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Chastity and Hijab in the Teachings of Prophets Muhammad and Jesus Part 1


In our age many people consider chastity as a value of little or no importance. In North America this became vividly clear when a majority of Americans were not overly bothered by the fact that President Clinton engaged in all kinds of sexual relations outside of his marriage. This erosion of the value of chastity seems to be connected at least in part to a very negative attitude in the West to the Muslim practice of hijab, which as understood in Islam, is a means and a symbol of modesty and chastity. This is ironically also true of those in the West who describe themselves as Christians, even though in the past centuries Christians prided at their sexual ethics and criticized Muslims for "promiscuity" because under certain conditions divorce as well as polygamous marriages are allowed in Islam. The new modern attitude on the part of Christians is no doubt due to their bowing to modern trends. However, for those Muslims and Christians who want to be true to their religions the most important thing should not be what the current trend is but what the Prophets Muhammad and Jesus had to say. In this article I examine the teachings of these two religious figures on the subject of chastity and hijab and in the process attempt to correct some Western and Christian misconceptions about hijab.
More specifically, the contents of the paper may be outlined as follows:

• The Qur`an
o Clothing of material and clothing of righteousness (7:22, 26)
o Purity of eyes
o Khimar (24:30-31, 60)
o Lowering gaze or reducing gaze?
o Hijab and jilbab (33:32-33, 53, 59)
o Head to be covered?
o Arguments for and against.
o Face to be covered?
o Arguments for and against.
o Confined to the houses?
o Clearly not.
o Participating in the community life?
o As much as desired
• Hadith
o The story of ifk
o Versions in Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari, and Muslim
o Version in Ibn Sa`d
o The earliest recorded version does not assume covering of face
o The occasion of the revelation of the hijab verses
o First version
o Second contradictory version
o Hijab from the blind Ibn Umm Maktum
o First version
o Second contradictory version
o Turning the head of al-Fadl bin 'Abbas
o Ahadith about haya
o Other ahadith
• The Jewish background
• The Old Testament
• The Rabbinic or oral tradition
• The sayings attributed to the Prophet Jesus with a discussion of their authenticity
• Purity of the eyes
• Prohibition of divorce as a way to stress chastity
• Celibacy
• Later developments
• Divorce
• Celibacy
• Head-covering
• The perception that hijab is a symbol of women's subjugation to men
• The perception that hijab is a suppression of female sexuality
• The perception that through hijab more burden is put on women than on men
• The argument that hijab is not needed in the West where people are used to partial nudity


The primary source of the divinely inspired teachings of the Prophet Muhammad is the Qur`an whose authenticity in its present extant form, apart from some minor uncertainties about vowels and dots, is above any doubt despite some Muslim traditions insinuating to the contrary (see John Burton, Collection of the Qur`an, 1977) and despite the misuse of such traditions by some non-Muslim scholars to raise doubts. A second source is the Hadith literature, which records many sayings and actions of the Prophet but this literature needs to be examined critically for the authenticity of its reports, since it is not above all suspicion. However, even unauthentic reports are valuable in that they tell us how the teachings of the Prophet were understood by the Muslims in the earlier centuries and in this way they can shed some light on his teaching also. In what follows I discuss what the Qur`an and Hadith have to say about chastity and hijab.

The Qur`an
In the earlier period of the Qur`anic revelation there is a frequent exhortation to guarding one's chastity and restricting sex to within well-recognized publicly known sexual partnerships. As the Muslim community enlarged, the Qur`an prescribed more specific regulations on various matters, giving more concrete form to its general moral and ethical teachings. The principle of chastity was also expressed in a concrete form through some regulations, in particular some regulations about dress.

