Home > Women's Rights > Reflections on the Hijab in Islamic Law

Reflections on the Hijab in Islamic Law

This post sets out of prove that — contrary to some popular assertions — according to the Hanafi school of Islamic law, women are not obligated to cover their faces in public, and there is no conflict between being an active, public Muslim woman, and maintaining one’s faith and modesty. Excerpts from classical Hanafi books are at the end of this post. However, firstly, a unique history and reflections on modesty in Islamic law will be presented.


There has always been a conflict between what has been termed “High Islam” and “Low Islam” — the scholastic ideal of Islamic law as interpreted by scholars, on the one hand, and the lived reality and perceptions of normal Muslims on the other. As a legalistic religion that has traditionally hinged upon scholarship and learning, there will necessarily be degrees of division between how normal Muslims perceive Islam, and the world of legalistic minutiae that “scholars” inhabit and are forced to negotiate with the real world. This division has existed in Islam since its inception, has given rise to multiple dynamics within Islamic societies, events, and theology, and it is still present today. It is this divide that has allowed the acceptance of democracy among Muslim masses, and is serving to liberalize and modify perceptions of Islam among its adherents.

In terms of the hijab — the distinguishing article of clothing that Muslim women wear — the vast majority of modern Muslims across the world consider it to be something good, if not a religious obligation. Among practicing Muslims — whether in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, or London — the common perception is that the hijab is the minimum requisite piece of clothing that one must wear, in order to be modest, fulfill God’s commands, and not sin. However, if a woman wishes to cover her face with a niqab, that is her choice, and it might be recommended or praiseworthy, but still wholly optional. This is the consensus that modern Muslims have basically agreed upon — and indeed, this view has basis in some Islamic legal precedent.

Therefore, it is a concern when popular Islamic personalities — usually “scholars” on TV, or the Internet — claim that the hijab is not “good enough.” That rather, Islam dictates covering the face to be wajib, or obligatory. That the vast majority of Muslims — this lived consensus that the “low Muslims” have reached — is flawed and wrong. Therefore, the “true Muslims” on the “straight path” are very few, and women who wear the hijab, instead of being paramours of modesty, are in fact sinning, and will be subject to Divine punishment. As a consequence, if this minority gains power in this world, they will surely try to mitigate this sin through coercion — as the Taliban did by mandating the burqa.

While I have no problem with an individual’s choice to wear the niqab — France’s recent ban on its public wearing is an affront to religious freedom that will ultimately hurt the health of its society — what I do have an issue with “scholars” claiming that women have no choice in the matter, that a female showing her face in modern society is a sin, and that “Islam” is a monolith that has always believed this to be the case. It is these toxic and exclusivist claims that are driving segments of Egyptian society to the brink of Talibanization, and serving to enforce radicalization and “otherness” in parts of Europe and the Middle East.

While the Middle East is largely inhabited by TV preachers — in English, Islamic law material on the Internet is slowly becoming dominated by South Asian “muftis,” living in urban centers of the Western diaspora, and loosely affiliated with India and Pakistan’s Deobandi “school.” These websites feature the ability to ask questions, and receive “authoritative” fatwas in reply. Slowly, such websites are coming to take up larger space in what Western Muslims learn about Islam, and often, their fatwas are not questioned. Usually, they are also allergic to academic criticism or debate (and free speech), and heavily advance the notion that lay Muslims are bound to the system of taqlid — the following of a specific scholar or school of law — and that the “untrained layman” (as if Islamic law is rocket science), must accept these fatwas without questioning.

In this vein, I recently came across an article entitled, “The Niqab and its obligation in the Hanafi madhhab.” It is one of several articles floating around cyberspace that set out to prove, through copious quoting of classical Islamic law (though necessarily not including translations, or real analysis, as that would blow their cover), that women who wear the hijab are not fulfilling their religious obligation, and that the Hanafi madhab — a Sunni Islamic school of law that predominates in Central and South Asia, and parts of the Arab world — obligates women to cover their faces on pain of sin. Instead of nuanced analysis, readers are inundated with a list of “past scholars” who have “believed” this to be true, and therefore this incredible scholarly consensus exists that one cannot question. This will then overwhelm the reader, and perhaps guilt them into doing whatever the fatwa says. That is the intention, at least.

Now, I truly don’t think many people are going to believe this — the shared, collective experience of modern Muslims dictates otherwise. However, especially in urban, South Asian centers of diaspora, such as in the UK and South Africa, I cannot be sure that such blog posts or articles have not influenced some women to cover themselves, perhaps in some ways against their instinctual thinking.

This post aims to be a bit of an intellectual rebuttal to that argument (for the “high” Muslims who do care about such things, at least), and highlight some unknown facts about the hijab, and its place within Islamic law. I will quote books from the Hanafi madhab that counter the notion that women must cover their faces, and highlight the paradoxical notion that while obligating women to cover their faces due to fitna — some classical Islamic scholars also declared that slave women could walk around without a veil, or much of any clothing at all. Hopefully it will prompt a bit of questioning all around.

