Answered by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
The covering of one’s nakedness (awra) is of utmost importance for a male and female in Islam, thus the Qur’an and Sunna have laid great emphasis with regards to this. We also see the various books of Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) discussing the issues relating to the Awra of both the male and female in great detail. In this brief article, I will attempt to shed some light and look comprehensively as to what is a woman’s Awra.
Awra is an Arabic term the plural of which is Awrat. Linguistically, it means a hidden and secret place, and a person’s Awra is that which must be kept hidden. It also refers to everything that causes shame when exposed, thus, the Awra of an individual is the area of the body which (normally) causes embarrassment if exposed. (Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-Arab, 9/370).
In the terminology of Islamic Jurisprudence, Awra refers to the area or part of the body that must be covered with appropriate clothing. In the English language, it is normally translated as ‘nakedness’ or ‘area of the body that must be concealed’. Many people (normally from the Indo/Pak) refer to it as ‘Satar’. For the purpose of simplicity, I will use the term ‘Awra’ in this article, Insha Allah.
The Awra of a woman
A woman’s Awra can be initially divided into two categories:
1) Inside prayer
2) Outside prayer
The latter is then divided into further sub-categories:
a) In seclusion
b) In front of the husband
c) In front of Muslim women
d) In front of Mahram males (unmarriageable kin)
e) In front of non-Mahram males
f) In front of non-Muslim women
g) In front of non-Muslim Mahram males
1) Awra inside prayer (Salat)
A woman’s Awra whilst performing Salat consists of the whole body except the face, hands and feet. Allah Most High says: “O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel (zeenah) at every time and place of prayer”. (Surah al-A’raf, 31).
The majority of the Companions (Allah be pleased with them all), their followers (tabi’un), Jurists and exegetes of the Qur’an have deduced from this verse (along with the other evidences) the obligation of covering one’s Awra in prayer. (See: Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, 4/205, Ma’arif al-Qur’an (English), 3/565).
Sayyida Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who experiences menstruation (i.e. who has reached puberty, m) except with a head cover (khimar)”. (Sunan Abu Dawud, no. 641, Sunan Tirmizi, Sunan Ibn Majah and others).
The great Hanafi jurist, Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) states in his renowned Durr al-Mukhtar:
“The Awra for a free woman (i.e. not a slave, m) is her full body including her descending hair according to the correct opinion, except for the face, hands and feet”. (See Radd al-Muhtar, 1/405).
Therefore, a woman must cover herself properly when performing Salat. Everything besides the face, hands and feet must be covered. The face must be covered properly so that no hair is exposed. Also, care should be taken that no part from above the wrists and ankles is exposed.
It must be remembered that the Awra whilst performing Salat must be covered regardless of another person being present or otherwise, and regardless of whether one is performing Salat in dark or light. (Maraqi al-Falah, 210).
The feet, according to the more correct opinion, is not regarded as part of Awra. However, due to the difference of opinion with regards to it, it would be more precautious and advisable to cover them, as it will be explained in detail later.
With regards to the area below the chin, it should be remembered that the limit of the face in length starts from the point where the hairline usually begins to the bottom of the chin, and in breadth the portion between the two earlobes. (Maraqi al-Falah, P. 58)
Keeping this in mind, it becomes clear that the area below the chin is not included in the face, thus it would fall within the legal definition of Awra, and one should try to cover it. However, because of the difficulty in covering it, if a little part of it became exposed, there should not be a problem.
Finally, (in this section), the Awra must be concealed from before entering into Salat and must remain concealed until the end. If quarter of a part/organ that requires concealment is exposed before initiating Salat, then Salat will not be valid from the outset. If however, quarter of the organ which is included in the Awra becomes exposed during Salat, then, if this remains to the duration of reciting Subhan Allah thrice, Salat will become invalid, otherwise, it will be valid. (See: Maraqi al-Falah, P. 242).
Note) One should consult a scholar with regards to how the parts of the body are categorized and divided, for at times, one may regard an organ of the body to be one part, whereas, legally, it may be considered to be two parts.
2) Awra outside prayer
a) Awra in privacy and seclusion
It is necessary (wajib) (and recommended according to another opinion) in the Hanafi school, to cover one’s minimum nakedness (between the navel and knee for both men and women) even when alone. The exception to this is when there is a need, such as taking a shower, relieving oneself, or changing one’s clothes. Even in such situations, it is recommended to minimize the exposure.
