There are many hadiths that urge the prospective spouse to have a look at the other before undertaking the marriage. Once, a Companion told the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that he was going to get married. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked if he had seen her. When the man said ‘no’, he (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Go and look at her for it is more likely to engender love between the two of you.” (Reported by Ahmad and others and classed as sahih or authentic).
Moreover, he (peace and blessings be upon him) said in another hadith: “If one of you proposes to a woman and if he is able to look at that which motivates him to marry her, let him do so.” (Reported by Abu Dawud & others).
It is noteworthy that this hadith does not abrogate the limits of what a woman may expose to non-maharim (marriageable men). She must continue to be well covered except for her face and hands in front of all of them and the prospective husband, even after making marriage proposal, is no exception to this. The difference is that he is allowed to take a good look – if it were not for the proposal of marriage, both would be required to avert their eyes after the first glance. As the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to `Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) about the issue of looking at a non-mahram woman: “The first is for you, the second is against you.”.
Also, it is clear that the purpose of this look is very specific: to help one gain assurance of the possibility of marrying the person in question. Once that has been determined and the decision has been made, it is no longer permissible for them to look at each other. If a man and a woman decide that they want to marry each other, this does not make it permissible for them to continue seeing each other. This is because until the moment the offer and acceptance of the marriage have been pronounced, there is no relationship of any kind between them and all of the laws regarding strange men and women still apply to them.
The following are a number of important points pertaining to this issue:
1. Some scholars say that looking at the prospective spouse is Sunnah (i.e., recommended by the Prophet) while others say that it is simply permissible. The above-mentioned hadiths would seem to favor the first point of view.
2. It can only be done if the person actually intends to marry the person in question and there is a real possibility of such marriage taking place. Otherwise, such a look remains unlawful.
3. It cannot take place in private. In other words, it is not allowed for a man and a woman who are not married – even if they are “engaged” – to be alone together.
4. The look can only occur more than once if the objective has not been accomplished.
5. There are several opinions about how much of the woman is lawful to be seen in this context as follows:
a) He can see what anyone else can see, i.e., he can look at her when she wears the proper outdoor dress of a Muslim woman. This is the mainstream opinion, the safest one and the one which agrees with all of the evidence.
b) One opinion among the Hanbali school of Fiqh says that he can see her in normal indoor (around only her family) dress which would include the exposing of her neck, arms, lower legs, etc.
c) One bizarre and off-the-wall opinion from the Zahiri (literalist) School of thought says that he may view her entire body. Although they have linguistic arguments to extract this from the hadith, this practice is completely unfounded since it contradicts many verses of Qur’an and other hadiths and is not supported by any known practice of the Companions or the first few generations.
6. The scholars recommend that this look take place when one has intended a proposal but the actual proposal has not occurred yet. Although the apparent sense of the mentioned hadiths seems to indicate otherwise, this is regarded as better in order to avoid hurting the woman’s feelings if the man changes his mind afterwards.
7. The majority of scholars say that her foreknowledge or permission is not needed – especially since he is merely seeing her in public and in a way that anyone else can see her. The Maliki school of Fiqh says that it is disliked to look at her when she is unaware since evil men may use this as an excuse to look at women all the time and when told to stop would say “We are thinking of proposing to one of them.”
Women Looking at a Prospective Husband
The woman also has a right to look at her prospective husband. Some have even said that it is more important for the woman to see the man. This is because the man holds the right of instant and unconditional divorce in case he is displeased with his wife. It is not so easy for the woman to get out of a marriage and so she must have priority in this issue.