By Mawlana Dr. Mateen Khan
Wearing niqab is a deeply personal choice. Many across the world wear it for no other reason than to please their Lord. Unfortunately, some non-Muslims and Muslims equate the niqab with extremism or dismiss it as a purely cultural practice. Attached is a discussion to show that niqab indeed has a legitimate basis in Islam.
Note: The article is not intended as a fatwa or a religious judicial ruling. Rather, it merely gives basis to the practice and is meant to support ‘niqabis’ that are made to feel more and more isolated over a choice they have made.
Read the full text of the article below:
All praise is for Allah. May His Blessings and Peace be upon our Master Muhammad, his Companions and those that followed them in goodness through whom we have received His Guidance and Mercy.
As for what follows, it is a brief analysis of the legitimacy of the niqab through the evidences found in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and the opinions of the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn1 and those that followed them. In this article, niqab refers to the face covering worn by Muslim women. Initially, I had compiled it for myself, but the current climate indicates that I share it with the community at large. Despite their deep desire to do what is best and most pleasing to their Lord, many niqab wearing Muslim women find themselves in doubt about it. Also, many non-Muslims equate the niqab with extremism and even some Muslim leaders align with them. Thus, I now present it with the hope that it may bring benefit through further understanding. Any errors in it are from myself, and any good in it is a blessing from my Rabb.
There are some scholars today citing proofs and the “opinion of the majority” to state that the niqab has no Islamic basis. Whereas, other scholars cite proofs and the same “opinion of the majority” to state that the niqab is necessary. No doubt, both groups strive to please their Rabb. Rather, key questions need to be addressed: Does the niqab even have a basis in Islam? Are the seemingly contradictory proofs (to be discussed) reconcilable? How can both sides claim the majority opinion?
Two sets of proofs will be presented below. The first set of proofs indicates that her face may be uncovered in public. The second set of proofs indicates that her face should remain covered. A brief discussion will then be presented on reconciling the two sets of proofs. Each proof is assigned a number to facilitate reference later in the discussion.
The first set of proofs: Leaving the face uncovered
First, we will examine the set of proofs which are presented to indicate that women may leave their faces uncovered.
1.1 “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to expose their adornment except that which appears from it and to wrap their headcovers over their chests and not to expose their adornment except to their husbands…”
(Surah al-Nūr 31)
In this ayah, Allah has commanded the believing women to cover their beauty “except that which appears from it.” Imam al-Ṭabarī narrated in his Tafsīr that when the Companion ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbās and other salaf al-ṣāliḥīn (May Allah be pleased with them) were asked about the words “except that which appears from it,” they interpreted it to refer to the face and hands.2 Meaning, the face and hands of a woman may be uncovered.
1.2 Sayyidah `Āishah said that Sayyidah Asmā’ bint Abū Bakr (May Allah be pleased with them) came to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless and give him peace) while wearing thin clothing. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless and give him peace) disliked it and said, “O Asmā’, when a woman reaches puberty, it is not appropriate that any part (of her body) be seen other than this and this.” He indicated towards his face and hands.
(Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4104)
The Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) educated Asmā’ on proper attire and allowed the face and hands to be visible.
1.3 A woman came to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless and give him peace) and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I have come to offer myself to you.” He looked towards her and fixed his gaze on her. Then he lowered his head. When the woman saw that he did not make any decision, she sat down. Then, a man from his Companions stood up and said, “O Messenger of Allah, if you are not interested in her, then marry her to me.”
(Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5126)
The woman appeared before the Prophet and his Companions (Allah bless and give them peace) without a niqab. Otherwise, how could they have seen her face?
