Sunday, September 27, 2015

Don't Put Muslims You Meet In The Position Of Declining Your Handshake

Depending on where you live and whom you know, you may be familiar with the fact some Muslims (and Orthodox Jews, and others, but it is with Muslims that I have personally experienced this) prefer not to shake hands, either with certain people (unrelated persons across gender) or even many people (non-Muslims).  It varies by sect and geography, but it isn't strictly cultural.  It is based on at least one hadith, the example of The Prophet Mohomed, teachings of important Imams and profound ideas about oaths, loyalty and what Christians call "the laying on of hands" [1][2][3][4].  After even a very quick study of the issue, it is easy to see why a non-Muslim should not take offense if a Muslim declines to shake his or her hand.  I am aware of the gender equality problems that can also be found in this issue, but I think respecting a person's right to refrain from touch is a more immediate problem in this case.

Please read this blog post by Um Ibrahim, a woman who prefers not to shake hands with men, for reasons held by many Muslims,  Notice how she places none of the blame for the awkwardness she feels when declining a handshake on the other person.  In her words, "[T]he other person is just showing us a nice gesture. He or she doesn’t understand the rules of Islam simply because they’re not Muslims."

Now that is a gracious attitude!  My challenge to my fellow Christians, and everybody else for that matter, is to be just as gracious.  When introduced to someone you know to be (or have reason to believe to be, based on name, nationality or dress) Muslim don't put them in the position of declining your handshake.  Express your pleasure at meeting them verbally or with a non-touching gesture*.  If the other person is comfortable shaking your hand, they will probably offer theirs.

In my workplace (a university) I have found that Muslim women who cover their head with a hijab never offer to shake hands with a man.  Women who do not wear the hijab may be comfortable shaking hands with a man.  In any case, if in doubt, I don't offer my hand first.

The point is, it isn't all on our Muslim friends and co-workers to diffuse the awkwardness of such situations.  We can and should help prevent the awkwardness from ever occurring.  Non-Muslims don't NEED to shake hands.  We're just in the habit of it.  There are other ways to show a new acquaintance respect and welcome, ways that no one feels obligated to decline.

* A Muslim friend suggested to me that I put my hand over my heart while saying my greeting when meeting a Muslim for the first time.  It isn't what people expect from a white, Christian, Iowan but nobody's going to be offended.

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