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Islam Students - Research Association (ISRA) Presents
Author/Source: Abdullah Rahim  (abdullahrahim@gmail.com) Posted by: admin
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بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم


Islam Students - Research Association (ISRA) presents:


Revisiting the concept of Hijab in Islam

Author: Bushra Taimur

Research Supervisor: Abdullah Rahim




Disclaimer: The views expressed and the conclusions drawn in this research report do not necessarily reflect the views of the research supervisor. Every effort has been made to ensure dissemination of correct information only; however, the research supervisor does not accept any responsibility for possible errors. The supervisor has only advised the author on how to progress in his/her own line of thinking and research.



Executive Summary:


Historically the veil has been held as a sign of nobility and seclusion for respectable women when it served as a strong differentiator between free women and slave women through several different civilizations. Tracing the roots of veiling in Islamic history we find that it is only in the last five years before the death of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH that the directives of dress code were introduced to the then young Islamic community. Before this period there was no religious obligation to dress in a certain way and the rules of dressing were largely dictated by customs and the environment. We also find that it was largely due to certain events in that society and as a precautionary measure that Muslim women and particularly the wives of the Prophet PBUH were advised to dress in certain ways. Although the verses containing these directives are interpreted in different ways across the different schools of Islamic thought, we see that the wives of the Prophet PBUH were the only Muslim women to observe the complete veil (including face and entire body) and seclusion as a ‘religious obligation’ in the last five years of the Prophet’s PBUH life until his death. Interestingly, it is only around the tenth century that the veil became a common rule to be followed. This is in contrast to the general belief that one form of the veil, the hijab in its present day appearance (covering just the hair, neck and ears only) was ‘as a symbol of the Muslim woman’ since the time of the Prophet PBUH. A close look at history reveals that the rise of this type of hijab only took place at the end of the twentieth century mainly as a growing reaffirmation of a religious identity and the rejection of values and styles perceived as Western. We find that the era that embarked after the death of the Prophet PBUH sees the meaning and appearance of hijab change dramatically to stand as a ‘cultural symbol’ of the Muslim women in present day.


The purpose of this report is to analyse and present this changing face of the hijab over history and seeks to clarify the meaning of those verses of the Quran that are clearly associated with this change.


Research Objective and Questions: Objective of this report is to present the background and development of two specific forms of veiling i.e. the hijab and face covering in Islamic History. This research seeks to answer the following questions:


1.      What was the concept of hijab and face covering before Islam?

2.      Did Muslim women observe the present day hijab or cover their face during the life of the Prophet PBUH?  This portion covers the verses of covering in the Quran and their relevance / background.

3.      What were the forms of veiling (e.g. hair covering, facve covering) after the life of the Prophet PBUH?

Research Design: The research methodology used to compile this report includes analysing and collating historical information using online resources and libraries. I have studied in dept the Quran as a source for relevance to the concept of hijab during the Prophet PBUH’s life and also analysed translations of ahadith from the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim for historical reference to covering during the same time. Only the ahadith in the collections of Bukhari and Muslim were studied as these two collections are considered as the most reliable collections of hadith by the main stream Muslims. The interpretations of different scholars have also been analysed to present the difference of opinion in understanding of Quranic verses and ahadith.


Definition of Hijab:


There is a variety of veiling levels observed by Muslim women today. Across the different schools of Islamic thought, the principal aim of the Muslim veil is to hide that which men find sexually attractive and hence the level of covering can vary based on interpretation and school of understanding. These range from the niqab and burga, that cover most of the face except for a slit or hole for the eyes, to the present day hijab which is defined as a head covering worn by Mulsim women to hide their hair, ears and throat but not the face, therefore this form of hijab lays special emphasis on covering hair. This definition of the hijab is different from how the word ‘hijab’ is used in the Quran and also how it was literally used during the time of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.


In the Quran, the word ‘hijab’ in arabic is used seven[1] times in total and is not understood to mean or to refer in any way to an Islamic dress for women but rather used to depict a veil or curtain, for example:


"There will be a veil between them [the inmates of Paradise and the residents of Hell]" 7.46


During the life of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, that will be discussed in further detail in the later part of this article, the term hijab was used interchangeably for veiling and seclusion and the meaning of hijab was “veil” as in darabat al-hijab, “she took the veil” – which in turn meant “she became a wife of Muhammad PBUH” was the literal term used for becoming a wife of the Prophet PBUH. The literal meaning of hijab is “curtain” in the sense of separation or partition. Texts from this era use the term hijab to refer to the seclusion or separation of Prophet Muhammad’s wives and to the decrees relating to their veiling and covering themselves. Therefore ‘hijab’ or “[she] took the veil” was a specific term, also evident from hadith literature, to describe that a woman became a wife of the Prophet PBUH and the act of veiling seclusion were peculiar to only Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s wives throughout his lifetime.[2]


As there is a difference in the term ‘hijab’ from how it was used in application as well as in meaning during the life of the Prophet PBUH and the present day hijab, in order to avoid confusion, in this report I will use the term hijab to denote its present day form. To clarify, the hijab during the life of the Prophet PBUH was only used as a term for covering by his PBUHs wives by which they observed full seclusion. Therefore hijab during the Prophets PBUH life involved covering the entire body including the face whereas in its present day form, the hijab does not cover the face and is used to specifically to cover head hair, neck and ears. Furthermore, in this report, the term veil has been used to denote general covering of women and not specifically for face covering. At certain parts of this report, I will try and provide detail of the extent the veil covered the body (i.e if it covered the face as well or not) but this may not always be possible as historians generally did not provide this level of detail.


I will now provide a summary of the events predating the Prophets PBUH life and after his death to explain how this change in definition of hijab transpired.


Concept of Hijab and Face Covering before Islam:


The concept of veiling is one that predates Islam by many centuries as the first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in the Assyrian legal text from the 13 century BC, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it[3]. In 539 BC, the Persians conquered Mesopotamia and it became part of the Persian state. The veil and the seclusion of women were among the social habits that the Persians adopted from the Assyrians and maintained over the years. In ancient Persia, women of noble families also became secluded and had to be covered when they went out in public. With the Persian conquests, the veil spread to neighbouring Kingdoms and nations. It was then introduced to the Levant region – currently known as Syria and Lebanon – and north of Arabia. The practice of hiding the face appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia, and in India among uppercaste Rajput women.[4]

Arabs who were separated from these surrounding civilizations by sand dunes and vast uninhibited deserts were not introduced to the veil until the seventh century AD when they conquered the Persian lands.[5] In pre-Islamic Arabia, veiling existed among some classes, particularly in the towns, though it was probably more prevalent in the countries that the Arabs had contact with, such as Syria and Palestine. In those areas, as in Arabia, it was connected with social status, as was its use among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Assyrians, all of whom practised veiling to some degree.[6]

In his article ‘History of Veil: Veil in Pre-Islamic Arabia’, Alexandra Kinias describes Arabia during this era: “Surrounded by the hostile terrains of the Arabian Desert and under its blazing sun, Arabs dwelled in diverse nomadic tribal communities. Each had its own laws, language and lifestyles. As the traditions, customs, and culture varied from one tribe to the other, so did their women’s status. Because of such variable conditions and laws, the status and rights of women ranged widely. And even though scholars did not quite agree on the social construction of such societies, they concluded though that they neither secluded the women nor enforced the veil on them. Costumes always reflect environmental needs and in the harsh deserts of Arabia, the Arab nomads lived in tents or huts with no doors and with roofs made out of palm trees. They were exposed to all kinds of severe weather conditions: from the burning sun in the summers, to sand storms, cold, and often rain in the winters. Before proper houses were built, people sought the shelter of their own clothes to protect them.  Due to that, both men and women often covered their heads and wore long garments. Covering the heads was neither a religious nor social obligation. The nature of their nomadic life in Arabia made segregation impractical and women’s seclusion impossible. Contrary to their rivals in the neighbouring civilizations, and even though a large number of them lived in oppressive and deplorable conditions, women in Arabia were widely active in their tribe’s public life. And because there were no social restrictions on their dress or mobility, women in pre-Islamic Arabia worked side by side with men and were productive in their communities. They traded in the markets, tended cattle and weaved baskets from palm trees, they received male guests and socialized with them and even participated in the tribal battles as nurses and often as warriors.”[7]



