Sex Segregation in Islam

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The traditional view of most Islamic scholars, past and present, prohibits free-mixing, or Ikhtilat, between men and women who are not close relatives, based largely on hadith evidence. Modern scholars and activists using other hadith and Quranic evidence often posit that free-mixing is actually allowed in Islam, at least with fewer limitations than are traditionally supposed. In seeking to create a complete way of life in Islam, the scholars have not failed to address the matter the relations between men and women and their effect on one another. Scholars throughout the ages and belonging to various madhabs and traditions of Islam have formulated their opinions on this matter and the general consensus is that the practice of free-mixing is a crime punishable under Islamic law.

Qur’anic verses

This Qur'anic verse is cited by scholars who argue that free-mixing and socialization between the sexes is prohibited:

O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses, except when leave is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation. But when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken your meal, disperse, without sitting for a talk. Verily, such (behavior) annoys the Prophet, and he is shy of (asking) you (to go), but Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. And when you ask (his wives) for anything you want, ask them from behind a screen, that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. And it is not (right) for you that you should annoy Allah’s Messenger, nor that you should ever marry his wives after him (his death). Verily! With Allah that shall be an enormity.

The scholars usually conclude from this that Allah has forbidden the believing men from mingling with the prophet’s wives. A screen or veil should be placed there in between the men and prophet’s wives while conversing with them. Hadiths elaborate on the circumstances of revelation of this verse (see the article Hijab for details).

Some modern scholars point out that this verse concerns Muhammad's wives specifically, even if jurists sought to apply it more broadly. Similar arguments are made by each side regarding Quran 33:32-33 in which Muhammad's wives are encouraged to stay at home.

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. And abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance. And establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah intends only to remove from you the impurity [of sin], O people of the [Prophet's] household, and to purify you with [extensive] purification.

Another verse sometimes cited in support of segregation is a story in which Moses encounters two women who were waiting for (male) shephards to leave before they would approach the water:

And when he came to the well of Madyan, he found there a crowd of people watering [their flocks], and he found aside from them two women driving back [their flocks]. He said, "What is your circumstance?" They said, "We do not water until the shepherds dispatch [their flocks]; and our father is an old man."

Modern scholars who argue against segregation point out that Moses himself is a man talking to these (unmarried) women in the story. Moreover, the story continues with one of the women shyly approaching Moses to offer her father's invitation to visit their home, whereupon her father offers Moses a chance to marry one of his daughters.

So he watered [their flocks] for them; then he went back to the shade and said, "My Lord, indeed I am, for whatever good You would send down to me, in need." Then one of the two women came to him walking with shyness. She said, "Indeed, my father invites you that he may reward you for having watered for us." So when he came to him and related to him the story, he said, "Fear not. You have escaped from the wrongdoing people." One of the women said, "O my father, hire him. Indeed, the best one you can hire is the strong and the trustworthy." He said, "Indeed, I wish to wed you one of these, my two daughters, on [the condition] that you serve me for eight years; but if you complete ten, it will be [as a favor] from you. And I do not wish to put you in difficulty. You will find me, if Allah wills, from among the righteous." [Moses] said, "That is [established] between me and you. Whichever of the two terms I complete - there is no injustice to me, and Allah, over what we say, is Witness."

Other verses cited by reformists are mentioned in the section below on gender segregation in mosques.

Hadiths cited by opponents of free mixing

Travelling on journeys

Narrated Ibn Abbas: That he heard the Prophet saying, "It is not permissible for a man to be alone with a woman, and no lady should travel except with a mahram (i.e. her husband or a person whom she cannot marry in any case for ever; e.g. her father, brother, etc.)." Then a man got up and said, "O Allah's Apostle! I have enlisted in the army for such-and-such Ghazwa and my wife is proceeding for Hajj." Allah's Apostle said, "Go, and perform the Hajj with your wife."
Narrated Qaza'a, the slave of Ziyad: Abu Said who participated in twelve Ghazawat with the Prophet said, "I heard four things from Allah's Apostle (or I narrate them from the Prophet ) which won my admiration and appreciation. They are: 1. "No lady should travel without her husband or without a Dhu-mahram for a two-days' journey. 2. No fasting is permissible on two days of 'Id-al-Fitr, and 'Id-al-Adha. 3. No prayer (may be offered) after two prayers: after the 'Asr prayer till the sun set and after the morning prayer till the sun rises. 4. Not to travel (for visiting) except for three mosques: Masjid-al-Haram (in Mecca), my Mosque (in Medina), and Masjid-al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem)."
Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: It is not lawful for a Muslim woman to travel a night's journey except when there is a mahram with her.
Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying: It is not lawful for a woman who believes in Allah and the Hereafter to undertake a day's journey except in the company of a mahram.
Ibn 'Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) reported: I heard Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) delivering a sermon and making this observation:" No person should be alone with a woman except when there is a mahram with her, and the woman should not undertake journey except with a mahram." A person stood up and said: Allah's Messenger, my wife has set out for pilgrimage, whereas I am enlisted to fight in such and such battle, whereupon he said:" You go and perform Hajj with your wife."


Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri On 'Id ul Fitr or 'Id ul Adha Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) went out to the Musalla. After finishing the prayer, he delivered the sermon and ordered the people to give alms. He said, "O people! Give alms." Then he went towards the women and said. "O women! Give alms, for I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were you (women)." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is the reason for it?" He replied, "O women! You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. O women, some of you can lead a cautious wise man astray." Then he left. And when he reached his house, Zainab, the wife of Ibn Masud, came and asked permission to enter It was said, "O Allah's Apostle! It is Zainab." He asked, 'Which Zainab?" The reply was that she was the wife of Ibn Mas'ub. He said, "Yes, allow her to enter." And she was admitted. Then she said, "O Prophet of Allah! Today you ordered people to give alms and I had an ornament and intended to give it as alms, but Ibn Masud said that he and his children deserved it more than anybody else." The Prophet replied, "Ibn Masud had spoken the truth. Your husband and your children had more right to it than anybody else."

Ibn Hajr offers the following observations about this hadith:

"The fact that he went to the women separately shows that the women were assembled separately from the men and were not mixed in with them."
Fath al-Bari (2/466)

Ibn ‘Umar reported the Messenger of Allah (May peace be upon him) as saying : if we reserve this door for women (it would be better). Nafi' said: Ibn ‘Umar did not enter through it( the door) till he died. Abu Dawud said: This tradition has been narrated though a different chain of transmitters by 'Umar. And this is more correct.
Narrated Um Salama: Whenever Allah's Apostle completed the prayer with Taslim, the women used to get up immediately and Allah's Apostle would remain at his place for someone before getting up. (The sub-narrator (Az-Zuhri) said, "We think, and Allah knows better, that he did so, so that the women might leave before men could get in touch with them)."

Ibn Hajr comments:

"In the hadith, we see that it is disliked for men and women to mix on the road. How much more, then, should such mixing be avoided inside of houses."
Fath al-Bari (2/336)
Narrated AbuUsayd al-Ansari: Abu Usayd heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say when he was coming out of the mosque, and men and women were mingled in the road: Draw back, for you must not walk in the middle of the road; keep to the sides of the road. Then women were keeping so close to the wall that their garments were rubbing against it.

Other situations

The Prophet (peace be upon him) never shook hands with an unrelated woman. Umaymah b. Raqiqah said: "I came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) with a group of the women of Madinah to swear fealty for Islam. The women informed Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) that they wished to swear fealty to him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: 'I do not shake hands with women. The way I accept the pledge from one woman is the same as with one hundred women."
al-Muwatta', Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Nasa'i and Sunan Ibn Majah
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Any woman who puts on perfume then goes and passes by some men to let them find her scent is a type of adulteress."
Musnad Ahmad, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Sunan Abi Dawud, and Sunan al-Nasa'i with a sound chain of transmission

With reference to the above material and more besides it, Islamic jurists have traditionally come to the conclusion that free-mixing of the sexes is not allowed in Islam.

