Q. Some Muslims say that it is haram for us to go to the public beaches in the western world, presumably because of the way the non-Muslim beach goers are dressed. They further advocate that as Muslims, we must not dress like the non-Muslims do, i.e., swimming trunks for men and bathing suits for women. As such, I sometimes see Muslim women swimming with full-length clothing including the head covering, although the men are not as guarded about their beach attire. What is the Islamic perspective on this issue?

A. We must be careful to distinguish between what is Qur'anic and what is dictated by the scholars acting on their understanding of situations. This is important because whereas one matter is divine, the other is subject to the limitation of the human perception. Now, the Qur'an tells us about lowering the gaze, which, as any thinking person will tell you, is not necessarily the physical lowering of the eye, although this is at some stage concomitant. Rather, it is avoiding the lascivious and lewd staring at the member of the opposite sex. Now as far as the idea of proper raiment is concerned, the verses on hijab, so often quoted by Muslims, is not as often taken in context. The idea of the dress was to declare that the Muslim women were monotheists in the Semitic tradition, observing the sexual propriety of the religion of Abraham, "…so that they may be known…" This was in a society where a woman's dress was indicative of her sexual conduct or lack thereof, something specific to the Arab society, or at least the Middle Eastern area.

A woman in tribal Africa who went almost nude was not seen as sexually promiscuous, for her customs and norms regarding sexual conduct were not dictated by her attire. This means that the verses do not apply there, although their meaning does, i.e. that the woman must not be seen as a sex object. Also, the aspect of "…so that they may be known…" does not come into play since as we have already stated, dress and sexual conduct are not related, as it was in the Arab society. As you may be aware, the polytheist Arab women were half naked, and sexual forwardness part of their culture, indeed they used to make the hajj naked. In America, the entire hijab situation does not apply, and no Muslim -- fanatic or not -- can claim that a woman in a bikini is looking for sex. Indeed, even if she is fully naked, the law of the land punishes anyone who takes her without her consent.

As far as the dress is concerned, one has to tread very carefully on this issue. There is a fiqh rule that says: "Action is judged by intention." Now for swimming, we definitely don't need a bikini that shows all the ridges and valleys of the woman's body, nor one that lets a viewer be able to measure the man's appendage. This is of note since the beach is a place where many people go to show off their wares, to use a commercial term. As far as tanning is concerned, a Muslim ought to know that it exposes the body to skin cancer and is to be dissuaded. The ruling then, to my view, would be that such clothes that are specific to swimming may be worn, while those that give an ambiguous message should be avoided. There is also the aspect of causing gossip. Regardless of the law, it may be that there are other Muslims who will smear the name of an innocent Muslim woman who dresses in a bathing suit of whatever shape. Is she willing to take this risk, or opt for not exercising her right, so that a greater problem may not present itself, that of fitna and backbiting within the community?

Unfortunately, people may allow more for a man than they would for a woman. What would I personally advise? In one's hometown, where there is room for gossip, I would advise that great care be taken. Out of one's hometown, one may wear such costumes that are considered conservative though not cumbersome, for the idea is not to cover as in a hijab situation, but not to give the message of preening. Is this hypocrisy? No, for again, one acts differently according to the situation. This is known even to the early Muslims who presented us with the hadith that the Prophet Muhammad was sitting with Umar and Abu Bakr with his izar above his knees, and when Uthman came in, he let it down. This shows that he was attentive to the different values of different people, as we advocate here.

If a woman wants to go to the beach with "hijab," she certainly, as an individual making a choice, has the right to her option. If she claims Islam as her source, certainly she is misguided, albeit with sincerity. In fact she blights Islam, for the people who look at her certainly say to themselves: "What a stupid, restrictive religion." In her well-meaning, with malice not aforethought misconception of Islamic rulings, she has thrown the Qur'anic exhortation to invite to Allah's way by wisdom and good preaching out of the window. As far as the men go, we ought to know that they are not the standard by which to judge Islam, for they have often made this religion into "Hislam," a misogynist, chauvinist aberration of the wonderful path prescribed by Allah.

Posted August 25, 1999