Islamic Perspectives

Social etiquettes in the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah

By Zafarul Islam Islahi
The Holy Qur’an is the greatest book of guidance for the whole humanity in every sphere of life including social. The Ahadith contain enough details of the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) about social life.

The social etiquettes are mainly related to entering one’s home, offering Salaam, talking, going outside or walking in the way/road, putting on dress, eating and drinking, cleanness and neatness (taharat/nazafat) etc.

With regard to the first issue, the Qur’an clearly tells us that before entering a house permission from the owner or occupant is necessary and the best way is to offer Salaam and to go back without hesitation in case no response is received even after the third Salaam. This is the  Sunnah (tradition or example) of the Prophet (pbuh) (Mukhtasar Zad al Ma’ad, Urdu Tr. by Sayeed Ahmad Qamruzzaman, Riyad, 1417 AH, p.158). In changed situations, other customary means of seeking permission may be adopted.

While meeting anyone anywhere, offering Salaam is an important teaching of the Qur’an and Sunnah. It is also desirable that in responding to one’s Salaam, the respondent should add some more words of salutation and prayer such as wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuhu. In the same way, meeting happily, talking gently, speaking in low voice and humility are required. While sitting in a gathering, one should be generous in offering space to others and he should not mind if he is asked to stand up and change his place due to some need or requirement as has been enjoined by the Qur’an (Al-Nur:27-29).

Moderation in walking (al-qasd fi’l-mashy), exhibiting modesty, lowering gaze and keeping a distance from women while walking or talking with them, are some of the clear directives of the Qur’an.

Lowering one’s gaze during walking is a general directive for both men and women, but the latter are further required not to display their ornamentation (zinat) in public and to cover their body properly (Al-Nur:30-31). Interpreting this verse,  commentators generally point out that the display of zinat may be in dress as well as by jewellery as the main objective of this directive is that while going out,  women should refrain from all actions which may excite  sentiments of people and may endanger their modesty and honour.

In some traditions, the Prophet (pbuh) has clearly directed that while walking on a certain path, men and women should walk separately keeping a distance (Sunan Abu Daud, Kitab al-Adab, Bab al-mashy fi al- tariq).

An important etiquette of daily life, emphasised again and again in the Qur’an and Sunnah, is to take care to show respect to others and not to consider anyone inferior or treat him with scorn while meeting, associating, talking and doing any socio-economic dealing with others. In the same way, people are strictly prohibited to make fun of others, to defame them or call them with bad names or titles. Since this is generally committed by a person believing that he is respectable and the other is not, the Holy Qur’an reminds us that the target of our fun may be better or more virtuous than us ((Al-Hujurat:11).

Cleanness of body, dress, home, surroundings and work-place is very  desirable in Islam. The Qur’an declares that Allah Almighty likes those who maintain cleanness (Al-Baqarah/122, Al- Taubah:108).  According to the Prophet, Taharah (cleanliness) is “shatr al-Iman” (half part of the faith). Hazrat Sayeed Ibn Musayyib (may Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said “Oh believers. keep your bodies clean as well as your courtyards (afanyah) .(Jami-i- Tirmidhi, Abwab al-Istizan wa al-Adab, Bab al- Nazafah). It is further reported that whenever the Prophet (pbuh) saw any dirt or filth he utterly disliked it. He used to order his Companions to remove the same and sometimes he himself did this. If anyone went ahead to remove the fifth he very much appreciated such a person (Sunan Nasai, Kitab al-Masajid, Bab Takhliq al-Masajid; Shibli Nomani, Siratun Nabi, Darul Musannifin, Azamgarh, 2003, 2/162). Besides, the Prophet used to express his displeasure at people who wore dirty clothes or whose hair was uncombed and dusty. He used to urge such people to change their behaviour.

The issue of dress has great importance for both men and women, as this is part and parcel of a civilized life.

The Qur’an and Sunnah stand for simplicity, soberness and cleanliness of dress without specification of its category. The Qur’an’s stand is clear from its general declaration (Al-A’raf:26) that the dress (libas) is a means of covering body as well as beauty (zinat). At the same time, the Qur’an states that the dress of piety (libas al-taqwa) is far better for human beings. This means that in using the dress for zinat, one should not exceed limits in a way that zinat negates morality and modesty. In other words, one should not use dress which does not serve the purpose of satr (covering of the prescribed parts of the body) and the person appears as if he/she was partly or fully naked. The main addressees of this directive are women, as it is clear from a Hadith which describes certain women as “naked” although they wear clothes  (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al- Libas, Bab al-Nisa’ al-Kaasiyat al- ‘Aariyat).

It is noteworthy here that the relevant Qur’anic verses and Ahadith offer three important points about the etiquette of dress: libas should be satir (covering whole body except what is permitted to uncover), should not be so colourful or revealing that it may excite sentiments of onlookers and it should not be such as exhibit extravagance or show pride. The Qur’an does not forbid fine and fancy dress. What is prohibited is pomp and show and feeling proud on wearing costly/fancy dress. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “eat and drink, give charity and put on dress, provided there is no extravagance and show of proud behaviour (Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al- Libas, Bab ilbas ma shi’ta ma akhta’ka sarfun au makhilah). Some ulama of  the modern period have added that men should  not wear clothes of women and vice versa, as this behaviour reflects a sick mind.

        As regards the etiquette of eating and drinking, the basic principle taught by the Qur’an is to use all lawful things but not to indulge in extravagance and wastage which is disrespect to the favours and blessings of Allah (kufran-i- ni’mat), ingratitude to Him and denial of the rights of poor and needy which is never liked by Him (Al- A’raf:31). This principle is applicable to one’s own meals as well as in serving the same to others.

Secondly, while eating, one should be full of the sense of gratitude to Allah Almighty and free from the feeling of pride and arrogance. According to the Hadith, it is undesirable to eat while resting on something like a pillow or against a wall unless it is due to some disability as it is considered a sign of being proud (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al- at’imah, Bab al-akl muttakiyan). The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said “I take meal like a humble servant (‘abd) of Allah Almighty (Muhammad Farooq Khan, Kalam-i- Nubuwwat, New Delhi, 2011, 3/285-286, note 7).

There are three essential etiquettes of eating and drinking in Islam: starting by saying Allah’s name (Bismillah), eating/drinking using the right hand and taking meal from the front of one’s plate. Significantly enough, these directives are given in a single Hadith narrated by Hazart Umar Ibn Abi Salmah (Sahih Bukhari, Kitab al- tasmiah wa al-akl bi’l-yamin). There is another important issue — eating and drinking while standing which is a common practice in feasts and social gatherings nowadays. This is not desirable  in Islam, as it is clearly stated in a Hadith recorded in Sahih Bukhari (Kitab al-ashribah, Bab karahiyat al-shurb qaiman). Significantly enough,  an eminent mufassir of the modern period  is of the opinion that the dislike of eating while standing may also be inferred from a Qur’anic verse (Muhammad:12) which states that unbelievers relish worldly things and eat like animals. The commentator thinks that, apart from eating aimlessly and without a sense of gratitude to the Sustainer/Provider of subsistence, another point of similarity between them and animals is eating while standing. It means that this is very much disapproved by the Qur’an (Tafsir-i- Ahsan al-Bayan, Urdu Tr.: Muhammad Junagarhi/Commentary: Salahuddin Yusuf, Farid Book Depot, New Delhi, n.d., p. 1190).

These are some important aspects of social etiquettes which are required to be observed by us to make our social life pleasant and healthy. Acting upon the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah always brings good results. May Allah Almighty bless us taufiq for the same.  

The author is professor of Islamic Studies
at the Aligarh Muslim University