Q: For Muslims growing up in the west, we have obviously inherited western tradition. When greeting other Muslims (especially those raised in the west), and non-Muslims, it is customary to shake hands, kiss the cheek of a female, or even briefly embrace someone (male or female) whom one has not seen, or will not be seeing for an extended period of time. Does Islam make allowances for these types of cultural greetings?

A: In responding to this question previously, I restricted myself to the traditional shari'ah outlook, and ruled against permissibility. A deeper study of the issue, however, has forced me to change my position on the matter. This is because the so-called "Islamic" position, as we know it, is restricted to the mores and customs of the Arab society. However, we find that the Qur'an is for all nations. Can we therefore expect that a behavior, which has no inherent evil in it, but which is contrary to Arab norms, be discarded and the people forced to adhere to new customs? I think not. For this reason, we see in the Qur'an that when Dhul Qarnain met a people who were of a certain behavior, he left them on their own.

Every behavior has to be analyzed for several things, among them, its inherent good or bad, its potential bad, etc. We know that Muslim traditionalists generally rule against shaking hands, and so on, with members of the opposite sex. Except for some late and created hadith, they have no ground to stand upon. Their sole view is that the hijab dissuades interaction between the sexes. Without wishing to enter the modern debate about whether the verses of the Qur'an regarding seclusion were for the wives of the Prophet Muhammad only or not, I will state that Islam does not prohibit interaction. In fact, it encourages such interaction.

Western civilization sees no harm in certain forms of kissing. No one denies that such kissing can lead to other things. Therefore, one may use the term of prevention: "sadd al zaraa'i" and rule against it. On the other hand, we do not assume evil as an inherent quality in humans, and we rather give them the benefit of doubt regarding probity. As such, each situation and custom must be examined in terms of its specificity. By that, I mean that were I see a Saudi male seeking to kiss an Arab non-mahram female as part of his greeting, I would think it improper, since it is totally alien to his custom. A couple from the Caribbean obviously does not fall into the same classification.

That being said, it needs to be pointed out that in the spirit of peace, at religious gatherings, for example, where people as I have pointed out earlier, have imported Arab ways as the Islamic ways, one should be guarded and desist from behavior that would be seen as questionable. The Imams are the ones who should set this example. We need to remember that Islam is not the religion of strict legislation, as the jurists would have us think. It is a religion of tolerance, and whatever is forbidden is clearly mentioned in the Qur'an by Allah.

Even then, certain legislation is restricted to time and place. Traditionalists go against this concept claiming immutability of the Qur'anic laws. As such, we have some who still legitimize slavery. The situation is this: The Qur'anic laws and weltanschauung is based on gradualism. When certain behavior no longer has certain connotations, we may re-examine such behavior. And re-examination carries with it the probability of change of ruling. I am aware that this ruling of mine is likely to cause some consternation among certain groups. However, I state that my rulings are done by using the methodology of thematic readings of the Qur'an, as well as source methodology.

If our traditional scholars erred on some views, we need not deify them by taking their word as infallible. As Muslims, we need to examine every ruling that has no clear source in the Qur'an. On the aspect of interaction between men and women, I would suggest that Professor Azizah Al-Hibri be contacted, as she is an able scholar and knowledgeable in both traditional and modern methodologies of research.

Posted September 26, 1998.