Gender relation questions are a constant on campus. What are the guidelines and limits for interaction between non-mahrams on campus?
In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
The question of gender interaction on campus is one of great importance. Unfortunately, at least in many cases, it has been handled from one or two extremes. I remember visiting an MSA and finding the entire MSA was shut down because, at the first meeting a brother stood up, pointed at the sisters and said, "Why are they here? It is not allowable for you to be here!" On the other side of the coin I've heard of MSA's who conduct their meetings at Starbucks! Thus, while enjoying the latest frappuccino, Fatima and Zaid are sitting together with no respect for our sacred texts and principles. Insha'Allah, it is our hope to answer this question from the perspective of Islamic activism and dawa using a few very important verses from the Book of Allah Most High.
The Responsibility of Islamic Activism
Allah Most High says:
"The believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger."
Imam Al-Tabari (may Allah be pleased with him) said, commenting on this verse, "They invite humanity toward faith in Allah and His Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him) and everything that the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) was sent with by Allah."  The scholars have said that, because of the wording of this verse, it is clear that the responsibility of dawa and Islamic work falls upon both males and females.
The Scope of Inter-Gender Relations:
In Sura Al-Qasas we find a very interesting example of inter-gender relations found in the story of Sayyiduna Musa (peace be upon him).
Allah Most High says:
"And when he went towards (the land of) Madyan, he said: "It may be that my Lord guides me to the Right Way." And when he arrived at the water of Madyan he found there a group of men watering (their flocks), and besides them he found two women who were keeping back (their flocks). He said: "What is the matter with you?" They said: "We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take (their flocks). And our father is a very old man." So he watered (their flocks) for them, then he turned back to shade, and said: "My Lord! Truly, I am in need of whatever good that You bestow on me!" Then there came to him one of the two women, walking shyly. She said: "Verily, my father calls you that he may reward you for having watered (our flocks) for us."
By taking a quick glance at these verses we can garner a number of lessons related to Islamic work, the personality of the Islamic caller and rules and adab for inter-gender relations:
1. The importance of d'ua. If we look at this story as large structure, we can see that supplication forms its foundation and roof. Thus, Prophet Musa began his actions with a du'a and completed it. For this reason the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Nothing is more honorable (most liked) before Allah Most High than Supplication."
2. The great mercy and compassion of the Prophets. Prophet Musa felt compassion for the two women and went to assist them. It is important for the Islamic worker have mercy and concern for those around him. For that reason the poet Ahmed Shawqi wrote:
وإذا رحمتَ فأنتَ أمٌ, أو أبٌ هذان في الدنيا هما الرحماء
"And if you (Muhammad) implement mercy, then you are a mother or father. And they, in this life, are the exercisers of extreme mercy."
3. The importance of obeying and serving one's parents: Prophet Shu'ayb's daughters not only served him in his old age, but obeyed him by carrying themselves with great fidelity and morality in his absence. The same can be said for the campus. Many of us live away from our parents on campus and it is important to respect them in their absence by being pious and righteous children. It is sad to see many university students drooling at the opportunity to escape to the campus environment just to disobey their parents. However, the truly righteous slaves of Allah obey their parents even in their absence. Of course, this obedience is in the good and not the evil.
4. It is well known that both of these women were eligible for marriage with Prophet Mosa. In fact, we know that later he married one of them. Thus, these verses are used to prove that interaction between non-marhams is permitted as long as they observe certain adab which will be explained shortly, inshallah.
5. Inter-gender interaction is an exception, not the rule. Meaning that such interaction should take place only under situations which are clear necessities. The proof is the statement, "Our father is a very old man." Meaning that Musa (peace be upon him) saw them under severe duress and spoke to them in an effort to remove their hardship, and their response was based on the necessity of getting water to drink. Thus, it can be said, that the call to Islam and its propagation fall under such a necessity however, such work must be done observing the following adab.
a. Remember that any encounter involves the eyes, tongue and limbs. However, the most important component for this encounter is the heart. Thus, before any gathering check your heart and make sure that it is with Allah Most High, full of love for Him and in submission to the sunna of the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him). A great du'a to say before such a gathering is the following supplication of the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him):
اللهم مقلب القلوب ثبّت قلبي على دينك
Allahumma muqallibul Qulub thabit qalbi 'ala deenek.
"O turner of the hearts! Establish my heart upon Your religion."
b. After one's heart has submitted and his whims have been crushed, it is logical the rest of his body will follow and this would entail:
· Lowering the gaze as everything has an entrance and one of the entrances to the heart is the glance.
· Avoid speech or actions which could be taken as flirting. I was told by one of my sheikhs that laughing and joking should be avoided between non-mahram couples. For that reason Allah described the daughter of Shu'ayb, when she approached Mosa, "Then there came to him one of the two women, walking shyly."
· Avoid being alone as Shaytan will be the third amongst you. Try your best to meet as a group as private meetings amongst a brother and sister who are non-mahram are strictly prohibited. In addition, during group meetings there should be a good amount of distance between brothers and sisters.
· Observe the correct Islamic dress code and remember to ask yourself an important question. "Am I making dawa to myself, or to Allah and the call of His beloved (may peace and blessings be upon him)?"
· There is no better solution than asking. Thus, it is important to refer any specific questions or issues to local scholars as they are your life source for survival in the campus jungle.
I ask Allah to bless our questioner, plant her feet firm upon his obedience and make her a great caller to Allah (may peace and blessings be upon him). I would like to express my gratitude to two of my early Sheikhs, Abu Mustafa of Senegal and Shaykh Abdul Jalil of San-Diego. Most of my humble attempt at an answer came from the questions I asked them while in my university days. May Allah bless them and continue to use them as a source of benefit to the shabab in the West.
In need of your prayers and happy Eid,
Suhaib D. Webb
Tafsir Al-Tabari, surah 9/71
For and excellent Arabic reference on this refer to Sh. Faisal Malwais Darul Mara Fe Al-A'mal Al-Islamiy."
Reported by At-Tirmidhi, Ibn Hibban and Al-Hakim graded it Sahih
Al-Shawqiyat pg. 193