Is it true that according to the Shāfiʿī school of thought, it is permissible for a woman to travel without her husband or a Maḥram so long as she travels with a group of women and it is safe to do so?
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بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم
This is incorrect and a clear misrepresentation of the Shāfiʿī school of thought. The great Shāfiʿī scholar Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449) explicitly mentions in Fatḥ al-Bārī (2: 568) the consensus of the scholars on the prohibition of travel for women without a Maḥram (unmarriageable kin) or husband and cites two exceptions to this; travel for obligatory Ḥajj and travel from the lands of the enemy to the land of Islam. The famous Mālikī scholar Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (d. 544/1149) also narrates the consensus of scholars on the prohibition in Ikmāl al-Muʿlim (4:232), which has also been shared by the Shāfiʿī scholar Imam Nawawī (d. 676/1277) in his commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (9: 104).
It is worth noting two points here:
Firstly, the scholars have differed regarding the permissibility of travelling for obligatory Ḥajj and whether it supersedes the prohibition. The Shāfiʿī and Mālikī schools of thought permit this with a few conditions whilst the Ḥanafī and Ḥanbalī schools of thought maintain that obligatory Ḥajj will not supersede the prohibition. This latter opinion has been preferred by several Shāfiʿī scholars including Imam Bagawī (d. 516/1122).
Secondly, the Shāfiʿī and Mālikī schools of thought have explicitly mentioned that this exception only applies to obligatory Ḥajj and does not apply to optional Ḥajj or indeed any other non-obligatory travel. Imam Qasṭalānī (d. 923/1517), a prominent Shāfiʿī scholar mentions in his commentary of Ṣāḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (3: 362): “If a woman travels to visit someone or for business, this is not permissible.” Imam Bagawī (d. 516/1122), a prominent Shāfiʿī scholar shares the same view and mentions that the prohibition is the consensus of all the scholars if the travel is of a non-obligatory nature. He further mentions some exemptions by way of necessity for example, if a non-Muslim woman accepts Islam in the land of the enemy, or a female prisoner frees herself (Fatḥ al-Bārī, 4: 76). In the commentary of al-Muhadhdhab (7: 56), Imam Nawawī (d. 676/1277) also affirms this as the correct position of the Shāfiʿī school of thought and refutes those who have attempted to permit this for non-obligatory travels. He suggests that this contradicts the explicit statement of Imam Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820).
Another important fact to note in understanding the position of the Shāfiʿī school of thought is the definition of travel in so far as the prohibition of travel is concerned. According to the mainstream position of the Ḥanafī school of thought, 48 Sharʿī miles (equivalent to 54.5 English miles, Aḥsan al-Fatāwā, 4: 94) constitutes travel (al-Muḥīt al-Burhānī, 2: 23), both in relation to shortening the Ṣalāh as well as the prohibition on women’s travel without her husband or a Maḥram. Therefore, women are not allowed to travel beyond this distance.
However, according to the majority of scholars – including the Shāfiʿī school of thought – there is a distinction between the definition of travel that enables the shortening of the prayer and the definition of travel that prohibits women’s travel. The definition of the latter is broader than the former and therefore more stringent. Any journey that is regarded or classified as a travel is prohibited for women (Fatḥ al-Bārī, 4: 75; Sharḥ Muslim, 9: 103). This is also the view of the Mālikī school of thought (Irshād al-Sālik, 1:165; Mawāhib al-Jalīl, 2: 525) and the Ḥanbalī school of thought (al-Mugnī, 3: 193; Kashshāf al-Qināʿ, 2: 394). Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyah (d. 728/1328) is also of this view (Majmū al-Fatāwā, 24: 47). Therefore, according to the majority of scholars, it is not permissible for a woman to leave the town without a Maḥram as this will constitute travel. It is for this reason ʿAllāmah Ibn Ḥajar al-Makkī al-Shāfiʿī (d. 974/1567) mentions in his commentary of Imām Nawawī’s al-Īḍāḥ (p. 103) and in al-Zawājir (1: 150) that it is Ḥarām (unlawful) for a woman to travel to Tanʿīm for ʿUmrah without a Maḥram or her husband, even if she travels with a group of women. This is because until recently, Tanʿīm was outside of Makkah. Tanʿīm is approximately five miles from Masjid al-Ḥarām. Similarly, the Ḥanbalī scholar ʿAllāmah Bahūtī (d. 1051/1641) writes in Kashshāf al-Qināʿ (2: 394) that it is necessary for a Maḥram to accompany a woman in every journey that is regarded as travel according to the ʿUrf (custom). He further writes, “And a Maḥram will not be considered [necessary] when she goes out to the outskirts of the town so long as there is no fear for her, as this is not regarded as travel.” Thus, according to the majority of scholars, the distance of three days travel or 54.5 miles is not applicable. Thus, the Shāfiʿī, Mālikī and Ḥanbalī position is more stringent than the Ḥanafī position.
It is also worth noting that there is a narration from Imam Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 150/767) and Imam Abū Yūsuf (d. 182/798) which suggests that the definition of travel in relation to the prohibition of women’s travel is the distance of one day’s travel (Tabyīn al-Ḥaqāʾiq, 2: 6; Fatḥ al-Qadīr, 2: 422). This view is shared by some Mālikī scholars including Qaḍī ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 422/1031) (Mawāhib al-Jalīl, 2: 525). The distance of one day’s travel is equivalent to 16 Sharʿī miles. The Ḥanafī jurist Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī (d. 1014/1605) writes in his commentary of Lubāb al-Manāsik (p. 78) after citing this narration from Imam Abū Ḥanīfah and Imam Abū Yūsuf, “It is appropriate for the Fatwā (edict) to be on this due to the deterioration of the times”. Nevertheless, the dominant Ḥanafī position is as stated above (Fatḥ al-Qadīr, 2: 422; Radd al-Muḥtār, 2: 465).
In conclusion, it is a gross misrepresentation of the Shāfiʿī school of thought to suggest that it permits women to travel with a group of women without a Maḥram or husband in all circumstances. It is clear that according to the Shāfiʿī school of thought, it is not permissible for a woman to leave her town except for obligatory Ḥajj and other forms of obligatory travel provided certain conditions of safety and security are fulfilled. I understand that many later Shāfiʿī scholars have permitted women to travel without a Maḥram or husband for up to 48 Sharʿī miles similar to the Ḥanafī position. However, beyond this, they do not permit travel without a Maḥram for any non-obligatory travel. It is therefore incorrect for those who travel on holidays or travel for supererogatory Islamic programmes or weddings to justify their actions based on this view. This notwithstanding the fact that it is not permissible for a Ḥanafī to pick and choose the view of another school in accordance with his desires.
Allah knows best
Yusuf Shabbir, Blackburn, UK
19 Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1436 / 8 February 2015