Looking at a woman

It is prohibited to look at a woman’s face or hand with desire. This is undisputed. The same is the case if there is fear that it may lead to mischief. In the absence of desire or fear, the fuqaha are divided. The Hanafis and Malikis permit whilst the Shafi’is and Hanbalis still prohibit.

By Shaykh al-Islam Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani
Takmilah Fath al-Mulhim, vol. 4, pp. 225-234
Translated by Ml. Zameelur Rahman

As for the positions of the fuqaha on the permissibility of looking at the face of a woman and her hands, the fuqaha have agreed on the impermissibility when it is with the intention of gratification (taladhdhudh), or if there was a fear of temptation inviting the man to be alone with her. There is no dispute in the prohibition of looking at the face of a woman and her hands in this case. As for when the man is safe from temptation and does not desire gratification by looking there is disagreement over its permissibility. The position of the Hanafis and the Malikis is the permissibility of looking at the face and hands in this case and this is the position of many of the Shafi’is and few Hanbalis. However the preferred [view] according to the Shafi’is and the Hanbalis is absolute impermissibility even if safe from desire and temptation.

The Hanafi position

Shams al-A’immah al-Sarakhsi said in al-Mabsut (10:152), “It is permissible to look at the area of apparent adornment of women and not the hidden [adornment] due to His statement Most High, ‘they should not display their ornaments except what appear thereof’ (24:31). ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) said, ‘what appears thereof’ is kohl and the ring. ‘A’ishah (Allah be pleased with her) said one of her two eyes and ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him) said her shoes (khuff) and shroud (mula’ah) … The prohibition of looking is for fear of temptation and the greater part of her attractiveness is in her face, the fear of temptation in looking at her face is greater than it is when looking at other parts. ‘A’ishah reasoned similarly but she said, ‘if she finds no escape from walking on the road, then it is necessary that she opens her eye to see the road. So it is permissible for her to uncover one of her eyes due to this necessity, and what is established by necessity should not go beyond the scope of the necessity.’

“However, we [Hanafis] adopt the view of ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) since reports have been transmitted giving a dispensation to look at her face and hands. From these reports is what was narrated that a woman offered herself [for marriage] to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace), and he looked at her face and did not desire her.

“And when ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him) said in his sermon, ‘Know that you may not go in excess in the dowries of women’ and a woman with flushed cheeks said, ‘Are you expressing [a view] using your [personal] opinion or did you hear this from Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and grant him peace), for indeed we find in the Book of Allah Most High the opposite of what you say…?’ Hence, the narrator mentioned that she had flushed cheeks, and this contains a clarification that her face was unveiled.

“And Allah’s Messenger (Allah bless him and grant him peace) saw the hand of a woman that was not dyed with henna and he asked, ‘is this the hand of a man?’

“And when Fatima (Allah be pleased with her) gave one of her two children to Bilal or Anas (Allah be pleased with them), Anas said, ‘I saw her hand and it appeared as if a half-moon.’

“It is thus proven that there is no harm in looking at the face and hands. Furthermore, the face is the site of kohl and the hand is the site of the ring … Moreover, there is no doubt that it is permissible to look at her garment, and fear of temptation is not considered in this, and looking at her face and hands is the same. Al-Hasan ibn Ziyad narrated from Abu Hanifah that it is permitted to look at her foot also, as was mentioned by al-Tahawi, because just as she is tried with showing her face in working with men and showing her hand in receiving and giving, she is tried with showing her feet when walking barefooted or wearing sandals, and she may not find shoes on every occasion [when she goes out]. It is mentioned in Jami’ al-Baramika, it was narrated from Abu Yusuf that it is permissible to look at her forearm also because in baking and washing clothes she is tried with showing her forearms also. It was said, ‘similarly, it is permitted to look at her front teeth also, because that appears from her when talking to men.’

“All of this is when looking is not with desire (shahwah). If one knows that if he looks, he will become desirous, then it is not permissible for him to look at any part of her because of his statement (Allah bless him and grant him peace), ‘whoever looks at the beauties of a foreign woman with desire, [melted] lead will be poured into his eyes on the Day of Resurrection’ and ‘Ali (Allah be pleased with him) said, ‘do not follow up a glance with another glance for indeed the first is [permissible] for you and the second is against you’, meaning by the second that one does it intentionally with desire … And similar is the case if his preponderant opinion is that if he looks he will become desirous, because preponderant opinion in that thing the reality of which cannot be known [with certainty] is just like certainty.”

