After a long day of hard work with your peers on a project, a sister suggests that all of you hang out at the pizza place nearby for a late lunch. The problem is, your group of peers is made up of both guys and girls. "But we're all friends!" protests the sister when you, as a brother, bring up the issue. So you think about it and agree, because after all, you say – "She's like a sister to me."
Key phrase here: "like a sister." She isn't really your sister, which means that there are limitations in how you relate to her. Nowadays, under the guise of Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood, many are unfortunately committing sins in the name of friendship. Islam, however, does not permit such close relationships between non-Mahrams.
Of course, living in the West, there are times when non-Mahrams do interact – but there is a difference between how we do so with our colleagues and with our friends. We interact on a regular basis with our colleagues regarding the work that has brought us together on a professional level. We also interact regularly with our friends, but our topics of conversation are not restricted to just business. Furthermore, we spend time with our colleagues at university or at the workplace – basically, any place that is relevant to business meetings. However, we can meet our friends in both formal and informal settings.
Our colleagues and friends are not one and the same. Keeping that in mind, we are supposed to interact with non-Mahrams as colleagues, not as friends. Unnecessarily spending time with non-Mahrams – doing things like hanging out or having long conversations just to kill time – is out of the question, because that is what we would do with a friend.
Islam on Cross-Gender Friendships
As Muslims, everything we do is with the intention of gaining the pleasure of our Creator. We are supposed to be constantly aware of the presence of Allah, and to strive to get closer to our Beloved by following the teachings of the Prophet and his Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them). In line with those teachings, the concept of Hijab for men and women is one of the fundamental aspects of Islam. When it comes down to the core of the matter, all forms of Hijab are for the purpose of maintaining God-consciousness and respect when we interact with non-Mahrams out of necessity.
However, mixing with non-Mahrams and going out of our way to spend time with them obviously defies those ideals of Hijab. It's as simple as this: brothers and sisters who are not Mahram to each other are not supposed to interact when there is no point in doing so, and any interaction that does take place is supposed to be done in a professional manner. Conclusively, the idea of non-Mahram guys and girls spending time together as "friends" is not endorsed by Islam.
Also, we need to realize that being Muslim doesn't make us immune to falling into sin. Just because a sister wears a headscarf and a brother sports a beard does not mean it is okay for them to become friends. As Muslims, we are instructed to follow guidelines for our own benefit, and in this situation too there is wisdom. Just as we are to abstain from sitting at a table that has alcohol bottles on it and just as we are to abstain from listening to music, we are to abstain from developing non-Mahram friendships because of the greater sins that we could be led to commit.
Studies on Cross-Gender Friendships
Allah is the One who created us, and He knows the details of the human system better than we can ever discover. It stands to reason that whatever He commands us to do and to stay away from is logical, because He would not ask of us something that is impossible to do or that is harmful for us.
Whether or not we acknowledge it, there is a scientific aspect of attraction in cross-gender "friendships". Our brains release chemicals upon interaction with others, and the amount released increases as we spend more time with a person of the opposite gender. We are fooling ourselves if we try to ignore these facts and be "just friends" with non-Mahrams, because then we will be treading thin ice over a sea of sin in which we will lose focus on our journey of getting closer to the Almighty.
Published in Psychology Today, Camille Chatterjee's article, "Can Men and Women be Friends?" (2011), sets out trying to prove that non-Mahrams can indeed be just good friends. However, the evidence that she presents counters her own arguments. Chatterjee says: "The reality that sexual attraction could suddenly enter the equation of a cross-sex friendship uninvited is always lurking in the background. Unwelcome or not, the attraction is difficult to ignore." Citing poll results, Chatterjee's article also shows that even though 83 percent of the 1,450 poll participants believed that non-Mahram friendships can be successful, 62 percent of the participants admitted to their friendships having "crossed the line and [become] romantic or sexual."
Even when it comes to people who do not give in to their desires, there are still problems with their non-Mahram friendships. The details of Linda Sapadin's study were released in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, under the title of "Friendship and Gender: Perspectives of Professional Men and Women" (1988). Sapadin mentions: "Both sexes generally kept their friendships and sexual relationships separate though sexual feelings and tensions still existed in many cross-sex friendships." On top of that, her study reveals that of the 156 questionnaire participants, 62 percent reported that there was sexual tension in the air with their non-Mahram friends.
Also found in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships are the results of Daniel Kaplan and Christopher Keys' study "Sex and Relationship Variables as Predictors of Sexual Attraction in Cross-Sex Platonic Friendships between Young Heterosexual Adults" (1997). The results of the surveys show that a significant number of women and men (the number of men being higher) consider befriending non-Mahrams as the first step towards developing a romantic relationship with the person. This in itself shows that it is difficult for non-Mahrams to be "just friends" because the relationship doesn't even start off with straightforward intentions.
Published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, Sophie Walsh, Shirley Harel, and Shmuel Shulman's study focuses on the behavior of 142 participants. Entitled "Romantic Fantasies, Cross-Gender Friendships, and Romantic Experiences in Adolescence" (2008), their results strongly indicate that one of the ways which adolescents get to experience romance is through cross-gender friendships, in addition to their romantic relationships.
More often than not, it seems that befriending someone of the opposite gender has become the first step to eventually turning the friendship into a more intimate relationship. So whether or not it is clearly stated aloud by the non-Mahram individuals themselves, studies show that non-Mahram friendships are, in reality, made for inappropriate reasons.
"What's so wrong about it?" That question is usually followed by excuse after excuse, yet each reason that is always given has many flaws. Non-Mahram friendships are not permitted in Islam, no matter how much one may try to justify them by saying, "But..."
