This article was originally published prior to 2018 by Misha Az-Zahra in her excellent, but sadly now-defunct blog If Oceans Were Ink
Hijab in the Qur’an
The word hijab, contrary to what the majority think, does not mean “headscarf.” The term itself refers to a curtain, partition or a screen. It is never used in the Quran to refer to clothing. Generally, the Quran uses the term to denote a partition. (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53)
Classical Arabic lexicons similarly attest that hijab, from Arabic root haa-jim-baa, denotes a barrier
Regardless of what it actually means, hijab is still colloquially used to connote a headscarf. Covering one’s hair is seen as an expression of modesty/chastity in most Muslim-majority communities. I believe it fulfills this purpose as long as it is done out of choice, and decent behavior is maintained while doing it.
However, whether or not one covers their hair is not indicative of their character. According to the Quran, the best garment is that of piety.
“…The clothing of piety, that is best…” 7:26
The Veil in 24:31
Verse 24:31 of the Quran lays out clothing and dress code requirements for women, after a parallel injunction to men (24:30).
“And say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That is purer for them, And God is acquainted with what they do. 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 (Arabic: zeenah) except what (must ordinarily) appear of it; that they should draw their coverings (Arabic: khumurihinna) over their bosoms…” 24:30-31
Verse 24:31 commands believing women to draw their khimars over their chest. The word khimar does not necessarily denote a headcover. It comes from the root word khamra, which can refer to any sort of cover or veil. It can even be used to denote an intoxicant, which veils or “covers” the intellect. In verse 24:31, it appears to simply denote some type of “covering,” not necessarily a headscarf. See the following excerpt from Lane’s Lexicon:
Verse 24:31 goes on to say, “…and not to display their beauty (Arabic: zeenah) except for what (ordinarily) appears of it.”
First, it is necessary to examine the meaning of zeenah as used in this verse. Zeenah does not signify natural beauty; instead, it denotes ornamentation or adornment, or something that is unusually attractive or provocative. According to Edward Lane’s Lexicon:
Verse 24:31 specifies that this zeenah (adornment/ornamentation) should not be displayed, except for that which is “decently/ordinarily apparent of it.” This is a deliberately vague expression. It makes clear that there are two types of beauty/adornment:
- The type that is hidden (veiled/covered)
- The type that may be shown “decently”
That which is “(decently) apparent” is up for interpretation. It may be understood differently depending on place and time period. There are no specific guidelines except that the chest must be covered.
The goal of verse 24:31 is not to prohibit women from being beautiful. The goal is rather to curtail excessive/provocative displays of adornment.
This is very much in line with the Quran’s injunctions to be balanced, and to avoid overcomplicating religion:
“…God intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship…” 2:185
The Veil in 33:59
When discussing hijab, it is also necessary to examine verse 33:59, which instructs the Prophet (sws) to tell his wives and daughters and the believing women to “bring down their outer garments over themselves.”
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments (Arabic: jalabibihinna) over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be recognized and not harmed. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” 33:59
The item of clothing mentioned in this verse is a jilbab. In Arabic, jilbab generally refers to a loose outer garment. It can also metaphorically denote any shirt or ordinary piece of clothing. The Quran’s instruction to women is to “bring down over themselves” (Arabic: yudnina ‘alayhinna) their outer garments.
The intent of 33:59 is to ensure that women can dress respectably in public without fearing harm. Thus, any jilbab/outer garment worn should fulfill this purpose. But perhaps one would ask, does this mean that a woman carries the blame for harm or molestation of her person?
Clearly not. The preceding verse, 33:58, patently places the blame upon the perpetrators of the harm:
“And those who annoy believing men and women undeservedly, bear (upon themselves) a calumny and a glaring sin.” 33:58
The Prophet’s Wives
When non-mahram men visited the Prophet’s wives, they were told to place a barrier between them and the women. This barrier was known, in Arabic, as a hijab (partition/screen).
“…And when you ask [his wives] for something, ask them from behind a partition (Arabic: hijab). That is purer for your hearts and their hearts. And it is not [conceivable or lawful] for you to harm the Messenger of Allah or to marry his wives after him, ever. Indeed, that would be in the sight of Allah an enormity.” 33:53
The injunction to place a barrier between unrelated men and women was only for the Prophet’s wives. This was because the Prophet’s wives were supposed to be seen as the “mothers of the believers (33:6),” and were to be considered unavailable for marriage. After the Prophet died, his wives were to remain widows. Other men were prohibited from marrying them.
As verse 33:53 shows, the word hijab itself has nothing to do with headscarves in classical Arabic usage. It is rather used to denote a partition.
The Oppression/Liberation Debate
Many non-Muslims are under the impression that the veil is a universal symbol of patriarchal oppression, and that Muslim women need to be “rescued.” Muslims fight back with unqualified generalizations of hijab being “liberating.”
I have stated before that the intentions dictate the results. If veiling is forced upon a woman, then it is unIslamic and possibly even oppressive. But if she chooses it freely, then it may be liberating to her. There is no universal rule.
I would like to point out that headscarves are usually seen as a mark of female Muslim identity. They draw lots of commentary and media coverage, and are regarded as a hallmark of one’s Muslim-ness (or lack thereof). I think it’s quite absurd that something as arbitrary as a headscarf, which is not even mentioned in the Quran, has become a religious distinguishing mechanism and a central aspect of religious legislation.
I believe the Quran does not mandate a headscarf. It does, however, instruct both men and women dress with righteousness and decency, and to make their interactions modest. What this means is up for interpretation.
One might wonder why the Quran legislates modesty. It should be noted that there would be no need for modest dress at all if women were locked up in their homes all day; clearly, modesty is mandated precisely so that women can be active in society while being respected, without facing the threat of harassment or harm.
The Quran does not specifically define what clothing constitutes modesty. The definition and application of modesty may change depending on time and place. Nobody has the right to modify God’s commands and invent additional clothing requirements.
Traditional scholars have imposed unwarranted restrictions on what “modesty” means, forcing women to cover everything but their face and hands or, on some occasions, telling them to veil their faces as well.
Muslim women are bombarded with religious jurisdictions banning lipstick and kohl. They are told that being pretty is a sin. That wearing perfume in the company of men makes them zaniyah (adulteresses). That their hair, lips and even eyes are a fitnah for men. They are told that each hair they show in public will sentence them to 70,000 years of Hellfire.
But we often forget that, in Islam, we are actually commanded to be beautiful, as described by verse 7:31. The only thing that is curtailed is wastefulness.
“O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer, eat and drink: but do not waste by excess; God does not love those who waste.” 7:31
The above verse is beautiful in itself. It commands balance.
According to verse 7:31, we are ordered to make ourselves beautiful–but not to the point of excessiveness. Verse 24:31 only intends to curtail inappropriate physical display.
I love beautiful things, flowers and horses and music and art, because it was once Islamic to love beauty.
“…Islamic civilization is marked by its [emphasis] upon beauty being wedded to every aspect of human life, from the chanting of the Quran to the making of pots and pans. The traditional Islamic ambience, both the plastic and the sonoral, have always been beautiful, for traditional Islam sees beauty as a complement of the Truth”Traditional Islam in the Modern World — Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Muslims were some of the first inventors of common cosmetics during the Golden Age of Islam. Jannah, according to the Quran, is full of beauty. Prophet Yusuf (pbuh) was a beautiful man. The son of Maryam preached a beautiful message and made beautiful clay birds take flight. So why is beauty haram now?