Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam
by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi
Translated and Edited by: Al-Ash’ari M.A. (English); M.A. (Philosophy)

Table of Contents

Chapter 14

Divine Laws for the Movements of Women

After fixing the bounds for satar and clothing, the final Commandment given to women is:

1. “... and remain in your houses, and do not go about displaying your fineries as women used to do in the days of ignorance...” (33:33).

2. “... they should not stamp the ground in walking so as to reveal their hidden decoration(ornaments, etc., by their jingle)...” (24:31).

3. “... do not talk in a soft voice, lest the man of the un-healthy heart should cherish false hopes from you...” (33:32).
Due to the variant readings of the word (qarna) in the first-quoted verse, the two different renderings will be as follows:
“Stay in or stick to your houses”.

“Remain in your houses with dignity and peace”.
Tabarruj has two meanings:
(a) to display decoration and charms, and
(b) to walk in a coquettish manner displaying the charms of gait.
The verse implies both these meanings. In the pre Islamic days of ignorance, women used to come out fully decorated as they are coming out now in the modern age of ignorance. Then the gait adopted by them was such as allured the hearts of onlookers. Qatadah, who was a follower of the Companions, and a famous commentator of the Qur’an says:
“Their gait was coquettish; therefore Allah forbade them to walk in that manner”.
And one need not go back to history in search of this picture. One has only to visit a place frequented by women clad in the Western style, and one will witness the “coquettish gait” of the pre-Islamic days of ignorance. Islam forbids this. It says that the real place for the woman is the house and she has been exempted from the outdoor duties so that she may lead a dignified and peaceful life at home and carry out her domestic responsibilities efficiently. She has, however, been allowed to go out of the house to fulfil her genuine needs, but while going out she must observe complete modesty. Neither should she wear glamorous clothes that attract attention, nor should she cherish the desire to display the charms of the face and the hand, nor should she walk in a manner as may invite the attention of others. Moreover, she should not go out wearing such ornaments as jingle and please the other people. She should not speak to them without necessity, and if she has to speak, she should not speak in a sweet and soft voice. If the woman observes these laws and limits she may go out of the house as and when required.

This is in brief the teaching of the Qur’an. Now let us refer to Hadith and see how the Holy Prophet enforced this Divine teaching in the society, and how the Companions and their women practised these laws.

Permission to Leave the House

It has been related in the Traditions that even before the Commandments of Purdah came down, Hazrat ‘Umar had requested the Holy Prophet to enjoin his wives to observe Purdah. Therefore, when once Hazrat Saudah, a wife of the Holy Prophet, came out of the house Hazrat ‘Umar saw her and said aloud, “Saudah, I have recognized you”. By this he meant that somehow the women should be prohibited from coming out of the house. After this, when the Commandments of Purdah were sent down, Hazrat ‘Umar felt relieved and started more often checking the women for coining out of the houses. Thus, he again encountered Hazrat Saudah outside the house and remonstrated with her. She complained to the Holy Prophet, who said:

“Allah has permitted you to go out of the house for genuine needs”.58
This shows that the Divine injunction, “Remain in your houses”, does not mean that women should not at all step out of the four walls of the house. They are allowed to go out under necessity. But this permission is neither unconditional, nor unlimited. Women are not allowed to move about freely and mix with men in social gatherings. From the viewpoint of Shari’ah, genuine needs are those needs which require women to come out and work outside the house. Obviously, it is not possible to determine every aspect of the permission to come out of the houses for all women for all times and occasions. The Law-giver, however, has made rules to regulate the movements of women in the normal circumstances of life and enjoined the observance of Purdah and allowed relaxation therein according to those circumstances. One should study these rules and form an idea about the spirit and trend of the law of Islam, and then should determine for one’s personal guidance the limits of Purdah, and the grounds of relaxation therein, according to one’s special circumstances. To explain this, we shall present a few illustrations in the following pages.

