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Should I lower my gaze whenever I see a shirtless man, and is it Haram for me to look at him? And is it Haram for me to look at the knees of others because knees are supposed to be covered?

I looked on the internet for an answer, but many of them had said thing which were confusing.

  • I am believing you are male. The answer may change depending on this. Because I am currently leaving with 3 friends which are male and I am too and I never think of this. – muhammad Jun 1 '17 at 4:29
  • @muhammad For a man anything from the navel to his knees is part of his awrah. So if the man is shirtless but his awrah shows, you should avoid looking at it irrespective of your own gender. – Ahmed Jun 27 '18 at 16:18
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When it comes to the topic of the 'awrah of men scholars hold different positions. Even if the majority seems to agree about one. In the sum there are four or five different views (or different opinions including all details):

  • The 'awrah of men is only the privat parts (buttocks and the private parts in the front) which means that the tighs are not part of the 'awrah.
    This view is one of two views of imam Ahmad and that of ibn Hazm who presented in his al-Muhalla المحلى this view as the view held by the salaf and that any other view has been formed later. The maliki's agree with this for the case of the prayer in special (means if one is able to hide them and nevertheless prays not hiding them his prayer is invalid, else it is sufficient to hide them for the validity of the prayer).
  • The 'awrah of men is the area between the navel and the knee, with the following details or differences of opinion (most of these opinions are held by different shafi'i scholars even if the main line is that which imam a-Shafi-i himself held):
    • some scholars say (only) the knee is included in the 'awrah so the knees must be hidden (ar-Rafi'i said so according to imam an-Nawawi, hanafi books seem to hold this as the main view of their madhhab).
    • some scholars say the (only) navel is included in the 'awrah so it must be hidden.
    • some scholars say both navel and knees are part of the 'awrah and must be hidden.
    • some scholars say neither knees nor the navel are part of the 'awrah and therefore don't need to be hidden (this is the mashhur -the most prominent- view of the madhhab of imam Ahmad and the shafi'i's and maliki's, abu Hanifa said the navel is not 'awrah according to imam an-Nawawi)

First let me list a couple of evidences used by the majority.

Evidences of the majority view

  • Do not unveil your thigh, and do not look at the thigh of the living and the dead.
    (In Sunan abi Dawod 1 & 2, Sunan ibn Majah all have been qualified as da'if)

  • 'Cover your thigh, for indeed it is 'Awrah.'"
    (In Jami' at-Tirmidhi)

  • Do you not know that thigh is a private part ?
    (In Sunan abi Dawod also in Musnad Ahmad)

  • The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) passed by Ma’mar when I was with him, and his thighs were uncovered. He said: “O Ma’mar, cover your thighs, for the thigh is ‘awrah.”
    (In Musnad Ahmad: Source of the translation of this and all other ahadith from Musnad Ahmad islamqa #34976)

some rather indirect evidences:

  • While I was sitting with the Prophet, Abu Bakr came, lifting up one corner of his garment uncovering his knee. The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Your companion has had a quarrel." … (Sahih al-Bukhari)

  • … 'Asim, in another narration, said that the Prophet (ﷺ) was sitting in a place where there was water, and he was uncovering both his knees or his knee, and when 'Uthman entered, he covered them (or it). (Sahih al-Bukhari)

  • I was carrying a heavy stone and my lower garment was loose, and it, therefore, slipped off (so soon) that I could not place the stone (on the ground) and carry to its proper place. Upon this the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Return to your cloth (lower garment), take it (and tie it around your waist) and do not walk naked. (Sahih Muslim)

Evidences of the opposite view

  • … And when they tasted of the tree, their private parts became apparent to them, and they began to fasten together over themselves from the leaves of Paradise. … (7:22)

  • O children of Adam, let not Satan tempt you as he removed your parents from Paradise, stripping them of their clothing to show them their private parts. … (7:27)

  • Anas said, 'When Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) invaded Khaibar, we offered the Fajr prayer there (early in the morning) when it was still dark. The Prophet (ﷺ) rode and Abu Talha rode too and I was riding behind Abu Talha. The Prophet (ﷺ) passed through the lane of Khaibar quickly and my knee was touching the thigh of the Prophet (ﷺ) . He uncovered his thigh and I saw the whiteness of the thigh of the Prophet. … (Sahih al-Bukhari)

  • Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) was lying in the bed in my apartment with his thigh uncovered and Abu Bakr sought permission to enter. It was given to him and he conversed in the same very state (the Prophet's thigh or shank uncovered). Then 'Umar sought permission for entering and it was given to him and he conversed in that very state. Then 'Uthman sought permission to enter; Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) sat down and he set right his clothes. Muhammad (one of the narrators) said: I do not say that it happened on the same day. He ('Uthman) then entered and conversed and as he went out, 'Aisha said: Abu Bakr entered and you did not stir and did not observe much care (in arranging your clothes), then 'Umar entered and you did not stir and did not arrange your clothes, then 'Uthman entered and you got up and set your clothes right, so he (ﷺ) said: Should I not show modesty to one whom even the Angels show modesty. (Sahih Muslim)

Evaluation of the evidences

One must be aware that almost all statements that clearly support the majority view (that of the scholars of the four schools of jurisprudence as the main view) have issues, actually none of them is sahih.

Therefore scholars of the four schools of jurisprudence made efforts to find a way out:

Shaykh al-Albaani said concerning these ahaadeeth in al-Irwa’(1/297):
Although their isnaads are not entirely free of weakness, they strengthen one another, because there is no narrator among them who may be regarded as suspicious, rather their weakness has to do with confusion and ambiguity. And there are similar reports which make one confident that the hadeeth is saheeh, especially since some of them were classed as saheeh by al-Haakim, and al-Dhahabi agreed with him. And al-Bukhaari narrated it in a mu’allaq report in his Saheeh… But a number of these isnaads give the hadeeth strength, and raise it to the level of being saheeh, especially sincere there are similar, corroborating reports on the same issue. End quote.

It says in Fataawa al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah (6/165):
Even though there is some weakness in the isnaads of these ahaadeeth, as there are gaps in the chain of narrators or there is some weakness in some of the narrators, nevertheless they support one another, and when taken as a whole they provide the required evidence. End quote.

The majority of fuqaha’ are of the view that these ahaadeeth should be followed and they stated that a man’s ‘awrah is from the navel to the knee. See al-Mughni, 2/284 (islamqa #34976

On the other hand those additional evidences from both Sahihs can be used as evidences for both parties or to explain that there might be occasions where 'awrah in general is unlike 'awrah for a specific occasion.

Basically this means:

The majority view would say: You need to lower your gaze if you see a shirtless man.
The opposite view would say: You don't need to.

In fact it is certainly better to lower your gaze if you can else it is not sinful if you toke an unintentional look by default.

Some more references:

  • An article on dorar.net in Arabic.
  • A fatwa on islamonline in Arabic.
  • An article of the scholar ibn Amin supporting the minority view and considering it the most correct in Arabic.
  • The fatwa islamqa #171584
  • Imam an-Nawawi's al-Majmo' in Arabic.

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