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Modesty is part of faith (iman).” (Sahih al-Bukhari & Sahih Muslim).
Ya’la ibn Umayya reports that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: “Verily Allah is modest and discreet and He likes modesty and discretion. When one of you takes a bath, one should cover one’s self”. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Nasa’I & Musnad Ahmad). This is a command of recommendation when alone.
Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) said in his Durr al-Mukhtar:
“(And to cover one's Awra), this is a general obligation, even when alone, according to the correct opinion, unless it is for a valid reason”.
Allama Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) writes whilst commenting on the above in his Radd al-Muhtar:
“(al-Haskafi’s statement “Even when alone”) That is: Outside of prayer, it is obligatory to cover one's Awra in front of others by scholarly consensus, and even when alone according to the correct opinion…
Now, the apparent meaning of covering one's Awra when alone outside of prayer (in this context) is that only which is between the navel and knees, such that even women do not have to cover other than that (when alone) even if it is of their Awra in front of others…
(Al-Haskafi’s statement "According to the correct opinion") For Allah Most High, even though He sees the covered just as He sees the naked, sees the one with their nakedness uncovered leaving proper manners and sees the covered exhibiting proper manners. These proper manners (here) are obligatory whenever there is ability to exercise them."
(al-Haskafi’s statement “Unless it is for a valid reason”) Such as, using the toilet or cleaning one self (istinja).” (See: Radd al-Muhtar, 1/405, matlab fi satr al-awra).
Therefore, (according to the more correct opinion), a woman must cover even in privacy between her navel and (including) knees except when there is a need, such as relieving herself, showering, changing her clothes, etc…
b) Awra in front of the husband
In principle, it is permissible for the spouses to look at any part of each others body. As such, there is no Awra in front of the spouse (for this will be exempted from the ruling of concealing in privacy due to need).
Scholars mention however, that although it is permissible for the spouses to look at any part of the partner’s body, it is disliked that they become completely naked during cohabitation. A cover or sheet over the naked bodies would be sufficient.
Sayyida Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) said: “I never saw the Messenger of Allah’s (Allah bless him & give him peace) private parts”. (Sunan Ibn Majah, Hadith no. 662).
c) Awra in front of Muslim women
The Awra of a woman in front of fellow Muslim women is the same to that which is a man’s Awra in front of other men, i.e. from the navel up to and including the knees.
It is stated in al-Hidaya:
“A woman may see of another (Muslim, m) woman that which is permitted for a man to see of another man, due to them being from the same sex, and the non-existence of desire (shahwa) between them normally… Similarly, due to the need and requirement of them exposing amongst themselves.” (See: al-Marghinani, al-Hidaya, 4/461).
Therefore, a woman must cover from the navel up to and including her knees in front of other Muslim women.
d) Awra in front of (Muslim) Mahrams (unmarriageable kin)
The Awra of a woman in front of her Mahram men (those with whom marriage is permanently unlawful), such as the father, brother, son, paternal uncle (father’s brother), maternal uncle (mother’s brother), father in-law, grandson, husband’s son (from another marriage), son in-law, etc consists of the area between the navel and knees, and also the stomach and back.
Thus, it will be permissible for a woman to expose the following parts of her body in front of Mahram males: head, hair, face, neck, chest, shoulders, hands, forearms, and legs from below the knees. It will not be permissible to expose the stomach, back or any area which is between the navel and knees. (See: al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya, 5/328 & al-Hidaya, 4/461).
This ruling is based on the verse of the Qur’an in Surah al-Nur:
“They (believing women) must not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers, their brother’s sons, their sister’s sons or their women…” (24-31).
It will also be permissible for a Mahram to touch those parts that are permissible to expose in front of them, provided there is no fear of temptation or desire.
Imam al-Quduri (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“There is nothing wrong in touching those parts that are permissible to see” (Mukhtasar al-Quduri).
However, it should be remembered that if there is a fear of temptation (fitna), then it will be impermissible to expose these parts even in front of Mahrams, neither will it be permissible to see or touch those areas of a Mahrams body. (See: al-Lubab fi Sharh al-Kitab, 3/218).
e) Awra in front of non-Mahram males
The Awra in front of non-Mahram males (those with whom marriage is unlawful), which includes cousin brother, brother in-law, paternal uncle (one’s father’s sister’s husband), maternal uncle (one’s mother’s sister’s husband), husband’s uncle, husband’s nephew, etc) consists of the whole body except the face, hands and feet. It is similar to that which is considered Awra in prayer (salat).
