Question 10-2023 from Confused

I understand that there are 5 love languages and from your other posts, I have read that as humans we have the capacity to love more than one person such as spouse, parents and siblings etc. I want to know what are the boundaries when it comes to practicing physical touch with spouse vs your family members such as parents and siblings in terms of Islamic context. Also, after a child&/sibling reaches a certain age, do boundaries of such physical touch become more conservative?

Dear Ms Confused,

              Boundaries and limits regarding physical interaction between men and women is governed by the rules of hijab. Hijab is actually not confined to the headwear for Muslim women. In fact, it is not confined to women only but applies to both genders instead. The constituent aspects of the hijab concept prohibit

1) flaunting of bodily beauty

2) violation of other people’s bodily privacies (be it visually, physically or any other way) and

3) private close proximity

– all of which between unrelated members of the opposite sex. We elaborate this concept on page 37 of our book Sex, Soul and Islam.

           As far as the rules go, this does not apply to mahrams, or unmarriageable members of the family. It is based on a universally accepted assumption that romantic feelings or sexual imaginations are usually abhorred between members in such relationship. However, it is also noted that this abhorrence is not biological but rather a result of social conditioning, for the sake of incest avoidance. Hence, although the three rules above do not apply to mahrams, Islam stipulates two types of limit to this permission among mahrams as follows:

a) There are three times of privacy stipulated in verse anNur 24:58 i.e mid-day (when undressing to cool down becomes necessary), before dawn prayers and after ‘isya prayers. These are defined by Allah ﷻ as limits where no members of the family are allowed to violate a married couple’s privacy. The verse instructs Muslims to even train our pre-pubescent children to respect these rights of privacy for couples, what more among adult members of the family.

And this discipline applies both ways. They should not be invading a couple’s privacy nor should the couple or one of them invade their privacy during these times – regardless whether there is consent or not. This is not out of suspicion for any untoward inclinations, rather it is Islam’s proactive social conditioning measures which practically maintains the special privilege of intimacy divinely granted to married couple

b) This special privilege goes beyond sexual activity.  In fact, mere sexual relations are considered by the Prophet ﷺ as merely animalistic. He wanted Muslim couples to have a special and exclusive bond which he called “a messenger between the two” through sensual and emotional pleasuring (kissing and words) in this hadith:

Let none of you fall suddenly upon his wife like an animal. Let there be a messenger between the two. Someone asked: ‘What is the messenger, O Prophet?’ He said: ‘Kissing and words of love’.” (Hadith reported by Dailami)

Which means, the sensual and emotional relationship between married couples should be the most intimate in comparison to their relationship with any other human being.

Hence, your discomfort is not uncalled for. You were not unreasonable concerning your feelings and you should stop being confused. In that same section of Sex, Soul and Islam, we discussed how hijab contributes in Islam’s proactive and comprehensive measures of inculcating and maintaining a culture of sexual purity among its followers. In there, we expressed the need for even family members to heed these proactive measures in view of our own counselling experience dealing with “accidental extra-marital affairs” among mahrams.

This much you should know as the basic fact concerning Islamic standards of inter-gender interaction. However, whether you should confront or in other ways try to correct another family concerning this, is quite another matter. Unsolicited advice is usually vehemently rejected and may result in ill feelings.

Your situation reminds me (Osman) of a story my late Ustaz Abdillah al-Jufri loved to tell us often. It was concerning the Prophet’s ﷺ grandsons Hassan and Hussain (radhiallahu anhuma) who chanced upon an old man whose wudhu was wrongly performed, while they were still children. Knowing the effect of unsolicited advice – from children to an elder for that matter – they devised a fake argument between them within earshot of the old man. Eventually, the man agreed to be their referee by watching them take their respective wudhus. At the end of it the man said they were both correct and that he now realised he had been doing it wrongly.

              You will have to find a wise way of effecting their change, and it seems to us, you may need a very long time to change a deep-seated family culture, nor do you need to rush it. In finding your solution, you should take note the following:

i) We notice you did not in any way suspect anything untoward happening in that family. You had acknowledged that it is purely your discomfort based on your own family’s sensuality standards. It is important that you maintain this good faith without which it will be difficult for you to maintain good relations with them. You will not make any inroads if you are not accepted by them as someone, they can trust as having their well-being in mind. The worst is if you appear as someone out to nit-pick on their behaviour.

ii) You mentioned your plans to start your own family. Insya Allah, you can instil the proper balance of sensuality between you and your children based on the above-mentioned Islamic concepts of hijab, privacy and exclusivity. It would be an opportunity to share these values in a non-threatening manner if you manage to keep the other family in close trusting relationship with you. In fact, the best way is to demonstrate without having to explain or worse still lecture. Perchance, they may come asking why you insist on certain things and that would be the most receptive window of opportunity to explain these concepts.

They may disagree, but your part is to clearly show that these are Quranic and Prophetic ﷺ standards. At the very least, they should respect your choice to follow the sunnah even if they don’t want to follow. And you can only hope they realise their mistake and make amends. But even if they don’t, you just have to do your part. You realise, this requires a lot of patience and possibly years of futile attempts before they see the light of day

iii) That family has a unique gift of sensuality. The men, the way you describe them, is unusually sensual by general standards. This sensuality can be an asset to their marriages. In our counselling experience, we meet many men who are unable to achieve such level of sensuality and emotionality that the Prophet ﷺ mentioned in the hadith above. Too often, their idea of sensuality is sexual intercourse. But without the touchy-feely comfort their sex-life soon turns mechanical and boring. The men in that family should be encouraged to channel their sensual capacity towards their wives. We have a special video discussing on the various types of sensual touches and their respective functions in enhancing couple intimacy, HERE.

iv) The women siblings in the family would be prone to feelings of potential threat of loss over their brothers’ affection when the brothers start marrying. The sisters might even over-compensate by becoming extra-sensual towards their brothers to their wives’ discomfort or even disgust.  And then an emotional tussle ensues. The women who marry into such a family require an exceptional level of maturity to assure the sisters that they are not losing their brothers but gaining new sisters who love their brothers instead. This cannot be done through words. It must be shown in their complete comfort in mixing and having very frequent social activities among the sisters-in-law, albeit amidst the discomforting touchy-feely vibes between the siblings.

We realise these calls for a high level of tolerance on your part towards something you believe and we affirm as Islamically inappropriate. But you must see things in perspective. Their impropriety is not about a punishable offence but rather a violation of precautionary measures. So, your reaction must be commensurate. Focus on the positives and work towards establishing a close relationship with that family to gain their trust.