The Niqab Existed Before Islam

To start, the niqab is not something uniquely Islamic. Rather, nearly 400 years prior to Islam, the Christian writer Tertullian — himself exorting unmarried Christian “virgins” to cover their faces — reveals to us that women living in the Arabian peninsula did likewise:

Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also, so entirely, that they are content, with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face. A female would rather see than be seen.

— Tertullian (d. 220 CE), On the Veiling of Virgins

While a Muslim can come up with some theological points about this (perhaps, these Arabs had retained this pure Islamic practice from an earlier prophet, despite their descent into polytheism), to the more rationally minded, it just shows that covering the face was a long-time part of desert culture that Islam came to tacitly accept, or endorse.

The Khimar and Jilbab — Islam’s Standardization of Modesty

The pre-Islamic Arabian peninsula was probably a pluralistic place. Some people were modest, some were not. Some wore a veil on their heads, some didn’t. Some people practiced polygamy, some shunned it. Islam then came to standardize the practice by mandating set notions of modesty, through Koranic revelations. The two verses concerning female clothing being:

وقل للمؤمنات يغضضن من أبصارهن ويحفظن فروجهن ولا يبدين زينتهن إلا ما ظهر منها وليضربن بخمرهن على جيوبهن

24:31 And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their private parts; and not display their beauty except what is apparent thereof, by drawing their veils (khimar) over their bosoms…

يا أيها النبي قل لأزواجك وبناتك ونساء المؤمنين يدنين عليهن من جلابيبهن ذلك أدنى أن يعرفن فلا يؤذين وكان الله غفورا رحيما

33:59 O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments (jilbab) over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

The term khimar is the classical Arabic word for what is commonly known today as the hijab. It was a piece of clothing  that was worn on the head, and extended over the shoulders and chest, leaving the face uncovered. Khimar technically means “covering” in general. We know that the khimar does not cover the face because in early narrations from Islamic law, women have been told to pray in a khimar, or make ritual ablution (wudu) in their khimar (in which washing the face is a necessary component). The second-generation Muslim scholar Ibn Sirin is reported to have disliked that a woman’s ears “protrude from her khimar” during prayer — much as is the style among some Muslim women today. This shows that linguistically, the khimar is synonymous with what is today considered the hijab:

عبد الرزاق عن معمر عن قتادة عن ابن سيرين كره أن تصلي المرأة وأذنها خارجة من الخمار

Ibn Sirin (d. 100 AH/728 CE) hated that a woman pray and her ears protrude from the khimar.

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

The verse ordering the wearing of the jilbab (33:59) came after that of the khimar. The jilbab is a large, sheet-like garment worn over the head, that is supposed to hide the curves of a woman. Reports from early Islamic literature suggest that a jilbab was large enough that if necessary, two women could fit under it. The closest modern parallel that I have been able to find is the Iranian chador. However, a bed sheet wrapped around one’s clothing is fitting imagery.

The jilbab by itself does not cover the face. However, a woman can wear it in a style that it is draped over her face. We know this because the niqab is a piece of clothing that was specifically designed to cover the face, and was worn on top of the jilbab. Muslim women have been commanded during Hajj to not cover their faces by wearing a niqab — but this does not nullify the Koranic order to wear the jilbab. If the jilbab itself covered the face, there would be no need for the niqab to exist. For all intents and purposes, the order for the jilbab — while it leaves the face exempt from covering — nullified the previous verse on the khimar (hijab). If you wrap a sheet around your body, including the top of your head and hair — this obviously supersedes the idea of a hijab alone.

Therefore, questions such as this emerged among scholars in the early centuries of Islam:

عبد الرزاق عن بن جريج قال قلت لعطاء أتجلبب المرأة ولا خمار عليها قال لا يضر

Ibn Jurayj (150 AH/767 CE) asked Ata ibn Abi Rabah (d. 114 AH/732 CE), “Can a woman wear the jilbab, and there is no khimar upon her?” He replied, “That does not harm her.”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the order for the jilbab abrogated the order for the hijab. Although, there is no cognizance or practice among modern Muslims today as to what the jilbab constitutes — most, even if they do claim to understand the verse, take it to mean wearing a niqab — a piece of clothing that technically is worn on top of the jilbab. The verse of the jilbab is an order that the “low Muslims” have ignored, and one that the “high Muslims” are befuddled by, and misinterpret. This confusion seems to have started early in Islamic history.

A Wrench in the Understanding — Slave Women

All of this is fine and well except for one thing — classical scholars took the verse about the jilbab as applying to free women only. This is due to the idiosyncrasies surrounding the asbab al-nuzul of the verse — the reasons why the verse was revealed.

عبد الرزاق عن معمر عن الحسن قال كن إماء بالمدينة يقال لهن كذا وكذا كن يخرجن فيتعرض لهن السفهاء فيؤذوهن لأنه فكانت المرأة الحرة تخرج فيحسبون أنها أمة فيتعرضون لها ويؤذونها أخبرنا فأمر النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم المؤمنات أن يدنين عليهن من جلابيبهن ذلك أدنى أن يعرفن من الإماء أنهن حرائر فلا يؤذين

Al-Hassan al-Basri (d. 728 AH/110 CE) said: Slave women in Medina used to be told certain things when they went outside. (One night) some foolish people accosted a group of women and bothered (or hurt) them because they thought they were slave women, but they were actually free women. Because of this, the Prophet ordered the believing women to cast their jilbabs upon themselves, so they would be distinguished as free women, and known from the slave women, and not bothered.

