Women and Education – Contemporary Issues Related to Women Outside the Lands of Islam

Author: Dr. Waleed Al-Maneese Ph.D
| Category: AMJA Bridge

10th Annual AMJA Conference – Kuwait
Contemporary Issues Related to Women Outside the Lands of Islam
Women and Education[1]
Dr Waleed ibn Idrees al-Maneesi
AMJA Fatwa Committee Member, President of North American Imam Federation

All praise is due to Allah. We praise Him, seek His help, and seek His forgiveness. We seek refuge with Allah from the evil of our inner-selves and the awful consequences of our actions. Whomever Allah guides, none can lead astray, and whomever He leaves astray, there is none that can guide him. I testify that none is worthy of worship except Allah, alone with any partners, and that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger.


Muslim men and women alike have a pressing need for education, and this is indicated by the plethora of noble verses and hadith(s) that illustrate the virtue of knowledge and its people. However, the education of women in particular – in both their religious and secular studies – is usually surrounded by a number of violations that must be identified, and then weighed against the aforementioned needs to determine whether the Sharia grants a concession for such factors in her education or not. And due to the importance of this issue, I have been commissioned by AMJA to prepare the following research paper on the topic.

The Violations Involved in Women’s Education

Section One – Lowering the Gaze Between the Genders

1.1 – The Genders Looking at One Another

                Allah (st) commands the believing men and women to lower of their gaze in Surat an-Noor (30-31), and the Prophet (saws) instructed Jareer (ra) to turn away from the inadvertent glance, for being chaste with their eyesight will illuminate their insight. However, the phrase “of their gaze” in the verse alludes to the fact that looking may be permitted at times, since it was actually prohibited due to the fornication it could possibly lead to. Thus, you find some scholars more lenient when the gazing is not lustful, and others more lenient with a woman looking at a man and not vice versa.

                1.2 – A Man Looking at a Foreign Woman

                According to the Hanafis, a man looking at a foreign woman’s face or hands (and some included feet) is permissible on the condition that no desire is involved. According to the Mâlikis, only if the gaze was lustful must he lower it, and in that case she must cover her face from him, even if veiling her face is not ordinarily an obligation. According to the Shâfi‘is, the woman being allowed to show her face in public proves the permissibility of seeing it, but that must never happen when a person fears it could trigger mischievousness or when it was done by the woman to elicit attention. The more prominent position of Ahmad is the impermissibility of looking at a foreign woman, because he held that her entire body is ‘awrah and hence must be veiled. This was based on the hadith of Jareer (ra), among other things, and is also the position of Imam Mâlik.

                1.3 – A Man Looking at an Elderly Woman

                As for a man looking at an elderly woman, after agreeing on the impermissibility of doing so lustfully or when arousal is feared, the scholars had two opinions regarding this. The first is the permissibility of looking at her face and hands if she is not adorned or desirable, and the majority of jurists hold this position, namely the Hanafis, Mâlikis, and Hanbalis. The second is the impermissibility of looking, even if she is not “desirable.” Some Shâfi’is hold this to be the stronger view because the evidences did not differentiate between the young and old, and because desirability is relative.

                1.4 – A Woman Looking at a Man

As for a woman looking at a man, many scholars permitted her to look – without desire or the fear of it provoking lusts – at whatever is above the navel and below the knee of a man foreign to her. This was based on the fact that Allah commanded the believing women to lower “of their gaze,” not “their gaze” in the absolute sense, and because the Prophet (saws) permitted ‘Â’ishah (rah) to stare at the Abyssinians playing with their spears in the masjid, in addition to him instructing Fâtimah bint Qays (rah) to spend her ‘iddah (waiting period) in the house of a blind man; Ibn Um Maktoom. As for the hadith(s) quoted by some which seem contradictory to all this, they are either weak or at least less authentic than the aforementioned evidences. Of those who supported this position of permissibility as the default, among the contemporary scholars, were Dr Wahbah az-Zuhayli and Shaykh Ibn Bâz (may Allah bestow mercy upon them).

                1.5 – Looking at a Woman for a Need

All these previously cited scholarly positions were in reference to looking in general. When it comes to looking for a need, which includes education according to many jurists, then a concession is granted in proportion to the need.

Al-Mardâwi mentions in [al-Insâf] that when someone is forced to serve the sick, like those responsible for washing and shaving them, this falls under the ruling of a physician in terms of looking and touching. An-Nawawi mentions in [al-Minhâj], amidst listing the scenarios when looking would be permitted for a need, that education is among such needs and hence the minimal amount of looking that would suffice this need would be consented. This exact concession was championed, among the contemporary scholars, by Dr Wahbah az-Zuhayli and Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid.

