The Voice of a Woman
Some Muslims say that the voice of a woman is awra and must not be heard by non-mahram men except in emergencies. This essay examines their claims and presents some evidence that points to a different conclusion.
Note: My article is a response to an article called "Is the Female Voice Awrah?". This article was formerly available on its own website but that has since disappeared. I am hosting the article so that my readers can see both sides of the issue.
Examining the Dalils
Two major dalils are presented by those who say that the female voice is awra. The first is an ayah of the Quran and the second is a hadith. Each will be examined in turn.
The ayah from the Quran that is cited is Surah al-Ahzab ayah 32. It reads as follows:
Ya Nisa an-Nabiyy lastunna ka ahad min an-nisa. In ittaqaytunna fa laa takhda'na bi'l-qawli fa yatma' alladhi fi qalbihi maradun wa qulna qawla ma'rufa
O Wives of the Prophet, you are not like any other women. If you are in awe (of Allah), then do not be submissive in speech so that he hungers, he who has illness in his heart, but speak an honorable saying
The author of the article that I mentioned("Is the Female Voice Awrah?") has translated "takhda'na" as "to be soft of speech" and she says that because she is a woman, her voice is naturally soft; therefore since she is always "soft of speech" she must keep silent in order to obey this command of Allah SWT.
However the word "takhda'na" is from the root "khada'a" which means "to submit, defer, yield, surrender" (see 'The Hans-Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic'; all the forms from this root mean "submissiveness" and similarly). This means that the women addressed in the ayah are directed not to be submissive or deferential in their speech. Clearly, this does not refer to a quality in the sound of the voice, but to a manner of speaking or of certain types of words, which indicate submission. Women are quite capable of speaking in a non-submissive fashion!
This brings up another point. In order to obey the command "do not be submissive in speech", the women are directed to "speak an honorable saying" - they are NOT directed to be silent!! Obviously, the solution Allah SWT has commanded for the problem of submissive speech is for the women to speak honorable words, not for the women to be silent. It is really quite astonishing that when Allah SWT has clearly commanded the women to "speak an honorable saying" some people are instead attempting to claim that He has commanded the women to be silent!! My dear sisters, Allah SWT wants you to speak an honorable saying, not to be silent. That is what He has said in this ayah.
The above analysis alone should show that the referred ayah does not in fact say that the voice of a woman is awra or command her to be silent. However, no analysis of this ayah can overlook the fact that not only is the ayah addressed to the wives of the Prophet (sAas) but it says in the plainest language, "you are not like any other women". How can the ayah possibly be addressed to ordinary Muslim women then? What it commands can only be mustahabb and not fard for women who are not wives of the Prophet (sAas). It is indeed astonishing that the clear statement "you are not like any other women" is ignored and the ayah is treated as a blanket command for all women. It is true that all women should avoid submissive speech, but again it must be the case that the command "speak an honorable saying" is only a recommendation for ordinary Muslim women.
It is now clear that Surah al-Ahzab ayah 32 is not addressed to ordinary Muslim women to begin with, and even if it is, it commands "an honorable saying" not silence. But what about the other dalil presented?
The second dalil is a hadith about the rules for interrupting the imam in salat if it is necessary for him to turn his attention to something. This story is narrated by both Sahl ibn Sa'd (rAa) and Abu Huraira (rAa). Sahl (rAa) describes the occasion that the Prophet (sAas) made this ruling. Here is a translation of Sahl's (rAa) narration:
Sahih Bukhari Book 22, Number 309: Narrated Sahl bin Sad: The news about the differences amongst the people of Bani 'Amr bin 'Auf at Quba reached Allah's Apostle and so he went to them along with some of his companions to affect a reconciliation. Allah's Apostle was delayed there and the time for the prayer became due. Bilal came to Abu Bakr and said, "O Abu Bakr! Allah's Apostle is detained (there) and the time for the prayer is due. Will you lead the people in prayer?" Abu Bakr replied, "Yes, if you wish." So Bilal pronounced the Iqama and Abu Bakr went forward and the people said Takbir. In the meantime, Allah's Apostle came piercing through the rows till he stood in the (first) row and the people started clapping. Abu Bakr, would never look hither and thither during the prayer but when the people clapped much he looked back and saw Allah's Apostle. The Prophet beckoned him to carry on. Abu Bakr raised both his hands, praised Allah and retreated till he stood in the row and Allah's Apostle went forward and led the people in the prayer. When he had finished the prayer, he addressed the people and said, "O people! Why did you start clapping when something happened to you in the prayer? Clapping is for women. Whenever one is confronted with something unusual in the prayer one should say, 'Subhan Allah'." Then the Prophet looked towards Abu Bakr and asked, "What prevented you from leading the prayer when I beckoned you to carry on?" Abu Bakr replied, "It does not befit the son of Al Quhafa to lead the prayer in the presence of Allah's Apostle."