Tafsir Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE)

Now, this seems like faulty logic to me. The solution doesn’t seem to address the root problem at hand: Women were being abused and molested. Instead of a verse being revealed about it being wrong to pester women, instead there was a verse telling the free Muslim women just to wear a distinguishing piece of clothing, so they wouldn’t be bothered. How about keeping the clothing the same, and reprimanding those who abuse women? Clearly, it is a strange response to this situation.

This is not new information. Some informed, modern, female Muslim academics forego wearing the hijab because they sense that it was a social distinction between free and slave women — a social circumstance that no longer applies today. None of them, however, question the logic of this verse. Were the slave women still pestered after this verse was revealed? Well, thankfully those free women wore special clothes so at least they didn’t have to suffer abuse.

While the dating of this tafsir is relatively late (at its earliest, Hassan al-Basri, a second-generation Islamic personality, reports it via the Tafsir of Abd al-Razzaq), its effects can be dated to very early in Islamic history. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, prohibited slave women from wearing the jilbab:

عبد الرزاق عن معمر عن أيوب عن نافع أن عمر رأى جارية خرجت من بيت حفصة متزينة عليها جلباب أو من بيت بعض أزواج النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم فدخل عمر البيت فقال من هذه الجارية فقالوا أمة لنا – أو قالوا أمة لآل فلان – فتغيظ عليهم وقال أتخرجون إماءكم بزينتها تفتنون الناس

Umar once saw a young girl leaving the house of Hafsa (his daughter), adorned with a jilbab — or, from one of the houses of the Prophet’s wives. Umar entered the house and said, “Who is this girl?” They said, “A slave of ours” — or, a slave of someone’s family. He became enraged at them and said, “Your slave girls left with their adornment, and created discord (fitna) amongst the people.”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

In other reports, Umar is reported “hitting” the jilbab off of slave women, or exhorting them to remove it:

عبد الرزاق عن معمر عن قتادة عن أنس أن عمر ضرب أمة لآل أنس رآها متقنعة قال اكشفي رأسك لا تشبهين بالحرائر

Umar hit the slave women from the family of Anas ibn Malik, when he saw them covered and said, “Uncover your head, and do not resemble the free women.”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

Umar’s actions seem to have caused disagreement among Muslim jurists. Was Umar simply removing her jilbab — or the khimar as well? Unfortunately, the answer seems to have skewed disproportionately in favor of the latter: Slave women were not only prohibited from wearing the jilbab, but also the khimar. Jurists in the following centuries allowed Muslim slave women to pray without a head covering, and walk topless in public. The slave woman’s awrah — the legally delineated area that must be covered in order to avoid sin — became the same as the man, from the navel to the knees. Whereas the free woman’s awrah encompassed only her face, hands, (and in some cases) feet.

ولا ينبغي للرجل أن ينظر من أمة غيره إذا كانت بالغة أو تشتهي مثلها أو توطأ إلا ما ينظر إليه من ذوات المحرم ولا بأس بأن ينظر إلى شعرها وإلى صدرها وإلى ثديها وعضدها وقدمها وساقها ولا ينظر إلى بطنها ولا إلى ظهرها ولا إلى ما بين السرة منها حتى يجاوز الركبة

It is not permissible for a man to look at a slave woman other than his own, if she has reached puberty (baligha), or he has a desire for her, except what it is permissible to look at from his relatives (maharam). So, there is no harm that he look at her hair, her chest, her breasts, her arm, her foot, or leg. And he does not look at her stomach or back, or what is between the navel and the knees.

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH/804 CE). Al-Mabsut, vol. 3, p. 47

Although Muslims now live in societies that have abandoned slavery (due to colonial pressure over the past two centuries, little effort from Muslims themselves), this radical dynamic would have incredibly influenced Muslim societies and perceptions of Islam. The differences in modesty between slave women and free women would be immediately clear. The concerns in the Muslim world today over women not wearing the hijab pale in comparison to the slave markets, and topless slaves of centuries ago (yes, you read the above quote correctly, classical Muslim jurists also permitted men to look at their female relatives’ breasts). The fact that most modern Muslims lack cognizance of this fact is simply damning, and speaks volumes to the ways in which society, culture, and government policies can come to shape perception of religion, the limits of scholastic worldviews, and also how people can retain the label of religion, but come to believe whatever they want. I wonder what all the Muslim feminists who defend hijab in the name of modesty would think, if given a full accounting of this history, where Muslim women were in fact punished if they tried to be modest?

Were the Scholars Wrong?

As most modern Muslims can tell you, there is nothing clear in the Koran to differentiate between free and slave women (the exception being, however, that slave women receive half the corporal punishment of free women for adultery in 4:25, which seems to have perhaps informed attempts to differentiate free from slave women in juristic rulings, including the halving of her “waiting period” (idda), and perhaps even informing this issue). However, there is a near consensus between the four schools of Sunni Islamic law that slave women either did not have to — or were prohibited from — wearing clothing to cover their heads and breasts. Despite this, some dissenting voices did exist in early Islamic history. And, academically speaking, I tend to agree with them.

عبد الرزاق عن بن جريج قال بلغني عن أشياخ من أهل المدينة أن الخمر على الإماء إذا حضن وليس عليهن الجلابيب

Ibn Jurayj (150 AH/767 CE) reported that it had reached him from some of the sheikhs of the people of Medina that slave women wear the khimar when they begin to menstruate, but they do not wear the jilbab.

عبد الرزاق عن بن جريج قال قلت لعطاء أتصلي المرأة في دراعة قال نعم أخبرت أن الاماء على عهد رسول الله وبعده كن لا يصلين حتى تجعل إحداهن إزارها على رأسها متقنعة او خمارا أو خرقة يغيب فيها رأسها

Ibn Jurayj asked Ata ibn Abi Rabah (d. 114 AH/732 CE) about the woman, does she pray in a diraa (a type of shirt)? He said, “Yes, it has reached me that the slave woman during the time of the Prophet and afterwards did not pray until she had put something on her head: An izar, khimar, or a sheet, to hide her head with it.”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

It is interesting to note that while Ibn Jurayj asked about slave women wearing a shirt  — the reply focused on the head covering. This seems to point to the fact that at this time, the practice was for slave women to pray with no more clothing than the limits of the awrah indicated. While Ata ibn Abi Rabah has varying views recorded for him, he is clear to delineate “during the Prophet’s time,” which shows that things changed thereafter.

More importantly, Ibn Jurayj states that multiple sheikhs — or scholars — from Medina (Islam’s second holiest city, known to attract many scholars) believed that slave women were obligated to wear a khimar (as revealed in Surah al-Nur, before the jilbab), when they begin to menstruate (the time at which classical scholars agreed that laws concerning female modesty come into effect). It was merely the jilbab that they did not wear. Moreover, if the young boys who allegedly bothered the slave women (resulting in the verse being revealed) could not distinguish between them and free women — and the verse of khimar was revealed before the verse of jilbab — it might mean that both slave and free women equally wore the khimar. Overall, the tafsir and general reasoning is fraught with difficulty. Thus, slave women would still be bound by the verse of the khimar, while free women had to assume something additional.

It is interesting that Malik ibn Anas and the Maliki madhab, which takes the opinion of the “people of Medina” (amal ahl al-Madinah) into account as a juristic principle, nonetheless upheld the conventional view that slave women could show their breasts. Therefore, the concept of “ijma,” or consensus — the juristic tool that came to dominate the four Sunni madhabs (and silence critics), which claims that agreement between them is a binding source of Islamic law — actually had no consensus at all in early Islamic history. I think this example proves that accepting the validity of ijma between the four Sunni madhabs as a binding source of law is simply not tenable — in this case, there existed multiple scholars who held an opinion (that seems to be quite valid), that was not assimilated into any of them.

How exactly this transition took place from tacit modesty for slave women, to the view that they were basically sexual objects who couldn’t even cover their bodies, is unknown to me. However, it was clearly an issue of contention within the first Islamic centuries, which came to last up until the 19th century.

The Hijab in the Hanafi Madhab

All of these are largely theoretical issues (though, perhaps knowing about them will give a modern Muslim some doubts). Thankfully, slavery does not exist anymore, and most Muslims have come to abhor the notion of it. Now that a necessary, unauthorized history of the “hijab” has been given (which will hopefully give pause for reflection), now it’s time to prove that classical scholars (despite sanctioning this strange dynamic with slave women), at the same time did not fully sanction the notion that free women must cover their faces. And, for those that did…the shortcomings of such scholarship will be highlighted.

Given the fact that the jilbab is an accessory to the khimar — that is, it is a different piece of clothing, but still does not cover the face in and of itself — juristic discussions of female modesty tend to focus on the verse of the khimar. Specific attention is paid to the stipulation that women can “not display their beauty, except that which (necessarily) appears thereof” — wa laa yubdeena zeenatahunna illa ma dhahara minha (24:31).

The companions of the Prophet Muhammad, their followers, and early scholars disagreed on the meaning of what zeenah (beauty, or adornment) constitutes. For some, it was the face and hands of the woman. For others, it was eyeliner (kuhl) and bracelets or rings — which scholars interpreted as the location of these accessories — meaning, the face and hands. For others, it was a woman’s clothing in general. However, the concession in the verse that there can be areas of exception for what can be displayed in public, ultimately led to women being allowed to show some parts of their body in public. In the Hanafi treatment, this includes the woman’s face, hands, and feet. And, according to some more lenient interpretations, her arms up to the elbow.

Hanafi scholars largely couple this discussion with treatments of what men are allowed to look at from “foreign” women. They largely concluded that if unaccompanied by desire (shahwa), it was permissible to look at these areas of the woman’s body that are not awrah. These discussions take place in three different sections in Hanafi works: Kitab al-Salah, Kitab al-Hajj, and Kitab al-Istihsan. In prayer (salah), due to legal limits and delineations of modesty for men and women, for its acceptability. For Hajj, because most scholars considered it forbidden for a woman to cover her face with a niqab in a state of ihram. And istihsan — or judicial preference — where miscellaneous issues such as “gazing” tend to be covered.

The opinions are diverse — some scholars claim that showing the face is only permissible in times of “necessity” — whereas others explicitly reject such a notion. However, a broad consensus emerges that the Hanafi madhab allows a woman to show her face, hands, and feet in public (as Muslim women today largely practice).

While mention of the limits of awrah is present in almost all Hanafi books (making quoting them in totality redundant), only those that cover the issue in a relatively comprehensive manner will be quoted (earlier works given preferential treatment), and those that show the range of juristic dynamics present.

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH/804 CE)Al-Mabsut, vol. 3, pp. 49-50

وأما المرأة الحرة التي لا نكاح بينه وبينها ولا حرمة ممن يحل له نكاحها فليس ينبغي له أن ينظر إلى شيء منها مكشوفا إلا الوجه والكف ، ولا بأس بأن ينظر إلى وجهها وإلى كفها ، ولا ينظر إلى شيء غير ذلك منها ؛ وهذا قول أبي حنيفة ، وقال الله تبارك وتعإلى وقل للمؤمنات يغضضن من أبصارهن ويحفظن فروجهن ولا يبدين زينتهن إلا ما ظهر منها ففسر المفسرون أن ما ظهر منها الكحل والخاتم ، والكحل زينة الوجه ، والخاتم زينة الكف ، فرخص في هاتين الزينتين ولا بأس بأن ينظر إلى وجهها وكفها إلا أن يكون إنما ينظر إلى ذلك اشتهاء منه لها فان كان ذلك فليس ينبغي له أن ينظر إليه

As for the free woman, when there is no contract of marriage between her and a man, it is not permissible for him to look at anything uncovered from her, except the face and the hands. There is no harm in looking at her face and her hands, and nothing other than that. And this is the saying of Abu Hanifa.

Allah, the Exalted, the Almighty says, “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their private parts; and not display their beauty except what is apparent thereof…” (24:31)

The mufasireen (Koranic exegetes) have explained that “what is apparent” is the ring and the eyeliner (kuhl), and the kuhl is the adornment (zeenah) of the face, and the ring is the adornment of the hand. So, there is a concession (rukhsa) for these two areas, and there is no harm in looking at her face and hands, except if it is accompanied by desire. If that is the case, then it is not permissible to look at them.

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH/804 CE)Al-Muwatta, p. 138

قال محمد : يكره أن يلبس المحرم المشبع بالعصفر والمصبوغ بالورس أو الزعفران ، إلا أن يكون شيء من ذلك قد غسل ، فذهب ريحه وصار لا ينفض ، فلا بأس بأن يلبسه ، ولا ينبغي للمرأة أن تتنقب فإن أرادت أن تغطي وجهها فلتسدل الثوب سدلا من فوق خمارها على وجهها ، وتجافيه عن وجهها ، وهو قول أبي حنيفة والعامة من فقهائنا

It is not permissible for a woman to wear a niqab (during hajj), however, if she wants to cover her face, she can drape a cloth over her khimar and face…and this is the saying of Abu Hanifah, and the generality of our scholars.

It is important to note that the student of Abu Hanifa, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani, considered covering the face to be a choice during hajj. However, this had to be with a simple piece of cloth, as the niqab — an independent piece of clothing that perhaps contravenes the rules of Hajj to not use sewn clothes — was prohibited. This early notion of choice during Hajj seems to have undergone revision with some later Hanafi scholars, who stressed it to be an obligation:

المرأة المحرمة ترخي على وجهها خرقة وتجافي عن وجهها، دلت المسألة على أن المرأة منهية عن إظهار وجهها للأجانب من غير ضرورة لأنها منهية عن تغطية الوجه لحق النسك لولا أن الأمر كذلك لم يكن لهذا إلارخاء فائدة

The woman in ihram drapes a cloth over her face, because the woman is prohibited from showing her face to unrelated men except due to necessity. The prohibition of covering her face during the activities of Hajj does not necessitate a relaxation of (the general) rule.

