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Table of Contents
Introduction | Meaning of the Word Hijab|Proof of the Obligation of the Headscarf (Khimar) for All Muslim Women | Was the Khimar Just a Cultural Thing? | Does the Khimar Have to Be a Particular Color? | Proof of the Obligation of the Outer Garment (jilbaab) for All Muslim Women | Can a jilbaab and khimar be combined in one? | What is the Minimum Requirement for a Jilbaab? | Was the Jilabaab Only Obligatory Due to Specific Circumstances and No Longer Applies? | Is There an Exception for Elderly Women? | Consensus | Origin of the Idea of Rejecting the Islamic Veil as a Religious Obligation | Issue of Niqab (face veil) | Covering the Head for Women in Traditions Other than Islam | Conclusion | Bibliography
There is numerous amount of controversy today, especially in the West, regarding the Muslim woman’s headscarf, popularly known as hijab. The opponents argue that it is a cultural thing and has no basis in the Qur’an or Islam. The main proponents of this theory are usually neo-liberal progressive Muslims or non-Muslim Islamic studies academics, who carry no credibility in our faith for their opinions. Since both of these groups do not give any credibility to hadith literature, they ignore numerous texts in the Sunnah which prove the obligation of both the headscarf (khimar) and the outer garment (jilbaab).
The above notions are completely rejected by mainstream Islam. We argue that the obligation of a woman to cover herself in accordance to Islamic law is rooted in the Qur’an, Sunnah and over 1400 years of Islamic scholarship. Rather, the rejection of it only came into existence in the modern era, specifically the 20th century. There is no reputable scholar in the history of Islam before the modern era that has ever questioned its obligation all the way up to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Even today it is the dominant and mainstream position in the Muslim world.
What follows is a detailed discussion on this matter and evidences to support the dominant mainstream position of Islamic law that a woman is obligated to cover herself in front of men who are not her immediate blood relatives (ghayr-mahram).
Meaning of the Word Hijab
There are two meanings of hijab. There is a classical usage and modern usage of the term. In the classical usage, the word hijab means barrier, partition, or curtain to cause separation (Qabeelat Hosna 2009, 53). The word hijab comes up seven times in the Qur’an and implies this meaning. For example, Allah Says in the Qur’an [meaning of which is]:
وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَن يُكَلِّمَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَّا وَحْيًا أَوْ مِن وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ أَوْ يُرْسِلَ رَسُولًا فَيُوحِيَ بِإِذْنِهِ مَا يَشَاءُ ۚ إِنَّهُ عَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ
“And it is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a hijab [partition] or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills” [Qur’an 42:51].
Similarly, Allah Says regarding the people of paradise and the people of hellfire on the Day of Judgement [meaning of which is]:
“And between them will be a hijab [partition]” [Qur’an 7:46]
According to Dr. Yasir Qadhi, “This classical usage was restricted to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)” (Qabeelat Hosna 2009, 53). This form of hijab is only mentioned in reference to the wives of the Prophet (pbuh). The other verses speaking about Muslim women covering in general do not mention the word hijab.
Hence, this is why Allah says in Surah Ahzab regarding the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) [meaning of which is]:
وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِن وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ
“And when you ask [his wives] for something, ask them from behind a hijab” [Qur’an 33:53].
In this verse, it literally means a curtain. The wives of the Prophet (pbuh) had to speak from behind a physical curtain. Their level of hijab was a degree higher than that required by other Muslim women. This is why in the Battle of the Camel, Aisha was in a tent on the camel and was not seen.
In modern usage, the word hijab means headscarf. It seems there is some confusion today in which some people came to believe that since hijab in the Qur’an is only in reference to the Prophet’s wives, it is not mandatory for the rest of the Muslim women but was restricted to the Prophet’s wives. This is because they erroneously think that hijab in the Qur’an in reference to the Prophet’s wives carries the same meaning as it does today [i.e. headscarf]. However, this is a mistake because the type of hijab mentioned for the Prophet’s wives was a literal curtain as mentioned above and in no way referring to the headscarf.
There is some evidence to suggest that it was Umar who first suggested the idea of hijab for the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives but the latter did not abide by it because it was not commanded by Allah at the time. It is reported that Umar said:
“I said: ‘O Allah’s Messenger! Good and bad persons visit you! Would that you ordered the Mothers of the believers to cover themselves with Al-Hijab’ [some versions of the narration from Aisha say ‘but the Messenger of Allah did not do so’]. So then the Divine verses of Al-Hijab were revealed.” (Bukhari 1997)
Proof of the Obligation of the Headscarf (Khimar) for All Muslim Women
Allah Says in the Qur’an [meaning of which is]:
وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا ۖ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ۖ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَائِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَائِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِي إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِي أَخَوَاتِهِنَّ أَوْ نِسَائِهِنَّ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُنَّ أَوِ التَّابِعِينَ غَيْرِ أُولِي الْإِرْبَةِ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ أَوِ الطِّفْلِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يَظْهَرُوا عَلَىٰ عَوْرَاتِ النِّسَاءِ
“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their khumur [headscarves] over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women.” [Qur’an 24:31].