1.4 Sayyiduna Jābir bin `Abdullah (May Allah be pleased with him) said, “I prayed with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless and give him peace) on `Īd. He prayed the ṣalāh before the khuṭbah without adhān and iqāmah. He then stood up leaning on Bilal, and he enjoined [upon the people] the fear of Allah, exhorted [them] towards His obedience, advised [them] and admonished them. He then walked until he came to the women and advised them and admonished them. He then asked them to give in charity because they will make up a greater portion of fuel for Jahannam. A woman with darkened cheeks stood up and said, ‘Why, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said, ‘For you complain often and are ungrateful of your spouse.’ Then, they began to donate their jewelry such as their earrings and rings by throwing them onto Bilal’s cloth.
(Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2046)
Here, the female questioner’s face was uncovered before the Prophet, Bilal and others (Allah bless and give them peace). If the Companion had her face covered, the narrator would not have noted her cheeks.
1.5 Once the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) was riding an animal with Sayyiduna Faḍl bin `Abbās sitting behind him. Sayyiduna `Alī bin Abū Ṭālib narrated, “A young girl (jāriyah shābbah) from Khath`am tribe asked [the Prophet] for a verdict. She said, ‘My father is an elderly man upon whom hajj has become obligatory. Will he be rewarded if I perform hajj for him?’ He said, ‘[Yes,] perform hajj for your father.’” `Alī said, “He, then, turned Faḍl’s face away (as he was looking at her). So `Abbās (May Allah be pleased with them all) said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, why did you turn your cousin’s face away?’ He said, ‘I saw a young man and a young woman, and they were not safe from Shayṭān.’’
(Sunan al-Tirmidhī 885)
First, the young girl had her face uncovered. Otherwise, Faḍl (May Allah be pleased with them) would not have been able look at her. Second, despite acknowledging the fear of attraction between the two, the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) did not order the girl to cover her face. If it was mandatory, he would not have overlooked it. Third, this incident happened during the Prophet’s hajj, which was near the end of his life well after the revelation of the verses of ḥijāb3 and niqab. And so, it indicates that upon the Prophet’s (Allah bless and give him peace) passing away, niqab was not an obligation.
1.6 The Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) said, “A woman in iḥrām4 should not wear niqab or gloves.”
(Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1838)
The Prophet’s (Allah bless and give him peace) command that a woman uncovers her face in iḥrāmindicates the permissibility of keeping the face uncovered. For it would not make sense to hide the face before entering iḥrām and then have it open for all to see during iḥrām.
Other proofs exist both directly and through inference showing some female Companions leaving their face uncovered. They have been left out for brevity as the above are representative of them.
1.7 The four madhāhib5, which comprise the overwhelming majority of scholars, hold that the face is not part of a woman’s `awrah.6
The `awrah is the minimum that must be covered in the absence of a ḍarūrah (dire necessity). The `awrahof a Muslim woman in front of a non-maḥram7 man is her entire body except for her face and hands. Hence, the four madhhabs agree that a woman’s face is not included in her `awrah.
The second set of proofs: Covering the face
Next, we will examine the set of proofs indicating that a woman should cover her face in the presence of a non-maḥram man.
2.1 O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves part of their jalābīb (outer garments).
(Surah al-Aḥzāb 59)
In this ayah, Allah commands the believing women to cover themselves with their jalābīb. Imam al-Ṭabarī narrated in his Tafsīr that Sayyiduna `Abdullah bin `Abbās and others from the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn(May Allah be pleased with them) explained this verse “bring down over themselves part of their jalābīb” as they should bring down part of their jalābīb over their heads to cover their faces.8 The wife of the Prophet, Sayyidah `Āishah, the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn and the early Muslim scholars (May Allah be pleased with them) considered the jilbāb (singular of jalābīb) to be a large sheet of cloth that covered the entire body including the face.9 Although ‘jilbāb’ may differ in linguistic usage in our time, the words of Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless and give him peace) were best understood by the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn.
2.2 Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with her) said, “A woman would lower her jilbāb over her head onto her face.”
