Answered by Ustadh Abdullah Anik Misra
Question: Is the hadith of women being commanded to walk on the side of the road applicable today?
Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate,
Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Thank you for your question. It is not a religious obligation for women to walk on the side of the road in Islamic law. This hadith was not applied literally in the books of Islamic jurisprudence, and its chain of narration is weak.
Rather, books of etiquette quoted this hadith to convey something about modesty and its implementation for both genders in the public sphere, such as not brushing past one another in a crowded walkway and respecting each other’s personal space.
The place of these hadiths in the Sacred Law, and how they should be understood
One such narration is found in the collection of Abu Dawud, where he narrates that:
“Abu Usayd al-Ansari narrated that his father heard the Messenger of Allah (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) [speaking], while the latter was outside of the mosque and the men had intermingled with the women on the street. So he said to the women,
‘Hang back [from between the men], for it is not appropriate for you all to be walking in the middle of street [while crowded by men around you]; [rather] you should stay on the sides of the street.’
And [thereafter] a woman would stick so close to the walls [on the sides of the street], that her clothes would be catching on the wall because of how close she walked to it.” [Abu Dawud]
While commenting on the hadith’s chain of narration, Shaykh Saharanpuri points out that two of the narrator’s statuses in the field of hadith are unknown [Saharanfuri, Badhl al-Majhud], which would make the hadith very weak and inadmissible as a legal proof.
Supporting narrations in Bayhaqi’s Shu’ab al-Iman, Ibn Hibban’s Sahih, and Tabarani’s Mu’jam al-Kabir are also weak in their chains.
When viewed as a whole, it was said they would gain some strength, though they still were never applied literally.
Perhaps this is why these hadiths are only mentioned in some books of etiquette, since weak hadiths can be acted upon to promote an established virtue or warn against a vice, even though they do not become binding legal rulings.
The Importance of Modesty in One’s Interactions with the Opposite Gender
Even as a non-obligatory etiquette though, the context and meaning must be understood. The context was the mixing of strange men and women in a busy street outside the mosque, such that it was feared that modesty and respectful distance wouldn’t be observed.
Each side was asked to give the other some space by adhering to different parts of the road, so they did not brush up against one another.
Ibn Hajr al Haythami clearly notes this is “when there is a realistic likelihood of immoral behavior resulting”; hence, it is not a blanket ruling for all times and places. [al-Haythami, Fatawa al-Kubra]
The lesson in this hadith is about observing modesty in all our affairs. Between strange men and women in a shared public space, this would mean not walking too close to one another, nor staring, joking, flirting with or brushing past one another. In our times, we have sidewalks for everyone to use, and giving people their personal space and minding one’s own business is already generally observed by people who are sensible.
The obligation of modesty and giving respectful space should be upheld by both genders [Sayed Ali Zada, Shir’atul Islam], even if the other does not observe it. This means that if a woman is walking in the middle of a narrow pathway, the man should cleave to the side, as doing so is more about one’s God-consciousness (taqwa) than one’s gender.
Modesty is not solely learned through a set of rules, nor through clothing alone. Rather, it is a state of being which begins from the inward, and once it is present inwardly, it naturally permeates to the outward in a beautiful and graceful manner. And Allah knows best.
Abdullah Anik Misra
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani