Hijab: Fard (Obligation) or Fiction?


http://www.flickr.com/photos/colinsd40/7846793818/in/photostream/I am in a dilemma and need you to help me put things into perspective. It’s the age-old question of whether hijab is fard (mandatory) or not! I have been wearing hijab for many years now. I always believed that the ayah (verse) in Surat An-Nissa (Qur’an 4) is a personal choice that women make and can be interpreted in several ways but I was always afraid of dying without wearing hijab. Basically an old Egyptian shaykh (scholar) scared the heck out of me in my younger days, saying that women will hang in hell fire from their hair, and that’s how I decided to wear hijab. We have raised 3 boys in the process, ages 23, 21 and 14.

Within the last couple of years, my husband started commenting on why I am wearing hijab, if it’s attracting more attention through racism, etc. Why not just put my hair up in a bun so I’m not lavishly displaying my hair and Allah wants to make things easy for us not hard—especially in the society that we live in. He’s trying to convince me that if it was clear-cut like prayers and fasting, God wouldn’t have left it up to our interpretation. Lately, he has been increasing this rhetoric.

I am struggling with this! But on the other hand, I’ve been doing it for so long. I know many ladies that have taken off their hijab and the majority have no regrets and are okay with their decision. So a part of me is okay with taking it off and another part is not! Please help!

Indeed this is an increasingly common question for an age-old practice.  When I saw this question from one of our dear readers, it hit home.  Born to Egyptian parents who immigrated to the United States over 40 years ago in the midst of the Islamic Re-Awakening in Egypt, I too grew up with the notion that hijab was something commendable, yet optional.

I was content with my views regarding hijab until I was 20 years old.  I often looked at Muslim women observing the headscarf with a bit of confusion and pity combined. “Why would someone go through so much trouble? Why are they making it difficult for themselves?”

My belief was challenged, however, when unsuspectingly a relative of mine began wearing the hijab and gave a presentation about it at our masjid’s youth group.  Ironically, the masjid we attended was one of the rare few which did not propagate hijab, and depending upon the leader asked, the idea of its optionality was reinforced. I was shocked when I heard the clear evidence from Qur’an and Sunnah that hijab is fard.

I give some personal background to this question only to help readers who are struggling with this practice to understand that I am sensitive to misconceptions and public pressures surrounding the hijab. In this article, I wish to present clear evidence regarding the commandment of the headscarf and to provide rebuttals for the very common arguments Muslims raise concerning its status.

Evidence

In the Qur’an, the direct commandment for post-pubescent women to cover their hair and neck is in Surat An-Noor, ayah 31 (Chapter of the Light, verse 31).

“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 over their juyub and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, [...]” (Qur’an 24:31)

After reading this ayah, one may notice that there is no mention of hair per se.  This is where many of those who question the obligation of hijab, stop and say, “But where does the Qur’an say to cover the hair?” This is an example of how understanding a verse based on the English translation alone and without historical context results in confusion.  Let’s back up and understand this ayah, phrase by phrase.

The Believing Women

The very first directive from Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) in this ayah is aimed at Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) to “tell the believing women” to lower their gaze, etc.  There are those who claim that the commandments in this verse apply only to the Prophet’s ﷺ wives or only at the time of the Prophet ﷺ.  Yet the address is for the “believing women”—an all-encompassing phrase.  Remember the ayah:

“And We have not sent you [O Muhammad] except as a mercy to the worlds,” (Qur’an 21:107).

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent as a mercy to all of humanity—not just to the people of Mecca and Medina.

Lowering One’s Gaze and Guarding One’s Private Parts

Note that the first injunction described here is for the believing women to “lower their gaze” which is to avoid looking at anything haram (unlawful). Secondly, they are commanded to “guard their private parts,” (which in the previous ayah, verse 30, Allah (swt) addresses the believing men and commands them first to do the exact same—who said protecting one’s body from haram is only for women?).

An important point to mention in this part of the ayah is the various English translations found to explain the phrase “yahfadthna furujahunna”. In Arabic, the literal meaning for this phrase is to guard their private parts. This is specific and strong language to forbid the believing women (and in verse 30, the believing men) from engaging in illegal intercourse. Interestingly enough, in Pickthall’s translation of the Holy Qur’an, “yahfadthna furujahunna” is translated as “to be modest” and in Yusuf Ali’s translation, we find “to guard their modesty.”

For years, I wondered why some Muslims have the notion that hijab is not fard, but that we are required, instead, to only “be modest.”  I believe I found the source in these English translations.   According to many ahadith (narrations of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ), we are required to be modest (which in Arabic, is “hayaa’”).  However, this verse, in particular, is not commanding the women to have “hayaa’” in the general sense.  Here they are commanded, specifically, to “guard their private parts.”

An explanation of how guarding one’s privates can be successfully accomplished begins with lowering the gaze and continues with the commandments outlined in the rest of the ayah as related to dress.

Women Are Not to Display Their Beauty

Next, the verse reads, “and not to display their beauty, except what ordinarily appears thereof.”  In Arabic, zeenatahunna refers to the women’s natural beauty or adornments (here, the scholars of Qur’an understood adornments to refer to the hidden places of the body where adornments are worn1 ) Therefore, the scholars of Qur’an agree by ijma’ (consensus) that “wa la yubdeena zeenatahunna” refers to covering everything, “illa ma dhahara minha”—except for what ordinarily must appear to carry out daily affairs in public, which is the face and the hands2 .  Interestingly enough, the scholarly debate has always been between whether the face and hands are to be shown, or if they too, should be covered3 .  Until very recent times, this commandment from Allah (swt) to cover the hair was never debated by the common Muslim.  And this certainly was never up for debate amongst the scholars throughout history.

Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi resonates with this very concept when he responds to the same question regarding the obligation of hijab in his book—Contemporary Fatwas4 . He states, “One of the great fitnas (trials) and intellectual conspiracies that has been introduced into the Muslim world is the alteration of matters of certainty to matters of doubt and debate.” He also states that all of the scholars throughout history from various groups such as the Sufis, the Dhahiris (the Literalists), the fuqahaa’ (jurists), and the scholars of hadith unanimously agree that it is fard for the believing woman to cover her hair.

Some discount the commandment of hijab altogether due to the weakness of a commonly cited hadith (narration) found in Sunan Abu Dawood where Aisha radi Allahu ‘anha (may Allah be pleased with her) relates that the Prophet ﷺ, who upon seeing Asma bint Abi Bakr wearing thin clothes said, “O Asma, when a women reaches the age of menstruation, nothing should appear from her except for this,” and the Prophet ﷺ pointed to his hands and face.  This reasoning is faulty because even if we were to entirely dismiss this hadith, the clarity of the various segments of the ayah are enough to prove the commandment of hijab by itself.  In addition, there are other authentic narrations from the Prophet ﷺ outlining how thick the woman’s outer garment should be, how loose, how long, etc. These descriptions of the woman’s dress, coupled with the injunction to cover the hair, and to not display their beauty, collectively emphasize the injunction to cover all but the face and hands.

Covering the Hair, Ears, Neck and Chest

The injunction for covering the hair is evidenced by “and to strike their khumur over their juyub.” In Arabic, the word khumur is the plural of khimar, which is a cloth that is draped over the top of the head and hangs downward.  This definition is unanimously agreed upon by all of the scholars5 . Juyub is the plural for jayb which is the opening in the front of the dress that allows the head to fit through.  The key is to note that the women at the time of jahiliya (pre-Islamic times) were already covering their hair, as was customary throughout history in various cultures6 and religions7 .  However, by letting the ends of their khimar hang down behind their back; their ears, neck, and chest were exposed89 .  This style can be seen in the image below10 .

Then came the commandment to take the khimar and “cover their juyub.” By doing so, the women would now be covering their previously exposed areas.

The photo above depicts again how the head cover was worn.  The next photo explains the action of “walyadribna” which literally means to strike, “bikhumurihinna” with their head covers, “ala juyubihinna” over the front openings in their garments.  Ar-Razi, explains that “walyadribna“—to strike—is used to emphasize the importance of covering this area11 .

Finally, the last photo reflects how the khimar (head covering) is used to cover the previously exposed ears, neck, and chest.

Summary of Verse 31

Let’s take a moment to reflect upon what the believing women are commanded to do:

  1. Lower their gaze
  2. Guard their private parts
  3. Not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appears thereof
  4. Take their khimar (head cover) and cover their chest (and other previously exposed areas)
  5. Not to display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers…etc.

It is very difficult to see how an ayah with so many specific, step-by-step commandments can be written off as someone’s “interpretation.”

