What is the Hijab?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The original article appeared in “Tudung: Beyond Face Value,” printed on 18th July, 2002 by Bridges Books.  The article has been rewritten.

The root word for “hijab” literally means ‘to cover.’  It originally referred to the curtains in the apartments that separated the women from men who were not her relatives.  Over time, it developed linguistically to refer to the clothing of the women.  The hijab may have been an ubiquitous feature of Muslim women but it is not unique to them.  The various types of head coverings have a long history in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  It is not at all surprising that the iconography of the Virgin Mary, Maryam (a.s.), all show her with her headscarf.

Until the 1960s, it was obligatory for women going to church to cover the head.  It still is in many conservative churches around the world.  The same applies for the Orthodox Jewish women going to the synagogue.  Today, the nuns and much of the laity of the more traditional Catholic Orders still wear austere habits that for the most part conform to shari’ah requirements.  In the Middle East and North Africa, we still find similar practices amongst Muslims and members of the various old Churches: the Nestorians, the Copts, the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholics amongst others.  Orthodox Jews are also very strict in their observance of modesty as dictated by the Law.

In Islam, the parts of the body that have to be covered constitute the ‘awrah.  The root word in Arabic may have the connotation of defectiveness, blemish, vulnerability, nakedness, weakness or imperfection.  The ‘awrah of a woman varies slightly according to the different schools of jurisprudence.  It also varies according to the situation.

In ritual prayer, a woman must cover her entire body excluding her face and her hands.  She must also cover her hair to the hairline on the head and the area under the chin.  The basis of this is as a requirement for the worship and thus it does not change whether she is praying alone or in congregation.

There is no restriction as to the body parts a woman may show to her husband in private.  The husband and wife can see any part of each other’s body.  It is recommended that she cover her sexual organs even when alone in private for spiritual reasons.  The ‘awrah of a woman amongst other women is the same as the ‘awrah of men.  It is from her navel to her knees.  In front of a mahram, close male relative, a woman may show her entire head including the neck, her hands up to the forearms and her feet up to the calves.  The rest must remain covered.

In front of other men, the prevailing general opinion is that a woman should cover her entire body except her face and hands.  There is a difference of opinion with regards the feet with Hanafi madzhab saying it is permissible whilst the Shafi’i madzhab stating that it is not.  It is also permissible for her to show some hair according to some.  In addition to the extent of the covering, the clothing must not be too tight and too revealing.  Wearing adornments that draw unnecessary attention is also not encouraged.  This may include ostentatious jewellery and heavy make-up.  None of the schools of jurisprudence make the niqab, the veil across the face, compulsory.  According to Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.), it is a sunnah, a recommended practice.

It is important to note that the Qur’an itself does not state that women should be veiled.  The rulings and guidelines for female dress are ruling of the scholars based on the hadits and the consensus of scholars.  Except for what is compulsory, there is much leeway and the female dress has evolved considerably.  Much of what Muslim women wear such as the burqa, the jilbab and the tudung are very much cultural interpretations of a religious injunction.  Some are more conservative than others.

What the Qur’an does Say is this:

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is Well Acquainted with all that they do.  And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments ... (Surah an-Nur:30-31)

It starts with the behaviour of the men.  It is incumbent upon men to lower the gaze for modesty and restraint begins in the heart of the faithful.  Far too much has been said about how women should dress and behave by men who look far more than they should.

With regards to women, the verse begins by telling them to lower their gaze.  Again, it begins with the spiritual and the internal.  Impropriety begins in the heart.  It then gives a general instruction to guard the modest and a specific one to cover the bosom.  It was the practice of women in some strata of pre-Islamic Makkan society to be topless.  It does not mention the hijab in the sense we are acquainted with now.  Neither does it mention the veil.

In an environment where it has been politicised, the hijab is neither the resurgence of Islamic extremism nor a rebellion against modernism.  It is neither a fashion statement nor a symbol of oppression.  It is merely an attempt to submit to the Divine Law.  It is a concept of modesty more than a piece of cloth.  Appreciating the Wisdom of a Divine Injunction entails understanding the concept of preserving modesty and maintaining the social order.  That being said, the mere covering of the head or the mere uncovering of the head does not give an indication of piety, but a preference of ikhtilaf.  I do not subscribe to the view that the hijab is compulsory since it is an issue of fiqh, and fiqh has a zaman and a makan, a time and place.


  1. Thank you for this post, I love how you have discribed the different opinions of the different schools, instead of saying this and that is the correct way- which many muslims do.

    peace be with you, I hope you will continue this blog :)

    1. Wa 'Alaykum as-Salaam,

      Thank you.

      Wa as-Salaam


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