The Permanent Fatwa Committee in Saudi Arabia received the following question: “Is it permissible for men to look at a foreign woman beyond the sudden glance? And if that is impermissible, then can male students attend a lecture that is delivered by an unveiled woman that wears tight clothing, under the excuse of education?” Their response was the following: “It is impermissible for him to look at her beyond the sudden glance, unless a necessity prompts that, like when rescuing someone from drowning, or a fire, or a collapse, or the like. The same stands for a medical examination and treatment, if a woman doing that [for her] is not feasible.”[2]

                 It was previously mentioned that this looking must not be accompanied by desire, but how does one gauge desire? We find the Hanafi scholars defining it as that which causes arousal (or an erection), while the Hanbali books define it as looking with enjoyment.

                1.6 – Touching between the Genders

                Whenever looking is prohibited, then touching is prohibited because it is more pleasurable and a greater provoker of lusts. This is the prominent Hanbali view, while the Shâfi‘is permitted shaking hands with a foreign woman when using a barrier and secure from temptation.

Section Two – The Genders Hearing One Another’s Voices

The default is the permissibility of a woman hearing a man’s voice, since they were permitted to attend the masjid and ‘Eid where they would hear the sermons and recitations of the Imam. It is only when a woman fears being tempted by a particular man must she avoid listening to his voice. We find that the Prophet (saws) permitted Anjasha (ra) to chant for the camels in the presence of women, and only when he feared they would be tempted did he say, “Careful; be gentle with the fragile vessels.”

As for men hearing a woman’s voice, the default in that is the statement of the Most High, “O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women. If you fear Allah, then do not be soft in speech [to men], lest he in whose heart is disease should covet, but speak with appropriate speech.” [al-Ahzâb: 32] Here, this noble verse forbids being soft in speech and permits appropriate speech. As Ibn ‘Ashoor explains that this is because the softness which is naturally found in a woman’s voice, and/or deliberately demonstrated by her, is understood by those she is speaking to as flirtation and a sign of her interest. Thus, she was commanded to speak appropriately, both with regards to what she says and how she says it.

                The scholars differed over whether or not a foreign woman’s voice is ‘awrah (must be concealed). Some said no, citing as evidence that the wives of the Prophet (saws) used to narrate their Prophetic reports to men. Other said yes, citing as evidence that her voice is more tempting than the sound of her anklet, and the Most High said, “And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment.” [an-Noor: 31] Imam an-Nawawi and Ibn Muflih both hold that a woman’s voice is not ‘awrah, but still cannot be listened to when temptation is feared.

                Shaykh Khâlid al-Muslih was asked about the ruling on a woman reciting Qur’an in front of an instructor, in the presence of other women, in order to correct her recitation. His response was the following: “It appears to me that a woman reciting in front of a foreign man, when a need prompts that and there is no seclusion or fear of temptation, is permissible – as stated by many jurists. Some of them only stipulated there be no seclusion involved, and this is one of the two Hanbali positions. Others added that there must be no woman or mahram man available, and this is the position of the Shâfi‘i jurists. Others permitted it outright, like Ibn Hazm, who said in [al-Muhallâ] about teaching a woman Qur’an after divorce because it was the bridal gift, ‘And that is not unlawful for anyone [meaning teaching a foreign woman] because the Mothers of the Believers taught the people.’ (9/99) And all this is referring to cases where no [other] prohibition is involved. And Allah knows best.”[3]

Section Three – Seclusion Between the Genders

It is prohibited for a man and a foreign woman to be secluded with one another, due to the noble hadith wherein the Messenger (saws) said, “No man is secluded with a woman except that Satan is their third.” Shaykh Ibn Baz comments that this means such seclusion is unlawful, and also means that a third party among them deems it permissible, unless temptation is still feared – in which case it should still be avoided due to the other texts which prohibit the avenues to temptation and stress on the sanctity of chastity. The Prophet (saws) also said, “Beware of entering upon women.” A man from the Ansâr said, “What about the in-laws?” He said, “The in-laws are death.” The scholars who collected this hadith and commented on it – like al-Bukhâri, Muslim, Ibn Hajar, and an-Nawawi – all cited this as proof for the impermissibility of a man and women being secluded, and the eminent danger of taking that lightly, especially among relatives.