(Fatḥ al-Bārī 3:406)
After establishing the early Muslims’ description of the jilbāb, the numerous hadiths in which the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) commanded the women to wear jilbāb are also proof. For example, the hadith of Sayyidah Umm `Aṭiyyah (May Allah be pleased with her):
2.3 “The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless and give him peace) would order the young girls, the older women, those of ḥijāb and the menstruating women to attend the two `Īds… One of them said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! What if she does not have a jilbāb?’ He said: ‘Then, let her sister lend her a jilbāb.’”
(Sunan al-Tirmidhī 539)
In those times, not everyone could afford a large sheet to use as a jilbāb. The Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) advised them to share with one another to increase the `Īd gathering numbers.
2.4 Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with her) narrated, “While I was sitting, I fell asleep. Ṣafwān bin al-Mu`aṭṭal al-Sulamī al-Dhakwānī, who had lagged the army, came to where I was. He saw the body of a person who was asleep. He recognized me when he saw me as he had seen me before [the mandating of ḥijāb. I awoke when he recited, ‘Innā lillāhi wa innā ilayhi rāji`ūn’ after recognizing me. I then covered my face with my jilbāb.”
(Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3910, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2770)
In this hadith, Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with her) narrates an incident in which she was inadvertently left alone in the desert. She fell asleep with her face uncovered. First, she specifically mentions that Sayyiduna Ṣafwān (May Allah be pleased with him) saw her face before the mandating of ḥijāb indicating that he could not have seen it afterwards. Second, upon awakening and realizing his presence, she covered her face immediately.
2.5 Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with her) said, “While we were in iḥrāmwith the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless and give him peace), riders would pass by us. Whenever they rode alongside one of us women, she would lower her jilbāb from her head over her face. Whenever they had passed on, we would uncover our faces.”
(Sunan Abī Dāwūd 1833)
This incident happened during the Prophet’s hajj, which was near the end of his life, and so, it indicates that upon the Prophet’s (Allah bless and give him peace) passing away, niqab was an obligation. Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with her) clearly states how they covered their faces from those men passing by despite being in iḥram. Had this practice been unnecessary or contrary to the sharī’ah, the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace), who was with them, would have instructed his wives otherwise.
2.6 And when you ask [the Prophet’s wives] for something, ask them from behind a ḥijāb. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.
(Surah al-Aḥzāb 53)
This ayah instructs the wives of the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) to remain behind a screen whenever they are questioned by non-maḥram men.11 Here, ḥijāb is being used in the broader meaning of a screen and not simply a head covering. The intent being that her face and body should not be visible. This indicates that the face should be covered in public. For it would not make sense to remain behind a screen when questioned, but then walk about in public with the face uncovered. Upon further reflection of this ayah, Allah mandated ḥijāb between the male Companions, whose hearts the Prophet (Allah bless and give them peace) was tasked with purifying, and the wives of the Prophet, whose hearts Allah Himself took responsibility to purify.12 If ḥijāb was mandated between the most pure-hearted of humanity, it follows that it be mandated even more so on the rest of the believers. The need to keep the hearts pure exists universally. The next two narrations about prominent females further support this. The first is about the conviction of a female Companion and the second about the interactions between prominent hadith scholars – male and female.
2.7 A woman called Umm Khallād came to the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) wearing a niqab. She was searching for her son, who had been killed (during a battle). Some of the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) said to her, “You have come here asking for your son while veiling your face?” She said, “If I am afflicted with the loss of my son, I will not also suffer the loss of my modesty.”
(Sunan Abī Dāwūd 2488)
Per the culture at the time, when a woman suffered a tragic loss, she would grieve loudly and uncover her face and head.13 When seeing this dignified woman cover her face despite such a loss, the Companions inquired about the reason. In fact, it was her Islam that prevented these ignorant practices. Although she may have lost her son, her Islamic modesty remained intact.
2.7a Hishām bin `Urwah said, “Ibn Isḥāq took hadith from my wife, Fāṭimāh bint al-Mundhir. By Allah, he never saw her.” Imam al-Dhahabī said, “Hishām is truthful in his oath. [Ibn Isḥāq] never saw her. Nor has any man ever alleged that he saw her. Rather, it has only been said that she narrated to him. We (too) have taken hadith from many women and we have never seen them. In the same way, many of the Tabi`ūn14 narrated from Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with her) without ever having seen her face!”
