Islamic Etiquette & The Shaking of Hands

By Rukhsana Khan

The hardest thing in the world for me is to rebuff a genuinely friendly gesture. It is doubly hard when the gesture is a basic greeting in another culture and a taboo in my own.

It is no secret that I am Muslim and as a Muslim I do my best to adhere to the principles of Islam.

One of the basic rules of Islam is that men and women who are not intimately related are not allowed to have any form of physical contact. So when I got to a business meeting I am in a terrible dilemma when a man extends his hand, in the normal manner, for me to shake.

In the past I counted on the fact that God is merciful and would forgive me for the transgression, and then I shook the hand that was offered while inwardly cringing at my disobedience.

Over time though, it has become more and more difficult for me to do this. And in fact current trends in the artistic community have men and women not only shaking hands but hugging and kissing.

It is such an awkward predicament to be in, especially since the shaking of hands is done at the very beginning of an acquaintance, before the other has a chance to know your cultural idiosyncrasies and can leave a bad first impression or so I thought.

I finally got up the courage to consult some other children’s authors about how to deal with this dilemma.

They were unanimous in their advice that I should just come out and tell the people I meet that it’s simply against my religion. They agreed that writing an article on my website would also help let people know that it’s nothing personal.

In the discussion that followed some interesting points were made.

First of all, according to one children’s author, who is a former lawyer and well acquainted with the business community, the men who were extending their hands for me to shake were in breach of proper (Western) etiquette.

A Miss Manners column I read confirmed it. The established etiquette when men and women meet (regardless of whether they’re Muslim or not) is that it is up to the woman to initiate physical contact, including the shaking of hands. If the woman extends her hand, then the man can shake it, but the man is not supposed to initiate the process. I found this surprising but very reasonable. Unfortunately many men are not aware of this.

Another interesting issue raised was that by no means is this a peculiarly Muslim dilemma.

Orthodox Jews are under the same restriction. Orthodox Jews are also not permitted to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. The same is true for Orthodox Hindus. There may indeed be other cultures out there that face similar restrictions.

I’m sure things must get very confusing for people having to deal with all these cultural taboos. It doesn’t help that people within these cultures can be so inconsistent with regards to applying these rules. Some Muslims observe the rule and others ignore it.

But I’m a great believer in asking for what you want. In my experience I have found people to be more than understanding and accommodating.

I do my very best to reciprocate their generosity and accommodate them in what they require.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.