Originally published in June 2014
Few scholars (and yet many “religious” Muslims) claim that women scholars should not teach mixed gatherings openly as men scholars do and that if she does she should do so behind a curtain. It is also suggested as evidence against this that women should generally stay at home and that her face as well as her voice is of her nakedness (`aura), and they shouldn’t be seen or heard! For those who came to Islam or latched on to it because it is generally so practical and reasonable, you are probably thinking, well, that is ridiculous. The following article will show the strong scriptural refutation most scholars would make against such claims.
The discussion is mainly based in the commentary and juristic interpretation of surah al-Ahzab (Qur’an 33). Surah al-Ahzab is themed contextually with many verses over a few pages which address the pronoun for the feminine plural. These are always referring back to “the wives or women of the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) (أزواج أو نساء النبي)” whereas the word “female believers (مؤمنات)” is only used once at the very end of the context in the verse enjoining the modest covering of Islam which is customarily referred to as Hijab in English. This can be confusing because the “verse of Hijab” is not referring to the modest clothing; rather it was an injunction for us to ask the wives of the Prophet ﷺ from behind a curtain when visiting their homes.
The first occurrence of the feminine plural pronoun is in dealing with the Prophet’s wives desire for extra wealth and provisions. God tells them that if they desire this worldly life then the Prophet should divorce them whereas if they want the Hereafter then that is the reward for exceptional Muslims:
“Dear Prophet, tell your wives that if they want this life and its adornments…” (Qur’an, 33:28).
The next time the pronoun appears, it is referring back to a specific warning against the wives of the Prophet ﷺ from sexual immorality which will bring a double punishment.
“Dearest women of the Prophet whoever among you would commit adultery…” (Qur’an, 33:30).
The next verse with the plural feminine pronoun makes the case in point of the whole issue!
“Dear wives of the Prophet, You are not like any other women. If you are to be pious then do not speak in a soft sweet tone which could lead a person with a diseased heart to get the wrong idea. Live in tranquility in your homes and don’t make a spectacle of yourselves as the women did before Islam…” (Qur’an, 33:32-33).
This verse is clearly denoting the special status of the wives of the Prophet ﷺ and how they carry a much more specific and cautious ruling. As we saw in the previous verses, the deeds of the wives of the Prophet ﷺ carry double the impact and so naturally the law carries double the seriousness. There are clearly unique rules to the wives such as the fact that they do not inherit from the Prophet ﷺ, no man can marry them after, and according to many commentators and jurists, they should stay home and if visited, they should speak from behind a curtain.
The surah then goes into the generality of spiritual equality between women and men, and then goes into a page and a half of other matters clearly moving away from the specificity of either the wives of the Prophet ﷺ or the women believers.
It picks back up admonishing the Prophet ﷺ and his wives about the general rules of their relationship and again we have reference to the plural feminine pronoun again referring to the Prophet’s wives.
“Dear prophet, We have permitted you to be with your wives to whom you have given the bridal dowry…” (Qur’an, 33:50).
Immediately following that is the “verse of the Hijab”. Let us look at the verse and see who it was referring to and the scholarly difference of interpretation and what may have led to such difference while it will probably seem plain and evident to most readers.
“Dear believers don’t hang around the Prophet’s house hoping to be invited for a meal. If you are invited, then go and eat, but don’t linger around too long afterwards hoping to talk as that often annoyed the Prophet and he was shy to tell you to leave. God is not shy to say the truth. If you ask them (feminine plural), then do so from behind a curtain. That is purer for your (masculine plural) hearts and theirs (feminine plural). You must not annoy the Prophet nor should you ever marry his wives after he passes. Indeed these are of the most serious of affairs to God.” (Qur’an, 33:53)
Three verses later, the surah reveals the injunction for the modest covering women are to wear and God felt it necessary to specify the wives of the Prophet ﷺ, his daughters and all the believing women so as to leave no doubt about its legislative intention.
“Dear prophet, tell your wives, your daughters and the believing women to cover their entire bodies with clothing…” (Qur’an, 33:59).
This was the last verse in the surah using the plural feminine pronoun in which we see all previous verses specifying that to the wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
Interpretations of the Verse Regarding Staying at Home
As you can see, the context and linguistics is addressing the wives of the Prophet ﷺ, although some scholars said that it should address all other female believers as well since they are our example. They said it is similar to the verses which address the Prophet ﷺ. On the other hand, other scholars held the position of the specificity of the text to the wives of the Prophet ﷺ as both a specific admonition and to clarify their special status.