                Since the Prophet (saws) went off to the side with a woman whereby they could be seen but not heard, the scholars extract that the prohibited seclusion is that which prevents them from being seen, such as being alone behind closed doors. The scholars – past and present – extended that to glass doors and subsequently being in vehicles, but reminded that the permissibility is dependent on being visible, such as a car in a populated place without dimmed windows. Otherwise, even the need of education would not warrant such a concession.

Section Four – Free-Mixing Between the Genders

                When men and women gathering in the same place involves unlawful behavior such as seclusion, prohibited looking, soft speech, and the likes, then it is forbidden. But when it does not involve this, then it could be prohibited as a precautionary measure and hence permitted whenever needed.

                It has not been reported that the Prophet (saws) dedicated one market or street or masjid for the women and another for the men. In fact, it has been confirmed that the women used to pray in his masjid (saws) without a barrier, sufficing with the men being in the front rows and the women in the back rows. At the same time, the woman is instructed to not mix with foreign men, to remain committed to her home, and thus her prayer therein is superior.

                The greatest classical scholars, such as Imam Mâlik, even mentioned the permissibility of a woman eating in an appropriate atmosphere with her husband and a foreign male relative. What many criticized was the open unnecessary mixing that inevitably leads to the departure of formality and then the disappearance of morality. This is why the Sharia encourages distancing between the genders whenever reasonably possible. For instance, the Prophet (saws) said in the hadith of Ibn ‘Umar (ra), “Do not enter the masjid from the woman’s door.” Likewise, he (saws) commanded Um Salamah (rah) to circle the Ka’bah from beyond the men, and this was in order for her to avoid crowding with the men (as was mentioned by an-Nawawi).

                Based on all this, it’s no wonder why scholars everywhere – past and present – have forbidden unnecessary mixing between the genders, especially in settings such as weddings and their like where evil and indecency are left unregulated. And at the same time, they have widely permitted necessary mixing in educational settings and the like, particularly when the Islamic guidelines for such scenarios is observed.

Section Five – A Woman Traveling or Residing Somewhere without a Mahram

                The mahram is the husband, or someone who is permanently unlawful for marriage due to ancestry, nursing, or wedlock. It is also necessary, according to the safer opinion, that the mahram be an adult, because he cannot serve his role in safeguarding the woman when he cannot yet fend for himself.

                Many hadith(s) have been reported establishing that a woman should not travel without a mahram. Of them is the Prophet (saws) saying, “No woman should travel except with a mahram, nor should a man enter upon her without a mahram being with her.” A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, I wish to ride out with such and such battalion, and my wife wishes to perform Hajj.” He said, “Go with her.” (al-Bukhâri: 1763) In another narration, “It is unlawful for a woman that believes in Allah and the Last Day to travel the distance of a single day without a mahram.” (al-Bukhâri: 1038, Muslim: 1339)

                These proofs establish the default, and appear to be general in their implications. However, there are other reports which entail that exceptions exist when the woman travels for a need in safe company. Of these reports is the incident of the Ghifâri woman who rode behind the Messenger of Allah (saws) to help the wounded at Khaybar and menstruated on route (Ahmad, Abu Dawud, and al-Bayhaqi).

Basically, the scholars unanimously agreed that woman can travel without a mahram for an urgent necessity, such as fleeing to save her life or religion. Then they differed over the permissibility of offering the obligatory Hajj without a mahram, but while in safe company. The question now is whether she can travel without a mahram, not for Hajj or a dire necessity, but for the likes of business or visitation. The majority did not permit this, but it is a known view among the Shâfi‘is, was permitted by al-Hasan al-Basri, was attributed to al-Awzâ‘i and Dâwud adh-Dhâhiri, and exists among the Hanbali jurists as well. It was the chosen view of Ibn Taymiyah, and appears to have been the latter of his two positions.

5.1 – Traveling by Airplane and other Modern Modes of Transportation

Modern advancements have enabled us to traverse distances faster than ever before, with more security than ever thought possible, whereby a few hours on a train or plane could comfortably carry a person to places he normally could not reach for days and weeks. But does this blessed facilitation from Allah affect the ruling on a woman traveling without a mahram?

Those who considered that traveling was itself the ‘illah (effective cause) of the prohibition, and not the hardship or harm that it could bring, then they did not permit her traveling when that obstacle was removed in our times. As for those who considered that the danger of a woman traveling alone was in fact the reason behind the prohibition, they in turn permitted her travel when that danger was absent. And among our contemporary scholars, of those who deemed this permissible was Shaykh ‘AbdurRazzâq al-‘Afeefi, Shaykh Ibn Jibreen, and Dr Yoosuf al-Qaradâwi.

