Handshaking:  Islamophobes Need Class in Etiquette

Sheila Musaji

Posted Dec 20, 2011      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Handshaking:  Islamophobes Need Class in Etiquette

by Sheila Musaji

Customs surrounding handshaking and particularly shaking the hand of members of the opposite sex are varied.  In a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society that can sometimes make for awkward situations.  And, we have a practical solution for avoiding those awkward situations - etiquette.

In Orthodox Judaism and Islam men and women who are not married and are not closely related are generally not allowed to touch each other.  In both traditions, there are different schools of law that hold varying opinions on the permissibility of shaking hands, and with whom it is permissible.  This prohibition is also found among Hindus and some Theravada Buddhists.  In fact some Buddhists were shocked by the Dalai Lama shaking hands with women.

This issue has come up a couple of times in the past month.  On the most recent “All-American Muslim” program there was a scene in which this issue came up.  One of the cast members visits a gym, and spontaneously shakes the hand offered to her by a male trainer.  She then worries about whether or not she has done something wrong.  There was also a recent directive at Cambridge University in London to its faculty not to proffer their hands automatically to avoid offense or awkwardness.

The Hollywood Reporter noted this All-American Muslim storyline. The Times Union also noted it in a non-judgemental way.  Many sites have commented on this handshaking custom, most very negatively.  Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch (JW) site posted an article expressing dismay about this custom.  Since the very name of the site is “Jihad Watch”, this custom must be a “handshake jihad” about which JW’s readers should be vigilant and concerned.  As it was meant to do this non-story stirred up readers of these sites to comment on those “filthy Muslims” who “aren’t in the habit of washing their hands anyway”, who should “go back where they came from” and stop trying to “force Sharia” on Americans.

Actually, the reason that this non-issue can stir up such folks can only be that they were never taught etiquette.

GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly) has an article on “Shaking hands with women” which says What’s proper is for the woman to offer her hand first. If she does, then you shake it just as you’d shake a man’s.

This is what Emily Post had to say about the etiquette of shaking hands. Gentlemen always shake hands when they are introduced to each other. Ladies rarely do so with gentlemen who are introduced to them; but they usually shake hands with other ladies, if they are standing near together. All people who know each other, unless merely passing by, shake hands when they meet.

Miss Manners also discussed handshaking:  In traditional social etiquette, when two people meet, the person with the higher rank gets to choose whether or not to shake hands. Judith Martin, in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, writes that “the higher-ranking person-socially this means women before men, except in the case of presidents, kings, or popes, and the greater age and more exalted positions before the younger and less significant-either sticks out a hand or doesn’t.” The lower-ranking person shouldn’t be the one to initiate the handshake. But if that should happen, Miss Manners says to go ahead and shake anyway. “The worst error is to pass by a hand that has been extended, however erroneously.” 

Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi agrees with Miss Manners on this issue.  He has stated that those who hold to the opinion that shaking hands is prohibited are a minority:  In fact, I searched for a persuasive and textual proof supporting the prohibition but I did not find it. As a matter of fact, the most powerful evidence here is blocking the means to temptation, and this is no doubt acceptable when the desire is roused or there is fear of temptation because its signs exist. But when there is no fear of temptation or desire, what is the reason for prohibition?  ...  By transmitting these narrations, I mean to clarify that the evidence of those who are of the opinion that shaking hands with women is prohibited is not agreed upon, as is thought by those who do not resort to the original sources. Rather, there is some controversy concerning this evidence.  ...  it is preferable for the pious Muslim, male or female, not to stretch out his/her hand to shake the hand of anyone of the opposite sex who is not mahram. But if he/she is put in a situation that someone stretches out his/her hand to shake hands with him/her, then he/she can do that.  Qaradawi’s statement goes into a great detail about the various interpretations of the evidence for this custom, and of the relative merit of each of the items of evidence.

This is yet another example of a baseless attempt to turn a simple difference in social customs into an “us” versus “them” divisive issue which could be avoided by a little etiquette.