The word khumur mentioned in the verse is a plural of khimar and comes from the root word khamr, which means intoxicant (Baalbaki & Baalbaki 2005, 523) because it messes with your head. This is why in Hans Wehr dictionary, one of the definitions given for khumaar, a word also derived from the same root, is “aftereffect of intoxication or hangover” (Wehr 1979, 302). Point being that even the root of the word is related to the head. As for the word khimar used in the Qur’an in the verse cited above, then according to Lane’s Lexicon, it means “a piece of cloth with which a woman covers her head” (Lane 1863, 809).
In order to further prove that the word khimar was understood to mean a head covering during the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, it is important to look into hadith literature. One of the meanings of khimar that was popularly understood during the Prophet’s (pbuh) time was a turban. In other words, men used to refer to their turbans as khimar because they cover their heads. For example, it is well known in Islamic law that during the act of purification (wudu), it is permissible to wipe over your socks and turban. In the following hadith, one of the companions defines this action of the Prophet (pbuh) by describing his turban using the word khimar, “I saw the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) wiping over the khimar [turban] and leather socks” (An-Nasa’i 2007). Another hadith says, “The Messenger of Allah wiped over his leather socks and his khimar [turban]” (Ibn Majah 2007). Lane’s Lexicon also has a very interesting entry related to this in his book under the discussion of khimar. He says:
“Also a man’s turban; because a man covers his head with it in like manner as a woman covers her head with her khimar when he disposes it in the Arab manner, he turns [a part of] it under the jaws [nearly in the same manner in which a woman disposes her khimar]” (Lane 1863, 809).
Therefore, all of the above shows that the word khimar used in the verse mentioned above is referring to a woman’s headscarf. In other words, Allah is saying in this verse to tell the women to take a portion of their khimar and use it to cover the upper chest area [neck, chest, bosom] in addition to their heads and ears. Aisha said, “When [the verse]: ‘They should draw their khimar over their chests’ was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets [worn as a lower garment] at the edges and covered [themselves] with it” (Bukhari 1997). Ibn Hajar said in Fath Al-Bari, the most authoritative text in mainstream Islam explaining the hadiths compiled by Al-Bukhari:
“Meaning of ‘they covered’ is that they [the women] covered their faces. The description of this is that the woman places the khimar [headscarf] over her head and then throws the right side of it over her left shoulder so that it [all completely] covers. Al-Faraa’ said: ‘In the pre-Islamic days, the women used to let hang down their khimar behind their backs and reveal that which is in the front [neck, chest, bosom], so they were commanded to conceal [their frontal area]. The khimar for the woman is like the turban for the man’” (Hajar 1986).
In addition, there are a number of hadiths in which the word khimar is mentioned in a way that proves that women used to wear headscarves outside their homes because they understood it to be obligatory. For example, Aisha reported an incident which took place with her brother:
“He seated me behind him on his camel. I lifted my khimar [from my head] and took it off from my neck. He struck my foot as if he was striking the camel. I said to him: Do you see anyone [else here]?” (Muslim 2007).
Further, it is reported in another hadith that, “Umm Sulaim went out wrapping her khimar hurriedly until she met Allah’s Messenger” (Muslim 2007). She was not one of his wives yet when she left her house, she quickly put on her khimar to go and meet with Allah’s Messenger (pbuh). Similarly, when the mother of Abu Hurairah accepted Islam, it is reported that when he knocked on the door, “she took a bath and put on her shirt and quickly [put on] her khimar and [then] opened the door” (Muslim 2007). She opened the door only after putting on her headscarf. Thus, all of the above shows that women used to consider their headscarves (khimar) as mandatory.
Some progressive Muslims may question the reliability of some of the sources cited above, such as, hadiths, Fath Al-Bari, etc., but then these people do not have any right to call themselves mainstream Muslims. They are a miniscule minority and are in no way representative of mainstream Islam, because the above sources are fundamental to the mainstream and widely accepted among Muslim scholars past and present as well as the Muslim world in general. It is also hypocritical from some such minded Muslims to reject hadiths which mention khimar for women in front of non-mahram men but then they resort to hadiths and wear the khimar during prayer, which is nowhere to be found in the Qur’an specifically for the prayer but is mentioned in hadith literature. Picking and choosing which hadiths to follow based solely on desire is not how religion works.
