Muslim leaders are calling on their communities to show respect for fellow Australians and shake hands.
By Omar Dabbagh
Australia’s Islamic communities have responded to revelations that some schools and universities in the country allow male Muslim pupils to refuse handshakes with women.
Flinders Univesity in Adelaide, Perth’s Curtin University and the University of Western of Australia have been advising students to acknowledge that some Islamic followers adhere to the rule.
It also emerged this week that two public schools in Western Sydney have adopted similar policies, leading to some condemnation from conservative politicians.
Coalition MP George Christensen called the practice “unAustralian”, while former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop was unequivocal in her condemnation.
“It is absolute rubbish,” she told Sky News.
“It has happened to me in the Parliament House when I was a Minister of the Crown. And to have an ambassador for one of those countries come and refuse to take my hand, in my parliament, in my country, I tell you I won’t stand for it and I did not.”
Understanding the origins
Some Islamic scholars say there shouldn’t be any unnecessary physical contact between men and women who aren’t married or related by blood. But many moderate Muslims do not adhere to that finding.
Imam Inam al-Haq Kauser, from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, told SBS News “there’s nothing in the Holy Quran mentioning not to shake hands”.
“It is, actually is in the borderline area,” he said.
“To me, if any lady extends her hand, we must shake hands with her because otherwise it will be very insulting and it will be very offensive. I think the shaking of hands is no problem.”
“The reason for that is maintaining that sense of modesty between the sexes,” adds Adel Salman, Vice-President of Victoria’s Islamic Council.
Mr Salman says the practice comes from interpretations of Islamic scripture known as the ‘Hadith’.
“I don’t think there’s one particular Hadith that actually explains it or is the sole basis of the view,” he said. “It’s drawn from a number of different Islamic teachings, examples of the Prophet and his companions and understanding interpretations of the Holy Book.
“So you can’t actually, I don’t think you can pinpoint one particular Hadith and say ‘that’s it, there shall not be any handshakes’. That’s not the way to do it.”
Silma Ihram, from the Australian Muslim Women’s Association, says regardless of where Muslims stand they should shake hands out of respect and courtesy.
“I follow the Shafi’i school (of Islamic law), so I prefer, where possible, not to shake hands, but I don’t want to offend anybody,” Ms Ihram said. “The most important priority in terms of priorities is that you establish good relations with the people who are around you.
“If their custom is to shake hands, and they would be offended by not shaking hands, then for me it’s most important for me to first of all shake hands, and then once the person is comfortable, then I mean no offence to explain I don’t feel comfortable.”
“I should be very clear that the majority of scholars would say that there should be no physical contact between men and women,” Mr Salman added.
“Having said that, there are some scholars who say it’s fine as long as it’s done respectfully, it’s done modesty, it’s not done with any other intentions in mind. It’s just purely a greeting, particularly when it reflects a cultural practice, like in Australia.”
Mr Salman says respect needs to be at the forefront of a Muslim’s mind in every situation, particularly if a woman offers to shake hands.
“The view I take is that I will shake hands in those circumstances because the last thing I want to do is cause offence, misunderstanding, embarrass the person in front of me,” he said.
“So if a lady extends her hands, I will shake her hand. But I won’t be necessarily initiating that, and it’s not meant to be any sign of disrespect.”.
During her denouncement of the practice, Bronwyn Bishop argued: “The reason is, don’t mince around it, it is because women are regarded (by Muslim men) as unclean and they should not be touched.”
Her comments have been condemned by Imam Kauser and Mr Salman.
“That’s absolute nonsense, and it’s actually appalling, absolutely appalling, that someone of that standing, a former senior Minister, would actually make that statement. That is absolutely appalling,” Mr Salman said.
“It’s got nothing to do whatsoever with the state of hygiene of the male or the female.
“Let’s wind back the divisive rhetoric, and let’s not just pick on any issue which happens in the Muslim community and highlight that as an example of how Muslims don’t want to engage or integrate – there’s just nothing further from the truth.”
“We all are equal,” Mr Kauser said. “It’s not that we look down upon the ladies, or we consider them second class citizens. That is not correct.”
Silma Ihram has asked Muslims not to be so rigid.
“I would encourage all Muslims not to stand on their fine points of Islamic law when they’re living in a country that’s not Muslim, but to work on the most important aspects, which is to establish good relations with your neighbours,” she said.