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The Etiquette of Looking

Sep 18, 2007

The Etiquette of Looking

Among the most serious of things that we must become aware of, is to know what is lawful to look at and what is not. This is more pressing in the case of Muslims who live in a non-Muslim society, where we are constantly exposed to indecent exposures of both men and women, in the streets, television, magazines, etc. Indeed the eye is the window to the feelings, and a lustful look carries the message of desire and fornication.

This is why looking at the opposite sex is regulated by the Islamic Shariah, where the rules depend on whether they are Mahram (plural Maharim) or not. This refers to women with whom a man has a specified degree of relationship that precludes marriage.

The Etiquette of Men Looking at Mahram Women
A man is allowed to look at women who are his Mahram, but only at what is usually exposed of their body for the necessity of work inside the house, such as the head, the hands, the feet, the neck, as Allah (SWT) says,

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and guard their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like palms of hands or one eye or both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), …. or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex…” (An Nur 24:31)

However, one should not look at what is usually covered such as the knees, the breasts, the armpits, etc. This means that the woman should be decently clothed while in presence of her Mahram men.

Etiquette of Men Looking at Non-Mahram Women
It is forbidden for a man to look at women who are strangers to him (i.e. who are outside the Mahram relationship). He should lower his gaze as Allah (SWT) ordered him,

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.). that is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do.” (An-Nur 24:30)

Adolescent boys (and even younger ones), who can distinguish between a beautiful woman and a less beautiful one, and can appreciate women’s physical attributes, should be taught to lower their gaze. This protects them from getting their sexual desires aroused. It is said to hear people saying that there is no harm in an innocent look, especially in the case of teenagers, with the idea that this may somewhat extinguish their sexual desire. On the contrary, a lustful look may lead to a greater sin, as the Prophet (SAW) said,

“It is written on the son of Adam his lot of zina (fornication/adultery), that will inevitably afflict him: The zina of the eyes is looking, the zina of the ears is hearing, the zina of the tongue is talking, the zina of the hand is assaulting, and the zina of the foot is walking; the heart desires and wishes, and the genitals affirm or deny.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

In fact, lowering the gaze is a good deed a Muslim is rewarded for. The Prophet (SAW) said, “No Muslim whose eyesight falls inadvertently on the beauties of a woman and then lowers his gaze, but Allah will credit for him worship he will appreciate its sweetness in his heart.” (Ahmad and Al-Tabarani)

While the first inadvertent look is no sin on him, the young man should be taught not to follow it with another, as the Prophet (SAW) said to Ali Ibn Abi Talib (RA), “O Ali! Do not let the second look follow the first. The first look is allowed to you but not he second.” (Al-Tirmidhi, Ahmad & Abu Dawud)

The Etiquette of Men Looking at Other Men and Women Looking at Other Women
A man is not allowed to look at another man’s awrah [i.e., his body area from the navel to the knees (these two parts included)] as the Prophet (SAW) said, “A man should not look at the awrah of another man nor a woman of another woman, nor should a man go under one cloth with another man, nor a woman with another woman.” (Muslim). He (SAW) also said to a man he saw uncovering his thigh, “Cover your thigh, for the thigh is awrah.” (Al-Hakim)

It is clear from this that a man should always cover himself from the navel to the knees in the presence of others, and should not uncover his awrah while swimming or playing sports, or if taking a shower in the presence of others. It is highly recommended to teach boys to cover themselves down to the knees at a young age (from around seven years) so that they grow up with this habit.

This rule applies equally to Muslim women looking at other women, whether these are Muslims or disbelievers. It is regretful that you see a Muslim woman allowing herself to look at a disbelieving woman who is bearly clothed, believing this is allowed. Girls should be taught to lower their gaze when they see such scenes, and should learn to cover their awrah at all times, when they are in the presence of other Muslim women, (the awrah of a woman with respect to other Muslim women is the same as the awrah of men, i.e. from the knees to the navel).

The Etiquette of Men Looking at Teenage Boys
While in general, men are allowed to look during usual activities at teenage boys whose beard has not grown yet, they are forbidden to look at them if there is fear of temptation, especially in the case of handsome boys. Looking then becomes unlawful, because this may lead to sexual desire and sexual deviation.

Etiquette of Women Looking at Men
A woman is allowed to look at men while they are walking on the street, or for the purpose of buying in the market, or other lawful activities, provided that they are properly clothed, with their awrah completely covered. The Prophet (SAW) allowed Aisha (RA) to look at the Abyssinians playing with their spears in the courtyard of his mosque, while she was hiding behind him. She is, however, not allowed to look closely at a man, or have lustful or provocative look, or look deliberately at men when they happen to be in the same setting (such as in a bus, or a room).

The reason for this ruling being somewhat more relaxed for women is that usually they are not the ones who initiate a relationship, due to their nature, and that men are usually more daring.

The Etiquette of Looking at a Small Child’s Awrah
There is a consensus among the scholars that children who are four years old or younger have no awrah, meaning that there is no harm in looking at their naked bodies. The awrah of children over four years is the genitals and the buttocks. When the child’s consciousness of sex has developed, or when evidences of sexual urge is noticed on him or her, the awrah limit becomes the same as that of adults and should be treated as such. However, it is better to accustom the child to be properly dressed always.

All the rules of prohibition of looking become void in cases of necessity such as in administering first aid or medical treatment or during a trial testimony as the judge requests. Other exceptions are looking at one’s spouse, and a man looking at a woman for the prospect of marrying her.

A child who is raised in the context of these divine rules of lowering the gaze will no doubt acquire the distinguished Islamic personality, and noble social character. Indeed, there is no better way to teach the child these manners than for the parents to lead the way and set the example for the child to emulate.



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