Was the khimar just a cultural thing?
Critics of the khimar argue that it was just a cultural practice among Arab women during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and is not intended for all times and places. Regarding the previously mentioned verse on khimar, they say that the “verse…instructs how to wear an existing traditional garment. It doesn’t impose a new one” (Nomani & Arafa 2015). They also claim that covering of the head during that time was a common practice among people of many faiths and cultures, thus, it has nothing to do with religiosity.
While it is true that women did traditionally cover their heads as pointed out earlier, they were still instructed to wear it in a specific manner which was outside of their tradition. They used to throw it behind their backs without covering the front so Allah commanded them to bring a portion of it to the front to cover themselves. Further, Allah is very clear in the verse as to which males can a woman display her charms in front of. This is again outside of their tradition. It is imposing a new way to cover their chests in addition to their heads. This is why Aisha was so surprised to find the women from the Ansar abiding by the new command so quickly.
Secondly, even if it was a cultural tradition among people of many faiths and cultures, Allah can take a cultural tradition and make it part of sacred law to be imposed on the believers for the rest of time. As Muslims, we believe that all of Allah’s laws are full of goodness and wisdom whether we comprehend it or not. If Allah takes a particular part of Arab culture and makes it part of Islamic law, then this is acceptable. We have instances of this in our religion. For example, before Islam the practice of zihaar was part of Arab culture. This was a pre-Islamic form of divorce in which the husband says to his wife, “You are to me like my mother’s back.” After the coming of Islam, this practice continued and became part of Islamic law where a man is required to give expiation to release himself from it. Allah explicitly refers to it in the Qur’an:
وَالَّذِينَ يُظَاهِرُونَ مِن نِّسَائِهِمْ ثُمَّ يَعُودُونَ لِمَا قَالُوا فَتَحْرِيرُ رَقَبَةٍ مِّن قَبْلِ أَن يَتَمَاسَّا ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ تُوعَظُونَ بِهِ ۚ وَاللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌ
“And those who pronounce zihaar from their wives and then [wish to] go back on what they said – then [there must be] the freeing of a slave before they touch one another. That is what you are admonished thereby; and Allah is Acquainted with what you do” [Qur’an 58:3].
Similarly, in the Sunnah, it is narrated that a man came to the Prophet (pbuh) who had declared zihaar from his wife, then he had intercourse with her. He said to the Prophet (pbuh):
“O Messenger of Allah, I declared zihaar on my wife, then I had intercourse with her before I offered the expiation.” He (pbuh) said: “What made you do that, may Allah have mercy on you?” He said: “I saw her anklets in the light of the moon.” Prophet (pbuh) said: “Do not approach her [again] until you have done that which Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, has commanded” (An-Nasa’i 2007).
Other pre-Islamic cultural practices which were adopted into Islam include fasting on the Day of ‘Ashura [10th of Muharram], the talbiyyah for hajj and ‘umrah with slight modification, sacredness of the four holy months, etc. Therefore, Islam adopted some practices which were common in the Arab culture and made them permanently part of sacred law. Anything that is explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah as a command cannot be explained away by just stating that it was culture.
The Arabs had their own cultural styles of clothing from which the Qur’an commanded them to differ. Therefore, a new stipulation came from Allah mandating them to differentiate themselves from their culture and dress appropriately as ordained in the Divine command. This Divine command will remain valid until the end of time.
Does the khimar have to be a particular color?
It is believed in some circles among both Muslims and non-Muslims that the head covering of a woman must be black. However, there is no proof for this, rather, the reports from the companions’ lives show that women used to wear different colored head covers. The color has more to do with the culture in which a woman lives than what is religiously ordained. Therefore, it is permissible for a woman to wear any color that is acceptable in her culture.
It is reported in a hadith that a woman by the name of Rifa`a (رِفَاعَة) came to visit Aisha wearing a green colored khimar (Bukhari 1997). However, the khimar must not be such that it attracts attention because the purpose of the khimar is to conceal and not draw more attention.
Proof of the Obligation of the Outer Garment (jilbaab) for All Muslim Women
Allah Says in the Qur’an [meaning of which is]:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their jalabeeb. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused” [Qur’an 33:59].
