One of the most incorrectly translated and misunderstood concepts related to social issues is that of gheerah.
Commonly translated as ‘jealousy’, the term ‘gheerah’ has unfortunately been used to justify extremely controlling and even abusive behavior from men towards their wives or other women over whom they wield authority.
A better translation of gheerah is ‘honorable protectiveness’ rather than jealousy. A Muslim man’s gheerah is a deep sense of selfless honor that ensures his chivalric behavior and respects the dignity of the women around him. It is a sense of sincere concern and protectiveness that doesn’t extend to being controlling or abusive. One example of gheerah done right is illustrated in the famous story of azZubayr ibn al-‘Awwam and Asma bint Abi Bakr.
Though Asma refused a ride from prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself due to her consideration for azZubayr, her husband was the one who wept and told her that it would have been preferable to him if she had ridden with the prophet, than suffered the long and arduous journey she had been undertaking on her own.
This was a beautiful type of gheerah – one where he put his own personal preferences aside out of care for the wellbeing of his wife, where his sense of honor was selfless, not selfish.
Is it limited to men?
In addition, gheerah is NOT limited to men. While women are often referred to or written off as ‘jealous,’ the implication is often that it’s a selfish type of jealousy, or a dishonorable one (like jealousy among co-wives for example). What is often overlooked is the honorable gheerah of a woman towards her menfolk: her father, her brothers, her sons, and so on. How is this gheerah manifested?
Interestingly enough, it is almost identical in many ways to the gheerah of a man over his womenfolk – the sense of selfless honor and chivalry, a sincere concern related to pleasing Allah and not having someone transgress His boundaries.
Such an example would be that of a woman who sees her father or brother (or, for that matter, any Muslim man) interacting with a non-Mahram woman in an inappropriate manner… whether it simply be that he is being overly friendly with her (or that she’s putting the moves on him), or that there’s something obviously flirtatious going on.
One very obvious example of what we see today is that of some Muslim scholars on their Facebook pages – and women acting overly familiar with them. Even if the shaykh(scholar) has only good intentions in behaving in a ‘friendly’ manner with everyone in general, his mother, sisters, or even his daughters could feel gheerah towards him due to the high risk of fitnah (in more than just one obvious way) that scholars do feel.
The sense of protectiveness, defensiveness, and dislike of this situation is all related togheerah.
Honorable vs. selfish
What distinguishes honorable gheerah from selfish jealousy is that one is not feeling offended on account of their personal preferences, but on the basis of pleasing Allah and being aware of His boundaries. Thus, it can be defined as ‘spiritual jealousy’ – the consciousness that arises from having taqwa (piety) and wanting the best for one’s brothers and sisters in Islam.
Another important point to note that is honorable gheerah never leads to inappropriate actions – for example, we all know about the unfortunately common (in some parts of the world) situation of men who killed their sisters or their daughters out of a twisted sense of ‘gheerah,’ with absolutely no legitimate Shar’i excuse for doing so.
Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Masud: RasulAllah said: “There is none having a greater sense of Gheerah than Allah. And for that He has forbidden the doing of evil actions (illegal sexual intercourse etc.).” (Bukhari)
“The foundation of the Religion is Gheerah, and the one without Gheerah is one without Religion, for Gheerah protects the heart and enlivens the limbs, and shields one from evil and lewdness, and lack of Gheerah kills the heart so that the limbs die, so that there remains not even shielding from [the minor things]. And the example of Gheerah in the heart is the example of the strength that shields one from sickness and fights it off, so if the strength leaves, he will be faced with the sickness, and will not find anything to protect himself from it, so it will establish itself [within him] and destroy him.” (Ibn Qayyim, Ad-Daa’ Wad-Dawaa’)