Ruling on Covering Face and Hands for Women

What is the Shar`i ruling on covering the face and hands for women?

The issue of covering the face and hands for women is controversial among Muslim scholars as well as among the Prophet’s Companions. Ibn Mas`ud held the view that this should be done, while `A’ishah (the Prophet’s wife) adopted the opposite view. Difference of opinion on this issue is based on the interpretation of the Verse: {Do not reveal their adornment except what appears thereof}. Some of the Companions deemed the face and hands objects of apparent adornment, while others said that the words “what appears thereof” refers to the outward appearance, i.e., the body seen after a woman has worn her clothes that cover her fully.
After the Era of the Companions, scholars differed on the matter. The majority adopted the opinion that the face and hands are not `awrah (i.e., private body parts), such as Malik, Abu Hanifah, and Imam Ahmad (as one of the several judgments given by him in this respect). However, the opinion stated in these schools explains that uncovering the face and hands is only valid if the woman will not cause fitnah (i.e. temptation). But if fitnah is feared, scholars have two different opinions on whether it is permissible to uncover the face and hands. Some said that the man must lower his gaze, and the woman is not obligated to cover her face. This is the opinion of Al-Qadi `Iyad, who belongs to the Maliki school of thought, citing the hadith that tells the story of a woman from the tribe of Khath`am who came to the Prophet (PBUH) and he turned the face of Al-Fadl to the other side, but did not order her to cover her face.
Many scholars opine that a woman should cover her face if fitnah is feared. The issue is controversial. The authentic opinion of Imam Ahmad indicates that a woman should cover her face and hands in the presence of strangers. In this regard, we advocate the opinion that a woman should cover her face and hands at places where the face and hands need to be covered, but at other places where this is not necessary, we commend a woman covers her head at least. In the end, this issue does not require much debate or disagreement. There are many other issues and duties more significant than such minor controversies.

In this relation, we urge Muslim preachers (may Allah reward them) to direct their efforts to useful channels and focus on vital issues of the Muslim Nation, seeking to cause unity, not discord. It is acceptable to differ on detailed points, especially if it is a controversy that has had some rationale since the time of the Prophet’s Companions, a controversy that relies on texts from the Qur’an and Sunnah, a controversy that originates from different interpretations. Those who advocate a controversial opinion should not be accused of weak faith or bad intentions. Instead, such an opinion should be recognized as respectable and acceptable, Insha’ Allah.
We advise those who adopt controversial opinions to be aware of the grounds of controversy and not to accuse each other of infidelity or fabrication in the religion. The matter is flexible, and Allah has made for us no hardship in religion. He says, {And (Allah) has not laid upon you in religion any hardship}.
For example, to order a woman in Europe to cover her face and hands, thus causing her trouble with the police or at airports, is something unallowable. Such kind of fatwas (legal opinions) is far from the insightful purposes of Shari`ah. In such a case, it would be better for her to stay in her own country if she wants to cover her face and hands, but if she travels to another country, covering her face and hands would cause a problem greater than that caused by uncovering her face and hands. And Allah knows best.