Assalaamu alaykum. I am a revert to Islam, praise be to Allah. However, I have heard about an issue which troubles me. The issue is regarding slave women walking around bare-breasted in Madinah in the time of ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him. This is also mentioned by Hamza Yusuf in one of his talks as he mentions a fact. Please provide insight from the Quran and the Sunnah. I am already aware that the ‘awrah (what should be covered of the body) of a slave woman is the same as a man, but I do not understand these issues at all. Please provide clarity. May Allah reward you.
All perfect praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, is His slave and Messenger.
First of all, we would like to congratulate you for the blessing of embracing Islam. May Allah grant us and you firmness on the straight path until death. One of the greatest manifestations of gratitude to Allah for this blessing is to do all that helps you remain firm by seeking useful knowledge, carrying out righteous deeds, keeping the company of good people and attending their blessed gatherings.
You did well by asking about the religious matter that you found confusing; this is what you should always do. We advise you to try as much as possible to avoid problematic issues that you may not be able to comprehend in the beginning of the road. If you happened to come across such issues, then asking the scholars is the optimal thing to do.
As for your question, then as far as we know, there is no authentic evidence that the slave women used to walk around bare-breasted. Ibn Taymiyyah said, “...because ‘Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, said that the slave woman should dress for the prayer as she dresses when she goes out, and it is well-known that she did not go out with her breast or back uncovered.” [Sharh Al-‘Umdah]
What was reported is that slave women used to walk around with their heads uncovered. This matter should be understood within the context of the Muslim community in the early days of Islam, bearing in mind that the Muslim community was very different from our present-day community back then, especially given that slavery no longer exists.
Since there was a constant need for the slave women at the time to carry out chores and errands, and they were required to come and go often, obliging them to observe the hijaab would have caused them significant hardship. Therefore, Allah, the Exalted, did not oblige them to wear the hijaab as He obliged free women to wear it, out of His mercy.
However, this should be confined to the situation in which there is no fear of Fitnah (temptation). If there is fear of Fitnah and there are means potentially leading to sin and evil, then those means must be eliminated and slave women must be ordered to wear the hijaab in order to ward off Fitnah.
Allah knows best.
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