Hadiths cited by opponents of segregation

In modern times some Muslim scholars have argued that there is Quranic and hadith evidence which undermines traditional views on gender segregation in Islam.

Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar: "During the lifetime of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) men and women used to perform ablution together."
Sahl b. Sa'd reported that Abu Usaid al-Sa'idi invited Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) to his wedding feast, and his wife had been serving them on that day while yet a bride. Sahl said ' Do you know what she served as a drink to Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)? She steeped the dates in water during the night in a big bowl, and when he (the Holy Prophet) had eaten food she served him this drink.
Narrated Rubai bint Mu`adh bin Afra: We used to go for Military expeditions along with Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) and provide the people with water, serve them and bring the dead and the wounded back to Medina.

In the home

One of the hadiths quoted above which is used by traditionalists states that it is not permitted for a man and woman to be alone together. Some modernists point out the following hadith, which makes a similar point but at the same time permits a man to visit another's home so long as he is with one or two other people.

'Abdullah b. 'Amr. b. al-'As reported that some persons from Banu Hisham entered the house of Asma' daughter of 'Umais when Abu Bakr also entered (and she was at that time his wife). He (Abu Bakr) saw it and disapproved of it and he made a mention of that to Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) and said: I did not see but good only (in my wife). Thereupon Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said: Verily Allah has made her immune from all this. Then Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) stood on the pulpit and said: After this day no man should enter the house of another person in his absence, but only when he is accompanied by one person or two persons.

Modern Islamic arguments against segregation point out a hadith in which Muhammad mixed with women in his own house (similarly Sahih Muslim 31:5899):

Narrated Sa`d: `Umar bin Al-Khattab asked permission of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) to see him while some Quraishi women were sitting with him and they were asking him to give them more financial support while raising their voices over the voice of the Prophet. When `Umar asked permission to enter, all of them hurried to screen themselves the Prophet (ﷺ) admitted `Umar and he entered, while the Prophet (ﷺ) was smiling. `Umar said, "May Allah always keep you smiling, O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! Let my father and mother be sacrificed for you !" The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "I am astonished at these women who were with me. As soon as they heard your voice, they hastened to screen themselves." `Umar said, "You have more right, that they should be afraid of you, O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)!" And then he (`Umar) turned towards them and said, "O enemies of your souls! You are afraid of me and not of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)?" The women replied, "Yes, for you are sterner and harsher than Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)." Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "O Ibn Al-Khattab! By Him in Whose Hands my life is, whenever Satan sees you taking a way, he follows a way other than yours!"

Gender segregation in mosques

It is quite common for mosques to be built with separate prayer areas for men and for women. A modern Muslim argument against gender segregation in mosques argues that the earliest material evidence of such are the enclosures added to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 912 CE, whereas evidence about earlier structures suggest a lack of separate areas in mosques before then, though there is a report that under the Caliphate of 'Umar men and women prayed separately in Medina. The Quran itself in many verses appears to encourage every believer to go to the mosque without specifying gender (for example Quran 7:31 and Quran 2:114), and in Quran 3:43 Mary is commanded to prostrate with those who prostrate (masculine plural, which must include men).[1]

There are some hadiths which exhibit legal debates which seem to have occured on this topic. Modern academic hadith experts are suspicious of the authenticity of hadiths touching on legal questions, especially when those hadiths seem to depict a back and forth between opposing camps, marshalling (or inventing) evidence to refute the other side. One such debate evidenced in hadiths suggests that one camp believed women should pray behind the men, while another argued against segregation as it was not the Prophet's practice, and a third group thought it was better that women do not come to mosques at all.[2]

In Islamic Law

Scholarly discussions around free mixing commonly invoke the concept of fitnah (in this context meaning trial, corruption). See also the article Hijab, which was another requirement that jurists sought to justify in terms of avoiding fitnah. Islamic scholars generally point to Sahih Bukhari 7:62:33 ("Narrated Usama bin Zaid: 'The Prophet said, "After me I have not left any trial [fitnah] more harmful to men than women."). Elizabeth Bucar in her book on the Islamic veil quotes the prominent jurist of the Shafi'i school, al-Nawawi (d. 1278) as an exemplar of this view, which is a motivation argued by some emerging Islamic governments in modern times:

Since God made men desire women, and desire looking at them and enjoying them, women are like the devil in that they seduce men towards the commission of evil, while making evil look attractive [to men]. We deduct from this that women should not go out in the midst of men except for a necessity.
al-Nawawi quoted by Elizabeth Bacur (transl. El Fadl)[3]

Al-Nawawi gives his verdict on men and women praying together in his Majmu’:

"Ibn al-Mundhir and others maintain that it is a matter of unanimous agreement that women are not obligated to attend the Jumu'ah prayers. However, his argument that this is because it brings about the mixing of women and men is not correct. The attendance of women at the Jumu'ah prayers does not necessarily bring about such mixing since the women stay behind the men."

Al-Nawawi continues:

"One of the vilest innovations, that some ignorant people today are involved in, is the habit of lighting candles on Mount 'Arafah on the ninth night. This behavior is gravely misguided and is full of improper goings-on such as the mixing of men and women."

Another Jurist, al-Sarkashi (d. 1090 CE), this time of the Hanafi school, is of the same opinion of al-Nawawi:

"The judge should try women separately from men since people tend to crowd together in the courtroom. It is quite obvious that the mixing together of men and women under such crowded conditions is conducive to temptation and other distasteful consequences."

The only exception to all of the above information is in the case of Mahram men. Mahram refers to those whom marriage is prohibited in Islam. These include fathers, uncles, brothers and close blood relatives.

Recent Fatwas

Recent Fatwas from Muslim scholars underline the contention that free-mixing of men and women is not allowed in Islam under any circumstances, to this very day:

Question: What is Islam's view of women working alongside men?

Answer: It is known that when women go to work in the workplaces of men this leads to mixing with men and being in private with them. This is a very dangerous matter that has dangerous consequences and negative results. It is in clear opposition to the texts of the Shariah that order the women to remain in their houses and to fulfill the type of work that is particular for her and upon which Allah has fashioned her nature, which is far from the place where she will mix with men.

The clear, authentic evidences that indicate that it is forbidden for men and non related women to be in private together and for men to look at women are numerous. There are also much evidence that what leads up to those forbidden ends are also forbidden. The evidences are many, clear and decisive that the mixing between the sexes is forbidden as it leads to negative and blameworthy results.
Shaikh AbdulAziz Bin Bazz, 'Islamic Fatwas regarding Women', Page No. 313
Question: Is it allowed for Muslim women to attend educational meetings and fiqh study sessions in the mosques?

Answer: Yes. It is allowed for her to attend educational meetings, regardless if they are related to practical matters or to matters of faith and monotheism. This is given the condition that she is not perfumed or displaying her beauty. She must also be distant from the men and not mixing with them.

Question: What are the permissible types of work for a Muslim woman to work in without being in contradiction with the teachings of her religion?

Answer: The places of work for women are those places that are specific for women. For example, she may work in woman's education, either in administration or otherwise. She can also work in her house by being a tailor for women and so forth. It is not allowed for her to work in areas which are exclusive for men because in that case she must mix with men and this is a great source of trial and temptation that one must beware of.
Shaikh Ibn Uthaimin, 'Fatwas regarding Women', Page No. 364

See Also

  • Hijab - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Hijab


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  1. Women in the Mosque: Historical Perspectives on Segregation by Nevin Reda, p. 86
  2. Ibid. pp. 86-93
  3. Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, London: Oneworld Publiscations, 2012, pp. 56