Risky gender mixing (ikhtilāṭ) is the doorway to most sexual sins, prevention is better than the cure.
By Nabi Raza Abidi
The Qu’ran says that the purpose of our existence is to worship Him. Worship, or ʿibādah is just another word for submitting our hearts to Him. Reaching union with God is a destination we much reach, but like any destination, we require a map or a set of guidelines. The guidelines Allah (swt) has given us are both individual and societal. How we interact socially directly bears a consequence on the state of our souls. This is especially true when it comes to relationships with the opposite gender. If these relationships are in line with the guidelines set forth by God, then we are on the right path to salvation. However, if they do not follow these guidelines, then we may be setting our souls for trouble.
Remember that humans are social beings. The spiritual heart is not nurtured in isolation, but in a social context. A quintessential part of spiritual success is being in a spiritually healthy society and this cannot happen without healthy gender relations. For families and communities to be spiritually successful, proper gender guidelines as set forth by Allah (swt) must be observed.
Despite all its faults, the Muslim community in America is good role model for non-Muslim Americans. Some surveys have shown that Muslims are some of the least likely faith groups to be unfaithful to their spouses. Studies have also shown that non-Muslims who live with Muslim neighbors in the United States end up becoming more conservative. As such, we have much to be proud of.
Just because the community can be a positive role model when it comes to sexual morality, it does not mean that it is devoid of challenges. A particular thorny issue that is regularly comes up in discussion circles the problem of ikhtilāṭ. The fact that the issue does get raised is a very positive sign as it shows that Muslims still hold fast to Islamic values even in the most difficult of ages.
So let us begin with the challenge of ikhtilāṭ. It is inevitable that ikhtilāṭ or gender mixing between non-mahrams (people whom one is generally allowed to marry) at one point will happen. Whether this happens in a school, work or family setting, its occurrence is almost impossible to avoid. Even Muslim scholars of the most conservative type agree that such mixing is inevitable at some point if a person is to live a social life. Just because it is inevitable it does not mean that the rules and boundaries (ḥudūd) of the Sharīʿa are to be dismissed or ignored.
We know that it is problematic in the Sharīʿa to stare at the opposite sex, touch, flirt, sit in a seat that still has the other’s warmth in it etc.
Although many Muslims are of upright moral character, premarital and extramarital affairs – and outright zinā (illicit intercourse) – are still happening in Muslim communities unfortunately. There are Muslim husbands and wives that are being unfaithful to one another. But this isn’t happening in one shot, it is a gradual process that develops into outright sinful behavior and the destruction of one’s marriage over a longer period of time. In other words, it is a path to spiritual and social destruction that one takes in a gradual, step by step manner.
The Qur’an says:
وَلَا تَقْرَبُوا الزِّنَا ۖ إِنَّهُ كَانَ فَاحِشَةً وَسَاءَ سَبِيلًا
And do not commit zinā for, behold, it is an abomination and an evil path (Qur’an, 17:32)
Notice that the verse does not say “beware” of zinā, it says do not “approach” zinā because it is a “path”. This means that it is something which we can gradually slip into whilst being unaware that the process is unfolding step-by-step. The verse also suggests that some sins are easier to fall into than others, and it is clearly the case that zinā is one of them.
Allāmah Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī writes the commentary on the above verse:
أنه سبيل سيء يؤدي إلى فساد المجتمع في جميع شئونه حتى ينحل عقده و يختل نظامه و فيه هلاك الإنسانية
It is an evil path that leads to social decay in all manners until it disrupts its order and in this is the destruction of humankind.
See Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, 20 vols. (Qum: Daftar-i Intishārāt-i Islāmī-i Jāmiʿah-yi Mudarrisīn-i Ḥawzah-yi ʿIlmīyah-yi Qum, 1417/1996-1997]), XIII, 85.
The act of zinā is not just an individual problem, but a social disease that spreads and pulls others unto its slippery path, the culmination of which is the downfall of humanity. As Allāmah’s statement makes it clear, this is not just a hyperbole or an exaggeration, but a literal truth as to the outcome of sexual immorality. The question here is that if zinā is a path, where does this path start from?
The path first begins in our minds, and then gradually manifests itself in the form of ikhtilāṭ, that is, mixing of non-mahrams. It begins with a look, then a casual conversation, and then flirting, and then accidental touching, and then purposeful touching, and eventually zinā. Then it leads to the breakdown of marriage, and then the family, and then it leads to the breakdown of children, and then breakdown of the community and finally it leads to the breakdown of human society. If gender segregation is promoted in Islamic centers, that is because there is a potential risk that is trying to be averted and I am proud that most Muslim communities still value and adhere to these Islamic principles.
Now it may come to the reader that the above slippery slope is an exaggeration, but let’s look at it more deeply. How many social interactions involve overt friendliness, how much of it ends up in flirtation from time to time? Does this interaction lead to inappropriate and sometimes haram behavior?
Think of the widespread practice of zinā in the West which we live in. In 2015, 40.3% of births are to unwed single mothers in the U.S, meaning that there were 1,601,527 births in 2015 to single unwed mothers (if you include cohabitation without marriage, the figure is about 58%). Compare this to around 26% in 1970. See below for the National Vital Statistics Report taken from the CDC:
The Encyclopedia of Psychology states that about 40-50 percent of marriages end in divorce. More disturbing is that roughly 30% to 60% of all married individuals in the United States will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage (see Buss, D. M., & Shackelford T. K. (1997). Susceptibility to infidelity in the first year of marriage. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 193-221.) Many of these divorces can be attributed to infidelity. According to the National Opinion Research’s General Social Survey, American wives were nearly 40% more likely to cheat on their spouses in 2010 than in 1990 meaning that now women are cheating 70% as often as men do. This last statistic is very relevant as the increase is directly proportional to the increase in ikhtilāṭ in the expanding economy and its workforce.
Furthermore, about 2-3% of all children in the U.S are the product of infidelity (see Anderson, K. G. (2006). How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates. Current Anthropology 48, in press.)
We know that children born to single mother households are more likely to enter crime, do poorly in school, use drugs and develop some form of mental illness. Most Muslim Americans are aware that there is a social crisis going on in the world, particularly in their home country. They are also aware that there are many factors that contribute to this crisis and not just a single one. However, it is safe to say that the primary contributor to this crisis is problematic gender mixing or ikhtilāṭ without which none of the above could happen. Ikhtilāṭ is thus the entry door for this social crisis.
Now, there are some who may argue that we must fear God and be responsible for ourselves if we are to prevent such sins in our lives. It is said that people need to learn to control themselves and that the community in general cannot be punished because a few individuals cannot control themselves. I think that these are legitimate points and are to be respected, but it is also important to consider the following three points:
1. The sharīʿa is clear that sinful gender mixing, or opportunities that clearly lead to sinful gender mixing is ḥarām. Whether a person controls himself or herself is irrelevant from a Sharʿī perspective. Such mixing is forbidden and to defy the rule is an act of disobedience.
2. Even if a person does not act out the ḥarām, ikhtilāṭ can nevertheless pollute the human heart and soul through the arousal of desires (shahwah) and the imagination (khiyāl).
3. Other than the special elect of God (such as prophets, the fourteen Maʿsūmīn) no one is immune to sin or mistakes. Even the strongest and most confident of believers have fallen into sin. Taqwā is not just avoiding sin, but it is an awareness that one can never be too careful. It is a form of humility (khushūʿ) acknowledging one’s own weakness. Unfortunately, this is the nature of sin and gender mixing may have a strong pull in bogging a person down into sin.
As such, casual intermixing and socializing with the other gender is problematic. Yes, there are many situations in which there aren’t clear cut haram or halal answers when socializing is involved, but one cannot assume that this means that ikhtilāṭ is ok according to the Sharīʿa.
In conclusion, avoiding ikhtilāṭ is a marker of īmān and taqwā. It is not only to be practiced in clear cases of harām, but also in situations that may reasonably lead to inward pollution or outward sin. As Muslims, our task is not simply to correct sins that have already been committed, but to nip potential sins at the bud and do our outmost to prevent a sin rather than cure it. Al hamdulilah, I am proud that the Muslim community has taken steps to retain its values, and by the will of Allah (swt) they will get better as the generations progress.
Nabi Raza Abidi
Resident Imam of the SABA Islamic Center
San Jose, California