Must a Muslim woman cover her face?

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

What are the standards of a proper veil (hijab)? Is it required for a Muslim woman to wear a face-veil (niqab)?

The majority of scholars maintain that it is permissible for a Muslim woman to keep her face and hands uncovered, as long as she otherwise observes the limits of modesty in Islam.

Allah Almighty said:

وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا

Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity and not expose their beauty, except that which is apparent.

Surat al-Nur 24:31

Allah has commanded believing women to conceal their beauty ‘except that which is apparent’ or what normally appears in daily life. Several of the companions and early Muslims interpreted this statement to include her face and hands.

Ibn Kathir reported:

عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا قَالَ وَجْهُهَا وَكَفَّيْهَا وَالْخَاتَمُ وَرُوِيَ عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ وَعَطَاءٍ وَعِكْرِمَةَ وَسَعِيدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرٍ وَأَبِي الشَّعْثَاءِ وَالضَّحَّاكِ وَإِبْرَاهِيمَ النَّخَعِيِّ وَغَيْرِهِمْ نَحْوُ ذَلِكَ

Ibn Abbas said regarding the verse, ‘Except that which is apparent,’ means her face, her hands, and her rings. Similar narrations were reported from Ibn Umar, Ata’, ‘Ikramah, Sa’id ibn Jubayr, Abu al-Sha’tha, Al-Dahhak, and Ibrahim al-Nakha’i.

Source: Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr 24:31

And then he writes:

وَهَذَا هُوَ الْمَشْهُورُ عِنْدَ الْجُمْهُورِ

This is the well-known opinion of the majority.

Likewise, Al-Suyuti writes in his commentary on the verse:

إِلاَّ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وهو الوجه والكفان فيجوز نظره لأجنبي إن لم يخف فتنة في أحد وجهين والثاني تحرم لأنه مظنة الفتنة

‘Except that which is apparent,’ means the face and the hands. It is permissible for a non-related male to look at them if he does not fear temptation, according to one of two opinions, but the second opinion is that it is forbidden, as it is the place of temptation.

Source: Tafsīr Jalālayn 24:31

And according to the Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Law:

فَذَهَبَ جُمْهُورُ الْفُقَهَاءِ الْحَنَفِيَّةُ وَالْمَالِكِيَّةُ وَالشَّافِعِيَّةُ وَالْحَنَابِلَةُ إِلَى أَنَّ الْوَجْهَ يعني المرأة لَيْسَ بِعَوْرَةٍ وَإِذَا لَمْ يَكُنْ عَوْرَةً فَإِنَّهُ يَجُوزُ لَهَا أَنْ تَسْتُرَهُ فَتَنْتَقِبَ وَلَهَا أَنْ تَكْشِفَهُ فَلاَ تَنْتَقِبَ

The majority of jurists, including the Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi’is, and Hanbalis, maintain that a woman’s face is not considered nakedness. If it is not nakedness, then she may cover it with the face-veil or uncover it and not wear the face-veil.

Source: al-Mawsū’at al-Fiqhīyah al-Kuwaytīyah 41/134

Hence, a Muslim woman can have her face and hands uncovered in public. It is permissible for an unrelated man to look at her for a beneficial purpose, such as communicating or engaging in business. However, he must be cautious. A Muslim man must never stare at a woman’s face or body for his own pleasure or because he is careless with his gaze, and it is even worse to do so for sexual stimulation.

The face-veil is still a valid part of Islamic tradition, even if it is not an obligation. As mentioned, there are some cases when it might be recommended or beneficial, such as to prevent harassment or sexual temptation. In fact, some scholars say a woman must wear a face-veil because of the saying of Allah Almighty:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ

O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the believing women to lower their garments over themselves.

Surat al-Ahzab 33:59

It is reported from Ibn Abbas (ra) that he explained this verse, saying:

أمر الله نساء المؤمنين إذا خرجن من بيوتهن في حاجة أن يغطين وجوههن من فوق رءوسهن بالجلابيب ويبدين عينا واحدة

Allah commanded the believing women, when they leave their houses for a need, to veil their faces from above their heads with their cloaks and let one eye appear.