(Siyar A`lām al-Nubalā’ 7:37)
Men, including a scholar named Ibn Isḥāq, would come to learn from the female hadith specialist, Fāṭimāh bint al-Mundhir. Out of curiosity, people asked her husband, Hishām, about this arrangement. He and, later, the great scholar Imam al-DhahabĪ answered by saying the arrangement was such that they would hear hadiths from her, but would be unable to see her because she was veiled entirely.
2.8 And those old women, who have no hope for marriage, there is no blame on them for putting aside their thiyāb while not displaying their beauty. Still, that they refrain (from this) is better for them.
(Surah al-Nūr 60)
This ayah of Surah al-Nūr gives a dispensation to old women, who are no longer of marriageable age, to remove and put aside their thiyāb. What does thiyāb refer to? The Tābi`ah Ḥafṣah bint Sirīn elucidates its meaning in the following narration.
2.9 `Āṣim al-Aḥwal said, “We came to Ḥafṣah bint Sirīn while she had her jilbāb in such a way that it covered her face. We said to her, ‘May Allah have mercy on you. Allah ta’āla says, ‘And those old women, who have no hope for marriage, there is no blame on them for putting aside their thiyāb while not displaying their beauty.’ Then she said to us, ‘What comes after that (in the ayah)?’ We then recited, ‘Still, that they refrain (from this) is better for them.’ So she said, ‘That refers to the jilbāb.’”
From this narration, Ḥafṣah clarifies that the Qur’anic word thiyāb refers to the jilbab, which she wore over herself including her face. In his Tafsīr, Imam Ibn Kathīr reports this was the opinion of the Companions `Abdullah bin Mas`ūd, `Abdullah bin `Abbās, `Abdullah bin `Umar and the Tābi`ūn Mujāhid, Sa`īd bin Jubayr, Abu al-Sha`thā’, Ibrāhīm al-Nakha`ī, al-Ḥasan, Qatādah, al-Zuḥrī, al-Awzā`ī and others. In other words, old women may leave their faces exposed unlike their younger counterparts, who should keep it covered. This narration, too, further illustrates that female salaf other than the wives of the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) applied the niqab injunction to themselves.
2.10 And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to expose their adornment except that which appears from it and to wrap their headcovers over their chests and not to expose their adornment except to their husbands…”
(Surah al-Nūr 31)
Imam al-Ṭabarī narrated in his Tafsīr that when the Companion `Abdullah bin Mas`ūd (May Allah be pleased with him) was asked about the words “except that which appears from it,” he interpreted it to mean that only the thiyāb may be visible. In other words, the face and inner garments must not be exposed.
Other proofs exist both directly and through inference showing the Companions covering their faces from non-maḥram men. They have been left out for brevity as the above are representative of them.
2.11 The four madhāhib, which comprise the overwhelming majority of scholars, mandate the niqab of a woman in front of a non-maḥram man.15
Many have added the condition, “If there is fear of fitnah (temptation),” while some have not. However, those that have added the condition contend that this is almost universally found in our times. Hence, in practice, the madhāhib unanimously concur on the obligation of niqab.16
Reconciling the Proofs: `Awrah Versus Niqab
Trying to deduce rulings from varying proofs can be like looking at an image through a microscope — only a portion of the image will be visible at any given time. To obtain a more complete picture, we must take multiple sightings (in this case, multiple proofs), piece them together, and then, step back to look at the whole picture. We should not have to ignore or reject legitimate proofs in light of seeming contradictions without making an attempt to reconcile the two. An ideal explanation would be one that helps reconcile both sets of proofs to provide one continuous and coherent narrative.
