The Islamic ruling regarding intimacy between a husband and wife during the wife’s menstrual period is set forth in the following verse: “They ask you concerning the menstruation (mahîd). Say: It is a hurt, so keep away from women in their menstruation. Do not approach them until they become clean. Then, when they purify themselves, then go unto them as to where Allah has commanded you. Truly Allah loves the penitent and He loves those who purify themselves.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 222]
The Arabic word given in the verse – mahîd – can either mean “the location of menstruation” or “the time of menstruation” or the menstruation itself.
In the context of the verse, the clearest of these meanings is the location of menstruation – the vagina. The verse states that the reason for keeping away from sexual intimacy is that “it is a hurt.” Since this is the reason given, it follows that the abstention from intimacy applies to the place of menstruation. It means that the husband must not engage in sexual intercourse with his wife. It does not mean for the husband to avoid any contact with his wife during the time of her menstruation. This is supported by the Prophet’s practice with his wives.
Umm Salamah tells us that when she was with the Prophet (peace be upon her) during her menstrual period, she distanced herself from him. However, he bade her to lay with him wearing her garment. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (294) and Sahîh Muslim (296)]
`A’ishah relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to instruct her to wrap a cloth around her waist when they wished for intimacy during her menstrual period. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (295)]
`A’ishah also relates: “When Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) wished for intimacy with one of us while we were menstruating, he would instruct her to wrap a cloth around her menstrual area. Then he would touch her. And which of you can control his desire as well as the Prophet?” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (296) and Sahîh Muslim (293)]
Maymûnah relates: “When Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) wished to be intimate with one of his wives during her menstrual period, he would instruct her to wrap a cloth around her waist.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (297) and Sahîh Muslim (294)]
In a narration of this hadîth, Maymûnah says: “The cloth would come to halfway down the thighs or to the knees and completely shield her private area.” [Sahîh Ibn Hibbân (1365), Sunan Abî Dâwûd (267), and Sunan al-Nasâ’î (287)]
It is a matter of juristic consensus (ijmâ`) that sexual penetration is prohibited while the woman is menstruating. This is clear from the verse mentioned above as well as from a number of hadîth. It is also a matter of juristic consensus that the husband and wife may enjoy physical intimacy together outside of the area generally covered by a waistcloth, this area being between the navel and the knee. For the area above the woman’s navel and below her knee, she may be touched by her husband without any clothing coming between them.
The Area between the Navel and the Knee
Scholars differ regarding the ruling of the area typically covered by the waistcloth – the area between the navel and the knee. They express three different opinions on this matter:
The First Opinion: It is prohibited for the man to touch his wife anywhere between the navel and the knee except through a barrier like a waistcloth or other garment. This is the view of Abû Hanîfah, Mâlik, al-Shâfi`î, al-Awzâ`î, Abû Yûsuf and a number of other jurists.
They cite, in support of this opinion, that a man asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) what was permissible for him and his wife during her period. The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: “She should wrap a cloth around her waist and then you may do what you wish above that.” [al-Muwatta’ (124) and Sunan al-Dârimî (1014)]
This hadîth has an incomplete chain of transmission, since it is related by a Successor who never met the Prophet (peace be upon him) without it being affirmed that he heard it directly from a Companion.
They also cite the various hadîth that we have already mentioned regarding the Prophet (peace be upon him) having his wife use a waistcloth during her menstrual period when they wished to be physically intimate. However, the eminent jurist Ibn Daqîq al-`Id rightly points out that these hadîth do not in any way indicate that the entire area under the waistcloth is prohibited to touch. These hadîth merely convey to us the Prophet’s practice.
The Second Opinion: It is permissible for the husband and the wife to enjoy physical intimacy except with the vagina itself. Some of the scholars who hold this view say it is sufficient to avoid the area. Others say that a cloth should at least cover that area.
Many of the scholars from among the Pious Predecessors were of this view, including Ahmad b. Hanbal, al-Thawrî, and Ishâq al-Râhawayh. Among the scholars of the Hanafî school of thought, Muhammad al-Shaybânî held this view. It was also the view chosen by the eminent Hanafî jurist al-Tahâwî. It is the view of the Mâlikî jurist al-Asbagh. It is also a variant opinion in the Shâfi`î school of law, preferred by Ibn al-Mundhîr. The eminent Shâfi`î jurist al-Nawawî writes: “This is the opinion best supported by the evidence.”
The evidence given to support this view is as follows:
1. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said regarding what intimacy is allowed between a husband and wife when the wife is menstruating: “Do everything except sexual penetration.” [Sahîh Muslim (302)]
2. It is related from some of the Prophet’s wives that when he wished to be intimate with one of them during her menstruation, he would have her wear an article of clothing that covered her private area. [Sunan Abî Dâwûd (272) with a strong chain of transmission]
3. Al-Tahâwî argues that sexual contact with the area between the navel and the knee – aside form the vagina –neither necessitates any criminal punishment (in a case of fornication) nor does it necessitate a ritual bath. It makes no difference if such contact is above a waistcloth or below it. Therefore, it follows that it is permissible for a husband to have intimate contact with his wife in that area while she is menstruating.
The scholars who hold this view consider the hadîth that show the Prophet’s practice of having his wife use a waistcloth to indicate what is preferred, not what is obligatory.
The Third Opinion: It depends on how much the couple are able to control themselves. If they are able to restrain themselves from full sexual intercourse, then they do not have to use the waistcloth. If they fear that they will not be able to exercise restraint, then they must use a waistcloth to prevent themselves from committing what is unlawful.
This is the view of some Shâfi`î scholars and the one that al-Nawawî approved of.
A. It is certain that that sexual penetration is prohibited while the woman is menstruating.
B. It is also a matter of juristic consensus that the husband and wife may enjoy unrestricted physical intimacy together outside of the area between the woman’s navel and the knee.
C. Scholars also agree that there is no problem with physical contact in the area between the woman’s navel and knee as long as that area is covered with a waistcloth.
D. They disagree as to whether intimate contact can be made with the woman in the area between her navel and knee if that area is uncovered.
The strongest view on this last matter appears to be that it depends on whether or not they fear falling into what is unlawful if they do not use a waistcloth. If they fear that they might otherwise not be able to control their passions, then the woman must use the waistcloth. If they do not fear this, then she is not obliged to do so. However, the woman should at least wear some sort of clothing over the immediate area.
In any case, it is best and safest to follow in this matter the practice that the Prophet (peace be upon him) employed with his wives.
And Allah knows best.