The Unwritten Code: Social Etiquette of the Muslims
Often times people have interesting experiences in their initial interactions with the Muslim community. Most of us can probably remember some awkward occurrences prior to learning the social “Do’s and Don’ts” around Muslims. These are the unknown and often awkwardly discovered social codes of Muslims that many people are not initially aware exist. We can call committing these mistakes a “Beginners Blunder.” Those little things that you may not have realized Muslims don’t do that might get some strange stares cast at you.
I have had people ask several times “What do I need to know so I don’t offend anyone or look stupid?” Below is a small compilation of these unwritten codes that will hopefully save some people from awkward or embarrassing moments. Feel free to print it out and study it carefully, depending on your level of concern for cultural literacy.
1. Gender Interaction
In Islam there is a certain sanctity that is given to the human body. Not only how we treat our own body, but how we treat others.
-HIGH-FIVES, HAND SHAKES, AND HUGS… OH MY!!!
- Beware of physical interaction with the opposite gender. In a Muslim gathering you may want to hold your hand back from handshakes. In most circles people will shake your hand if you extend it first, but there is a decent chance you might be left hanging! Hugs, yeah, they are a HUGE NO-NO Feel free to hug people of the same gender all you want, but do not get excited and give a member of the opposite gender a hug or you will hear pins-drop or perhaps a scream! Rest assured members of your gender team will not hesitate in hugging you, holding your hand and possibly even kissing your cheeks.
- Some men and women take the Qur’anic injunction to guard their eye gaze very very very seriously. A majority of Muslims avoid looking unnecessarily at members of the opposite sex without specific needs or if they find the person to be attractive. But, some people are so cautious that they won’t look at you period when you speak with them. You might find it strange, but just know that in such a case you are indeed being highly respected.
- Being in the car or in seclusion with the opposite gender. If you pull up to certain gatherings with someone of the opposite gender in your car, you may get some looks. But, know that our tradition warns us from being alone with members of the opposite gender. This is congruent with common sense.
- Women, know that if you wear a skirt or anything that does not go to your ankles you might feel uncomfortable since you will be around a lot of women who are dressed more modestly and that more modest dress is the established norm around Muslims in America. The same thing goes with low cut shirts or shirts that show your mid-driff. Around most Muslims, you will be the only one dressed that way.
- Men, avoid wearing shorts that go above your knee while seated. Also, Muslims tend to like sitting on the floor so short shirts may result in a “moon sighting”, if you catch my drift.
2. Foreign Lingo & Accidental Speech
One of the most bizarre thing about Muslim’s is their language patterns or lack thereof. I don’t mean Arabic or English, I mean ‘Arablish.’ It is an English conversation infused with a variety of Arabic words.
- When Muslims meet each other they typically say -”As-salaamu ‘alaykum.” Then the person being greeted responds with “wa ‘alaykum as-salaam.” If you aren’t Muslims no one would really expect you to respond the greeting, but around Muslims you hear this phrase all the time. If you are brave, try responding to their greeting by saying “wa ‘alaykum as-salaam.”
- “Alhamdulillah’s, MashAllah’s, Allahu Akbar’s” – Another reverent peculiarity of the Muslim’s is their desire to praise God in Arabic frequently and at times randomly! When you are in a conversation with a group of Muslims you are likely to hear:
- Alhamdulillah- meaning ‘Praise be to God!’ (Usually said when good things happen)
- SubhanAllah- meaning ‘Glory be to God!’ (Usually said when something crazy happens)
- MashaAllah- meaning ‘God willed it!’ (Usually used as an expression for- awesome, great, wonderful)
- Allahu Akbar – meaning ‘God is great!’ (people say this when they get excited about something). Don’t worry bout what you see in the movies, when a Muslim says Allahu Akbar you will not be in danger
-’REFRAINS OF RESPECT’
- Another reverent peculiarity of the Muslim is to use Arabic phrases after certain people’s names. This is down to send peace and blessings upon Prophet Muhammad, any of the prophets, or the companion/family of the Prophet. You will hear a name followed by “salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam” or “radiAllah ‘anh” or “’alayhisalaam.” We tend to do the same thing when using the word Allah. You will often hear it followed by “Allah- subhanahu wa ta’ala” or “Allah- ‘azza wa jall.” Try your hardest not to get confused these are exaltations of God, not different names. If someone starts using a bunch of words you don’t know, just assume they are praising God or making a prayer for someone.
