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The Concept of Hijab in Islam

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 

This essay attempt to briefly enumerate the basic requirements regarding Muslim women's dress (hijab) as stipulated by the Shari'ah. The term hijab, includes not only the covering of body, but methods of behavior before members of the same or opposite sex, promoting privacy for females and prohibiting intermingling sexes, to ensure modesty, decency, chastity and above all, respect and worship of Allah.

Minor differences exist among the scholars regarding the actual number of the requirements because of varying methods used in codifying them. The ones mentioned here represent the ones agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of scholars and are all solidly backed by firm evidence taken from the Qur'an, the Sunnah and the practice of the Sahabah (the Companions).

First Requirement: The Extent of Covering

The dress worn in public must cover the entire body except what has been specifically excluded, based upon the following proofs: Allah says:

" And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts from sin and not show of their adornment except only that which is apparent, and draw their head covers over their necks and bosoms and not reveal their adornment except to And that they should not I strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And 0 you Believers! Turn you all together towards Allah in repentance that you may be successful." (24:31)

The word zeenah in the Ayah above, literally means adornment and includes both the woman's natural or physical beauty, and that with which they adorn themselves, such as, jewelry, eye shadow, attractive clothing, hand dye, etc.

Surah An-Nur spells out specifically the commands concerning the fact that a woman's natural beauty and her adornments are to be concealed from strangers except by what may show due to accidental or uncontrollable factors such as the blowing of the wind, etc., and what has been exempted (see explanation at end of this section).

Allah says: "0 Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments above themselves ( when they go out). That is better so that they may be recognized and not molested. And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." (33:59)

Abu Dawood narrates that Aishah (raa) said: " Asma'a the daughter of Abu Bakr (raa) came to see the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) wearing a thin dress; so Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) turned away from her and said: "0 Asma'a, once a woman reaches the age of puberty, no part of her body should be seen but this -and he pointed to his face and hands."

The word khumur (pI. of khimar) refers to a cloth which covers the head, ears, hair, neck and bosom. The esteemed mufaasir (Qur'anic interpreter) Al-Qurtubi explains: Women in the past used to cover their heads with the khimar, throwing its ends over their backs. This left the neck and the upper part of the chest bare, in the manner of the Christians. Then Allah commanded them to cover those parts with the khimar.

Allah states further in this Ayah: "... And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornments " The women in the time of the Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) wore anklets which could be employed to attract attention by stamping their feet, thereby, making the anklets tinkle. This practice is not only forbidden by Allah, but shows that the legs and ankles are to be covered as well. Some of the modern day Hanafi scholars are of the mistaken view that a woman can display her feet, a portion of her forearms and the! ears; yet there is no authentic proof from the practice of the Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) or his Sahabah to uphold such a view.

Amongst the authentic Ahadith which clarify this point is the following: Ibn Umar (raa) reported that the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) said: " On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will not look at the man who trails his garments along out of pride". Umm Salamah then asked:" What should women do with (the hems of) their garments?" He replied: "Let them lower them a bandspan". She replied: " Their feet would be exposed!" He then said: "Let them lower them a forearm's length but no more." (Reported by At-Tabarani- Sahih)

The major point of difference among the scholars concerns the hadith of Asma'a (raa) i.e., that the face and hands need not be covered; a number of the scholars have maintained that the face hands must also be covered, because it was the practice of the of the Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) and the wives of the Sahabah to themselves completely according to authentic Ahadith. The above point has been a topic of debate amongst the scholars both past and present and will be dealt with, Inshallah at the end of essay.

Second Requirement: Thickness

The garment should be thick and opaque so as not to display skin color and form of the body beneath it. Delicate or transparent clothing does not constitute a proper covering. The Sahabah were very stern on this and regarded scanty clothing in public as an indicator of a woman's lack of belief. AI-Qurtubi reports a narration from Ayesha (raa) that some women from Banu Tamim came to see her wearing transparent clothing, Ayesha said to them: "If you are believing women, these are not the clothes of believing women." He also reports that a bride came to see wearing a sheer, transparent khimaar, whereupon Ayesha (raa) said: " A woman who wears such clothing does not believe in Surah An-Nur."