Two sets of proofs have been presented above. When viewed separately, the first set seems to convincingly suggest that the face may remain uncovered before non-maḥram men, and the second set to indicate that the face may not be uncovered. If we accept that the face may be uncovered, then we ignore or reject aspects of the second set. How do we then reconcile these two sets of proof? If we accept the injunction of niqab based on the second set, the first set is reconcilable by applying it to the injunction of `awrah. This is how past and current scholars have explained the niqab injunction and shed light on the fact that any perceived contradictions are not really contradictions at all.
Traditionally, scholars use the first set of proofs to establish that the `awrah of a woman in front of a non-maḥram man includes her entire body except the face and hands.17 These proofs are not used by them to prove or disprove the necessity of niqab. Rather, the necessity of niqab is established from the second set of proofs. Said another way, the order to wear niqab is a separate ruling of the sharī’ahbeyond the `awrah with its own set of proofs.
Traditional scholarship including the four madhāhib (1.7) concluded the explanation of `Abdullah bin `Abbās (May Allah be pleased with him), as well as the rest of the first set of proofs, refers to the obligation of covering the `awrah. These proofs indicate that the `awrah of a woman includes her entire body apart from the hands and face.18 The `awrah is the minimum that must be covered in the absence of a ḍarūrah (dire necessity). Ḍarūrah would be a situation that makes any prohibition lawful such as the permission to eat ḥarām (prohibited) food when one faces starvation. So, a woman should take utmost precaution to keep her `awrah covered in any situation lacking ḍarūrah. However, in cases of ḍarūrahsuch as illness, her `awrah may be uncovered to the degree needed.
Since there seems to be a disagreement between the Companions `Abdullah bin Mas`ūd (2.10) and `Abdullah bin `Abbās (May Allah be pleased with them) (1.1) let us discuss the traditional opinion a bit further with reference to ayah 31 of Surah al-Nūr. The near unanimity of traditional scholarship including the four madhāhib (2.11) concluded the explanation of `Abdullah bin Mas`ūd (May Allah be pleased with him) along with the rest of the second set legislated the niqab in most situations. Among them, one group necessitates it whenever a woman is in front of a non-maḥram man without genuine need to remove it. The rest state that, in the absence of fear of fitnah or shahwah (attraction)19, covering the `awrah only is sufficient as was the case, for example, in the hadith of Asmā’ bint Abū Bakr (1.2). Obviously, such a fear is absent in regards to the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace). In other words, if there is any possibility of attraction in the presence of the opposite gender, then two rulings will come into effect. First, men will be required to lower their gaze and not look directly at the woman as is stated by Allah in the Qur’an states in Surah al-Nūr 30, “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze.” Second, the women should cover their faces as required by the second set of proofs presented above. This is in line with both what most scholars have opined and narrations20 attributed to the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace).
Further Reconciliation – Clarifying Opposing Meanings
Today, those who state the niqab to be unnecessary use the first set to show that the face may be uncovered always. In other words, they argue that the sharī’ah only asks her to cover her `awrah in public. In light of this argument, it is important to note that niqab did not exist from the beginning of the Prophet’s messengership. Rather, ayah 53 of Surah al-Aḥzāb (2.6) is the first ayah revealed in relation to ḥijāb and hence, is known as the “ayah of ḥijāb.” Before the revelation of this ayah in the year 5 A.H.21, Muslim women would leave their hands and face uncovered i.e. covering only their `awrah. Companions like Sayyiduna Ṣafwān recognized Companions like Sayyidah `Āishah (May Allah be pleased with them) by face (2.4) because they had seen them before. So, all the proofs in the first set may relate to this earlier time except for the hadith of Sayyiduna Faḍl bin `Abbās (1.5), which will be discussed below. With the revelation of the “ayah of ḥijāb”, Allah enjoined an extra step upon both men and women. Now, men were to lower their gazes and women were to cover their faces. Hence, the second set of proofs refers to the time since this new injunction.