- Just when you thought that random phrases in Arabic were confusing wait until you run into the acronymization of these phrases and their English translations that run rampant amongst Muslims. So when you see ‘pbuh’ or ‘saw’ just know that these are acronyms for our ‘refrains of respect’
-’AVERSION OF CURSIN’.
- Muslims don’t do it. Well, at least they aren’t supposed to! Cursing may result in bad impressions especially amongst the elders. So if you are looking to woo someone, know that your dirty mouth might get washed out with a lota! (Not sure of what a lota is? It is explained below.)
- Avoid discussing ‘girlfriends, drinking, clubbing, smoking, etc.’ or scenarios that may make people feel uncomfortable. We Muslims still live in the era of intense propriety.
Going to a food party and bringing some food? You may want to read this section!
-AVOID THE ‘FORBIDDEN FRUIT’
- Make sure it is devoid of any pork, bacon, ham, lard, alcohol, and gelatin. Even with this precaution you still might get interrogated;
“What’s in this food? Chicken huh? Where did you get it?!? Jewel?!? AstaghfirAllah!”
(AstaghfirAllah- A reverent peculiarity for the irreverent comment or action)
- To be even more cautious and avoid the possibility of the dialogue above you may want to stick to vegetarian dishes or seek out “Halal” AKA “Zabiha Halal” meat products. (Want to figure out the difference between Halal and ‘Zabiha Halal’ click here)
4. Visiting A Home:
-HOPE YOU PUT ON CLEAN SOCKS THIS MORNING!
- Take of your shoes prior to walking throughout the house and always wait for permission to enter because their may be women in the house that are dressing (putting on hijab or long sleeve shirts)
-THE ROYAL TREATMENT
- Accept what is offered to you. do not think you are being polite by declining.
-COMPLIMENTS ARE WELCOMED
- Always tell an aunty that her food was delicious, however, this may result in you getting another heaping plate of food.
-“ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY”
- When in doubt call someone a few years senior Aunty or Uncle, don’t worry they wont think you are weird. We have a tendency to call the parents of our friends or people in the community or any random elder man or woman “aunty or uncle.” We are like one big happy family!
-THE ‘UNSOLICITED’ PEARL OF WISDOM
- You will always, always run into some elders or peers who take it upon themselves to take you hostage as an audience member. Don’t Panic! Just nod politely and say, Thank you! Of course, we are not belittling the sagely advice that our religion advises us to take rather warning you that in some conversations you may find yourself looking for a ‘Fire Escape.’
-THE FAMED FLOWERPOT
- If you use the restroom and find a flower pot AKA “The Lota” or a hose, DO NOT be alarmed. It is an Islamic thing to be meticulous about our cleanliness, TP ain’t enough! In case you haven’t seen one, here is the most common variety in North America.
5. Visiting the Mosque
-PROCEED WITH CAUTION
- Some mosques have unisex entrances. Others have a distinct entrance for women and a separate for men. You may want to scope out a building and observe the entrances and who is entering which entrance. If in doubt ask a benign looking mosque goer. In some mosques, walking into the opposite gender’s entrance feels like walking into the wrong bathroom – oops!
-COVERING THY HAIR
- It is the etiquette for women to cover their hair when entering a mosque. You don’t have to go all out and wrap it like Muslims do, but it may be advisable to have a scarf with you that you could just drape over your head in the case of a mosque visit.
-SHOES AND CARPET DON’T MIX WITH MUSLIMS
- Before entering any carepted area always be on the look out for a sign that says NO SHOES or a shoe rack where you are expected to place your shoes upon removing them. Look for the subtle cues and never be scared to ask “should I take my shoes off?”
-THE SOAP BOX BROTHER
- You are probably bound to run into a person who takes it upon him or herself to give you a completely random lecture. Smile, nod, thank, and move on! Don’t take it personally, it comes with the territory!