Assalamu alaykum. What is your view on niqab, for women living in the western part of the world? Barak allahu feek.

Wa alaykum salam wa rahmatuLlahi wa baraktuHu,

According to many jurists and linguists, verse 59 of Surah al-Ahzab is the central textual evidence in favor of a woman’s obligation to cover the face: “O Prophet! Say to your wives, daughters, and the women of the believers, ‘let them pull their veils [ar: jalabib] down over them…’” In his Ahkam al-Qur’an 4/350, a commentary on Qur’anic verses specifically tied to legal rulings, and following the principles laid down by Imam Shafi’i, Ilkiya al-Harrasi stated that this verse established the obligation of a woman covering her head, where “head” is understood to include the face.

The word “jalabib” is the plural of the word “jilbab.” Many stated that this is a garment that covers the face, and thus use of the term jalabib in this verse establishes that the Sacred Law prescribes women wearing veils to cover their faces. In his work on Qur’anic exegesis, al-Bahr al-Muhit 8/504, the linguist Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi pointed out that the words “alayhinna” [eng: over them] may specifically imply their faces, as in the Days of Ignorance women’s faces were exposed; thus, the ruling came in order to command them to cover what had previously been uncovered.

In his Kashshaf 3/560, Zamakhshari also mentioned that the verse means covering their faces, and the point is confirmed by Baydawi in Anwar al-Tanzil 4/238. Khatib Shirbini comments on the matter similarly in his al-Siraj al-Munir 3/271, and it is likewise mentioned in Tafsir al-Jalalayn (p. 560). Furthermore, it is related in Sunan Abi Dawud 6/197, on the authority of Umm Salamah (Allah be pleased with her), that when this verse was revealed the Ansari women came out covered in black garments. The narration implies that their heads were fully covered (i.e., including their faces). In Tafsir Ibn Kathir 6/425 and other works, Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) is recorded as stating that the verse establishes the ruling of women going out with their faces covered. The understanding of the verse as indicating the obligation to cover the face, and not merely the hair, is thus one related from the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace).

The obligation of women only going out with their faces covered is thereby strongly supported by primary source evidences from the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It is also established by scholarly consensus. In his commentary on Mukhtasar al-Muzani, Nihayat al-Matlab fi Dirayat al-Madhhab 12/31, Imam al-Haramayn related an agreement of all Muslims on preventing women from going out with their faces uncovered.

Because of evidences such as these, in Nihayat al-Muhtaj 6/187, Ramli judged that a woman covering her face is obligatory (ar: wajib). This is also the opinion take by Khatib Shirbini in Mughni al-Muhtaj 4/209.

However, there is a slight difference of opinion related by Ibn Hajar in Tuhfat al-Muhtaj 7/193.  Here, Ibn Hajar accepted another report of consensus that is related by Qadi Iyad. Qadi Iyad related that a woman may go out with her face uncovered, and that it is upon men to lower their gazes. Accordingly, Ibn Hajar considers that there are two reports of consensus and he attempts to reconcile them. He does so by considering that what is intended in Imam al-Haramayn’s report is not specific to the covering itself being obligatory, but rather the fulfillment of a public interest. Ibn Hajar does add that if a woman knows a stranger, a man, will see her face, then it is obligatory for her to cover it.

The opinions related from Ibn ‘Abbas, Ilkiya, and others weaken Qadi Iyad’s report of consensus. Ibn Hajar has a strong point in accepting the report as admissible based on Imam Nawawi’s implicit approval of it in Sharh Sahih Muslim 14/139. On the other hand, the various opinions found at odds with the report are enough to consider Ramli’s take on the matter as preferred over that of Ibn Hajar.

The report related by Imam al-Haramayn has been established by the As-hab al-Awjuh. For instance, in relating the opinion on the entirety of a woman’s body being ‘awrah in front of a stranger, Ibn al-Rif’ah related in Kifayah 2/486 that this opinion is related from Abu Sa’id al-Istakhari, Abu ‘Ali al-Tabari, Shaykh Abu Muhammad, and Imam al-Haramayn who mentioned that the scholars of the ‘Iraqi tariqah incline to it on account of this report. This report of ijma’ is also related in the aforementioned citation from Nihayat al-Matlab, “the Muslims agree on preventing women from going out with their faces uncovered and abandoning wearing niqab.” While this is a different case, it does show that this report of ijma’ found in Nihayat al-Matlab was widely accepted by the As-hab al-Awjuh.

According to the principles of ifta’ laid down by the Shafiyyah, a fatwa may be given from either Ibn Hajar’s Tuhfah or Ramli’s Nihayah. The question here has been answered according to what is stated in Ramli’s Nihayat al-Muhtaj. However, it remains the case that many senior muftis who follow the Shafi’i School have preferred Ibn Hajar’s opinion on this particular point. In Futuhat al-Wahhab 4/123, Burhan al-Din al-Halabi, followed by Sulayman al-Jamal, preferred Ibn Hajar’s opinion. And likewise others have issued fatwas based on what is stated in Tuhfah. Finally, while this answer inclines to supporting Ramli’s view in Nihayah, a Shafi’i muqallid(ah) may follow either what is stated in Tuhfah or what is stated in Nihayah.

And Allah knows best.

Answered by Shaykh Yaqub Abdurrahman