How do we navigate friendships as Muslims in our world today?
Challenging Platonic Friendships: Exploring the Islamic Perspective on True and Balanced Friendships
How do we navigate friendships as Muslims in our world today?
Religions in general and Islam in particular are presented as old and primitive in our society on moral issues. Until recently, it was a universally accepted culture in our society that boys and girls sit in different parts of a classroom in a school or college. Today, even some religious believers are doubting whether they are not progressives if they answer silly questions such as ‘If a man and a woman are together, will the sky collapse’?
During the political renaissances in Europe, ‘liberalism’ was a political tool. But liberalism has now lost its political content. That is why it is called ‘neo-liberalism’. Neo-liberalism produces apathy and anarchy in the entire political, economic, social, and moral spheres. ‘Neo-liberalism’ takes its roots deep in society by making the Western moral codes that have evolved in the modern world irrelevant.
In the modern world, many theories regarding moral and ethical laws have been developed. Important among these is Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) theory of morality. He formulated the principle of the categorical imperative. According to Kant, moral rules should be formed based on the attitude of each person towards others in a society, not what attitude others should take towards one. This doctrine has grown in opposition to established religious moral values because it developed on the same surface as European modernism, which was formed in opposition to the Church.
There were, however, some common values that this theory also put forward – but neo-liberalism makes such values irrelevant and commands unlimited glory for the freedom of the individual.
Is Morality a Religious Creation?
Religions are generally known as a bank of “dos” and “don’ts. Christianity, however, succumbed to the war between the Church and science and assimilated modernity. So while drinking and fornication are wrong in Christianity, one can still be a good Christian by keeping them. The condition of other religions is almost the same. But no assimilation is possible as there is no loophole for changes in the moral and ethical rules set forth by Islam. The Prophet’s saying; “No believer can become a Muslim by being an adulterer,” describes this unwavering faith.
Islam, which has very few prohibitions, is projected as the religion with the most prohibitions. When we read the biblical narrative, it begins with the Adam-Eve incident itself. The first image that comes to anyone’s mind in the Adam-Eve story is that God commanded them not to pick the fruit, and they picked the fruit in defiance of the command. If we read the same incident in the Holy Qur’an, we get a different picture.
In the places where the creation of Adam is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, before giving the command “Do not go near the tree,” it says, “You two dwell in Paradise. Eat and drink whatever you like”. Allah’s prohibition of Adam and Eve was only after giving them very wide freedom. The reference to ‘don’t go near that tree’ may indicate a degree of freedom. Therefore, the Adam-Eve incident marks the freedom and its limits prescribed by Allah.
From the Islamic point of view, the source and sanction of moral laws are vested in Allah. God is the creator. He is the sustainer. Only He knows the nature of creation. Therefore, no one knows better than him what laws are necessary for the personal and social success of creation and to what extent. Moral codes are not purely religious creations, it is a search for nature. That is why the Holy Qur’an describes good as ‘Ma’roof‘ (known) and evil as ‘Munkar‘ (unknown). Right is by nature known as good by all, and evil is the opposite.
The setting of certain boundaries is essential to the observance of moral rules. Such limits of Allah that should not be transgressed are called ‘Hududullah‘ (limits of Allah). Adam’s fruit is a symbol of these limits, or ‘Hududullah‘. Although Allah has used this technical term to refer to conjugal relations, marriage, divorce, inheritance laws, etc., the Fuqaha’s (jurists) have used ‘Hududullah‘ to introduce all the legal limits in Islam.
Islam posits that everything on earth is essentially ‘pure’ (twayyibath). The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘Permissibility and prohibition have been made clear’. An act, or a thing, becomes forbidden when Allah makes it clear in the Qur’an or is found in prophetic Hadiths. However, the practice of inventing prohibitions by oneself, researching them, and associating them with Allah and the Prophet is unfortunately becoming widespread in the Muslim community. As a result, lawlessness is projected rather than law-abiding behavior. The result is that Islam feels constricted rather than expansive.
A completely reactionary idea that liberalism creates in society is that the word ‘morality’ itself becomes vulgar. Islam has faced such situations before in its history. Mocking Prophet Shu’aib’s services for economic morality, his people used to say, in our modern parlance, ‘You are a great moralist’. “O my people! Consider if I stand on a clear proof from my Lord, and He has blessed me with a good provision from Him. I do not want you to do what I am forbidding you from doing. I only intend to reform to the best of my ability. My success comes only through Allah. In Him I trust, and to Him I turn” (Surah Hud: 88) was his reply. See with how much self-confidence Prophet Shu’aib makes this announcement!
However, ‘morality’ is often understood by religious believers themselves as the ‘property’ of religions and religious believers rather than as a culture that should be developed in each individual and society. That is why, even when religions preach morality, many religious leaders are caught for moral violations. What a contrast between Prophet Shu’aib’s declaration, “I do not intend to contradict myself with anything that is forbidden to you”, and the current practices of religious morality!
Male-Female Friendship: An Islamic Perspective
Gender equality is the idea put forward by advocates of unbounded male-female friendships. This strategy has led to the conclusion that those who oppose male-female friendships without boundaries and conditions represent sexism. Even if it is said that sitting on different benches and chairs in schools is not gender discrimination but gender separation, it is difficult to convince those who believe in the relative theory of values. If we talk about the value and culture that our society has preserved for ages, liberals will turn the preservations of society over the ages into fiction.
Liberalism thrives on questioning the relevance of values that we understand to be historically and socially sacred. Adultery is evil based on the values and morals that human society has held all this time. But values are relative in postmodern apolitical ideas, as in modern theories. Liberal domains perceive consensual adultery as right, citing that values are relative. There is no point in discussing the extent and limits of male and female intermingling with the proponents of the idea that consensual adultery is not wrong.
Islam is the natural religion that most beautifully presents the friendship between men and women. A verse in Surah At-Tawba of the Holy Qur’an points to this: “The believers, both men and women, are allies of one another. They enjoin good, forbid evil, establish prayer, pay zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Surely Allah will show mercy to them. Allah is all-mighty and all-wise.” (9:71). The criterion of friendship between believers is clear from this verse. That is, to maintain the good, to prevent the evil, and to maintain the Sala’t and the Zakat.
But what Allah has clarified before the above verse about the relation of the hypocrites to each other is quite the opposite. “The hypocrites, both men and women, are all alike: they encourage what is evil, forbid what is good, and withhold what is in their hands. They neglected Allah, so He neglected them. Surely the hypocrites are the rebellious.” (9:67). Allah has used the term ‘Awliya‘ (soul mates) to refer to the relationship that believing men and women maintain with each other. But the word ‘Awliya‘ is omitted when referring to hypocrites. Instead of cultivating good, they cultivate evil, trying to prevent the good as much as possible. See how beautifully Allah has arranged this distinction.
This swapping between good and evil is the byproduct of liberal inclinations. The tendency to demarcate the intermingling of male and female students sitting together or shaking hands while offering greetings on our campuses as progressive and to label the greetings without physical intimacy as reactionary act should be analyzed in the light of the two abovementioned verses.
Allah introduces the male-female dichotomy as an example of His immense marvel. “By the night when it covers, and by the day when it appears, and by He who created the male and female, indeed, your efforts are diverse!” (Surah Al-Lail 1-4). Although night and day are essentially indistinguishable phenomena, the two perform different functions. Thus, although men and women are of the same species, they were created with different natures and perform different roles. We can read such a beautiful divine logic in the differences between males and females. Even liberals themselves, when advocating for gender equality, consciously or unconsciously endorse these values.
Islam looks at platonic friendship by emphasizing the differences between the natures of both genders. Sex can act as a chemical catalyst when a man and women come together. That is why the Prophet (PBUH) forbade single men and women to be together. The prohibition of two people means that Islam does not prohibit a situation where men and women can be together, not just two people. But mere pleasures, not motivated by the promotion of good and the prevention of evil, cannot justify such combinations. So there is no need to give a second thought to whether the nightclubs organized by men and women together just for enjoyment are right or wrong.
Surah An-Nur is a chapter of the Holy Qur’an that contains a plethora of moral instructions. The important instruction in the said chapter is that men and women should control each other’s eyes. “O Prophet! Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is all-aware of what they do.” (An-Nur 30, 31). The toxic liberals who ridiculously ask the question “Why do you associate sitting close with sex?” are not unaware of the fallacy they are engaged with.
There is a concept of society and morality. Such a concept should not stand in the way of friendship spaces. Therefore, Allah, who commanded to control the eyes, immediately asks to keep the secret parts. Allah does not associate appearance with sex. But the distance between the visible and the sexual depends on the nature of the male and female minds and the favorable conditions of the situation.
