The sharia rule relating to this issue only makes sense when applied in a context where society is organised in accordance to Islam as was seen in the Prophet's Medina and under the Caliphs that succeeded him.
In such a society, familial structures are central to most people's lives, with power, authority and welfare delegated to the head of the family or tribe. The state only intervenes where a family is unable to resolve something - something that would happen where the entire kinship structures collapse.
The family head carries the burden of responsibility and is usually the father or husband who is responsible for the welfare of family members – in his absence, it is usually the grandfather, uncles or sons. Women obligations are far lighter and can expect amongst their rights to include being cared for, protected and not expected to earn a living.
It is in this context the travelling ahkam apply, whereby the responsible male is required to provide protection to the females in his care, accompanying them where necessary.
There are a number of ahadith that speak directly on the issue of when women travel and there is no mahram with them. Most are clear on the prohibitive nature of this situation:
The Shafi'i jurist Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (ra) wrote:
al-Baghawi said: They did not differ concerning the fact women are not permitted to travel for purposes other than the obligatory Hajj except with a husband or mahram, apart from a kaafir woman who becomes Muslim in dar al-harb (non-Muslim territory) or a female prisoner who is released. Others added: or a woman who becomes separated from her travelling companions and is found by a trustworthy man; in that case it is permissible for him to accompany her until he brings her back to the group. (Fath al-Baari, 4/76)
The 13th century the Shafi'i jurist al-Nawawi (ra) observed in his commentary of Sahih Muslim:
"There are many narrations stating the impermissibility of a woman travelling without a Mahram. These narrations vary in their wordings. The narration of Ibn Abbas in Sahih al-Bukhari says that a woman must not travel without a Mahram, but it adds nothing else. However, the other narrations, in Sahih al-Bukhari and elsewhere, mention lengths of journeys for which a Mahram is required - some of the narrations specify three days, some two, some one, and some even less."
The differences found in these narrations appears different questioners and places where answers were as al-Bayhaqi noted,
"It is as though the Prophet (saw) was asked regarding travelling for three days without a Mahram, and he refused. He was then asked about her travelling for two days, and regarding one day, etc and each narrator related from him what he heard." (Commentary of Sahih Muslim by Imam Nawawi, 1015)
The distance covered over 3 days and 3 nights is one covered by walking or on an animal with the usual breaks for resting and eating. Therefore, the restriction of travelling with a Mahram applies if the distance of the journey exceeds this, even if the journey itself is accomplished in a shorter time. Whilst scholars differed on the distance many opined it to be 16 farsakhs, a farsakh being three miles.
The Hanafis were quite clear that a mahram is always required, the Hanafi jurist al-Kasani (ra) stating the standard view of the school:
"One of the conditions for the permissibility of a woman travelling for Hajj is that she is accompanied by her husband or a Mahram. If neither of them is accompanying her, then Hajj will not be obligatory.
Our (Hanafi school) proof is what Ibn Abbas (ra) narrated from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) that he said: "Verily, a woman must no travel for Hajj except that her Mahram is accompanying her". The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) also said: "A woman must not travel except that her Mahram or Husband is with her". Also, a woman is unsafe if her husband or Mahram is not accompanying her, and this is the reason why it is even impermissible for her to travel on her own (meaning, not in the company of a stranger, m), and this fear (of their safety, m) is increased when they are in a group. This is the reason why it is impermissible for a man to be in seclusion (khalwa) with a non-Mahram woman even if she has another woman accompanying her." (Bada'i al-Sana'i, 2/1230)
In al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya, constructed under Aurangzeb's era by the jurists, a similar position is cited:
"One of the conditions for a woman, whether young or old, to a able to travel for Hajj is that she is accompanied by her Mahram if the distance between her and Makkah is of three days. If the travelling distance is less than that, then she will perform Hajj without her Mahram." (al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya, 219)
Imam al-Haskafi (ra) also states the same ruling in his renowned Durr al-Mukhtar, on which Ibn Abidin (ra) comments:
"It is impermissible for a woman to travel the distance of three days and three nights. However, it will be permissible for her to travel the distance which is less than that without a Mahram because of need. It is reported from Abu Hanifa and Abu Yusuf (Allah have mercy on them both) that they disliked the travelling of a woman on herself even to the travel distance of one day and one night, and the Fatwa should be on this opinion due to the widespread immorality.
This is also affirmed by the Hadith recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim: "It is Impermissible for a woman who believes in Allah and the last day that she travels the distance of one day and one night except with a Mahram accompanying her."
However, it is stated in al-Fath (Fath al-Qadir of Ibn al-Humam):
"When the relied upon opinion is the first (i.e., distance of three days and three nights, m), the husband does not have a right to prevent her from performing Hajj if the distance between her and Makkah is less than three days." (Radd al-Muhtar ala al-Durr al-Mukhtar, 2/465)
The major Hanafi texts are clear on the impermissibility of a woman travelling without her mahram to the extent Ibn Abidin noting the widespread immorality of his time in the nineteenth century limited travel to the distance of one day. The basis for these rulings was the assumption of maintaining a woman's reputation, dignity and safety.
Whilst there is some difference however amongst the jurists regarding the necessity of a mahram for women travelling to hajj, the general consensus is that it is prohibited for a Muslims woman to travel alone without her mahram in order to preserve her interests.
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