My personal thoughts on Islamic Topics, not a form of ijtihad rather than applying my mind.

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Location: Cairo, Egypt

Sunday, March 26, 2006

To shake or not to shake? Is that even a question?

Yvonne Ridley’s article: “Sheikh Tantawi’s Handshake” is making the rounds of the internet. An intriguing and interesting viewpoint indeed! What would Ms. Ridley, a fresh convert to Islam and celebrated Muslima, converted by the Taliban whilst in captivity, have to say after she went to see Sheikh Tantawi? Sadly the article is not about some profound message about religion or religious discourse, nor is it about a pending or former insightful fatwa. It was all about just a simple handshake. You might wonder about me wondering about it, but the Muslim world apparently is wondering about it and why shouldn’t I? After all, this is so earth-shakingly important in the annals of Islamic adab. The bottom line of the article is that Ms. Ridley went to meet Sheikh Tantawi and he wanted to shake her hand and she got totally affronted about it. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard all about it? If not, here’s my take on it.

First of all it was Ms. Ridley who refused to shake Sheikh Tantawi's outstretched hand, offered in greeting and not the usual other way around, when a Muslim woman would jump over her patriarchal traditionalist teachings and extend a shy hand to a man in greeting, only to have the humiliation of it being refused, which amounts to a bucket of cold icy water dumped on her, frequently veiled, head.

Just why would any Muslim, or Muslima for that matter, shake in fright when faced with a situation of shaking a woman’s or a man's hand? A handshake can lead to other things it is said. One shakes a hand and before one knows it, one can end up together shaking a bed it is implied. I looked it up and found various rulings saying that: “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.” These rulings are apparently based on the general rule that blocking the means to evil is obligatory, especially if its signs are clear. But were the signs really that clear in this particular situation? These rulings are also based on a questionable Hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “…The hands fornicate. Their fornication is the touch...”

Even so, if this is indeed the reason, I was taken aback. So in other words, Ms. Ridley accused Sheikh Tantawi of impure thoughts? Notwithstanding that he pointed out to her his age and standing as a scholar and a teacher, she actually thought that a handshake between them might provoke desire and temptation. I further wonder who and what she was so worried about? Her own or the venerable old Sheik’s desire? In either case, it is a bit strange. If the former, that is rather interesting, because it just makes me question the purity of Ms. Ridley’s thoughts in this case. That of course leads me right to ‘niyyat’. Isn’t religion and Islam mainly all about niyyat?

The first Hadith recorded in Bukhari’s Collection Volume 1, Book 1, Number 1 reads: “Narrated 'Umar bin Al-Khattab: I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended...”

This was the first Hadith recorded by Bukhari in his book. It was used as an introduction to all Hadiths to come afterwards. This particular Hadith indicates, that all deeds are judged and rewarded according to their intention. 'Abd al-Rahman bin Mahdi is reported to have said that: “Were I to compose a book comprised of various chapters, I would place the Hadith of ‘Umar regarding deeds and intentions in each chapter. This is one of the firm Hadiths, which serves as an axis of Islam.” Al-Shafi'i said that it comprises a third of all religious knowledge. Ahmad bin Hanbal said that the principles axes of Islam, in terms of Hadith, are three: the Hadith narrated by 'Umar that "deeds are judged only by intention," the Hadith narrated by 'Aisha, "Whoever introduces into our affairs that which does not belong, it is rejected," and the Hadith narrated by al-Nu'man bin Bashir, "The licit is clear and the illicit is clear." And all these Hadiths relate to our situation here, but I digress. So let us go back to niyyat. If I understand it correctly you get a reward for a thought of a good deed, even before it is done. So just the thought, coming from an arising niyyat, is enough to grant you a bonus point, and shake the balance of your judgement day deed sheet. But in this case the niyyat of a believer (Sheikh Tantawi) is assumed by another believer (Ms. Ridley) to be bad. My next question would have to be: what happened to Sura [64.4] He knows what is in the heavens and the earth, and He knows what you hide and what you manifest; and Allah is Cognizant of what is in the hearts.

So if Allah knows what is in the heart, Ms. Ridley seems to share that knowledge for some unknown and inexplicable reason. Just what is it that Ms. Ridley sees that I cannot? Or is it perhaps that she thinks that her irresistible form, covered in a modest veil is enough to shake the good old sheikh by merely shaking her hand? Or is it perhaps that she is afraid of shaking his hand, so that her own faith is not shaken? Does Ms. Ridley not believe that Allah created man and woman equal? And that for Sheikh Tantawi to allow her some of his valuable time was raising her to his scholarly level rather than assuming a desirable and tempting form under her modest veil?

If Sheikh Tantawi is secure enough to be in a meeting with Ms. Ridley, in the safe presence of an interpreter, discussing some religious issue or other or even granting her an interview about some of his thoughts, why shouldn’t she be secure enough in taking a greeting as it was meant, rather than how it was perceived after being interpreted by her? Is it interpretation rather than niyyat that is the problem?.