Hijab during the life of the Prophet PBUH:


Prophet Muhammad PBUH was born in c.570 and it wasn’t until he was forty years old that he received his first revelation. Khadija RA, the wife of the Prophet PBUH at that time, was the first to convert to Islam. From the earliest year’s women were among the converts, including women whose clans were fiercely opposed to Prophet Muhammad PBUH, such as Umm Habiba, daughter of Abu Sufiyan, the Prophets PBUH formidable enemy.[8] The earliest verse in the Quran that lays down the requirement for clothing is found in Surah Al-A’raf. This Surah is believed to be revealed in the last year of the Prophet’s PBUH life in Makkah[9] and addresses both men and women:


“O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment. But the clothing of righteousness - that is best. That is from the signs of Allah that perhaps they will remember.”7:26


The Prophet migrated to Medina in 622 where he inaugurated a new type of community, one that lived by the new values and new laws of Islam. Yedida Kalfon in his book ‘Arab Dress: A Short History – from the Dawn of Islam of Modern Times’ says that the basic articles of clothing for both sexes during the time of the Prophet PBUH consisted of an undergarment, a body shirt, a long dress, gown or tunic and an over garment such as a mantle, coat or wrap, footgear consisting of shoes or sandals and a head covering. A person might wear many garments or only one depending upon a variety of factors including weather, occasion, economic means etc. Many of the items of clothing worn by men and women were identical.[10] There was no religious ruling on veiling and it is evident from certain ahadith and also the lack of ahadith depicting such a society that the Prophet PBUH did not force the Muslim women to dress in a certain manner. One of these ahadith is quoted below and shows that before the verse of veiling were revealed (will be discussed in detail later in this part of the report) the Prophet PBUH did not instruct even the women in his household to veil:


'”Umar bin Al-Khattab used to say to Allah's Apostle "Let your wives be veiled" But he did not do so. The wives of the Prophet used to go out to answer the call of nature at night only at Al-Manasi.' Once Sauda, the daughter of Zam'a went out and she was a tall woman. 'Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her while he was in a gathering, and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda!" He ('Umar) said so as he was anxious for some Divine orders regarding the veil (the veiling of women.) So Allah revealed the Verse of veiling. (See Bukhari- Hadith No. 148, Vol. 1) Volume 8, Book 74, Number 257


The above hadith also sheds light on the varying opinion of different Muslims at the time of the Prophet PBUH. It shows that although Umar (RA) was keen for the wives of the Prophet PBUH to be veiled, it was not something the Prophet PBUH himself instructed his wives to do. The part of the hadith that implies that the revelation of the verse of veiling was in response to Umar’s (RA) anxiousness on the matter is not entirely accurate because, as will be explained in detail later, there were specific incidences and more compelling reasons for the revelation of the verse.


We also find that there are certain ahadith that speak about women veiling in front of certain men while they did not do so in front of others:


“Umar bin Al-Khattab asked the permission of Allah's Apostle to see him while some Quraishi women were sitting with him, talking to him and asking him for more expenses, raising their voices above the voice of Allah's Apostle. When 'Umar asked for the permission to enter, the women quickly put on their veils.” Bukhari - Volume 5, Book 57, Number 32


Therefore during the early periods of Islamic history, women had considerable freedom to roam unveiled. Some were required by custom to cover and Bedouin men and women were also accustomed to covering their hair and face to guard themselves from environmental elements. There is no indication that the veiling or seclusion of women was done for any religious reasons and was primarily a cultural phenomenon.[11] 


It is also worthwhile noting that men during this era also used the veil as per the cultural and environmental needs of Arabia at that time.  Fadwa El Guindi Professor of Anthropology at the University of Qatar states:


“There is enough evidence that the Prophet himself covered his face ... when warriors were on horses and camels they covered their faces ... so we were missing a half of the story here when we focused too much on women, and by doing so we may have misunderstood even the meaning of women veiling.”[12]


As soon as the Prophet PBUH migrated to Medina, work was started on a building that was to be Prophet Muhammad’s PBUH dwelling, the courtyard of which was to be both a mosque and the place where he would conduct community affairs. The living quarters for each of his wives were built along the eastern wall of the mosque with the room part of the living quarter having a veranda like enclosure giving onto the mosque courtyard. With the consequent success of the Prophet’s PBUH message and growth in community the courtyard and mosque became the centre of lively activity. Envoys and leaders from other tribes that had not yet converted were received there and there are instances of tents being put up in the courtyard during days of negotiations. People without means slept in the arbour of the north wall, people also simply sat or lay about or put up tents. Many who came hoping for some favour from the Prophet PBUH approached one or another of his wives first to enlist their assistance.[13]  The three battles that followed the migration to Medina, Battle of Badr (624), Battle of Uhud (625) and Battle of the Trench or Khandaq (627) created different circumstances for the newly founded Islamic community. Accounts from the Battle of Uhud show women actively taking part in participating in the society and even warfare. One man described seeing ‘Aisha RA and another wife of Muhammad’s PBUH, their garments tucked up and their ankles showing, carrying water to men on the battlefield, playing out women’s traditional pre-Islamic role in war of singing war songs and playing tambourines’[14].


It was not until this period in Islamic history that dress code for Muslims, both men and women, was introduced. Along with the issues that plague societies after war, the Muslim community faced another key threat from within. The hypocrites of Medina were a group of individuals that claimed to be followers of the Prophet PBUH but worked in secret to destroy the community. It is important to understand the set up of the society at this point as the women of the Prophet’s household were a prime target and it was through their exploitation that the hypocrites could defame the Prophet PBUH.


It is due to the above contributing factors and the resulting circumstances that it became necessary to distinguish between the wives of the Prophet PBUH as separate from normal women given their role as ‘Mothers of the believers’ and importance in the Prophets life. Muslim interpreters past and present stipulate that the Prophet's PBUH wives participated fully in the communal affairs of Medina until the revelation of the verse below.[15] We find this confirmation in a verse from Surah Al Ahzab that was revealed after the Battle of the Trench in 627 and clearly refers to only the wives of the Prophet PBUH: 


“O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear (Allah), be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech (that is) just. And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Messenger. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and spotless.” 33:32-34 (Yusuf Ali Translation)


Additionally another verse that is popularly known as the ‘verse of veiling’ is also from Surah Al Ahzab and was revealed specifically to the Prophet PBUH at the feast celebration of his marriage to Zainab (RA).[16] This incident is recorded in the Quran as well, it is the occasion when the guests at the wedding celebration overstayed their visit and the Prophet PBUH, being an extremely polite individual, was reluctant to ask them to leave. Therefore this verse was revealed at the feast and again refers to etiquettes that must be observed specifically around the Prophet PBUH and his wives, instructing all believers to speak to the Prophet’s PBUH wives from behind a curtain or hijab:


