Sr. Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood.



‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ – so perhaps I do have the qualifications to add my own small layer of thoughts to the mountainous pile.


When it comes to the issue of hijab, which most people these days know to have some connection with the Muslim concept of female modesty, oft-times the issues of being demure and modest fly out of the window.


Some Muslim women are extremely modest, but do not wish to wear any of the traditional Arabic or Asian womens’ garments, for the simple reason that they are neither Arab nor Asian. They may well take the point of view that to go swanning off in public in such attire would be the very opposite of modesty – for it would most certainly draw upon them the attention of passers-by. Some of these passers-by would indulge in ridicule – for they would suppose the ‘offending lady’ was ‘dressing up’, putting on a kind of costume like an actress. If they had known the lady before her appearance in Arab clothing, they might regard her as very peculiar, and she might certainly find it an embarrassing thing to do.


Moreover, some of the said Arab/Asian dress is not exactly synonymous with modest. It is far more alluring for many men to see women wearing the brilliant colours and glittering sequins and gold-thread embroidery of some outfits seen nowadays on the High Street rather than the usual western offerings of baggy tee-shirts and jumpers, shapeless skirts and trousers, or skirts and trousers that are far too revealing for the less than perfect figure they clad. Many men would also prefer the silks and gauzes of flowing kaftans, or the graceful drapes of saris, their wearers perhaps revealing a bit of cleavage and a bejewelled midriff, and arms bedecked with bangles.


In recent times, due largely to the publicity given to the ban on head-veils for Muslim schoolgirls in France and the case of Shahina Begum of Denbigh High School in the UK, a lot of publicity has been given to the question of hijab in general, and in Shahina’s case, a garment known as a jilbab.


Denbigh High School has a population of around a thousand girls, of whom some 80% are Muslim. The school had long ago taken their needs into consideration, consulted several Islamic scholars in Luton and an Imam from the London Central Mosque, and granted permission whilst in school, for those who wished to wear it, of a uniform consisting of the Pakistani-type shalwar-qameez (loose trousers with a long shirt worn over them) and a head covering. 


Shahina had worn this uniform for two years, but then she came across the rulings of scholars who take the view that although the shalwar-qameez is indeed modest dress it is not mentioned in the Qur’an at all, whereas the hijab and jilbab are. Shahina then requested permission to wear a jilbab, claiming that this was what her faith stipulated as compulsory. She stuck to her principles, and in June 2004 the case ended up in court, with the judge ruling in favour of the school – although the jilbab was apparently quite acceptable at other schools. The main argument of this school was that if they allowed Shahina her request, it would inevitably lead to division amongst the Muslim girls into two classes of people – those who wore the jilbab and those who wore the shalwar-qameez, with the jilbab-wearers regarding themselves as ‘better Muslims’ than those who wore the shalwar-qameez.


In March 2005 the case went to the Court of Appeal, with Shahina’s side being taken by none other than the Prime Minister’s wife Cherie Booth, and the verdict was reversed on the grounds that it violated Shahina’s right to religious freedom under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


By August 2005 there were indeed murmurs in the air that some girls who did not wish to wear the jilbab had now lost their chance to avoid it, since the ruling had convinced their parents that the jilbab must be compulsory for them after all. The girls were even more worried at the thought that this process might go further and somebody would fight for the right to wear a burqa or niqab, and then the girls might be coerced into not even being able to show their faces.


It was soon pointed out that clear definitions were lacking. What was acceptable for the Pakistani/Bangladeshi community would not be acceptable for other cultural backgrounds or for stricter Muslims. Every country and culture’s style is different, and as it happens, Shahina’s chosen jilbab would not have been accepted as properly fulfilling the traditional requirements of some other places. In Saudi Arabia she might be expected to show only her eyes, and even then to wear dark glasses to cover them up. In Tunisia she might be obliged to wear a garment that only revealed one eye. In Iran she might be expected to wear a black sheet held in place with her teeth, and amongst the Taleban or in Afghanistan the ‘shuttle-cock burqa’ that completely covered a woman and obliged her to peer through a little grid.


The real issues


There are several issues that worry Muslim ladies:

·                     what is actually meant by hijab?

·                     what is actually meant by a jilbab?

·                     where, exactly, in the Qur’an and hadiths are these things mentioned, and what should we learn from those teachings?

·                     is the garment called a jilbab actually fard (compulsory in itself), with the name jilbab used to refer to one specific style and type of garment? Could Allah really have meant that all Muslim sisters – no matter where in the world they lived or what climatic conditions - were to wear only this one particular type of garment, or are other forms of modest covering dress such as shalwar-kameez (long loose shirt and baggy trousers) just as permissible? And if so, what requirements should they fulfill?

·                     Is it compulsory for Muslim women to cover their hair?

·                     Is it compulsory for Muslim women to cover their faces?

·                     Can we judge the quality of a Muslim woman’s Islam by the amount of covering she wears?

·                     Should Muslim women be forced or coerced into wearing hijab garments?



Firstly, what is really meant by hijab?


Hijab actually comes from the Arabic word hajaba meaning to hide from view or conceal. Muhammad Asad’s excellent translation of the Qur’an gives meanings that take us from flimsy delights to solid brick walls. The concept of hijab can be defined as denoting ‘anything that intervenes between two things, or conceals, shelters or protects the one from the other.’ It not only means a barrier, obstacle, partition, screen, curtain, or veil in the literal sense of the words, but also in abstract meanings too.[1]


So the concept of hijab is the concept of covering or concealment, whether it be as delicate as a gauze veil, or as solid as the concrete wall dividing Israelis from Palestinians; as pretty as wrapping paper for a precious gift, or as plain as a sack to store potatoes in; as secure as a locked bank vault, or as flimsy as a cobweb.


These days most people in the non-Muslim world have at least heard of the word hijab, and it is usually taken to mean a Muslim woman’s head-scarf. In fact, its implications are much, much wider than that. A Muslim lady in hijab is a covered lady who is modest. Not only does she take pains to make sure that all the clothing she wears in public is modest (ie. of a sort that screens her from a lustful male gaze), but to be in hijab also refers to modest character and attitude. Her behavior screens her as much as her clothing. So, for example, if she is ‘eyeballed’ by a man she ‘lowers her gaze’ or looks away, and does not seek to ‘eyeball’ (stare at provocatively or enticingly) men herself.[2]


She guards her chastity, and chooses to cover her body in such as way as not to reveal her physical attributes, in particular her intimate female parts – such as the breasts, cleavage, ‘knicker line’, buttocks, or belly-button. If a Muslim woman dressed in any of the typical western clothing that was too tight, low-cut, transparent enough to show her underwear beneath, or made visible the outline of her intimate places – (as tight trousers with blouses that end above the hips always do) - then the phrase the Prophet (pbuh) would have used to describe her would be that she ‘appeared as naked, even though she was clothed’. (See Muslim 1000, Muwatta 48.7)


Let’s take the last question – should a Muslim woman be forced or coerced into wearing hijab clothing?


Absolutely not. If the wearing of this clothing is a response to a religious belief, one revealed by Allah in the Qur’an, then we should take as our key ruling the famous words of Surah 2.256: ‘There is no compulsion in religion. (But) True guidance has been made clearly distinct from error, and whoever (chooses it and) renounces the forces of Satan and believes in Allah has grasped the firm hand-hold that will never break. Allah, Whose hand-hold you have grasped, hears all and knows all.’


The Prophet (pbuh) was told clearly: ‘Your duty is only to convey the message.’ Surah 3.20, 5.92,99. ‘The delivery of the message is the duty for you, and the judgement is the duty for Us.’  Surah 13.40.  Even if they turn away, you are responsible only for the delivery of the clear message.’ Surah 16.82.


In other words, you do not have to do it, any more than you do not have to believe in God at all. It is entirely a matter of your own choice. Whatever you choose may well have consequences, but that is what is meant by free-will – you have the right to decide for yourself. It is therefore not the right of any Muslim person to try to force a belief or a practice on anyone, even if they feel they have the best interests of that person at heart, and even if they feel completely let down and shamed by someone in the family choosing to disappoint them.


Of course, Muslims do have the duty to point out when they think something is wrong, and to explain their point of view in such a way as will convince – but this pointing out is to be done without arrogance or sense of superiority, and explanations are to be given in the best possible way, polite and gentle ways that will not drive people away from Allah.


