How did the niqab (face-veil) become a custom in Muslim societies?
How did the niqab (face-veil) become a custom in Muslim societies?
According to the opinion of the majority of scholars, wearing the niqab (face veil) is a custom and not part of religion or adornment. This is based on the fact that the entire body of a Muslim woman is 'awrah (those parts of the body that must not be exposed before non-mahrams) except for her face and hands.
This is the established opinion of the Hanafi, Maliki and Shafi'i schools of jurisprudence, the sound opinion of Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal and the opinion maintained by his students, and the opinion of al-Awza'i and Abu Thawr. Previous proponents of this opinion include 'Umar, Ibn 'Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them), 'Ata`, 'Ikrima, Sa'id Ibn Jubair, Abu al-Sha'tha`, al-Dahhaq, Ibrahim al-Nakh'i and many others from among the mujtahids (scholars who are competent to exercise independent reasoning) from among our predecessors.
They based their opinion on the hadith of 'A`isha, the mother of Believers (may Allah be pleased with her) who narrated that when Asmaa` Bint Abu Bakr entered upon the Prophet wearing transparent clothes, he turned his face away and said, "O Asmaa`! When a woman reaches menarche, nothing of her should be seen except this and this" (and he pointed to his face and hands)" [Abu Dawud and others).
According to Imam Abu Hanifa, al-Thawri and al-Muzani, the feet are not part of a woman's 'awrah and therefore it is permissible for her to expose them.
In the book titled “al-Hidayah fi Sharh al-Bidaya”, Imam al-Mirghinani said, "The entire body of a free born Muslim woman is a 'awrah except for her face and hands."
In the book of “al-Bahr al-Ra'iq”, the prominent scholar Ibn Nujaim commented on the opinion of Imam al-Nasfi saying, "Al-Nasfi's opinion in which he stated that a woman's entire body is 'awrah (must be covered) except for her face and hands is based on the words of Allah the Almighty "They should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof" [Qur'an 24, 31]. Ibn 'Abass (may Allah be pleased with them) said, "[The apparent ornaments] refer to woman's face and hands."
In al-Sharh al-Kabir, Imam al-Dardir, "The 'awrah of a Muslim woman in presence of a non-mahram [individual to whom marriage is permissible] is her entire body except for the face and hands."
Maliki scholars stated that it is disliked for a Muslim woman to wear the niqab if it is not part of the custom of her country. They mentioned that insisting on wearing the niqab and contradicting the customs of the land is deemed overzealousness in religion.
In Asna al-Matalib, Sheikh al-Islam Zakariyyah al-Ansari said, "The 'awra of a Muslim woman both during and outside of prayers and in the presence of non-mahrams is her entire body save the face and hands."
In Mughni al-Muhtaj, Imam Ibn Qudama said that it is permissible for a Muslim woman to uncover her face and hands because covering them entails hardship. Likewise, when a man wants to marry a woman, it is permissible to look at her face and hands.
Evidence from primary texts
The majority of scholars substantiated their opinion on this matter by many evidences derived from the Qur'an and Sunnah.
Evidences from the Qur'an
They (women) should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof" [Qur'an 24, 31).
This verse refers to the adornment that is permissible to be revealed such as kohl which is the ornament of a woman's face and rings.
Ibn Abu Shayba, Abd Ibn Hamid and Ibn Abu Hatim reported that Ibn 'Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them) said in his interpretation of the verse that the adornment that is permissible for a Muslim woman to reveal includes her face, hands and rings. In his interpretation of the verse, Ibn Kathir said, "It was reported that Ibn 'Umar, 'Atta`, 'Ikrima, Sa'id Ibn al- Jubair, Abu al-Sha'tha', al-Dahak, Ibrahim al-Nakh'i and others maintained the same opinion as Ibn 'Abbas."
Ibn 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "A woman in a state of iharm should neither cover her face nor wear gloves" (Bukhari).
Based on the hadith, if a woman's face and hands were considered 'awrah, the Prophet would not have forbidden covering them while in ihram.
Bukhari and Muslim recorded in their collections of Sahihs that Ibn 'Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them) narrated: "Al-Fadl was riding behind the Prophet (pbuh) on his mount, when a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khath'am approached the Prophet (pbuh). Al-Fadl kept gazing at her (in some narrations it was mentioned that she was beautiful) so the Prophet turned al-Fadl's face to the other side. She asked the Prophet (pbuh), "O Messenger of Allah! My father is an old man. He cannot sit firmly on his mount and therefore cannot perform his obligatory hajj. May I perform it on his behalf?" The Prophet (pbuh) replied, "Yes, you may." This happened during the Farewell hajj.
If the face were part of a woman's 'awrah that must be covered, the Prophet would not have approved of her uncovering her face in the presence of people. Rather, he would have commanded her to cover her face. Moreover, if her face was covered, Ibn 'Abbas would not have known whether she was beautiful or ugly.
Imam Muslim recorded the hadith of Jabir Ibn Abdullah (may Allah be pleased with them) in which the Prophet (pbuh) reminded women to pay charity as a protection from Hellfire in the Hereafter. Thereupon, a woman from among their noblest, with dark spot on her cheeks asked, "Why is that O Messenger of Allah? … This narration indicates that the woman's face was uncovered and that the narrator of the hadith saw her face. There are other hadiths to this effect.
Furthermore, [everyday] needs require exposing the face and hands during business dealings.
The issue of attire is closely related to a community's customs. The opinion implemented for fatwa in Egypt in this respect is the preponderant opinion maintained by the majority of scholars who permit exposing the face and hands. There is no harm in women covering their faces in communities where this is the custom. However, this must not be tied to a woman's religiosity.
This scholarly disagreement concerns the case when wearing the niqab is not taken as a means to divide the Muslim community or make it a symbol of worship and religiosity. If this is so, then the ruling for it changes from recommendation or permissibility to being an innovation. This is because in this case, niqab turns into a means to discord and division among Muslims and their families.