Niqab (Arabic for: face veil) is a controversial issue among Muslim jurists. The most correct view is that it is not an essential part of religion. Nevertheless, if a Muslim woman choses willingly to wear niqab she cannot be blamed.
In his response to this issue, Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, an Islamic scholar stated,
We see two conflicting views attributed to Ibn `Abbas on the issue of face veil. The first one is his commentary on verse 59 of Surat Al-Ahzab that women should cover everything except one eye, and the second one is what Ibn Jarir narrates from Ibn `Abbas, “Zinah Azh-zhahirah (Arabic for: apparent beauty that a woman is allowed to expose in public) includes face, kohl, coloring of palms, and rings.” Ibn `Abbas is also reported to have said, “What is to be covered is all of the body except the face and hands.”
The latter view has been reported from Ibn `Abbas by a number of his most prominent disciples and scholars such as `Ataa’, Sa`id ibn Jubayr, Ad-Dahhaak, and `Ali. It is also the preferred view of Imam Hasan Al-Basri, Awza`i, and the majority of imams and prominent commentators, past and present, of the Qur’an.
Now we are left with one of two choices in face of these conflicting views. The first is to assume that Ibn `Abbas is contradicting himself. This, in my humble opinion, is simply absurd, and, therefore, unacceptable: For it is inconceivable to think of this prominent scholar contradicting himself on such an important issue.
Therefore, we are left with the only reasonable explanation; it is possible to do so by situating the abovementioned verses in context: It is common knowledge that women in pagan times were wont of flaunting their beauty in public. It was in this context that they were ordered to cover themselves. Accordingly, in the fifth year of Hijrah, Allah revealed the verse in Surat Al-Ahzab, verse 59, in which believing women, including both the wives and daughters of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as well as other believing women were ordered to draw their cloaks (when they go abroad). This verse, as illustrated by Ibn `Abbas, was taken to mean that women should cover their entire body except their eyes.
However, following this in the sixth year of hijrah, Allah revealed the verse in Surat An-Nur, verse 31, in which a clear exception was made. Accordingly, women were allowed to expose their apparent beauty, which, according to Ibn `Abbas, meant that they were allowed to show their faces, hands, kohl, bangles, and dye of hands.
Thus, Ibn `Abbas explained the first verse as implying total covering, and the second verse as excluding face and hands as well as the visible garments.
The latter is the preferred view of the vast majority of mufassirun (Arabic for: Qur’an commentators), past and present, including the doyen of them of all, namely Imam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari. It is perhaps pertinent for us in this context to quote him. After having cited various views about the zinah azh-zhahira, he stated,
“The most preferred interpretation of the verse [Chapter 24, Verse 31], in my view, is that of those who state that women are allowed to expose their face and hands, which also may include kohl, rings, bangles, and dye of their hands. We endorse this view because of the consensus of scholars that all worshippers must cover their `awrah [Arabic for: parts of the body that must be covered] in salah, and all [scholars] agree that a woman in salah can expose her face and hands and that she must cover everything else.
Thus, once we accept this position as agreed upon, it becomes rather easy for us to know that a woman can expose that which is not considered `awrah even as men are allowed to do so; thus, if a woman is allowed to expose the above mentioned, then we know for sure that that is what Allah has excluded from the required covering by His words, ‘what is apparent or visible.'”
Furthermore, it is only reasonable for us to assert that if the face veil had been obligatory, then it would have been stated as such in clear terms by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself. We know for a certain fact not only that he did not do so; rather he went a step further to exclude face and hands from the required covering explicitly as well as implicitly, as it has been reported in a number of hadiths. This fact constitutes yet another evidence to prove that face veil is not prescribed in Islam. If despite such overwhelming evidences, one were to insist on it, then it is almost akin to stating that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) withheld essential information that all Muslim women ought to have known.
In conclusion, Muslim women are not required to cover their face and hands. There is no need for us to be rigid on this matter, especially that Allah and His beloved Messenger did not do so. Let me conclude by stating the explicit words of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) “Verily, this religion (of ours) is simple and easy to follow; whoever makes it hard will only be overwhelmed by it.”