The family in Islam is a unit in which a man and woman unite to share life together according to the rules and regulations laid down by the Shari'ah. They become as close to each other as a garment is to the body. The husband's honour becomes an integral part of his wife's honour, and vice versa. They share each other's prosperity and adversity. Thus in Islam the bridal couple are united as husband and wife in the presence of witnesses seeking Allah's blessings to increase in mutual love and compassion and agreeing to care for each other in sickness and adversity. This fundamental principle of Islamic marriage, understood and observed by the spouses, is the basis of the institution of Muslim marriage. In the family, the man is charged with the duty of being the leader of the family and the woman is assigned the duty of looking after the household. Even if the man has more responsibility than the woman and thereby has a degree over her, it does not make a husband inherently better than his wife. The Qur'an contains a verse which says:
And in no wise covet those things in which Allah has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn... (4:32)
Commenting on this verse Sheikh Muhammad 'Abduh says that it does not imply that every man is better than every woman or vice versa, but it emphasizes that: "each sex, in general, has some preferential advantage over the other, though men have a degree over women . " What is this "degree"? There are different views about it. One view is that it means the qualities of leadership, surveillance and maintenance which are bestowed on men. Another view is that it signifies the tolerance with which men must treat their wives even when in extremely bad moods. Yet another view is that it is man's natural gift from Allah for judging matters pertaining to his family and managing the problems affecting it. However, the consensus of the scholars is that the "degree" comprises the principle of guardianship and nothing more.
Muhammad 'Abduh feels that guardianship has four elements: protection, surveillance, custody, and maintenance. 'Abd al-'Ati considers that over and above these four elements is the element of obedience. According to 'Abd al-'Ati obedience consists of the following aspects:
1.A wife must neither receive male strangers nor accept gifts from them without her husband's approval.
2.A husband has the legal right to restrict his wife's freedom of movement. He may prevent her from leaving her home without his permission unless there is a necessity or legitimate reason for her to do otherwise. However, it is his religious obligation to be compassionate and not to unreasonably restrict her freedom of movement. If there arises a conflict between this right of the husband and the rights of the wife's parents to visit her and be visited by her, the husband's right prevails in the wider interest of the family. Yet the Shari'ah recommends that he be considerate enough to waive his rights to avoid shame within the family.
A refractory wife has no legal right to object to her husband exercising his disciplinary authority. Islamic law, in common with most other systems of law, recognizes the husband's right to discipline his wife for disobedience.
The wife may not legally object to the husband's right to take another wife or to exercise his right of divorce. The marital contract establishes her implicit consent to these rights. However, if she wishes to restrict his freedom in this regard or to have similar rights, she is legally allowed to do so. She may stipulate in the marital agreement that she too will have the right to divorce or that she will keep the marriage bond only so long as she remains the only wife. Should he take a second wife, she will have the right to seek a divorce in accordance with the marriage agreement.
Modesty is a virtue which Islam demands of Muslim men and women. The most powerful verses commanding the believers to be modest occur in Surah al-Nur and begin with the words:
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well aware of what they do. (24:31)
The rule of modesty is equally applicable to men and women. A brazen stare by a man at a woman or another man is a breach of correct behaviour. The rule is meant not only to guard women, but is also meant to guard the spiritual good of men. Looking at the sexual anarchy that prevails in many parts of the world, and which Islam came to check, the need for modesty both in men and women is abundantly clear. However it is on account of the difference between men and women in nature, temperament, and social life, that a greater amount of veiling is required for women than for men, especially in the matter of dress. A complete code of modesty is laid down in the Qur'an as follows:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty save to their husbands, or their fathers or their husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical desire, or small children who have no sense of sex; and that they should not stamp their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O believers! Turn all together towards Allah, that you may attain bliss. (24:31)
A key term in the above verse is zinat. It means both natural beauty and artificial ornaments. The word as used in the above verse seems to include both meanings. Women are asked not to make a display of their figures, not to wear tight clothing that reveals their shapeliness, nor to appear in such dress except to:
· their husbands,
· their relatives living in the same house with whom a certain amount of informality is permissible,
· their women, that is, in the strict sense, their maid-servants who are constantly in attendance on them, but in a more liberal sense, all believing women,
· old or infirm men-servants, and
· infants or small children who have not yet got a sense of sex
While Muslim men are required to cover the body between the navel and the knee, every Muslim woman is asked to cover her whole body excluding the face and hands from all men except her husband. The following traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) give us further guidance in the matter:
"It is not lawful for any woman who believes in Allah and the Last Day that she should uncover her hand more than this and then he placed his hand on his wrist joint. "When a woman reaches puberty no part of her body should remain uncovered except her face and the hand up to the wrist joint."
'A'isha reports that once she appeared got up in finery before her nephew, 'Abdullah ibn al-Tufail. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not approve of it. "I said, 'O Apostle of Allah, he is my nephew.' The Prophet replied, 'When a woman reaches puberty it is not lawful for her to uncover any part of her body except the face and this and then he put his hand on the wrist joint as to leave only a little space between the place he gripped and the palm."
Asma', the sister of 'A'isha and daughter of Abu Bakr, came before the Prophet in a thin dress that showed her body. The Prophet turned his eyes away and said, "O Asma'! When a woman reaches puberty, it is not lawful that any part of her body be seen, except this and this" - and then he pointed to his face and the palms of his hands. Hafsah, daughter of 'Abdur-Rahman, once came before 'A'isha wearing a thin shawl over her head and shoulders. 'A'isha tore it up and put a thick shawl over her. The Messenger of Allah also said, "Allah has cursed those women who wear clothes yet still remain naked." The khalif, 'Umar, once said, "Do not clothe your women in clothes that are tight-fitting and reveal the shapeliness of the body." The above-mentioned traditions make it explicitly clear that the dress of Muslim women must cover the whole body, except for the face and hands, whether in the house or outside, even with her nearest relatives. She must not expose her body to anybody except her husband, and must not wear a dress that shows the curves of her body. Some scholars, like Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, are of the opinion that, because modern times are particularly full of fitnah (mischief), women should go as far as to cover their faces because even the face may attract sexual glances from men. Shaikh al-Albani says, "We admit that the face is not one of the parts of the body to be covered, but it is not permissible for us to hold to this taking into consideration the corruption of the modern age and the need to stop the means for further corruption."
It is respectfully submitted, however, that in the light of the Prophetic traditions it suffices to cover the body, leaving out the face and hands up to the wrist joints, since this is the specified Islamic covering and it may sometimes be essential for a woman to go about her lawful engagements with her face uncovered. However if a woman prefers to put on the veil (burqah), she should not be discouraged as this may be a sign of piety and God-consciousness (taqwah). The rules on dress are slightly relaxed when a woman reaches old age and her sexual attractions have faded. The Qur'an says:
Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest and Allah is the One who sees and knows all things. (24:60)
However, if a woman is old but still has sexual desires, it is not lawful for her to take off her over- garments. Women at whom people are not possibly going to cast sexual glances but rather look at with respect and veneration are entitled to make use of the relaxation and go about in their houses without wearing an over-garment.
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