Embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.

Embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.

Communal Life

Complementary to the rulings about personal daily life are those related to interactions among people. Below we will examine the guidance of Islamic law (sharīʿah) about several of the essential components of our social lives.

The Etiquette (Adab) of Customary Acts

Because of the symbiotic relationship between actions and spiritual constitution, a focal point of spiritual cultivation is developing a refined character and behavior. Since Prophet Muhammad ﷺ modeled human perfection, his actions are thus the model of perfect behavior.

Part of that prophetic behavior included a particular way of performing actions which might, to the unaware, seem mundane. In reality, nothing is mundane: Every action can be infused with a righteous intention and the proper manner of performance, and every action we perform can thus enhance our spiritual constitution. The appropriate manner of performing an action is called its etiquette (adab).

Greeting

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught us the way to greet one another when we meet or begin a conversation. The first statement exchanged in an encounter is the greeting of peace (salām), “as-Salāmu ʿAlaykum,” which means, “May peace be upon you.” The response is “wa ʿAlaykum as-Salām,” which means, “And peace be upon you, too.” We are encouraged to be the first to pray for peace by saying the greeting when meeting another Muslim. Beyond this general rule, there are a few other protocols that relate to greeting other Muslims.

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught that whoever has entered upon an assembled group of people should be the one to initiate greetings with them. Also, a younger person should initiate greetings with an older one. It is required (farḍ) to return a greeting, with an equal or better greeting.[1] You should greet even those Muslims whom you don’t already know personally. The greeting of peace (salām) is also the manner in which conversations and encounters are concluded. Muslims thus wish peace, mercy, and blessings upon all whom we meet and converse with.

Eating & Drinking

Food and drink are two bounties of God ﷻ through which we find enjoyment and nourishment and which all people need. The Prophet ﷺ taught a specific way to partake in these bounties. When we reflect on the multitude of people around the world who are in a state of starvation, being able to eat and drink clearly becomes one of the greatest bounties we enjoy. This brings to light the importance of infusing these actions with prophetic etiquette in service of God.

Before a meal, you should wash your hands first, as Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught. He also taught us that we should always commence eating or drinking by saying Bismillāh (in God’s name). If you forget to say it at the beginning of a meal, you should say it at the end, because it is a prophetic practice (sunnah) and thus highly commendable (mustaḥab). It is also commendable to eat and drink with our right hands, no matter what our dominant handedness may be. The Prophet taught us that the devil consumes food and drink with the left. He also taught that if you are taking food from a shared platter, you should only take from the food directly in front of you, and you should offer to share your food with those around you, regardless of how little you may seem to have. God ﷻ will send blessings upon the shared food to give it the effect of more food. In the end, when you finish a meal or a drink, you should express gratitude for the bounties by saying, Alḥamdulillāh (Praise belongs to God).

Dressing

A Muslim should always be well-dressed, looking clean and presentable, as well as modest. Beyond the rulings of Islamic law pertaining to what materials may be worn and what parts must be covered, there is a particular manner, an etiquette, when dressing yourself.

When you put on a garment, you should begin with the right limb first, and then the left. When removing a garment, you should remove the left limb first, and then the right. This method was taught to us by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself. The same etiquette applies to footwear and other garments associated with limbs.

Speaking

Speaking creates a connection between people, and therefore between their hearts. Words are powerful, as most evident in the greatest miracle God has given to us, the Quran. It should come as no surprise, then, that Islam has provided guidance on an action that has such a powerful influence on our hearts and relationships.

The etiquette of speaking has several rules, the most significant of which is to speak the truth always. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ hated lying, so much so that he stated that being a habitual liar is incompatible with true faith.