Other isnads for Sahl's (rAa) narration can be found at: Sahih Bukhari Book 11 #652, Book 22 #326, Book 49 #855, and Book 89 #300 as well as Sahih Muslim Book 4 #845 and Muwatta Book 9 #9.20.64. Abu Huraira's (rAa) narration can be found at: Sahih Bukhari Book 22 #295, Sahih Muslim Book 4 #850, #851, and #852, and Sunan Abu Dawud Book 3 #944 and Book 11 #2169.
The argument that is made in the mentioned article ("Is the Female Voice Awrah?") is that the women would have been commanded to speak up with "Subhan Allah" if this were halal for them, but since the Prophet (sAas) did not allow them to do so, it must be because their voices are awra. Moreover, if even an emergency in the salat is not reason enough for a woman to speak in front of non-mahram men, then it really is only a life-or-death situation that lifts the ban on women's speech.
However, it is interesting to note that the situation as described by Sahl (rAa) is that at first the men clapped their hands. The Prophet (sAas) then made clapping the hands haram for men by ordering them to say "Subhan Allah", but he permitted women to continue clapping their hands.
To put this another way, it would be one thing if both men and women had spoken up to say "Subhan Allah" and the Prophet (sAas) had chastized the women and told them that they should clap their hands instead. If this had been the case, then it would be clear that women are not to speak in public. But it is not the case. Instead, both the men and the women clapped their hands. We know that clapping the hands to interrupt the imam is haram for men. We know that clapping the hands is halal, and mustahabb, for women. But we do not know for certain that it is absolutely haram for women to speak up. The Prophet (sAas) gave the women a concession from having to speak up, by allowing them to clap their hands instead. But it may be that it is HALAL, although makruh for women to speak up. Think about it.
We can see from the above that the Quran does not command silence for women, and that there is no clear command from the Prophet (sAas) either. In order to be sure what the status of a woman's voice is, we need to look and see if there is any other evidence of women speaking to non-mahram men for other than emergencies, and if the Prophet (sAas) allowed it. If he did, then it is halal and the woman's voice cannot be awra. This is discussed in the next section.
Dalils in Favor of Women's Speech
From the Quran
A) Surah al-Qasas ayat 23-25
Wa lamma warada maa'a Madyana wajada alayhi ummat min an-nas yasquuna wa wajada min duni him imra'atyani tadhudan. Qala maa khatbukuma? Qalata laa nasqii hatta yusdi ar-ri'a wa abuna shaykh kabir. Fa saqaa la huma thumma tawallaa ila az-zilli fa qala Rabbi inni li maa anzalta ilayya min khayrin faqir. Fa ja'at hu ihda huma tamshi ala istihya. Qalat inna abi yad'uka li yajziyaka ajra maa saqayta la na...
And when he [Moses] came to the watering-place of Midian, he found at it a group of people taking water and he found as well as them two women holding back. He said, "What do you two have to say?" They said, "We cannot take water until the shepherds go away and our father is a very old man". So he took water for them two then he turned back to the shade and he said, "My Lord and Sustainer, surely I am one who needs what Thou mayest send to me of the good". Then one of the two (women) came towards him, walking shyly. She said, "My father invites you so that he may give you a wage for taking the water for us"...
COMMENT: Here the future wife of the prophet Moses (alayhi salam) approaches him to speak with him even though they are not married yet. Surah an-Nisa ayah 26 says, "Allah clarifies for you, and guides you with, the sunnas of those who were before you". Unless abrogated by a clear statement elsewhere, the conduct of the past that Allah SWT cites as an example for us is still halal.
B) Surah an-Naml ayat 29-35
Qalat ya ayyuha al-mala'u inni ulqiya ilayya kitabun karim. Inna hu min Sulayman wa inna hu "Bismillahi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahimi. Alla ta'lu alayya wa'tuni muslimin". Qalat ya ayyuha al-mala'u aftuni fii amri maa kuntu qadi'at amran hatta tashhadun. Qalu nahnu ulu qawwat wa ulu ba'sin shadid; w'al-amru ilayki fanzuri maa dha ta'murin. Qalat inna al-muluk idha dakhalu qaryatan afsadu ha wa ja'alu a'izzata ahliha adhillah, wa ka dhalika yafa'lun. Wa inni mursilatun ilay him bi hadiyyatin fa naziratum bi ma yarji al-mursalun.
She [the queen of Sheba] said, "O chiefs, indeed a noble letter has been sent to me. It is from Solomon and it is, 'In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Gentle. Do not be arrogant against me but come to me as Muslims'. She said, "O chiefs, give me a fatwa in my affair. I do not decide on an affair except that you witness it". They said, "We are possessors of great strength and mighty force, but the affair is for you, so look to what you will command." She said, "Indeed, kings, when they enter a town, corrupt it and they make the mighty of its people the most abased, and that is what they do. But I am sending messengers to him with a gift and I wait to see how my messengers return."
COMMENT: Here the Queen of Sheba speaks with her shura council. Although at the time she was a pagan, she later accepted Islam (see Surah an-Naml ayah 44) and continued to be queen of her people. Therefore, she is also presented as a good model for Muslims.
C) Surah al-Mujadila ayah 1
Qad sami'Allahu qawla allati tujadiluka fi zawjiha wa tashtaki ilaAllah. Wa Allahu yasma'u tahawura kuma. InnaAllaha Sami'u Basir.
Indeed Allah heard the saying of she who disputed with you (O Prophet) in (the matter of) her spouse, and she calls upon Allah. And Allah hears the conversation of you two. Indeed Allah is the Hearing, the Seeing.
COMMENT: Here is an example from the lifetime of the Prophet (sAas). The woman spoke up in front of the Prophet (sAas) in order to bring a complaint. Rather than condemning her speech to a non-mahram man (i.e., the Prophet sAas), Allah SWT said that He heard her and was responding to her. If her speech in public to a non-mahram man were meant to be haram, why did Allah SWT not take this opportunity to forbid it?
D) Surah al-Ahzab ayah 53
...Wa idha sa'altuhunna mata'an fa s'aluhunna min wara'i hijab; dhalikum atharu li qulubikum wa qulubihinna...
...And when you ask [the wives of the Prophet] a thing, so ask them from beyond a curtain; that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts...
COMMENT: Here are the wives of the Prophet (sAas), whom we know Surah al-Ahzab ayah 32 is addressed to. They are commanded to be behind a curtain when visitors to the Prophet (sAas) - who are described using the masculine plural - are asking them questions. A question by its nature requires an answer. Therefore, the wives of the Prophet (sAas) are put by this ayah in the position of speaking to non-mahram men in order to answer their questions. How then can it be haram for them to speak to non-mahram men?
A) Sahih Bukhari Book 60 Number 277: Narrated Ibn Abu Mulaika: Ibn Abbas asked permission to visit Aisha before her death, and at that time she was in a state of agony. She then said. "I am afraid that he will praise me too much." And then it was said to her, "He is the cousin of Allah's Apostle and one of the prominent Muslims." Then she said, "Allow him to enter." (When he entered) he said, "How are you?" She replied, "I am all right if I fear (Allah)." Ibn Abbas said, "Allah willing, you are all right as you are the wife of Allah's Apostle and he did not marry any virgin except you and proof of your innocence was revealed from the Heaven." Later on Ibn Az-Zubair entered after him and Aisha said to him, "Ibn Abbas came to me and praised me greatly, but I wish that I was a thing forgotten and out of sight."
COMMENT: Ibn Abbas (rAa) is definitely not a mahram for Aisha Umm al-Muminin (rAa); they are not even related by blood at all. If it were haram for ibn Abbas (rAa) as a non-mahram to hear Aisha's (rAa) voice because it is awra, how exactly is it that they were conversing? Moreover, this incident occurred near the time of Aisha's (rAa) death, which was long after the death of the Prophet (sAas). If speaking with non-mahram men was halal after the death of the Prophet (sAas), what power is there who can make it haram now? Also note that this hadith is one of many that proves that the wives of the Prophet (sAas) did indeed answer questions from non-mahram men (see note about Surah al-Ahzab ayah 53 above).
B) Sahih Bukhari Book 15 Number 88: Narrated Um Atiya: We were ordered to come out on the Day of 'Id and even bring out the virgin girls from their houses and menstruating women so that they might stand behind the men and say Takbir along with them and invoke Allah along with them and hope for the blessings of that day and for purification from sins.
COMMENT: Here the women are specifically commanded to stand near the congregation and recite "Allahu akbar". How in the world could the Prophet (sAas) have commanded them to recite aloud if their voices were awra? This puts the question of saying "Subhan Allah" to interrupt the imam in perspective.
C) Sahih Bukhari Book 54 #515: Narrated Sa'd bin Abu Waqqas: Once Umar asked leave to see Allah's Apostle, in whose company there were some Qurayshi women, who were talking to him and asking him for more financial support, raising their voices. When Umar asked permission to enter, the women quickly screened themselves (fa badirna al-hijab). When Allah's Apostle admitted Umar, Allah's Apostle was smiling. Umar said, "O Allah's Apostle! May Allah keep you happy always!". Allah's Apostle said, "I am astonished at these women here with me. As soon as they heard your voice, they quickly screened themselves". Umar said, "O Allah's Apostle! You have more right to be feared by them". Then he addressed (the women) saying, "O enemies of yourselves! Do you fear me and not Allah's Apostle?" They replied, "Yes, for you are a fearful and fierce man as compared to Allah's Apostle". On that Allah's Apostle said (to Umar), "By Him in Whose hands my life is, when satan sees you taking a path, he takes a path other than yours."
