Answered by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari, SunniPath Academy Teacher
In the Name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful.
I pray that this message finds you in good health and spirits.
Thank you for your sensitivity to issues of social etiquette. This is an important question.
First of all, please don't be overwhelmed. Islam's social structure, particularly in the area of gender relations, might appear very complicated. However, in reality, if you just stick to a few basic rules, then you should have no problem interacting with Muslims.
1. Greetings and phrases:
You are free to use any greeting you wish. Some non-Muslims like to use the Muslim greeting of peace when interacting with Muslims. If you would like to try this, just keep in mind that some Muslims are surprised to hear salaams from non-Muslims, and might not respond automatically. Others, however, will have no problem with this.
Ultimately, use whatever greeting you are comfortable with.
I can't think of any particular phrases or expressions to avoid. Consider the way you would speak to someone with whom you are getting acquainted. Normally, you would avoid overly familiar or casual speech. I think this is a rule that would apply to everyone, no matter their religion.
2. Taboo topics:
Again, the context is important. When I studied Islam in Syria, the Shaykh (religious scholar) who founded our school, Ahmad Kuftaro (may Allah bestow His mercy upon him), spoke frequently about the concept of hikma, or wisdom. He defined wisdom as the ability to do what is appropriate at the time when it is appropriate, and in the manner that is appropriate. He said that this was the hallmark of the Prophetic Sunna, the living tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace.
Muslims try to apply this concept of wisdom to their social interactions, particularly with members of the opposite sex.
If you are conversing with Muslims, and especially with Muslim women, then you will want to steer clear of topics that are antithetical to a pious Muslim life, such as premarital or extramarital sex, drinking, drugs, partying, etc. I bring these things up because I have been in situations where non-Muslim classmates have revealed details of their lives that I would rather not have heard. A good rule of thumb is this: is this a topic you would want your little sister discussing with a guy? If not, then it's better to avoid it.
Again, the only customs to observe when interacting with Muslim women (and I'm assuming that you're male) are to avoid shaking the women's hands or making any sort of physical contact. Observant Muslims avoid the sort of casual physical contact with the opposite sex to which we're accustomed here in America, such as shaking hands, hugging, etc.
Also, in terms of eye contact, you'll notice that observant Muslims will avoid staring at members of the opposite sex. This lowering of the gaze facilitates modesty and respect for the other person and shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of confidence or unfriendliness.
To conclude, gender etiquette among Muslims is not as complicated as you might think. As long as you avoid explicit or suggestive conversation, don't make physical contact, and maintain a respectful and modest demeanor, then interacting with Muslims of the opposite sex should not be a problem.
And Allah knows best.
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