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Misinterpretation of some verses of Surah Ahzab on Hijab


By Shehzad Saleem

There are certain directives about women which have been erroneously derived from some verses of Surah Ahzab. These can be enumerated as follows:

i. Women must cover their faces and wear large cloaks (jilbabs) when they go out of their houses.

ii. Women must not speak in a polite tone with strangers.

iii. Women should primarily be confined to their homes.

iv. Women should be kept secluded except from their immediate relatives.

It needs to be appreciated that all the above directives have a specific background and cannot be taken as general directives regarding women. It is imperative that this background be understood: When the Islamic message gained acclaim in Madinah, the hypocrites started to tease Muslim women and scandalize the lives of the Prophet’s wives. They would try as much as they could to disparage the Prophet’s personal life and those of his wives. It was in this period when the incident of Ifk took place. A’ishah (rta), the illustrious wife of the Prophet (sws), was dragged into a scandal by these mischief makers. While referring to this general attitude of the hypocrites, the Qur’an says: 

وَالَّذِينَ يُؤْذُونَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ بِغَيْرِ مَا اكْتَسَبُوا فَقَدِ احْتَمَلُوا بُهْتَانًا وَإِثْمًا مُبِينًا يَاأَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُلْ لِأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِنْ جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَنْ يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا لَئِنْ لَمْ يَنْتَهِ الْمُنَافِقُونَ وَالَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ مَرَضٌ وَالْمُرْجِفُونَ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ لَنُغْرِيَنَّكَ بِهِمْ ثُمَّ لَا يُجَاوِرُونَكَ فِيهَا إِلَّا قَلِيلًا مَلْعُونِينَ أَيْنَمَا ثُقِفُوا أُخِذُوا وَقُتِّلُوا تَقْتِيلًا (33: 58-61)

And those who harass believing men and believing women unjustifiably shall bear the guilt of slander and a grievous sin. O Prophet! Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw over them a shawl [they may have when they go out]. That is more proper, so that they may be distinguished [from slave-women] and not be harassed. God is ever forgiving and merciful. If [after these measures also] these hypocrites and those who have the ailment [of jealousy] in their hearts and the scandal mongers of Madinah do not desist, We will rouse you against them, and their days in that city will be numbered. Cursed be they; wherever found, they would be seized and put to exemplary death. (33:58-61)


The above verses also shed light on one of their subversive activities: They would tease and torment believing women and when they would be called to account, they would say that they did not know that these were believing women. While explaining the background of this verse Ibn Kathir, the celebrated commentator of the Qur’an, records the opinion of Suddi in the following words: 

The mischief-mongers among the people of Madinah would come out on the streets at dusk and get after the women of the Ansar. The houses of the people of Madinah [in those days] were very small in size and at nightfall the women would go out on these streets [making their way to the fields] to relieve themselves. These evil people would tease these women. If they saw a woman who would be wearing a cloak they would say she is a free woman [and not a slave] and would abstain [from any evil activity] and if they saw a woman who would not be wearing a cloak [in the way prescribed by the Qur’an] they would pounce on her by saying that she is a slave woman. (Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim, vol. 3, [Beirut: Daru’l-Ahya wa al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1969], p. 518)


He then records the opinion of Mujahid in the following words: 

These women would wear cloaks [in the way prescribed by the Qur’an] so that it be known that they are free women and the mischief-mongers would not then harm or tease them. (Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim, vol. 3, [Beirut: Daru’l-Ahya wa al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1969], p. 519)


Evidently, in order to curb this prank of theirs, the Almighty directed believing women to make themselves distinct in appearance from other women so that these people could have no excuse to tease them. This distinction in appearance was to be made by drawing a part of their cloaks in front of them so that it protruded over their bodies.


Moreover, people who have derived the veil from these directives have translated the relevant part as: ‘O Prophet! tell your wives and daughters and the wives of the believers to draw a part of their cloaks over them’. ‘To draw cloaks over their faces’ is an erroneous translation. The directive means that Muslim women should draw a part of their cloaks on them so that these cloaks should dangle in front. Nowhere does the verse says that the face should be covered. In fact, the verse is devoid of the word ‘face’. If the face was required to be covered, words to this effect should have been present: ‘يُغَطِّيْنَ وُجُوْهَهُنَّ’ (yughatina wujuhahunna: they should cover their faces).


