Women in Islam: Hijab

by Ibrahim B. Syed

Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed is President of the Islamic Research Foundation, and a Professor at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

Literally, hijab means "a veil," "curtain," "partition" or "separation." In a meta-physical sense, hijab means illusion, or refers to the illusory aspect of creation. The most popular and common meaning of hijab today, is the veil in dressing for women. It refers to a certain standard of modest dress for women. The usual definition of modest dress according to the legal systems, does not actually require covering everything except the face and hands in public; this, at least, is the practice which originated in the Middle East.1

While hijab means "cover," "drape," or "partition;" the word khimar means veil covering the head, and the word litham or niqab means veil covering the lower face up to the eyes. The general term hijab in the present day world refers to the covering of the face by women. In the Indian sub-continent it is called purdah, and in Iran it called chador, because of the tent like black cloak and veil worn by many women in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. By socioeconomic necessity, the obligation to observe the hijab now often applies more to female "garments" (worn outside the house), than it does to the ancient paradigmatic feature of women's domestic seclusion. In the contemporary, normative Islamic language of Egypt and elsewhere, the hijab now denotes more a "way of dressing" than a "way of life," a (portable) "veil" rather than a fixed "domestic screen / seclusion."

In Egypt and America, hijab presently denotes the basic head covering ("veil") worn by fundamentalist / Islamist women, as part of the Islamic dress (zayy islami, or zayy shar`i). This hijab-headcovering conceals the hair and neck of the wearer.

The Qur'an advises the wives of the Prophet (s.a.a.w) to go veiled (33:59). In Surah 24: ayah 31, the Qur'an advises women to cover their "adornments" from strangers outside of the family. In the traditional and modern Arab societies, women at home dress quite differently compared to what they wear in the streets. In this verse of the Qur'an, it refers to the institution of a new public modesty, rather than veiling the face.

...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 Makkan women, led by Hind at the Battle of Uhud. This changed with Islam, but the general use of the veil to cover the face did not appear until 'Abbasid times. Nor was it entirely unknown in Europe, for the veil permitted women the freedom of anonymity. None of the legal systems actually prescribe that women must wear a veil, although they do prescribe covering the body in public, up to the neck, ankles, and below the elbow. In many Muslim societies, for example in traditional South East Asia, or in Bedouin lands, a face veil for women is either rare or nonexistent. Paradoxically, modern fundamentalism is introducing it. In others, the veil may be used at one time, and European dress at another. While modesty is a religious prescription, the wearing of a veil is not a religious requirement of Islam, but a matter of cultural milieu.2

The Middle Eastern norm for relationships between the sexes is by no means the only one possible for Islamic societies everywhere, nor is it appropriate for all cultures. It does not exhaust the possibilities allowed within the framework of the Qur'an and Sunnah, and is neither feasible nor desirable as a model for Europe or North America. European societies possess perfectly adequate models for marriage, the family, and relations between the sexes, which are by no means out of harmony with the Qur'an and the Sunnah. This is borne out by the fact that within certain broad limits, Islamic societies themselves differ enormously in this respect.3

The Qur'an lays down the principle of the law of modesty. In Surah 24: An-Nur: 30 and 31, modesty is enjoined upon both Muslim men and Muslim women:4

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: and they should not display beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they must draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husband's sons, or their men, or their 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 ornaments."

The following conclusions may be made on the basis of the above-cited verses.5

  1. The Qur'anic injunctions enjoining the believers to lower their gaze and behave modestly applies to both Muslim men and women, and not Muslim women alone.
  2. Muslim women are enjoined to "draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty," except in the presence of their husbands, other women, children, eunuchs, and those men who are so closely related to them that they are not allowed to marry them. Although a self-conscious exhibition of one's "zeenat" (which means "that which appears to be beautiful" or "that which is used for embellishment or adornment") is forbidden, the Qur'an makes it clear that what a woman wears ordinarily is permissible. Another interpretation of this part of the passage is that if the display of "zeenat" is unintentional or accidental, it does not violate the law of modesty.
  3. Although Muslim women may wear ornaments, they should not walk in a manner intended to cause their ornaments to jingle, and thus attract the attention of others.

The respected scholar, Muhammad Asad, commenting on the Qur'an 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 let down loosely over the wearer's back. In accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, and 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. Rather, it is 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.