The word jalabeeb mentioned in the above verse is the plural of the word jilbaab which, according to Hans Wehr dictionary, means, “long, flowing outer garment or loose robe-like garment” (Wehr 1979, 153). Lane’s Lexicon gives a number of similar definitions for the word jilbaab. According to Lane, the word jilbaab means:
“A woman’s outer wrapping garment or this is its primary signification…or one that envelopes the whole body…or one with which a woman covers over her other garments…or a garment wider than the khimar but less than the ridaa’ (upper garment) with which a woman covers her head and bosom” (Lane 1863, 440).
Further, the view of Ibn Mas`ud, `Ubaydah, Qatadah, Al-Hasan Al-Basri, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Ibrahim An-Nakha`i, `Ata’ Al-Khurasani and others is that jilbaab is a garment worn over the khimar (Kathir 2003). Some scholars said that it is a cloth that covers the whole body (Qurtubi n.d.).
In light of the above, it is clear that a jilbaab is a garment that a woman wears over her clothes. Therefore, this verse tells us that women need to cover themselves with an outer garment [jilbaab] in addition to their regular clothes covering their skin. Following is a list of further evidences proving requirements for a jilbaab.
It is reported that ‘Atiyyah reported:
“Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) commanded us [women] to come out on Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha…I said: ‘Messenger of Allah, [what if] one of us does not have a jilbaab?’ He said: ‘Let her sister cover her with her jilbaab’” (Muslim 2007).
The meaning above is that let another Muslim sister lend an extra jilbaab to her from herself (Hajar 1986). This shows that when women go out, they should be properly dressed.
It is reported by a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) regarding helping the injured due to battles:
“We used to treat the wounded and look after the patients. Once I asked the Prophet (pbuh), ‘Is there any harm for any of us to stay at home if she doesn’t have a jilbaab?’ He said, ‘She should cover herself with the jilbaab of her companion and should participate in the good deeds and in the religious gathering of the Muslims” (Bukhari 1997).
The above two hadiths and others with similar meaning demonstrate that Muslim women at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not desire to go outside without their jilbaab. This is because they understood it to be obligatory for Muslim women to go out with their jilbaab. If it was just culture, they would not need to ask about it.
The verse discussed in the previous section about the khimar and the verse under this section discussing the jilbaab show us that there are two items that a Muslim woman must wear in order to fulfill the requirements of covering:
1) A khimar that is worn to cover the head and chest
2) A jilbaab that is worn over regular clothes to cover rest of the body.
Can a jilbaab and khimar be combined in one?
It seems based on hadith literature that a khimar refers to covering of the head and a jilbaab refers to covering most of the body in addition to the head and is worn over other clothes [this is why it is translated as ‘outer garment’]. It appears that at least some of the female companions, after the revelation of the previous two mentioned verses for covering, sometimes used the term jilbaab to refer to a complete covering including the head. Therefore, a jilbaab can either be a separate flowing garment worn in addition to the khimar over the clothes or it can be one long cloth that covers most [and sometimes all] of the body in addition to the head as a one piece suit. It is reported that Aisha said:
“Riders would pass us when we accompanied the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) while we were in the sacred state (wearing ihram in Hajj). When they came by us, one of us would let down her jilbaab from her head over her face, and when they had passed on, we would uncover our faces” (Abu Dawud 2008).
Aisha here refers to the garment on her head as a jilbaab and not khimar alone because it is covering more than just the head. Similarly, when companions were asked to describe the jilbaab, they would describe a complete covering including the head. For example, Ibn ‘Abbas said:
“Allah commanded women of the believers that, when they go out of their homes to take care of some need, they hide their faces with the long sheet from over their heads leaving only one eye open (to see the way)” (Kathir 2003).
Historically, “since there are no pictures of 7th century jilbaab, nor any surviving garments, it is not at all clear if the modern jilbaab is the same garment as that referred to in the Qur’an. In general terms, jilbaab is a garment/sheet that is worn on the head, draped around the body and that totally covers the body of the woman” (Anon 2016).
It is possible that during the Prophet’s (pbuh) time, the jilbaab was restricted to the upper half of the body. For the bottom half of the body, women would wrap a long cloth around their waste which would reach to their feet [like a long skirt]. This long cloth was known as an izaar. This izaar was very commonly worn by both men and women at that time.
Aisha narrates how one day she followed the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) outside the house. Pay close attention to how she describes her clothing before leaving the house, “I put my shirt over my head, covered myself and put on my izaar, and I set out after him” (An-Nasa’i 2007). So she describes an izaar as the cloth that she uses to cover the bottom half of her body. From this, we may conclude that perhaps their jilbaab was restricted up to their wastes or a little below it. As for the bottom half, they used to cover it with an izaar through convention. The word used in the hadith for shirt is dir’un (دِرْع), which was a type of shirt which women wore inside the houses. This is why the women were told that if they