Anas relates that the Jewish men used to avoid eating together with their women while the women were in their menses, so the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Engage in everything except intercourse."

This is an authentic hadîth related in Sahîh Muslim (302) and other sources.

The meaning of the hadîth:

This hadîth has a story behind it. Anas tells us:

Whenever a woman among the Jews was in her menses, the Jews would not eat together with her or remain in her company at home. The Prophet's Companions asked him about it, and then Allah revealed the verse: "And they ask you about menstruation. Say: It is a discomfort; therefore keep aloof from the women in their menstrual discharge." [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 222]

Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) explained: "Do everything aside from engaging in intercourse."

When the Jews heard this, they said: "This man does not want to leave anything of our ways without doing something differently."

Its legal implications:

This hadîth brings up the question of what form of intimacy is allowed between a husband and wife while she is menstruating. There is another extremely important hadîth related to this matter.

`A'ishah, the Prophet's wife, relates: "Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) used to instruct me to wear a waistcloth, then he would touch me during my menstrual period." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (300) and Sahîh Muslim (293)]

The same practice is narrated from the Prophet's wife Maymûnah. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (303) and Sahîh Muslim (294)]

In light of this evidence, there is consensus (ijmâ`) among all Muslims on two matters:

1. Sexual intercourse if forbidden between a man and his wife while she is menstruation. This ruling is established by the Qur'ân: "And they ask you about menstruation. Say: It is a discomfort; therefore keep aloof from the women in their menstrual discharge." [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 222]

2. It is permissible for the husband and wife to enjoy intimacy with each other from outside what the waistcloth covers of the woman's body, which is from between the navel and the knee. This includes contact through kissing, caressing, embracing, touching and so forth.

Scholars differ regarding contact with the woman's bare skin in the area between the navel and the knee aside from the vagina itself. (We might want to mention that anal intercourse is prohibited at all times and so does not even come up in the discussion.)

The first opinion is that it is permissible for the husband and wife to allow direct physical contact with the woman's body in the area between her navel and knee while she is menstruating. This is the opinion adopted by the majority of scholars, including Ahmad b. Hanbal, Ishâq al-Râhawayh, Abû Thawr, and al-Awzâ`î.

They cite as evidence the hadîth under discussion where the Prophet (peace be upon him said: "Engage in everything except intercourse." [Sahîh Muslim (302)] This is clear in stating that only intercourse is prohibited. Everything else between a husband and wife is permitted.

As for the hadîth that describe the Prophet's practice of having his wife don a waistcloth, this shows what is preferable, since this is the Prophet's action. It does ot indicate that it is prohibited to touch what is between the woman's navel and her knees while she is menstruating.

This is strengthened by another hadîth related from a number of the Prophet's wives that: "The Prophet (peace be upon him), when he wanted to be with his wife while she was menstruating, would have her cover her private area with a cloth." [Sunan Abî Dâwûd (272)]

Though there is some disagreement about this hadîth, many scholars uphold its authenticity, including Ibn `Abd al-Hâdî, Ibn Rajab, and al-Albânî.

This hadîth shows that, contrary to the assumption of many jurists, it was not necessary for the waistcloth to cover everything between the navel and the knees. What mattered was to cover the private area simply as a precautionary measure.

The second opinion is that it is prohibited for the husband and wife to allow direct physical contact with the woman's body in the area between her navel and knee while she is menstruating. This is the opinion adopted by the Hanafî and Mâlikî schools of though. It is also the official view of the Shâfi`î school of law, as asserted by al-Nawawî in al-Majmû` and Rawdah al-Tâlibîn

Al-Nawawî, in his commentary on Sahîh Muslim claims: "This is the strongest view in light of the evidence."

Ibn al-Mundhir said: "What is best is to adhere to the Sunnah."

A more moderate view is that if the husband and wife fear that their desires are too strong and they are likely might fall into sin if they allow touching between the woman's navel and her knees, then they should not do so. This is to prevent their falling into an act of disobedience, and not because he area between the woman's navel and knees is unlawful while she is menstruating.

Al-Nawawî concedes in his commentary on Sahîh Muslim that: "This way of looking at the matter makes good sense."

And Allah knows best.