Sigmund Freud introduces the three mental states of “Id’, ‘Ego,” and ‘Superego’. Sexual prowess arises in those who are in the ‘Id’ state of mind. Those who stand in “ego” make a comparison of good and bad and consider the pros and cons of situations. People with a ‘super ego’ mindset are the ones who can control themselves the best. The Holy Qur’an also mentions three types of mental states. Qur’anic expressions about the mind are the mind that leads to mistakes (nafsun ammara), the mind that blames (nafsun lawwama), and the mind that is calm (nafsun mutama-inna).
Prophet Yusuf (A.S.) also states that human nature contains ‘Nafsun Ammara’ while being in the state of ‘Nafsun Mutma-Inna’. Moreover, it makes clear that man can change to ‘Nafsun Lawwama’ and then to ‘Nafsun Mutma-Inna’ only because of the special blessing of Allah. “And I do not seek to free myself from blame, for indeed the soul is ever inclined to evil, except those shown mercy by my Lord. Surely my Lord is all-forgiving and most merciful.” (Yusuf 53). The moral rules in Islam are based on these three conditions. However, gender egalitarians say that this should not be the case and that only one state of mind should be considered.
Sex is not a sin. If it is, there would be no justification for creating the duality of male and female species in nature, not human beings. But Allah has set certain boundaries regarding sexuality in human society. It is not a boundary for sex. There are boundaries in the system where sex should be used. ‘Marriage’ is the system set by Allah for this. A follower raised a doubt that would naturally arise. ‘Messenger of Allah, is one of us more virtuous for calming his sexual desires ?’ ‘Yes, what if it was by extra-marital means?’ The Prophet asked back. Therefore adultery is a sin. Circumstances leading to adultery must therefore be controlled. The Qur’anic verse ‘Do not approach adultery’ (al-Isra’ 32) puts forward the idea of ‘vigilance’ in male-female friendships. It is the same idea that the Prophet puts forward the saying that ‘when only two people, a man and a woman, are together, there will be a devil as a third person’. Allah says: “O believers! Do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Whoever follows Satan’s footsteps, then ˹let them know that˺ he surely bids ˹all to˺ immorality and wickedness. Had it not been for Allah’s grace and mercy upon you, none of you would have ever been purified. But Allah purifies whoever He wills. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (Surah Al-Nur 21).
The instructions in Surah Al-Nur clearly outline the boundaries of male-female contact. Allah requires men and women to control their gaze separately, indicating that the moral instructions apply equally to men and women.
Allah also describes the etiquette of visiting other houses in great detail in Surah Al-Nur. Instructions are given on how to enter a house, where to eat, and whose houses to eat from. After describing everything, Allah says: “There is nothing wrong with you eating alone or together” (Surah Al-Nur 61). A house where we eat is also a testament to how much we relate to that house. Therefore, Allah also teaches the etiquette of visiting homes. It should be remembered that this is in the Holy Qur’an, which does not teach any precise order or time of prayer. The more we relate to a house, the more likely it is that men and women mix there. This is why Allah mentions this matter with such importance.
Friendships in Liberal Times
A new generation is growing up in our country that thinks that it is not wrong for men and women to be alone. Even among those who are politically opposed to liberalism, there is a perception that friendships are not wrong if they do not involve sex. Love and marriage are becoming universal. The mindset that to be a man and a woman, one must be in love, and the mere fact that the prayer-keeping boy and the scarf-wearing girl are activists is the justification for budding romances, premarital chats, and meetings between them, should be rectified.
Today, the new generation has made marriage itself a multi-step process. Arrange marriage (engagement) during studies, process Nikah only years later, and have a reception feast years later. If we ask whether it is wrong in the sense of a new-age way of doing things, it is impossible to say unconditionally right and wrong. But if, once the engagement is over, the view that anything other than sex is permitted becomes more common in our society, it is worth seriously considering.
The contrast with such patterns, which were seen only among the non-religious, should not be too thin among the religious. This is because such practices are more oriented towards modern liberal ideas than Islamic moral codes.
Immanuel Kant’s Moral Theory, Roger J. Sullivan, Cambridge University Press,1989, ISBN:9780521369084, 0521369088.
Christianity and the Laws of Conscience; An Introduction, Helen M. Alvare, Jeffrey B. Hammond, Cambridge University Press, 24 June 2021.
Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2475.
The Ego and the Id, Sigmund Freud, 7 May 2019, Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN:9781945186936, 1945186933.
SurahYusuf 53, Tafsir al-Razi.
Surah Al-Nur, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān.