The Islamic community is convinced that Shariah orders the covering of certain parts of the body, which in the language of the fiqh is called aurat. The basis of the law is the letter of an-Nur, verses 30 and 31, together with al-Azhab, verses 33 and 59. There are many who believe these verses quite clearly determine the limits of aurat for men and women. Where as, when examined, these verses represent moral suggestions of a general nature, such as: orders to conceal from view, not show off decorations, and veil the open parts of the body, together with not intentionally behaving in a flirtatious or tempting manner. In order to be clear on this, we quote a verse from the An-Nur letter mentioned above:
" Say to men of faith: They should restrain from view and guard against shame; because that which is so is holier for them. Truly Allah knows what they do. Say also to women of faith: They should restrain from view and guard against shame, and they should not make visible their decorations, except those, which usually are visible. And they should cover their chest with a veil." (An-Nur : 31)
The wording of this verse is quite general; because of this there are a variety of views of interpreting it among Ulama (religious teachers). In the interpretation of the book al-Jami' li Ahkam al-Qur'an, written by al-Qurthubi, there are various views about the meaning of this verse. For example, the intention of wa la yubdina zinatahunna (showing off decorations). What is meant by decoration? Is it a type of necklace, earring, or bracelet? Or does the body of a woman itself constitute decoration? Is the face included in the body decoration that must be covered or not? What about the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet?
To obtain a more complete comprehension of these aurat verses, we need to refer to another basic law, among others, the hadiths of Nabi Saw. The Ulama have varied views on the quality of hadiths, and even in understanding them. The hadiths which are often turned into bases to determine the limits of women's aurat are found in Jami' al-Ushul, a hadith which is quite complete and well-known, written by Ibn Al-Atsir.
Narrative hadith of Abu Dawud, at-Turmudzi and Ibn Majah. From Aisyah ra, Nabi Saw spoke, "Allah does not accept a women's prayer unless she wears a cloth covering her head."
This hadith is often turned into a basis to say that women's heads are aurat, which must be covered in prayer, as well as outside of prayer. But, in the criticism of sanad (the chronological order of texts) it is found to be a manner of judgement. At-Turmudzi and Ibn Hibban considered this hadith authentic, while al-Hakim considered this hadith to be weak. (see: az-Zai'li, Nashb ar-Rayah, Vol. II, p. 295).
In interpreting this hadith, there are a variety of views, because the wording is not explicit. The majority of fiqh Ulama (scholars of the laws pertaining to Islam), are of the opinion that only the head of a woman is considered aurat, and the head does not include the face. Others feel that outside of prayer, a woman's face is included in the category of the head, which is aurat, and thus, she is also obligated to cover her face. Other views consider the face as aurat, with the exception of the eyes.
Besides that, more moderate views by the majority of Ulama allow women workers - at that time there were women servants - to not cover their heads, in and outside of prayer.
The narrative told in the hadith of Abu Dawud. Aisyah ra said: "Once Asma bint Abi Bajr entered the Prophet's house. At that time she wore a thin and opaque blouse. The Prophet turned away from her, saying, 'Oh Asma, when a women has reached the age of menstruation, it's not proper to be seen like that, other than this and this.' The Prophet pointed to her face and hands."
This hadith is popular in the milieu of fiqh writers. However, the chain of its narrating is considered problematic. Abu Dawud, the narrator of this hadith, said that this hadith is weak because the chronological order of text is broken off, it does not connect directly to the person who conveyed the report (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol. IV, p. 62). Khalid bin Duraik, who received this hadith from Aisyah, is a person not known by many in the world of hadith experts. Duraik did not hear this hadith directly from Aisyah, because he never met her, so the narration cannot be accepted.
The passing-down of this hadith contains three possibilities. First, Khalid received the hadith from a person other than Aisyah, and for some reason claimed it was from Aisyah. In this case, he would be considered dishonest and dishonest people do not have the right to narrate hadiths. Second, he forgot from whom he heard the hadith, so that he unintentionally attributed it to Aisyah. In this situation it is also not appropriate to narrate the hadith, because he is forgetful. Third, he wrote the hadith himself, then claimed it was from Aisyah. This one is fatal, because the hadith would be considered false and must be categorically rejected.
Another narrative hadith of Abu Dawud from Umm Salamah ra. The prophet recommended that when praying, women should wear a long dress, covering the soles of their feet. (Sunan Abu Dawud, No. 640, Vol. I, h. 173).
Several Ulama said that women are required to cover the soles of their feet when praying, such as is often practiced by the Islamic community in Indonesia. But for Ulama of the Hanafi school, as that of az-Zaila'i it has been said that this hadith is considered weak, as it is by Ibn al-Jawzi and Ibn Hatim (Nashb ar-Rayah, Vol. II, h. 300). Because of this, the Hanafi Ulama said that the soles of women's feet should remain open, in and out of prayer.
From Ibn Mas'ud ra, Nabi Muhammad spoke: "Women are aurat, when they go out of the house they will be cursed by Satan." (HR. At-Turmudzi, Vol. III, p. 476).
This hadith is controversial because it considers women to be aurat, without a clear explanation or limitation. Because of its ambiguity, the majority of Ulama do not use it as a basis of determining the limits of women's aurat. But there are some Ulama who accept it completely, so that they prohibit women from being visible in public, because the entire body of a woman in aurat, as is declared in this hadith.
According to At-Tumudzi, this hadith is considered genuine and can be accepted, although only if it is narrated from one path, so that it is not recognized by many. Imam Jalaluddin as-Suyuthi considered this hadith valid (Jami' al-Ushul, Vol. II, h. 575). But at-Turmudzi himself said that this hadith is not recognised by many. Second, the evaluation of as-Suyuthi is considered not to be very worthwhile by many experts, so it remains questionable and can be criticized again. We can still examine the validity of this hadith through critical material for example, whether it is in accordance with the basic principles of Islam, the hadiths and the reality of the history of the Prophet.
At the time of the Prophet, many women went out of the house, prayed, sought knowledge at the mosque, worked, or fulfilled their needs when necessary (see Sahih Bukhari, No. 553, 827, 835, 857, 858, Sahih Muslim, No. 442, 1000, 1483). This means that in the time of the Prophet, women were not considered aurat, which would have meant that Satan would curse them if they went out. That would have required women to be confined to the house.
In the study of the hadiths there is the term syadz, which is considered by many experts to be too weak to become basic law. Even though the path of narration is considered valid, the wording of this hadith does not clearly determine the limits of aurat for women. In the principles of the Ushul Fiqh, it is said that "idza tatharraqa 'alaihi al-ihtimal saqatha 'anhu al-istidlal. It means that the basic laws, which use unclear wording (loaded with various comparable interpretations), cannot be turned into a basis for certainty. The expression "Women are aurat" makes the limits of women's aurat unclear, and more so restrict their borders.
* Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir was born on 31st December 1971, in Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia. He gained his education from the Dar al-Tauhid Arjawinangun Islamic bordering school in Cirebon. In 1990 he moved to Syria to study including a course in Arabic language. In 1996 he graduated form The University of Damaskus, Syria, in the faculty of Syari'ah. He also received a diploma from the same university in 1997, studying Islamic justice and punishment. In 1999, he graduated from the International Islamic University in Malaysia, with a Masters degree, from the faculty of Divine Revelations. Faqihuddin is the founder and director of the organisation Fahmina (centre for the development of critical religious discourse) in Cirebon and as well as this lectures at Sekolah Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri. Furthermore, he is very active in both written and oral work concerning Islam and gender issues in Indonesia.