— Burhan al-Deen Ali ibn Abi Bakr al-Marghinani (d. 593 AH/1197 CE). Kitab al-Tajnis wa al-Mazid, vol. 2, p. 479

Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tahawi (d. 321 AH/933 CE)Sharh Maani al-Athar

حدثنا أبو بكرة قال : ثنا أبو عاصم قال : ثنا سفيان الثوري عن منصور عن إبراهيم { ولا يبدين زينتهن إلا ما ظهر منها } قال : هو ما فوق الدرع ، فأبيح للناس أن ينظروا إلى ما ليس بمحرم   عليهم من النساء إلى وجوههن ، وأكفهن ، وحرم ذلك عليهم من أزواج النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم ، لما نزلت آية الحجاب ، ففضلن بذلك على سائر الناس

وقد قيل في قول الله عز وجل { ولا يبدين زينتهن إلا ما ظهر منها } إن ذلك المستثنى ، هو الوجه والكفان ، فقد وافق ما ذكرنا من حديث رسول الله صلى الله عليه وعلى آله وسلم هذا التأويل

وممن ذهب إلى هذا التأويل محمد بن الحسن رحمة الله عليه ، كما حدثنا سليمان بن شعيب بذلك ، عن أبيه ، عن محمد . وهذا كله ، قول أبي حنيفة ، وأبي يوسف ، ومحمد ، رحمة الله عليهم أجمعين .

It has been related from Ibrahim al-Nakhai (d. 108 AH/726 CE) about the saying of Allah, “And they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what is apparent thereof,” (24:31) that this is what is above the diraa (shirt). So, it is allowed to look at the faces of unrelated women, and their hands. But, this was prohibited (haram) for the wives of the Prophet, when the verse of the hijab (33:53) was revealed. They were preferred in that over other people…

About the saying of Allah, “And they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what is apparent thereof,” (24:31) these are exceptions, and they are the face and hands. This interpretation is in agreement with the narrations from the Messenger of Allah. And this interpretation is what was chosen by Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani…and all of this is the position of Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf, and Muhammad, may Allah’s mercy be upon them all.

Muhammad ibn Muhammad Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 333 AH/944 CE)Tawilat Ahl al-Sunnah, vol. 7, p. 545

وجائز أن يكون النظر إلى وجه المرأة حلالا إذا لم يكون بشهوة
وأحسن للشابة وأفضل لها أن تستر وجهها ويديها عن الرجال ليس لأن ذلك حرام وإليها معصية ، ولكن لما يخاف في ذلك من حدوث الشهوة ، ووقوع الفتنة بها

It is permissible to look at the face of an unrelated woman if there is no desire (shahwa)…but, it is better for the young woman (al-shabah), and superior for her to cover her face and hands from men. This is not because it is forbidden (haram), and she is sinning, but what is feared that might occur from desire, and falling into discord (fitna) because of her.

Al-Maturidi’s treatment of veiling is one of the most comprehensive in Hanafi literature. While the view that women cover their faces is present in Hanafi works — Maturidi’s soft treatment of the subject, by emphasizing the covering of the face to be recommended alone (and not a matter of sin), is expressed in a unique manner, and holds greater jurisprudential weight than those who claim the niqab to be wajib. Indeed, by delineating the awrah as exempting the face, hands, and feet, it juristically shows that displaying these parts of the body can never technically involve sin. While Maturidi was not the only scholar to emphasize the existence of “fitna” in mandating a “young woman” to cover her face — his nuanced treatment of the subject is noteworthy.

Ahmad ibn Ali al-Jassas (d. 370 AH/981 CE)Sharh Mukhtasar al-Tahawi fi al-Fiqh al-Hanafi, vol. 1, p. 702

 قال أبو جعفر : (أما المرأة فتواري في صلاتها كلَّ شيء منها، إلا وجهها وكفَّيْها وقدمَيْها)

قال أبو بكر : وذلك لأن جميع بدنها عورة، لا يحل للأجنبي النظر إليه منها إلا هذه الأعضاء

ويدل عليه قول الله تعالى : ولا يبدين زينتهن إلا ما ظهر منها : روي أنها الكحل والخاتم ، فدل أن يديها ووجهها ليسا بعورة

وقال النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم : لا يقبل الله صلاة حائض إلا بخمار ، فدل أن رأسها عورة، وما كان عورة: وَجَبَ ستره في الصلاة، واليد والوجه والقدم ليس بعورة: فلا يلزمها سترها في الصلاة

Al-Tahawi said: A woman must cover her entire body in prayer, except the face, hands, and feet.

Abu Bakr al-Jassas said: This is because all of her body is awrah, it is not permissible for an unrelated man to look at it, except these parts.

This is evinced by the saying of Allah: “And they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what is apparent thereof.” (24:31) It has been reported that this is the kuhl and the ring. So, it is evidence that her hands and face are not awrah.

The Prophet said: “Allah does not accept the prayer of any (woman) who menstruates, except with a khimar.” This shows that her head is awrah, and is obligatory to cover in prayer, but the hands, face, and feet are not awrah, and it is not necessary for her to cover them in prayer.

Other Hanafi scholars were not so nuanced, and despite the delineation of the awrah, still claimed that “young women” (al-shabah) were obligated to cover their faces. Interestingly, this even includes al-Jassas, who, above, delineates the awrah as exempting the hands and face:

قال أبو بكر : في هذه الآية دلالة على أن المرأة الشابة مأمورة بستر وجهها عن الأجنبيين وإظهار الستر والعفاف عند الخروج لئلا يطمع أهل الريب فيهن

In this verse (33:59) there is proof that the young woman is commanded to cover her face from unrelated men, and to show modesty and chastity when she leaves (the house), lest she be lured by people of doubt.