Other rules of etiquette include not whispering when there are only three people in a group. This is to ensure that the third person does not feel excluded, or wonder whether he or she was the subject of what was whispered. It is also bad manners and a breach of etiquette to interrupt someone speaking, or to correct them, if what they are saying is something mundane and not a matter of belief or religion. If someone is telling you something you already know or have heard, it is best not to tell them so, but just to listen politely. Also, you should always speak in a moderate tone, not raising your voice or showing disrespect towards others, even if there is a disagreement.

Islam places great emphasis on courteous speech. It is very important to keep in mind how much trouble the tongue can cause. We are taught to say something good, or to remain silent; to avoid backbiting;[2] and to say things that engender love and harmony. All of these teachings should be kept in mind before you speak—for each word is recorded for the Day when we will all be called to account for our actions.

Elders

Bestowing a special status to elders is not unique to Islam. Most cultures over history have afforded elders an enhanced level of respect on the basis of their age alone. An elder does not need to be a wise, learned, or pious person to deserve this enhanced respect. Wisdom, knowledge, and piety are reasons for further respect, not prerequisites for the respect due to an elder.

It is customary to offer elders spaces in the first row of the prayer assembly, seats at gatherings, the first turn to eat, and other such signs of deference. Whatever behavior our culture or society considers respectful and well-mannered, that is the behavior we should show to the older members of our community.

Supplications (Duʿā’s) for Particular Circumstances

God’s grace and mercy in this world take many forms. One such manifestation of His divine grace is the placing of blessing (barakah) in our lives. A blessing, in the simplest sense, is a grace sent by God ﷻ which enhances the bounties of God. Blessing makes us able to do many things in a short amount of time; it makes a small amount of something sufficient for a large group; it makes the money that we receive from God enough for our needs. There are particular times, places, and objects that contain especially great blessing. And there are ways of increasing the blessings in our lives—the simplest of which is to call upon God in supplication (duʿā’).

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught various supplications (duʿā) to be said in association with particular acts. These are many in number and important to read and learn. There are supplications (duʿā’s) for acts such as waking up, going to bed, leaving the house, returning home, riding in a vehicle, traveling, visiting a sick person, eating, parting with loved ones, and many more. These special prescriptions allow you to receive and increase the blessing (barakah) that God ﷻ sends down upon you and upon whatever or whomever you interact with.

Gender Relations

God ﷻ created the human race with two genders, each different and unique. Islam teaches that they have different natures, tendencies, and needs. The difference between genders, like the differences among races and ethnicities, is to be celebrated as a sign of God’s greatness.

Regarding status before God ﷻ, Islam openly proclaims equality of the sexes. There are no implications of inferiority, such as one gender being the cause of expulsion from the Garden, nor does Islam hold the belief that sexual relations are inherently immoral, or other historical misconceptions related to gender.

In one sense, Islam considers women to have a religious advantage over men: their spiritual composition has a greater tendency towards mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. On the other hand, in Islam, men are assigned roles with a higher level of worldly responsibility than women. For example, the responsibility of a family’s financial needs falls on the husband and is not shared equally between the spouses. Each of these points should be taken as an affirmation that God made the two genders inherently different—physically, psychologically, and spiritually—and that it is healthy to recognize and honor their differences. While certain religions and cultures have allowed an unhealthy imbalance between genders, or conversely have attempted to obliterate the distinction between them, Islam holds that each gender has unique qualities vital to a balanced society.

In addition to acknowledging and reaffirming the different natures of the genders with gender-specific rulings, Islam also provides guidelines that govern the interaction between the two genders. Some of them are discussed below.

Seclusion

Part of the wisdom of sacred law (sharīʿah) is that it not only protects us from actions that are directly harmful to us, in both this world and the next, but also from actions that are likely to lead to harm. One example of this wisdom is the ruling that forbids two marriageable persons of the opposite gender to be in a state of seclusion—alone together where no one can directly see them. They are, however, permitted to converse out of earshot of others, or in a room with large windows with others just outside, where they can carry on a private conversation but still be seen—these situations do not constitute seclusion and thus are not forbidden. The kind of situation that would be forbidden is one that could allow physical touching without anyone seeing.

