The term “lowering the gaze” has been derived hermeneutically from the Qur’an and Sunnah and refers to an aspect of the etiquette that Islam promotes between the unrelated men and women. It is interpreted by many Islamic scholars to mean total abstinence from looking at the opposite sex.
You, on the other hand have offered a more permissive interpretation of this phrase. You interpret it to mean an abstinence from staring, which in turn implies that looking at the opposite sex is allowed as long as it is not staring.
How has this difference in interpretation arisen? If for example, I am faced with the option of choosing between these two interpretations of the phrase, then how do I do so? On what grounds do I base my decision? Why have you chosen to interpret it the way you have, thereby distancing yourself from the majority of your peers in this matter?
The English phrase ‘lowering of gaze’ can be interpreted to imply literal abstinence from looking at some one as well as keeping modesty and Hayaa in one’s eyes. Similar is the case with the Arabic phrase “غض البصر“.
According to my understanding, the phrase has been used in the Qur’an in the latter meaning:
Arabic dictionaries generally define the two phrases “غض البصر“ (i.e., ‘lowering gaze’) and “غض الصوت“ (i.e., ‘lowering voice’) as similar in implication, with reference to the two separate faculties. Interestingly, the Qur’an has used both these phrases at separate instances. In Surah Al-Hujuraat, the Qur’an says:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَغُضُّونَ أَصْوَاتَهُمْ عِندَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ… (الحجرات 49: 3)
Indeed those who lower their voices in front of the Prophet of God…
It is clear that the phrase ‘lowering of voice’ in the cited verse does not mean keeping silent or talking in whispers. On the contrary, the phrase actually implies the element of respect and reverence in the tone of one’s voice, while addressing the Prophet (pbuh). Similarly, in my opinion, the phrase ‘lowering the gaze’ does not imply complete abstinence from looking, but actually implies to have an element of modesty and Hayaa in one’s eyes, while interacting with the opposite sex.
This point is further substantiated by the following verses of the Qur’an:
وَلاَ تَنكِحُواْ الْمُشْرِكَاتِ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنَّ وَلأَمَةٌ مُّؤْمِنَةٌ خَيْرٌ مِّن مُّشْرِكَةٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَتْكُمْ وَلاَ تُنكِحُواْ الْمُشِرِكِينَ حَتَّى يُؤْمِنُواْ وَلَعَبْدٌ مُّؤْمِنٌ خَيْرٌ مِّن مُّشْرِكٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكُمْ (البقرة 2: 221)
And you are not to marry polytheist women, until they accept faith. And [remember] that a believing slave girl is better than a polytheist woman, however much she might attract you. And [similarly,] do not marry your women to polytheist men, until they accept faith. And [remember] that believing slave is better than a polytheist man, however much he might attract you.
It is clear that had “غض البصر“ implied complete abstinence from looking at the opposite sex, then there would have been no question of being ‘attracted’ by the opposite sex, which is referred in Al-Baqarah 2: 221.
Similarly, in Al-Ahzaab 33: 52, the Qur’an, while addressing the Prophet (pbuh) says:
لاَ يَحِلُّ لَكَ النِّسَاء مِن بَعْدُ وَلَا أَن تَبَدَّلَ بِهِنَّ مِنْ أَزْوَاجٍ وَلَوْ أَعْجَبَكَ حُسْنُهُنَّ…
Women, other then these, are not allowed for you [in marriage] nor that you take them as wives in place of any other wife, even though their beauty may attract you…
Once again, it is obvious from the cited words that even the Prophet (pbuh) could be attracted by the beauty of a woman. We also know that the Prophet (pbuh), abiding by the directive of Surah Al-Noor, must also have observed the directive of ‘lowering gaze’ in letter and spirit. Now, it is clear that had ‘lowering gaze’ implied complete abstinence from looking, then there would have been no question of the Prophet’s being attracted by a woman’s beauty.
It is in the light of the foregoing arguments that I consider that the phrase ‘lowering of gaze’ does not imply ‘complete abstinence’, but, in fact, implies having modesty and Hayaa in one’s eyes.
If for example, I am faced with the option of choosing between these two interpretations of the phrase, then how do I do so? On what grounds do I base my decision?
We should follow the opinion which we find to be based on sounder reasoning and basis, according to our present understanding, while keeping our mind open to the other opinion. This is the primary test that we are faced with during the life of this world. We should neither be complacent about our opinions nor should we be unduly skeptical about them. While following the opinion which we hold to be correct, we should also continually pray to God to help us understand His message more accurately and to guide us, with His mercy, to the path of eternal success. I assure you, if our quest for God’s truth is honest, God shall surely help us find it.
I hope this helps.
February 20, 2003