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In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
Dear questioner, thanks for your question and we implore Allah earnestly to guide us all to the best in this world and reward us the highest reward in the hereafter.
Regarding your question, sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi holds the opinion that the attire obligatory on the Muslim woman is that which covers all of her body except the face and hands. But he does not overlook the other opinion that sees that veiling the woman's face is obligatory. The latter is also a scholarly view held by a number of the predecessors as well as some contemporary scholars. Hence, the woman who adopts the view that niqab is obligatory and actually wears it is not to be criticized for this, nor should she censure the woman who covers all her body except the face (for not wearing niqab). Nor should blame be placed on the woman who wears niqab, not because she believes it to be obligatory, but as a means of attaining piety and being on the safe side with regard to her religious duties, as this opinion has also a scholarly support.
Responding to your question, the eminent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi states the following:
There is an opinion that niqab is a bid`ah that is alien to Muslims and that it has nothing at all to do with the religion of Islam, having penetrated Muslim society during the ages of extreme deterioration. This is neither a scientific nor an objective view. It is an oversimplification of the issue, which deviates people from scrutinizing the subject as it really is.
Any person learned about the sources of knowledge and scholarly views cannot argue about the issue being controversial among scholars. I mean here the issue of whether it is permissible to uncover the woman's face or whether it is obligatory to veil it and the hands too.
Muslim scholars of the predecessors — including jurists, exegetes of the Qur'an, and scholars of Hadith — have differed over this issue. Their difference was due to their various understandings and attitudes towards the religious texts about the subject at hand, especially that there is no definitive clear-cut text about it. Had there been any, there would have been no scholarly difference regarding it.
Among the texts they have differed over is this Qur'anic verse: [ And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their zeenah (charms, or beauty and ornaments) except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof] (An-Nur 24:31).
Ibn Mas`ud was reported to have said while commenting on this verse, "[Except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof] here refers to the clothes and cloaks (women are wearing)." This means the outer garments that cannot be hidden.
Ibn `Abbas was also reported to have said while explaining this verse, "[Except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof] refers to kohl and rings." A similar view was also reported to have been adopted by Anas ibn Malik and `A'ishah. Sometimes Ibn `Abbas would add to "kohl and rings" "henna with which hands are tinted, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces." He might even refer tozeenah as the places where ornaments are worn, by saying "the face and palms of the hands." This was also reported to have been the opinion of Sa`id ibn Jubair, `Atta', and others.
Some scholars also included part of the woman's arm in what is referred to by [what (must ordinarily) appear thereof].
Furthermore, Ibn `Attiyah explained these words by saying that they refer to the parts of the woman's body that are unintentionally unveiled by means of wind and the like. (See the exegesis of the verse as explained by Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir, and Al-Qurtubi; and see also its explanation in Ad-Dur Al-Manthur, vol. 5, pp. 41-42.)
Scholars have also differed concerning the explanation of the words [draw their cloaks close round them] in the verse [O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, that so they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful] (Al-Ahzab 33:59).
Ibn `Abbas was reported to have said, commenting on this verse, an opinion contrary to what he was reported to have expressed as comment on the first verse referred to above! It was also reported that `Ubaidah As-Salmani, one of the Tabi`un (Successors) explained [drawing their cloaks] practically by covering his head and face and unveiling his left eye only. A similar example was also reported to have been set by Muhammad ibn Ka`b Al-Qardhi.
But `Ikrimah, servant of Ibn `Abbas, differed with them, saying "The woman is to cover the unveiled part of her chest by a cloak that she draws round her." Sa`id ibn Jubair said, "It is not permissible for a Muslim woman to be seen by a man lawful for her to marry unless she puts on a face veil in addition to the hijab which extends from her head to her chest." (See Ad-Dur Al-Manthur, vol. 5, pp. 221-222 as well as the sources referred to above for an explanation of the relevant verse.)
