Niqab in Islam

What is a Niqab?

The Niqab (sometimes confused with burka, hijab and abaya) in Islam is a gown that covers the whole body except the eyes, dull colours are normally worn. As oppose to the headscarf (commonly known as the Hijab) it is not considered compulsory and from those who do consider it compulsory, they are further divided by exactly what needs to be covered. Some say that the eyes may be left unconcealed, while others say that everything must be concealed. However, those scholars who rule that Niqab is not an obligation do not necessarily oppose those who choose to wear it.

Historically, the veiling of the face was practised by many cultures before Islam and continued throughout Europe and Asia. In the natural world, the type of clothes people wore depended mostly on their geographical location. Those from colder climates wore animal fur or wool to keep warm and those from hot climates usually wore light clothing mostly made from cotton or linen. Historically, most women, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese and Inca wore a long dress-type of clothing and a shawl to cover the head and chest (Lambert, 2012). In the Near East, 5000 B.C.E. Assyrian Kings developed the veil as a way of denoting social status and instructed both the seclusion of women in the royal harem and the veil. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women.

Most men travelled some distances for many days in pursuit of their livelihoods leaving their families behind and for many that brought about the socializing process of seclusion and segregation of their women, especially for those seen to be attractive. F. Mernissi came to a conclusion that sexual segregation in societies was a device not to protect women but to protect men. She affirmed that men were not as good in controlling their sexual impulses as compared to women.

According to Net (2015) men’s sexual drive is powerful in comparison to that of women and is approximately five times more concerned about sex. Older men have a low sex drive. Primitive man was engaging in sexual activity up to 2 to 4 times a day, which was seen as normal because in the evening there was nothing else to do. Likewise, it is argued for the modern day man, even a whiff of perfume can set him off.

The most authentic ruling according to the majority of scholars is that there is no sin if it is not worn. Some of these scholars state that wearing the Niqab is an act of extra piety, for it they will be rewarded. But let’s look at what Islam has to say about the Niqab in detail; there is a divided opinion from scholars regarding the Niqab.

Evidence for the obligation of Niqab

There are only a few references to veiling in the hadith and most of these actually refer to the khimar, which is restricted linguistically to head covering. The covering of the face is only mentioned in three hadith and never by the command of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. A common verse from the Quran cited:

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Qur’an 33:59

Scholars, such as Imam Abul A’la Mawdudi from the Indian subcontinent, suggest that these verses refer to covering the entire body, including the face and hands. The order ‘cast their outer garments’ in Arabic is similar to phrase ‘draw together’. Scholars say that as a result of this verse, the women at the time of the Prophet ﷺ drew together their garments over their entire body, including the face.

One hadith that is used as evidence for this is:

The Messenger of God, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognised.

Narrated ‘Aisha (wife of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ), Bukhari

This hadith has been dated some time after verse 33:59 was revealed. Proponents of the Niqaab say that this hadith shows that the women during the time of the Prophet ﷺ were not recognisable and hence they must have worn niqab. However, other scholars have argued that their faces were unrecognisable because it was dark, not because they were covered up. It is interesting to note that Aisha says ‘some women,’ and not all. Furthermore she refers to the early-morning prayer and not to any other. It would certainly make it more difficult to see who individuals were if they were dressed in cloaks before sunrise.

In addition, they have argued that the order ‘cast their outer garments over their persons’ has been misunderstood. They say that the word ‘face’ has not been indicated in the Arabic, and it would therefore be wrong to extend the meaning.

Other proponents of the Niqab use this Qur’anic verse for evidence for the niqab.

…And when ye ask (the Prophet’s wives) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.

Qur’an 33:53

The wives of the Prophet ﷺ were indeed required to wear the niqab by this Qur’anic verse. Scholars say that if the wives of the Prophet ﷺ, as the best of feminine examples, were required to wear niqab, then the ruling falls on all women.

However, earlier on in the same chapter, the Qur’an also very clearly states that the Prophet’s wives were not similar to other women.

O Wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women.

Qur’an 33:32

Most scholars are in agreement that the verse about the screen, or concealing of the face, is only obligatory on the wives of the Prophet ﷺ. They say the verses are a clear indication that the wives of the Prophet ﷺ are much more restricted in their movement due to their political position, and that their code of conduct does not constitute a code of conduct for women in general.

In the Hanafi school, the face, hands, and feet are not awrah. However, the recorded position since the earliest times is that it is necessary (wajib) to cover the face for other than old women, because of the fitna. It is still possible to implement this ruling in the modern Muslim world. Shaykh Wahbi Sulayman Ghawji has authored numerous works reinforcing the necessity (wujub) of niqab according to the vast majority of the jurists of Islam, and criticizing modernists and some others for saying it is not recommended.

Evidence against the obligation of Niqab

Most scholars, including the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, hold the view that Niqab is not an obligation. They cite a number of references for this opinion.

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof…

Qur’an 24:30-31

According to the majority of contemporary scholars ‘what is apparent of it’ refers to the hands and face. Another scholar, Shaykh Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Canada suggests that because God asks both men and women to lower their gaze, it suggests their faces are visible, otherwise there would be no sense in it.