Some connection between clothing and sexuality is established in the Qur'an at the very beginning of humanity. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God at the temptation of Satan and ate the forbidden fruit, they became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves:
Thus (Satan) led (Adam and Eve) on with guile. So when they tasted of the (forbidden) tree they became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with pieced-together leaves from the garden ... (7:22).
A few verses later the Qur`an describes human clothing as a sign of God and two purposes of clothing are mentioned: covering the nakedness and providing a "plumage," a reference to the protection from weather as well as beautification that plumage provides the birds with.
O children of Adam! We have bestowed unto you the garments to cover your nakedness and as plumage; but the garment of righteousness is best. This is among the signs of God, that they may pay heed (7:26).
Here the Qur'an recognizes that righteousness is what is really important. This statement provides the spirit in which regulations about clothing and hijab should be understood. This emphasis on the spirit however should not reduce the importance of the more concrete regulations. For an idea or attitude which is not expressed in terms of concrete actions usually dies or at least becomes too weak to exert any real influence. Likewise, an action which has lost its purpose and spirit becomes ineffective. Consequently, the Qur'an always brings idea and action, inner spirit and outer form together. Therefore, while teaching that the "garment of righteousness is best" the Qur'an also gives concrete guidance in order to help the attainment and maintenance of righteousness.

Probably the earliest such regulation is found in 24:30-31 which begins as follows:
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and (thus) guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Lo! God is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and (thus) guard their chastity, ....
"Lowering gaze" does not mean looking downward. The Arabic term is ghadda which means to reduce something but not necessarily to the zero level. In 49:3 and 31:19 it is used of lowering one's voice without, of course, being silent. Just like voice, "looking" also has different degrees of intensity. One can look without really noticing anything or look and register every detail. "Lowering gaze" means to bring down the intensity of looking or to use some restraint while looking. In the context of the present passage, it means not to look with an observant lustful look. This may at times mean turning one's eyes away.
The passage quoted above in part continues:
and not to display of their adornment (zinah) except what (normally) becomes apparent thereof and to draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. [And also tell them] not to reveal any of their adornments save to their husbands or their fathers or their husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children as yet unaware of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to draw attention to what they hide of their charms. And turn unto God, O believers (both men and women), in order that you may prosper (24:30-31).
... The women who have arrived at the stage when they do not expect to get married commit nothing wrong by lightening (literally, laying aside) their clothes without making a show of their adornment (zinah). If they also maintain modesty it is good for them. GOD is hearer, knower (24:60).
Zinah (translated above as adornment) includes attractive clothes as well as ornaments, make-up, and bodily features that attract the opposite sex. In addition to zinah there is also the concept of 'awrah which means:
1) a place of danger;
2) something, of which exposure is embarrassing;
3) something naked and unprotected.
In 33:13 the hypocrites want to return from the battle field on the false excuse that there houses are 'awrah, that is, unprotected from the enemies and open to danger. In 24:57 three occasions at which slaves and children should take permission before coming in the presence of the parents are described as three 'awraat (plural of 'awrah), times of privacy. The present passage mentions children as yet unaware of women's nakedness among the exceptions to the rule against women displaying their adornments. The word for nakedness is 'awraat which is used in the sense of private sex-related things concerning women. In Islamic fiqh the term came to refer to the part of body that should not be exposed except to one's spouse.
In time the 'awrah in this sense was fixed as follows:
For women in front of men this is the whole body except hands, feet, and the head. For women in front of other women as well as for men in front of other men and women it is the part between navel and knees.