“O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses, - until leave is given you,- for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when ye are invited, enter; and when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behaviour) annoys the Prophet: he is ashamed to dismiss you, but Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the truth. And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs. Nor is it right for you that ye should annoy Allah's Messenger, or that ye should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is in Allah's sight an enormity” 33:53 (Yusuf Ali Translation)


The word ‘hijab’ is used in this verse and hence only after its revelation did all wives of the Prophet PBUH observe a complete veil. An additional differentiation established by this verse for the Prophet’s PBUH wives was that believers were not allowed to marry his wives after his death. It is at this point in history that that the term hijab commonly came to literally mean ‘becoming a wife of the Prophet PBUH’. This is evident from the following hadith as well:


“The Prophet stayed for three nights between Khaibar and Medina and was married to Safiya. I invited the Muslim to his marriage banquet and there was neither meat nor bread in that banquet but the Prophet ordered Bilal to spread the leather mats on which dates, dried yogurt and butter were put. The Muslims said amongst themselves, "Will she (i.e. Safiya) be one of the mothers of the believers, (i.e. one of the wives of the Prophet ) or just (a lady captive) of what his right-hand possesses" Some of them said, "If the Prophet makes her observe the veil, then she will be one of the mothers of the believers (i.e. one of the Prophet's wives), and if he does not make her observe the veil, then she will be his lady slave." So when he departed, he made a place for her behind him (on his and made her observe the veil.” Bukhari Volume 5, Book 59, Number 524


“The Prophet stayed with Safiya bint Huyai for three days on the way of Khaibar where he consummated his marriage with her. Safiya was amongst those who were ordered to use a veil” Bukhari Volume 5, Book 59, Number 523


It is clear from the context and background of the verses (33:32-34 and 33:53) revealed in Surah Al Ahzab that they are specially referring to the Prophet’s PBUH wives only. Similarly, there are other verses in Surah Al Ahzab that give directives to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH in his capacity as a Messenger of God and likewise are not applicable to the common man. This hadith also highlights that veiling or observing the hijab was not followed by Muslim slave women even after the verse of veiling.


The hypocrites in Medina were taking advantage of every opportunity to harm the founding of a strong Muslim community that was thriving. It is reported in various narratives that when Muslim women would go out to relieve themselves in the dark of night or in the dim light of, these miscreants would harass them and when called to account they would say that they actually thought they were talking to slave-women to inquire about something. This formed the background to the revelation of the following verse in Surah Al-Ahzab that referred to not just the wives or the Prophet PBUH but included his daughters and all believing women:


“And those who harass believing men and believing women for what they never did [should know that] they shall bear the guilt of slander and a grievous sin. O Prophet! [in this situation] enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw over them a shawl [when they go out]. That is more proper so that they may be distinguished [from other women] and not be harassed. God is ever forgiving and merciful. If [after these measures also] these hypocrites and those who have the ailment [of jealousy] in their hearts and the scandal mongers of Madīnah do not desist, We will rouse you against them, and their days in that city will be numbered. Cursed be they; wherever found, they would be seized and put to exemplary death” (33:58-61)


The above verse instructs all Muslim women to draw over them a shawl. Such dressing up would distinguish them from women of lewd character and they would not be teased on the pretext of being outwardly similar to such women. It is evident from the words used أَنْ يُعْرَفْنَ فَلا يُؤْذَيْن‏’ meaning ‘that they should be known and not harmed’ (translated above as ‘that they may be distinguished and not be harassed’) and their context that they do not contain any directive related to hijab. It was a temporary measure adopted to distinguish the identity of Muslim women in order to protect them from harassment.[17] The verse does not specify how women should cover herself or what parts of the body should be covered as the main aim of this covering was to distinguish them and they be recognized as Muslim women It is noteworthy here that the Arabic word for shawl as translated in the verse above, or their outer garments as generally translated by other scholars, is ‘jalābībihinna’ that comes from the word called ‘jilbab’.  The Arabic Lexicon provides the root of jilbab (plural of jalabib) as Jiim-Lam-Ba-Ba and means woman's outer wrapping garment, that which envelopes the whole body, wide garment for a woman, dominion or sovereignty or rule. In the present day, jilbab is defined as clothing worn by a Muslim woman that covers the entire body, except for hands, face, and head. We find that because the command was to ensure that the Muslim women cover themselves in a way that they be differentiate from slave women therefore the implementation of this directive was different from that of the modern day understanding of ‘jilbab’ or hijab. The hadith below further supports this understanding:


“Allah's Apostle used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized.” Volume 1, Book 8, Number 368

Again it is worth mentioning that no body parts such as face, head etc have been specifically referred to in this verse and emphasis is laid on the covering to enable differentiation. If the directive of covering with jilbab is considered to be general, and not specific to the particular situation, then it quite clearly relates to a situation in which a chaste woman is in an insecure environment (out of her home or workplace), in which she can be harassed and requires to be differentiated by such means to end that harassment.


Orthodox scholars however hold a different interpretation of this verse and see it being applicable at all times:


In his tafseer of Surah Azhab ayah #59 Maoulana Abul A'la Maududi says:


"In verse 59 the third step for social reform was taken. All the Muslim women were commanded that they should come out well covered with the outer garments and covering their faces whenever they came out of their houses for a genuine need." (From Tasfeer of Quran by Maoulana Abul A'la Maududi)


From his article "A Detailed, analytical review on the Shar'ee hijab", it is quoted from Mufti-e-Azam Rasheed Ahmad Ludhyanvi  (who is one of the head Muftis of the  hanafi madhab of his time and this opinion is taken to be the correct opinion of the hanafi madhab today) with reference to verses 59 of Surah Al-Ahzaab:


"Allah Ta'ala is telling them that whenever out of necessity they have to go out, they should cover themselves with a large cloak and draw a corner of it over their faces so that they may not be recognised.[18]


The verses that provide guidance on the dress code for all Muslim women that were to be observed at all times were later revealed in Surah An-Nur. There is a difference of opinion on the timing of the revelation of Surah An-Nur, however Ibn Khateers states that the preferred view is based on the opinion that Surah An-Nur was revealed in the latter half of 6 A.H (628), several months after the revelation of Surah Al Ahzab.[19] The starting verses of Surah An-Nur lay rules of sexual conduct for Muslims and stress the severity of spreading rumours accusing chaste women of misconduct without proper evidence in response to a slander incident regarding Ayesha (RA), one of the Prophets PBUH wives. After this clarification, we find verses outlining the norms and etiquette of gender interaction required to maintain the purity of heart and considered the most appropriate set of principles in the matter. This includes a code of conduct and dress for all Muslims, the following verse specially refers to Muslim women, one of the well known translations of this verse is below:


وَ قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَرِهِنَّ وَ يحَفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَ لَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا  وَ لْيَضْرِبْنَ بخِمُرِهِنَّ عَلىَ‏ جُيُوبهِنَّ  وَ لَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ ءَابَائهِنَّ أَوْ ءَابَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَائهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنىِ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنىِ أَخَوَاتِهِنَّ أَوْ نِسَائهِنَّ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُنَّ أَوِ التَّابِعِينَ غَيرْ أُوْلىِ الْارْبَةِ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ أَوِ الطِّفْلِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يَظْهَرُواْ عَلىَ‏ عَوْرَاتِ النِّسَاءِ  وَ لَا يَضْرِبْنَ بِأَرْجُلِهِنَّ لِيُعْلَمَ مَا يخُفِينَ مِن زِينَتِهِنَّ  وَ تُوبُواْ إِلىَ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكمُ‏ْ تُفْلِحُون‏


“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty (Arabic words used here: WaYahfadhna Furoojahun); that they should not display their beauty and ornaments (Arabic words used here: Zinatahunna) of  except what (must ordinarily) appear (Arabic word used here: Zahara)  thereof; that they should draw their veils (Arabic word used here: khumar) over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss” 24:31 (Yusuf Ali Translation)


The above verse has been interpreted differently by scholars and I will now list the key areas that are points of contention:


1. The Meaning of WaYahfadhna Furoojahun: وَ يحَفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ


Referring to the Arabic Lexicon to clarify the actual meaning of the words shows that Wayahfadhna means ‘and they should guard’ as it is derived from the triliteral root hā fā zā meaning to preserve/guard/protect a thing. Furoojahun is derived from the triliteral root fā rā jīm meaning an opening, intervening space [gap or breach] between two things or a parting hind legs or intervening spaces between fingers. The full word ‘Furoojahun’ consists of the noun ‘farj’, accusative masculine plural of which is ‘furooj’ meaning chastity, space between legs (of horse or mare) or part/s of a person (male/female) indecent to expose, with the addition of ‘hun’ for third person feminine plural possessive pronoun. Therefore the second directive of this verse to women after commanding them to lower their gaze, is to guards ones chastity or private parts.


This same directive has been given to men in the preceding verse:



قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّواْ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَ يحَفَظُواْ فُرُوجَهُمْ  ذَالِكَ أَزْكىَ‏ لهَمْ  إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبِيرُ  بِمَا يَصْنَعُون‏


“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts. That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do.”24:30


We also find that this command to both women and men is inline with the first verse on clothing in the Quran (verse 7:26).


2. The meaning of Zinatahunna (زِينَتَهُنَّ): Zinatahunna is derived from the trilateral root of ‘zay ya non’ that according to the Arabic lexicon means to adorn, deck. This root when used as a noun ‘zinat’ means adornment or illumination and paired with ‘ahunna’ forms the word ‘their adornment’. Only in the form of a verb as ‘zayyana’ or ‘izzayyanat’ is this trilateral root taken to mean ‘beautified’ or ‘made fair seeming’.


While scholars like Yousaf Ali have translated ‘Zinatahunna’ as ‘beauty and adornment’, others like Muhammad Sarwar translate this as only ‘beauty’. The focus on the correct translation of this word is critical here as the third command in this verse is to avoid display of ‘Zinatahunna’ other than that which is apparent is translated as a command to ‘not display their beauty’ and generally interpreted to be a direct command to cover ‘head hair’ and by some scholars the face as well.


If one is to take the translation to mean ‘not display their beauty’ then many questions arise such as what defines beauty? It is a common phrase that ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’, therefore what one individual may classify as beauty may be completely different from another individuals classification altogether. If one is to take the definition to mean ‘not display their beauty’ then one would assume that one must cover all visible body parts that could attract another including the face and hair, however scholars generally interpret this ‘beauty’ to include ‘head hair’ only and enforce the hijab as a religious directive of the Quran based on this translation. If hair can then be categorized as ‘beauty’ or a feature that could attract the opposite sex then how can one distinguish facial features like the lips and eyes that are easily, if not more, features of a women’s physical makeup that serve the same purpose? The debate then would swerve to be, how one can segregate this one feature of beauty (considered by orthodox scholars to be hair) from other features on ones face like eyes and the lips. The famous orthodox scholar Al-Ghazali's argument on this matter is that Islam has made it compulsory on women not to cover their faces during haj and salat (prayer) the two important pillars of Islam. How then could Islam ask women to cover their faces at ordinary times?[20] I would further this argument to add how one could allow the viewing of facial features but restrict the showing of hair?


Hence one can safely conclude the translation of this verse means to ‘not display their adornment’ rather than the loosely worded ‘not display their beauty’ that does not lead to any constructive conclusions and is more in line with the Arabic translation of the word ‘zinathunna’. A more apt translation of the same verse is given below:


“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to guard their private parts and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or sisters' sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.”


Once the translation of the word is correctly taken as ‘adornment’ three questions arise. Firstly what can be considered adornment? Secondly the verse is speaking about displaying adornment that is normally revealed or apparent (translation of the word used ‘Zahara’), then it is obvious to assume that there will some adornment on the woman’s body that is allowed to be revealed. So the question arises, what parts of the body are ‘apparent’ or as other translate the word ‘Zahara’ as ‘what appears naturally’? Thirdly, if adornment on certain parts of the body is allowed to be revealed, how will this be possible if women are to be completely covered from head to foot? Javed Ahmed Ghamidi commenting on this verse and what can be considered adornment and apparent states that:


“Women have been instructed to not only hide their embellishments but also the sexual organs. Exempted from this are embellishments adorned on limbs which are generally never covered i.e the jewellery and make up worn on the hand, the face and the feet. Therefore, barring the embellishments worn on these places, women must hide the ones worn in all other places. So much so, in the presence of men, they should not walk by striking their feet in a manner which draws attention to any hidden embellishments they may be wearing.”[21] 


As most traditional interpreters,. Javaid Ahmed Ghamidi considers the words ‘adornments that are apparent’ (Arabic for zinnatahunna illa ma zahara minha) to be adornments limited to the hands, face and feet while other scholars also exclude the face. Generally the most oft quoted hadith that is used to explain the required limitations of ‘zahara’ is one from Sunan Abi Dawud that is not recorded in either Bukhari or Muslim. This hadith is:


“Aisha said, "Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr (that is, Aisha’s sister), entered upon the Apostle of God (pbuh) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of God turned his attention from her and said, "O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her except that she displays parts of her body except this and this," and he pointed to her face and hands.” From the hadith collection of Abu Dawud no.4095


The above saying is only found only in the hadith collection of Abu Dawud and according to Abu Dawud, it is considered weak because the narrator who transmitted it from Aisha (RA) is not known. Other versions of this hadith found elsewhere talk about not wearing see-through clothes or clothing intended for wear by the opposite sex.[22] Therefore the authenticity and reliability of this hadith are largely questionable.


In the later part of the verse women are advised that in a different setting and surrounded by certain men (listed in the verse) they may be allowed to reveal their adornments. It is interesting to note that the intentional lack of specificity in defining zinnatahunna may actually allow for differing interpretations based on a variety of circumstances. Similarly, the exact determination as to what naturally or ordinarily appears is left unclear. However what is evident from this verse is that there are certain body parts that women have explicitly been commanded to cover and these include the private parts and the bosom. The other clear indication from this verse is that women are allowed to reveal adornments worn on certain body parts (that are apparent) and hence the total and complete cover of the entire body is not commanded.


3. Khumur (بخِمُرِهِنَّ): The Arabic word ‘Khumur’ has been used to guide women to take their veils or khumur over their bosoms. As the word “Khumur” means and was used to refer to a piece of cloth that generally covered the head, and was then loosely thrown back as per the customs in Arabia at that time, the part of the verse "draw their veils (khumur) over their bosoms" became interpreted by orthodox scholars as an injunction to veil one's head, hair, neck and ears. Furthermore others have interpreted this to mean all parts of the body except the hands, feet, and possibly the face, which many argue defies logic as there would be no need to mention bosoms specifically, if the reference was intended for the entire body.


As per the Arabic Lexicon, the word khimar is derived from the root ‘kha-miim-ra’ meaning cover. Another form of this root ‘khamr’ is used in the Quran for intoxicants so while the word ‘khumur’ plural of ‘khimar’ is used as a possible tool to cover the body while the word khamr is used for those substances that cover the mind.