Permission to Visit the Mosque

It is well known that the foremost obligatory duty in Islam is to offer the prescribed prayers, as far as possible, in the mosque in congregation. But in this regard, the Commands for the males are different from those meant for the females. For the males the best prayer is that which is offered in the mosque in congregation, whereas for the females the best prayer is that which is offered inside the house in seclusion. Im5m Ahmad and Tabarani have reported the following Hadith from Umm Humaid Sa’idiyyah:
She said, “O Prophet of Allah, I desire to offer prayers under your leadership”. The Holy Prophet said, “I know that; but your offering the prayer in a corner is better than your offering it in your closet: and your offering the prayer in your closet is better than your offering it in the courtyard of your house; and your offering the prayer in the courtyard is better than your offering it in the neighbouring mosque; and your offering it in the neighbouring mosque is better than your offering it in the biggest mosque of the town”.59

58 This is the gist of many Traditions on the subject contained in the Collections of Hadith by Muslim and Al-Bukhari. 59 Women can better understand the wisdom as to why they have been instructed to offer the prayers in seclusion.

Women have to discontinue offering prayers for some days during every month on account of the menses. Thus, the reason for discontinuance which no modest woman would like even her brothers and sisters to know becomes known. Many women stop offering prayers permanently for this reason. The Law giver, therefore, has instructed them to offer prayers in privacy, so that nobody could observe when they offered the prayer and when they discontinued offering it. But this is only an instruction, not a command. Women may arrange their congregational prayers separately under the leadership of a woman. Umm Waraqah, daughter of Naufal, had been authorised by the Holy Prophet to lead women in prayers (Abu Da’ud). According to Darqutni and Baihaqi, Hazrat ‘A’ishah led women in prayers while standing in the same line with them in the middle. This shows that when a woman has to lead the prayer, she should not take her position in the front but should stand inside the line along with other women.

Another Hadith on this subject has been related from lbn Mas’ud in the Collection by Abu Da’ud.
The Holy Prophet said:

“It is better for a woman to offer her prayers in her closet than in the main room of the house, and it is better for her to offer her prayers in her hiding-place than in her closet”.

Obviously, the order here has been reversed. For the males, the prayer of the least value is that which is offered in seclusion, and of the greatest worth that which is offered in the biggest congregation. But for the females, on the other hand, the prayer offered in seclusion is of greater worth than the prayer in congregation; so much so that a prayer offered in seclusion by them has been regarded as of greater value and worth than even the greatest blessing for a Muslim, that is, a prayer offered in congregation in the Mosque of the Prophet under the leadership of Muhammad himself (may Allah’s peace be upon him), the greatest of the Prophets of Allah. The question is: What is the reason for this discrimination? Obviously, nothing than this that the Law-giver has disapproved women’s coming out of the houses frequently and mixing with the males in congregations.

The Islamic Prayer, of course, is a holy worship and the mosque a sacred place. The Law-giver has expressed his real intention by pointing out the worth and value of the prayers offered at different places, so that the mixing of the sexes may be prevented, but he has not prohibited women at all from coming to such a sacred place as the mosque for such a pious purpose as of offering the prayers. The words of the Hadith in which women have been permitted to come to the mosques point to the great wisdom of the Law-giver. He said:
1. “Do not prohibit the slave-girls of Allah from coming to the mosques of Allah. When a wife of one of you asks for permission to go to the mosque, she should not be refused the permission”. (Al Bukhari and Muslim).

2. “Do not prevent your women from coming to the mosques, though their houses are better for them”. (Abu Da’ud).
These words clearly show that the Law-giver does not prohibit women from going to the mosques, because it is not a sin to go to the mosques for offering prayer, but at the same time they cannot be allowed to mix with the males for moral reasons. Therefore, women have been allowed to visit the mosques but the males have not been instructed to send their women to the mosque or bring them along with them. What has been enjoined is that if they at all ask for permission to go to the mosque for offering a prayer of less spiritual merit than the one of greater merit in the house, they should not be refused the permission. Hazrat ‘Umar who was fully conscious of the spirit of Islam understood well the wisdom of this instruction of the Law-giver. It has been reported in Mu’attd that he always had a conflict in this regard with his wife ‘Atikah, daughter of Zaid. He did not want her to go to the mosque, but she always insisted on going. Whenever she asked for permission.

