Is it necessary for relatives and family friends to sit separately (men and women in separate places/rooms)? How should a man act when one of his adult sisters-in-law stays in his house for the night?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

It is necessary to be careful about the issue of men and women sitting together among the relatives the most. For, these people are relatives due to coming from the same family and through marriage but they are non-mahram. That is, it is permissible for them to marry one another. In general, the relationships between non-mahram women and men are not given importance and ignored when it is necessary to act sensitively. However, men and women can sit together and act comfortably among mahram people.   

Non-mahram people are no different from strangers for men and women; and the relationships between them must be limited. The relationships of a man with the female relatives of his wife, who are his mahram temporarily, are limited. They are the sisters, paternal aunts, maternal aunts and nieces of his wife. A man cannot marry them as long as his wife is alive or he divorces his wife. For, it is forbidden by verses and hadiths for a man to be married to two sisters, a woman and her maternal and paternal aunt at the same time period. However, a man cannot sit together and travel with one of these women unless there is another person. He cannot look at their bodies except their faces and hands. He cannot shake hands with them; they cannot kiss the hands of one another. The Prophet (pbuh) determined the boundaries of it.   

According to what Hz. Aisha narrates, once, Asma, Hz. Abu Bakr's daughter, went to the presence of the Prophet (pbuh) wearing a thin, transparent dress showing her skin. When the Prophet (pbuh) saw her, he turned his face away from her and said,

"O Asma! It is not permissible for a woman to show the parts of her body to strangers apart from these parts after she reaches the age of puberty." (1)

He showed his face and hands.

As it is known, Hz. Asma is the sister of Hz. Aisha, the wife of the Prophet (pbuh). The Prophet reminded her that she could open only her face and hands in his presence. She did not usually act carefully since she knew the Prophet as a relative.  

Heedlessness regarding the issue can cause some grave and ugly consequences. For, it is more dangerous for a woman to be alone with such relatives than other people. The possibility of mischief is stronger. The Prophet (pbuh) acted very carefully regarding the issue. Once, he said,

"Beware of entering places where women are." A person from Ansar said,

"O Messenger of Allah! What do you say about brothers/sisters-in-law?" Thereupon, the Prophet (pbuh) said, 

"Brothers/sisters-in-law are death."(2)

Imam Nawawi, who wrote explanations about Sahih Muslim, writes the following when he explains that hadith:

"What is meant by brothers-in-law here is the relatives of the husband except his fathers and sons. For, his fathers (father and grandfathers) and sons (from other women) are mahram people for the wife. They can sit with her and cannot be described as death. What is meant by this is the brothers, nephews, paternal uncles, cousins of the husband and the similar relatives that are non-mahram."

"The custom of the people regarding the issue is to act freely. A man remains alone with the wife of his brother. This is death. This needs to be prohibited more than strangers. This is the true meaning of the verse."(3)

Brothers- in-law sometimes enter the house of the woman easily; therefore, they can learn some secrets of the family. If something unwanted happens between the woman and brothers-in-law, a big unrest and unchecked danger can occur in the family. Consequently, if bad thoughts occur and suspicions start, the ties of kinship start to break off. Thus, the Prophet (pbuh) likened this possible occurrence to death. He used a scaring expression in order to show the importance of the situation and asked us to be careful and not to act heedlessly. The Prophet (pbuh) prohibited a man and a woman, who are non-mahram to each other, to remain alone without another person who will ensure safety:

"A person who believes in Allah and the Day of Judgment should not stay with a non-mahram lady in seclusion; for the third one is Satan."(4)

A woman remaining alone with a man is like fire next to powder. Satan can agitate the bad feelings in both of them and seduce them.

When a close relative of the husband goes to his house in his absence, he should talk to the woman from outside the door. It is not permissible for him to enter the house if there is nobody that can distinguish between the good and the bad in the house. Even in this case, the woman must wear hijab (be covered).   

The Boundaries of men and women while staying as a guest

A person who has attained the pleasure of belief and does his best in order to obey the aspects of Islam in life starts to collect the flowers of belief for his eternal life along with opening the doors of tranquility and peace in his worldly life and establishing an order that is free from trouble and hardship. The most important problems and difficulties we have in our religious life while trying to fulfill the necessities of our belief are our relationships with the people around us, which has an important place in our personal life. 

