In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Muslims may sometimes be confronted with rulings from the scholarly heritage that seem wrong or at least inappropriate in our given circumstances. It is important to understand these rulings in historical context, so as not to wrongly disparage our predecessors, but we must also weigh them against the letter and spirit of Islamic teachings.
Some scholars in the past allowed maidservants to reveal their naked breasts as a concession to make their work easier, unlike free women who were required to veil. Some masters even paraded their naked slave women in the market in hopes of attracting the highest bidder. Is there any evidence from the Quran and Sunnah to support this practice?
The Quran is clear that ‘the believing women’ must generally adhere to the Islamic standards of modest dress, which according to the majority is for her to cover her entire body except for her face and hands.
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the believing women to draw their cloaks over themselves. That is more suitable, such that they will be acknowledged and not harmed. Allah is ever forgiving and merciful.
Surat al-Ahzab 33:59
There is an opinion that ‘the believing women’ only refers to free women, not to maidservants or slave women. On this basis, these scholars argue, for various reasons, that the standards of ‘nakedness’ (‘awrah) for maidservants is not the same as free women. However, this contradicts the plain meaning of the verse.
Abu Hayyan commented on this verse, writing:
وَالظَّاهِرُ أَنَّ قَوْلَهُ وَنِساءِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَشْمَلُ الْحَرَائِرَ وَالْإِمَاءَ وَالْفِتْنَةُ بِالْإِمَاءِ أَكْثَرُ لِكَثْرَةِ تَصَرُّفِهِنَّ بِخِلَافِ الْحَرَائِرِ فَيَحْتَاجُ إِخْرَاجُهُنَّ مِنْ عُمُومِ النِّسَاءِ إلى دليل واضح
The apparent meaning of His saying ‘the believing women’ includes free women and maidservants. The temptation from maidservants is even greater because of their frequent activity, unlike free women. Excluding them from the generality of women requires clear evidence.
Source: al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ 8/504
Ibn al-Qattan also argues at length that this verse makes no distinction between free women and maidservants, concluding:
فعلى هذا لا فرق بين الحرائر والإِماء في الآية وإنما معناها الأمر بالتستر والتعفف فلا يعرض لهن بأذى إذا عرفن قد قصدن التستر بخلاف المتبرجات بالزينة المتعرضات لأهل الفسوق
Upon this, there is no difference between free women and maidservants in respect to the verse. Indeed, the meaning is to command veiling and chastity, such that they are not exposed to harm when their intention to veil is recognized, as opposed to sinful women who beautify themselves for adultery.
Source: Aḥkām al-Naẓar 1/228
Due to the generality of the verses and traditions that command chastity and modesty for the believers, many scholars hold that the ‘nakedness’ of a maidservant is exactly the same as a free woman.
Ibn Hazm writes:
وَهِيَ (الْعَوْرَة) مِنْ الْمَرْأَةِ جَمِيعُ جِسْمِهَا حَاشَا الْوَجْهِ وَالْكَفَّيْنِ فَقَطْ الْحُرُّ وَالْعَبْدُ وَالْحُرَّةُ وَالْأَمَةُ سَوَاءٌ فِي كُلِّ ذَلِكَ وَلَا فَرْقَ … وَأَمَّا الْفَرْقُ بَيْنَ الْحُرَّةِ وَالْأَمَةِ فَدِينُ اللَّهِ تَعَالَى وَاحِدٌ وَالْخِلْقَةُ وَالطَّبِيعَةُ وَاحِدَةٌ كُلُّ ذَلِكَ فِي الْحَرَائِرِ وَالْإِمَاءِ سَوَاءٌ حَتَّى يَأْتِيَ نَصٌّ فِي الْفَرْقِ بَيْنَهُمَا فِي شَيْءٍ فَيُوقَفُ عِنْدَهُ
The nakedness of a woman is her entire body excluding the face and palms only. The free man and male servant, the free woman and maidservant are equal in this respect; there is no difference… As for differentiating between the free woman and maidservant, then the religion of Allah Almighty is one, creation and nature are one. All of that in respect to free women and maidservants is the same, unless there is an explicit text to distinguish between them in any way such that it can be applied.
Source: al-Muḥallá 2/241 and 248
Shaykh al-Albani likewise documented the weakness of several narrations attributing this meaning to the verse, concluding:
ومن العجائب أن يغتر بعض المفسرين بهذه الروايات الضعيفة فيذهبوا بسببها إلى تقييد قوله تعالى وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ بالحرائر دون الإماء وبنوا على ذلك أنه لا يجب على الأمة ما يجب على الحرة من ستر الرأس والشعر بل بالغ بعض المذاهب فذكر أن عورتها مثل عورة الرجل من السرة إلى الركبة… وهذا مع أنه لا دليل عليه من كتاب أو سنة
It is strange that some exegetes are fooled by these weak narrations, such that they adhere to the view restricting His saying ‘the believing women’ as free women to the exclusion of maidservants, and based upon this that maidservants do not have the obligation to cover their head and hair like free women. Rather, some of the legal schools exaggerate to the point that they mention her nakedness is like the nakedness of men, only from the navel to the knee… Despite this, there is no evidence for it in the Book and the Sunnah.
Source: Jilbāb al-Mar’ah 1/91-92
It is true that some scholars made an exception to this general rule in the case of working class women. They granted a concession to these women to unveil their hair and other minor body parts, perhaps most importantly to make their workload easier. After all, it is not very fair to obligate veiling upon a woman who works outside in the hot sun.
One of the most well-known of these concessions is the lifting of the obligation of a maidservant to pray in their veils.
Ibn Qudamah writes:
وَصَلَاةُ الْأَمَةِ مَكْشُوفَةَ الرَّأْسِ جَائِزَةٌ هَذَا قَوْلُ عَامَّةِ أَهْلِ الْعِلْمِ لَا نَعْلَمُ أَحَدًا خَالَفَ فِي هَذَا إلَّا الْحَسَنَ … وَاسْتَحَبَّ لَهَا عَطَاءٌ أَنْ تُقَنِّعَ إذَا صَلَّتْ وَلَمْ يُوجِبْهُ
The prayer of a maidservant with her head unveiled is permissible. This is the opinion of the majority of scholars. I know of no one who differs in it except for Al-Hasan… ‘Ata recommended for her to wear a veil when she prays, but he did not obligate it.
Source: al-Mughnī 1/432
Even so, many scholars who accepted these concessions still did not allow maidservants to show their naked breasts, chests, or backs.
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
الأصل أن عورة الأمة كعورة الحرة كما أن عورة العبد كعورة الحر لكن لما كانت مظنة المهنة والخدمة وحرمتها تنقص عن حرمة الحرة رخص لها في إبداء ما تحتاج إلى إبدائه … فأما الظهر والصدر فباق على الأصل
The default position is that the nakedness of a maidservant is like a free woman, just as the nakedness of a male servant is like a free man. When she takes on an occupation and duties, her prohibitions are reduced in comparison to a free woman, as a concession to her in showing only what needs to be shown… As for the back and chest, it remains in the default position.
Source: Sharḥ al-ʻUmdah 1/275
Allowing maidservants to show their breasts due to a work need seems to be an exaggeration at best, even if it was acceptable to some Muslim cultures at the time.
In addition, the scholars who granted a concession for maidservants to unveil did not at all imply that unrelated men were allowed to stare at them as they please.
Ibn Qudamah, who allowed maidservants to unveil for prayer as mentioned, also writes:
قَالَ أَحْمَدُ لَا يَشْهَدُ عَلَى امْرَأَةٍ إلَّا أَنْ يَكُونَ قَدْ عَرَفَهَا بِعَيْنِهَا وَإِنْ عَامَلَ امْرَأَةً فِي بَيْعٍ أَوْ إجَارَةٍ
Ahmad said: One must not gaze upon a woman unless it is to recognize her identity, even if he is conducting business with a woman in buying and trading.
Source: al-Mughnī 7/101
And according to Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Fiqh:
وَقَال الْحَنَابِلَةُ إِنَّ عَوْرَتَهَا كَعَوْرَةِ الْحُرَّةِ لاَ يَجُوزُ أَنْ يَنْظُرَ مِنْهَا إِلاَّ مَا يَجُوزُ النَّظَرُ إِلَيْهِ مِنَ الْحُرَّةِ
The Hanbali scholars said the nakedness of a maidservant is like the nakedness of a free woman. It is not permissible to look at her except with what is permissible to see in regards to a free woman.