Arabian women, both before and after Islam used to wear head-covering (khimar; pl. khumur) both as a protection from the sun and as an adornment. In accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, leaving her breasts partly bare (Ibn Kathir). Undoubtedly, women at times showed modesty by covering their bosoms with their head-covering. The Qur`an is enjoining that such modesty should be a regular feature of Muslim women's dress.
The Qur`an does not explicitly tell women to cover their heads. Does that mean that the covering of the head is not obligatory? The focus of the passage is certainly on the covering of the bosom and one may argue that the reference to the head-cover reflects the situation of Arabia. Because of intense heat, both men and women carried some piece of cloth to cover their head when they went out. The Qur`an is simply telling the women to use this piece of cloth to cover their bosoms as a practical matter and not with the expectation that the head should necessarily be covered. On the other hand, one could argue that it is understood that the head-covering will cover the head. To appreciate this point suppose somebody asked a person to cover his navel with the trousers. It would be a mockery of this suggestion, at least in the context where modesty is being taught, if the person took off his trousers and wrapped them around his waist to cover the navel, remaining naked below the waste. For in the context of teaching modesty it is understood that the trousers must cover what they normally cover. Similarly, when in the context of teaching modesty the Qur`an tells women to cover their bosoms with the head-coverings it is understood that the head-coverings must cover what they normally cover, namely, the heads. Furthermore, hair is among the attractive parts of a woman's body and the Qur`anic commandment is to hide female charms unless it is awkward to do so. Now there is nothing awkward about covering the head. Women in all cultures often do it, either as fashion or for some religious or practical reasons.
Some who deny that the Qur`an enjoins the covering of the head also point out that khimar does not necessarily mean head-cover, but any sheet or cloth that is used to cover something such as a blanket or curtain or table-cloth (the word is related to khamr ( an alcoholic drink, which is so called because it covers the consciousness). But the word can certainly mean "head-cover". In the Qur`anic verse it certainly refers to something that women normally carried, for the verse does not say that they should cover their bosoms with a khimar but with their khumur, and women normally did not carry a table-cloth or a curtain or a blanket.
It seems from the above considerations that the arguments in favor of the interpretation that head should be covered are stronger. But the case for covering head becomes even stronger in view of other verses to be discussed further below.
The words "except that which becomes apparent" are understood in two ways:
1) that part of a woman's zinat which is exposed by some accident, e.g. her head covering is removed by a strong wind; according to this interpretation, a woman needs to cover the whole body, including her face (except eyes);
2) woman need not cover what is awkward to cover such as the face and the hands.
The second interpretation is almost certainly the correct one. If the Qur`an meant the words in the first sense, why does it tell women only to cover their bosoms with their head coverings?
However, it would also be against the spirit of the Qur`an if a woman put a very attractive make-up and/or ornaments on her face and/or hands and exposed them while covering the rest of her body or making the head-covering itself very attractive and fashionable or wearing transparent or very tight clothes. Notice how the Qur`an often combines the concrete regulations about dress with a reminder of their purpose and spirit. Thus in 24:60 while the requirements of dress are relaxed for elderly women the requirement of inner modesty are still inculcated. And in 33:33, 53, to be discussed next, it is said that regulations about hijab are for the purpose of removing uncleanness and for achieving purity.

Sometimes after the revelation of the verses discussed above, the following verses were revealed:
33:32. O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the [other] women. Therefore, if you are mindful [of your duty to God] do not be over-soft in your speech, lest any whose heart is diseased should be moved to desire, but speak in a proper and goodly manner.
33:33. And stay in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to do in the time of ignorance. Pray regularly and give the due portion in charity, and obey God and His messenger. God just wishes to remove uncleanness far from you, O members of the [Prophet's] household, and lead you to complete purity.
33:53. ... And when you (O believers) ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask of them from behind a hijab. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts ...
33:59. O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw over them some outer garments [when in public]. That is better for being recognized and not being annoyed. God is ever forgiving, merciful. 

