I was reading one of your answers regarding the obligation of Hijab with one’s non-mahram in-laws titled: ‘Interacting and Hijab with my Sister in-Law.’ With all due respect, I do not agree with the Hijab concession given by yourself (and the Fatwa given by the scholars of Dar al-Uloom Karachi) for a woman in front of her non-Mahram in-laws, such as the brother in-law! There is so much Fitna out there these days. There are many cases of marital affairs taking place between in-laws. Didn’t the Prophet of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) compare the in-laws to death? Please elaborate.
May Allah reward you for bringing this important issue to my attention. It seems that there has been some sort of misunderstanding, or the issue was not explained properly. Nevertheless, in order to correctly understand the Shari’a ruling, the matter needs to be explained in somewhat detail.
It is a known fact that Islam has laid down certain restrictions in regards to interacting with a non-Mahram (marriageable kin) member of the opposite gender, even if he or she may be a close relative. These restrictions are not limited to covering certain parts of the body; rather, they go much beyond that. In fact, the Qur’an and Sunna have put in place a set of rules relating to male-female interaction, which can be collectively termed the ‘Rules of Hijab’. Some aspects of these rules are as follows:
1) The Prohibition of Khalwah
Being alone with a non-Mahram of the opposite sex in a room or place where a third person is not easily able to enter upon them, or it is not usually accessible to others (khalwah), is categorically forbidden (haram) and hence must be avoided. There are many Hadiths of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) indicating this, for example:
Sayyiduna Abdullah ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, ‘A man must not remain alone in the company of a woman, and a woman must not travel except that her Mahram is accompanying her.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari 2488)
Sayyiduna Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, ‘A man does not be alone with a woman except that the third amongst them is Satan.’ (Sunan al-Tirmidhi 1171)
For more details on the rules of Khalwah, please refer to the answer posted previously on our website titled: ‘Being alone with someone of the opposite sex in a work situation’.
2) Covering the Awra
It is a categorically established ruling of Islam that both men and women must dress modestly such that their nakedness (awra) is covered properly with loose and non see-through clothing. A man’s Awra is from his navel up to and including his knees, whilst a woman’s Awra in the presence of non-Mahram men consists of her whole body except the face, hands and feet. As such, it is a grave sin to expose one’s Awra in the presence of Non-Mahrams. For more details, please refer to the answer posted previously on our website titled: ‘A Comprehensive Guide to a Woman’s Nakedness (awra)’.
3) The Prohibition of Informal Interaction
Informal interaction between those who are not Mahram to one another, meaning talking freely and casually, joking around, being flirtatious in the conversation, is also categorically forbidden and a major sin.
In Surah al-Ahzab (v: 32), Allah Most High commands the wives of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) in particular, and all Muslim women in general, to abstain from conversing with non-Mahram men in a soft and sweet tone. As such, when the need arises to talk, both the content and manner of conversation must be appropriate and free of anything enticing. The dialogue must be in a modest and restrained manner, and limited to the extent of need. For more details, please refer to the answer posted previously on our website titled: ‘Mixed Gatherings’.
4) The Prohibition of Wearing Perfume
It has been categorically forbidden in rigorously authenticated Hadiths for a woman to wear perfume when she is in the presence of a non-Mahram man.
Sayyiduna Abu Musa (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, ‘If a woman wears perfume and passes by a group of [non-Mahram] men, and they smell her perfume, she is such and such.’ The narrator says that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) used stern words. (Sunan Abi Dawud 4170)
5) Lowering the Gaze
Allah Most High in Surah al-Nur commands both believing men and believing women to lower their gazes and guard their private parts (v: 30-31). As such, one important aspect of the ‘Rules of Hijab’ is for both genders to avoid casting lustful gazes at one another.
All four mainstream Sunni Schools of Islamic law (madhhabs) agree that it is unlawful and sinful for a man to gaze at a woman if there is certainty, strong possibility or even a doubt of being attracted to her (shahwa). As for when he is convinced that there is no possibility of attraction, the early Hanafi jurists did permit him gazing at her face. However, many later jurists ruled that this was close-to-impossible, especially in later times, hence even when there is no possibility of attraction; it is not permitted for him to look at the face of a young woman. Yes, if the woman is old, then there is some leeway. As for the woman, if she is convinced that she will not be attracted to the man and does not fear Fitna, it is permitted for her to gaze at a non-Mahram man. (See: Radd al-Muhtar, Mughni al-Muhtaj, Hashiyat al-Khurshi ala Mukhtasar al-Khalil and Al-Mughni)
6) Covering the Face (Niqab)
Scholars disagree whether it is necessary for a woman to cover her face from non-Mahram men. However, my position and the position of most of my teachers is that it is necessary (wajib) for a woman to cover her face in ‘normal’ situations. The transmitted and authoritative position of the Hanafi School, as mentioned in virtually all the major fiqh books, is that even though the face is not part of a woman’s nakedness (awra), it is still necessary for her to cover it, due to the many evidences found in the Qur’an and Sunna, and due to the fitna involved in not doing so. (Radd al-Muhtar 1/406)
However, due to the texts obligating the Niqab not being categorical, scholars state that if there is a genuine need (hajah) to expose the face; for example, a woman fears physical or extreme verbal abuse, or she fears harm unto herself when walking in a crowded area such as in Hajj, then it is permitted for her not to wear the Niqab, but she should try keeping her face away from non-Mahram men as much as possible.