Two narrations from the first set are often cited as convincing proof against the niqab. I would like to point them out specifically for the reader’s benefit.22 First, the hadith narrated by Sayyiduna Jābir (1.4) about the Prophet and Bilāl (Allah bless and give them peace) specifically indicates that the woman did not wear niqab. The literal meaning of “darkened cheeks” refers to facial features. It can happen from an illness, undergoing hardships or from increased age. However, in the Arabic language, this wording may also serve as a metaphor for someone who has sacrificed herself for another such as her children.23 When multiple meanings exist – in this case, literal and metaphorical – a meaning(s) should be adopted that does not contradict the other proofs. Thus, the woman in this hadith may have had darkened cheeks due to old age (2.8) or the wording may have been used as an expression of her self-sacrifice. It does not conclusively prove or disprove niqab.
Second, the hadith of Sayyiduna Faḍl bin `Abbas (1.5) and the young girl (May Allah be pleased with them), which occurred during the Prophet’s (Allah bless and give him peace) hajj seemingly disproves niqab. Otherwise, the Prophet would have corrected her when she appeared with her face visible. Here, too, we find three alternative meanings:
- Other narrations clarify that the father of this girl sent her to ask this question in regards to her grandfather. The father hoped for the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) to marry her after seeing her.24 When intending marriage, permission is given to look at her face as clearly shown in proof 1.3.
- The young girl was a slave. During the time of slaves, female slaves were exempt from wearing niqab.25
- This was a dispensation given because of hardship from the sun, heat or crowding as is sometimes the case during hajj.26 In other words, this hadith serves as a dispensation from niqab in times of ḥājah (genuine need – to be explained below). The niqab injunction was lifted from her, but the injunction to lower the eyes still applied to Sayyiduna Faḍl.
The possibility of multiple meanings prevents the hadith from proving or disproving the ruling on niqab. With this approach, all of the proofs are reconciled and the opinion of the traditional scholars is clarified.
What is the “opinion of the majority”?
As alluded to in the introduction, both groups (those who do not mandate niqab and those who do) claim the majority’s consensus on their position. The group that does not mandate niqab, states a woman must only cover her `awrah in public. They are correct in saying that the majority of scholars have not included the face in `awrah (1.7). However, despite excluding the face from `awrah, the majority of scholars27 have still mandated niqab in front non-maḥram men (2.11) as an injunction separate and beyond the `awrah. So, the second group is correct in saying that the majority of scholars do mandate niqab.
It is worth noting here that many who argue against the niqab point to the Hanafis as the most lenient on the matter. True, the Hanafis do not make the niqab farḍ (inherently compulsory). However, by placing the condition of “fear of shahwah,” the Hanafis obligate niqab in essentially all situations in today’s context. Thus, they conclude that “it is obligatory on a man to lower his gaze from the face of strange women under all circumstances, just as it is binding on a woman to cover her face in the presence of [non-maḥram] men.”28
It should be clear by now that niqab is not a patriarchal, misogynist concoction of past and current scholars or a cultural remnant. Rather, it is a legislated ruling with its inherent wisdoms. There is a deep wisdom and mercy in the distinction between `awrah and niqab. As alluded, the `awrah may only be uncovered in cases of ḍarūrah. On the other hand, a conditional concession may be given to remove niqab in a situation of ḥājah (genuine need). Ḥājah is more lenient than ḍarūrah. For example, allowance may be given to uncover her face when there is a need for identification or in situations involving fear of physical harm or extreme verbal abuse. In contrast, uncovering her `awrah requires a much stronger reason. Imam Qurøubī in his Tafsīr explains that in a woman’s daily work and worship, there are times when the face may become exposed inadvertently. Since the face is not part of her `awrah but instead the lesser requirement of niqab, these inadvertent infractions are excused.29 At these times, it is incumbent on any men present to lower their gaze. It should be noted clearly, however, that proper understanding of ḍarūrah and ḥājah and its usage requires a more in-depth discussion and is beyond the scope of this article.
