- A misconception
England’s Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid take their religion seriously. So it is that moments before the champagne corks popped, the duo could be seen slipping away from their team’s World Cup victory celebrations. This is to avoid being sprayed with bubbly – alcohol being banned in Islam. Earlier, when Ali was being interviewed by a lady reporter, he didn’t as much as cast a casual glance anywhere in the reporter’s general direction, let alone look at her. In the same mould as South Africa’s Hashim Amla, and being genuine guys as opposed to imposters, Rashid and Ali are not afraid to put their money where their mouths are. Their team-mates recognize the value of cultural diversity and one could clearly see that the camaraderie was genuine when Eoin Morgan, the England captain, while explaining their eventual victory after a see-saw battle, quoted Rashid: ‘Allah was with us.’ This is an extraordinary England team.
Moving on from sport to the more consequential and much misunderstood issue of guarding one’s eyes: Now, what follows should by no means be taken as a criticism of Ali, who is well within his rights to act as he sees fit. My purpose is merely to put the record straight on the subject since there are many whose idea of guarding their eyes is to avoid looking at members of the opposite sex altogether.
The point, instead of covering the eyes or looking elsewhere (or downwards), is to forbid the ogle or the lecherous gaze – that which seeks to scan the features or contours
The Quran, of course, instructs both men and women to guard their eyes. And it does so in successive verses [24:30 and 24:31]. Here, it makes no distinction whatever between men and women; married or single. The whole misunderstanding regarding ‘lowering’ the gaze stems from the Arabic idiom used. ‘Yaghuzzu min absaarihim’ (‘Yaghzuzna min absaarihinna’ for females) has variously been translated as ‘cast down their eyes’, ‘avert their glances’, or ‘cast down their looks’; but an overwhelming majority of translators have favoured ‘lower their gaze’ (or its equivalent in other languages) – a phrase that has stuck in the consciousness of many Muslims who take their religion seriously. Some of these Muslims have come to take the phrase literally.
Now, literal interpretation here is problematic for several reasons. A man who practises it is likely to bump into objects, for one. It’s not the greatest of ideas whether one does so by one’s willpower or by employing a device like the Qufl-e-Madina glasses, with all but the lower part of the lenses glazed opaque so that one’s gaze is perforce ‘lowered’. (Some years ago, this product was very popular in certain circles; may still be.) Of course, Ali recognizes that lowering is not to be taken literally. Or he wouldn’t have looked one minute to the reporter’s left, and the next minute heavenwards. But is there any qualitative difference between looking down and looking in some other direction? Is it reasonable (even fair) to expect a male student to avoid looking at his teacher altogether if the teacher happens to be a female? Is it reasonable to expect a male teacher to completely avoid looking at his female students while teaching? What about interactions among fellow students and fellow faculty members? What about colleagues in any organization? What about interactions at the airport, the library, the bus, and other public spaces, which belong as much to women as to men?
Islam doesn’t promote segregation between men and women. Nowhere does the Quran forbid interactions between genders; it only sets limits to those interactions. More accurate renditions of the verses in question (which some translators have opted for, but which have not been as popular as ‘lowering their gaze’) are ‘to restrain their gaze’, ‘to subdue their eyes’, or ‘to reduce (some of) their vision’. The point, instead of covering the eyes or looking elsewhere (or downwards), is to forbid the ogle or the lecherous gaze – that which seeks to scan the features or contours. These precautions, according to the Quran, ensure purity of the soul as they stop the probability of fornication or adultery in its tracks.
A man may, of course, choose to draw his own line so that if he is to err, it’s on the side of caution. In which case he may then choose to look away altogether (as Ali and many others do); and again, he would be well within his rights to do so. But as an instruction – and a Quranic instruction at that – ‘lowering’ of the gaze only means bringing your eyes under your control. It can safely be claimed that there is no room for doubt here. For elsewhere in the Quran God tells men to marry the women that they fancy. So, if a man is constantly lowering his gaze (or looking in some other random direction) whenever he encounters a woman, then how and when is he ever going to fancy a woman enough in the first place to be able to decide to marry her?