In his interpretation of the Quran, Muhammad Asad comments on the historical use of the the khimar and verse 24:31 says:


"The noun khimar (of which khumur is plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer's back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term so familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet) does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman's breasts are not included in the concept of "what may decently be apparent" of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed.”[23]

The portrayal of khimar as a cover used on the head and thrown at the back is also the same as stated in the tafsirs by Iman Abu Abdullah Qurtubi and Iman Abu’l-Fida ibn Kathir[24]. Most orthodox scholars simply state the meaning of khimar as head cover laying emphasis on covering hair without taking into account the way it was used historically (there are no records showing specific requirement of the khimar to cover hair, if there is any emphasis then it is worn as an adornment on the head) and the fact that men also used the cover on their heads due to cultural and environmental needs. Therefore the use of the khimar may be taken to as a head cover, but it cannot be specified that the command is to hide hair, neck or ears. The only body part mentioned in the verse that has be concealed is the bosom, which was an apt instruction for that time given the above description of how the khimar was worn at that time and as history shows that when the pre-Islamic Arabs went to battle, Arab women seeing the men off to war would bare their breasts to encourage them to fight; or they would do so at the battle itself, as in the case of the Meccan women led by Hind at the Battle of Uhud[25].


Moiz Amjad writes in Understanding Islam website:


“A close examination of the related verse of Surah Al-Nur shows that the directive entailed in it is for women to cover their bosoms. ‘Khimar’ is only referred in this verse as a possible 'tool' for covering their bosoms. A woman who uses any other piece of cloth for this purpose would be said to have carried out the directive of the Shari`ah[26].” This point is further substantiated by the fact that in verse 60 of Surah Al-Nur, where the Qur'an has allowed older women to be less careful in covering their bosoms, it has used the word "Thiyaab" - implying any piece of cloth that may have been used for the stated purpose. It is clear that had the Qur'an required women to cover their heads, it would then have given an express directive to the effect.”[27]

In his book ‘Arab Dress: A Short History - from the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times’, Yedidia Kalfon has  extensively provided a description of the dress worn by Arabs before and during the life of the Prophet PBUH and has used sources including the ahadith to validate his understanding. He explains that although some wraps and mantles at this time seem to have been associated with one sex or the other, the jilbab, khimar and mirt, on the other hand were primarily for women. A common head veil was the mandil or mindil while the three most common face veils were the qina, litham and burqu. Although a detailed description of each type of veil is provided, the description of the khimar is missing and it has been included as a mantle or wrap rather than listed as a common head veil worn by the women during the era. Therefore the description of the khimar as a veil used only to cover the head feels incorrect and the description from other historical sources as a cloth that was loosely thrown at the back seems more appropriate. The present day understanding of ‘khimar’ is purely as a head cover and it is interesting to keep in mind that all the material we have on the pre-Islamic period dates from at least a century after the Prophet’s PBUH death and was written down by Muslim men[28].  The history and true description of the khimar is uncertain and it would be safe to assume the true meaning of the word as a simple cover used as a adornment rather than as a head cover. This would imply that the directive of Surah Nur to simply cover the bosom with any cover and does not oblige women to also cover their hair.


4.Juyūbihinna (جُيُوبهِنَّ): The Arabic word ‘Juyubihinna’ means bosoms as derived by ‘juyub’ that is plural noun for genitive masculine and ‘bihinna’ that is the 3rd person feminine plural possessive pronoun. Therefore clearly the directive here is to use ‘Khimar’ to cover the bosoms and it would be incorrect to add bodies, faces and necks to the meaning of this. However we see that Shaykh Muhammad Al Munajjid from the Islam Q&A website provides the following translation:


“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)…”[29]




Shaykh Muhammad further supports his understanding with the below hadith:


“Aisha used to say: "When (the Verse): They should draw their jalabib over their necks and bosoms was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces." Sahih Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number #282


In light of the above hadith, Shaykh Muhammad says: “This hadeeth clearly states that what the Sahaabi women mentioned here understood from this verse – “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” – was that they were to cover their faces, and that they tore their garments and covered their faces with them, in obedience to the command of Allaah in the verse where He said “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” which meant covering their faces. Thus the fair-minded person will understand that woman’s observing hijab and covering her face in front of men is established in the saheeh Sunnah that explains the Book of Allaah.”[30]


A review of this hadith from Aisha (RA) shows that there are several versions of the same hadith in Bukhari, Muslim and even other hadith books with varying words. For example:


“Narrated Aisha: May Allah have mercy on the early emigrant women. When the verse "That they should extend their headcoverings (khumur) to cover their bosoms" was revealed, they tore their murut and used this as khimar (ikhtamarna bi ha).” Sunan Abu Dawud Book 32 #4091


“May Allah have mercy on the early emigrant women (Muhajirun). When the verse ‘That they should draw their head veils over their bosoms’ [24:31] was revealed, they tore their thick outer garments and made veils from them. And when the verse ‘That they should cast their outer garments over themselves’ [33:59] was revealed, the women of the Muhajirun came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing outer garments.” [Abu Dawud[31]


The three quoted versions of the same saying of Aisha (RA) show that the verse she is referencing to in this hadith is debatable. The two later versions also do not show her words to indicate that face covering was followed after the revelation of the verse. If one compares the first version of the hadith to the other two quoted the implication from the hadith changes. Further several sources of history (as referred to in other parts of this report) further support that only the wives of the Prophet PBUH observed a complete veil during his lifetime. All other authentic ahadith showed as proof for face covering by orthodox scholars clearly speak of the Prophet’s PBUH wives observing this form of the veil and there are no further instances reported that show face covering was observed by other Muslim women during this era. This is further supported by Al Mujahab in his article ‘What is the final rule on Hijab’ that states:


“There are four sahih hadiths[32] all dated after the revelation of both Surah al-Ahzab ayah 59 and Surah an-Nur ayah 31 that clearly show women in front of the Prophet (sAas) with unveiled faces and he allowed it. This must necessarily mean that Surah an-Nur ayah 31 is the final rule, since it is the ayah that allows display of the face and hands.”[33]

Having discussed the above parts of the verse from Surah Nur that are widely debated, I will now list the other parts of this verse that are clear. These are:


Modesty: The essence of the verse clearly highlights the importance of observing modesty in interaction with the opposite sex that must be observed in dress and behaviour. It is not only vital to behave and dress in a manner to avoid attracting attention to ones self but one must also observe modesty in the gaze as well. The expression does not mean that men and women should not look at each other or have to constantly stare at the floor while interacting with one another. It means to guard one’s gaze from taking undue liberty and to refrain from staring at one another[34]. The preceding verses to the one given above refer to men and it is clear from these verses, as summed up by Abdullah Rahim on the Al-Mawrid website that:


“Both men and women are instructed and advised to be modest in their attitude and behaviour in particular when interacting with the opposite sex. As long as this modesty is in place, the form with which the person appears or behaves does not matter.”[35]


Covering Hair & Face: There is no mention of hair and covering of head, hair or face in this verse or anywhere else in the Quran. Although some orthodox scholars believe that head hair are a sign of beauty and therefore must be hidden to that effect but the logic of hair showing from a women’s scarf do not go against the ruling of the Quran. Similarly the use of the word ‘khumar’ to imply that hair is automatically included when covering ones bosom cannot be substantiated from historical fact and the use of khimar during the life of the Prophet PBUH. This is further supported by the fact that Muslim women other than Prophet’s PBUH wives did not veil during the life of the Prophet PBUH.


