Short Answer: Contrary to popular belief, there is no prohibition of interaction between men and women in and of itself. The idea of “segregation of sexes” simply did not exist during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. What is prohibited is an interaction that has any “physical” dimension, by way of touching, talking, or even staring, which are all unacceptable in the Islamic code of morals… “normal” interaction within a pure and decent atmosphere of politeness is absolutely fine.
Salam (Peace) Charles,
Thank you for your expressions of respect and hope, which I truly appreciate and share.
First of all, please allow me to say that the issue at hand is not about a “non-Muslim male” addressing “a Muslim female”.
Rather, it is about two kinds of interactions: (1) a male addressing a female, from an Islamic point of view, and (2) an American male dealing with a female from a different cultural perspective.
There is a specific code of interaction between men and women, according to the Islamic point of view, which applies regardless of one’s religion, and whether it is initiated from the male or the female side.
Normal Interaction is Fine
What is prohibited is an interaction that has any “physical” dimension, by way of touching, talking, or even staring, which are all unacceptable in the Islamic code of morals.
The Quran, which Muslims believe is the word of God, states:
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity – [and,] verily, God is aware of all that they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof. (Quran 24:30-31)
And the wisdom behind these rules is “blocking the means” or “cutting the roots” of adultery, which is a threat to the family structure and the morals of the society, according to the Islamic point of view.
However, “normal” interaction within a pure and decent atmosphere of politeness is absolutely fine.
The Quran itself is full of incidences where men and women interact within these boundaries. For example:
Now when he [Moses] arrived at the wells of Madyan, he found there a large group of men who were watering [their herds and flocks]; and at some distance from them he came upon two women who were keeping back their flock. He asked [them]: “What is the matter with you?”
They answered: “We cannot water [our animals] until the herdsmen drive [theirs] home – for [we are weak and] our father is a very old man.” 28:24 So he watered [their flock] for them: and when he withdrew into the shade and prayed: “O my Sustainer! Verily, in dire need am I of any good which You may bestow upon me! (Quran 28:23-24)
No Segregation of Sexes in Prophet’s Lifetime
In fact, decent interaction happened everywhere during the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him); in the mosque, in the street, in the market, and on the front lines in wars.
The idea of “segregation of sexes” simply did not exist at that time.
I will cite a few hadiths (traditions of the Prophet’s life) and the Prophet’s Companions’ practices below (out of thousands of similar narrations that one finds in Hadith collections).
Anas, one of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, narrated about the day of the battle of Uhud:
I saw Aishah, the daughter of Abu Bakr, and Umm Sulaim rolling up their dresses, and I saw their leg-bangles, while they were carrying water skins on their back and emptying them in the mouths of the (wounded) people. They would return to refill them and again empty them in the mouths of the (wounded) people. (Al-Bukhari)
Umar ibn Al-Khattab, when he was the Caliph, appointed a woman, Shifa bint Abdullah, as the administrator of the Market of Madinah, which was the main market. (Ibn Hajar 333)
Caliph Umar also appointed a woman, Samra bint Nuhayk, as a police officer. (Al-Tabarani)
Concerning Interaction in American Muslim Context
Having said that, there are issues to consider when an American male deals with a female from a different cultural background.
The examples you mentioned, such as talking to your students’ mothers casually in the hallway of the school, with or without their husbands’ presence, or admiring their clothes or scarves, and so on, are perhaps no issues if these mothers were American (I mean by culture, whether Muslim or non-Muslim).
However, from what I know about the Arab and Asian Islamic cultures, who may be more strict in their interactions between sexes than even the Prophet and his companions, I would advise you not to admire these ladies’ clothes or scarves, and only talk with them in the presence of other people who can hear the conversation.
I hope that this answer has elaborated on the rules in the Islamic law related to this matter.
Salam. and please keep in touch.
Ibn Al-Atheer, Ali. Usd al-Ghabah. Vol. 5. Cairo: Dar Ihya Al-Turath Al-Aaraby, 1996.
Ibn Hajar, Ahmad. Al-Isabah fi Tamyiz Al-Sahabah, Vols. 3 & 4. Cairo: Dar Al-Jeel, 1992.
(From AboutIslam’s archives)