By Arthur Richards
September 11, 2018
Recently while watching the internet light on fire at how a Bishop inappropriately touched a young musical artist, Ariana Grande, I was reminded again of the importance of the principles and laws that Islam stands for.
Imagine for a moment: It’s the funeral of one of the most celebrated musical artists in history. A young attractive vocalist, known for hip hop, takes the stage and woos the crowd with her vocals in a tribute to the deceased. As she concludes singing of how she feels like a woman, the Bishop comes up to thank her for her performance, but not before coming close to her, reaching his hands around upper back and feeling her chest area.
I’m baffled. What would have made him think it was okay? Basic personal space should have been enough as an indicator that he was in the wrong.
Islam has clear injunctions making it impermissible for opposite genders to physically touch. Actions as minute as the shaking of hands between genders have tomes of text written by Islamic scholarship discussing its impermissibility (though some contemporary scholars deem it permissible). In much of the world, it is still common to find practicing men and women of the Islamic faith adhere to such injunctions (as noted by a recent court case in Sweden), despite many within the faith considering such rulings archaic.
I get slack for discussing this topic and others like it in today’s age. When I speak of this traditional understanding of how opposite genders should and shouldn’t interact, it’s as though I am somehow speaking of something that is strange to comprehend, as though we no longer have entire movements centred around the transgressions of men, especially whereas sexual harassment is concerned.
Time and time again we are reminded as to how we as human beings tend to transgress the boundaries of healthy gender interactions far more often than we should. And, when religions such as Islam come into the discussion offering solutions, they are dismissed as being backwards because apparently the only healthy solutions are ethno-centric ones.
Before I hammer myself and fellow men too much, it’s important to point out that it goes both ways. Only weeks ago, it came out that actress Asia Argento allegedly sexually abused an underage male actor. Why is she of any importance? Because she was one of the many (and main) faces of the #MeToo movement that brought Harvey Weinstein his reckoning.
It seems that very few people are free from transgressing what should be seen as clear borders. This doesn’t seem to be a male-only problem, but rather an issue that we as humans suffer from when we are unable to control our desires.
What Do We Do?
Most are familiar with the Prophet Yusuf (Joseph), who himself had gone through a difficult trial when a rich, powerful and attractive woman made advances on him. How he handled that situation is much of what I feel is missing today: He ran. The issue, though, is that without the presence of God in his life he would have had very few reasons to do so. Actually, there would have been none. If not for his consciousness of the Divine, that act of laying with her would have been between him and her. It might have even been a means of him securing a higher rank in his new home, being under the favourable gaze of a woman as powerful as she was.
But instead, he ran. As it says in the Quran:
And she, in whose house he was, sought to seduce him. She closed the doors and said, “Come, you.” He said, “[I seek] the refuge of Allah. Indeed, he is my master, who has made good my residence. Indeed, wrongdoers will not succeed.” (12:23)
Not only did he run in an effort to protect himself, but his words served as a reminder for her, himself and all of us: “Wrongdoers will not succeed.” If he was going to lay with her for the benefit of his career or for physical pleasure, he knew that there would be no success, no blessings, and no ultimate happiness in that decision.
This is ultimately the stance of Islam, to bring us to eternal felicity and not a few moments of fulfilment.
One of the first things we need to revive within the faith community is that of God consciousness; and for some, fear of the Divine. We don’t need to go to extremes where our only discussions focus on how everyone is going to hell, nor do we need to dismiss the metaphysical punishments that God promises for those that infringe upon the Sacred. We need balance. But, how do we gain that balance?
Tipping the Scale
Balance will only be found through the practicing of the Sacred law. It will be found by men and women abstaining from privately meeting the opposite gender for a casual night out, as there is an abundance of horror stories of how these encounters manifest into sad stories of abuse and irresponsible relationships; even more so when intoxicants such as alcohol tend to be the staple drink that surround many of these private gatherings.
Balance will be found when we adhere to a level of modesty that is exercised by both men and women. When we become conscious to the fact that though modesty is an internal state, we are called on by God to also manifest that modesty externally. An external reality that is revealed through actions such as lowering the gaze and for women, in the donning of the headscarf, are pieces to a puzzle of healthy interactions between genders in a world that has blurred lines.
Furthermore, there is merit in realizing that these above-mentioned injunctions are first to be understood as commands by God, a means in submitting to Him. The benefit, however, is in that they both serve the purposes of externally exemplifying modern and traditional values of modesty.
Lastly, we need our people of faith to show the best example. Gone are the times where clergy, speakers and Imams can get away with saying, “I’m just a regular person.” We know that they are human and susceptible to all of the blunders that we as lay people are to as well. However, as a person of faith, as a person who calls to God, we depend on them to present an ideal worth embodying.
And indeed, you are of a great moral character. (68:4)
The people of God are lighthouses in the dark sea. If their light is broken but people continue to come to them, the sea will cease to be a place of exploration and growth, but rather become a graveyard for travellers who once thought the path would lead to the Divine. We all know of the devastation caused by those who don the garbs of religion but whose actions do nothing but to serve their own selfish desires.
We know of the scandals — the young boys and girls entrusted to people of God to learn His words only to be molested and abused. It must stop. Clergy must run like the Prophet Yusuf did, even if it means to lock themselves up in a prison of their own choice, so as to reflect and remove the shackles that their desires have chained them in. Only then, once they have been unshackled and freed should they assume the position of Yusuf, a man who freed himself from his appetite but then became responsible for feeding the bodies and souls of the hungry.
I firmly believe we have the ability to create a holistic change within our communities. These changes will come from how we raise our young people. They will come when we begin to hold ourselves accountable, and they will come when we cultivate in our hearts a reverence for the Creator, which will help us rediscover the long-lost feeling that Ms. Franklin sang her soul out to: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Arthur Richards is a father, writer, and student of the Islamic Sciences. Currently living in Cairo, Egypt he studies at Al-Azhar University. He is an avid storyteller. Arthur is Altmuslim’s newest columnist. His column, “Tapestry of Faith,” is published in the first week of every month.