Note that the level of ‘need (hajah)’ which allows her to expose her face is not the absolute situation of dire necessity (dharura) – which makes all prohibitions lawful such as eating pork and drinking alcohol to save one’s life. A level of ‘dire necessity’ is required for categorically-established prohibitions to become lawful, so one would have to be in danger of losing their life in order to eat pork or drink alcohol. In the case of uncovering the face, however, a lesser level termed ‘Hajah’ is enough to earn the concession. So a woman does not have to fear for her life; but rather, undue hardship and difficulty is sufficient. This distinction comes about due to the fact that the prohibition of uncovering the face is not categorically established like the prohibition of eating pork or drinking alcohol. (See: Takmila Fath al-Mulhim 4/261 and Usul al-Iftaa by Mufti Taqi Usmani)
It is clear from the above explanation that there are many aspects to the ‘Rules of Hijab’ between men and women. The first five rules – namely, the prohibition of being alone, the obligation of covering the Awra, the prohibition of interacting freely, the prohibition of applying perfume, and the obligation of lowering the gaze have all been categorically established from the sacred texts (with some minor differences in rule number five concerning the gaze). However, rule number six, concerning the obligation of a woman covering her face, is not categorically established from the texts of the Qur’an and Sunna. It is for this reason that some scholars do not consider covering the face to be Wajib, although our opinion, as discussed previously, is that it is Wajib for a woman to cover her face unless she fears genuine hardship.
It is also clear that observing the five categorically-established rules is more important than covering the face/wearing a Niqab. Yet, unfortunately, some women restrict the ‘Rules of Hijab’ to the wearing of the Niqab. They wear the Niqab, but are casual and informal when interacting with non-Mahram men. Others emerge out of their homes immersed in perfume yet they wear the Niqab! This defeats the whole purpose of wearing the Niqab. As such, it is extremely important for Niqab-wearing women, and indeed all Muslim women, to take care of the first five rules mentioned above.
Furthermore, as explained earlier, due to the first five rules being categorically established from the sacred texts, no concession is given except in situations of dire necessity. As such, the prohibition of being alone, for example, is not uplifted unless there is a situation of dire necessity similar to the situation which allows eating pork and drinking alcohol – where one fears for their life or risks losing an organ of their body. As for the obligation of covering the face, it is uplifted in lesser situations, and as such, if a woman finds genuine hardship in wearing the Niqab, then it is permitted for her to not do so. (One should consult a reliable scholar to check whether their situation is a ‘genuine’ situation of need).
It is in this context that major scholars from the Subcontinent and the Arab world (who normally consider covering the face to be Wajib) issued their legal verdict (fatwa) that in the case of a joint family where non-Mahram family members (such as one’s brother-in-law or one’s sister-in-law) live together in the same house or they regularly come in and out of the house, and thus, a woman finds genuine difficulty in wearing the Niqab all the time, it is permitted for her to expose her face, hands (only up to the wrists) and feet. Imagine how difficult it can be for a woman to keep her face covered with the Niqab within the house all the time!
However, this does not mean that all the other aspects of the ‘Rules of Hijab’ are also compromised. On the contrary, it will still be forbidden to be alone with the non-Mahram relative. It will still be obligatory for her to fully cover the rest of her body (awra). It will still be forbidden to interact freely. It will still be forbidden for the woman to apply perfume in the presence of the non-Mahram male. It will still be obligatory for the man to lower his gaze as much as possible. In other words, the previous answer is only compromising one non-categorically established ruling due to genuine hardship, but all the other categorically established rulings of Hijab must still be strictly adhered to, especially Khalwah and informal interaction.
Finally, you referred to the Hadith in which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) compared one’s in-laws to death. Let us first look at the translation of the Hadith and then seek to explain it.
Sayyiduna Uqba ibn Amir (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, ‘Beware of entering upon women.’ A man of the Ansar said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, what about in-laws?’ He (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, ‘In-laws are death!’ (Sahih al-Bukhari 4934 and Sahih Muslim 2172)
This Hadith is not in relation to the covering of the face; but rather, the words of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace): ‘Beware of entering upon women’ themselves indicate that the prohibition is of being alone in privacy with a non-Mahram. It is for this reason that Imam al-Bukhari mentions this Hadith under the heading: ‘Chapter: A man should not be alone with a woman unless he is a Mahram, nor visit a woman whose husband is absent.’ The Hadith is mentioned in Sahih Muslim under the heading: ‘Chapter: On the prohibition of being alone with an unrelated woman and entering upon her.’
Commenting on this Hadith, Imam Nawawi (Allah have mercy on him) explains that this Hadith prohibits being in privacy with a non-Mahram woman â€“ something which is agreed upon by all the scholars. He then quotes Layth ibn Sa’d (Allah have mercy on him) who says that the ‘in-laws’ in the Hadith refers to a relative of the husband other than his father and sons [who are considered Mahram to his wife), such as his brother, nephew and cousin.
He further explains that as for his saying: ‘In-laws are death’, it means that one should be extra careful with non-Mahram in-laws since the possibility of mischief (fitna) is greater. Given the comfortable, social atmosphere that may exist within the home, it is very easy for him to approach the woman and be with her in private, without people blaming him for doing so. (See: Nawawi, Al-Minhaj Sharh Sahih Muslim, P: 1626)
As such, this oft-quoted Hadith is actually warning against being alone with a non-Mahram relative. It is surely unlawful for a man to be alone in a room with his sister-in-law, for example. The Hadith is not discussing the issue of covering the face/wearing the Niqab.
In conclusion, the concession given to a joint family, where one lives with a non-Mahram such as the brother-in-law, is limited to uncovering the face. However, all the other major aspects of the ‘Rules of Hijab’ such as not being alone in a room and not communicating freely must still be adhered to strictly.
And Allah knows best
[Mufti] Muhammad ibn Adam
Leicester , UK