Answered by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, SunniPath Academy Teacher
Is it permissible for Muslim women to seek education in medicine in a non-Muslim environment where non-Muslim men do not lower their gazes?
In the Name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful.
I pray this message finds you in the best of health and iman. Thank you for your question.
The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, "Seeking knowledge is encumbent on every Muslim." [Ibn Majah]
As Muslims, we are required to learn what is necessary to make our faith and worship valid, sound and proper.
According to Reliance of the Traveller, a book of Sacred Law according to the school of Imam al-Shafi'i, there are three types of knowledge.
The first type, personally obligatory knowledge, is required of every Muslim male and female who has reached puberty and is of sound mind.
Personally obligatory knowledge includes knowing the basic tenets of faith, such as the attributes of Allah Most High, His Oneness, His transcendence and His absolute dissimilarity to created things. One must also affirm the fact that Allah Ta'ala sent prophets and messengers, and that Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, was the Seal of Prophethood. One must believe in the books of Allah, the angels, divine decree, and the Last Day.
In matters of worship, one is required to know enough to make one's prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage valid, sound and proper.
In matters of interpersonal relationships and business dealings, one is required to know what makes these relationships valid and invalid. For example, if one is seeking to marry, then one should learn the rulings of marriage and divorce and understand the scope of one's obligations to one's spouse.
The second type of knowledge is communally obligatory. If some members of the community undertake this responsibility, then the obligation of seeking this knowledge is lifted from the rest.
However, if no one seeks this type of knowledge, then the entire community is accountable. Examples of communally obligatory knowledge include specialized disciplines of Sacred Law such as Qur'an memorization, hadith classification, the science of methodological principles, and Arabic grammar.
Reliance specifically mentions,
"As for learning which is not Sacred Knowledge but is required to sustain worldly existence, such as medicine and mathematics, it too is a communal obligation." [Reliance, a5.2]
The third type of knowledge is recommended. It is the type of knowledge which extends beyond the communally obligatory and involves, for example, "in-depth research into the bases of evidence..." [Reliance, a6.1]
To reiterate, learning medicine is considered a communal obligation. What this means in your case, dear sister, is that some members of the Muslim community must seek this knowledge, otherwise the entire community is remiss.
With so many Muslim communities widely dispersed across North America, each community should, ideally, have individuals who are pursuing this type of knowledge. As Muslims, we have a responsibility to serve our own communities, as well as the society at large.
In your case, if you truly feel that there is a need in your community for a Muslim woman physician, then, by all means, you should pursue your goals. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Muslim community is in serious need of sisters who are in the health care professions, including -- but not limited to --doctors, midwives, nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, and natural practitioners.
Another very important consideration is that Sacred Law requires persons seeking medical treatment to be treated by same-sex health care providers. Many Muslim sisters end up going to male doctors because there are simply no female doctors available. In some cases, cultural taboos restrict women from going into higher education, thus further contributing to the lack of qualified female health care professionals.
Specifically, Reliance tell us,
"A Muslim woman needing medical attention must be treated by a Muslim woman doctor, or if there is none, then by a non-Muslim woman doctor. If there is none, then a male Muslim doctor may treat her, while if none of the above are available, then a male non-Muslim doctor." [Reliance, m2.10]
On to the issue of lowering the gaze:
Lowering the gaze is an injunction from Allah Ta'ala to believing men and women. [Surat an-Nur, 24:30-31]
As far as non-believers are concerned, one must deal with them with the same etiquette as when one deals with believers. This means lowering one's gaze even if they do not reciprocate. This also means refraining from idle conversation, which is a common occurrence in mixed-gender settings, and, when unchecked, can lead to innuendo and flirtation.
For sisters especially, it is best to exercise caution when dealing with non-Muslim men. Be aware of your surroundings and your environment. If someone makes you uncomfortable, leave the room or put some distance between you.
Know your rights in the workplace. You don't have to tolerate sexually suggestive or explicit language being used in your presence. Likewise, you don't have to put with people denigrating your religion or religious practices.
The most important point is to maintain professionalism. Be courteous to those around you. Hopefully, if you develop a respectful professional relationship, then it will be easier to educate others about various aspects of Islamic etiquette.
Finally, remember the example of the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, who was the most excellent of us in conduct.
Lowering one's gaze and refraining from idle conversation does not give one the license to be discourteous. Rather, one should observe the limits of gender interaction, while maintaining a polite, pleasant demeanor. Remember that one's behavior can be powerful da'wah.
And Allah alone knows best.
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