Prominent Classical Commentaries
Al-Tabari (310) — Indicates that the verse about staying in the house except for need is for all women. He narrates many narrations of circumstances in which the verse of Hijab was revealed all of which indicate it is specific to the wives of the Prophet ﷺ. He does mention one opinion of Qatada that it was for all homes to have a curtain between strange men and the women of the house. Ibn Kathir follows Imam al-Tabari’s commentary.
Ibn Atiya (546) — Makes no mention of the verses being general for all women rather his commentary follows the natural linguistics which are specific to wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
Ibn al-Jawzi (597) — Makes no mention of the verses being general for all women rather his commentary follows the natural linguistics which are specific to wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
Imam al-Razi (606) — Makes no mention of the verses being general for all women rather his commentary follows the natural linguistics which are specific to wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
Al-Qurtubi (671) — Indicates that the rulings are general for all women.
Al-Nasafi (710) — Makes no mention of the verses being general for all women rather his commentary follows the natural linguistics which are specific to wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
Imam Al-Sutooti (864) — Makes no mention of the verses being general for all women rather his commentary follows the natural linguistics which are specific to the wives of the Prophet ﷺ.
Ibn Ashoor (1393) — Actually makes the point that the verses are specific to the wives of the Prophet ﷺ when speaking about things which the believing women weren’t generally commanded to elsewhere in the Qur’an. He states that it would be noble for a believing woman to follow them, but she is not obligated to.
Ibn Hajar, radi Allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him), narrates the hadith in his commentary on al-Bukhari — This verse stay in your homes is in reality specific to the wives of the Prophet ﷺ since Umm Salamah used to say: “I won’t be moved by a camel’s back until I am reunited with the Prophet,” (al-Fath 3561).
It is also narrated in most of the historical commentaries how after the verse of Hijab was revealed, Umar saw Sawdah (ra) — the wife of the Prophet ﷺ— walking around outside for some reason and asked her why she is outside. She went and asked the Prophet ﷺ about Umar’s rebuking her and he responded: “God has permitted you to go out if you need to,” (Muslim 2170).
It is also narrated in many sound narrations that after the loss of the Battle of the Camel led by A’ishah (ra), she would cry when reading the verse about staying in the house.
Is a Woman’s Face of her Nakedness?
In Sura al-Noor men and women were commanded to lower their gaze since the face is apparent. So if that is to be a proof for men not watching a female speaker then that would also prevent women from watching a male speaker. The vast majority of the scholars say that the face and hands of a woman are not from her nakedness, but should still not be stared at. In commenting on this verse many commentators particularly from the Hanafis say that the injunction to lower the gaze is understood at the moment of desire. If there is no desire then the verse is inapplicable. Others said that the restriction is lightened in professional interactions like buying and selling or teaching etc.
Is a Woman’s Voice of her Nakedness?
Hanafi’s: Ibn Abideen Al-Darr Al-Mukhtar: “Like her face and hands, her voice is not of her nakedness.”
Maliki’s: Hashiyat al-Dasooqi: “It is said that the women’s voice is not of her nakedness since we have so many female scholars of Hadith. It can only be of her nakedness if a man is attracted by it so then it would be disliked to listen to it.” It is the well-established opinion that her voice is not nakedness as mentioned by al-Adawi.
Shafi’ee: Majmoo al-Nawawi: “It was said that Al-Qadhi Husain was asked if the woman’s voice is of her nakedness and he answered that both opinions are found in the school, but that the more correct is that it isn’t.”
Hanbali: Insaaf al-Mardawi: “It is the more correct opinion that the voice of a woman is not of her nakedness.”
Dr. Su’ad Salih the previous Deen of Islamic Law at Azhar University says the there is nothing wrong with a female scholar teaching a mixed gathering since it is well established that great women scholars of the past did so. There is nothing in the scripture that would prohibit a modest woman of knowledge and character to preach to the masses. She states that the fact widows were commanded to stay in the house for mourning is evidence that generally they may leave the house. She similarly negates the claim that a woman’s voice is of her nakedness since the Qur’an did ask us to ask the wives of the Prophet ﷺ behind a curtain thus hearing their voice. She also reminds us that there were thousands of female scholars of hadith and fiqh who taught many men. The verse does not prohibit all speech; rather it forbids a sweet soft toned voice that may be seen as attractive:
“…If you are to be pious then do not speak in a soft sweet tone which could lead a person with a diseased heart to get the wrong idea.” (Qur’an 33:32)
Dr. Husam al-Farfoor and Dr. Abdul-Hameed al-Ubaydee, both professors of comparative jurisprudence in Syria and Iraq as well as the great scholar Muhammad Al-Didow al-Shanqeeti agree with her fatwa.