There are a number of points that strengthen this position:

1 – As Imâm ash-Shâtibi (may Allah bestow mercy upon him) explains and proves at great length, the rulings on non-ritual acts can usually be rationalized, as opposed to the devotional acts which usually cannot. And when a ruling exists for a reason that can be understood, the ruling disappears with the disappearance of the reason behind it.

2 – It is quite obvious that a woman traveling without a mahram is not inherently evil, but rather forbidden for the evil that could result from it. And the principle in our Sharia is that when something is prohibited as a precautionary measure, it becomes permitted for a need, whereas something prohibited because it’s inherently evil only becomes permitted for a necessity.

3 – The dynamics of travel have completely changed in our times, with the use of mass transportation, safe means, and heightened surveillance. Perhaps many of those in the past were talking about a woman traveling alone via deserted routes (as mentioned by Imam al-Bâji).

4 – The hadith confirmed in Sahih al-Bukhâri wherein ‘Umar (ra) permitted for the wives of the Prophet (saws) to perform Hajj, and sent with them ‘Uthmân ibn ‘Affân and ‘Abdur-Rahmân ibn ‘Awf (may Allah be pleased with them all) who were both non-mahram for these women (as mentioned by Ibn Hajar).

5 – The hadith of ‘Adi ibn Hâtim (may Allah be pleased with him) mentions, “A woman will soon set out from al-Heerah to al-Ka‘bah all by herself.” (al-Bukhâri: 9/125)Although this is simply foretelling the end times, it is also praising the atmosphere of Islamic reign in that period, which hence could be usable to argue the permissibility of her actions.

Based on this, if we accept that safeguarding the woman was the reason behind the prohibition, we must first say that a woman never traveling without a mahram is ideal. But it still remains permissible for her to travel by plane, in the safe company of other woman or family members, while observing the following guidelines to ensure she is indeed being safeguarded:

  • There should be a need for her traveling.
  • She must seek the permission of her guardian to travel.
  • Her mahram accompanying her has proven itself difficult.
  • The plane does not have a transit stop midway.
  • Her mahram delivers her to the airport, and another mahram or safe company receives her.
  • She should try to travel with family or other women to ensure who will sit beside her.
  • The journey should not be complicated, such as being filled with administrative procedures, extended wait times, checkpoints, and the like.

5.2 – Residing Abroad without a Mahram

                The revealed texts stipulated a mahram for a woman’s temporary travel, and her remaining alone in a foreign land presents dangers that are obvious, and thus the scholars stressed how leaving a woman in such places is diametrically opposite to the duty Islam enjoins on the leaders of the family. A protective, god-fearing man would not accept leaving her like this among Muslims, so what about abroad? Leaving a Muslim woman alone in non-Muslim lands is certainly more perilous – even as a student – and should never be allowed without a mahram or trustworthy company, along with the constant supervision and follow-up of her caretakers.

The Effects a Woman’s Education being a Need or Necessity

Section One – The Effects of a Woman’s Education being a Need or Necessity

                Among jurists, the term “need” usually refers to a middle ground between luxuries and dire necessities. Basically, needs are born of excessive hardship and necessities are when the fundamental objectives of the Sharia[4] are threatened. They also hold that a need only warrants a concession in matters that are unlawful because of an evil they lead to, while a necessity warrants a concession in matters that are unlawful due to being inherently evil.

                Imam Ahmad (may Allah bestow mercy upon him) said, “People have a greater need for knowledge than for food and drink, for a man needs food and drink once or twice daily, whereas his need for knowledge is as numerous as his breaths.”

                After warning against the harms of mixed education, Shaykh al-Munajjid argues that some people – especially in non-Muslim lands – have a pressing need for this education because their job acquisition and marriage opportunities are dependent on it. Therefore, a concession is warranted here while observing the following guidelines:

  • There must be no alternative setting for his education, even if that requires relocation.
  • He must be incapable of earning the degree through online studies or the like.
  • He must attend these places while seeking Allah’s help and following His guidance, such as lowering the gaze, advising others with keeping their distance, not being alone with a woman, nor touching her, nor sitting beside her.
  • If he finds himself slipping towards the forbidden and being tempted by his surroundings, he must leave that environment at once while certain that Allah will compensate him, and that his religious commitment is more valuable than all the treasures of this world.[5]

Section Two – Women’s Education in our Current Age

Although a violation-free setting is largely non-existent in our current times, a woman cannot do without an education, in order learn the matters of her religion for herself, her children, and the sprouts of other Muslims. The Muslims also have a pressing need for female physicians so their women aren’t forced into resorting to males, in addition to needing skilled women that can perform jobs to provide for their families due to being widowed, divorced, or married to financially struggling husbands.

