Comment: Is wearing the niqab an act of worship or a matter of customs?

Several people have asked me about the accuracy of this particular statement from “Is wearing the niqab an act of worship of a matter of customs?”:

According to the majority of scholars and the position we adopt, wearing the niqab is a custom and not part of religion or adornment. This is based on the fact that a woman’s face is not part of her ‘awrah (those parts of the body that must not be exposed before non-mahrams). This is the established opinion of the Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi’i schools of jurisprudence, the sound opinion of Imam Ahmed and the opinion maintained by his students, the opinion of al-Awza’i and Abu Thawr.

A woman’s awrah in front of strange men, non-Muslim women, Muslim women, unmarriagable male kin, children, her husband, when alone in private, during prayer, and when making Hajj each can have different rulings.

The ‘awrah is defined as the part of the body that is unlawful to expose. That area can change according to several situations. Some authors use ‘awrah for what must be covered during prayer, and then talk about what is permissible to be seen or looked at in various circumstances but without using the word ‘awrah.

According to the official position of the Shafi‘i school, a woman must cover her entire body except for her hands and face while praying. In front of strange men, her entire body must be covered. In front of her husband and in private, her entire body can be exposed.

Here’s a quote from Fath al-Qarib:

فتح القريب المجيب في شرح ألفاظ التقريب = القول المختار في شرح غاية الاختصار (ص: 73)

وعورة الحُرَّة في الصلاة ما سوى وجهها وكفيها ظهرا وبطنا إلى الكوعين؛ أما عورة الحُرَّة خارجَ الصلاة فجميع بدنها، وعورتها في الخلوة كالذكر.

“The awrah of a free woman during prayer is what is other than her face and hands (top and bottom) up to the wrists. As for the awrah of a free woman outside of prayer, it is all of her body. Her ‘awrah when alone or in private spaces is the same as a male’s.” (Fath al-Qarib, 73)

That this is the official position of the Shafi‘i school does not deny the fact that some other schools consider it permissible for a woman to expose her hands and face in front of strange men or when in public, and that some Shafi‘is held and hold a similar view.

But to say that the Shafi‘i school does not consider a woman’s face to be part of her ‘awrah except within prayer simply not true.

This post is not about evidence or preponderance, personal practice, or regional fatwas. Rather, it is about the accuracy of claims and the official position of the Shafi‘i school. And what is presented in the passage quoted above is false.

UPDATE

A similar fatwa was posted to their Facebook page in 2015. I shared it with the following comment:

Some schools may consider covering the face to be a mere custom without a religious basis, but attributing this position to the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools is just wrong. The relied upon opinion of the Shāfiʿīs and Ḥanbalīs is that it is obligatory for women to cover their face in front of non-mahram men. The basis for this opinion comes from textual evidence and practice established during the time of the Prophet ﷺ. While the Ḥanafīs and Mālikīs derive a different opinion from this evidence (and variant opinions exist within each school), it is not acceptable to misrepresent the opinions of other schools.

Their own piece defines ‘awrah as “those parts of the body which must not be exposed before non-mahrams.” Their claims are false if the Shāfi‘īs do in fact consider it obligatory for women to cover the face in front of strange men – regardless of whether that the Shafi‘īs themselves consider this to be ‘awrah. So quoting Imam al-Shāfi‘ī saying

الأم للشافعي (1/ 109)

وكل المرأة عورة إلا كفيها ووجهها وظهر قدميها عورة

“The entirety of a woman is ‘awrah, except for her hands and face. And the top of her feet are ‘awrah. (Al-Umm, 1:109)

cannot change the veracity of their claim.

Nonetheless, I already quoted one text that mentions the face being part of a woman’s ‘awrah outside of prayer. Here is another very late book that affirms this view:

إعانة الطالبين على حل ألفاظ فتح المعين (1/ 134)

واعلم أن للحرة أربع عورات: فعند الأجانب جميع البدن.

