Hijab is an Arabic word meaning barrier or partition.
In Islam, however, it has a broader meaning. It is the principle of modesty and includes behaviour as well as dress for both males and females.
The most visible form of hijab is the head covering that many Muslim women wear. Hijab however goes beyond the head scarf. In one popular school of Islamic thought, hijab refers to the complete covering of everything except the hands, face and feet in long, loose and non see-through garments. A woman who wears hijab is calledMuhaajaba.
Muslim women are required to observe the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry. This means that hijab is not obligatory in front of the father, brothers, grandfathers, uncles or young children.
Hijab does not need to be worn in front of other Muslim women, but there is debate about what can be revealed to non-Muslim women.
Modesty rules are open to a wide range of interpretations. Some Muslim women wear full-body garments that only expose their eyes. Some cover every part of the body except their face and hands. Some believe only their hair or their cleavage is compulsory to hide, and others do not observe any special dress rules.
In the English speaking world, use of the word hijab has become limited to mean the covering on the head of Muslim woman. However, this is more accurately called a khimaar. The khimaaris a convenient solution comprising usually one, but sometimes two pieces of cloth, enabling Muslim women to cover their hair, ears and neck while outside the home.
Hijab, in the sense of veiling, can also be achieved by hanging a curtain or placing a screen between women and men to allow them to speak to each other without changing dress. This was more common in the early days of Islam, for the wives of the Prophet Muhammad.
Hijab in scripture
What the Qur'an says about the veil and modesty
The Qur'an makes a few references to Muslim clothing, but prefers to point out more general principles of modest dress.
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.24:30
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, [a list of relatives], [household servants], 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
Both men and women are commanded to lower their gaze and "guard their modesty".
The most basic interpretation of "guard their modesty" is to cover the private parts, which includes the chest in women ("draw their veils over their bosoms"). However, many scholars interpret this injunction in a more detailed way and use Hadith (recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to support their views.
Zeenah (ornaments) is another word with numerous meanings. It has been interpreted to mean body parts, beauty, fine clothes or literal ornaments like jewellery. (The same word is used in chapter 7:31 - "O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer...")
The jewellery interpretation is supported by the instruction to women not to stamp their feet to draw attention to themselves. It used to be the practice among Arabian women to wear ankle chains to attract men.
The word translated here as veils is khumur, plural of khimaar. According to scholars, the word khimaar has no other meaning than a type of cloth which covers the head. Muslim scholars point out that men's turbans are sometimes called khumur as well.
Women during the time of Muhammad did wear the khimaar, but would wear it tied behind so their neck and upper chest were visible. This verse is therefore an order that the khimaar now be drawn over the chest, so that the neck and chest were not bare.
According to most scholars, the khimaar is obligatory for Muslim women.
The phrase "what must ordinarily appear thereof" has been interpreted in many different ways. Among Muslims who take the word zeenah (ornaments) to refer to body parts, a popular interpretation of this phrase is that women should only show the body parts that are necessary for day-to-day tasks. This is usually taken to be the face and the hands.
Some scholars recommend hiding everything but the eyes. The style of burqa worn by Afghan women even hides the eyes. Muslims who oppose full concealment say that if Allah wanted women to hide their entire bodies, there would have been no need to tell male Muslims to lower their gaze.
But "what must ordinarily appear thereof" could be understood as meaning the parts of the body that are shown when wearing normal (modest) dress, with the definition of normal dress deliberately left up to the believers' particular time and culture. This could explain why the Qur'an is not more specific: if God had wanted to, he could have listed the acceptable body parts in as much detail as the list of exceptions to the rule.
Some scholars interpret "what must ordinarily appear thereof" to mean that if a woman exposes part of her body by accident, she will be forgiven. All agree that women will not be punished for breaking the rules if some emergency forces them to do so.
Cast their outer garments over their persons
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.33:59
This verse is directed to all Muslim women. An alternative translation is "they should lengthen their garments".
The word translated here as "outer garments" is jalabib, the plural of jilbab. But it does not necessarily refer to the present day garment known as jilbab. Translators usually represent the word jalabib with general terms like cloaks or outer garments.