Moreover, the following hadith makes this point graphically Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) said: "There will be in the last of my Ummah (nation of believers), scantily dressed women, the hair on the top of their heads like a camels hump. Curse them, for verily they are cursed." In another version he said:" … scantily dressed women, who go astray and others go astray; will not enter Paradise nor smell its fragrance, although it can be smelled from afar." (At-Tabarani and Sahih Muslim)

Scantily dressed women : "are those who wear clothing which reveals more than it conceals, thereby, increasing her attractiveness while opening the path to a host of evils."

Third Requirement: Looseness :

The clothing must hang loosely enough and not be tight-fitting show the shape and size of the woman's body, The reason for wearing a garment which is wide and loose fitting is that the on of Muslim women's clothing is to eliminate lure and beauty of her body from the eye of the beholder. Skin-tight body etc. may conceal the skin color, yet they display the size and of the limbs and body. The following hadith proves this clearly: Usamah ibn Zaid said: " Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) gave me a gift of thick Coptic cloth he had received as a gift from Dahiah Al-Kalbi, and so I gave it to my wife. Thereafter, the Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) asked thy didn't you wear the Coptic cloth? I replied: I gave it to my wife. Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) then said: Tell her to wear a thick gown under it ( the Coptic garment) for I fear that it may describe the size of her limbs. " narrated by Ahmad, AI-Bayhaqi, and AI-Haakim)

Fourth Requirement: Color- Appearance -Demeanor

Allah says: 0 wives of the Prophet! You are not like any other women; if you fear ( Allah) , then do not be too pleasant of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should feel desire (for you) ." (33:32)

The reason for the revelation of this verse is not the fear of distrust nor misbehavior on the part of the women, but rather to prevent them from speaking invitingly, walking seductively, or dressing revealingly so as to arouse sexual desire in the heart of lecherous and evil men.

Seductive dressing and enticing speech arc the characteristics of ill-intentioned women, not Muslims. AI-Qurtubi mentions that Mujahid (raa) said: "Women (before the advent of Islam) used to walk about (alluringly) among men." Qatadah (raa) said: "They used to walk in a sensuous and seductive manner." Maqatil (raa) said: "The women used to wear an untied cloth on their heads, while provocatively toying with their necklaces, earrings and other ornamental jewelry."

A garment which is intended to conceal a woman and her beauty from public view cannot be a thing which enhances her beauty. Therefore, the garment should not contain bright colors, bold designs or reflective material that draw men's attention to the wearer. Imam Adh-Dhahabi says in his book Kitab AI-Kabalir (The Book of Major Sins): " Amongst the deeds which a woman is cursed for are displaying the adornments she wears, wearing perfume when she goes out, and wearing colorful clothes " Hence, the Muslim woman is encouraged to wear muted, somber colors and to avoid bright designs, patterns and colors.

The Fifth Requirement: Difference from Men's Clothing

The clothing of a Muslim woman must not resemble the clothing of men. The following hadith helps to explain this. Abu Hurayrah (raa) said: Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) cursed the man who wears women's clothes and the woman who wears men's clothes. (Abu Dawood and Ibn Majah-Saheeh)

The Sixth Requirement: Difference from the Clothing of Unbelievers

Her clothing must not resemble the clothing of unbelievers. Indeed, dissimilarity with unbelievers is a precedent that was established by the first generation of Islam. The following hadith will help to clarify this position:

Abdullah ibn Umar (raa) said: Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) stated: "Whoever resembles a people is one of them." (Abu Dawood)

The Seventh Requirement: No Vain or Ostentatious Dressing

The woman's dress must not be an expression of ostentation, vanity or as a status symbol by being excessively showy or expensive, nor must it be excessively tattered so as to gain admiration and fame for being humble. Ibn Umar (raa) reported that Allah's Messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) said: Whoever dresses for ostentation in this world, Allah will dress that person in a dress of humiliation on the Day of Resurrection, and then set it on fire. (Abu Dawood)  

It has been authentically related in Sahih AI-Bukhari, the Muwatta of Imam Malik and the Sunan of Abu Dawood that the Prophet (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam) forbade women from covering their faces and hands during their performance of Salah, or while in a state of Ihram. This indicates clearly that wearing the face veil was a common practice during the time of the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam), and not as some people claim, a cultural practice that appeared years later.

