Who are Mahrams in Islam?

Every day we meet several people at work, in the shops, at the university, in the neighborhood or at parties and gatherings with whom we communicate and interact. Talking, telling jokes, shaking hands, touching or kissing usually happen in these interactions; but, is a Muslim allowed to do all these with whoever he/she wants? Or is he/she permitted to be exposed to such acts?  These and many similar questions are answered in Islam.

To clarify and form the relations among people, Islam has presented the concept of Maharim and the two categories “Mahram” and “non-Mahram” which sometimes serve as conditions, requirements or the basis of several Islamic laws. Regarding the Islamic rules on marriage, these categories define who a person can and cannot marry. Likewise, when dealing with Islamic dress code, i.e., explaining whom one must cover specific parts of a body in front of, the concept of Maharim is required.

mahrams, Islam, Muslims, family, man, woman

Who is Mahram?

One’s Mahram is anyone whom it is permanently forbidden to marry because of blood ties, marriage ties or breastfeeding. However, a woman does not need to cover her hair and put on Hijab when she is in their presence.  A woman's male Mahrams fall into three categories plus her spouse [1]. Mahrams for a man are derived similarly. The Maharim for both, extracted from the verses of the Holy Quran (4:22-23) and (24:31), are listed below [1], and all other people and relatives are considered as non-Maharams.

Categories of Maharim

Permanent or blood Mahrams, with whom one is Mahram through blood ties:
parents, grandparents, and further ancestors;
siblings;
children, grandchildren, and further descendants;
siblings of parents, grandparents and further ancestors (cousins and their children are not Mahram);
children and further descendants of siblings;
In-law Mahrams, with whom one becomes Mahram through marriage ties:
father-in-law, mother-in-law;
son-in-law, daughter-in-law;
stepfather (mother's husband) if their marriage is consummated, stepmother (father's wife) even if their marriage is not consummated;
stepson (husband's son) even if their marriage is not consummated, stepdaughter (wife's daughter) if their marriage is consummated[i];
Rada or "milk-suckling Mahrams," with whom one becomes Mahram because of being breastfed by her. When a woman breastfeeds an infant that is not her child for a certain amount of time under certain conditions, she becomes the child's rada mother and everything concerning blood Mahrams apply here, such as rada father/mother, rada sister/brother, rada aunt/uncle and so on. In English, these can be referred to as milk-brother, milk-mother, etc. [ii].

maharim, mahram, marriage, Islam, Muslims

Maharim and Marriage

It is forbidden (Haram) to marry Mahrams, but one can marry non-Mahrams who have reached puberty. As explained above, Married couples are Mahram to each other. But unlike other Mahrams, the limitations and rulings on looking and touching do not apply to them; i.e., married couples are the only ones allowed to touch and look at the whole body of one another; even the private parts. 

Maharim and Social Interactions

Regarding the social interactions, there are some rules according to the concept of Maharim:

Women and men are both required to keep their gazes downcast and should not stare at the other person when facing non-Mahrams or talk to them. Even Mahrams are not allowed to see certain parts of body of each other (this will be discussed more under a separate topic “the Islamic rules on looking“);
When talking to non-Mahrams, the tone of voice should be serious, and the dialogues should be direct and as much as necessary. One should also avoid telling jokes and laughing loudly [iii];
Any physical contact (i.e., shaking hands, hugging touching) with non-Mahrams is forbidden (haram), except for curing patients. In this case, if a doctor of the same gender as the patient exists and can cure, then it is forbidden to refer to a non-Mahram doctor.
When being sole in a closed room (where no one else can enter, i.e., locked place), it is forbidden for a non-Mahram man to remain alone in the company of a non-Mahram woman. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) said: “No man is alone with a woman except that Satan is the third one present ” [2];
It is required (Wajib) to cover specific parts of a body in the presence of a non-Mahram according to the Islamic dress code. For men, this includes from navel to knee. For women, the clothing should cover their hair and body, but covering the face and the hands, from the wrist to the fingers, is not mandated [3].


Notes:

[i] sister-in-law and brother-in-law are not Mahram.

[ii] Refer to your source of emulation (Marja’ Taqlid) for more details and the rulings.

[iii] See the article on modesty.

References: 

[1] http://www.hawzah.net

[2] S. H. al-Amili, “Wasail al-Shia”, vol. 20, p. 131.

[3] A. Aroussi Howayzi, “Tafsir Noor al-Thaqalayn”, vol. 3/589, T. 105.