Imam al-Marghinani (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“It is impermissible for a man to look at the whole body of a non-Mahram woman (due to it being part of Awra, m) except for her face and hands, for Allah Most High says: “Women must not display their beauty and ornaments except what appear thereof” (al-Nur, 31). Sayyiduna Ali and Sayyiduna Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) interpreted this verse with the face and hands... This is textual evidence on the impermissibility of looking at her feet (for it is awra, m), but Imam Abu Hanifa (Allah have mercy on him) said that it is permitted to look at her feet due to need”. (al-Hidaya, 4/458).
Imam al-Tumurtashi (Allah have mercy on him) states in Tanwir al-Absar:
“A woman’s Awra consists of her whole body except her face, hands and feet. However, she will be prevented from exposing her face in amongst men due to the fear of temptation (fitna)”.
Therefore, a woman’s Awra in front of non-Mahram men is her whole body except her face, hands and feet.
It must be remarked here that there is a difference between Awra and Niqab or Hijab. Due to the failure of distinguishing between the two, many people become victims of misinterpreting Islamic law in one way or another.
The face according to the scholars is not part of the Awra, yet, as we have seen in the text of Imam al-Tumurtashi, it will be necessary to cover it due to the fear of temptation and incitement. Ibn Abidin states: “(A young woman will be prevented from exposing her face), not because it is part of Awra, rather (for the fear of temptation)”. (Radd al-Muhtar, 1/406).
Thus, our discussion is solely regarding Awra, and not Hijab or Niqab. As far as the decisive ruling with regards to the covering of the face or otherwise is concerned, we leave that for another time.
It is also worth mentioning here that although the Fatwa position in the Hanafi Madhab is that the feet are not included within the Awra, but there is another strong opinion (within the madhhab and according to other Madhabs, such as the Shafi’is), that they are part of Awra, and must be covered. As such, legally, one will not be sinful for exposing them, but it would be advisable as a precautionary measure to cover them.
Moreover, (according to the Fatwa opinion), it is only allowed to uncover the feet up to the ankles. Anything above the ankles is from the Awra without a doubt. Many women wear veils, Burqas and Jilbabs that normally cover the ankles, but reveal the leg area above this while walking (especially in the wind, sitting and coming out of a car, etc), thus they commit the sin of exposing What is considered Awra according to all.
Therefore, we need to emphasise the importance of covering the feet. Covering the feet is just as important as covering the face if not more, for the face is not considered part of Awra, whilst, there is a strong opinion in the Hanafi Madhhab (and the Fatwa opinion in the other madhhabs) that the feet are.
Those who strongly call for and emphasise the necessity of covering the face (not that I object to them) must also realise that the feet are just of the same importance. At times, all the emphasis is laid upon the face, whilst the woman is seen to expose the area above the ankle while walking and there is no realisation that a sin is being committed.
f) Awra in front of non-Muslim women
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 to the minimum.
g) Awra in front of non-Muslim Mahrams
With regards to a woman’s Awra in front of her Mahrams who are non-Muslim, such as a non-Muslim father, brother, son, etc, I could not find an explicit ruling on the issue in the Hanafi School.
However, it seems that non-Muslim Mahrams are similar to other Mahrams in that a woman may expose herself besides from the navel to the knee and the stomach and back, provided there is no fear of temptation (fitna).
There are two reasons for this:
Firstly, the verse of the Qur’an and the statements of the jurists (fuqaha) are general when discussing Mahrams. They don’t distinguish between a non-Muslim and Muslim Mahram. The Qur’an permits a woman to expose herself (to a degree, as explained above) in front of her father, brother, son, etc without specifying that he be a Muslim.
Secondly, the Fuqaha explicitly mention that a Mahram with whom a woman may go on a journey of Hajj includes also a non-Muslim. Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“A woman may travel for Hajj with her husband or a Mahram, even though if he (Mahram) is a slave or a non-Muslim or (he is considered a Mahram, m) due to breastfeeding. He must have reached puberty and is sane, and a boy who is close to puberty is like the one who has reached puberty, except a fire worshipper and an immoral and corrupt person”.