                Since it’s unlikely for these jobs to be secured without a university education, and since nearly all these institutions are not overseen by an Islamic authority, many scholars view that a concession is warranted here whenever temptation is evaded and one fears Allah as best s/he can. So for instance, a woman should learn Qur’an from another woman, but can learn it from a man when a qualified female instructor is absent, on the condition that they are not alone together, lowering the gaze is observed, she is not soft in her tone, and no temptation is feared. Similarly, a woman can attend university in order to educate herself, become career-eligible, and empower herself to teach her children – but only provided that she observes proper hijab, does not travel by herself, and is not alone with or adorned in the presence of any foreign man.

Whoever visits the fatwa(s) of Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid (may Allah preserve him) will notice the balance and comprehensiveness in his arguments, and thus we limited ourselves to paraphrasing them in the paragraph above.

Section Three – Examples of Education between the Genders in the Earliest Generations

                Many reports establish that men and women taught one another in the purest eras while observing hijab, modesty, and caution. For instance, we find that the women said to the Prophet (saws), “The men have beat us to you, so intervene and grant us a day.” In response, he (saws) set for them a day where he would meet them, and he would exhort and instruct them [therein]. (al-Bukhâri)

                Likewise, the wives of the Prophet (saws) would be visited by those seeking knowledge, and ‘Â’ishah (rah) could be found in the masjid teaching and answering questions from behind a curtain. And this was the practice of many female scholars after her, such as the daughter of Imâm Mâlik who would correct his students by knocking on the door when they erred in narrating, and the daughter of Abu Ash-hab who would advise the questioners from behind a veil.

                In the famous eclipse hadith collected by al-Bukhâri and others, ‘Asmâ bint Abi Bakr (rah) said, “And a loud noise did not allow me to hear the last statement of the Messenger of Allah (saws), so I asked a man nearby me, who told me that the Prophet (saws) said, ‘It has been revealed to me that you will be tried in your graves similar [in severity] to the trial of ad-Dajjâl.’

                Asmâ’ bint as-Sakan al-Ansâriyyah (rah) – aka “the spokesperson of the women” – came to the Messenger of Allah (saws) and said, “O Messenger of Allah, may my parents be ransomed for you! Allah has sent you to men and women alike, and we have all believed in you and your God. But as for us women, we are confirmed by our homes; we abide in your houses and carry your children while you men have been privileged over us with [attending] the Friday and congregational prayers, following the funeral processions, visiting the sick, and performing one Hajj after another. And greater than all that; fighting in the way of Allah. When one of you men goes out for Hajj or ‘Umrah or Jihad, we stay in your houses protecting your wealth, raising your children, and weaving your clothes. Don’t we deserve a share in what Allah granted you of goodness and reward?” The Prophet (saws) turned completely around and said, “Do you know of any woman who asks a better question about her religion than this woman?” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, we never thought a woman could present a case like her.” He (saws) said, “O Asmâ’, understand what I tell you, and inform the women you represent that a woman fulfilling her duties towards her husband, being mindful of what pleases him, and fulfilling his wishes, equals all of that.” The woman walked away while glorifying Allah, declaring His oneness, and repeating, “It equals all of that! It equals all of that!” (Narrated by Ibn ‘Abdil-Barr in [al-Istee‘âb]: 4/1788 and al-Bayhaqi in [Shu‘ab al-Eemân]: 8743)

                And throughout history, the highest caliber scholars – such as az-Zuhri, Imam Mâlik, Imam Ahmad, as-Sam‘âni, Ibn ‘Asâkir, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Hajar, al-Mundhiri, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, adh-Dhahabi – all learned at the hands of women who were beacons of Islamic knowledge.

[1] This paper has been summarized, then rendered into English from the Arabic original.

[2] [Fatâwâ al-Lajnah ad-Dâ’imah]: (Question #114196)

[3] The official website of Shaykh Khâlid al-Muslih

[4] The preservation of religion, life, wealth, intellect, and lineage.

[5] IslamQA.com

Dr. Waleed Al-Maneese Ph.D

Dr. Waleed was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is currently residing in Minnesota. Currently the shaykh is a senior member of the Permanent Fatwa Committee, of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America (AMJA), vice president of the Islamic University of Minnesota, Member of the Educational Committee at the American Open University, Imam and president of the board of trustees ...
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