If you are uncertain about how you would answer this question, don't worry. Perhaps the most misunderstood of all human relationships is the premarital relationship between young men and women, especially among those who are just coming of age and coming to terms with their sexuality. The dominant understanding is that premarital relationships should be allowed and even encouraged. The most common arguments are that premarital relationships help to socialize young people to deal with one another, and that they help those who are looking to get married to have up close and personal, intimate knowledge of their potential spouse.
Do you agree with these two arguments? Do they reflect your way of thinking? The latter argument couldn't be further from the truth. Learning to socialize with the opposite sex, however, is a commendable personal goal, but it cannot be left to chance and definitely need not involve having an intimate, physical relationship with a member of the opposite sex.
Are Islamic Teachings Old-Fashioned?
Depending on your upbringing, who your friends are, and your exposure to television shows and movies, you might have been socialized to believe that premarital relationships are glamorous, filled with romantic overtures, and a natural expression of a man's attraction towards a woman. In fact, some young Muslims are so convinced that premarital relationships are the norm rather than the exception that, when told "dating is haram [forbidden]," they respond by saying, "Why is Islam so backward? Why can't we just get with the times and realize that today, premarital relationships are ok because not everyone is thinking about sex all the time."
Is that right? And so how would you propose going about helping those young people who are inclined to think about sex some or most of the time and not, as you say, all of the time. What shall we tell them?
Even the premise that the Islamic prohibition on premarital relationships is rooted solely in the notion that people think about sex all the time is false. There is no outright prohibition of friendship between men and women and, yes, those friendships can also be warm, caring, and long lasting. The important question is, how are these men and women related to one another? In Islam, men and women who are ineligible to get married to one another, who are each other's mahrams, that is, are able to have very powerful, long lasting, warm and caring, platonic relationships. It is helpful to review who these people are. In Surat An-Nur, after telling the believing men to lower their gaze, Allah Almighty continues in the next verse:
[And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.](An-Nur 24:31)
So, yes, in principle, there is no problem with men and women being friends, as long as the men are in any of the categories described above in Surah An-Nur, verse 31. For those men who are non-mahrams, that is, eligible to be married, the risk is always there that one or the other will become vulnerable and will incline towards the other outside of the framework of a marital contract.
Think about it. If you have come of age recently, you know that with the onset of puberty you experienced distinct and profound changes in your body. Among those changes were an increased awareness of your own sexuality and the occurrence of 'wet dreams,' or nocturnal emissions. With hormones raging and very new and intense feelings of sexual stimulation, sometimes brought on by the least provocation, it is possible that a young person will become preoccupied with thinking about sex, even if he or she takes no action to actually attempt to relieve his or her sexual tension.
The fact of the matter is, sexual desires become pronounced and you might have experience mixed emotions, including confusion, guilt, and outright shame. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) understood human development well. In a teaching narrated to us by `Abdullah, (may Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet admonished young people thus,
"O young people! 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." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Book #62, Hadith #4)
Timeless Islamic Teachings
We often end up falling into the trap of believing that maybe Islamic teachings are outdated and old-fashioned. On the contrary, Muslims accept the Qur'an and the teachings of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as comprehensive, universal, and timeless. Therefore, no matter where or during what time period in human history, premarital relationships have and will be forbidden because of the detrimental impact on the people involved as well as on society in general.Allah Most High ordains upon us a lifestyle according to which human life is sacred and which considers righteous conduct, mutual respect, and chaste and dignified relations to be the norm rather than the exception. We read in the Qur'an
[O Prophet! When believing women come to thee to take the oath of fealty to thee, that they will not associate in worship any other thing whatever with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit adultery (or fornication), that they will not kill their children, that they will not utter slander, intentionally forging falsehood, and that they will not disobey thee in any just matter,- then do thou receive their fealty, and pray to Allah for the forgiveness (of their sins): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.] (Al-Mumtahanah 60:12)
In the context of social relations, Allah Most High has ordered men and women who wish to establish an intimate and physical relationship to do so by signing a contract, to bind each of them to certain rights and responsibilities towards the other. The marital relationships is characterized therefore as a "solemn covenant," (An-Nisaa' 4:21). Contrast a "solemn covenant," to having no contract and no covenant whatsoever. In a premarital relationship there is no contract. There might be some commitment but it is not stipulated by any conditions: both the man and the woman can walk away from the relationship without any fear of breaching a contract, because there is none.
