Bismillah ar rahman ar raheem, alhamdulillahi rabil alameen, wa salatu wa salam ala nabiyyina Muhammad, wa ala alahi wa ashabihi ajmaeen, wa b’ad:
From one of the most confusing affairs to the common Muslim is the guidelines of how he or she should dress, in front of the opposite gender and/or in front of the same gender. We hope to clarify this with the following short treatise.
We will begin with the guidelines concerning men, as Allah began many of his verses and commands with them, and as they are the heads of the household and will most likely have to enforce these guidelines.
Firstly, we must understand that the man has different levels of what he must cover (the following is the minimum required):
- In front of others, whether they be family or strangers, and this consists of 3 levels:
i. During prayer – this is the highest level of covering, and from the wisdom behind it is that we are standing in front of our creator and should be in the most humbling and up kept position. This involves covering from the navel to the knee (not including either, so the navel nor the knee must be covered) and both shoulders.
Outside of prayer – this is of two levels:
ii. “Light” Awrah – this is from the navel to the knee (not including either).
iii. “Heavy” Awrah – this is the two private areas.
- In front of his spouse – there is no specified area that must be covered in front of her.
Secondly, concerning the “light” and “heavy” awrahs, then a person may expose his thighs to others if there is a call for it, but the safest way is to remain as covered as possible. This is because shyness is a part of eeman, and there are a number of texts that praise the ones who have the most shyness.
From those texts are those that talk about Allah’s prophet Musa -alaihi as salam- and others that talk about Uthman -radaialho anhu-. Other texts include those that talk about the personality of the Prophet -salalahu alaihi wa salam- and how he remained as covered as possible in most instances.
Concerning women, the matter has more subdivisions and from them:
- In front of maharim (male blood relatives who a woman is ineligible to marry (i.e. father, brother, son), or male relatives from breast feeding (the son of a woman who has breastfed a woman (i.e. her milk brother)) or via marriage (i.e. husband or father-in-law)).
i. She must cover from the navel to the knee and whatever the local customs demand(1). The female companions -radailahu anhuna- of the Prophet -salalahu alaihi wa salam- used to make wudu in front of maharim, and it is not narrated that they uncovered more than that.
- In front of other women.
i. From the navel to the knee (which also consists of “light” and “heavy”) and whatever the local customs demand. These stipulations are usually lighter and more flexible than what she must cover in front of maharim.
- In front of strange men. There are two opinions concerning what she must cover:
i. Her entire body, including her face and hands.
ii. Her entire body, excluding her face and hands.
- During salah it is agreed upon that she must cover everything excluding her hands and face.(2)
Now that we’ve covered the guidelines for each gender, we’d like to cover two other guidelines that encompass both genders, prescribed to us by the Eternal Law Giver, namely:
- Imitating the disbelievers and
- Men imitating women and vice versa
Concerning imitating the disbelievers, then this is a wide description that some use to apply to many aspects of life that are in actuality inapplicable. In order to define this guideline, we need to understand what the Messenger of Allah – salalahu alaihi wa salam – intended by it and how we can implement it in our lives.
Some claim that wearing (what are commonly known as [Western]) pants fall under this category. Unfortunately, this cannot be further from the truth, for if this was truly the case, then underwear would also be impermissible, but we have yet to find anyone who makes this claim.
The point of semblance that we have been warned from is imitating them in their dress that is specific to their religion, is a symbol in their religion, or the dress for a religious event or events. Common examples include: a priest’s uniform, a Jewish yamaka, a cross, a Buddhist robe, a Sikh turban, etc.
Concerning imitation of the opposite gender, then the guideline here is that it be something specific to that gender within that particular culture, and Allah knows best.
Other guidelines, in addition to the previously mentioned ones, come as to how our dress should be in:
- Length – for men it should not pass their ankles (being the most correct opinion), for women there is no such prohibition
- Constriction – in general, the clothing should be loose, especially during the prayer
- Flamboyance – it should not be something that is particularly strange to that culture as to draw unwanted attention
- Surroundings – if the government is oppressive toward a particular type of dress it should be avoided as to prevent harm to an individual or his family as long as the clothing is permissible
- Status – if a person is a member of the clergy, or a caller to Islam, he should wear that which will help identify him to Islam
- Content – it is a style in some cultures to have statements or pictures on certain parts of the clothing. These should be in accordance to that which the tolerant Sharia dictates (i.e. shouldn’t be lewd, obscene, offensive, pictures of that which has a soul, etc.)
And other than this. We did not make this list in order to limit these guidelines to a set number, but as an example as to what they should be like.
And Allah surely knows best.
Abu Sahl Farhan ibn Irfan Siddiqi
Makkah al Mukarramah
- This is what is defined in Islam as the ‘Urf, or the customs of the people, and this is an example of the comprehensive nature of the religion and how it can fit and mold into any time and place. In order to clarify the above guidelines, we’d like to provide some practical examples of how each culture views what can and cannot be exposed:
i. During breastfeeding:
– In many Pakistani families a woman will excuse herself and feed in private, while in some Ethiopian families a woman will openly feed in front of other women
– in some families a woman will not feed in front of her maharim, while in some families she will, and this is considered acceptable
– within families of the same culture, you will find that while a woman is breastfeeding she will wear shirts that she must lift up in order to feed, so that her upper chest remains covered, while other women do not take such precautions
ii. Casual dress
– in classical Indo-Pak culture a woman would not bare her shoulders in front of other women, while in some modern Arab cultures tube tops and spaghetti strap shirts are considered totally acceptable
– in classical Indo-Pak culture a woman would not show cleavage in front of other women, while in some modern Arab cultures it is totally acceptable
– within Indo-Pak culture you find families that will allow a woman to expose her back and midriff, while others will not
– in classical Arab cultures you will not finding women wearing pants, more of a gown-type dress, whereas in Indo-Pak culture, their outfits are exclusively two-piece, consisting of a top and salwaar.
– some cultures allow one piece swimming suits, while some allow tights, while others are even more reserved and wear t-shirts and long pants
– some cultures allow women to swim with mahaarim other than the husband, while others find it unacceptable
I have brought these examples for clarification, and not to deem one way more correct than the other, just to show the practical differences between diverse cultures, all of them ascribing to the same wonderful religion.
I would like to point out that I have yet to find an Islamic culture that openly allows a woman to bare her chest in front of others, and inshaa Allah we will not, and to Allah all praise is due.
- For those that hold the opinion that she must cover her hands and face in front of strange men, they say that if she fears being seen by strange men, then she is allowed to cover them during the prayer.