Let us now review some conclusions from different scholars. In his book ‘Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam, Madudi represents the view on face covering and hijab. He uses different ahadith to show that except for the face and the hands the whole female body is included in Satr (clothing parts) which a woman must conceal in her house even from the nearest relatives.[36] The source of this opinion is based purely on different ahadith, as we have reviewed above one does not find such a reference in the Quran. With regards to face covering, Madudi uses verse 33:59 (verse revealed in response to harassment of Muslim women by hypocrites) to say that the verse enjoins Muslim women of all times to cover their face as a religious obligation. In his argument, it is surprising to note that he sites several quotations from the time of the Companions of the Holy Prophet, down to the eight century, to show that it is not obligatory to cover the face. He then provides certain ahadith that state that since Muslim women of that period had started wearing the veil, the practise of moving about with the uncovered face was discarded. His explanation for the Holy Prophet PBUH forbidding women to wear the veil over their faces and gloves on their hands in Ihram (dress for pilgrimage)[37] is not a prohibition to make an open show of their faces during Hajj but actually is aimed to prohibit them from making the veil a part of the pilgrim’s dress as they usually made it. Madudi further comments on the covering of hair:


“A person who considers carefully the words of the Quranic verse, their well-known and generally accepted meaning and the practice during the time of the Holy Prophet, cannot dare deny the fact that the Islamic Shari’ah enjoins upon the woman to hide her face from the other people, and this has been the practice of the Muslim women ever since the time of the Holy Prophet himself. Though the veil has not been specified in the Qur’an, it is Quranic in spirit. The Muslim women living at the time of the Holy Prophet to whom the Qur’an was revealed had made it a regular part of their dress outside the house, and even at that time it was called Niqab the veil.”[38]


Madudi does not refer to any sources of history other than some ahadith to support the above stance. As these ahadith are not from Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim therefore there is a question regarding their authenticity. We have also seen through several other sources and even more reliable ahadith that the history of veiling pre and post the life of the Prophet PBUH was very different from that of the view held by Madudi. Therefore this opinion can be considered weak given that the sources Madudi provides are contradictory, not very reliable and portray a  different view to that substantiated by other sources of history.


Scholars like Zin al-Din, al-Ghazali and Abu Shiqa find that in many countries very weak and unreliable sayings of the Prophet are invented to support customs and traditions which are then considered to be part of the shari'ah. In his scholarly study of women in Islam entitled Tahrir al-mara'a fi 'asr al-risalah (The Emancipation of Women during the Time of the Prophet), Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa argues that it is the Islamic duty of women to participate in public life and in spreading good (Sura Tauba, Aya 71). He also agrees with Zin al-Din and Ghazali that hijab was for the wives of the Prophet PBUH and that it was against Islam for women to imitate the wives of the Prophet. If women were to be totally covered, why did God ask both men and women to lower their gaze?[39]


A review of the ahadith included in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim for veiling and hijab does not provide any substantial proof to suggest that the Prophet PBUH instructed veiling (in any form) to the ordinairy Muslim woman. It is clear from certain ahadith that the term ‘taking the veil’ was used for the Prophet PBUH’s wives and there are several incidences reported about use of the veil by his wives only. For ordinary women there are no reported incidences showing that the Prophet PBUH instructed Muslim women to take up the veil or any other form of covering. In one such reported incident in Bukhari, clarification is sought from the Prophet PBUH for menstruating women and unveiled women who were restricted to attend the mosque on occasion of Eid. In this instance the Prophet PBUH allowed the menstruating women to attend the religious gathering and asked the unveiled woman to share the veil of another while in attendance. The background and relevance of this hadith is not mentioned for further understanding of the event but it clearly shows that culturally there was a restriction imposed on women and even then the Prophet PBUH made it easier for them not to be confined in their homes by suggesting an alternate. This cannot be taken as a compulsion or religious obligation imposed by the Prophet PBUH.


Conclusively, the use of the veil and segregation practises during the life of the Prophet PBUH show that although these practices were commonplace in the Christian Middle East and Mediterranean regions, their influence and role in the lives of ordinary Muslim women remained limited. In fact, the wives of the Prophet PBUH were the only women required to take up the complete veil and go into segregation and that too only towards the end of the his life while Muslim women in general still mingled freely with men. There was also not one type of head veil and both men and women during this era would cover their head or face in different manners dictated more by culture and social status rather than as a religious obligation.



Hijab after the life of the Prophet PBUH:


Five years after the first verses on veiling were revealed; the Islamic community faced unsettling times with the death of the Prophet PBUH in 632. The new Islamic society was ruled in succession by four of his close companions, chosen by the people. The treatment of women during the rule of the four Caliphs (632-61) is seen to vary with the circumstances during that time and personal preferences. For instance, it is reported that while Prophet Muhammad PBUH during his lifetime and the first caliph Abu Bakr (R.A) allowed women to attend mosques for prayers, Umar (R.A) forbade women to do so.[40] The spread of Islam to well-established areas with patriarchal cultures like Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, sees the deterioration of status and freedom enjoyed by women during the Prophet’s PBUH life and even before Islam. Within a period of hundred years after the Prophet’s PBUH death one sees the inclusion of Christian concepts in Islamic literature that lower the status of women, concepts like Eve was created from Adam’s rib, are those not found in the Quran.


By 656 the caliphs’ armies had conquered all the Sasanian Empire, which centred on Iran, and much of the Byzantine Near East, including greater Syria, Egypt and much of North Africa.[41] It is not exactly known how the customs of veiling and seclusion of women spread to the rest of the increasing Islamic community. However the Muslim conquests of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Prophet Muhammad’s PBUH wives being taken as role models probably combined to bring about their general adoption.[42] Some writers like Fatima Mernissi contend that it was only well after Prophet Muhammad’s PBUH death that the veil became a commonplace item of clothing among Muslim upper-class women, who began to veil as a sign of status following the example of the Prophet’s wives.


One opinion is that with Islam's expansion into areas formerly part of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, the early Medinan community came face to face with alien social structures and traditions deeply rooted in the conquered populations. The tradition of veiling seclusion of women was amongst these traditions that was assimilated into Islamic life and with this grew the need to shape the normative interpretations of Quranic gender laws to fit the existing society. The Prophet's wives were recognized as models for emulation (sources of Sunna) and while the scholars provided information on the Prophet's wives in terms of, as well as for, an ideal of Muslim female morality, the Qur'anic directives addressed to the Prophet's consorts were naturally seen as applicable to all Muslim women.[43] Some scholars argue that those who imitate the wives of the Prophet PBUH and wear the hijab are disobeying God’s will, for as per the Quran[44]:


“O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women.”33: 32


It is also interesting to note that the observance of the veil by the Prophet PBUH’s wives was in full i.e. they were completely covered and remained in seclusion. Therefore any form of imitation of the Prophet’s PBUH wives is not followed by observing the present day hijab.


The veil has always been associated with the upper classes of society and it was only in the second Islamic century that the veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status of symbol. We find that for women belonging to rural areas along with nomadic women, the majority of the population were not veiled. The primary reason for this could be that for a woman to assume a protective veil and stay primarily within the house was a sign that her family had the means to enable her to do so.

Since nomad women rarely veiled, in the early stages of those Islamic countries with nomadic roots, women often were allowed to go unveiled, even in town. In the years of the early Safavid dynasty, women were unveiled, although the custom was changed by late Safavid times. Among the Turks, who came into Anatolia as nomads, Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century saw what he called a "remarkable thing. The Turkish women do not veil themselves. Not only royal ladies but also wives of merchants and common people will sit in a wagon drawn by horses. The windows are open and their faces are visible."[45] Ibn Battuta’s astonishment at the act of not veiling serves to show the difference in thought that existed between different Islamic societies even then.


