Lowering the Gaze: An Example of How Islamic Law Coincides With Human Nature (Fitrah)

Islam is the religion of the fitrah, which is often translated as natural disposition, nature, or innateness. In other words, Allah sent down a religion which conforms to our nature in which we are created. It is compatible with it and does not contradict it. He did not send us a religion which goes against our fitrah. As Allah Says in the Qur’an [meaning of which is]:

So stand firm and true in your devotion to the religion. This is the natural disposition [fitrah] Allah instilled in mankind – there is no altering Allah’s creation – and this is the right religion, though most people do not realize it. [Qur’an 30:30]

And it is reported in a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said:

“No child is born except on Al-Fitrah and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian, as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?” [Bukhari]

There is an excellent explanation of this hadith provided by Dr. Yasir Qadhi here.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is also reported to have said:

“Five practices are characteristics of the Fitrah: circumcision, shaving the pubic region, clipping the nails and cutting the mustaches short.” [Bukhari]

All of Islamic laws and guidelines conform to our natural disposition whether we understand them or not. They somehow benefit us in one way or another. Sometimes Allah in the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) explicitly mentions this benefit but many times they do not. The scholars in later times took it upon themselves to try and explain the wisdom behind some of the rulings. This topic is often studied under Maqaasid Shari’ah [the objectives of Islamic law]. At the end of the day, these are just opinions on their part, hence, it is not uncommon to find differences among them.

Not everything in our nature is positive or beneficial. For example, it is quite natural to be angry but it does not mean that we should not try to control it. Therefore, Islam encourages restraining our anger and not letting it get out of hand. Similarly, it is natural for us to have desires for worldly possessions, but Islam encourages keeping them under control and not letting them become the sole purpose of our lives at the expense of the afterlife. Our Creator understands our nature, thus, He sent us a religion with some rulings which are there to diminish the negative and harmful aspects of our nature. At the same time, He made certain other rulings in the religion which enhance the positive and beneficial aspects of our nature. For example, being generous, kind, merciful, desiring justice, etc. are all natural things in human beings and Allah encourages us to expand these attributes. It is no wonder that some Muslim scholars concluded that the whole purpose of the Divine law is to keep away harm and bring benefit.

Among the things in Islamic law which is quite controversial in our times but conforms to our fitrah is the issue of women’s bodies and how they influence men. It is well known that in Islam, there are more restrictions on the woman’s dress than that of a man, however, there are more restrictions on men’s gazes than that of women. Islamic law is far more stricter on men lowering their gazes in front of women who are not their wives nor their immediate relatives [sister, mother, daughter, etc.], especially if they find them attractive, than it is on women. For example, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said:

“O young men! Whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty (i.e. his private parts from committing illegal sexual intercourse etc.), and whoever is not able to marry, should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual power.” [Bukhari]

In another hadith, it is reported by the companion Jarir that:

I asked the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) about an accidental glance (on a woman). He (pbuh) said “Turn away your gaze [from her].” [Abu Dawud]

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) advised Ali, his son in law, that:

“O Ali, do not follow the first look [at a woman] with another. There is no blame on you for the first but you have no right to the second.” [Abu Dawud]

The meaning above is that he should immediately look away as soon as he realizes that he’s looking directly at her. Of course, there are exception to this in Islamic law. For example, looking at a potential spouse before marriage, addressing a crowd of people which include women, helping a sick or injured woman, identification, brief glances without intending to look when talking directly to a specific woman, etc. are all exceptions to the general rule. General glances that take place throughout the day without intending to look, such as, when walking down the street, market, etc. are also exceptions due to necessity. The point is that a Muslim man should not look towards a woman who is not his wife nor an immediate relative without necessity.

An incident is reported in another hadith when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) happened to pass by a group of men sitting on the road talking. One of the people sitting in that group reports:

While we were sitting in front of the houses and talking amongst ourselves, Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) happened to come there. He stood by us and said: “What about you and your meetings on the paths? Avoid these meetings on the paths.” We said: “We were sitting here without (any intention of doing harm to the passers-by) ; we are sitting to discuss matters and to hold conversation amongst ourselves.” Thereupon he said: “If there is no help (for you but to sit on these paths), then give the paths their rights and these are lowering of the gaze, exchanging of greetings and good conversation.” [Muslim]

This issue even comes up in the Qur’an when Allah Says [meaning of which is]:

“Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. Allah is well aware of everything they do. [Qur’an 24:30]

Then immediately in the next verse, Allah Says [meaning of which is]:

“And tell believing women that they should lower their gazes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their womenfolk…” [Qur’an 24:31]

It is interesting to note here that Allah first addresses the men and then the women. Since men naturally are visual and easily aroused by women, especially if she is naked or barely clothed, they are encouraged to lower their gazes to diminish this negative aspect of their nature. At the same time, women are encouraged to cover themselves in front of men also in order to diminish the harm caused by this natural phenomenon. Some scholars also argued that not lowering the gaze from unnecessary glances can spiritually corrupt the heart.

I came across a short video online done by a non-Muslim organization which I found very informative. It argues that men are much more visual and easily aroused by seeing women than vice versa. It is purely natural, the video argues. It is very well done and proves to us that the reasoning behind Allah’s ruling of covering for women and lowering of men’s gazes has a lot to do with our fitrah.

This does not mean, however, that it is acceptable for men to sexually harass or ill treat women who do not dress according to Islamic law. Men are commanded to control themselves and they cannot blame their harassment on the woman. Ludicrous statements such as “she was asking for it” are completely unacceptable. The man is responsible for his own action and the woman her own in front of Allah on the day of judgement. Therefore, whether a woman is dressed appropriately or not is not our concern. We as men have to do our part in following the commands of Allah to the best of our ability and treating others respectfully and kindly even if they are wrong is a virtue in Islam.

Here is the video:

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