You must know how painful it is for young people to "break up" or "break off" or "get dumped," and how painful it is for them to be "in love" with a boy one day only to find him with another girl the next. In the most tragic cases, young women have lost their virginity to young men who spoke so passionately about love and future marriage, but then one day just stopped calling, or fell instantly out of love.
To the extent that men and women will, out of fear of Allah and out of a desire to please Allah, uphold their contractual obligations, marital relationships are strong, whereas without any contractual obligations and stipulations, both the man and the woman are at risk, as noted above. Allah Most High desires that we live chaste lives and therefore the Islamic outlook is that we shouldn't even go near, come close to, or approach the possibility of becoming vulnerable towards a man or a woman's attraction, unless we are serious and committed enough to sign a marriage contract and take on the rights and responsibilities associated with it. Allah warns in the Qur'an,
(And come not near unto adultery. Lo! it is an abomination and an evil way.] (Al-Israa' 17:32)
While not all premarital relationships are characterized by intimate, physical relations, there are clearly painful consequences for both the boy and the girl who are involved. Dr. Shahid Athar notes in an article entitled, "Sex Education for Muslim Youth and Their Parents" that there are "hazards" for young people engaging in sexual relations prematurely. He states, "The health hazards of early sex include sexual trauma, increase in the incidence of cervical cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, and teenage pregnancy."
It is important to note in this instance that Islamic teachings are often preventive in nature so "chances" that a person may become vulnerable to the temptation of one sin or another are excluded. The preventive nature of the teachings is most obvious when we consider the Islamic prohibition against gambling and the consumption of intoxicants. A person might not become addicted to drugs or alcohol by just having a single drink, but Allah our Creator, out of His mercy for us, has prohibited outright all intoxicants and thus He saves us from the risk that we will ever become addicted.
Premarital relationships are forbidden in Islam. Interaction between men and women is not forbidden, provided that it is conducted according to certain guidelines.
Let us not be tempted to say, "Well, I have no problems with dealing with women as very close friends." While some men and women might be able to have platonic relationships, there is no guarantee that what starts off as simple friendship eventually leads to some and then strong attraction. Many people have looked back and regretted that they were not strong enough to resist the temptation to become attracted or to be alone with their friend. It is understood that in contemporary society, men and women mix in the context of work or study. However, the burden is upon the one who is mingling with the opposite sex to stay within the bounds of proper etiquette.
Islam allows great flexibility in the realm of conduct as long as the conduct itself is guided by the Qur'an and the teachings of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). If the contact is purposeful, limited, and public, then there is less risk that either the man or the woman involved will become vulnerable to temptation. None of us can predict with certainty that we will be able to control our emotions and desires.
Almighty Allah knows who among us would be able to handle working and studying with members of the opposite sex. However, Allah in His infinite wisdom also knows that all of us are prone to forget and therefore, to protect us all, there are clear guidelines as to when and how and for what purposes we should interact with the opposite sex.
The beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) once counseled a man who sought his permission to commit fornication. In a most humane and dignified manner, the Prophet asked the young man if he would want another man to commit such an act with his mother or sister. In this way the Prophet was able to redirect the young man's attention from trying to satisfy his sexual desires to thinking about the honor and the respect with which he would want his own sister and mother to be treated by other men. Overall, in placing the act of fornication in a more personal and familial context, the Prophet helped this young man to see the detrimental impact that fornication and other such sins have on society at large.