The exact timing that the term and also the application of the ‘hijab’, as understood during the life of the Prophet PBUH, changed to its current form in Islamic interpretation is unknown. Looking at this change on a scriptural level we see that both the verses in Al Ahzab (verse applicable to all women using the word ‘jalābībihinna’ or understood as jilabab) and Al Nur (that uses the word ‘khimar’) became associated with hijab. Secondly, the purpose of hijab for seclusion changed to associate the word with clothing items to be worn in public (jilbab, khimar). Medieval scholars debated hotly on which parts of the woman’s body or ‘awra’ (literally “genital”) could be legally exposed to nonrelatives and often paired ‘awra’ with this generic ‘hijab’.  According to Barbara Freyer Stowasser in ‘Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation’:


“At present we know very little about the precise stages of the process by which the hijab in its multiple meanings was made obligatory for Muslim women at large, except to say that these occurred during the first centuries after the expansion of Islam beyond the borders of Arabia, and then mainly in the Islamicized societies still ruled by pre-existing (Sasanian and Byzantine) social traditions.”


The mid-eight century saw the rise of the Iraq-based Abbasid state grow into a religious establishment entrusted with the formulation of Islamic law and morality and, it was they who interpreted the Quranic rules on women’s dress and space that reflected the real practises and cultural assumption of their place and age[46]. With the confirmation of the four orthodox schools of Islamic thought (madhahib) in the tenth century the veil became a common rule to be followed.[47] However even among these four schools of law, differences of opinion on the legal limits of the hijab garment survived and continued for the later scholars of Islam. While the Shafiites and Hanbalities considered the entire body including face, hands and below the ankles were to be covered, Malikites and Hanfites considered face and hands as excluded from covering.[48] Nikki R.R. Keddie in ‘Women in the Middle East: Past to Present’ states that it is this point in history that according to most scholars, the consensus of legal scholars established that the elaboration of law was complete and “the door of ijtihad” was closed. She further states that:


“It remains true that freedom of thought and novel ideas declined after the tenth century, along with some socioeconomic decline, and that law became more rigid than it had earlier.”[49] 


As Islam spread to far away regions, the act and way of veiling changed further forms. In India, for example, the complete seclusion of women came into effect under the Purdah system. The hijab reappeared in 1970 at universities in Cairo and Morocco. Later, young and educated girls started to dress more conservatively as a way to assert their identity and we see this new form of hijab returning in Tunisia in 1975, and a few years later was considered an exclusive symbol of the Islamist movement[50]. Lyn Reese writes in her article, “Historical Perspectives on Islamic Dress,” explains the growth of hijab:


“The real surge toward donning hijab came with Iran's revolution. Women were seen as key elements in achieving changes in public morality and private behaviour. Unveiled women were mocked, called unchaste "painted dolls," and were punished if they appeared in public without proper covering. In countries beyond Iran in the 1970s, demonstrations and sit-ins appeared over opposition to the required western style dress code for university students and civil servants.”[51]

We also see the need to establish self identity in European history and Viviane Teitelbaum describes this change well in ‘The European Veil Debate’:


“The reasons for taking up and defending the hijab in Europe at the end of the twentieth century were mainly the growing reaffirmation of a religious identity and the rejection of values and styles perceived as Western. Using religious traditions as a pretext, political Islam provided responses to the problem of integration and hatred of the West. Modernization and Western values were seen as negative. Wearing the hijab came to symbolize its uniqueness and superiority. With the trend to revive or create Islamist movements, through the authority of the husband, father, or brother, girls were secluded; equal rights for women were suppressed; the wearing of the scarf was imposed; and young girls were often forced into prearranged marriages.” [52]


We find a similar theme in Asia, the monograph on ‘The Hijab’ by Abu al-A’a al-Madudi stresses that in order to avoid the tragic societal consequences of the secularization of culture as it had occurred in the West, preventive measures in the Islamic world required that it returned to Islamic social system of which women’s segregation was the main feature. This focus on establishment of an Islamic identity and rejection of Western values has a close relationship to the history of European imperialism in the Islamic world. The other contributing factor was the inviolability of maintaining women in their homes as it became increasingly important for them to contribute to household incomes. Interestingly as highlighted by Leila Ahmed in her book ‘Women and Gender in Islam’, the focus of this debate remained on women’s issues, especially female domestic seclusion and the veil, as symbol of the validity and dignity of Muslim tradition as a whole.[53] While the linkage of women and culture continues as a dominating theme in Muslim religious theory, socioeconomic changes have now also left their mark on the precise “meaning” of the hijab in its practical, although not is symbolic, term.[54]


The famed Quran translator, Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, sums the history of veiling in his 1925 lecture The Relation of the Sexes:

“..the Purdah system is neither of Islamic nor Arabian origin. It is of Zoroastrian Persian, and Christian Byzantine origin. It has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, and, for practical reasons, it has never been adopted by the great majority of Muslim women....The Purdah system is not a part of the Islamic law. It is a custom of the court introduced after the Khilafat had degenerated from the true Islamic standard and, under Persian and Byzantine influences had become mere Oriental despotism. It comes from the source of weakness to Islam not from the source of strength."[55]





The history of the veil, in particular the rise of the hijab, and the transformation of its meaning and use over the ages is a fascinating one. The debate about veiling continues in the Islamic world with differences in opinion on the different levels of covering that are considered to be the most authentic religious obligation.


Those that enforce the complete veil, including the face, see the verse from Surah Nur as an instruction to cover the entire body. They also interpret the verses from Surah Al Ahzab to be applicable to all Muslim women at all times and do not see them as being specific to the wives of the Prophet PBUH or as a means to avoid harassment only. Reliable ahadith are used to further support this interpretation from the Prophet PBUH’s era when all women used their jilbabs to cover their faces and bodies to distinguish themselves as Muslim women to avoid harassment.


Those that state the hijab is obligatory and state face covering is not, use ahadith to support their claim that women other than the Prophet’s PBUH wives would move around with faces uncovered. They further state because women are prohibited from covering their face in hajj and while praying therefore the obligation for covering cannot include face cover. These scholars support their stance based on the need for the commandment to lower ones gaze if everything is supposed to be covered. Therefore for those that encourage the hijab, the religious obligation for veiling is specific only to the woman’s hair, ears and neck.


Some Islamic scholars say that veiling in any form is not a religious obligation[56]. This view is based on the fact that veiling during the time of the Prophet PBUH was not just specific to women only but also men given the cultural and environmental needs of the society. The verses of complete seclusion are applicable to only the wives of the Prophet PBUH who were the only Muslim women to adhere to this practise during his lifetime. Further, the verse from Surah Al Ahzab directed to all women was revealed as a safe guard measure to stop harassment of the Muslim women rather than a directive to observe at all times. Lastly, this view is supported by the fact the Quran does not specify the requirement to hide hair or face as a part of body covering.


In my view those enforcing the hijab but providing justification that face covering is not allowed stand on the weakest footing amongst all opinions. If verses from Al Ahzab that were revealed in response to the actions by hypocrites are to be deemed applicable to all times and the interpretation of the verse from Surah Al Nur is to be taken as an implication to avoid display of beauty then one cannot differentiate between the face and hair in any logical manner. The interpretation of the word khimar as used in Surah Nur for covering ones bosoms is taken as a directive to automatically assume that head covering is also an instruction. Even with this justification the hiding of hair cannot be derived as an instruction as this was not the intent of the khimar, proven by its historical use. The purpose of covering ones head can easily be achieved by loose cloth rather than a tightly bound hijab. Furthermore if one is to emulate the Prophet PBUHs wives then again the act of complete seclusion is the only alternative.