Hazrat ‘Umar would keep quiet, strictly in accordance with the command of the Holy Prophet. Thus he would neither stop her nor permit her in clear words. But she was also a lady of her will. She would say, “By God, I will go to the mosque till I am forbidden in clear words”.60

Conditions of Visiting the Mosque

The permission to visit the mosque has been made conditional. The first condition is that women should not go to the mosque in the day-time, but they may join in those prayers which are offered in the dark, that is, the Night Prayer and the Dawn Prayer. According to Ibn ‘Umar, the Holy Prophet said:
“Let the women come to the mosque at night”. (Al Tirmizi, Al-Bukhari).
According to Naf’i, the famous pupil of Hazrat Ibn ‘Umar, night-time has been specified because women can easily observe Purdah in the dark. Hazrat ‘A’ishah says that the Holy Prophet used to offer the Dawn Prayer so early that the women could not be recognized in the dark, when, wrapped in their outer-garments, they returned home after the prayer.61 (Al Tirmizi)

Secondly, women should not come to the mosque with decoration and perfume. Hazrat ‘A’ishah says that once the Holy Prophet was in the mosque when a woman from the clan of Muzainah came, walking in a coquettish manner, with full decoration. The Holy Prophet said:
“O People, prohibit your women from coming to the mosque with decoration and coquetry”. (Ibn Majah).
About the use of perfume by women he said:
“Do not use any perfume or scent in the night when you want to join the prayers in the mosque. Come in a simple dress. The women who uses perfume will not have her prayer rewarded by Allah”. (Mu’atta, Muslim and Ibn Majah).
Thirdly, women should not mix with the males in the congregation, nor should they stand in the front rows. They should stand separately behind the rows of men. The Holy Prophet said:
“The best place for men is in the front rows, and the worst at the rear, whereas the best place for women is at the rear, and the worst in the front rows”.
That is why he enjoined that in congregational prayers man and woman should not stand side by side even if they were the husband and the wife, or the mother and the son. Hazrat Anas says, “Mulaikah, my maternal grandmother, invited the Holy Prophet to a meal. After it was over, the Holy Prophet rose for prayers. Yatim and I stood behind him and Mulaikah stood behind us”. (Al-

Tirmizi). According to another Tradition from Hazrat Anas, the Holy Prophet offered prayers in his house, when he and Yatim stood behind him and Umm Sulaim, his mother, stood behind them. (Al Bukhari). Hazrat Ibn ‘Abbas says, “Once the Holy Prophet stood up for prayers. I stood beside him and Hazrat ‘A’ishah stood behind us”. (Nasa’i).
60 Besides the wife of Hazrat ‘Umar, many other women also visited the mosque to join in congregational prayers in the time of the Holy Prophet. According to Abu Da’ud, the number of such women generally rose SO high that they had to stand in two rows.

61 Other Traditions on this subject have also been reported in the Collections of Hadith by Al-Bukhari, Muslim Abu Da’ud and others. It has also been related that after the prayers were over, the Holy Prophet and all the males remained sitting till the women had left the mosque. Then they would rise and disperse.

Fourthly, women are not allowed to raise their voice during the prayer. Therefore, if the Imam has to be warned of an error men should say Subhan-Allah (Allah be glorified), but women should only tap their hands. (Al-Bukhari and Abu Da’ud).

Despite these conditions, when Hazrat ‘Umar felt that there was a danger in the mixing of the sexes in congregations, he fixed a separate door of the mosque for use by women, and forbade men to use that door for entrance and exit. (Abu Da’ud).