We visit our close and distant relatives and friends in order to fulfill the order of our religion to visit relatives. We come together and chat. They also come and visit us. Sometimes, occasions like weddings, deaths and receptions cause these visits. These visits generally take place with families. Naturally, we may see and meet the daughters and wives of our relatives who are non-mahram to us and they may see and meet our daughters and wives who are non-mahram to them. We sometimes have to sit in the same room temporarily due to lack of space or some other reasons.    What are the issues that we need to be careful about in such situations?

The people we mention are religiously regarded as strangers; that is, they are non-mahram; it is permissible for them to marry one another; therefore, it is necessary to act very carefully and not to exceed the boundaries. If we do not act carefully, some unwanted and objectionable cases might occur. Therefore, the following is stated in the Quran:

"O Muhammad! Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty."(5)

The women are warned as follows:

"And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof."(6)

These verses come after the verses of asking for permission to enter a house. Attracting attention to this issue in the explanation of Bukhari, Ayni says the reason why this verse comes after the verses of asking for permission to enter a house is to make the leader of the house (the man) protect the women in his family from the glances of the guests who are non-mahram and not show them to non-mahram men. (7)

In Bukhari, the following verse is stated after the interpretation of the verse above:

"(Allah) knows of (the tricks) that deceive with the eyes, and all that hearts (of men) conceal."(8)

While interpreting this verse, Ibn Abbas makes the following explanation:

"A person with the eyes that deceive with tricks is a person who looks stealthily and slyly at a beautiful woman when she passes when he sits with a group of people or when he is a guest in a house. When the people there look at him, he turns his eyes away. However, Allah knows that this person with stealthy looks will commit a haram deed if he can."(9)

The following determination of Badiuzzaman Said Nursi's regarding the issue is significant:

"A beautiful woman entering a gathering of brothers, arouses veins of hypocrisy, rivalry, envy, and selfishness."(10)

Although looking does not bring about a sin as grave as fornication, believers are asked to keep away from it since it is a door leading to fornication. Abu Hurayra narrated a hadith stating that the other organs of man had their share from fornication and they were included among minor sins. He said the Prophet (pbuh) said, 

"Allah fixed the very portion of adultery which a man will indulge in. There would be no escape from it. The adultery of the eye is the lustful look and the adultery of the ears is listening, the adultery of the tongue is licentious speech, the adultery of the hand is the lustful grip and the adultery of the feet is to walk. The heart yearns and desires. The sexual organ will approve it or reject it."(11)

Among these states that are included in non-literal fornication, the look has lust and pleasure; the tongue speaks about illegitimate issues and the ear listens to them; if the soul desires it, the responsibility increases. These sins are regarded as minor sins; therefore, when people repent, they approach Allah's mercy as long as they do not cause fornication.   

It is the safest way for the female and male guests to sit separately and not to see one another since it causes the unwanted situations mentioned above. However, the following hadith is mentioned in Bukhari and Muslim about the permissibility for the housewife to serve male relatives when people can be sure that this will not arouse bad feelings, when the woman wears clothes that are in compliance with tasattur (hijab) and when she does not act coquettishly: 

"Abu Usayd as-Sa'di invited the Prophet (pbuh) and some Companions to his wedding. His wife, who was the bride, served them on that day. She had soaked some dates overnight. When the Prophet (pbuh) finished eating, she crushed the dates, added water and served them to the guests in the form of sherbet."(12)

The hadith scholars who mentioned this hadith decreed that it was permissible for a woman to serve the guests of her husband if there was no risk of mischief. (13)

References:

1. Abu Dawud, Libas: 32.
2. Muslim, Salam: 20.
3. Nawawi, Sharhu Sahihi Muslim, XIV/154.
4. Bukhari, Nikah: 111.
5. an-Nur, 30.
6. an-Nur, 31.
7. Ayni, Umdatul-Qari, XXII/231.
8. al-Mu'min, 40/19.
9. Ayni, Umdatul-Qari, XXII/231, Tajrit Translation, XII/171.
10. Sözler (Words), p. 678
11. Muslim, Qadar: 21, Bukhari, Istidhan: 12.
12. Bukhari, Nikah, 77. Muslim, Ashriba: 86.
13. Ayni, Umdatul-Qari, XX/164-165.

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