The two most common scholarly interpretations of jilbab are a travelling coat or cloak and a sheet-like full body garment similar to the modern jilbab. Some insist that the Qur'anic meaning of jilbab is identical to the present day garment. Others maintain that today's garment was developed as late as 1970 by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The verse also indicates that the purpose of dressing this way is that women are recognised as Muslims and not harassed. It was not very safe for women to go out during this time when they could be mistaken for prostitutes or assaulted.
The rules are relaxed for elderly women:
Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage - there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.24:60
The Qur'an gives these general rules, which may help in understanding how to interpret dress and other rules in modern times.
O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness,- that is the best. Such are among the Signs of Allah, that they may receive admonition!7:26
So clothing does not have to be drab: it is all right for both sexes to use clothing to enhance beauty as well as to cover nakedness. The most important thing is to be modest and righteous.
The Prophet's family
Muslims in their first century at first were relaxed about female dress. When the son of a prominent companion of the Prophet asked his wife Aisha bint Talha to veil her face, she answered, "Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognized His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself."Women in the Muslim World, ed. Lynn Reese, 1998
As Islam reached other lands, regional practices, including the covering of the faces of women, were adopted by the early Muslims. Yet it was only in the second Islamic century that the face veil became common, first used among the powerful and rich as a status symbol.
A screening curtain
When the Qur'an first mentioned the concept of hijab, it was not as a veil or headscarf. Hijab was used in the context of a barrier or screen as in this Qur'anic verse:
(...) And when ye ask (the Prophet's wives) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.33:53
Taken in historical context, this verse seems to have been primarily intended to give the Prophet's wives some protection against nuisance visitors and people who were looking for gossip about them.
Gossip and slander were a great concern at the time the verses relating to hijab were revealed. One set of verses (24:1 onwards) came immediately after the Prophet's wife Aisha was accused and acquitted of adultery.
The Arabic word awrah refers to the parts of the body which must be covered with clothing. Awrah is any part of the body, for both men and women, which may not be visible to the public. Awrah is interpreted differently depending upon the sex of the company one is in.
Most Muslims accept that for men everything between the navel and the knee is awrah and therefore should be covered at all times.
Rules for women are more complicated. There are a number of scenarios for women:
- In front of unrelated men (Muslim or non-Muslim), women must cover everything except the hands and face
- In front of close male relatives, awrah is the navel to the knee and the stomach and the back
- In front of other Muslim females, awrah is from the navel down to, and including, the knees
- Awrah in front of non-Muslim women is a point of debate:
- Some scholars say that women should cover all but the hands and face. This is to prevent non-Muslim women (who may not understand the rules regarding hijab) from describing the appearance of the hijab wearer to other men
- Other scholars say that if a non-Muslim woman can be trusted not to describe a woman's appearance to other men, then she may reveal as much as she would in front of another Muslim woman in her presence.
The Hanafi school of thought, which is followed by most Muslims in the world, agree that the feet are not part of the awrah and therefore may be revealed.
Amongst other schools of thought a common opinion is that everything apart from a woman's face and hands is awrah. Scholars holding this opinion use this hadith to justify it:
Narrated Aisha (the Prophet's wife): Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) turned his attention from her. He said: 'O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.Abu Dawud, Book 32, Number 4092
N.B.: This particular hadith is regarded as 'weak' (i.e. not reliably attributed) by some scholars, including the hadith's collector, Abu Dawud.
Husband and wife
There is no restriction on what a husband and wife may show to each other in private. The Qur'an encourages married couples to enjoy each other's bodies.
Individuals in private
Islam highly values modesty, so even when alone, men and women are recommended never to be completely naked and to cover from the navel to the knee. Exceptions do apply where necessary, for example taking a shower or going to the bathroom.
Other hadith relating to dress
A ban on silk clothes
Narrated Al-Bara: The Prophet ordered us to observe seven things: To visit the sick; follow funeral processions; say 'May Allah bestow His Mercy on you', to the sneezer if he says, 'Praise be to Allah!'; He forbade us to wear silk, Dibaj, Qassiy and Istibarq (various kinds of silken clothes); or to use red Mayathir (silk-cushions).Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 740
The banning of silk is a rule that relates to men only, as it is seen as effeminate. Muslim men are also forbidden from wearing gold jewellery for the same reason.