If a woman chooses to wear hijab clothing, it must be her own choice, made freely ‘fi sabi’l illah’ – in the cause of Allah. The attempt to force or coerce can only work through tyranny and aggression, and fear of the person forced of the consequences of upsetting the one doing the forcing. Such a forcer would actually then bring upon himself/herself the comment of the Prophet: ‘That person whose neighbour (or anyone) does not feel safe from his (or her) harm is not one of us.’ (Muslim 15, Tirmidhi 1292).



What does the Qur’an say on the subject of women’s clothing?


In the whole of the Qur’an, there are only two revelations which were sent down by Allah concerning the subject of Muslim women’s clothing - Surah 24. 31 and Surah 33.59.


There is some scholarly dispute over which of these two passages was revealed first,[3] but taken together they contain seven commands including the ruling that she should not let her intimate beauty be seen by any adult male who might be sexually attracted by her, meaning any men who were not closely related to her, so that they could marry her if they wished. Men forbidden from marriage to her because they are close blood-relatives are called mahrem. They include a woman’s father, brother, uncle, and grandfather (although it is sad fact that incidences of incest do occur even in Muslim families, to their shame).

Surah 24.31:

And say to the faithful women to lower their gaze; and to guard their private parts (furuj); and not flaunt their charms (adornment - zenat) beyond what (ordinarily) shows; and to let their covers (khimars) extend enough to cover the curves of their breasts (cleavage or curves – juyub, the plural of jaib); and not to display their charms except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband's fathers, or their sons, or their husband's sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or small children who are not yet aware of nakedness; and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to draw attention to any hidden charms. Believers, all of you, turn to Allah so that you may prosper.’ (Mainly following the translation of Professor M.A.S. Abdel Haleem of the S.O.A.S, London, published by Oxford University Press.)

Since another recent translation, with typical interpretation from more conservative scholars, adds much to these verses, I give it here:  And tell believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not show off their adornments except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over juyubihinna (ie. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)……….. (Dr Muhammad al-Hilali and Dr Muhammad Khan)


It is honest tafsir (interpretation), for it is included in brackets to differentiate it from the actual text. However, tafsir is always subject to some person’s opinion or point of view. It is important to examine the original Arabic very closely. The Arabic text is:


Wa qul li al-muminat yaghdudna min absarihinna wa yahfazna furujahunna wa laa yubdina zenatahunna illa maa zahara min haa wal-yadribna bi khumurihinna alaa juyub hinna; wa laa yubdina zenatahunna illa li bu'ulatihinna aw aba'ihinna aw aba'i bu'ulatihinna aw abna'ihinna aw abna'i bu'ulatihinna aw ikhwanihinna aw bani ikhwanihinna aw bani akhawatihinna aw nisa'ihinna aw maa malakat aymanu hunna aw at-tabi'ina ghayri ulu'l-irbat min ar-rijal aw at-tifl alladhina lam yazharu ala awrat an-nisa wa laa yadribna bi arjulihinna li yu'lama maa yukhfina min zenatahinna. Wa tubu ilaAllahi jami'an, ayyuha al-mu'minun la'allakum tuflihun.’


Thus Surah 24.31 gives several rulings for modest behaviour, and in fact only specifically mentions one article of clothing – the khimar: ‘And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their adornment except what is apparent of it, and to extend their khumur to cover their juyub’.


We will discuss khimar and juyub shortly.


Surah 33.59


The second reference in the Qur’an to women’s clothing gives us our mention of the jilbab. Whether this text or the one in Surah 24 came first, the words in Surah 33.59 most certainly back up the previous commands for modesty.


In Surah 33.59 we read: ‘O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their jilbabs close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle.’


Ya ayyuha an-Nabi, qul li azwajika wa banatika wa nisa al-muminin yudnina alayhinna min jalabib hinna; dhalika adna an yu'rafna fa laa yu'dhayn. Wa kana Allahu Ghafur ar-Rahim.’


Obviously, even before this verse was revealed, the ladies were already wearing jilbabs. Many scholars offer their own opinions on what ‘draw their jalabib close around themselves’ means. For example, Tabari took it to mean that ‘she should bring the jilbab close to her face without covering it’, and: ‘Others believe that the women have been directed to secure their jalabib firmly on their foreheads.’ Professor  Muhammad Abdel Haleem, however, comments that the Arabic idiom adna al-jilbab means ‘make it hang low’ rather than ‘wrap around’ as so many translators have assumed.


What about women who did not have a jilbab?