Rules for Women during Hajj

The second congregational duty in Islam is the performance of Hajj which is obligatory both for men and for women. But women have been prohibited from mixing with men as far as possible while moving round the Ka’abah. According to a tradition related by ‘Ata’ in the Collection by Al-Bukhari, women used to move round the Ka’abah along with men during the time of the Holy Prophet, but they did not mix with them. According to a tradition related by Ibrahim Nakh’i in Fathal Bari, Hazrat ‘Umar had forbidden the males and the females to mix during the ceremonial rounds of the Ka’abah. Once when he saw a man in the midst of women, he caught hold of him and whipped him. (Vol-III, p. 312). According to Mu’atta Hazrat ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar used to send the members of his family in advance from Muzdalifah to Mina, so that the women could offer the Dawn Prayer and perform the stone-throwing ceremony before the people arrived. Similarly, Asma, a daughter of Abu Bakr, used to leave for Mini early in the morning when it was still dark, as that was the common practice among women during the time of the Holy Prophet.

Participation in Friday and ‘Id Prayers

The importance of religious congregations on Friday and on the ‘Id occasions in Islam cannot be exaggerated. Keeping in view the importance of these congregational prayers, the Law giver waived the first condition for joining in the daily prayers, that is, the prohibition to join in the day-time, though women have been exempted from the obligation of offering the Friday Prayers. (Abu Da’üd). Their participation in the ‘Id Prayer is also not compulsory. But if they so desire they may join in these prayers, provided that they observe the other conditions for them for joining in the congregational prayers. Traditions show that the Holy Prophet himself used to take his wives to the religious congregations on the ‘Id occasions.

According to Umm ‘Atiyyah, the Holy Prophet used to take unmarried young girls and married and menstruating women along with him to the ‘Id congregations. The menstruating women would keep away from the prayers, but would join in the invocation. (Al-Tirmizi). According to Ibn ‘Abbas, the Holy Prophet took his daughters and wives to the ‘Id congregations. (Ibn Majah).

Attending Funerals and Visiting Graves

Attending the funeral of a Muslim is a duty, though optional, and the instructions exhorting the Muslims to attend funerals are well known to the people who care. But these instructions are meant only for the males. As for women, they have been prohibited, though not strictly, from attending funerals. Traditions, show that women were sometimes allowed to attend funerals, but the Lawgiver did not approve of this. A tradition related by Umm ‘Atiyyah in the Collection by Al Bukhari says: “We were prohibited, though not strictly, from accompanying funeral processions”. According to Ibn Majah and Nasa’i, once the Holy Prophet was attending a funeral when he saw a woman.

Hazrat ‘Umar reproved her, but the Holy Prophet said: “O ‘Umar, leave her alone”. It appears that the woman was a near relative of the dead person and had accompanied the funeral under the intensity of grief. The Holy Prophet had a regard for her feelings and forbade Hazrat ‘Umar to reprove her.

Similar is the injunction about visiting the graves. Women are by nature soft-hearted, and they keep the memory of the dead ones fresh in their minds for a long time. That is why the Holy Prophet did not like to suppress their feelings completely, but instructed that frequenting the graves by women was prohibited. According to a tradition related by Hazrat Abu Hurairah in the Collection by Al-Tirmizi, “The Holy Prophet cursed the woman who visited the graves frequently”.62 Hazrat ‘A’ishah went to the grave of her brother, Hazrat ‘Abdur Rahman bin Abi Bakr, and said, “By God, if I had been present at the time of your death, I would not have visited your grave today”. (Al-Tirmizi). According to Anas bin Malik, when the Holy Prophet saw a woman crying over a grave, he did not forbid her, but said “Fear God, and have patience”. (Al-Bukhari).

Now let us consider these instructions carefully. The Islamic prayer is a holy worship; the mosque is a sacred place pilgrim to the Ka’abah performs the ceremonies with the purest thoughts; and the person attending a funeral and visiting a grave has the thought of death foremost in his mind, and is overwhelmed by grief. At all such occasions, sexual feelings are either wholly absent or suppressed by the pure feelings. But in spite of that the Law-giver, did not approve that the male and the female should mix in such social and religious gatherings. Though he allowed women to go out of the houses in view of the solemnity of the occasions, purity of the purpose and their delicate feelings sometimes even took them along with him—he imposed such restrictions of Purdah as would guard against the least probabilities of mischief. Then he ruled that except for Hajj it was better for women not to attend the other religious congregations.