A review of history and the arguments presented in this report show that covering the face or hair can not be considered a religious obligation or a directive that is specified in the Quran or through reliable ahadith. The verses of hijab that refer to seclusion and veiling were meant only for Prophet Muhammad’s PBUH wives, and were intended to maintain their inviolability. As we have seen in this report that by instituting seclusion the Prophet PBUH was creating a distance between his wives and a thronging community on their doorstep. It is evident from citations and interpretations of simple Arabic words that we see society’s fixation with control and absorption of other cultures that scholars started to interpret Quranic verses differently. Further with the growing need to establish ones identity and clearly exhibit the rejection of western influences do we see the affirmation of the hijab in the 1970’s as a cultural symbol of the Muslim woman. It is a sad reality that with the manipulation of history and dependence on sources with weak validity that we find that the values of modesty emphasised by Quranic verses now hold less importance than mere physical attributes such as hair.


It is worth mentioning here that women observing either form of covering may find it to be their own personal way of achieving closeness to God. If it helps one achieve their goal of observing modesty then it is truly a noble act. Today the hijab stands as the cultural identity of a Muslim women and is strictly enforced in several Islamic countries as a religious obligation. Special emphasis is laid on even a single hair showing from the head covering with supposed harsh repercussions in the after life. However the use of the hijab during the Prophet’s PBUH life and its observance as a religious obligation during that era stands as a stark contrast to the significance attached to hijab today.


I would like to conclude this report with the following verse which is self explanatory:


“Ask them: "Who forbids you attire that God has given to His creatures, and the good things that He has provided?" Tell them: "They are (meant) for believers in the world, and will be theirs on the Day of Judgement." That is how We explain Our signs to those who know. Tell them: "My Lord has forbidden repugnant acts, whether open or disguised, sin and unjust oppression, associating others with God, of which He has sent down no authority, and saying things of God of which you have no knowledge." Surah 7:32-33 (Ahmed Ali Translation).







[1] Verses 7:46, 19:17, 41:5, 42:51, 38:32, 17:45 and 33:53

[2] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992

[3]  FadwaEl Guindi 1999:14

[4] Viviane Teitelbaum , The European Veil Debate, available online at: http://israelcfr.com/documents/5-1/5-1-5-VivianeTeitelbaum.pdf

[5] Alexandra Kinias ‘History of Veil: Veil in the Ancient World’, available online at


[6] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992

[7]‘ Alexandra Kinias, History of Veil: Veil in Pre-Islamic Arabia’, available online at:


[8] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992

[9] Maududi’s commentary on Surag Al-A’raf, available online at http://theonlyquran.com/quran/Al-A'raf/Maududi_Commentry


[10] Yedidia Kalfon Stillman, Norman A., Arab Dress: A Short History: from the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times, P. 10, available online at: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RBIOC40E6FcC&lpg=PA7&ots=kbX0wMTcK9&dq=pre%20islamic%20dress&pg=PA10#v=onepage&q&f=false

[11] Nikki R. Keddie, Women in the Middle East: A History, available on at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lEe_xK8KFXIC&q=tenth#v=snippet&q=tenth&f=false

[13] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992

[14] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992

[15] Barbara Freyer Stowasser.: Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, Oxford University Press. 1994. P. 92 available online at:


[16] Recorded incident from several ahadith including Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 517, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 314, 315, 316 and 317


[17] Ibn Katheer, Tafsiīr al-Qur’ān al-Azīm, vol. 3 (Beirut: Dār al-Ihyā’ wa al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, 1969), 518; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāff, 1st ed.,vol. 3 (Beirut: Dār al-Ihyā al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, 1997), 569

[19]Ibn Katheer, Tafsiīr al-Qur’ān al-Azīm, translated by Muhammad Saed Abdul-Rahman, 2009, part 18, page 95. MSA publication available online from: http://books.google.co.uk/

[20] Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali.: Sunna Between Fiqh and Hadith (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, 7th edition, 1990), available online at: http://www.islamfortoday.com/syed01.htm

[21] Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. The Social Sharia, July 2008, available online at http://www.monthly-renaissance.com/issue/content.aspx?id=870

[22] An Islamic Perspective on Women’s Dress by Muslim Women’s League, available online at http://www.mwlusa.org/topics/dress/hijab.html


[23] Translated and explained by Muhammad Asad. The Message of the Qur'an. Dar al-Andalus, Gibraltar. 1984. p.538, available online at: http://www.islamfortoday.com/syed01.htm

[24] A Study of Surah an-Nur, Ayah 31 by Al Muhajabah, available online at http://www.muhajabah.com/surah-an-nur.htm

[25] Cyril Glassé, Huston Smith, The New Encyclopaedia of Islam 

[26] Shari`ah is the code of conduct or religious law of Islam

[28] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992, pg 46.

[32] Sahih Muslim Book 4 #1926, Bukhari Book 54 #515, Sahih Bukhari Book 74 #247 and Silsilat al-Ahadith as-Sahih #3472

[33]What is the final rule on Hijab’ by Al Mujahab, available online at:


[34] Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. The Social Sharia, July 2008, available online at http://www.monthly-renaissance.com/issue/content.aspx?id=870

[36] Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, Purdah, Veil and the Status of Women in Islam, translated by Al-Ash’Ari,  available online at: http://jamaatwomen.org/images/library/e-library_purdah.pdf

[37] see Mu’atta and other collections of Hadith like the books of Abu Da’ud and Tirmizi

[38] Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, Purdah, Veil and the Status of Women in Islam, translated by Al-Ash’Ari,  available online at: http://jamaatwomen.org/images/library/e-library_purdah.pdf

[39] Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa Tahrir al-mara'a fi 'asr al-risalah (The Emancipation of Women during the Time of the Prophet), available online at: http://www.islamfortoday.com/syed01.htm

[40] Ibn Sa’ad (8:335), Ibn Sa’d, Muhammad Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, 9 vols. E.J. Brill (1904-40)

[41] Nikki R. Keddie, Women in the Middle East: A History, available on at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lEe_xK8KFXIC&q=tenth#v=snippet&q=tenth&f=false

[42] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992

[43] Barbara Freyer Stowasser.: Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, Oxford University Press. 1994. P. 92, available online at:


[44] Bouthaina Shaaban. The Muted Voices of Women Interpreters. In Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World, Mahnaz Afkhami (Editor). I. B. Tauris Publishers, New York, 1995. p.72.

[45]Lyn Reese, “Historical Perspectives on Islamic Dress,” Women in World History website, available on at http://ww.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-01.html.

[46] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992 (pages 79-101)

[47] Viviane Teitelbaum, The European Veil Debate, available online at: http://israelcfr.com/documents/5-1/5-1-5-VivianeTeitelbaum.pdf

[48] Darwish Mustafa Hasan, Fasl al-kbitabfi mas'alat al-hijab wal-niqab (Cairo: Dar al-i'tisarn, 1987), P. 51.

[49] Nikki R. Keddie, Women in the Middle East: A History, available on at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lEe_xK8KFXIC&q=tenth#v=snippet&q=tenth&f=false

[50] Viviane Teitelbaum, The European Veil Debate, available online at: http://israelcfr.com/documents/5-1/5-1-5-VivianeTeitelbaum.pdf


[51] Lyn Reese, “Historical Perspectives on Islamic Dress,” Women in World History website, available online at www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-01.html

[52] Viviane Teitelbaum, The European Veil Debate, available online at: http://israelcfr.com/documents/5-1/5-1-5-VivianeTeitelbaum.pdf

[53] Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University press, 1992 (pages 164)

[54] Barbara Freyer Stowasser.: Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, Oxford University Press. 1994, available online at:


[55] Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, 1925 lecture on the "Pitiful condition of Muslim womanhood", available online at:


[56] Includes scholars like Javed Ahmed Ghamidi

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