The Qur'anic view of the ideal society is that the social and moral values have to be upheld by both Muslim men and women, and there is justice for all, i.e. between man and man and between man and woman. The Qur'anic legislation regarding women is to protect them from inequities and vicious practices (such as female infanticide, unlimited polygamy, or concubinage, etc.), which prevailed in the pre-Islamic Arabia. However, the main purpose is to establish the equality of man and woman in the sight of God, who created them both in like manner, from like substance, and gave to both the equal right to develop their own potentialities. To become a free, rational person is then the goal set for all human beings. Thus, the Qur'an liberated the women from the indignity of being sex objects into persons. In turn, the Qur'an asks women that they should behave with dignity and decorum, which is befitting a secure, self-respecting, and self-aware human being. This, as opposed to an insecure female, who felt that her survival depended on her ability to attract or cajole those men who were interested not in her personality, but only in her sexuality.

One of the verses in the Qur'an protects a woman's fundamental rights. Ayah 59 from Surah Al-Ahzab reads:

"O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when outside): that they should be known (as such) and not molested." 6

Although this verse is directed in the first place to the Prophet's "wives and daughters," there is a reference also to "the believing women." Hence, it is generally understood by Muslim societies as applying to all Muslim women. According to the Qur'an, the reason why Muslim women should wear an outer garment when they go out of their houses is so that they may be recognized as "believing" Muslim women, and differentiated from street-walkers for whom sexual harassment is an occupational hazard. The purpose of this verse was not to confine women to their houses, but to make it safe for them to go about their daily business without attracting unwholesome attention. By wearing the outer garment, a "believing" Muslim woman could be distinguished from the others. In societies where there is no danger of believing Muslim being confused with others, or in which "the outer garment" is unable to function as a mark of identification for believing Muslim women, the mere wearing of the outer garment would not fulfill the true objective of the Qur'anic decree. For example, that older Muslim women who are "past the prospect of marriage" are not required to wear "the outer garment." Surah 24: An-Nur, Ayah 60 reads:

"Such elderly women who are past the prosect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is the One who sees and knows all things."

Women who, on account of their advanced age are not likely to be regarded as sex-objects, are allowed to discard the outer garment, but there is no relaxation as far as the essential Qur'anic principle of modest behavior is concerned. Reflection on the above-cited verse shows that the outer garment is not required by the Qur'an as a necessary expression of modesty, since it recognizes the possibility that women may continue to be modest even when they have discarded the outer garment.

The Qur'an itself does not suggest either that women should be veiled, or that they should be kept apart from the world of men. On the contrary, the Qur'an is insistent on the full participation of women in society, and in the religious practices prescribed for men.

Nazira Zin Ad-Din stipulates that the morality of the self and the cleanliness of the conscience are far better than the morality of the chador. No goodness is to be hoped for from pretence, all goodness is in the essence of the self. Zin ad-Din also argues that imposing the veil on women is the ultimate proof that men suspect their mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters of being potential traitors to them. This means that men suspect "the women closest and dearest to them." How can society trust women with the most consequential job of bringing up children, when it does not trust them with their faces and bodies? How can Muslim men meet rural and European women who are not veiled and treat them respectfully, but not treat urban Muslim women in the same way?7

She concludes this part of the book "As-Sufur Wa'l-Hijab"8 by stating that it is not an Islamic duty on Muslim women to wear the hijab. If Muslim legislators have decided that it is, their opinions are wrong. If hijab is based on women's lack of intellect or piety, can it be said that all men are more perfect in piety and intellect than all women?9 The spirit of a nation and its civilization is a reflection of the spirit of the mother. How can any mother bring up distinguished children if she herself is deprived of her personal freedom? She concludes that in enforcing the hijab, society becomes a prisoner of its customs and traditions rather than Islam.

There are two ayat which are specifically addressed to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w), and not to other Muslim women. These are ayat 32 and 53 of Surah Al-Ahzab. "...And stay quietly in your houses," did not mean confinement of the wives of the Prophet or other Muslim women and make them inactive. Muslim women remained in mixed company with men until the late sixth century (A.H.) or eleventh century (C.E.). They received guests, held meetings, and went to wars helping their brothers and husbands defend their castles and bastions.10