Hijab, Khimar, Veil, Head Scarf…

Some say hijab is not fard based on the use of the word “hijab” itself.   Some argue that verses containing the word “hijab” in the Qur’an (which means to conceal, veil, screen, etc.) do not refer to covering the hair, so why do we use hijab to mean headscarf?  Let’s not get caught up in the semantics of the word hijab.  Suffice it to say that this word has become commonplace in the Muslim vocabulary to mean a head cover despite the fact that Allah (swt) uses the word khimar in the Qur’an. Yet the two terms are related in meaning. What matters is that we cover our hair, not the way in which we name the covering.

The Style of Qur’an

The Qur’anic style is not like our municipal codes of law that provide lists of rules and injunctions. Instead, the Holy Qur’an has a beautiful literary style in which Allah (swt) opens our hearts through stories, warnings, reflections, and direct commandments, all intertwined.

Imagine if instead of the ayah above regarding hijab, we were told to cover our hair, neck, shoulders, upper and lower arms, chest, abdomen and thighs, etc.?  How dry would that sound?  That is not the style of the Glorious Qur’an.

Take the obligation of prayer.  Can anyone deny the duty to pray Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib, and ‘Ishaa? The answer is no, yet nowhere in the Qur’an are these prayers listed together as part of the commandment to pray. Furthermore, a closer look will reveal that nowhere in the Qur’an are the number of raka’at (units) for each prayer described.  It is not necessary, since Allah (swt) sent His Messenger to teach us the specifics.

And although the issue of covering the woman’s hair has been submerged into a sea of heated debate, there is no hesitation to fully cover the hair and body for prayer. Again, the question is raised: where is this mentioned in the Qur’an? Why are we so resentful and phobic when we hear that women need to cover their beauty outside the home, yet we peacefully submit when it comes to matters of worship? Are we not trying to please the same Merciful Lord both in and outside of prayer?

Finally, some mistakenly look for exact words in the Qur’an to validate certain obligations such as hijab. “If there was an ayah in the Qur’an which read, ‘All women must cover their hair’,” I would have done so in a minute!” claim some who challenge the concept. Take a step back and remember that the command is to take the headscarf that covers the hair (khimar) and to modify how it was being worn. If there was a room full of women wearing head scarves, and you wanted them to cover their ears, neck and chest; how would you phrase the request? Would you ask them to put on a headscarf that they are already wearing, and then to cover the exposed areas or would you simply ask them to cover their exposed areas?

Conclusion

Referring back to our dear sister who submitted this question, the arguments you’ve heard to take off the hijab may seem convincing, however they are wholly unsound. To attract attention to yourself because you look different with the hijab is not the same as attracting sexual attention. And to refer to the verses and ahadith relating to hijab as interpretation is unfounded (there are many more ahadith not included in this article for the sake of brevity).  Finally, some use the ayah, “[…] Allah intends for you ease, and does not intend for you hardship […]” (2:185) to argue that hijab is not compulsory. If we had such license to rationalize away other injunctions when faced with any level of difficulty, what would happen to praying five times a day and to fasting?

While others around you were comfortable in taking off their hijab, I urge you not to do the same! From my experiences with sisters who have followed the same path, I have invariably seen unfortunate subsequent changes. Such changes include: tighter clothing, lower necklines, shorter hemlines, and more lavish hair-do’s, despite the intention not to. I know some sisters have had bad situations in which they were forcefully coerced into removing their hijab, may Allah make it easy for you. But for those sisters who contemplate this action by their own choice, I urge you and all of our readers to seek the pleasure of Allah and not the pleasure of His creation.


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  1. Ruh Al Ma’ani by Shihaab Adeen Abi Athanaa’, vol. 18, pp. 309, 313 []
  2. Al Mufassal fi Ahkam Al Mar’a wa Bayt Al Muslim by Abd Al Kareem Zaydaan, vol. 3, pp. 317-320 []
  3. See Shuroot Al Hijab Al Islamiyya by Dr. Fouad Al Baraazi []
  4. Contemporary Fatwas by Sheik Yusuf Al Qaradawi, vol. 1, pp. 453-455 []
  5. Contemporary Fatwas by Sheik Yusuf Al Qaradawi, vol. 1, pp. 453-455 []
  6. See What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2008 []
  7. See www.Catholicplanet.com/veil/index.htm []
  8. Ruh Al Ma’ani by Shihaab Adeen Abi Athanaa’, vol. 18, pp. 309, 313 []
  9. See “The Bible on Women and Their Hair” http://www.therefiner’sfire.org/women’s_hair.htm []
  10. History of Costume, by Braun and Schneider []
  11. Al Mufassal fi Ahkam Al Mar’a wa Bayt Al Muslim by Abd Al Kareem Zaydaan, vol. 3, pp. 317-320 []

