Women: Veil

Q709 :May I request you to clarify in detail the question of women's veil. I am studying to be a doctor, and I find that having to cover my face all the time is extremely impractical. I know that you have mentioned that a woman need not cover her face and her hands up to the wrist when she goes out in public but I have seen many people in my home country, Pakistan, insist on the requirement that a woman must cover her face. The late Abul Ala Maudoodi has discussed this issue at length with a decisive conclusion that a woman must cover her face in public. So do many scholars in my home country and also people who are members of various Islamic groups. I would be grateful for a full discussion on this question.

A709 : Before I discuss this question, I would like to make the following quotations from leading scholars of different schools of thought. Imam Al Shaf'ie included the whole basis of his school of thought in his scholarly work entitled, Al-Umm. In this book he says: "All [of] a woman's body is awrah with the exception of the lower part of her hands and her face. The top of her feet is also awrah." It is well known that awrah is an Islamic term which refers to the parts of the body which must be covered at all times. Ibn Rushd, a leading Maliki scholar says: "The great majority of scholars agree that all of a woman's body is awrah, with the exception of her face and the lower part of her hands. However, Imam Abu Haneefah considers that her feet are not part of her awrah." The main book which records the view of the Hanbali school of thought is that known as Al-Mughni, written by Ibn Qudamah. It is indeed the book to which reference is made generally when we want to know the Hanbali view. In this book, Ibn Qudamah writes: "All [of] a woman's body is awrah, with the exception of her face. As for the lower part of her hands, we have two different views." This means that the Hanbali school of thought includes scholars who consider that the hands, and we are here talking about the lower part of the hands up to the wrist - must be covered, and other scholars belonging to the same school of thought who are of the view that a woman may leave that part of her hands uncovered. Imam Ibn Hazam who was the one to put the Thahiri school of thought on solid foundation comments on an authentic Hadith as follows: "We see in this Hadith that Ibn Abbas saw women's hands in the presence of God's Messenger (peace be upon him). This means that it is correct to say that the hands and face of a woman are not awrah. The rest of her body is obligatory for her to cover." Imam Al Tabari, a leading scholar and commentator on the Qur'an of the second century of the Islamic era says: "The strongest and most accurate view is that which says that the exclusion (i.e. from what needs to be covered) refers to the face and the lower part of the hands up to the wrist. Also included are kohl, rings, bracelets and make-up (i.e. on the face and hands). We say that this is the strongest and most accurate view because all scholars are unanimous that everyone who needs to pray must cover the awrah in his or her prayer. A woman may reveal her face and the lower part of her hands in her prayer while she must cover the rest of her body. What is not part of awrah is not forbidden to reveal." I have made these quotations to show that what I have repeatedly said about the proper dress of a Muslim woman is not a personal view which I have invented. This is the view to which leading scholars in all four schools of thought, as well as leading commentators on the Qur'an, subscribe. Indeed, the evidence supporting this view is overwhelming. This report to which Ibn Hazm refers mentions that a woman with red cheeks put a question to the Prophet and he explained her query. How could the Prophet's companion reporting this Hadith know that she had red cheeks if her face was covered. The reporter says "I saw the women with their hands putting jewelry (which was given in charity) in Bilal's robe." This means that the reporter saw the women's faces and their hands. The Prophet did not tell them anything about the way they appeared. Another Hadith reported by Sahl ibn Sa'ad, a companion of the Prophet, mentions that a woman came to the Prophet and said: "Messenger of God, I have come to make of myself a gift to you." The Prophet gazed at her, looking her up and down, before lowering his head. He made no answer. When she saw that he did not make any comment on her offer, she sat down. Another version mentions that a companion of the Prophet asked him to marry her to him. He had nothing to offer in dower. The Prophet said to him: "Seek some dower, even though it may be an iron ring." The man eventually married her. The question here is: Had the woman been wearing a veil, why would the Prophet gaze at her, looking her up and down? Those who claim that covering a woman's face is obligatory quote a Hadith which mentions that a woman called Umm Khalad came to the Prophet wearing a veil and inquiring about her son who was killed in an expedition with the Prophet. Some of the Prophet's companions asked her: "You have come to inquire about your son wearing a veil?" The good woman said: "If I have lost my son, I certainly have not lost my modesty." But what does this report signify? If the veil was required as an obligation of worship, would the Prophet's companions have wondered at this woman who came wearing a veil? Certainly not. Their surprise indicates that there was no requirement which encouraged women to wear a veil when they want to go out in public. That was simply a God-fearing woman with a keen sense of modesty. If a modest woman wants to wear a veil, no one would stop her. But to say that it is obligatory for all women has no solid basis. Perhaps the clearest report which tells us how women used to go out in public at the time of the Prophet is one related by Muslim - which makes it highly authentic - of an event that took place after the Prophet's farewell pilgrimage. In other words, it gives a final verdict. This report runs as follows: "Sabee'ah bint Al Harith (a companion of the Prophet) was pregnant when her husband died and she became a widow. A few days later, she gave birth to her child. Soon afterward she made herself up in case a proposal of marriage would come her way. A man named Abu As-Sanabel came to visit her. Wondering at her condition, he said: How come that you are wearing make-up? It seems as if you are keen to get married. By God, you are not allowed to marry before the lapse of four months and ten days." Sabeeh reports : "When he said that to me, I changed my clothes when the evening approached and went to see God's Messenger (peace be upon him). I asked him about that and he told me that my waiting period was over when I gave birth to my child. He said that I could marry if I wanted." Here we find a woman wearing make-up on her face and hands, and visited by Abu As-Sanabel, who was not closely related to her. He may have been a man of her clan, but certainly was not a brother or an uncle of hers. He objected to her behavior, but she made certain by putting the matter to the Prophet who did not object to anything she did. The sum-up of the views of the great scholars we have quoted and these reports and Hadiths which we have mentioned is that the Islamic society is one which does not confine women in their homes in the way the advocates of the veil imagine. Indeed, it appears to us that it was a society where women went about their business freely, and they could meet men and talk to them, recognized by their faces which were not covered. I say this and I have the greatest respect for Maulana Maudoodi. He was certainly entitled to his views, but his view on this subject does not have the support of the better evidence. He relies on his interpretation of Verse 59 of Surah 33, which my reader has quoted at length. I do not think that the verse is concerned with covering women's faces at all. These days some people make a great issue of covering women's faces. What I would like to say concerning this is that those people are entitled to their view, but they should not make it the central issue of Islamic society, because it is not. They should at least respect the view of the majority of scholars who are in agreement, as we have shown, that a Muslim woman need not cover her face or the lower part of her hands up to the wrist when she goes out in public.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )