Today’s piece is coming at a time when more than 1000 female pilgrims from Nigeria are detained in Saudi Arabia for lack of chaperones. As I write this, 171 of them have already arrived Kano on Max Air; deported. My purpose here is to show that the Nigerian Hajj authorities have been acting rightly on the issue of mahrams for female pilgrims on the strength of the understanding of scholars in this part of the world; the challenge is with the interpretation of the law guiding their counterparts in the holy land. I shall conclude with a prayer for the position of Nigeria on this issue, its peculiarities, and nature of Hajj operations to be respected by the Saudi authorities.
I will start by saying people, including the learned, are confusing Muharram with Mahram. The former refers to one of the Islamic months; it literary means the forbidden or sacred. Mahram is a man whom a woman is forever forbidden to marry because of blood ties, etc. like her father, brother or any unmarriageable kin. A husband could also serve as a mahram.
Let us understand the context in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned the oft-repeated hadeeths barring women from travelling alone. These hadeeths were reported in Al-Bukhari and other collections, to the effect that women are not to travel by themselves; that it is mandatory on them to be accompanied by their husbands or mahrams. Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “A woman is not to travel except with a mahram, and a man is not to enter upon her except if she has a mahram.” Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) say, when he was delivering a sermon, “No woman should travel except with a mahram.” A man stood up and said, “O Messenger of Allah, my wife has set out for Hajj, and I have signed up for such-and-such a military campaign.” The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Go and do Hajj with your wife.”
And also on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is quoted to have said: “It is not permissible for a woman who believes in Allah and the Last Day to travel a distance of one day and one night without a mahram with her.”
Based on the above authorities, some scholars in a number of Arab countries assumed, unreasonably, that there is an inherent evil associated with the woman and her dispositions; that, for example, whenever a woman is out, something immoral will occur. Thus, she has to be accompanied at all times, to grocery stores, markets and even to such women-only ceremonies like marriage banquet, etc. she has to be with a male relative. A woman in some of these countries is not trusted to cross from one side of the street to another unless her husband or any male relative guides her steps lest she falls or be snatched by an evildoer. This is engrained somewhat in the psyche of average Arabian to such an extent that you do not talk to your friend when you meet him outside his home with his wife. You pass each other like total strangers; when he is alone, you can be friends again. Of course, you have to avoid him as much as possible in situations like that, because speaking to him, it is believed, may produce a sinful act between you and his wife, even though she is covered in full niqaab, face-veil.
In his answer to the question of a woman performing Hajj without mahram, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn ‘Uthaimeen (may Allah have mercy on him) said: This action – Hajj without a mahram – is haraam; that the ‘mahram’s presence’ is to protect the woman from ‘those who do not fear Allah’. The Sheikh went further to debunk the position of the scholars who averred that she could travel in a safe company, rifqah ma’munah, citing the above hadeeth of the man ordered to go and perform Hajj with his wife instead of taking part in jihad. Sheikh ‘Uthaimeen concluded by stating that under no condition can a woman travel by herself, on road or air, for Hajj or any type of trip without mahram. She could be exposed to sin either at the airport, during transit for connecting flights or ‘there may have been a man sitting next to her on the plane who would deceive her and may like her and she likes him.’ Full stop. What the Sheikh has not addressed in this context is whether the situation will remain unchanged if the woman is 50 years old. Well, some senior citizens are prone to flirting with contemporaries. Therefore, you can now see why authorities acting on the verdict of such scholars would debar more than 1000 female pilgrims from entering the holy land.
These scholars failed to view mahram as a means of care for the woman and a way of upholding her reputation and dignity. A mahram protects her from the desires of those in whose hearts is a disease, from the assault of a rapist or a thief. They have failed also to consider the nature of travel at the era in which the Prophet’s edict was pronounced; a period in which a traveller must traverse deadly deserts, in a time when there was no sense of security, and where the places were unpopulated.