As for my point of view on the issue, I see that the woman's face and hands are not part of her `awrah (parts of her body that should not be exposed in public), and hence, it is not obligatory for her to veil them. I also believe that the evidence supporting this opinion is stronger than that supporting the opposite opinion. Many contemporary scholars agree with me in this view, like Nasir Ad-Din Al-Albani (as shown in his book Hijab Al-Mar'ah Al-Muslimah fi Al-Kitab wa As-Sunnah), the majority of the Al-Azhar scholars in Egypt, the scholars of Az-Zaytunah University in Tunisia, the scholars of Al-Qarawiyeen University in Morocco, and many Pakistani, Indian, and Turkish scholars as well as others.
However, it is not right to claim that there is unanimity among contemporary scholars that it is permissible to uncover the Muslim woman's face and hands, as there are many scholars in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, a number of the other Gulf countries, Pakistan, and India, who believe that veiling the woman's face and hands is obligatory. Among them are the late eminent Saudi scholar Sheikh `Abdul-`Aziz ibn Baz, and the late well-known Pakistani scholar Abu Al-A`
Living contemporary scholars who also believe that veiling the face is obligatory include the famous Syrian writer Dr. Muhammad Sa`id Ramadan Al-Buti, who published a letter in this respect, "To Every Young Woman Who Believes in Almighty Allah." There are also other letters and fatwas published from time to time that condemn women who uncover their faces and adjure them in the name of religion and faith to wear niqab and not to listen to the modern scholars who want to subjugate religion to modernism. The advocates of this view may even refer to me as one of those modern scholars!
But never do I hold that this opinion — that covering the woman's whole body except the face and hands is the obligatory attire for the Muslim woman — be imposed on the woman who believes in the other opinion, according to which veiling the face is obligatory and uncovering it is forbidden. I will only blame the advocates of the latter opinion if they attempt to impose their attitude on the proponents of the former one and accuse them of being sinful and wrongdoers for adopting it. It is agreed upon that, with regard to the controversial issues on which scholars have given different personal legal opinions, there is no blame to be placed on a person for following a certain personal legal opinion to the exclusion of others.
The advocates of my opinion and I, in turn, do not have any right to censure the supporters of the counteropinion for believing thatit is obligatory for women to wear niqab. For, first, this counteropinion is a scholarly one within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence, and, second, had we criticized them, we would have committed a mistake which we are originally against, that is, denying others the right to differ with us.
Moreover, there are some women who see that, to be on the safe side, wearing a face veil is not obligatory, but, rather, desirable, and draws its wearer closer to piety and fear of Allah. There is nothing wrong in so believing, and no one has the right to blame the proponents of this opinion for following it, so long as this would not be of any harm to others or contradict either public or personal interests.
No Muslim scholar, whether among the predecessors or contemporary scholars, has ever been reported to have regarded wearing niqab as forbidden except in the case of ihram for women. The scholarly difference regarding the issue of niqab is only over whether it is obligatory, recommendable, or merely permissible. Thus it is untenable that a Muslim jurist would regard niqab as prohibited or even merely undesirable in Islam. Hence, I was really shocked to learn that the writer Baha' published an opinion attributed to some Al-Azhar scholars to the effect that they believe that veiling the woman's face falls under prohibiting what Almighty Allah has originally permitted. In fact, the advocates of this view cannot be said to be of firm knowledge about the Qur'an or the Sunnah or fiqh.
Suppose even that wearing niqab is merely permissible — as I do myself believe — not obligatory or desirable. Even in such a case, any Muslim woman may wear it, and no one has the right to prevent her from doing so. It is her personal right, and in practicing it she neither falls short of her duties nor causes others harm. Even man-made laws and the conventions of human rights advocate the personal rights of people.
It is ironic that freedom of dress is given to those who choose to uncover parts of their bodies without encountering any objection, while severe censure is launched against the wearers of niqab who consider it a teaching of their religion that they cannot neglect!