Zin Ad-Din reviewed the interpretations of ayah 30 from Surah An-Nur and ayah 59 from Surah Al-Ahzab, which were cited above by Al-Khazin, An-Nafasi, Ibn Masud, Ibn Abbas, and At-Tabari, and found them full of contradictions. Almost all interpreters agreed that women should not veil their faces and their hands. Anyone who advocated that women should cover all of their bodies, including their faces, could not base his argument on any religious text. If women were to be totally covered, there would have been no need for the ayat addressed to Muslim men: "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." (Surah An-Nur, Ayah 30). She supports her views by referring to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w), always taking into account what the Prophet himself said: "I did not say a thing that is not in harmony with God's book." 11 God says: "O consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women." (Al-Ahzab, Ayah 53). Thus, it is very clear that God did not want women to measure themselves against the wives of the Prophet, and wear hijab like them, and there is no ambiguity whatsoever regarding this ayah. Therefore, those who imitate the wives of the Prophet and wear hijab are disobeying God’s will.12

In "Islam: Ruh Al-Madaniyya" (Islam: The Spirit of Civilization) Shaykh Mustafa Ghalayini reminds his readers that veiling pre-dated Islam, and that Muslims learned from other peoples with whom they mixed. He adds that the hijab as it is known today is prohibited by the Islamic shari'a. Anyone who looks at hijab as it is worn by some women would find that it makes them more desirable, than if they went out without the hijab.13 Zin Ad-Din points out that veiling was a custom of rich families as a symbol of status. She quotes Shaykh Abdul Qadir Al-Maghribi, who also saw in hijab an aristocratic habit to distinguish the women of rich and prestigious families from other women. She concludes that hijab as it is known today is prohibited by the Islamic shari'a.14

Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali in his book "Sunna between Fiqh and Hadith"15 declares that those who claim that women's reform is conditioned by wearing the veil are lying to God and his Prophet. He expresses the opinion that the contemptuous view of women has been passed on from the first jahiliya (the pre-Islamic period) to the Islamic society. Al-Ghazali's argument is that Islam has made it compulsory on women not to cover their faces during hajj and salat (prayer), the two important pillars of Islam. How then could Islam ask women to cover their faces at ordinary times?16 Al-Ghazali is a believer and is confident that all traditions that function to keep women ignorant and prevent them from functioning in public are the remnants of jahiliya, and that following them is contrary to the spirit of Islam. Al-Ghazali says that during the time of the Prophet, women were equals at home, in the mosques, and on the battlefield. Today, true Islam is being destroyed in the name of Islam.

Another Muslim scholar, Abd Al-Halim Abu Shiqa, wrote a 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).17 He agrees with Zin Ad-Din and Al-Ghazali about the discrepancy between the status of women during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and the status of women today. He says that Islamists have made up sayings which they attributed to the Prophet, such as "women are lacking in both intellect and religion," and in many cases they brought sayings which are not reliable at all, and promoted them among Muslims until they became part of the Islamic culture.

Like Zin Ad-Din and Al-Ghazali, Abu Shiqa finds 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'a. He araues that it is the Islamic duty of women to participate in public life and in spreading good (Surah Tauba, Ayah 71). He also agrees with Zin Ad-Din and Al-Ghazali that the hijab was for the wives of the Prophet, 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.(Surah An-Nur, Ayat 30-31).

The actual practice of veiling most likely came from areas captured in the initial spread of Islam such as Syria, Iraq, and Persia, and was adopted by upper-class urban women. Village and rural women traditionally have not worn the veil, partly because it would be an encumbrance in their work. It is certainly true that segregation of women in the domestic sphere took place increasingly as the Islamic centuries unfolded, with some very unfortunate consequences. Some women are again putting on clothing that identifies them as Muslim women. This phenomenon, which began only a few years ago, has manifested itself in a number of countries.

It is a growing feeling on the part of Muslim men and women that they no longer wish to identify with the West, and that reaffirmation of their identity as Muslims requires the kind of visible sign that adoption of conservative clothing implies. For these women, the issue is not that they have to dress conservatively, but that they choose to. In Iran, Imam Khomeini first insisted that women must wear the veil and chador. In response to large demonstrations by women, he modified his position and agreed that while the chador is not obligatory, modest dress is, including loose clothing, and non-transparent stockings and scarves.18

With Islam's expansion into areas formerly part of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, the scripture legislated social paradigm that had evolved in the early Madinan community came face to face with alien social structures and traditions deeply rooted in the conquered populations. Among the many cultural traditions assimilated and continued by Islam were the veiling and seclusion of women, at least among the urban upper and upper-middle classes. With these traditions' assumption into "the Islamic way of life," they of need helped to shape the normative interpretations of Qur'anic gender laws as formulated by the medieval (urbanized and acculturated) lawyer-theologians. In the latter's consensus-based prescriptive systems, the Prophet's wives were recognized as models for emulation (sources of Sunna). Thus, 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.19