Some forbidden practices relating to clothing
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: Allah's Apostle forbade Ishtimal-As-Samma' (wrapping one's body with a garment so that one cannot raise its end or take one's hand out of it). He also forbade Al-Ihtiba' (sitting on buttocks with knees close to abdomen and feet apart with the hands circling the knees) while wrapping oneself with a single garment, without having a part of it over the private parts.Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Number 363
Garments that drag or hang low
Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Umar: The Prophet said Allah will not look, on the Day of Resurrection at the person who drags his garment (behind him) out of conceit. On that Abu Bakr said, "O Allah's Apostle! One side of my Izar hangs low if I do not take care of it." The Prophet said, 'You are not one of those who do that out of conceit."Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 675
Some scholars say that this was said in the context of the time, where cloth was expensive. People would wear clothes that trailed to the ground to demonstrate their wealth, and it was a symbol of wealth and therefore pride. Some Muslim men prefer to wear clothes that end just above their ankles due to this hadith.
Hijab and prayer
Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who has reached puberty unless she wears a veil.Abu Dawud, Book 2, Number 0641
It is well accepted by most scholars that while praying, women must cover everything except the hands and face. It is forbidden to cover the face while praying.
Men must cover from the navel to the knee.
Men are forbidden from dressing or acting like women, and vice versa, in hadith such as this one:
Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: Allah's Apostle cursed those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners) of women and those women who are in the similitude of men.Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 773
Veiling while on Hajj
There is an Islamic tradition that women - and men - should not veil their faces while on the Hajj pilgrimage. Some hadith are used to support this view:
Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar used to say that a man in ihram should not veil anything above his chin.Malik's Muwatta, Book 20, Number 20.5.13b
Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar used to say that a woman in ihram should wear neither a veil nor gloves.Malik's Muwatta, Book 20, Number 20.5.15
(Ihram is the state of dress and ritual purity adopted for the Hajj.)
Some Muslims dispute this and cite hadith in which the Prophet's wives pulled their head coverings over their faces in the presence of unrelated men while on Hajj.
A dress code for Hajj
Narrated Ibn 'Umar: A person asked Allah's Apostle, "What should a Muhrim (pilgrim on Hajj) wear?" He replied, "He should not wear shirts, trousers, a burnus (a hooded cloak), or clothes which are stained with saffron or Wars (a kind of perfume). Whoever does not find a sandal to wear can wear Khuffs, but these should be cut short so as not to cover the ankles.Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8, Number 362
Revelation of the verses of veiling
According to this hadith, one man (Umar ibn al-Khattab, later the second caliph) was able to bring about the commandment for the Prophet's wives to veil their faces.
Narrated 'Aisha: The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al-Manasi, a vast open place (near Baqia at Medina) to answer the call of nature at night. 'Umar used to say to the Prophet "Let your wives be veiled," but Allah's Apostle did not do so. One night Sauda bint Zam'a the wife of the Prophet went out at 'Isha' time and she was a tall lady. 'Umar addressed her and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda." He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verses of Al-Hijab (the observing of veils by the Muslim women) may be revealed. So Allah revealed the verses of "Al-Hijab".Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 4, Number 148
Men who veil
Men who wear the face veil
While the issue of Muslim women and the veil attracts a lot of publicity, it is often forgotten that there is also a tradition of men covering their faces.
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.Fadwa El Guindi, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Qatar
The veil-cum-turban of the Tuareg tribes of North Africa is a sign of maturity. When a boy becomes a man, the cloth is wound around his face and head until only his eyes are visible. Its significance is both religious and cultural.
Sufi mystics in Cairo continue a long tradition of veiling when they go into retreat, to isolate themselves from the world. And in the ancient religion of Jainism, both men and women cover their faces when entering their temple's inner sanctum.
In this audio programme, Navid Akhtar meets the singer Abdullah Ag Alhousseyni from the Tuareg band Tinariwen, talks to men of different faiths about what the veil means to them, and asks whether their stories change the way we perceive women who are veiled.