According to the traditional four schools of Islam, a woman may not travel for an extended distance without a male chaperone, specifically one that she cannot marry; a mahram. This is based on many narrations in which the Prophet is related to have prohibited a woman to travel for more than three nights except when there is a Mahram with her.1 Variations of this narration exist in multiple collections with the number of days ranging from a single, to triple, hence, it is not surprising that this has been accepted wholly by all of the schools, as such.
However, in recent times, the discourse of maqasid al-shariah has become prominent with many scholars questioning the objective behind such rulings.
Not that such questions were innovative of course, as the classical era witnessed many a voice of reason and spoke of “higher objectives” as determinants of rulings, rather than a literal adoption absent of time, context, and milieu. In a paper entitled “Renewal of Islamic Thought: Vision and Approach,” the Moroccan scholar Ahmed al-Raisuni stated, “Women today are travelling for work inside and outside the country. If the travel is safe, then she is allowed to travel alone for education, work or to attend meetings.”2 While Raysuni may face backlash from traditional and even neo-traditional scholars alike for contravening such an obvious Prophetic rule, his approach is not novel.
Indeed, the majority of classical Islam affirmed that “texts and rulings are inseparable from their objectives” while its dispensation was left to the individual scholar.3 To cite a single example, consider the obligation of Zakah – compulsory almsgiving; if a person distributes his obligation of Zakah in the form of wheat, the Hanafites consider his obligation complete, while the Shafi’ites refuse on the basis of unfulfillment of the textual requirement of monetary dispensation. The reasoning of the Hanafite is that, the purpose, or objective, ie., maqsad (pl. maqasid) of Zakah is to meet the needs of the poor. The stance of the Shafi’ite is called ta’abbudi, or unquestioned obedience to the text irrespective of its objective.
As for the Hanafi, strictly speaking, one can say that the literal Qur’anic command has not been fulfilled; instead, its presumed objective has been satisfied. Again, strictly speaking, if we assume that the prohibition of a woman travelling is her safety, then if that safety is assured, it would be a lesser breach of textual unfulfillment than Zakah, as the latter is based on unequivocal evidence.
In discussing objectives and rulings, the Maliki scholar Ibn al-ʻArabī (d. 1148) states,
“Everything which the Prophet did, he did for a wise purpose, in response to a need, and for a reason. It follows, then, that if the reason or need for a given practice ceases to exist, the ruling calling for such a practice likewise ceases to apply.”4
Therefore, if the raison d’etre of the prohibition of a woman travelling alone is no longer present, is it permissible? Put another way, will it not suffice if the “objective” of this ruling is met, irrespective of its manner, just as food distribution fulfils the “obligation” of zakah? The answer, unbeknownst to many, has been answered, albeit in a social milieu that may have restricted the permissibility due to the lack of secure modern forms of transport, highways, ports, customs, and airports. Thus, Ibn al-ʻArabī further says,
“Scholars understood the basis for the prohibition, as a result of which some of them said that it would be permissible for a woman to travel in the company of a large number of trustworthy men”.5
Maliki and Shafi’i scholars such as al-Hatab, Baji, and al-Zanati also affirm this legality.6 The majority of scholars have permitted a woman to travel for obligatory hajj – holy pilgrimage – without a mahram if accompanied by trustworthy company. They based their opinion on the precedence of the wives of the Prophet who went for hajj after the latter’s death, accompanied by the third Caliph ‘Uthman.
But perhaps what clarifies this issue is another narration of the Prophet which Ibn al-ʻArabī cites in his discussion, in which the Prophet predicts a time of such security for Muslims that a woman will travel from Hirah, Iraq, to Makkah; a distance of a thousand miles.
The wording of the narrations seems to emphasise “three nights” and “three days”, yet, the discussion is imbedded in distance, not duration; one can imagine the vulnerabilities of a woman staying alone for three nights. On the other hand, it is restricted unreservedly to what a camel could traverse in the seventh century. Finally, this begs the question: in a future of super-sonic personal travel, will the woman be restricted by a minute instead of three nights?
In conclusion, if the safety and dignity of a woman is secured, and she travels by generally considered secure means and avenues as millions of people daily commute, there should be no reason for a chaperone.
Arbaoui, Larbi. “Moroccan Islamic Scholar: Women Can Travel Alone Without Mahram”, Morocco World News. Last modified August 26, 2014. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2014/08/137334/moroccan-islamic-scholar-women-can-travel-alone-without-mahram/.
Ḥaṭṭāb, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad. Mawāhib al-Jalīl li-sharḥ Mukhtaṣar Khalīl. Cairo: Maṭbaʻat al-Saʻādah, 1910.
Ibn al-ʻArabī, Muḥammad ibn ʻAbd Allāh. ʻĀriḍat al-Aḥwadhī bi-sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Tirmidhī. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʻIlmīyah, 2011.
Muslim, Ibn al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī, and Abdul Hameed Siddiqui. Sahih Muslim. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2005.
Raysūnī, Aḥmad. Imam al-Shāṭibī’s Theory of The Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2005.
al-Shatibi, Abu Ishaq. al-Muwafaqat fi Usul al-Shariah. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 1994.
- Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Sahih Muslim (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2005), Book 7, Hadith 3098.
- Larbi Arbaoui, “Moroccan Islamic Scholar: Women Can Travel Alone Without Mahram”, Morocco World News, last modified August 26, 2014, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2014/08/137334/moroccan-islamic-scholar-women-can-travel-alone-without-mahram/.
- Aḥmad Raysūnī, Imam al-Shāṭibī’s Theory of The Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law (London: IIT, 2005), 337.
- Ibn al-ʻArabī, ʻĀriḍat al-Aḥwadhī bi-sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Tirmidhī, vol. 3, 172.
- Raysūnī, al-Shāṭibī’s Theory, 345. Emphasis mine.
- al-Hatab, mawāhib al-Jalīl li-sharḥ mukhtaṣar khalīl, vol. 2, 523.