Q: What should a Muslim woman cover of her body in front of non Muslim ladies?
A: The Awra of a woman in front of non-Muslim women is, strictly speaking, the same that is in front of non-Mahram men, i.e. the whole body besides the hands, face and the feet.
The verse of Surah al-Nur that we quoted earlier details the list of people besides whom a woman is not allowed to expose her beauty. Such people (as explained earlier) are known to be her Mahrams (unmarriageable kin). Also, in that verse, Allah Almighty states: “their women” (al-Nur, 31) indicating that a woman must only expose herself to her woman and not others.
The exegetes of the Qur’an differ with regards to the interpretation of this statement of Allah. Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“With regards to the statement of Allah “or their women”, there are two opinions. The first is that it refers to those women who are on the same religion (din) as them (i.e. Muslims, m). This is the opinion of the majority of the predecessors (salaf). Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) states: “It is impermissible for a believing/Muslim woman to uncover herself in front of non-Muslim women, and she is only allowed to expose that what is allowed in front of non-Mahram men… Sayyiduna Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) wrote to Abu Ubaida ibn al-Jarrah (Allah be pleased with him) to stop non-Muslim women from entering bath areas (hammam) with Muslim women.
The second opinion is that, it refers to all the women (i.e. she may uncover in front of all the women, m). This is the adopted opinion, and the opinion of the predecessors is based on superiority (istihbab)”. (See: Tafsir al-Kabir, 8/365).
As we have seen, that Imam al-Razi (Allah have mercy on him) adopted the second view in that a woman may uncover in front of non-Muslim women to the extent of what she is allowed to uncover in front of Mahram men.
However, many scholars chose the first view, and it is the view that is adopted by the Hanafi School. Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“An unbelieving woman is similar to a non-Mahram man according to the correct opinion. Thus, she is not allowed to see the body of a Muslim woman”. (Radd al-Muhtar, 6/371)
Allama Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) explains:
“It is impermissible for a Muslim woman to uncover in front of a Jewish, Christian or a atheist woman except if she is her slave…It is also disliked that a corrupt woman (fasiqa) sees the body of a pious woman, for she may describe her to the men, thus she should avoid taking off her outer garment (jilbab) or scarf (khimar)”. (ibid).
It is evident from the text of Ibn Abidin that the main reason for the impermissibility of uncovering in front of a non-Muslim woman is that she may describe her to other men. If this is feared from a corrupt Muslim woman, then one should avoid uncovering in front of her also.
Therefore, the Awra of a woman in front of non-Muslim women is all her body except her face, hands and feet. Thus, a woman should cover in front of non-Muslim women whenever reasonably possible. However, scholars say that if this is difficult, then it will be permissible to expose some part of the body in front of them.
The ruling of covering in front of non-Muslim women is not as strict as the other situations, for, firstly, there is a difference of opinion between the scholars regarding it, and secondly, it may be at times very difficult to cover in front of women. The great exegete, Imam al-Alusi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“This opinion (of not covering in front of non-Muslim women) is more appropriate these days, for it is almost impossible to cover in front of them”. (Ruh al-Ma’ani)
In conclusion, a woman should cover whenever reasonably possible in front of non-Muslim women, especially when there is fear that she may describe her to other men. Also nowadays, Fitnahs such as lesbianism have become so wide spread that it has become necessary for women to observe caution with non-Muslim women. However, if it is difficult to fully cover, then one may take the concession on not covering and minimising it.
And Allah knows best
Aadiel Moosagie (Mufti)
Council of Ulama Eastern Cape
+27 83 982 6968