The Maliki Position

As for the Malikis, their position is what was mentioned by al-Kharshi in his marginalia on Mukhtasar Khalil (1:347): “The ‘awrah of a free-woman before a foreign man is her entire body, even her loose hair and forelock, with the exception of the face and hands, the outside of them and their inside. Furthermore, looking at them (the face and hands) without gratification and without fear of temptation and without a reason, is permissible, even if it is a young woman. Malik said, ‘a woman may eat with a non-near-relative (ghayr dhi mahram) and with her male servant, and she may occasionally eat with her husband and others of those with whom he dines’. Ibn al-Qattan said, ‘this contains proof of the permissibility of the woman showing her face and hands to a foreign man, since it is not conceivable to eat except in this manner [i.e. by showing the face and hands].’” An equivalent [passage] is [found] in Sharh al-Muwaq of al-Hattab (1:499) in more detail.

‘Alish said in Minah al-Jalil (1:133), “Thus, it is permissible for her to uncover them [i.e. the face and hands] before a foreign man, and he may look at them if he does not fear temptation. If temptation is feared then Ibn Marzuq said, ‘the well-known position of the madhhab is the obligation to conceal them.’” An equivalent [passage] is [found] in Mawahib al-Jalil by al-Hattab (1:399, 500).

The Shafi’i Position

The position of the Shafi’is is what was mentioned by al-Nawawi in Kitab al-Nikah from al-Minhaj in his statement, “It is prohibited for a mature male to look at the ‘awrah of a mature foreign free woman, and similarly [it is prohibited to look at] her face and hands when one fears temptation, and also when safe from temptation according to the correct opinion.”

Al-Khatib al-Shirbini said below his statement, “according to the correct opinion”, “and Imam [al-Juwayni] reasoned that the Muslims are in agreement on banning women from emerging while their faces are unveiled, and [he reasoned] that looking is the act in which one would most expect temptation and the stirring of desire … And the second view is that it is not prohibited, and Imam [al-Juwayni] attributed this to the majority (jumhur) [of the Shafi’is] and the two shaykhs (al-Nawawi and al-Rafi’i) attributed it to most (aktharin).

“[Al-Isnawi] said in al-Muhimmat that: It is the correct view because most have adopted it. Al-Balqini said, ‘giving weight (tarjih) [to one opinion] depends on the strength of reason, and the verdict (fatwa) is given according to what is in al-Minhaj‘… That which the Imam transmitted regarding agreement on banning women, i.e. the rulers banning them, [from emerging while their faces are unveiled], conflicts with what al-Qadi ‘Iyad related from the ‘ulama that it is not obligatory on the woman to conceal her face along her path and that it is only a good practice (sunnah), and it is [obligatory] on men to lower their gaze from them because of the verse [i.e. 24:30]. The author (al-Nawawi) related this in Sharh Muslim and approved of it. One of the latter-day scholars said there is no conflict in that, rather their being banned from that is not because concealing [the face] is obligatory on them in its essence, rather because there is general benefit in it, and in leaving [the ban] is an infringement of honour (muru’ah). [Here] ends [the statement of al-Isnawi]. The outward purport of the statement of the two shaykhs is that concealing [the face] is obligatory in itself, so [the need for] this reconciliation does not arise, and the statement of al-Qadi is weak.” See Mughni al-Muhtaj (3:128, 129). An equivalent [passage] is [found] in Nihayat al-Muhtaj (6:184, 5).

The Hanbali Position

The position of the Hanbalis is what was mentioned by Ibn Qudamah in al-Mughni (6:558,9) in Kitab al-Nikah in his statement, “As for men looking at a foreign woman without a reason, it is prohibited entirely according to the apparent statement of Ahmad … and al-Qadi [Abu Ya’la] said, ‘it is prohibited for one to look at anything besides the face and hands because this is ‘awrah, and it is permitted for him to look at her with reprehensibility (karahah) when safe from temptation and the look is without desire. This is the position of al-Shafi’i … [In support] of our view is Allah’s statement Most High, “And when ye ask of them anything, ask it of them from behind a veil” (33:53) … As for the hadith of Asma, if it is authentic, it is possible that it was before the revelation of [the verses of] hijab, so we understand it as such.’”


By considering these four positions it is clear that they all agree on the prohibition of looking at the face of a woman with the intention of gratification or when there is fear of temptation. The preponderant view in the madhhab of the Shafi’is and the Hanbalis is its prohibition when safe from temptation also. The Hanafis and Malikis only allow it with the condition of safety from temptation and the intention of gratification. Meeting this condition is very difficult, particularly in our age in which corruption has become prevalent, to the degree that it has become a condition that almost cannot be met in most situations, and for this [reason] the latter-day scholars from the Hanafis prohibited it absolutely.