The words in verse 33, "stay in your homes" seem to have suggested to some that in Islam the ideal is almost total physical seclusion of women through confinement to homes. But in regard to these words it should be noted that they are addressed to the wives of the Prophet and the passage begins with the statement that they are not like other women. Moreover, the command "stay in your homes" should be understood in the light of the subsequent words: "and do not flaunt your charms as they used to do in the time of ignorance". That is, the command does not exclude going out for other purposes such as work or prayers or participating in some legitimate activity which is beneficial for the woman individually or for the community at large. This is as true of the wives of the Prophet as of other women. Thus, in verse 59 the Prophet's wives and daughters are specifically addressed along with other women and told to draw their outer garments over them. This instruction will not make sense if women, including wives and daughters of the Prophet were to always stay home. Finally, in 4:32 it is taken for granted that some women might engage in jobs or businesses, which of necessity will require going out.
In verse 53 believers are told to communicate with the Prophet's wives from behind a "hijab". This word means some form of barrier such as a curtain that secludes one party from the other. Thus in 19:17 Mary chooses seclusion (hijab) from her people to receive glad tidings of Jesus' birth. In 7:46 it refers to a barrier that will separate the people of heaven from the people of hell and in 83:15 we read that the unbelievers will be debarred (mahjub) from God. God is said in 42:51 to speak to man only by way of inspiration or from behind a hijab. In these verses the word may not refer to a physical barrier, since God, Heaven and Hell are not physical realities in our ordinary sense. Surah 17:45 speaks of a hidden barrier (hijab mastur) that is created between the Prophet and the unbelievers when he reads the Qur'an (see also 41:5). But in Islamic tradition the word has come to signify one or the other of the ways whereby men and women to varying degree separate themselves from each other for the purpose of promoting modesty and chastity. Very often the word is further specialized to the head cover that Muslim women wear. However, the word used by the Qur'an for head-cover is khimar.
The fact that the believers can communicate with the wives of the Prophet albeit from behind a hijab shows that the purpose of the Qur'an is not to isolate women from community life.
In the verses of Surah 24 women were only commanded to draw their head coverings over their bosoms while keeping the dress that they normally wore, which was a long tunic, although they were told not to display their adornments. In 33:59 they are asked to draw some outer garments (jalabib, plural of jilbab) over them. Jilbab, in classical Arabic means a large sheet, as we can see from the usage of the word in Hadith (see further below). But a sown outer garment such as is often used by many women in the Middle East can serve the same purpose. Like khimar respectable women might have used jilbab cover themselves over them in pre-Islamic times. The Qur'an made that practice into a rule.
Jilbab and hijab serve the same purpose. When a woman goes outside she covers herself by jilbab. But at home, of course, she is dressed in a much more relaxed way. Consequently, first of all, people are told to enter the house only after getting permission and second of all women are told to speak from behind a hijab. This hijab is only for extra convenience. Otherwise, if women are always wearing a jilbab there will be no need for hijab.
The word used for putting the jilbab on is idna' 'ala. idna' means to bring something near or close. Thus in the same verse (59) it is said that it is better for being recognized, where "it is better" is a translation of 'adna' which may be more literally translated, "it is closer". When followed by ila the word means wrap around while idna' 'ala means to put over. Thus in the verse there may be a word play: idna' 'ala of the jilbab is 'adna' for being recognized as respectable women.
How far jilbab should cover the woman is subject to interpretation. Clearly, it is not intended that everything should be covered, since at least the eyes need to remain uncovered. Some, including most of the classical interpreters such as Tabari, Zamakhshari, Razi are of the opinion that only eyes should be uncovered. On the other extreme it is said that even the head need not be covered. The words idna' 'ala, however, are more naturally interpreted that covering of the head is intended. Books of Hadith can be used to support both interpretations, although we will show later by a detailed analysis of a very early hadith that in the first century hijri the face was not covered. The interpretation that everything except the eyes needs to be covered became a prevalent view sometimes during the second century. The classical interpreters seem to be guided by this second-century prevalent view rather than by the words of the Qur'an or any authentic hadith.
Against the covering of the face one may argue that this can cause undue hardship for women, especially in hot countries and it is not the intention of the Qur'an to make life unduly hard for believers:
God desires ease for you; he does not desire hardship for you (2:185).
Another argument against the covering of the face is that in 24:30 the Qur'an tells the believing men to lower their gaze. This will not be necessary if women were to cover their faces. This argument will, however, loose its force if the verse about jilbab came after the verse about lowering gaze. Also, even after the verse about jilbab there can be occasions when a person will be face to face to a member of opposite sex and when the lowering of gaze will be relevant.
In interpreting any Qur`anic regulation we should keep in mind that an interpretation stricter than the one intended can be as wrong as an interpretation more liberal than the one intended. For, each time when we become stricter we prohibit what God has permitted while each time we are more liberal than the Qur`an we allow something that God has prohibited and the Qur`an makes it clear that both are wrong (5:87, 6:150, 7:32, 9:37, 66:1). It is one of the missions of the Prophet to prohibit exactly what is necessary and in the performance of this mission the Prophet sometimes lifts from earlier ummahs the strict regulations in which they had imprisoned themselves (7:157), either by too strict interpretations of the divine regulations or by adding to those regulations (3:93). That people can imprison themselves in stricter interpretations may seem difficult to understand, for, we generally expect people to take the easy route. There are two reasons why people may insist on stricter interpretations:
a) The tendency to relax the requirements of a regulation for making things easy for oneself are fought by the opposite tendency to insist on stricter interpretations.
b) The stricter interpretation gets associated with piety and some people who want to feel or show themselves to be very pious choose the stricter interpretation without being too concerned with what the regulation itself intends. 

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