This is an example of a ruling set forth by God and His messenger to prevent acts that might not seem serious in themselves but which could lead to serious harm. Since seclusion could tempt persons of opposite gender to engage in sensual activity some of the time, it is forbidden all the time.

To Look and Touch

In the Quran, God ﷻ commands the believers to lower their gazes, out of modesty, so as not to allow sensually stimulating images to enter a heart striving to concern itself with God. As a general rule, whatever body part would be forbidden (ḥarām) for a person to expose would be forbidden for another to look at without a reason. The faculty of sight is considered the most direct inroad to the heart, and any images we see have an immediate spiritual impact. This may be realized by considering the extreme use of visually stimulating images in modern marketing.

For reasons similar to the prohibition of seclusion, it is also forbidden (ḥarām) to touch a marriageable person of the opposite gender. Since such touching can be a precursor to illicit sensual activity, Islam, as a preventative measure, forbids it in and of itself.

Through these guidelines, God ﷻ has regulated the powerful force of sensual stimulation in public spaces while providing an appropriate environment for its expression and enjoyment in a private space.

Marriage

The family is the foundational unit of society, and its preservation and enhancement is central to a harmonious society that facilitates service of God ﷻ and service of humanity. As part of this vision for life, God has provided us with a set of guidelines to preserve the institution of family. Among them are those related to the institution of marriage.

In Islamic law, marriage is a contract entered into by a man and a woman willingly, with the intention of establishing a permanent relationship. The contract can be verbal or written, and it must be witnessed by at least two Muslim men of integrity, besides the bridegroom. After the contract has been witnessed, it is a prophetic practice (sunnah) to announce the marriage and to hold a wedding feast for loved ones and family. A few features of the Islamic concept of marriage are worth reviewing here.

First, as already mentioned, marriage is intended as a permanent agreement between two members of the opposite gender, so that they may start a family. Also, although it is initiated with the intention of being permanent, the relationship can be terminated through the process of divorce. Divorce is considered the most disliked (makrūh) of acts, although it is not forbidden (ḥarām). This ruling highlights Islam’s emphasis on the preservation of marriage. Its overall permissibility shows that the Islamic worldview acknowledges that some relationships do more harm than good, both to the individuals and to society at large.

Another feature is the ruling about who can marry whom: It is permissible (mubāḥ) for a Muslim man to marry either a Muslim, Christian, or Jewish woman, but not a woman from another religion or one with no religion at all. For a Muslim woman, on the other hand, it is only permissible to marry a Muslim man.[3] Part of the reason for this is that children predominantly take on the religion of their father, and it is a condition of Islamic marriage that the children be raised as Muslims. Additionally, in this world, children take after their father in lineage (i.e., their last/family name). The preservation of lineage, the ability to know one’s ancestry, is an important goal of Islamic law.

Within the institution of marriage, God ﷻ has placed the responsibility of a family’s upkeep on the man. Whereas a wife may do with her wealth as she personally desires, the same is not true for a husband or father. His wife and children have a right to access and use his wealth for their basic needs. The responsibility of upkeep falls first upon him. Islam also recognizes that a family, like all institutions, requires defined leadership to achieve internal harmony. The vast majority of societies over history have followed this arrangement, but Islam defines the role of family leader not in terms of power and authority to be used for male domination, but in terms of a higher degree of responsibility and accountability before God. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ placed much emphasis on this, perhaps as a warning to men, when he said: “The best of you is the one who is best to his wife, and I am the best to my wives.”

Although this is different from the cultural norms we may be used to, it is worth mentioning that Islam allows for men to marry multiple wives (up to a maximum of four) under particular circumstances. There are many preconditions to such an arrangement, the most important of which is a fair and just treatment of the wives, financially and otherwise. This illustrates Islam’s acknowledgement of the complexities and diversity of human society, for particular societies may find this permissibility useful in preserving social harmony, while others may prefer not to utilize it.