It is thus evident from this discussion that the directive given in the verse regarding cloaks and seemingly covering the face has no bearing in any way to directives in general. They only prescribe a way to deal with a particular situation that had arisen in the times of the Prophet (sws).


After dealing with the first question, the following questions which remain are answered through excerpts taken from Javed Ahmad Ghamidi’s ‘Qanun-i-Mu‘asharat’ (The Social Shari‘ah of Islam): 

i. Women must not speak in a polite tone with strangers.

ii. Women should primarily be confined to their homes.

iii. Women should be kept secluded except from their immediate relatives.


A deliberation on the contents of Surah Ahzab reveals the fact that when the hypocrites and miscreants mentioned above embarked upon a campaign to scandalize the private lives of the wives of the Prophet (sws) to make the common man averse to them and to damage the moral repute of both Islam and the Muslims, the Almighty took certain measures to curb this evil: First, He gave the noble wives the choice to leave the Prophet (sws) and live the life of common Muslim women enjoying its luxuries and comforts or to once again decide with full awareness to live forever as the wives of the Prophet (sws) in order to obtain the comforts and luxuries of the Hereafter. They were then informed that if they decided to stay with the Prophet (sws), then they must realize that their status as his wives entailed great responsibility. They are not like common women; they are like the mothers of the believers. Therefore, if they remain faithful to Allah and His Prophet (sws) and do righteous deeds with full sincerity, they will earn a two-fold reward. Likewise, they will be worthy of a two-fold punishment in relation to other women if they commit a sin. Their inner purification is beyond doubt; however, the Almighty also wants to morally cleanse them in the eyes of the people so that no one is given a chance to even cast slight aspersions on their characters. This is a requisite of their status and they must adopt certain things in their daily lives to achieve this purity.


Firstly, if they are fearful of the Almighty they should not be kind and affectionate in speech to every person who enters their house. Though in normal circumstances, one must be gentle and kind when he speaks to others, but, in the circumstances they are facing, such an attitude would only embolden the miscreants and the hypocrites around them to take undue advantage of them. Such an attitude of kindness would create in them the expectation of success in their mission – the mission of whispering evil in people’s hearts. So if ever they have to talk to such people they must speak in clear and simple tones so that those among their addressees who intend evil realize that they cannot achieve their objective. The Qur’an says:


 يَانِسَاءَ النَّبِيِّ لَسْتُنَّ كَأَحَدٍ مِنْ النِّسَاءِ إِنْ اتَّقَيْتُنَّ فَلَا تَخْضَعْنَ بِالْقَوْلِ فَيَطْمَعَ الَّذِي فِي قَلْبِهِ مَرَضٌ وَقُلْنَ قَوْلًا مَعْرُوفًا (32:33)

Wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women. So, if you fear God, do not be too complaisant in your speech, lest the lecherous-hearted should lust after you. Talk with such people in plain and simple words. (33:32)


Second, they should remain in their homes in order to protect their rank and status. All their attitudes and mannerisms should be in accordance with the status that the Almighty has conferred upon them. So if they have to go out to meet some compelling need, they must not go out displaying their ornaments and finery – something which was the way of women of the age of ignorance. Both their status and responsibility entail that they remain in their houses and diligently pray and spend in the way of Allah as much as they can and with full sincerity spend their time in obedience to the Almighty and His Prophet (sws). However, if due to some unavoidable reason they must leave their place, then they should do so in the most befitting of manners exemplifying the culture and tradition of the Muslims and not let any hypocrite to even cast an aspersion on them:


وَقَرْنَ فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ وَلَا تَبَرَّجْنَ تَبَرُّجَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ الْأُولَى وَأَقِمْنَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآتِينَ الزَّكَاةَ وَأَطِعْنَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنْكُمْ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا (33:33)