The issue of the Niqab has continued to arouse extended controversy and debate between Ulama (scholars) and Fuqaha (jurists) both past and present concerning whether it is Wajib (mandatory) or Mustahab (favored by Allah) for the woman. And whether she subsequently falls into sin by exposing her face or not. Each of the two sides clings to their own opinions which they support with evidence from the Qur'anic Ayah, the Prophetic Ahadith and the practice of the Sahabah and their views.

One of the views on this is that the Niqab is legally binding on the woman -and who abandons it is a sinner. It says that the woman's face which she is ordered not to reveal to non-relatives is definitely part of the Auwrah. The other view says that the Niqab is simply recommended and encourages the woman to cover her face; however, it does not place it on the level of mandatory. Consequently, this opinion does not consider the woman falling into sin when she exposes and unveils her face as long as in doing so, she has not applied facial makeup.

The dispute continues between the two viewpoints and takes, on certain occasions, bitter aspects. The advocates for making the face veil mandatory accuses the other group of following their own desires. While the other group accuses their opponents with being obstinate fanatics. The matter is much broader than this and toes not require accusations of obstinance or of following the desires but rather requires reaching Ijtihad (judgement based on he Shari'ah) and following Dalil (proof from the Shari'ah) to the lest of one's ability.

To give the benefit of the doubt in such a situation is better and most befitting for the Muslim, limiting the points of difference and narrowing the gap of disagreement are two factors which are ought after. I do not want in this rush to take a side with one "group over the other; nor to validate the proofs of which I see the truth in this issue. Rather the aim is, as I said, to narrow the controversy and highlight the points agreed upon. Thereby, we may adopt them and work on spreading them. As for the point of disagreement, it will remain under the category of Ijtihad whose advocate will be rewarded whether he attains truth or was mistaken.

First: Since the two views agree upon the legitimacy of the Niqab, that it is a consumate perfection for a woman and more virtuous for her, as well as closer to the aims of the Shari'ah- 'which is to prevent Fitnah, and is an obstruction to excuses as well as severing the path of those who follow their lusts, it is, therefore, more appropriate that the efforts should be directed to courage wearing the Niqab, and to motivate people towards it and to show and explain it's virtues and merits. This implies that covering the face with the Niqab should be the general rule and uncovering the face the exception.

Second: In spite of the fact that there are differing views on the Islamic ruling regarding whether the Niqab is obligatory or recommended, it is undoubtedly one's duty to unify the call for it and cooperate as much as possible in urging young women about its necessity and to limit their desire to expose their faces as much possible. Indeed, it is merely gracious according to both parties. Not as is happening now between opposing sides which is, leave the matter loose and dangling, through the claim that the niqab is only Mustahab, and being aloof from spreading the call for it. This is indeed an inversion of the truth and poor judgement the matter.

Hence, my fellow Muslims, when you are asked: what is the form of the hijab according to the Shari'ah, especially from a woman who loves the Deen, you should urge and encourage her wear the Niqab, even if you are of the opinion that it is only Mustahab.

Last: We truly hope from Allah for the day when all believing women rush to cover their faces with full contentment of their souls and desire for their deen is the strongest of desires. This is a hope which, without any doubt, is shared with me by those who are of the opinion of it being Mustahab and those who are of the opinion of it being Wajib.

I pray that Allah guide us along the Straight Path, and protect from deviation after having guidance. And may Allah bless the leader of His Messengers, Muhammad (Sallallahu Alayhi Wasallam), his family and his companions, and all who follow in their footsteps until the Final Hour, Ameen.

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