Source: Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī 33:59

This interpretation, however, is in the context of the dangerous situation that existed in Medina at the time, which still had a significant criminal presence. Gangs of men would wander around at night to harass women, as explained by Al-Suddi:

كَانَ نَاسٌ مِنْ فُسَّاقِ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ يَخْرُجُونَ بِاللَّيْلِ حِينَ يَخْتَلِطُ الظَّلَامُ إِلَى طُرُقِ الْمَدِينَةِ يَتَعَرَّضُونَ لِلنِّسَاءِ وَكَانَتْ مساكن أهل المدينة ضيقة

Some people among the troublemakers of Medina would go out at night, where they would loiter in the roads to confront women. The pathways of Medina were narrow.

Source: Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr 33:59

As such, the verse 33:59 does not mandate the face-veil upon all Muslim women in every time, place, and situation, but rather it refers to one of the aforementioned exceptions in which the face-veil provides benefit or protection from harm.

In addition to veiling in public (which excludes the face and hands), a Muslim woman must also wear her veil and modest clothing when performing the prayer.

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَا يَقْبَلُ اللَّهُ صَلَاةَ حَائِضٍ إِلَّا بِخِمَارٍ

The prayer of an adult woman is not accepted unless she wears a veil.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 377, Grade: Sahih

On this basis, scholars maintain that a woman may not pray unless her hair and body is totally covered, and a some even include her feet.

Al-Tirmidhi commented on this tradition, writing:

وَالْعَمَلُ عَلَيْهِ عِنْدَ أَهْلِ الْعِلْمِ أَنَّ الْمَرْأَةَ إِذَا أَدْرَكَتْ فَصَلَّتْ وَشَيْءٌ مِنْ شَعْرِهَا مَكْشُوفٌ لَا تَجُوزُ صَلَاتُهَا وَهُوَ قَوْلُ الشَّافِعِيِّ قَالَ لَا تَجُوزُ صَلَاةُ الْمَرْأَةِ وَشَيْءٌ مِنْ جَسَدِهَا مَكْشُوفٌ وَقَالَ وَقَدْ قِيلَ إِنْ كَانَ ظَهْرُ قَدَمَيْهَا مَكْشُوفًا فَصَلَاتُهَا جَائِزَةٌ

This is acted upon by the people of knowledge, that when a woman prays and some of her hair is uncovered, her prayer is not permissible; it is the opinion of Al-Shafi’i. He said it is not permissible for a woman to pray if some of her body is uncovered. He also said that some say if her uncovered feet are showing, her prayer is permissible.

Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 377

Imam Abu Hanifa did not require women to cover their feet in prayer, but all of the scholars said that she should cover everything but her hands and face at least.

Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

وَأَمَّا سَتْرُ ذَلِكَ فِي الصَّلَاةِ فَلَا يَجِبُ بِاتِّفَاقِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ بَلْ يَجُوزُ لَهَا إبْدَاؤُهُمَا فِي الصَّلَاةِ عِنْدَ جُمْهُورِ الْعُلَمَاءِ كَأَبِي حَنِيفَةَ وَالشَّافِعِيِّ وَغَيْرِهِمَا وَهُوَ إحْدَى الرِّوَايَتَيْنِ عَنْ أَحْمَد فَكَذَلِكَ الْقَدَمُ يَجُوزُ إبْدَاؤُهُ عِنْدَ أَبِي حَنِيفَةَ وَهُوَ الْأَقْوَى

As for covering that in prayer, it is not obligatory by consensus of the Muslims. Rather, it is permissible for her to uncover the face and hands in prayer according to the majority of scholars such as Abu Hanifa, Al-Shafi’i, and others including one of two narrations from Ahmad. Likewise, it is permissible for her to uncover the feet according to Abu Hanifa and this is the stronger opinion.

Source: Majmū’ al-Fatāwá 22/114

In sum, a Muslim woman should cover her entire body in public, except for her face and hands. She is not required to cover her face, but some scholars recommend doing do if she fears she will be exposed to harassment or temptation. Indeed, many Muslim women find comfort, security, and piety in wearing the face-veil, and such benefit should not be discouraged.

In any case, a woman who does not meet the standards of veiling in Islam is committing a mistake, but she should not be harassed or publicly shamed. Rather, she should be sincerely advised with kindness.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.