It is obvious that the Law which has such trends cannot be expected to allow that the two sexes should freely mix in schools and colleges, offices and factories, parks and places of entertainment, theatres and cinemas, and cafes and ballrooms as and when they please.

Participation in Battle

Now that we have seen the strictness of the laws of Purdah, let us see where and why they are relaxed.

Imagine for a while that the Muslims are engaged in war and emergency has been declared. Circumstances demand that the whole collective strength of the nation should be mustered in defence. Under such extreme conditions Islam enjoins the Muslim women also to contribute their due share to the war effort. But it keeps in view the fact that woman was created for motherhood and not for killing and shedding blood. Therefore, to equip her with the weapons of war is to distort her very nature. That is why Islam allows women to take up arms only in self-defence, but it does not favour carrying them in the battle field and recruiting them in the forces. It employs them only to give first aid to the wounded, take water to the thirsty, cook food for the soldiers, and guard the camp in their absence. In order that they may carry out these duties efficiently, restrictions of Purdah have been considerably relaxed. In fact, they have been allowed by Shari ‘ah to wear the same sort of dress, with a little modification, as is worn by the Christian nuns now-a-days.
62 Traditions with the same content have been reported by Hazrat Ibn ‘Abbas and Hssan bin Thabit in the Collection by Ibn Majah.

Traditions show that the wives of the Holy Prophet and the other Muslim women used to give first aid to the wounded and water to the thirsty at the battle-field. This practice remained in force even after the commandments of Purdah had been ordained. (Al-Bukhari). According to Al-Tirmizi, Umm Sulaim and certain other women from among the Ansar accompanied the Holy Prophet to many a battle-field. According to Al-Bukhari, a woman requested the Holy Prophet to pray for her that she might accompany those people who were to go for the naval battle. He prayed, “0 Allah, let her be one of them!” On the occasion of the battle of Uhd, when the soldiers of Islam had been compelled to retreat, Hazrat ‘A’ishah and Umm Sulaim brought leather-bags full of water on their backs and took water to the fighters. Hazrat Anas says that he saw them running to and fro with their trousers tucked up; so much so that the lower part of their shins could be seen (Al-Bukhari). Hazrat ‘Umar has related this Saying of the Holy Prophet about another woman, named Umm Sulait:

“During the battle of Uhd, wherever I looked, to the right or to the left, I saw Umm Sulait fighting desperately to protect me”.
In the same battle, Rubai’, daughter of Mu’awwaz, accompanied by a party of women was busy giving first aid to the wounded, and the same women were also carrying the wounded back to Madinah. (Al-Bukhari). In the battle of Hunain, Umm Sulaim was seen moving about with a dagger in her hand. The Holy Prophet asked “What is this for?” She replied, “If some unbeliever comes near me, I will rip open his belly”. (Ibn Majah).

Umm ‘Atiyyah took part in seven battles and was responsible for guarding the camp, cooking food for the soldiers, and nursing the wounded and the sick. (Ibn Majah). According to Hazrat Ibn ‘Abbas, the women who performed such war services were awarded prizes from the booty. (Muslim).

This shows that the Islamic Purdah is not a custom of ignorance which cannot be relaxed under any circumstances. On the other hand, it is a custom which can be relaxed as and when required in a moment of urgency. Not only is a woman allowed to uncover the face and the hand but even if she has to uncover a part of her satar under necessity, there is no harm. But as soon as the necessity is over, she has to observe the normal rules of Purdah. Just as this Purdah is not a Purdah of ignorance, so the relaxation allowed in observing it is not like the license of ignorance. The Muslim woman cannot be compared with the European woman who came out of the house in view of the emergency created by war, but even after the war was over, she refused to return to her natural sphere;


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