Its reprehensibility was transmitted in Al-Durr al-Mukhtar: “If one fears desire or has doubts, looking at her face is prohibited. Thus, the permissibility of looking is conditional on the absence of desire and otherwise it is prohibited. This was in their time. As for our time, Quhustani and others prohibited looking at [the face of] young girls except when looking is due to a need, like when a judge and a witness judge and witness over her…”

Al-Haskafi said in Shurut al-Salah, “and it is prohibited for a young woman to uncover the face among men, not because it is ‘awrah, but for fear of temptation.” And he said in Bab al-Ta’zir, “the master may reprimand his slave, and the husband his wife if she doesn’t beautify [herself]” to his statement “or she uncovers her face before a non-close-relative.”

Imam Abu Bakr al-Jassas said in Ahkam al-Qur’an (4:458) under His statement Most High, “they should cast their jilbabs over their [persons]”, “in this verse is an indication that the young woman is commanded to conceal her face from foreign men and to display the concealment and modesty when going out so that suspicious people do not desire them.”

My father, ‘Allamah Mufti Muhammad Shafi’ (Allah have mercy on him), said in his Ahkam al-Qur’an (3:469), “and by this explanation we offered, the texts and narrations that are apparently contradictory are in agreement. As you know from what we cited to you of the verses and narrations that some of them allow uncovering the face and hands, either with certainty and conviction like the hadith of al-Fadl ibn ‘Abbas according to al-Bukhari and the hadith of Asma bint Abi Bakr in [Abu Dawud’s] al-Sunan and the hadith of the one who offered herself [for marriage] according to al-Bukhari and [other narrations] like them; and some [of the verses and narrations] allow it as a possible interpretation due to the disagreement that occurred between the Companions (Allah be pleased with them) in the explanation of His statement Most High ‘except what appear thereof’, the details of which have passed.

“And some [of the verses and narrations] prohibit uncovering the face and hands, and foreign men looking at them, like His statement Most High ‘and stay in your houses’ (33:33) … and His statement Most High ‘ask it of them from behind a veil’ (33:53) and His statement ‘they should cast their jilbabs over their [persons]’ (33:59) according to the explanation of the majority of the Companions and His statement Most High ‘except what appear thereof’ (24:31) according to the explanation of ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud …

“Thus, these texts of the Book and narrations of the Sunnah apparently conflict and contradict and in what we have mentioned to you, with the help of Allah Most High, this problem is resolved, for when you realise what we said, you will understand that all of these texts are in agreement in meaning, well-coordinated in the rulings, and all of them are in effect (muhkam) and are not abrogated, but a [particular] ruling is preconditioned by conditions, so wherever the conditions are met, it is made permissible, and wherever they are not, then it is not [permissible] …

“All of this is when the reality of the difference between the explanations of Ibn ‘Abbas and ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud is conceded. Our teacher, the noblest of teachers, Ashraf ‘Ali al-Thanawi (Allah illuminate his resting place), said in a volume devoted to this subject called Ilqa’ al-Sakinah fi Tahqiq Ibda’ al-Zinah that there is no difference between their explanations upon an in-depth and close examination, since the phrase ‘what appears’, although it was explained [by Ibn ‘Abbas] as the face and hands, but what is cited as the exception [in the verse] is on the [morphological] pattern of zuhur (passive appearance) not izhar (active showing). This clearly indicates that the objective [of the verse] is making an exception of what cannot be concealed. Rather, [it is an exception] when adornment appears upon exertion and work, without an intention to show it, because harm may be inflicted upon them by concealing [the face and hands] upon exertion and work. In this case, the exception would also be in accordance with the explanation of Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) which is the face and hands may appear due to a need, and this does not contradict the statement of ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him). I say: and this meaning is supported by what Ibn Kathir said in his explanation of His statement Most High, ‘they should not display their ornaments except what appear thereof’, ‘i.e. they should not reveal any part of their adornment to foreign men except what they are unable to conceal.’”

The upshot is that a woman is commanded in the Noble Qur’an to stay in her house and not emerge except when there is a need. Moreover, if she were to emerge due to a need, then she is commanded to conceal the face by donning the jilbab or burqa’ and in [a manner] that she does not unveil her face. Yes, there are two situations that are exceptions to this: first, the situation of needing to show the face because concealing it will inflict harm upon her as in a [large] crowd or for another need like providing testimony. Second, her face becomes exposed unintentionally during exertion and work. Men are commanded in these two situations to lower their gaze. And Allah Most High knows best.


This translation was first published in Deoband.org on the 10th June 2010 entitled ” The Hijab of Women and its Boundaries”. The original translation has been split into two parts; (1) The boundaries of hijab and (2) Looking at a woman.