156 Comments

  1. Junaid abbaxi says:

    Im the summary of verse, the 5th point u mentioned is
    Not to display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers…etc.
    I think the most beautiful part from which a man can get attracted is the face, and this verse tells that a women should cover her face also. Not only head and the othe parrs only.

    • A Woman says:

      In short, you are left to choose what you think is modest enough according to the Quaran’s teachings. To cover yourself completely will help lessen your beauty, I suppose, but to cover the face as well? To be blunt, I find it odd that a woman must go through all this trouble of covering herself just because of the disrespectful behaviour of other men. It is the man that is at fault, not the woman (in general). Mutual respect and modesty between the two genders is what’s needed, not a simple veil, hijab or burka.

      • A Woman says:

        (I’ll have to correct myself: in that particular situation, it is the man at fault, not the woman.)

        In short, I believe the Quran wishes for women and men to be modest and respectful towards each other, and that the hijab is a personal choice.

        • Muna Ahmad says:

          Trust me sister, you would not be giving that excuse on the day of judgment for not covering yourself up or question Allah’s decision to order women to cover themselves up. We are helpless and we are all ashamed of ourselves when we stand in the day of judgment so it is best to trust what the Quran says and just cover up, its a little sacrifice to please Allah. In addition, Allah says: “Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul. And whoever errs only errs against it. And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And never would We punish until We sent a messenger.” (sura al-Isra 17:15) so don’t go on misleading others. Ma’asalam.

  2. A Muslim Woman says:

    Oh Allah, I can’t believe this! Its not about what you think, the Quran isn’t based on your thoughts of what beauty is, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Didn’t the prophet say the face was okay to show including the hands? Pardon me, I forgot its all about what you think. Why would Allah tell men to lower their gaze if women are suppose to be covered from head to toe? A woman covered from head to toe doesn’t attract attention and doesn’t freak anyone out, you’re right (in your imaginary world). This is why people should follow the holy Quran because everyone have their own opinion. Again, Allah SWT made it clear to us and didn’t mention hair or covering it in the holy Quran, let alone face covering none sense and that’s a fact!

    • Muna Ahmad says:

      oh sister, you are confused in your own reasoning to question that hijab is an obligation. Allah clearly states in sura Al-ahzab chapter 33 verse 59: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.(sūrat al-aḥzāb 33:59)
      What more do you need? cover your hair and wear loose cloth.

      • A Muslim Woman says:

        I will say this over and over the verse doesn’t state anything about covering the hair and its clear, there’s no doubt about it. In your other comment you told me to trust you, why would I trust a stranger, I’m not suppose trust you over God’s word. How could you demand that I wear hijab and loose cloths. I don’t wear hijab, but I dress modernly and that’s only because its written in the Quran, not because I trust you. Would you be offended if I tell you take off your Hijab because God didn’t mention it in the Quran?

    • WK says:

      Finally, someone speaking some sense! The burkah especially is dangerous… Dangerous for security and also dangerous for women’s health if not worn responsibly (lack of sunlight to the skin causes severe vitamin D deficiency. Why would God ask a human being to do something which is bad for them?

      • WK says:

        Sorry, this was a reply to “A Muslim woman”

      • A Muslim Woman says:

        I agree with you WK, why would Allah stop them from enjoying life, from seeing the sunlight, and from living a natural life. All because of men sake? It doesn’t make sense. Allah told men to lower their gaze for a reason. He didn’t say if you see a woman that’s not covered , you’re allowed to look at her because you can’t control yourself.

        • WK says:

          Exactly, it’s a two-way deal. Modesty is dependant on where you live and what the norm is where one is. Men need to make more of an effort too.

    • Paul Bartlett says:

      I live in a large metropolitan area with a significant international population. From time to time I go to a shopping mall for coffee and to walk around. Sometimes I will pass a young, presumably Muslim, woman with a hijab, tasteful in appearance, and loose fitting but otherwise stylish clothes. I notice her, appreciate, and walk on. Within a few steps I have nearly forgotten her and go on about my business, because her attire, while modest, does not stand out and does not attract attention.

