An Indian Civilizational Perspective

Shaking with a Sheikh!

Here is an article by a convert to Islam named Yvonne Ridley about her refusal to Shake hands with a Sheikh (Sheikh Tantawi) .. .. hmm.. if you dont Shake hands with Sheikh – what do you do with him? Shake is written all over him!!

I have a flaw in my character and it gets me into serious trouble. It is something that has dogged me all of my life and causes no amount of consternation in some circles. Some people would say I am simply bad mannered or ill bred while others mightsay I’m too honest for my own good.

Quite simply, if I don’t like someone I cannot hide it. I can’t mask my feelings, smile and be nice. I cannot hug my enemy, blow air kisses, bow, dip or curtsy. And if I really detest someone then I can barely remain under the same roof, certainly not at the same dinner table and I would rather stick rusty pins in my eyes than break bread with these individuals. Of course there are occasions when we are suddenly confronted with these loathsome people and protocol makes it impossible to run in the other direction. It happened to that great journalist Robert Fisk when he met the ruthless military commander Ariel Sharon, a war criminal who will forever be stained with the blood of Palestinians.

Fisk recalls the decades-old encounter in his book The Great War For Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. He wrote: "I shook hands with him once, a brisk, no-nonsense soldier’s grip from Sharon as he finished a review of the vicious Phalangist militiamen who stood in the barracks square at Karantina in Beirut. "Who would have thought, I asked myself then, that this same bunch of murderers – the men who butchered their way through the Palestinian Sabra and Chatila refugee camps only a few weeks earlier – had their origins in the Nazi Olympics of 1936. That’s when old Pierre Gemayel – still alive and standing stiffly to attention for Sharon – watched the "order" of Nazi Germany and proposed to bring some of this "order" to Lebanon. That’s what Gemayel told me himself. Did Sharon not understand this? Of course, he must have done." Sharon obviously had no problem dealing with life’s flotsam in order to gain a political advantage, but the very fact that Fisk remembers the handshake so vividly suggests he felt otherwise. So imagine my delight when I was contemplating becoming a Muslim to discover that I didn’t have to shake another man’s hand ever again, yippee! In fact, I was told it is Haram for a man to touch another woman unless she is a relative. That meant no more embarrassing moments, or faltering movements as outstretched hands from awful people hovered in front of me. From the day I embraced Islam, I simply smiled sweetly and lifted my right hand towards my left shoulder as a gesture to anyone who I was introduced. Of course there were moments when this failed miserably like the time I met the late Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound. As I was introduced to him I hesitated, wondering if he would be insulted by my gesture or not. The Palestinian President was oblivious and simply picked up my rising hand and kissed it gently. Hmm, not exactly Islamic and it was captured by a photographer as well. A similar thing happened a few months later when the then Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz, offered his right hand to me during an interview. Didn’t the right-wing media just love that photograph, accusing me of being a traitor by shaking the right hand of Saddam’s right hand man! So, OK, there have been a few bumpy starts but on the whole I’ve managed to get this far without too much hassle.

Admittedly, one of my secular journalist friends now thinks I’m a raving, extremist because I will no longer shake his hand, or that of any other man actually. But the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. For instance I was recently at an event where the so-called great and the good were gathered. I would rather have munched through a bag of pork scratchings while limbo dancing on burning coals than given any one of them a handshake. However, as I was introduced to them – there were peers, knights, cops, politicians, community leaders – I was able to turn around and lift my right hand towards my left shoulder with a knowing smile. As a result there were no embarrassing moments. I had exercised my right as a Muslim woman, the audience were aware of that right and the motley crew just stood there and had to accept the gesture. Wonderful! Now that would have been the end of my hand-shaking stories and observations but I have another one to tell you and the whole reason behind the subject of today’s column. Please don’t groan ‘cos this next bit is really worth it, so stay with me for a few paragraphs more, please. I saw in 2006 in Egypt and spent part of New Year’s Day in a private meeting with Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, head of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and one of the highest authorities in the Sunni Muslim world. Imagine my anticipation and excitement at meeting one of the most learned scholars in the Muslim world, even if he did support the French government in its decision to rip the Hijabs off the head of French schoolgirls. We had a productive meeting and then as we all got up to leave his private office, the Sheikh began shaking hands with my host. He then turned to me and extended his hand. I smiled warmly and raised my right hand. Well you know the script by now. What happened next totally flummoxed me and will remain as one of ‘those’ unforgettable moments. His facial muscles tightened, his eyes narrowed slightly and his mouth became firm. He extended his right hand in front of me in an exaggerated, deliberate fashion. I shook my head and explained in English that I did not shake the hands of men. My host translated this but the Sheikh was determined to shake! It became obvious to me that this situation was going to escalate unless one of us backed down.