— Ahmad ibn Ali al-Jassas (d. 370 AH/981 CE), Ahkam al-Quran

Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Quduri (d. 428 AH/1036 CE). Al-Tajrid, vol. 2, p. 604

أن المرأة تحتاج إلى كشف قدمها عند مشيها كما تحتاج إلى إظهار وجهها ويدها عند المعاملة فإذا خرج أحدهما من أن يكون عورة للحاجة فالآخر مثله
ولأن الكف يشتهى ما لا يشتهى القدم ، فإذا خرج كفها ووجهها من أن يكون عورة فالقدم أولى

The woman is required to uncover her feet when she walks, like she is required to show her face and hands when conducting transactions. So, if one of them is exempted from being awrah due to these requirements, the other (the foot) is as well. Because the hand is more greatly treasured than the foot, so if the hand and face are not part of the awrah, then the foot has greater right to also (not be part of the awrah).

As can be seen, this passage is dedicated to defending the right for a woman to show her feet in public.

Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Sarakhsi (d. 490 AH/1096 CE). Al-Mabsut, Kitab al-Istihsan

فأما النظر إلى الأجنبيات فنقول : يباح النظر إلى موضع الزينة الظاهرة منهن دون الباطنة لقوله تعالى { ولا يبدين زينتهن إلا ما ظهر منها } وقال علي وابن عباس رضي الله عنهم : ما ظهر منها الكحل والخاتم وقالت عائشة رضي الله عنها : إحدى عينيها … ولكنا نأخذ بقول علي وابن عباس رضي الله تعالى عنهما

وذكر في جامع البرامكة عن أبي يوسف انه يباح النظر إلى ذراعيها أيضا لأنها في الخبز وغسل الثياب تبتلى بابداء ذراعيها أيضا قيل وكذلك يباح النظر إلى ثناياها أيضا لان ذلك يبدو منها في التحدث مع الرجال وهذا كله إذا لم يكن النظر عن شهوة

As for looking at unrelated women: It is permissible to look at the places of her apparent adornment, due to the saying of Allah, “And they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what is apparent thereof.” (24:31) Ali ibn Abi Talib and Ibn Abbas said, “What is apparent thereof is the kuhl and ring.” And Aisha said, “One eye (only)…”

But, we take the saying of Ali and Ibn Abbas…

It is also mentioned from Abu Yusuf that he allowed looking at her forearms, because when she cooks or washes clothes, she must also show her arms. Like that, it is permissible to look at her teeth as well, because they appear when speaking with men. And all of this is if the looking is not accompanied by desire.

You have to hand it to al-Sarakhsi — for his scholastic strengths and weaknesses, he specifically counters the notion that women are obligated to cover their faces, and even quotes a random book (that doesn’t exist anymore), to talk about a woman’s teeth. Scholastic minutiae at its finest.

Umar ibn Muhammad al-Nasafi (d. 537 AH/1142 CE). Tafsir al-Nasafi: Madarik al-Tanzil wa Haqa’iq al-Tawil, p. 768

 إِلا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا إلا ماجرت العادة والجبلة على ظهوره، وهو الوجه والكفان والقدمان ففي سترها حرج بين، فإن المرأة لا تجد بدا من مزاولة الأشياء بيديها ومن الحاجة إلى كشف وجهها خصوصا في الشهادة والمحاكمة والنكاح، وتضطر إلى المشى في الطرقاط وظهور قدميها وخاصة الفقيرات منهن

“What is apparent thereof” (24:31), except what is usual and natural to show, that being the face, hands, and feet. Because in covering them there is evident hardship. A woman must engage with things with her hands, and due to her needs has to uncover her face, especially in witnessing, judgments, and marriage. And, she has to walk in the streets and show her feet, especially the poor women amongst them.

I guess testifying at trials was a commonplace activity for young girls in the ancient Islamic past (doubtful, for several reasons), because this obscure rationale is routinely featured in Hanafi treatments on veiling. Like al-Jassas, despite this seemingly liberal view, al-Nasafi also advocates that 33:59 sanctions covering the face for “free women.” Although, he notes: “لا تكون المرأة متبذلة في درع وخمار كالأمة” — “This is not because the woman is offensive (mubtadhalah) in a diraa (shirt) and khimar, like the slave woman is.”

Ouch. Two opposite notions here: Al-Nasafi affirms that a woman wearing a khimar alone is not “offensive” (which is good news), but then goes on to state that a slave woman wearing a shirt and a veil would be. He then goes on to speak about the jilbab in the context of the event with slave women, when the verse was originally revealed. Clearly, these two contrasting notions: Relatively relaxed prohibitions with 24:31, and then covering the entire body and face in 33:59, show that these understandings have to modify each other. The commentary on 24:31 is too clear to ignore, showing that al-Nasafi and others probably conceived of covering the face in a non-obligatory sense. Although, this commentary serves to show the inherent contradictions with how scholars treated the topics of modesty, and social strata.

Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Halabi (d. 952 AH/1545 CE). Majma al-Anhur fi Sharh Multaqa al-Abhur

وجميع بدن الحرة عورة إلا وجهها وكفيها لقوله عليه الصلاة والسلام { بدن الحرة كلها عورة إلا وجهها وكفيها } والكف من الرسغ إلى الأصابع ، وإنما عبر بالكف دون اليد للإشارة إلى أن  ظهره عورة ؛ لأن  الكف عند الإطلاق البطن لا الظهر

وفي المنتقى تمنع الشابة عن كشف وجهها لئلا يؤدي إلى الفتنة وفي زماننا المنع واجب بل فرض لغلبة الفساد

All of the woman’s body is awrah, except her face and hands…the hand from the wrist to the fingers, but only the palm, the back of the hand is awrah

And the young woman (al-shabah) is prohibited from uncovering her face, lest it lead to discord (fitna). And during our time, this prohibition is obligatory (wajib) and compulsory (fard) because of the prevalence of corruption (fasad).

Alaa al-Deen al-Haskafi (d. 1088 AH/1677 CE). Durr al-Mukhtar

فإن خاف الشهوة أو شك (امتنع نظره إلى وجهها) فحل النظر مقيد بعدم الشهوة وإلا فحرام وهذا في زمانهم ، وأما في زماننا فمنع من الشابة

(Earlier scholars) allowed looking (at the face) except if it was accompanied by desire (shahwa). But, this was for their time. As for our time, it is prohibited for the young woman (to show her face).

Finally, we have to end with these quotes, as this concept came to dominate later Hanafi treatments on modesty. Despite its relatively late date (and clear contradiction to earlier works), later Hanafi works such as the ones above and their multiple commentaries — that focus on excessive legalisms such as the “front” and “back” of the hands, that although not unknown in early Islamic jurisprudence, usually come to dominate such books — have a strong following in the Indian subcontinent, and are often relied upon for the issuance of fatwas. Often, it is these types of quotes (and similar reasoning on other types of issues) that are trumpeted as “proof” that a woman showing her face in public results in sin.

Overtures to “our time” (zaman-na) are often found in these later Hanafi works as justification to prohibit women exposing their faces. “Oh the debauchery of our time! It was okay then, but now! No, no.” This reasoning rings hollow. I cannot imagine the audacity it takes to claim that one’s own generation is “the worst.” In fact, I am positive that such assertions can be found from every century of Islamic and religious writing. Unfortunately, this reference to “our time” continues today in exhorting women to cover their faces.

It seems that Abu Hanifa himself even claimed such reasoning, in prohibiting women from leaving their houses to attend prayer:

قلت أرأيت النساء هل عليهن خروج في العيدين قال قد كان يرخص لهن في ذلك فأما اليوم فإني أكره

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani asked Abu Hanifa, “What is your view about women leaving (their homes) on the days of Eid?” He said, “They have a concession (rukhsa) in that. But as for today, I hate it.”

— Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH/804 CE). Al-Mabsut

Historically, scientifically, and theologically, this line of reasoning is just empty. Theologically speaking, every generation has their challenges with “lust” and “temptation,” if it did not exist, reward from God for resisting it would not exist. Biologically, sexuality is an inherent part of human nature, regardless of the time one lives in. It is too obvious to state. Historically speaking, there are countless examples of the sexual escapades that existed during earlier Islamic times, and as humans, I am sure we can imagine much more. All of this is on top of the fact that these scholars allowed slave women to walk around naked. But, oh no, in our times, we require “young women” to cover their faces. What is a “young woman” anyway?

Unfortunately, it is drivel such as this that populates the websites and books available in South Asian diaspora communities, and, since it’s left untranslated anyway, people simply accept that “such and such scholar said that women must cover their faces.” This is on top of the entire premise that women can be a “source of temptation” anyway.

It is irresponsible and incorrect, and unfortunately, all too common.


I hope the above quotes demonstrate that the status quo that exists among Muslims — one that accepts a pluralistic notion of the hijab and niqab co-existing together — is not an aberration from Islamic law. I also hope that it prompts questioning about some disturbing trends that have existed in Muslim society and scholarship, both throughout history, and today. Black-and-white thinking concerning Islamic modesty and scholarship, like we are seeing arise in places like Egypt, and some Muslim diaspora communities, that drives a wedge between the “true Muslims,” and moderate Muslim communities, simply does not hold up under academic scrutiny. The lives of such people must be very lonely and isolating, and I hope this post serves to introduce a more holistic approach to plurality, modernity, and female participation in society. One that is not only good for Muslim communities and their progress, but for the world they inhabit with others.

  1. Mantaqaa Kabir
    April 17, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    Im very sorry this was very detailed and eye opening and forgive me for asking but do you believe covering the hair as long as ones not under threat applies for Muslim women of today specifically in america? I observe hijab and was curious.

    • April 17, 2016 at 7:48 pm

      Not really sure how to answer that question. Religious choices rest upon each person’s individual conscience, personal and social circumstances, and religious interpretation. Given that I’m not Muslim I’d prefer that you wear the hijab out of free choice, and if you don’t believe in it or feel comfortable with it then don’t wear it at all if possible.

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