Scholars holding this view also state that it is well accepted by all scholars that the Prophet ﷺ categorically forbade people from covering their faces or hands during hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. If it was necessary that the hands and face be covered at all times, he would not have stated its impermissibility during one of the most sacred points of a person’s life. It is also generally held by the majority of scholars, including those that believe Niqab is obligatory, that covering the face during the five daily prayers is also prohibited.

Another strong indication that Niqab is not an obligation is presented in this hadith.

Abdullah bin Abbas reports that the Prophet was riding a camel with Al-Fadhl, Abdullah’s brother, behind him. A beautiful woman came to ask the Prophet about the Hajj of her father. Al Fadhl began to stare at her; her beauty impressed him a lot. The Prophet (peace be upon him) having noticed this while Al Fadhl was busy looking, put his hand behind and turned his face away from her hither and thither as she went along with them. Al Abbas said to the Prophet, “you are twisting the neck of your nephew!” The Prophet replied, “I noticed that both the boy and the girl were young; and I feared that Satan may intervene”

Tirmidhi and Bukhari

Scholars argue that the Prophet ﷺ controlled the boy Al Fadhl’s gaze, but didn’t mention the fact that the woman was not covering her face. This hadith would seem to indicate strongly that Niqab was not obligatory in society at that time.

Scholars in the west

Obligation vs recommendation

Some contemporary scholars have gone further in their rulings about the niqab in the West. Although they may agree with its practice in Muslim countries, they say that it is harmful in the West and should therefore be avoided. Shaykh Darsh, a prominent UK scholar, did not believe that the niqab was necessary, or even recommended by the Prophet ﷺ for women to wear. But if you were going to argue that niqab was a recommended act, he explained his opinion for wearing niqab in this country in the following way:

– Some people believe that niqab is recommended (sunnah) – Everybody believes that inviting people to Islam (da’wah) is obligatory (fardh)

The niqab is often a very significant barrier to da’wah in the West where the concept of face covering has never been known. If a recommended act is a barrier to an obligatory act, one must not sacrifice the fardh for the sunnah

Shaykh Nuh Keller, a Jordanian Shafi’i scholar has put forward a similar argument for women in the West. He says that women should not wear niqab in the West because it can lead to harassment and act as a barrier to inviting people to Islam.

Essentially, there are two sets of verses in the Quran, of which Muslim conservatives base their understanding to legitimise a generalised model of veiling Muslim women.

“O Prophet. Tell Thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their ‘jilbab’ (cloak), over their persons (when abroad): That is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested…. Truly, those in whose hearts is a disease…. Desist not”Quran, 33:59-60

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof…”Qur’an 24:30-31

The Quran, on the other hand placed the relation between man and women on a basis of equality, exalting either over the other.

God created you from a single life-cell and from it created its mate (for man a women and for woman a man) and from twain has spread abroad a multitude of men and women

Quran 4:1

God has created you that one excels the other

Quran 4:34

The Quran liberated women from her long age bondage to man and further states,

Men and women both have the potentiality to develop their personalities, men can exercise control and so can women. Both are to keep their sexual urge within desired limits and both are to understand the laws of Allah and focus their activities in life and both will enjoy protection and security.

Quran 33:35


what man earns will be his and what woman earns will belong to her.

Quran 4:32

The Quran throughout treats men and women as equals in all respects and asserts the fact that mankind can attain human stature only when it speaks about man and woman in terms of human beings and not with reference to sex distinction.

This is further supported by [the verse in which] God I informs the Prophet ﷺ that, (No more women are permitted to you [in marriage], henceforth, nor may you change [current] wives for others, even if their beauty pleases you). How could he find their beauty pleasing if there were no possibility for him to see the face which, all agree, is the centre of beauty of a woman?

A woman came to the Messenger of God (pbuh) and said, “O Messenger of God, I have come to present myself to you [in marriage].” So the Messenger of God (pbuh) raised his glance towards her and focused it, and then lowered his head, so when she saw that he had not given a judgement on the matter, she sat down.

If the woman had covered her face, the Prophet ﷺ could not have raised his glance nor focused it on her at length. It has not been narrated that she only did this for the marriage proposal, and later covered her face; rather it is narrated that she simply sat down, and one of the Companions in the gathering saw her, and asked the noble Messenger to marry her to him.

It can be seen that there is no evidence of the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ himself either promoting or discouraging the Niqab.


The Bible also declares in may verses that veiling was a custom among the Jews

Rebecca says to her servant ‘what man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And she took her veil and covered herself.

Genesis, 24, 65

Suzanna was veiled and the wretches made her unveil in order to feast their eyes on her beauty

Danial, 13, 32

The rationale behind the veiling was based on avoiding unneeded attention, this is why they were worn at weddings, to preserve her beauty for the husband only.

In conclusion, the safest position for a Muslim is to allow a woman to choose whether she wishes to wear the Niqab. There is Islamic reference to the Niqab so you can not disregard it and claim it’s only cultural. However for those who don’t wish to wear one, they shouldn’t feel less pious. Those who do wear one, need to be aware and perfect in their manners.

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