Semantically and legally, that is, regarding both the terms and also the parameters of its application, Islamic interpretation extended the concept of hijab. In a scripturalist method, this was achieved in several ways. Firstly, the hijab was associated with two of the Qur'an's "clothing laws" imposed upon all Muslim females: "The mantle" verse of Q33:59 and the "modesty" verse of Q24:31. On the one hand, the semantic association of domestic segregation (hijab) with garments to be worn in public (jilbab, khimar), resulted in the use of the term hijab for concealing garments that women wore outside of their houses. This language use is fully documented in the medieval hadith.

However, unlike female garments such as jilbab, lihaf, milhafa, izar, dir' (traditional garments for the body), khimar, niqab, burqu', qina', miqna'a (traditional garments for the head and neck), and also a large number of other articles of clothing, the medieval meaning of hijab remained conceptual and generic. In their debates on which parts of the woman's body, if any, are not "awra" (literally, "genital," "pudendum"), and may therefore be legally exposed to non-relatives, the medieval scholars often contrastively paired a woman's "awra" with this generic hijab. This permitted the debate to remain conceptual, rather than get bogged down in the specifics of articles of clothing whose meaning, in any case, was prone to changes both geographic / regional, and also chronological.

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. It is known 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. With the rise of the Iraq-based Abbasid state in the mid-eighth century of the Western calendar, the lawyer-theologians of Islam grew into a religious establishment entrusted with the formulation of Islamic law and morality. It was they who interpreted the Qur'anic rules on women's dress and space in increasingly absolute and categorical fashion, reflecting the real practices and cultural assumptions of their place and age. Classical legal compendia, medieval hadith collections, and Qur'anic exegesis are here mainly formulations of the system "as established," and not of its developmental stages. Differences of opinion on the legal limits of the hijab garments survived, including among the doctrinal teachings of the four orthodox schools of law (madhahib).20

Attacked by foreigners and indigenous secularists alike, and defended by the many voices of conservatism, hijab has come to signify the sum total of traditional institutions governing women's role in Islamic society. Thus, in the ideological struggles surrounding the definition of Islam's nature and role in the modern world, the hijab has acquired the status of "cultural symbol."

Qasim Amin, the French-educated, pro-Western Egyptian journalist, lawyer, and politician in the last century, wanted to bring Egyptian society from a state of "backwardness" into a state of "civilization and modernity." To do so, he lashed out against the hijab, in its expanded sense, as the true reason for the ignorance, superstition, obesity, anemia, and premature aging of the Muslim woman of his time. He wanted the Muslim women to rise from the "backward hijab" into the desirable modernist ideal of women's right to an elementary education, supplemented by their ongoing contact with life outside of the home to provide experience of the "real world" and combat superstition. He understood the hijab as an amalgam of institutionalized restrictions on women that consisted of sexual segregation, domestic seclusion, and the face veil. He insisted as much on the woman's right to mobility outside the home as he did on the adaptation of shar'i Islamic garb, which would leave a woman's face and hands uncovered. Women's domestic seclusion and the face veil, then, were primary points in Amin's attack on what was wrong with the Egyptian social system of his time.21

Muhammad Abdu tried to restore the dignity to the Muslim woman by way of educational and some legal reforms. The modernist blueprint of women's Islamic rights eventually also included the right to work, vote, and stand for election - that is, full participation in public life. He separated the forever-valid-as-stipulated laws of 'ibadat (religious observances) from the more time-specific mu'amalat (social transactions) in the Qur'an and shari 'a, which later included the hadith as one of its sources. Because modern Islamic societies differ from the seventh century umma, time-specific laws are thus no longer literally applicable, but need a fresh legal interpretation (ijtihad). What matters is to safeguard the "public good" (al-maslah al-'amma) in terms of Muslim communal morality and spirituality.22

In "The Veil and the Muslim Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam," the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi attacks the age-old conservative focus on women's segregation as mere institutionalization of authoritarianism. She argues that this is achieved by way of manipulation of the sacred texts, "a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies." In describing the feminist model of the Prophet's wives' rights, and roles both domestic and communal, Mernissi uses the methodology of "literal" interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith. In the selection and interpretations of traditions, she discredits some of textual items as unauthentic by the criteria of classical hadith criticism.