To end this brief discussion, I would like to take a step further and quote two sections from Aḥkām al-Qur’an by Mufti Muḥammad Shafī` in which there is an astounding level of insight:
All of this is based on the presumption that there exists a difference between the exegesis of Ibn `Abbās [1.1] and Ibn Mas`ūd [2.10] (May Allah be pleased with them). Our shaykh, the most noble of shaykhs (May Allah enlighten his resting place) said in a piece that he devoted to this discussion entitled Establishing Peace of Mind in Ascertaining [the meaning of] Displaying of Adornment30: “In fact, there is no difference between the two exegesis when scrutinized and examined thoroughly. Even though the words “that which appears [from it]” have been explained to mean the face and hands, the exception mentioned is with the word ‘to appear’ (الظهور) and not ‘to make appear’ (الإظهار). This is a clear indication that the intent is to exclude what is beyond one’s capability to cover. Rather, it refers to what becomes uncovered during activity and work without purposely exposing it or intending to expose it. With this understanding, the meaning of the ayah is that they not expose any of their adornment except what appears unintentionally. [This is to absolve her] from any hardship afflicting her in covering it during activity or work. So the exception mentioned in Sayyiduna Ibn `Abbas’s (May Allah be pleased with him) exegesis is the [unintentional] uncovering of the face and hands in times necessitating it and this does not contradict Sayyiduna Ibn Mas`ūd’s (May Allah be pleased with him) statement.”
This meaning is supported by what Imam Ibn Kathīr says in his exegesis of “And [believing women] should not expose their adornment except that which appears from it”: “In other words, they should not [intentionally] expose any of their adornment to non-maḥram men except that which is difficult to conceal.” (3:470-471)
The summary of what our shaykh, Shabbīr Aḥmad al-`Uthmānī (May Allah continue his favors) said about ḥijāb: “Indeed, Allah (Glorified and Exalted) and similarly His Messenger (Allah bless and give him peace) sometimes would [establish] something as pleasing and desirable, but not make it definitively binding on people. This is because Allah (Glorified and Exalted) knew their weaknesses and hardships. If you observe Islamic rulings, you will find many examples of this. From it is the command of ḥijāb (i.e. niqab). Even though it is pleasing in the sight of Allah (Glorified and Exalted), He has not made it definitively binding in consideration of needs that may arise…” The weak servant of Allah (Mufti Shafī` refers to himself) says, “This is not contradictory to what we said about this ḥijāb (i.e. niqab) being wājib (binding), but conditional concession was given to women to leave this command in times of need.” (3:473-474)
In other words, Mufti Muḥammad Shafī` also opines that although niqab is a necessity, Allah and His Messenger (May He bless and give him peace) did not make it binding in the same way as covering one’s `awrah as already explained.
To end, whether you choose to wear niqab or do not, there is no reason to doubt its strong legal foundation and scholarly support in Islam. Allah (Glorified and Exalted) knows best what is most correct. May He grant His Pleasure and Mercy to all the believing women who strive to please Him in whatever way they are capable. Āmīn.
2 Referring to the ayah “except that which appears from it” Ibn `Abbas said, “[it refers to the] place of applying antimony (kohl) and the place of wearing a ring.” (Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī under ayah 24:31)
3 The word ‘hijab’ has now made its way into the English language. In the general vernacular today, it refers to a head covering. In the terminology of Islamic science (represented in this text as ḥijāb), it refers to a broad code of modesty including guidelines in dress and interaction.