"It's a normal thing these days."
Everyone is best friends with a person of the opposite gender these days, so what's the big deal if we go with the flow? The big deal is that it's wrong. Just because everyone else is doing something, that doesn't make it right.
In order to promote a lifestyle of selfishness and immorality, society pressures the public from all around. Be it through sit-coms, books, movies, or real-life examples, we are faced with a smorgasbord of practices that have become common. This idea of "friends with benefits" – the concept of having a friend of the opposite gender with whom one has physically intimate relations, while both still consider each other to be "just friends" – has permeated the fabric of our society, so much that it is no longer considered wrong. Yet the relation of "friends with benefits" does not truly provide anything but momentary pleasure; it destroys the moral compass by promoting easy indulgence in carnal desires, it shatters the honorable concept of being committed to one person, and it severely blackens the soul by gaining the displeasure of Allah.
As mentioned in the above scientific studies, the question of "what if we were more than just friends?" is always in the air. So why go through all that doubt and put ourselves in a situation that has a great potential to become sinful?
"I know my intentions are pure."
First of all, what does it even mean to "have a pure intention" when it comes to being pals with a non-Mahram? Second of all, even if you have no ill intentions, Shaitan has promised to mislead any person that he can, so what makes you think you're immune to his whispers? We have already been clearly warned in the Holy Qur'an, "Did I not charge you, O children of Adam, that you should not serve the Shaitan? Surely he is your open enemy." (36:60) We have to be on guard and be able to abstain from situations that are not only spiritually harmful but even potentially spiritually harmful.
Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani's response to this can be found in his book, A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West:
328. Question: Is it permissible for a Muslim youth to accompany the girls who study with him in foreign universities for walking together, in vacation tours, etc.?
Answer: It is not permissible, except with surety that he will not commit a forbidden act.
To have absolute surety of oneself is the condition here, and not everyone can claim this sense of surety. In order to qualify for such a claim, one would have to be the kind of person who – at the very least – has impeccable God-consciousness and Hijab in that (s)he keeps the gaze lowered, does not participate in idle chatter, and has control over his/her thoughts from wandering into inappropriate territory. Even then, the manner in which such a person would interact with non-Mahrams would end up falling under the "colleague" category and not that of "friend". Recalling the manner of our Infallibles (peace be upon them all), they fit this pious description perfectly and had the strongest of faith, yet we do not see evidence of them ever having befriended non-Mahrams or having spent time with them without official reasons.
And assuming that our intentions are pure, what about the intentions of our non-Mahram friend? We cannot claim to be absolutely sure of his/her intentions, so it doesn't make sense to put ourselves in that situation. It's one thing to be confident in the strength of our faith in the face of temptations that may arise; however, it is entirely foolish (not to mention outright vain) to be so confident in the strength of our faith that we voluntarily dive right into a situation that is wrought with potential sin.
Ultimately, all our actions are supposed to be based on whether or not they will please Allah and take us closer to Him. Having a non-Mahram friend does neither.
"I'm engaged/married/older than him/younger than her, so it's okay."
All those factors make no difference. Again, we are reminded by Allah, the Prophets, and the Ahlul Bayt that Shaitan is our open enemy who attacks from all sides. He targets everyone, so being engaged, married, older than the brother, or younger than the sister does not make a difference.
In fact, for an engaged/married person to befriend a non-Mahram would only cause misunderstandings and problems. In the study by Kaplan and Keys, participants who were already involved in a relationship reported that their attraction towards non-Mahram friends was less, relative to those who were single. A point worth noting is that the word used in reference to the level of attraction was "less" not "none", so there is still the potential for falling into sin. Just as the engaged/married factor, the older/younger factor would cause a person to let down his/her guard, leaving an opening for Shaitan to easily enter through.
"It's a good way to learn how guys/girls think so I can relate with my future spouse better."
A practice spouse? That's just plain wrong. Many of the official studies, such as April Bleske and David Buss' "Can Men and Women be Just Friends?" (2000) in the Journal of the International Association for Relationship Research, as well as informal interviews all reveal that men and women see this as one of the main beneficial reasons for having non-Mahram friends. By spending time with a non-Mahram friend, people claim that they can pick up tips on how to improve their relationship with their partner. So a person spends time both with a non-Mahram friend and with his/her spouse, talks over important issues with both, and is intimate with both – and according to the studies already mentioned, the level of intimacy with both is actually equal for a majority of cases. But then what's the difference between your close friend of the opposite gender and your spouse?
Prevention, Not Cure
There is no truth to this fashion of non-Mahrams being just good friends. Getting into such a tainted "friendship" will only cause problems on multiple levels. A person may be able to control their thoughts and desires, but after repeatedly meeting a non-Mahram in an unstructured setting to spend time as friends, the battle against the self becomes increasingly difficult. With regard to one thing leading to another, the Leader of the Pious, Imam Ali (peace be upon him) said: "Simply thinking about sinful carnal deeds encourages you to commit them eventually." (Ghurar al-Hikam, p. 518) Islam is about looking ahead and being wise to the on-goings around us. Some things are forbidden to us because they are harmful in essence, and other things are forbidden because they lead to harmful things. Here, we have a situation that is harmful in itself and that will also lead us to even greater harm in this world and in the next.
We are taught to surround ourselves with friends who inspire us to strive even closer towards Allah, not with those because of whom we risk falling into sin. We must not let our desires direct our actions; rather, we must let our God-consciousness guide us towards what is pleasing to Him and thus beneficial for us. So let's not fool ourselves, because non-Mahram guys and girls can't be "just friends".