Q. In the January 22, 2007 edition of the British newspaper The Independent (http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article2175076.ece), a female Muslim police constable refused to shake hands with the Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair. British Islamic leaders came to the woman's defense, saying that her refusal was in line with common Islamic practice and called for greater understanding of cultural differences. What is your view on the Islamic leaders' position on this incident?

A. One wonders where these Islamic leaders are coming from when they talk about "cultural differences." On the one hand, they talk about the global dimensions of Islam, then on the other, they talk about culture, forgetting to see the lack of logic in their construct. On the one hand they want a woman to join the workforce, but on the other hand they want that she should observe seclusion or engage in practices that are even more retrogressive than the most extreme hadith concoctions. On the one hand they crow about the rights Islam gave women, and on the other, they insist on treating the woman as a sexual plaything.

Their view is divisive and not only a blight on the face of Islam, but an insult to the police commissioner and the city that allowed this woman the honour to serve on its police force. What common Islamic practice are these leaders referring to? Until very recently, the issue of handshaking between opposite sexes was not a problem for the majority of Muslims until a bunch of extremists started squealing about their views being the dominant ones. The Qur'an talks about "Idh yubaayi'unaka taht al-shajarah" -- when they pledged fealty to you under the tree (Q48:18). This referred to the practice of medieval Arabs (and it continues to the present day, and has become the mode of pledging allegiance and alignment with particular shaykhs), wherein two parties did what we may term as the formal grasping of hands, i.e., a handshake.

The Qur'anic rhetoric covers both men and women, as Dr. Azizah al-Hibri has pointed out elsewhere. It was a party of men and women that pledged their fealty to the Prophet (s.a.w). Later tradition seeks to create the illusion that when it came to taking the women's hands, the Prophet (s.a.w) put a piece of cloth between the hands so that he would not touch the women's. This later addition was made AFTER people started treating women as a sexual toy and her entire being and body as something to be hidden. Islam has no place for this. How will this woman execute her duties as a police constable when dealing with male criminals, which in some instances involves a lot of bodily contact?

Actions are by intention, and local custom has the authority of law. If there is no negative intention behind handshaking, then there is nothing wrong with it. In many western bloc countries, the shaking of hands signifies cordiality and the sealing of a deal among other things, so the practice is to be taken as such and no one should question it. If this woman wants to follow the extremist interpretation of Islam, which as noted above is more backward than the medieval one, then she should not be on the police force, but should remain at home at her husband's beck and call. It stands to reason that a developed, modern, country where people function as humans is not the place for her, so she should therefore seek some type of "Taliban idiotopia" to take up residence. May God save us from these extremists.

Posted January 23, 2007