Well since in Islamic terms I am still but a mere child, I relented. After all may be I had been given the wrong information and this brother, who sat on one of the most respected seats of learning in the Muslim world, was bound to have a superior knowledge to mine. I had also been told that on occasions like these it is permissible to go for the least line of resistance rather than embarrass others, and so I reluctantly extended my hand thus allowing Sheikh Tantawi his handshake. He then said in Arabic to my host: "Who is teaching her? She can shake my hand, why she is like my daughter. This is the problem with Muslims in Europe today, they listen to extreme voices." To tell you the truth, I was shocked but a little unsure. May be I had gotten my facts wrong. May be it was permissible for Muslim women to shake hands with Muslims men. Or may be there was a get out clause for the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. Well since that day I have consulted all sorts of Islamic authorities and they unanimously tell me that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar was wrong. No two ways about it. And if he was wrong about that he could also have been wrong about his support for the French government for its ban on the wearing of Hijabs in state schools. If I ever meet Sheikh Tantawi again I will not be extending my hand, unless it’s clutching a frying pan.

Now other Muslims – the "older ones" – who have been around the block awhile – have weighed in on this issue.. here is one article by this lady names Yasmin Amin:

Also read:  Monotheism.... really?

Yvonne Ridley’s article: “Sheikh Tantawi’s Handshake” is making the rounds of the internet. An intriguing and interesting viewpoint indeed! What would Ms. Ridley, a fresh convert to Islam and celebrated Muslima, converted by the Taliban whilst in captivity, have to say after she went to see Sheikh Tantawi? Sadly the article is not about some profound message about religion or religious discourse, nor is it about a pending or former insightful fatwa. It was all about just a simple handshake. You might wonder about me wondering about it, but the Muslim world apparently is wondering about it and why shouldn’t I? After all, this is so earth-shakingly important in the annals of Islamic adab. The bottom line of the article is that Ms. Ridley went to meet Sheikh Tantawi and he wanted to shake her hand and she got totally affronted about it. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard all about it? If not, here’s my take on it.

First of all it was Ms. Ridley who refused to shake Sheikh Tantawi’s outstretched hand, offered in greeting and not the usual other way around, when a Muslim woman would jump over her patriarchal traditionalist teachings and extend a shy hand to a man in greeting, only to have the humiliation of it being refused, which amounts to a bucket of cold icy water dumped on her, frequently veiled, head.

Just why would any Muslim, or Muslima for that matter, shake in fright when faced with a situation of shaking a woman’s or a man’s hand? A handshake can lead to other things it is said. One shakes a hand and before one knows it, one can end up together shaking a bed it is implied. I looked it up and found various rulings saying that: “it is prohibited to shake hands with a woman if there is fear of provoking sexual desire or enjoyment on the part of either one of them or if there is fear of temptation.” These rulings are apparently based on the general rule that blocking the means to evil is obligatory, especially if its signs are clear. But were the signs really that clear in this particular situation? These rulings are also based on a questionable Hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “…The hands fornicate. Their fornication is the touch…”

Even so, if this is indeed the reason, I was taken aback. So in other words, Ms. Ridley accused Sheikh Tantawi of impure thoughts? Notwithstanding that he pointed out to her his age and standing as a scholar and a teacher, she actually thought that a handshake between them might provoke desire and temptation. I further wonder who and what she was so worried about? Her own or the venerable old Sheik’s desire? In either case, it is a bit strange. If the former, that is rather interesting, because it just makes me question the purity of Ms. Ridley’s thoughts in this case. That of course leads me right to ‘niyyat’. Isn’t religion and Islam mainly all about niyyat?

The first Hadith recorded in Bukhari’s Collection Volume 1, Book 1, Number 1 reads: “Narrated ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab: I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended…”

This was the first Hadith recorded by Bukhari in his book. It was used as an introduction to all Hadiths to come afterwards. This particular Hadith indicates, that all deeds are judged and rewarded according to their intention. ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Mahdi is reported to have said that: “Were I to compose a book comprised of various chapters, I would place the Hadith of ‘Umar regarding deeds and intentions in each chapter. This is one of the firm Hadiths, which serves as an axis of Islam.” Al-Shafi’i said that it comprises a third of all religious knowledge. Ahmad bin Hanbal said that the principles axes of Islam, in terms of Hadith, are three: the Hadith narrated by ‘Umar that “deeds are judged only by intention,” the Hadith narrated by ‘Aisha, “Whoever introduces into our affairs that which does not belong, it is rejected,” and the Hadith narrated by al-Nu’man bin Bashir, “The licit is clear and the illicit is clear.” And all these Hadiths relate to our situation here, but I digress. So let us go back to niyyat. If I understand it correctly you get a reward for a thought of a good deed, even before it is done. So just the thought, coming from an arising niyyat, is enough to grant you a bonus point, and shake the balance of your judgement day deed sheet. But in this case the niyyat of a believer (Sheikh Tantawi) is assumed by another believer (Ms. Ridley) to be bad. My next question would have to be: what happened to Sura [64.4] He knows what is in the heavens and the earth, and He knows what you hide and what you manifest; and Allah is Cognizant of what is in the hearts.