And abide still in your homes and do not display your finery as women used to do in the days of ignorance. Attend to your prayers, pay Zakah and obey God and His Messenger. O women of this house, the Almighty wants to cleanse you from the filth [these hypocrites want to besmear you with] and to fully purify you. (33:33)


Thirdly, they should try to communicate the verses of the Qur’an as well as the beliefs and moral teachings of Islam to people who come and visit them and refrain from other general gossip. It is for this very objective that the Almighty has chosen them. Their purpose of life now is the dissemination of the message of Islam and not indulgence in the luxuries of life:


وَاذْكُرْنَ مَا يُتْلَى فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ وَالْحِكْمَةِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ لَطِيفًا خَبِيرًا (34:33)


And Communicate [to your visitors] what is taught to you of the verses of God and the wisdom revealed by Him. The Almighty is very discerning and all-knowing. (33:34)


It seems that even after all these measures, the miscreants did not mend their ways. Consequently, the Almighty gave some more directives to Muslims which were to be strictly followed.


Muslims were told that no one should enter the house of the Prophet (sws) unless he was called. If people are invited to have food at the house of the Prophet (sws), they shall come right at the time of food. They shall then disperse immediately afterwards and not keep talking to one another.


The wives of the Prophet (sws) shall be secluded from the Muslims and except for near relatives and women of their acquaintance no one shall come in front of them. Anyone who wants something from their private places must ask for it from behind a veil.


The wives of the Prophet (sws) shall be the mothers of the believers. Those Hypocrites who have the desire to marry them should know that even after the death of the Prophet (sws) they cannot marry them. They are eternally prohibited for marriage after him. Consequently, every believer should honor and respect them the way he honors and respects his own mother. The Prophet (sws) is greatly distressed by the wrong attitudes of these miscreants. They must know that bothering the Prophet (sws) is not something trivial. A person may fashion out an excuse for his misdemeanor in this world but he would not be successful in justifying it before the Lord of the worlds who is aware of what is in the hearts:


يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَدْخُلُوا بُيُوتَ النَّبِيِّ إِلَّا أَنْ يُؤْذَنَ لَكُمْ إِلَى طَعَامٍ غَيْرَ نَاظِرِينَ إِنَاهُ وَلَكِنْ إِذَا دُعِيتُمْ فَادْخُلُوا فَإِذَا طَعِمْتُمْ فَانْتَشِرُوا وَلَا مُسْتَأْنِسِينَ لِحَدِيثٍ إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ يُؤْذِي النَّبِيَّ فَيَسْتَحْيِ مِنْكُمْ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَسْتَحْيِ مِنْ الْحَقِّ وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِنْ وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ ذَلِكُمْ أَطْهَرُ لِقُلُوبِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِهِنَّ وَمَا كَانَ لَكُمْ أَنْ تُؤْذُوا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَلَا أَنْ تَنْكِحُوا أَزْوَاجَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ أَبَدًا إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ عَظِيمًا إِنْ تُبْدُوا شَيْئًا أَوْ تُخْفُوهُ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًا لَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِنَّ فِي آبَائِهِنَّ وَلَا أَبْنَائِهِنَّ وَلَا إِخْوَانِهِنَّ وَلَا أَبْنَاءِ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ وَلَا أَبْنَاءِ أَخَوَاتِهِنَّ وَلَا نِسَائِهِنَّ وَلَا مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُنَّ وَاتَّقِينَ اللَّهَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدًا (33: 53-5)

Believers! do not enter the houses of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless you are given leave. But if you are invited, enter and when you have eaten, disperse. Do not engage in familiar talk, for this would distress the Prophet and he would feel shy to bid you go; but of the truth God does not feel shy. If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more pure for your hearts and their hearts. You must not speak ill of God’s Messenger, nor shall you ever wed his wives after him; this would surely be a grave offence in the sight of God. Whether you reveal or conceal them, God has knowledge of all things. It shall be no offence for the Prophet’s wives to come before their fathers, their sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women of acquaintance, or their slave-girls. [O] women [of the household of the Prophet!], have fear of God; surely God observes all things. (33:53-5)


Courtesy:  Renaissance – A  monthly  Journal of Pakistan , Vol. 15, No. 2, February 2005



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