Some women apparently did not own the garments called jilbab. Umm Atiyyah, one of the Prophet’s (pbuh) learned lady companions, recorded that even if certain women did not normally attend prayers at the mosque, they were to do so for the Eid gatherings. She said: ‘We were ordered to bring out our menstruating women and screened women to the religious gatherings and invocation of the Muslims on the two Eid festivals, although the menstruating women were to keep away from the musalla (the place where the prayers would actually be said). (Bukhari 1.321). A woman asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah! What if one of them does not have a jilbab?’ He said: ‘Then let her borrow the jilbab of her friend.’ (Bukhari 1.347).

In other words, rather than go out without the garment called  jilbab, they should make sure they had got one, even if they had to borrow one.



An examination of the key words


So our key words are the jilbab of Surah 33.59, and the khimar (cover), furuj (intimate private parts), juyub (curved shape), zenat (adornments, charms), and ‘illa maa zahara min haa’ (that which is (normally) apparent of it, of Surah 24.31. We also need to discuss niqab (face-veil).


What is a khimar?


The word khimar comes from the Arabic khamr, the root meaning of which is to cover. Everything and anything that covers something else is called its khimar. For example, when the Prophet (pbuh) was worried about flies falling into water-jars, he used the words: ‘Khammiru aaniyatakum (cover your vessels).’ One of the old slang words in London for a hat was a ‘lid’.


As regarded Arab women’s clothing, the khimar was something to go on the head, a piece of veiling of some description, often worn fixed in their hair and trailing gracefully down their backs in a decorative manner. More modest women (and women at work) would probably wear it to tie up or tie back their hair, or to cover their hair completely.


As Ibn Kathir explained: ‘Khumur is the plural of khimar which means something that covers, and is what is used to cover the head.’ The dictionary of classical Arabic, Aqrab al-Mawarid, states: ‘[The word khimar refers to] all pieces of cloth which are used to cover the head. It is a piece of cloth which is used by a woman to cover her head.’ Shaykh Muhammad Nasiruddin Albani stated: ‘The word khimar linguistically means only a head covering. Whenever it is mentioned in general terms, this is what is intended.’


Thus, it is not the same thing as hijab, since hijab is to modestly cover all of a woman’s body, whilst the khimar generally refers specifically to something with which a woman covers her head.


The word juyub.


As so many women do today, Arab women in the times before Islam thought nothing of wearing garments which showed the cleavage of their breasts in public. Some items were low-cut, others wrap-around, some transparent. Some women would suckle babies in public, would on occasions bare their entire breasts (as Hind and other leading women did to fire up their menfolk for battle), and would take it as normal to bedeck their heads, necks, ears and cleavage with jewellery.


Juyub is the plural of the word jayb, which means breast or bosom. The word juyub is used to depict a particular mathematical curved shape (as stupa does in referring to certain Buddhist shrines) and implies the curved shape of a woman’s breasts. It is often used in Arabic to identify the breast-pocket on a shirt, as opposed to the hip-pocket.


This all leads me to suppose that in this verse Muslim women are particularly being asked not to be deliberately provocative with their breasts. An immodest lady’s khimar might amount to little more than a ribbon or two, but a modest Muslim lady should wear a khimar that not only had enough material to cover her head, but could be drawn forward in such a way as to cover her cleavage and breasts too. But when Surah 28.32 describes Moses as putting his hand in his jayb, meaning his breast, it did not mean his body, face, neck and bosom! Whoever translates juyub as bodies, faces, necks, and bosoms has actually added an opinion to the text. That opinion may be right or wrong, but it is not actually in the text.


In fact, I would regard the teaching to apply even to women who did not wear a head-cover at all – they were still required as modest Muslims to draw something over their cleavage and breasts.


The word zenat


The word zenat implies female adornments or charms, and has been interpreted in all sorts of ways – from being a show-off with one’s expensive jewellery, to anything about a female that could arouse a man sexually. The majority of Muslim scholars take it to mean face and hands, although some would like to include feet and ankles, every lock of hair, and even a woman’s voice.


The phrase ‘striking their feet to make known what they hide of their zenat’ sounds odd to the modern western ear. In Muhammad Asad’s translation he renders the phrase yadribna bi-arfulhinna as ‘swinging the legs while walking’, being idiomatically similar to daraba bi-yadaihi mishyatihi (to describe a man swinging his arms while walking).


