Is Hijab an Obligation? Don’t Religious Rules Change?


Question:

Why do we have to wear Hijab in America? Don’t religious laws change according to time and place? Isn’t there room for this to change?

Answer:

Asalamu `alaykum dearest Sister,

I pray that this message reaches you well and full of faith.

I would like to thank you for taking the time to write this email. Such questions are a sign of one’s faith and concern for Islam. I ask Allah to reward you greatly for this concern and pray that He will bless us all. Indeed, as you noted in your question, there are certain rulings in Islam that can change according to place, time and situation. The general principle is that the rulings themselves don’t change, but the articulation of such rulings can. This means the ruling – whether permissible, forbidden or disliked – is still met; however, it is done so in a manner that facilitates its practice for Allah’s servants, while meeting the requirements set by the faith. Examples of this would be how buying and selling has changed (with the introduction of checks and credit cards), what type of prayer rug one uses, the instrument one might use to hunt, or the means by which one travels to Hajj. However, there are times where one is excused from doing religious acts due to abnormal circumstances. Such situations would need to be addressed by a qualified mufti.

On the other hand we have rulings which are fixed and unchangeable. The only way a change would be possible is under dire circumstances like the threat of death, harm, sickness and other things.

Examples

  • Fasting. This is an obligation; however, in the face of sickness, one is allowed to break his fast.
  • Prayer. It is an obligation for one to pray while standing; if one cannot do so for health reasons, she can do so sitting.
  • Hajj. Although an obligation, its obligatory status is based on one’s ability.
  • Even faith itself. If one is threatened with death, he is allowed to deny his faith.

The above rulings, and their exceptions, are prescribed in our holy texts. Scholars say that if one of the following five things are threatened, that is enough for a ruling, even when dealing with a fixed ruling, to change:

  • Faith
  • Intellect
  • Life
  • Lineage
  • Property

With some adding honor.

Ruling on Hijab

The hijab is identified by all the scholars [except for a few non-Orthodox scholars over the last 20 years] as a fixed obligation which cannot change unless a qualified legal scholar deems that a sister’s situation demands it. Examples of this would be the Inquisition in Spain and the recent wars in Bosnia and Rwanda. However, it should be noted that such a change is, at least most of the time, considered temporal at best as it would fall under what are known as nawazil - temporary trials whose outcomes, for the most part, are not permanent.

In the West

Scholars state that there is nothing that meets this requirement in the West that would allow our sisters, in the general sense, to remove their hijabs. Thus, I hold the opinion of all major scholars, males and females, that sisters must observe the Hijab.

A Look at the Hadith of Asma’ and Other Sound Texts that Support Hijab/Niqab

I certainly understand people’s contentions about the hadith of Asma’ narrated by Abu Dawood where the Prophet ﷺ scolded her saying that the only thing a pubescent woman should show is “these two,” pointing to his face and hands.

Proofs for Hijab and Niqab

In a sound hadith, we have the Prophet ﷺ telling his wife Sawda, “Cover yourself in front of him.” The word he used is ihjabi which means “Cover yourself.” It is an order, and in Islamic law an order means an obligation.

A proof for Hijab (and not Niqab) is found in al-Bukhari’s collection where one of the companions could not remember a woman’s name. He said, “I cannot recall her name, but I remember the mole on her face.”

Niqab was the practice of the Prophet’s ﷺ wives, including Sawda, so if a woman wanted she can choose wear it.

The hadith of Asma’ bin Abi Bakr, mentioned above, is found in the Sunnan of Abu Dawood; it is strengthened by the narrations above, as well as the Hadith of Fadil ‘Abbas found in Bukhari’s collection that clearly mentions him seeing the face of a woman. Thus, taking these  two sound narrations, the narration of Asmah found in Abu Dawood’s collection is at least Hassan li Gharihi or as our scholars noted, “sound.”

One of the Proofs for Niqab

In another narration, found in al-Bukhari’s collection as well as Malik’s Muwatta, we find the hadith of Habibba bin Sahl. She needed to speak to the Prophet ﷺ so she waited for him after the morning prayer. When the Prophet ﷺ approached her, he could not recognize her because she was completely covered [in Niqab] as noted by al-Baji. The Prophet ﷺ asked her, “Who are you?” This is one of the many proofs that, as the Hanbali school holds, a woman should cover her entire body save her eyes.

What We Don’t Have: a Third Option

We do not have an opinion that says hijab is not fardh, that one can show the neck, etc. There are no authentic reports of the Companions taking off their Hijab at all.

I advise you to wear the Hjiab instead of the Niqab. I base this on the fact that it is a contentious issue and we have a legal axiom that allows us, in the face of contentious issues, to take the more appropriate course for our time and place.

Secondly, adapt the method you wear the Hijab. There is nothing wrong with wearing Western clothes as long as they meet Islamic requirements. I hold this opinion is at is articulated by the Maliki school. Abu Barkat in al-Sharh al-Saghir [one of the most reliable books for Fatwa in the school] states that a woman’s  `awrah is in general, “Everything save her face and hands.”

Islam means to surrender and surrender involves struggle. I encourage you to struggle and continue to ask Allah for His help.

Your brother,

Suhaib Webb

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90 Comments

  1. Heather says:

    I want to know two things, first why weren’t slaves who became Muslim allowed to wear hijab/ khimar under the rulings of the caliphate, and two if not wearing hijab is a major sin why is there no dictated punishment found in the Quran for application in the dunya?

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