Before Marriage

One of the means through which God ﷻ has guided us to righteousness, which also preserves the institution of the family, is by regulating gender interaction outside of marriage. Some aspects of this were touched upon in the discussions of seclusion, looking, and touching. What each of these limitations emphasizes is that there really is only one relationship of significance between a man and a woman: marriage. Nothing else officially changes the legal status between two people. So for the phases of a relationship that precede marriage, such as courting and engagement, the same restrictions apply regarding touching, seclusion, and the like that exist for any marriageable persons of opposite genders.[4] These rulings only change when marriage takes place.

There are honorable ways to pursue marriage which are accepted by many cultures across the world. Parental and family involvement is a good early step in the courting process. In some cultures with Muslim influence, it is customary that the prospective couple interact while in the presence of family or friends. It is important that they be allowed to get to know one another well enough to make such an important decision, within the limits set for all unmarried persons of opposite genders.

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ gave guidance for those in search of a spouse. For men he advised that, when considering all the reasons to marry a woman, her dedication to her religion should be the weightiest criterion.[5] For women, he advised marrying men of good character and temperament. Each of these recommendations contains an indication of what each gender needs for a successful marriage.

While religion works to preserve marriage, it has unfortunately become more acceptable in our time to engage in premarital sexual relations. Any such activity outside of marriage is a most grave sin, explicitly forbidden (ḥarām) in the Quran. Even if a couple is engaged to marry, pre-marital sexual relations still constitute fornication. It is important to hold tight to these values, resisting temptation, and to reserve acts of intimacy for the domain of marriage, where they are cherished and sacred.

Homosexuality

Islam has defined the basis and manner for romantic and sexual relationships as being between a married couple, a man and a woman. Islamic law (sharīʿah) is concerned with actions, and sexual acts between members of the same gender (e.g., sodomy) are explicitly forbidden (ḥarām). There are discussions among the scholars regarding whether or not some people have a natural disposition to be attracted to members of their own gender, but any such discussion is always coupled with an emphasis on the need to resist sinful behavior. A person is not blameworthy for having the desire to sin (this also applies to heterosexual desires), but is held accountable for whether or not he or she acts on that desire.

There is a modern movement that has defined an entire subset of the population based on sexual desire alone. People with homosexual tendencies have been made to feel that acting upon these feelings freely is essential to their identity and that resisting them would equate to hypocrisy. This has caused a push for the entire society not just to protect the legal rights of such individuals, but also to declare homosexual acts morally acceptable. This is in complete contradiction to what God and Prophet Muhammad ﷺ have brought us and can be a challenge for the modern believer. We are taught to reach beyond our time to find guidance in the timeless: our universal religion brought by the Prophet for all times, Muhammad ﷺ.

Aside from understanding the ruling of Islamic law concerning these acts, it is also important to remember the status of those that sin. People can be weak, and we all have fallen short of our duty to God ﷻ. It is the responsibility of fellow believers to be there to strengthen and support one another in our path of abandoning disobedience and fulfilling our duties—the fundamental task of life. This applies to any number of sins a fellow believer may fall into. Supporting a fellow believer through a struggle is not the same as implicitly condoning his or her actions; it is partaking in that person’s process of turning to God in repentance.

Family Life

The family is the building block of society. When families, and thus societies, function harmoniously, life becomes conducive to spiritual growth. In fact, working towards familial harmony directly enhances your spiritual refinement. While protecting the institution of marriage is essential, creating and maintaining healthy families requires much more than that. Relations with family members are often challenging, and that is why Islam places so much emphasis on expressing love of God ﷻ through kind treatment towards others. Below are several other elements needed to live a harmonious family life.