“Know that free women have four ʿawras. When with unrelated men it is her entire body.” (Iʿyānat al-Ṭālibīn, 1:134)

And even if we did concede that the face is not technically part of a woman’s ‘awrah outside of prayer,

حاشية البجيرمي على الخطيب = تحفة الحبيب على شرح الخطيب (3/ 372)وَأَمَّا نَظَرُهُ إلَى الْوَجْهِ وَالْكَفَّيْنِ فَحَرَامٌ عِنْدَ خَوْفِ فِتْنَةٍ تَدْعُو إلَى الِاخْتِلَاءِ بِهَا لِجِمَاعٍ أَوْ مُقَدِّمَاتِهِ بِالْإِجْمَاعِ كَمَا قَالَهُ الْإِمَامُ، وَلَوْ نَظَرَ إلَيْهِمَا بِشَهْوَةٍ وَهِيَ قَصْدُ التَّلَذُّذِ بِالنَّظَرِ الْمُجَرَّدِ وَأَمِنَ الْفِتْنَةَ حَرُمَ قَطْعًا، وَكَذَا يَحْرُمُ النَّظَرُ إلَيْهِمَا عِنْدَ الْأَمْنِ مِنْ الْفِتْنَةِ فِيمَا يَظْهَرُ لَهُ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ مِنْ غَيْرِ شَهْوَةٍ عَلَى الصَّحِيحِ كَمَا فِي الْمِنْهَاجِ كَأَصْلِهِ. وَوَجَّهَهُ الْإِمَامُ بِاتِّفَاقِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ عَلَى مَنْعِ النِّسَاءِ مِنْ الْخُرُوجِ سَافِرَاتِ الْوُجُوهِ، وَبِأَنَّ النَّظَرَ مَظِنَّةُ الْفِتْنَةِ وَمُحَرِّكٌ لِلشَّهْوَةِ وَقَدْ قَالَ تَعَالَى: {قُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ} [النور: 30] وَاللَّائِقُ بِمَحَاسِنِ الشَّرِيعَةِ سَدُّ الْبَابِ وَالْإِعْرَاضُ عَنْ تَفَاصِيلِ الْأَحْوَالِ كَالْخَلْوَةِ بِالْأَجْنَبِيَّةِ، وَقِيلَ لَا يَحْرُمُ لِقَوْلِهِ تَعَالَى: {وَلا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا} [النور: 31] وَهُوَ مُفَسَّرٌ بِالْوَجْهِ وَالْكَفَّيْنِ، وَنَسَبَهُ الْإِمَامُ لِلْجُمْهُورِ وَالشَّيْخَانِ لِلْأَكْثَرِينَ، وَقَالَ فِي الْمُهِمَّاتِ: إنَّهُ الصَّوَابُ لِكَوْنِ الْأَكْثَرِينَ عَلَيْهِ، وَقَالَ الْبُلْقِينِيُّ: التَّرْجِيحُ بِقُوَّةِ الْمُدْرَكِ وَالْفَتْوَى عَلَى مَا فِي الْمِنْهَاجِ اهـ وَكَلَامُ الْمُصَنِّفِ شَامِلٌ لِذَلِكَ وَهُوَ الْمُعْتَمَدُ، وَخَرَجَ بِقَيْدِ الْقَصْدِ مَا إذَا حَصَلَ النَّظَرُ اتِّفَاقًا فَلَا إثْمَ فِيهِ

and

نهاية المحتاج إلى شرح المنهاج (6/ 187)

(وكذا عند الأمن) من الفتنة فيما يظنه من نفسه من غير شهوة (على الصحيح) ووجهه الإمام باتفاق المسلمين على منع النساء أن يخرجن سافرات الوجوه وبأن النظر مظنة الفتنة ومحرك للشهوة، فاللائق بمحاسن الشريعة سد الباب والإعراض عن تفاصيل الأحوال كالخلوة بالأجنبية، وبه اندفع القول بأنه غير عورة فكيف حرم نظره؛ لأنه مع كونه غير عورة نظره مظنة للفتنة أو الشهوة ففطم الناس عنه احتياطا، على أن السبكي قال: الأقرب إلى صنيع الأصحاب أن وجهها وكفيها عورة في النظر

which state that the default is that it must be covered when outside and among strange men, and bolster the idea that they are, in fact, part of the ‘awrah.

As I mentioned earlier: This post is not about evidence or preponderance, personal practice, or regional fatwas. Rather, it is about the accuracy of claims and the official position of the Shāfi‘ī school. And what Dar al-Ifta presents in both of the passages quoted above is false.

  • We should be lenient on ikhtilaaf and strict on intellectual dishonesty.

    It’s enough that laymen have the choice to follow rulings from any of the four madhabs they wish.

    We don’t need to change the rulings in the madhabs to suit their whims on top of that.