      Then I pass a woman draped from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet (hem dragging on the ground) in stark black with a face covering just barely showing her eyes. (An attire that might literally be against the law here forbidding concealing the face in public.) She is so out of the ordinary in a western country, it is almost as if she is screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! See how different I am! See what I look like!” She attracts attention in a way that the other does not.

      Is wearing an attire that is so out of the ordinary that it attracts stares and attention really modest? As I mentioned, the first young woman I forget about in a few steps. The second almost shrieks for attention. Who is more modest?

      • WK says:

        I agree Paul. It defeats the purpose of detracting attention when an attire is completely out of the ordinary. In a country where wearing such things is the norm, maybe it would be inconspicuous. As a Muslim myself, I think wearing a burqah is neither purposeful or useful. Especially in the west. Modesty is subjective, and not as black and white as some people make it.

  3. Muna Ahmad says:

    O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.(sūrat l-aḥzāb 33:59)

    • WK says:

      Muna, this verse is debatable. Arabian women were already wearing loose a covering over their heads culturally before Islam. Just as some Arabian men do. This is to cover them from the suns heat. Women of that time started using their head scarves in such a way as to expose their necks and cleavage (as I’ve seen some Muslim women do nowadays too!). This verse was basically to say “cover up your cleavage with the scarves you wear on your heads”. Not “cover your heads”. It’s asking women to cover their cleavage that’s all!

  4. Muna Ahmad says:

    The prophet(s.a.w.) said “The halal is clear and the haram is clear. Between the two there are doubtful matters concerning which people do not know whether they are halal or haram. One who avoids them in order to safeguard his religion and his honor is safe, while if someone engages in a part of them he may be doing something haram..”

    Allah has explicitly mentioned for the women to cover themselves with hijab and to wear loose closing so that they do not their shape. So there is no negotiation about ‘oh men should do this because this is their problem…’ Everyone should focus on what is expected of them and how can they do it best, because in the day of judgment you will be asked about your obedience not others. Ma’asalam

  5. Musa says:

    Muna, are you a scholar?

    Because your responses are very inappropriate. Everyone should disregard your statement, and listen to Sh. Webb’s research, and advice.

    Salaams to everyone elese

  6. Sister B says:

    If the verses from the Qur’an are debatable, then what about the hadith of the Prophet where he tells a young girl that only her face and hands should be seen?

    Doesn’t this clarify what is meant in the Qur’an?

    I hope Allah will show all of us what is correct and help us to live, speak and think in a way that will please Him.

    • WK says:

      I think the Hadith you’re referring to is the one where the Prophet (saw) pointed to the face and hands to say they can be visible. He didn’t verbalise it. If it was so important to cover the hair, it would have been explicitly said. The pointing to around the face area could be interpreted to mean either the face or the whole head. I think the most important thing is to dress modestly. As is pretty apparent, modesty is subjective to where and when you live. Sometimes excessively covering up attracts more attention, which defeats the purpose. It’s purely about using common sense. Allah has separated us from other creation by giving us intelligence. We don’t need to be scholars to use our brains.

      • Sister B says:

        Thank you for your response.

        I don’t think that how Allah would like us to dress is subjective on where we live, but I agree that modesty in behavior and dress are key.

        Unfortunately, head covering has taken on many different meanings in today’s age. I think this issue was less complex during the time of the Prophet. In some countries, head covering has even been politicized and has become a political symbol or a political identity. Can you believe it?

        Some people where I live (I live in a Muslim country) cover their heads for various different reasons– some out of pressure, some because they want to fit in, some to avoid being harassed by men, some because they want to show the world which political leader they support and some to please God. But it should only be done to please God in my opinion.

        Unfortunately, these additional social meanings of covering one’s head confuses people and misguides them. So this is the time when we need to go back to the Qur’an and rediscover what Allah expects of us. Because our faith and the right way is becoming muddy in more ways than one. Head covering is only one such issue. People use religion to achieve different goals, I meet many people who pray five times a day but are total hypocrites who do not follow the teachings of Allah in most aspects of their lives.

        So there is no harm in these discussions, there can only be benefit. We Muslims need to find the right way and remove all these taints and confusions from our faith.

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