Many scholars have interpreted women mixing with men as the root of all evil. So a handshake, in their view, would most certainly lead to evil. I seem to recall that men and women mix in the haram in Mecca for pilgrimage. They do not shake hands there, granted, but they pray side by side in very close proximity. They eliminate worldly thoughts while performing their rituals and are in audience with Allah. So it is not interpretation but their niyyat which matters.

I also recall the prophet visiting Um Haran bint Milhan, wife of Ubada bin As-Samit, on his own. She would offer him meals and sit with him and he enjoyed her hospitality as per Hadith 47, narrated by Anas bin Malik in Bukhari’s collection. So he mixed with her and there were no shakes there. Nobody would allege an evil niyyat to the prophet. But then again that is what Ms. Ridley seems to have alleged to Sheikh Tantawi's, despite the presence of a third party, namely the translator. And that is what everyone else alleges, who refuses an outstretched hand.

Why does a hand cause so much fear? Is Islam all about evil and its prevention, rather than good and its implementation? A gesture of goodwill goes a long way, even if it is just a kind word, as per Sura [2.263]: Kind speech and forgiveness is better than charity followed by injury; and Allah is Self-sufficient, Forbearing. And Ms. Ridley knows that too, for she writes in her own words: “it is permissible to go for the least line of resistance, rather than embarrass others.”

Yet Ms. Ridley ends her article with “If I ever meet Sheikh Tantawi again I will not be extending my hand, unless it’s clutching a frying pan.” Is this what peace and Islam has been reduced to by Ms. Ridley, to drive your point across threatening someone with a frying pan? And that too on the revered head of a renowned and respected Sheikh of Al Azhar? What happened to ‘adab’? What happened to setting a good example? What happened to good behaviour and decency? What happened to Islam as a way of life? And then one wonders about terrorism and murder? Isn’t a hand clutching a threatening frying pan in defence against a simple handshake alleging that it is almost leading to ‘zina’ very akin to a hand clutching a gun in defence against an alleged insult of the faith like Theo van Gogh had to feel? Why do we not keep things in proportion? Why do we have to interpret all sorts of things into simple gestures that aren’t really there except in the imagination? Why are women reduced (and in this case even by a woman) to sexual objects, without brains and uses other than evoking sexual desires, leading to temptation and ultimately shaking a bed rather than a hand?

Ms. Ridley wrote in her article that she consulted “all sorts of Islamic authorities and they unanimously told her that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar was wrong”. Be that as it may, I suppose those "all sorts of Islamic authorities" had a live conduit into Sheikh Tantawi's brain and could see and ascertain his evil niyyat. They also found out that he, despite his age and the decades of scholarly years on his shoulders studying theology, would be transported into delight by merely shaking Ms. Ridley’s hand, which would undo his ablutions and lead to other very evil things. But then only Allah knows what's in Sheikh Tantawi's head and heart.

But I still have to wonder about those "all sorts of Islamic authorities". Who are they? Sheikh Tantawi is an authority of his own. Many other Islamic authorities care deeply about his thoughts and try to emulate his behaviour and adopt his thinking. But now those unnamed “all sorts” question his niyyat? Perhaps we should then turn to those “all sorts”, unidentified as they are, for guidance? Why weren’t they identified, if their opinion outweighs that of an Azharite, and not just any Azharite mind you, but THE Azharite?

Could it be because they are maybe some obscure mullah or other? And what are their arguments against the simple innocent handshake as a greeting? Ms. Ridley doesn’t tell us that either, because she was too busy stringing angry words in a three page article about the handshake itself. So what could their reasoning be? Sexual enticement leading to zina? A western custom that should be shunned by the pious Muslims, so they don’t fall into the trap of imitating a bida'? Impure thoughts and wicked imagination leading to unrestrained immoral deeds? Perhaps even the propagation of germs causing disease? Or is there something in the Hadiths or Suras which they are relying on and which Sheikh Tantawi missed?

I am sorry, but I fail to understand all these reasons, because for me it stops at niyyat. If niyyat is good enough for a reward by Allah to a deed still undone, it should be good enough. Or do they know something more than Allah revealed in his book or the Prophet uttered in his Hadiths? If that is the case, I would really like for Ms. Ridley to identify them, so we can all benefit from their profound wisdom.

In conclusion, Ms. Ridley who converted in August 2003, and after verifying her own opinion with those obscure unidentified “all sorts of Islamic authorities” thinks she knows more than Sheikh Tantawi the Sheikh of Al Azhar. In her closing paragraph she wrote that Sheikh Tantawi asked: "Who is teaching her? She can shake my hand, why she is like my daughter. This is the problem with Muslims in Europe today, they listen to extreme voices." So Ms. Ridley thinks she knows more than the good Sheikh, while Sheikh Tantawi thinks that European Muslims are extremists. If it was a question of who is more grounded in Islam, I will most certainly take Sheikh Tantawi's word, because if I use my own mind, which Allah has given me, I will most certainly arrive at the logical conclusion that most ‘normal’ men and women can’t really get that excited from a handshake.

Ms. Ridley’s shaking article can be found on Muslims Weekly