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To Shake or Not to Shake?

Shaking the hand of someone of the opposite gender can be quite a big deal in Islam.


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To Shake or Not to Shake?
Declining someone's offer to shake their hand isn't always easy. (Image: Rojak Daily)

If you're a Muslim, you've probably been through a situation where you find yourself being offered to shake someone of the opposite gender's hand. If you grew up believing that you're not allowed to touch them, you'd be hesitant to do it. In fact, you'll probably stare at their hand, then to their face, then their hand before trying to figure out an excuse to not do it (or relenting). 

And if you're a non-Muslim, you've probably been through a situation where a Muslim declines your offer to shake hands.


Image: www.bbc.co.uk

Both situations can be awkward and, whether you like it or not, it can potentially give other people the wrong impression. Shaking someone's hand, after all, is a gesture that expresses friendliness and courtesy.

Recently, the issue has sparked a strong reaction in other countries

Last April, news about two Muslim school boys in Switzerland, who refused to shake their female teacher's hands, spreaded around like a wildfire. The school had compromised by deciding that the students didn't have to shake any of their teachers' hands regardless of gender, but the Swiss community weren't totally supportive. Shaking the hand of a teacher is a custom in the country, and the boys' actions had sparked a debate.

The country's Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said in an interview, "We cannot accept this in the name of religious freedom. The handshake is part of culture."

In another case, Sweden's Green Party politician, Yasri Khan, resigned after he was criticised for not shaking the hand of a female reporter. Instead, he had placed his hand to his heart as a greeting. 
 
Yasri Khan (Image: www.8dagar.com)

As a response to his action, Stina Bergstorm, a parliamentarian stated, "It is unacceptable. You can't have a man in the party who can't greet women in the same way you greet a man. I'm upset."

Rojak Daily decided to find out what Malaysians think about it

While the issue hasn't been subjected to the same response in our country, we were curious what Malaysians, both Muslims and non-Muslims, thought about it. 

We approached local Islamic scholars about the matter and discovered two viewpoints: the first being that it is strictly prohibited to shake a person of the opposite gender (immediate family excluded). 

Another viewpoint allows the shaking of hands between opposite genders under these conditions: 1) They did not offer their hand first, 2) They are in public and not doing so would cause embarrassment for the other person and 3) They are able to do so without being aroused.

(Disclaimer: The explanation above has been summarised for easy public consumption.  If you'd like to know in-depth about the matter, do approach a Muslim scholar.) 

What do Malaysian Muslims think about it?

"It depends on the situation and who it is," says Iylia, "If it's one of my parents' friends, I'd feel like it's rude to decline." 

"I would shake hands with a woman who offers her hand, but I wouldn't offer mine first," Kamal (not his real name) tells us.
 
Image: www.islamicevents.org

Izza takes into consideration that foreigners visiting the country may not know about the rule. "If they're Malaysians, I wouldn't shake their hand. I would just nod. If they're from abroad, I would do so quickly as courtesy." 

Understandably, hand shaking is a spontaneous event. "I've done it with colleagues before because there's just no polite way of saying no at that moment," Atikah says. "They usually don't offer their hand, though. And if they're my friends, I'd just wave before they come near me." 

And what do Malaysian non-Muslims have to say about it?

According to some of our respondents, whether or not they would offer to shake a Muslim's hand depends on who they are. "If they look traditional (i.e wearing a headscarf), I won't do it," says Eddy. 

For Shuh Yin, it depends on whether she knows them well. "I wouldn't offer my hand first to a Muslim man I don't know because I'm not sure whether they would be comfortable or not. But if I accidentally do it and he says no, I wouldn't mind."

What if Queen Elizabeth wanted to shake your hand? (Image: www.nairland.com)

Some just flat out decide not to offer their hand out. "I make it a normal practice [not to do it] whenever I'm faced with this situation," Richard says. "I'm aware that Muslims have a conservative rule against touching someone from the opposite gender. Frankly, I'm not fussed by it and I respect that this is just part and parcel of one's practice." 

On the other hand, declining an offer to shake one's hand can also give off a bad impression. "I would think that the guy who wouldn't shake my hand is rude," Lea tells us. 

Let's have some mutual respect

Living in a diverse, multi-racial country like ours can get a little confusing when our beliefs don't exactly mesh with each other's. But respecting and understanding each other's beliefs will definitely help in the long run.


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