COMMENT: Here is Umar (rAa) conversing with some non-mahram women in front of the Prophet (sAas), and the Prophet (sAas) allowed it. If such conversation were haram, why did he not forbid it? For that matter, he himself was speaking with the women before Umar (rAa) arrived, and indeed the women were "raising their voices" and the Prophet did not forbid them!
D) Sahih Bukhari Book 62 Number 161: Narrated Anas bin Malik: An Ansari woman came to the Prophet and he took her aside and said (to her), "By Allah, you (Ansar) are the most beloved people to me."
COMMENT: Here is another example of the Prophet (sAas) himself conversing with a woman. How could this have happened unless it was halal?!
E) Sahih Muslim Book 4 #1926: Jabir ibn Abdullah reported: I observed prayer with the Messenger of Allah on the Id day. He commenced with prayer before the sermon, without adhan or iqama. He then stood up leaning on Bilal and he commanded (them) to be on guard (against evil for the sake of) Allah and he exhorted (them) on obedience to Him, and he preached to the people and admonished them. He then walked on till he came to the women and preached to them and admonished them and encouraged them to give alms, for most of them are the fuel for Hell. A woman having a dark spot on her cheek stood up and said, "Why is it so, Messenger of Allah?". He said, "For you grumble often and show ingratitude to your spouses". And they began to give alms out of their ornaments such as their earrings and rings, which they threw in the cloak of Bilal.
COMMENT: Here we see a woman getting up in the middle of a congregation to speak to the Prophet (sAas). If her voice were awra why did he not tell her to keep quiet? Instead, he answered her question.
F) Sahih Bukhari Book 13 Number 60: Narrated Sahl bin Sad: There was a woman amongst us who had a farm and she used to sow Silq (a kind of vegetable) on the edges of streams in her farm. On Fridays she used to pull out the Silq from its roots and put the roots in a utensil. Then she would put a handful of powdered barley over it and cook it. The roots of the Silq were a substitute for meat. After finishing the Jumua prayer we used to greet her and she would give us that food which we would eat with our hands, and because of that meal, we used to look forward to Friday.
COMMENT: Just to round things out, here is an example of a male Sahabi stopping to exchange a few words with a non-mahram woman. Would the Sahaba (rAa) have been doing this if it were haram?? Also note that this hadith refutes those who say that men and women may not exchange salams.
Note: This is only a representative sample. There are many more hadiths that could be cited which show men and women conversing to take care of their business. These have been omitted for reasons of space.
An interesting fatwa from Imam Malik
Muwatta Book 15, Number 15.5.16: Yahya reported...Malik was asked whether a man in the company of a woman who was reciting a passage of Qur'an requiring a prostration should prostrate with her, and he said, "He does not have to prostrate with her. The prostration is only obligatory for people who are with a man who is leading them. He recites the piece and they prostrate with him. Some one who hears a piece of Qur'an that requires a prostration being recited by a man who is not leading him in prayer does not have to do the prostration"
COMMENT: Imam Malik ibn Anas was the founder of the Maliki madhhab, one of the four major legal schools of Islam. Here he is dealing very clearly with a situation where a man is able to hear a woman reciting the Quran. How could this be if the woman's voice were awra? If that ruling were true, why did Imam Malik not say that the woman should not be reciting Quran where a man could hear her, or say that the man should move away so that he could not hear her? Note that some scholars who do not say the female voice is awra nonetheless claim that women are not to recite the Quran aloud near men. The fatwa of Imam Malik clearly refutes this claim.
It should be beyond obvious from the dalils presented above that a woman's voice is not awra and that she may speak with non-mahram men whatever is necessary to complete her business. It is really quite astonishing how something that is reported by many Sahaba (rAa) to be halal (i.e., woman's speech in front of non-mahram men) is declared by some people to be haram on the basis of a Quranic ayah and a hadith that do not even state a ban in the first place!! Let's use some common sense, people! Do not put your opinions in place of the Sunna. If the Prophet (sAas) allowed women to speak in front of non-mahram men, then it is HALAL. Period. Do not innovate obligations in the deen (such as women having to be silent) that Allah SWT and His Messenger did not put there.
Note: It is true that women should keep their conversations with non-mahram men business-like and that they should make efforts so that their voices are not alluring. However, to say that a woman's voice can never be heard at all is, I feel, extreme and not demanded by Islam. Even some very conservative scholars say that the female voice is not awra. See Is a Woman's Voice Awra? and Guidelines for Speaking to Non-Mahrams, both by Shaykh Muhammad al-Munajjid.