8 In regards to the ayah “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves part of their outer garments,” Ibn `Abbas said, “Allah commanded the women of the believers when they leave their homes for any need that they cover their faces by bringing their jalābīb over their heads. (Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī under al-Aḥzāb 59)
11 The scholars have differed as to whether this instruction is specific to the wives of the Prophet only or generally applicable to all the believing women. Even though this command was revealed specifically for the Prophet’s wives, its meaning is generally applicable to all since we are commanded to follow them. The exceptions are those commands that Allah has explicitly made specific to them juxtaposed to the rest of the ummah. (Aḥkām al-Qur’ān, Imam al-Jaṣṣāṣ 5:242)
16 “A majority of scholars (n: with the exception of some Hanafis) have been recorded as holding that it is unlawful for women to leave the house with faces unveiled, whether or not there is likelihood of temptation. When there is likelihood of temptation, scholars unanimously concur that it is unlawful, temptation meaning anything that leads to sexual intercourse or its usual preliminaries.” (Reliance of the Traveller m2.3)
19 These words should be read attentively. The condition is not the presence of fitnah or shahwah, but rather, the fear of it is sufficient. As noted above, those that have added this condition contend that this is almost universally found in our times. Hence, in practice, the madhhabs unanimously concur on the obligation of niqab.
20 “Whoever looks at the beauty of a non-maḥram woman with attraction, lead will be poured into his eyes on the day of Judgment.” Naṣb al-Rāyah 4:239.
“Allah curses the one who looks and the one who is looked at.” Al-Sunan al-Kubra li al-Bayhaqī 7:99
21 This corresponds to the wedding of the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) with Sayyidah Zaynab bint Jaḥsh (May Allah be pleased with her). There is some disagreement as to the year this took place. Some have mentioned 3 AH, but the majority seem to take 5 AH.
22 The rest of the narrations not discussed further are reconciled in the following way.
1.2: With the Prophet’s (Allah bless and give him peace) noble, perfect character, fear of fitnah is impossible. His character is well above such worries. When his Companions asked about the devil that resides with each one of us, “Is there one with you too, O Allah’s Messenger?” He replied, “Yes, with me as well, but Allah helps me against him. So, I am safe from him and he only asks good of me.” (Muslim 2814) Hence, the Prophet’s exceptional nature made niqab unnecessary before him.
Additionally, this narration likely was before the “ayah of ḥijāb.” This can be inferred from the episode when despite hardship Sayyidah Asma` refused a ride from the Prophet (Allah bless and give him peace) on account of her shyness and her husband’s ghayrah (sense of honor). (Bukhārī 5224) Her marriage to Sayyiduna Zubayr bin al-Awwām occurred prior the “ayah of ḥijāb.” It makes little sense for her to refuse a ride out of shyness and ghayrah, but then present herself inappropriately dressed before the Prophet.
1.3 & 1.4: These, too, may have occurred prior to the “ayah of ḥijāb”.
1.6: Had the niqab not been a standard practice, there would have been no reason for him to state these two exceptions. His mentioning it as an exception indicates that the female Companions were wearing it. Also, the very clear hadith indicating the Prophet’s taqrīr (implicit approval) of `Aisha’s actions during iḥrām (2.5) is proof that niqab was practiced during hajj. Ibn al-Qayyim in Badā`i al-Fawā’id (3:142) states that the command to not wear niqab is no more a command to expose the face than the command to not wear a qamīṣ is a command to keep the upper part of the body completely exposed. Rather, a woman can and should keep her face covered with her khimār or thawb. For a more detailed explanation regarding the niqab during hajj, please refer to the books of fiqh.
28 The Niqab and Its Obligation in the Hanafi Madhab by Mufti Ḥusain Kadodia. http://www.deoband.org/2009/04/fiqh/miscellaneous/the-niqab-and-its-obligation-in-the-hanafi-madhhab/
29 Ibn `Aṭiyyah says: “What becomes apparent to me in regards to the ruling derived from the words of this verse is that women are commanded to not reveal themselves and that they try their best to conceal all that is considered to be adornment (beauty). The exception made here is due to certain movements that are absolutely necessary (for women to do) or in order to fix something, etc. As such, “that which appears thereof” in this context refers to revealing at times of necessity for women; therefore, it is amongst those things that are forgiven (due to a need).” According to me [Imam al-Qurṭubī refers to himself], this is a better approach, except that since the face and hands become revealed habitually or at times of ībādah…it is better to say that the exception refers to those two times (only). (Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī12:229)