Allama Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) explains:
“The reason why travelling with a Mahram who is a fire worshipper is impermissible, is that they (fire worshippers, m) consider marriage with a close relative to be permissible”. (Radd al-Muhtar, 2/464)
Imam al-Kasani (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“A Mahram is one with whom marriage is permanently unlawful… whether this Mahram is a free person or a slave, for slavery is not contrary to the close relationship (mahramiyya), and whether he is a Muslim, a non-Muslim or an atheist (mushrik), for a non-Muslim Mahram normally safeguards her, except that he is a fire worshipper, for he considers marriage with her to be permissible”. (Badai’i al-Sana’i, 2/124).
It is stated in Fath al-Qadir:
“It is permissible for her to travel with all types of Mahrams except a fire worshipper, for he believes marriage with her to be permissible”. (Ibn al-Humam, Fath al-Qadir, 2/422).
In the Shafi’i Madhhab, we have a clear text permitting the uncovering in front of a non-Muslim Mahram. Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“It is not permissible to look at what lies between the navel and knee of one’s close relative (mahram); everything else is permissible, provided there is no desire (shahwah), and even if he is a non-Muslim, because the close relationship (mahramiyyah) makes marriage unlawful, so it is as if they were two males or two females”. (Tuhfat al-Muhtaj ala al-Minhaj).
Therefore, it would be permissible for a woman to uncover besides the area between the navel and knees, and the stomach and back in front of her non-Muslim Mahrams, provided two conditions are met:
1) that there be no desire (shahwah) or fear of temptation (fitna), especially when we live in a age where evils such as incest among the non-Muslims is becoming common,
2) that the non-Muslim close relative not be from among those who believe that it is permissible to marry close relatives,
Finally before parting, I would like to mention in relation to our discussion three points.
Firstly, it should be remembered that all the parts of the body that need to be covered (in the various situations discussed above) must be covered with clothing that is loose and opaque. The clothing must not be close-fitting whereby the figure of the body is visible or transparent by which the colour of the body is able to be seen. If this is not taken care of, then it will not be regarded to be sufficient covering of the Awra.
Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“Clothing that is considered to be sufficient covering is such that, it is not possible to see thorough them”.
Allama Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) explains:
“(It is not possible to see thorough them), meaning in a way that the colour of the skin can not be visible. This exempts thin and other see-through clothing… However, if the clothing is thick in a way that the colour of the skin is not visible, but it is tight to the body, then this should not prevent the validity of Salat… However, it is still impermissible to see that part of the body”. (See: Radd al-Muhtar ala al-Durr al-Mukhtar, 1/410).
This excerpt of Ibn Abidin explains that if the skin of the body becomes visible in prayer, Salat will become invalid. However, tight clothing would not prevent the validity of prayer, yet it is still necessary not to wear tight-fitting clothing.
Secondly, in all the foregoing occasions where it is permissible to uncover and expose the body, if there is a fear of desire (shahwa) on either side or there is fear of temptation (fitna), then it will be necessary to cover. A woman may make this decision herself in accordance with the surroundings she is in.
Thirdly, it will be permissible to uncover and expose parts of the Awra in cases of extreme need and necessity, such as medication. However, care should be taken that this is limited to only the part that needs treatment. If treatment is needed on the actual private parts, then it would be better to receive treatment from someone of the same sex. However, if this is not possible, then it would be allowed to receive treatment from a specialist of the opposite sex, with taking due care of the injunctions and guidance of Shariah.
Allama Ibn Abidin ( may Allah have mercy on him) states:
“It is permissible for a male physician to view the affected area of a woman for the purpose of medication, provided it is minimised to only the area that actually needs treatment, for necessity is restricted to only the actual need. If the private parts need treatment, then a female should carry out the treatment, as seeing someone of the same sex is less of an evil”. (Radd al-Muhtar, 5/261).
The above was a comprehensive look at the Awra of a woman. The extent of the Awra differs from one occasion to another and from one person to another. The whole concept and idea behind this is that Islam desires its followers to live a life that is chaste and free from any type of corruption or immorality. This is a basis for every sound and pure society. May Allah guide us all to the straight path, and that we are able to act upon the injunctions of Shariah in a manner that is most pleasing to Allah Almighty.
And Allah knows best
Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
Darul Iftaa, Leicester, UK
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