In Mernissi's reading of the Qur'an and hadith, Muhammad's wives were dynamic, influential, and enterprising members of the community, and fully involved in Muslim public affairs. He listened to their advice. In the city, they were leaders of women's protest movements, first for equal status as believers, and thereafter regarding economic and sociopolitical rights, mainly in the areas of inheritance, participation in warfare and booty, and personal (marital) relations. Muhammad's vision of Islamic society was egalitarian, and he lived this ideal in his own household. Later, the Prophet had to sacrifice his egalitarian vision for the sake of communal cohesiveness and the survival of the Islamic cause.

According to Mernissi, the seclusion of Muhammad's wives from public life (the hijab, Qur'an 33:53) is a symbol of Islam's retreat from the early principle of gender equality. This is also the case with the "mantel" (jilbab, verse of 33:59) which relinquished the principle of social responsibility, the individual sovereign will that internalizes control, rather than place it within external barriers. Concerning A'isha's involvement in political affairs (the Battle of the Camel), Mernissi engages in classical hadith criticism to prove the inauthenticity of the (presumably Prophetic) traditions of "a people who would entrust their command (or affair, amr] to a woman will not thrive." Because of historical problems relating to the date of its first transmission, and also the self-serving motives and a number of moral deficiencies recorded about its first transmitter, the Prophet's freedman Abu Bakra, modernists in general disregard hadith items rather than question their authenticity by scrutinizing the transmitters' reliability.23

After describing the active participation of Muslim women in the battlefields as warriors and nurses to the wounded, Maulana Maudoodi24 says: "This shows that the Islamic purdah is not a custom of ignorance, which cannot be relaxed under any circumstances. On the other hand it is a custom, which can be relaxed as and when required in a moment of urgency. Not only is a woman allowed to uncover a part of her satr (coveredness) under necessity, there is no harm."25

In the matter of hijab, the conscience of an honest, sincere believer alone can be the true judge, as has been said by the Noble Prophet: "Ask for the verdict of your conscience and discard what pricks it."

Islam cannot be properly followed without knowledge. It is a rational law, and to follow it rightly, one needs to exercise reason and understanding at every step.


1. Cyril Glasse: The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. Harper and Row Publishers, New York, N.Y., 1989, p. 156

2. Ibid, p. 413

3. Ibid, p. 421

4. Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. The Holy Qur’an. (Amana Corp., Brentwood, Maryland), 1989. pp. 873-874

5. Riffat Hassan: Women’s Rights and Islam. From the I.C.P.D. to Beijing, Louisville, Kentucky, 1995. pp. 65-76

6. Translated and explained by Muhammad Asad. The Message of the Qur'an. Dar al-Andalus, Gibraltar, 1984. p. 538

7. 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. 68

8. Nazira Zin Ad-Din: As-Sufur Wa'l-Hijab (Beirut: Quzma Publications, 1928), p. 37

9. Bouthaina Shaaban, op. cit. p. 69

10. Nazira Zin Ad-Din, op. cit. pp. 191-2

11. Ibid, p. 226

12. Bouthaina Shaaban, op. cit. p.72

13. Shaykh Mustafa Al-Ghalayini: Islam Ruh Al-Madaniyya (Islam: The Spirit of Civilization) (Beirut: Al-Maktabah Al-Asiriyya, 1960) p. 253

14. Ibid, pp. 255-56

15. Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ghazali: Sunna between Fiqh and Hadith. (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, l989, 7th edition, 1990)

16. Ibid, p. 44

17. Abd Al-Halim Abu Shiqa: Tahrir Al-Mara' Fi 'Asr Al-Risalah. (Kuwait: Dar Al-Qalam, 1990)

18. Jane I. Smith: The Experience of Muslim Women: Considerations of Power and Authority. In the Islamic Impact. Haddad, Y.Y. (Editor), Syracuse University Press. 1984. pp. 89-112

19. Barbara Freyer Stowasser: Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretations. Oxford University Press. 1994. p. 92

20. Ibid, p. 93

21. Ibid, p. 127

22. Ibid, p. 132

23. Ibid, p. 133

24. Syed Abu Ala Maudoodi: Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. Islamic Publications. Lahore, Pakistan. 1972. p. 215

25. Ibid, p. 203

Posted November 3, 1998. Readers are invited to subscribe to the Aalim (Scholar), which is published quarterly by the Islamic Research Foundation International (IRFI). Phone: 502-423-1988 or email President@IRFI.org