The Spouse

In the Quran, God ﷻ illustrates the relationship between spouses through the metaphor of garments to be worn. Each spouse is the garment of the other—a source of protection, comfort, and shared intimacy. God also uses specific terms when describing a healthy marriage: love, tenderness, and serenity. To be blessed with these in your marriage is truly a gift from God, for which we should be very grateful..

What we learn from examining God’s words is that, although love is essential to any relationship, love is incomplete without tenderness—a mildness of character even during the difficult times of a marriage. Tenderness means mercifully letting things pass even when you could justifiably take your spouse to task. To put forth both love and tenderness selflessly is the formula for attaining serenity in the home. Both love and tenderness require serious spiritual refinement, because the ego (nafs) can easily disrupt a relationship, as it is always lashing out at others, fighting for its own rights. Rising above these tendencies and loving another person, so that you may even put your own personal interests second to theirs, is easier for a refined soul. And so, you need a refined soul to put your best into a marriage, and working to put your best into a marriage purifies your soul.

Far from indulging in visions of utopian family life, the Quran acknowledges the intrinsic difficulty in marriage. God’s message repeatedly calls us to be patient, to forgive, and to suppress our ego (nafs) as we work to preserve and honor this sacred institution.

Righteousness Towards Parents

Every one of us has parents through whom we were brought into this world. In the Quran, God ﷻ grants parents certain rights to which they are inherently entitled with no preconditions. The sum of these rights amounts to righteous behavior towards them, a concept which can be termed filial piety.

Righteous behavior towards your parents means that you obey their wishes, tend to their needs, and always show them the utmost respect. You should address your parents in a mild tone that always reminds them of the esteem in which you hold them. This applies particularly to mothers: While Prophet Muhammad ﷺ emphasized filial piety to both parents, he placed added emphasis on the respect and honor showed to mothers.

It is also important to appreciate the impact of filial piety on your relationship with God Himself. We know that the only sin that is unforgivable (if you do not repent) is shirk (associating partners with God). To show the emphasis He places on filial piety, good behavior towards parents is the only act God ﷻ conjoins with the command to not associate partners with Him:

Your Lord has commanded that you should worship none but Him, and that you be kind to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say no word that shows impatience with them, and do not be harsh with them, but speak to them respectfully and lower your wing in humility towards them in kindness and say, “Lord, have mercy on them, just as they cared for me when I was little.” — Quran 17:23-24

Filial piety is simply a right of parents. Even if God ﷻ tests us with challenging or difficult parents, or parents who did not play a role in our lives, we still owe them filial piety.

Oftentimes those new to Islam find a conflict between their new convictions and the lives their parents are living, particularly if they are not Muslim. Differences in religion should not be an obstacle to filial piety. Some scholars of Islam state that if a person’s mother is Christian and elderly, it is that person’s obligation to help take her to church. It is well known that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught his companions (ṣaḥābah) to remain kind and respectful towards their disbelieving parents, even those who opposed them most offensively. Keep in mind that for some parents, seeing their child convert to a new religion can be difficult. Some will adjust well, and others will work to change their child’s mind. In all cases, patiently show your parents the filial piety they are due. Work to develop a strong relationship with them whether or not they are supportive of your choice.

Like all the rights afforded to people, parental rights have limits. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ taught us, “There can be no obeying a creature by disobeying the Creator.” If your parents ask you to do something forbidden (ḥarām), you should politely refuse, explaining kindly to them why you will not do it. Beware of the tendency to allow differences in beliefs to create a rift between you and your parents—Islam should only enhance your relationship with them. It is important that you obey God ﷻ in both ways: by staying away from what He has forbidden and by showing your parents filial piety.

Keeping Ties with Kin

Another category of people with a special status from God ﷻ is those to whom you are related by blood. You owe these people a constant relationship on good terms: You should keep in touch with them, visit them, and ask about those things that are important to them. The Arabic term for this obligation literally means “to keep the wombs connected.” It is a reminder to us that healthy families are essential to societies conducive to spiritual growth.

