unseen) that we do not have direct access to, nor can it be logically derived. This is why we need revelation and prophethood. Through this knowledge, we rectify the part of us that existed first and will continue to exist after our death. How do we connect with Allah? How do we strengthen our iman? Or on an immediately practical level, how do we gain khushu` in our salāh and other `ibādah? How do we correct our spiritual condition?

If you want to improve your spiritual condition and do what is best for your person here and in the hereafter, then follow what the Prophet ﷺ has brought you.

Spiritual Change

Part of that has to do with how the two genders interact. For this discussion, let’s put away our fiqh glasses – the halāl/ harām glasses – and ask something deeper. Is there a spiritual gain in proper gender interaction and lowering the gaze? Sometimes people ask, “Why are scholars so hung up on this topic?” or, “Why does Allah care about what I do in my personal life?” We know from the Qur’an, Hadith, the Companions, and cumulative scholarly wisdom that in this area of gender interaction lies a lot of potential spiritual benefit or harm. Our iman and `ibādah are quite literally affected by it.

الحديث القدسي: النَّظرُ سهمٌ مسمومٌ من سِهامِ إبليسَ من تركها من مخافتي أبدلتُه إيمانًا يجِدُ حلاوتَه في قلبِه

In a hadīth qudsī attributed to the Prophet ﷺ, it states that Allah said, “The impermissible look is a poisonous arrow of Iblīs. Whoever leaves it out of My fear, I will change his iman such that he will find its sweetness in his heart.”[1]

النَّظرةُ الأولى خطأٌ ، والثَّانيةُ عمدٌ ، والثَّالثةُ تُدمِّرُ ، نظرُ المؤمنِ إلى محاسِنِ المرأةِ سَهمٌ من سِهامِ إبليسَ مسمومٌ ، ومن ترَكَها من خشيةِ اللَّهِ ، ورجاءَ ما عندَه أثابَه اللَّهُ بذلِك عبادةً تبلغُهُ لذَّتُها

Similarly, in another narration, “The first look is an error. The second is purposeful. The third is ruinous. The Believer’s look towards a woman’s beauty is a poisonous arrow of Iblīs. Whoever leaves it fearing Allah and hoping for the good with Him, Allah will reward him with a delightful `ibādah in exchange.”[2]

In Surah al-Nūr, Allah states:

قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَزْكَىٰ لَهُمْ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ

Tell the believing men to reduce some of their gaze and guard their chastity. That is purer for them. 24:30

After mentioning this ayah, Ibn al-Qayyim in Ighāthah al-Lahfān points out an interesting observation about the sequence of the ayah. The path to tazkiyah (spiritual purity) lies in limiting our eyes first. He goes on to list the spiritual benefits of lowering your eyes:

  • It causes sweetness in iman better than whatever pleasure you would have gotten from looking.
  • It creates a spiritual light in your heart and correct insight (r al-qalb wa sihhat al-firāsah). In return for turning away from the harām, Allah allows you to ‘see’ what you normally would not.
  • It gives strength, steadfastness, and courage to the heart. Those who disobey Allah are weakened, and those who obey are strengthened.

Other scholars have listed benefits including the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, sunnah from bid`ah, and foresight. Likewise, Imam al-Ghazālī writes in his Ihyā’, “Whenever he protects his eyes in this way, many tribulations are removed from his heart.”

There are things that when used improperly can be disastrous, but when used properly bring tremendous benefit. For example, medications like chemotherapy are poisons and meant to kill, but when used properly, they can be life-saving. Similarly, the opposite gender, when interacted with improperly can be harmful, but when interacted with in a halāl way, can be life and ākhirah saving. The Prophet ﷺ reminded us that there is no greater blessing than a pious spouse. They protect you from the elements in this dunyā (هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَّهُنَّ) and will be your greatest companion in Jannah. Allah eludes to this in Surah Āl-Imrān:

زُيِّنَ لِلنَّاسِ حُبُّ الشَّهَوَاتِ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ وَالْبَنِينَ وَالْقَنَاطِيرِ الْمُقَنطَرَةِ مِنَ الذَّهَبِ وَالْفِضَّةِ وَالْخَيْلِ الْمُسَوَّمَةِ وَالْأَنْعَامِ وَالْحَرْثِ ۗ ذَٰلِكَ مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا

Beautified for people is the love of that which they desire – of women and sons, heaped-up sums of gold and silver, fine branded horses, and cattle and tilled land. 3:14

All these things have the potential to be tremendously beneficial in this world and the ākhirah, but they also have the potential to be disastrous. It’s no coincidence that topping the list is the desire for the opposite gender in a way entailing divine disobedience.

Disobeying will bring about widespread harm. Why shouldn’t it? Spiritual harm affects the individual first, but then works its way out to the community bringing it harm as well. Today, we are adrift in spiritual harms –pornography, sexual scandals, zinā at all levels and of all kinds…

Qur’anic Approach

The Qur’an is the book of guidance. Let’s look at it. There is a concept in the Islamic sciences called sadd al-dharā`i—closing the paths to zinā and not only the act itself—that the Qur’an employs when it comes to gender interaction.

وَلَا تَقْرَبُوا الزِّنَىٰ ۖ إِنَّهُ كَانَ فَاحِشَةً وَسَاءَ سَبِيلًا

And do not approach zinā (unlawful sexual intercourse). Indeed, it is an immorality and an evil path. (al-Isrā:32)

This ayah indicates that zinā is a path. You don’t just wake up in bed with someone one day. A series of events have to take place beforehand. There are harām or unnecessary looks, talking, mixing, touching, and being alone that occur first. We find every step of that path is blocked to varying degrees by the Shariah. Each one of these steps cuts away at your iman, khushu` (sweetness of `ibādah), and closeness to Allah. Conversely, purposely avoiding each of these strengthens your iman, khushū`, and closeness to Allah. At some point, we need to take responsibility for our spiritual states and take the appropriate steps.

Conclusion

As Muslims, we know that Islamic guidelines on gender interaction are practically, rationally, morally, and spiritually superior. Don’t we know that Allah and His messenger ﷺ commanded all this for a purpose and a wisdom for the individual and the community? Just as in the prohibition of alcohol and gambling, in proper gender interaction, there are obvious practical benefits. And just like in the `ibādah of other kinds, there are spiritual benefits.

Living in a non-Muslim society means living with challenging situations, in which you will find spiritual harm. Just because you do not impose what you know to be best on others doesn’t mean that you stop believing it to be best. At the very least, practice the guidelines of interaction proposed by the deen where you can, like in gatherings of Muslims. In situations where you cannot practice them, dislike the alternative in your heart—don’t justify and approve. That is the least of iman. In the meantime, affect change in yourself and your community. The Prophet ﷺ was not a blind follower of his culture. The days of jāhiliyyah were days of zinā, mixing, and immorality. Through spiritual insight and divine guidance, he and his companions implemented change against the social norms where and when they could. The spiritual insight of a Believer is formidable and increased through obedience to every dictate of the sharī`ah. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Beware the Believer’s spiritual insight (firāsah). For he sees with the light of Allah.”

[1] Al-Targhīb wa al-Tarhīb

[2] Hilyah al-Awliyā’

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