So if Allah knows what is in the heart, Ms. Ridley seems to share that knowledge for some unknown and inexplicable reason. Just what is it that Ms. Ridley sees that I cannot? Or is it perhaps that she thinks that her irresistible form, covered in a modest veil is enough to shake the good old sheikh by merely shaking her hand? Or is it perhaps that she is afraid of shaking his hand, so that her own faith is not shaken? Does Ms. Ridley not believe that Allah created man and woman equal? And that for Sheikh Tantawi to allow her some of his valuable time was raising her to his scholarly level rather than assuming a desirable and tempting form under her modest veil?

If Sheikh Tantawi is secure enough to be in a meeting with Ms. Ridley, in the safe presence of an interpreter, discussing some religious issue or other or even granting her an interview about some of his thoughts, why shouldn’t she be secure enough in taking a greeting as it was meant, rather than how it was perceived after being interpreted by her? Is it interpretation rather than niyyat that is the problem?.

Many scholars have interpreted women mixing with men as the root of all evil. So a handshake, in their view, would most certainly lead to evil. I seem to recall that men and women mix in the haram in Mecca for pilgrimage. They do not shake hands there, granted, but they pray side by side in very close proximity. They eliminate worldly thoughts while performing their rituals and are in audience with Allah. So it is not interpretation but their niyyat which matters.

I also recall the prophet visiting Um Haran bint Milhan, wife of Ubada bin As-Samit, on his own. She would offer him meals and sit with him and he enjoyed her hospitality as per Hadith 47, narrated by Anas bin Malik in Bukhari’s collection. So he mixed with her and there were no shakes there. Nobody would allege an evil niyyat to the prophet. But then again that is what Ms. Ridley seems to have alleged to Sheikh Tantawi’s, despite the presence of a third party, namely the translator. And that is what everyone else alleges, who refuses an outstretched hand.

Why does a hand cause so much fear? Is Islam all about evil and its prevention, rather than good and its implementation? A gesture of goodwill goes a long way, even if it is just a kind word, as per Sura [2.263]: Kind speech and forgiveness is better than charity followed by injury; and Allah is Self-sufficient, Forbearing. And Ms. Ridley knows that too, for she writes in her own words: “it is permissible to go for the least line of resistance, rather than embarrass others.”

Yet Ms. Ridley ends her article with “If I ever meet Sheikh Tantawi again I will not be extending my hand, unless it’s clutching a frying pan.” Is this what peace and Islam has been reduced to by Ms. Ridley, to drive your point across threatening someone with a frying pan? And that too on the revered head of a renowned and respected Sheikh of Al Azhar? What happened to ‘adab’? What happened to setting a good example? What happened to good behaviour and decency? What happened to Islam as a way of life? And then one wonders about terrorism and murder? Isn’t a hand clutching a threatening frying pan in defence against a simple handshake alleging that it is almost leading to ‘zina’ very akin to a hand clutching a gun in defence against an alleged insult of the faith like Theo van Gogh had to feel? Why do we not keep things in proportion? Why do we have to interpret all sorts of things into simple gestures that aren’t really there except in the imagination? Why are women reduced (and in this case even by a woman) to sexual objects, without brains and uses other than evoking sexual desires, leading to temptation and ultimately shaking a bed rather than a hand?

In response to this article – many folks wrote their comments.. but this one from Adel was the most amusing!!

Please consider that many Muslims see few strange things in Islam (especially those related to women and sex), then become blind in the real major issues. There are hundreds of thousands of “ahadeeth” most of them are far from logic and many others abuse our prophet as that of adults breast feeding!

May I ask Ms Yvonne Ridley to breast feed her coworkers as came in “hadeeth” to avoid any possibility for sex?

I shake hands with hundreds of women, many are so charming and many are so liberal. I never ever felt any sexual desire of any form to any of them!

Again, I am not an authority on any of these things.. the Muslims out there – reading this may like to comment on this!

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