Islam is a way of life based on mercy and compassion; it is a religion that aims at protecting the weak and the vulnerable. Therefore, it is with the specific intent of safeguarding a woman’s honour, dignity, and reputation that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade women from undertaking long journeys without a mahram. Since the true intent of the prohibition is safety and protection, women are allowed to travel in a safe company, rifqah ma’munah, accompanied by elders and reputable Muslim men and women, as our Hajj authorities have been doing with Nigerian female pilgrims for many decades. Majority of scholars are of this view. Ibn Umar used to travel for Hajj leading women from his neighbourhood. Imam Hassan Al Basri said: ‘A Muslim is in himself a mahram: meaning the righteous and God-fearing Muslim can serve as mahram to the woman; and in some cases, a non-mahram proves more trustworthy than actual mahram.’ (Sharhu Saheehil Bukhaari vol. 4 p. 532)
Sa’eed Ibn Jubair, Ibn Sireen, Al-Auzaa’ee, Imam Maalik and Ash-Shaafi’ee are of the opinion that women, in the company of trustworthy and faithful women, can travel without mahram (al i’laam biwaa’idi umdatil ahkaam vol. 6 p. 79). Yes, a woman can travel even with just one free trustworthy and faithful woman, provided the road is safe. Sheikhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said: “Every woman can perform Hajj without a mahram as long as she will be safe.” And he said: “This is directed towards every travel in obedience... Al-Karaabisi transmitted this from Ash-Shafi`i pertaining to the supererogatory Hajj. And some of his companions also said this about supererogatory Hajj and about every travel that is not obligatory, like visiting and trading.” (Sharhu Sahihil Bukhaari vol. 4 p. 532)
Al-Artham transmitted from Imam Ahmad: “A mahram is not a condition in the obligatory Hajj.” His justification for this is his saying: “Because she goes out with women, and with all those whom she is safe with.” Ibn Sireen even said: “With a Muslim it is okay.” Al-Auzaa’ee said: “With a just people.” Malik said: “With a group of women.” Ash-Shafi`ee said: “With a trustworthy faithful Muslim woman.” And his companions said: “By herself if there is safety.”
Al-Hafidh Ibn Hajar said: “What is well-known with the Shafi`ees is that it is conditional that there be a husband, mahram, or trustworthy faithful women.” And in another saying: “It is enough for just one trustworthy faithful woman.” In a saying transmitted by Al-Karaabisi, authenticated in Al-Muhadh-dhab, is that she can travel by herself if the roads are safe. If this is what was said about traveling for Hajj and `Umrah, then this ruling should be uniform concerning all types of travel, as some scholars have agreed.
The conditions pertain safeguarding the woman and protecting her by ensuring that the roadway is safe and that trustworthy faithful men and women are present on the journey.
The proof of the permissibility of a woman traveling without a mahram is incumbent upon there being security and the presence of trustworthy faithful people. What was reported by Al-Bukhari is that during the final Hajj of `Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), he gave permission to the wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to perform Hajj. So he sent with them `Uthman ibn `Affan and `Abdur-Rahman. This act is considered to be a consensus, for all of them, `Umar, `Uthman, `Abdur-Rahman Ibn `Awf and the wives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) agreed to it, without any objection (Fathul Baaree vol. 4 p. 91 and ‘Umdatul Qaari’ vol. 10 p. 219).
Second is what was reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim from the hadith of `Ataa Ibn Haatim that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told him about the future of Islam and how its light will be spread throughout the earth. Among what he mentioned is: “The day is near when a young woman will travel from Al-Hiraa (a city in Iraq), going to the Sacred House with no husband accompanying her. She will fear none but Allah.” This information does not only prove that this will happen, but proves its permissibility, because it was mentioned in a phrase praising the spread of Islam along with its sense of security (Fathul Baaree vol. 4 p. 91).
We have to concede that travelling today is not like travelling in the past. Except on Nigerian roads, travelling is now devoid of the dangers of thieves and highway robbers. Modern means of transportation actually make easy for large numbers of people to travel in peace and security - ships, airplanes, buses, or cars – myriad people travelling in groups. Undoubtedly, this kind of group travel instils confidence and reliability, as well as dispelling the feelings of fear for the woman, because she will not be by herself in any place.
Therefore, nothing stops a woman from performing Hajj under the arrangement provided by Nigerian pilgrims’ welfare boards and agencies that has never been questioned by the Saudi Hajj authorities for decades.
There is difference of opinion among Muslim scholars, in Saudi Arabia and in Nigeria for example, on the issue of mahram for female pilgrims. Rifqah ma’munah, female pilgrims travelling in a safe company, a position upheld by majority of Muslim scholars, is what Nigerian Hajj authorities have been using for decades. They deserve some courtesy and respect from their counterparts in the holy land. The Prophet has warned the Muslims: ‘Don’t prevent women servants of Allah from the Houses of Allah.’ What house of Allah is greater that than the Ka’bah in Makkah or the Prophet’s mosque in Madeenah?
The worst part of the whole ordeal was what the poor hapless women bore. They were cordoned off in Jeddah like quarantined animals and they were starved and ill-treated. This is no way to behave to the guests of Allah from another country. The usual hospitality of the Saudis deserted them this time. Even if they feel the women were wrong; it is no justification for the wrong treatment. I also wonder why they issued the visas to these women in the first place when they know they would not be allowed into the kingdom. That smacks of double standard and hypocrisy. These people paid to get the visas; the visas were legally obtained and yet they were denied entry. I say do not start what you do not intend to finish.