All aboard! You're a happeningly hip young practicing Muslim attending the local university. After staying for an unnecessarily long MSA Exec Board meeting on campus, you are forced to take the train home during rush hour. You really want to get home in time for dinner, so you hurry to the station and barely squeeze into one of the cars in time for the express ride home.
As you make your way to find a seat, you notice two, and only two open seats. However, next to each of the spots are two young outrageously attractive passengers of the opposite gender the likes of super models; one non-Muslim and the other a practicing Muslim from your MSA, community, and masjid. You're dead tired from the day and standing is not an option on this 45 minute ride. As the train leaves, the question emerges: where do you sit?
Keep in mind that this is an express ride. The train boards now, and doesn't stop until your stop many miles away. Therefore finding open seats and moving from car to car is very difficult, and where you sit is where you sit, period. So let's look at our options.
Option 1a: Sit with the non-Muslim
Better to sit with some “stranger” than to make it awkward by sitting next to the sister, right? Not necessarily. Many Muslims are very lax when interacting with non-Muslims of the opposite gender yet very strict about not even acknowledging the existence of their fellow Muslim sisters, an incorrect way of thinking. Not to mention the uneasiness of sitting next to a dangerously attractive human being. Sure you won't “do” anything, but your eyes certainly might. After all, it was related that the Prophet (SAW) said that the first look is the poison tipped arrow of Shaytan. Ouch! This option doesn't look so promising.
Option 1b: Sit with the Muslim
Better than sitting with the non-Muslim? Doesn't seem so certain. The last time you had to be so close to this person was in 4th grade Sunday School class. After that, you saw them at Iftar parties, masjid fund raisers, or during MSA events. And to make matters worse, this is someone who is pure “potential,” if you know what I mean. You really don't want to be on the the “hey Salma” and “hi Kashif” “omg let's go get dessert together” methodology many Muslims have fallen into. Seems sitting next to them is probably not the best way to maintain that respectful means of interaction with this fellow Muslim brother or sister.
Option 2: Stand for 45 minutes
Your feet are killing you from your long day of Gen Chem lab and if you were to stand the ride home, you wouldn't have the energy to study for exams, help your parents, or worship you Lord late into the night. Yikes!
Our scenario doesn't look so good, huh? Is this dilemma really impossible to solve at this point? Well, the thing is, it's not always so black or white.
Gender interaction isn't an on and off switch between “fully integrate” and “totally ignore.” You need to judge scenarios and see exactly what's up, while at the same time act in a manner of respect. You gotta use your brain.
Take Musa 'alayhi as salam for example. When he came by the two women who were in need of assistance, what did he do? Did he ignore them and walk away in “fear” of his Lord? No. Did he help them yet at the same time get too close and friendly around them? A'udhubiAllah, no. He helped them and took them to where they needed to go, yet he kept it real. As they traveled to their destination, he walked in front of them instead of next to or behind them, so as to help them and at the same time respect them according to the manners of gender interaction.
Lots of young Muslims run into the dangers of the two extremes. Either overly-strict ignoring the opposite gender, or overly-lax “hi!!!1 omg let's get some Coldstone on Friday night.” Muslims need to interact with one another, but at the same time know to keep it real.
So what's the answer to this scenario? Simple, follow the methodology of Musa 'alayhi as salam: think and keep it real!
Option 3: Think and keep it real!
Ask the fellow Muslim to switch seats and have them sit next to the other passenger of their gender. That leaves an open seat for you to sit comfortably without having to deal with any “alternatives.” There's nothing wrong in speaking to the opposite gender, so long as it is done for need, with respect and without any non-sense. Following the example of Musa, we know that the Prophetic method is to interact with the opposite gender but to modify your actions to suit the scenario in terms of respect.
So you go with option 3, the Muslim of the other gender performs da'wah on the non-Muslim who converts giving you the ajr, and Allāh rewards the both of you with a wonderful marriage, many children, and life happily ever after. Just like how Prophet Musa (A) married one of those women!
Okay, okay, so the ending was a bit stretched, I admit. But do you see how by using our noggins a bit, we can still keep it real? Alhumdulillah.
We ask Allāh (SWT) make us like Musa (A) and those who when it's time to act think and keep it real.