Q. What's your take on the left and right hand / foot issue? I saw a guy almost trip over himself trying to leave the masjid with the correct foot forward? I have also heard Muslims say that those who happen to be left-handed are unfortunate, since left is synonymous with "the devil." Can you please explain why?

A. Regarding the left and right hand / foot business, in societies the world over, the left hand, because of its sanitation commitment to corporeal hygiene in some cases, has traditionally been frowned upon. Hence, the word for suggesting something "wicked" or "sinister" also means "left" in Latin. Would the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) have gone to the lengths described in the hadith? I think not, for then he would have shown that his Lord's thinking was restricted to a certain time-space, if he was unaware that the use of the left hand or foot was not a matter of conditioning, but rather of cerebral function.

Certainly the Arab society, and Muhammad as its son, would have refused to acknowledge shaking with the left as good, but then they used both of their hands for that. Eating, for reasons already specified, would have been frowned upon if done with the left hand. So certain aspects are dictated by societal values, and the left / right controversy has nothing to do with pure religion. However, while the Qur'an applied the language pattern of the medieval world, using the phraseology of "right" and "left" in a figurative sense; the later Muslims, as was their penchant for elaborating and exaggeration, took matters to their farthest limits, or rather exceeded those limits. These excesses have now become the norm, and in Islamic law, the rule is: "Custom is tantamount to law." So for example, if you were to visit an Arab home, despite whatever your views are on the issue, it would be impolite for you to enter with the left foot.

Posted November 20, 1998