We also know very well that we had no part in deciding who our relatives are. Regardless of how difficult it may be to maintain a constant relationship with them on good terms, it is an obligation of the highest order. The opposite of keeping ties with kin is to sever ties with them. The punishment that befalls someone who severs ties with kin is extraordinary—they will be deprived of divine mercy. The word for mercy in Arabic is “raḥmah” and it shares its root with the word for womb which is “raḥm.” In a narration (ḥadīth) from Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, we see the inseparable relationship between the two. He recounts a statement from God ﷻ which says:

I am God and I am the Merciful (al-Raḥmān). I created the womb (raḥm) and derived its name from My own. If someone connects the [ties of the] womb, I will connect him with Me, but if someone severs the [ties of the] womb, I will cut him off from Me.

Therefore, a believer should work to keep connected with extended family members, hoping for divine mercy. You should make family functions a priority in your life and put forth an effort to attend such events. Whether they are family reunions, holidays, or simple get-togethers, you can attend these functions with the intention of keeping ties with kin. While you cannot partake in the religious rituals of other religions’ holidays, you may still visit and buy gifts on non-Muslim holidays in order to keep ties with kin, and in turn, with God’s mercy. The key lies in your intentions.

Neighbors and Guests

There are two more groups who are afforded certain rights and duties: neighbors and guests. A believer has duties towards anyone who lives near his or her home. This means that a believer has to make sure that his or her neighbors are keeping well overall. If any of them need anything, they should feel comfortable approaching their Muslim neighbor for help. In most societies today, people don’t even know their neighbors’ names. As Muslims, we should strive to get to know our neighbors and to keep channels of communication open, so that if a need arises, we will know about it.

People who visit you in your home also enjoy a special status. To host guests is an honor that comes with accompanying duties. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ highly emphasized the importance of generously honoring your guests. This means working to put the best that you have before them, ensuring their comfort and joy during their visit.

Although it is important to give food and drink, and to share whatever you have, the hospitality we should offer guests should not be just material. It also includes giving your guests a sense of security and mental comfort, while removing any feeling of being a burden. These duties, and those towards kin and parents, illustrate the centrality of concern for others to the character of a believer. We should be hospitable, displaying care for the comfort and ease of others. When we nobly embody these virtues, putting others before self, God ﷻ will in turn grace us with divine comfort and ease in our lives.

Excerpt republished with permission of the author from Tarsin, Asad, Being Muslim: A Practice Guide, 2015, Sandala Inc., p. 197-209.

[1] There are three greetings (listed in ascending order of reward and virtue): as-Salāmu ‘Alaykum (“may peace be upon you”), as-Salāmu ʿAlaykum wa Raḥmat-Allāh (“may peace and God’s mercy be upon you”), and as-Salāmu ʿAlaykum wa Raḥmat-Allāh wa Barakātuh (“may peace and God’s mercy and blessings be upon you”).

[2] Backbiting is defined as saying anything about a person who is not present that would make them unhappy, had he or she been present to hear it.

[3] Historically, Muslim jurists held that if a woman converts to Islam while she is married to a non-Muslim male, she must divorce her husband if he refuses to accept the religion as well. For Muslims living as a religious minority in a predominantly non-Muslim land, there are some valid legal opinions that allow for a woman in that situation to give her husband some time to consider the matter.

[4] These restrictions apply to actions a person may perform, not feelings a person may experience. Considering the restrictions Islamic law puts forth, it might be unwise to cultivate intense feelings for a person to whom you are not yet married, although it is not forbidden to have such feelings.

[5] In the full narration (ḥadīth), Prophet Muhammad ﷺ states that a woman is married for four things: her beauty, her lineage (if she were related to a prominent historic figure), her wealth, and her religious commitment. He then says that whoever holds onto a woman with a strong commitment to her faith will be successful.

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The Sila Initiative helps you embrace the social teachings of Islam by rethinking modern individualism.