Source: al-Mawsū’at al-Fiqhīyah al-Kuwaytīyah 31/49
The general rule is that a man should not gaze or stare at an unrelated woman with lust. He may look at her for a legitimate need like communication or identification, but otherwise he should lower his gaze as the Quran has commanded him.
One of the key pieces of evidence that some scholars used to justify the extremely lax clothing regulations for maidservants is a report attributed to Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, in which he allegedly punishes a maidservant who pretended to dress like a free woman.
قَالَ رَأَى عُمَرُ أَمَةً لَنَا مُتَقَنِّعَةً فَضَرَبَهَا وَقَالَ لَا تَشَبَّهِي بِالْحَرَائِرِ
Umar saw one of our maidservants wearing a veil and he flogged her. Umar said: Do not resemble free women.
Source: Muṣannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah 6/236
The authenticity of this report, through various chains of authority, is questionable. Even if it is authentic, it does not prove anything about the limits of a maidservant’s nakedness.
Ibn al-Qattan commented on this narration, writing:
هذا نصُّه وليس بصحيح ولا فيه أكثر من إنكاره عليها أن تتزيَّا بزي يظن يها من أجله أنها حرة
This was explicitly reported from Umar and it is not authentic. It contains nothing more than his condemnation of her for wearing attire to make others assume she was a free woman.
Source: Aḥkām al-Naẓar 1/230
In other words, this report describes an incident in which Umar punished a woman for wearing a disguise in order to mislead people about her true identity. It was not her modesty that upset him.
In the time of the Prophet (ṣ) and his companions, it is reported that maidservants used to serve people without their hair covered, but they never exposed their breasts. The appalling historical practice of parading naked slave women in the market, which later generations invented, has nothing to do with Islamic teachings.
وَسُئِلَ مَالِكٌ أَتَكْرَهُ أَنْ تَخْرُجَ الْجَارِيَةُ الْمَمْلُوكَةُ مُتَجَرِّدَةً قَالَ نَعَمْ وَأَضْرِبُهَا عَلَى ذَلِكَ
Malik was asked: Do you dislike a servant-girl to go out bare-chested? Malik said: Yes, and I would punish her for that.
Source: Mawāhib al-Jalīl 1/501
And Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
وَقَدْ كَانَتْ الْإِمَاءُ عَلَى عَهْدِ الصَّحَابَةِ يَمْشِينَ فِي الطُّرُقَاتِ مُنْكْشِفَاتٍ الرُّءُوسَ وَيَخْدِمْنَ الرِّجَالَ مَعَ سَلَامَةِ الْقُلُوبِ فَلَوْ أَرَادَ الرَّجُلُ أَنْ يَتْرُكَ الْإِمَاءَ التُّرْكِيَّاتِ الْحِسَانَ يَمْشِينَ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ فِي مِثْلِ هَذِهِ الْبِلَادِ وَالْأَوْقَاتِ كَمَا كَانَ أُولَئِكَ الْإِمَاءُ يَمْشِينَ كَانَ هَذَا مِنْ بَابِ الْفَسَادِ
Maidservants, in the time of the companions, used to walk in the streets with their heads uncovered and would serve men who had no ill intentions in their hearts. If a man were to let attractive Turkish maidservants walk among people in the likes of this time and place, as these maidservants had done, this would be a type of corruption.
Source: Majmū’ al-Fatāwá 15/418
This practice did not occur in the time of the Prophet (ṣ) and his companions but rather it was introduced by foreign cultures, as Ibn Taymiyyah writes elsewhere:
وأما الإماء التركيَّات الحِسَان الوجوه فهذا لا يمكن أبداً أن يَكُنَّ كالإماء في عهد الرسول عليه الصَّلاة والسَّلام ويجب عليها أن تستر كلَّ بدنها عن النَّظر
As for attractive Turkish maidservants, this cannot possibly be as it was in the time of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. It is an obligation for them to cover their whole bodies from being looked at.
Source: al-Sharḥ al-Mumti’ li-Ibn ‘Uthaymīn 2/158
In sum, the ruling of some scholars allowing maidservants to reveal their chests has no basis in the Quran, the Sunnah, and the historical practice of the companions and early Muslims. It seems to have been a concession granted as a way of lightening their workload and it was deemed culturally appropriate at the time, although it contradicts the plain meaning of the Quran. The historical practice of parading naked slave women in the market was undoubtedly unlawful in Islam, as it is forbidden for men to look at unrelated women with lust.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.