It might refer to the deliberate jingling of ankle-bracelets (which arouse many men even though the woman wearing the bracelets is otherwise totally covered) – but I feel that once again we are in the territory of breasts. It suggests to me what happens every time a woman makes some boisterous movement such as stamping her feet - it bounces her breasts up and down. They become very obvious and an immediate focal point for every male watching. To make things even less modest, the friction of moving clothing on bare breasts, sexual arousal and just plain cold weather are all well-known causes of the erection of a woman’s nipples.


In today’s world, it might mean that a Muslim woman should wear a good supportive bra rather than flaunt the free ‘bouncy boobs’ and protruding nipples of the ‘burn the bra’ era! The wet tee-shirts of the West and wet Indian clothing of Bollywood films which flaunt the female shape so specifically are exactly what a Muslim woman should not be wearing.


Modest Muslim women should dress in such a way that her curves cannot be seen – which must mean a garment that is opaque, with something supportive or at least concealing, beneath.


The words ‘that which is (normally) apparent’


What does ‘except that which is apparent of it’ (illa maa zahara min haa) actually mean? Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi has provided an excellent survey of the opinions on this subject in his book  The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam. The majority opinion takes the phrase to mean the face and hands. Tabari, Razi, and Zamakhshari all took this position, and not that it was an order for Muslim women to cover faces, eyes, one eye, or wear some form of niqab.


Other commentators do add some of the extras. For example, Qurtubi’s commentary on Surah 24.30 stated that women in the time of the Prophet (pbuh) ‘used to cover their heads with the khimar, throwing its ends upon their backs. This left the neck and the upper part of the breast (ie. cleavage) bare, along with the ears, in the manner of the Christians. Then Allah commanded them to cover those parts with the khimar.’ His suggestion that Muslim women should make some effort to distinguish themselves from the Christian women would apparently rule out showing the ears, ear-rings, necks and necklaces.


Ibn Kathir made much the same point. He said that  to ‘Draw their khumur to cover their breasts’ meant that they should wear the khimar in such a way that they covered their breasts, so that they would be different from the women of jahiliyyah who did not do that, but used to pass in front of men with their breasts uncovered, and with their necks, forelocks, hair and earrings uncovered.’  So, here is an opinion that bans even a wisp of hair at the front of the head-veil.


I personally would maintain that Allah’s words ‘except what is apparent of it’ (illa maa zahara min haa) really mean ‘that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom’ (al-‘adah al-jariya). Certainly the words have a vagueness which was presumably deliberate on Allah’s part. His reason may have been precisely in order to allow for all the changes over time in the moral and social growth of humanity. The pivotal clause, identical for both men and women, was that when confronted by a man or woman whose beauty caused a moment of temptation or sudden pang of sexuality, they should ‘lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity’. The lack of detail of Allah’s wording would determine, at any time or in any culture, what could legitimately be regarded as decent or indecent in a person’s outward appearance. And the specific command that a woman’s khimar should cover her breast makes it clear that her breasts are not included in the concept of what could decently be shown.


So, although some scholars do take the view that the woman’s forehead, neck and ears should be covered, this is not specifically ordered and many modest women feel that it possible to find ways of covering their heads and cleavages in a modest manner that still  allows their necks and ears to be seen.


The Jilbab


The garment jilbab that Allah spoke of in Surah 33.59, which they could draw over their other clothing, was obviously something in addition to their normal modest clothing. The only obvious interpretation is that the jilbab must be some type of outer-garment, something that could be worn on top of their other clothes, those commanded in Surah 24.31.


The definitive dictionary of classical Arabic, the Lisan al-Arab by ibn al-Mandhur, provides the following definition: ‘The jilbab is the outer-garment, mantle, or cloak. It is derived from the word tajalbaba, which means to clothe. Jilbab is the outer sheet or covering which a woman wraps around her on top of her garments to cover herself from head to toe. It hides her body completely.’ (Lisan al-Arab, volume 7, page 273).


The dictionary of Abu Tahir al-Fayruzabadi gives: ‘The that which conceals the clothes like a cover.’ Jawhari’s dictionary reads: ‘The jilbab is the cover and some say it is a sheet. Jilbab has been mentioned in the hadiths with the meaning of a sheet which the woman wraps over her clothes.’


The word jalabib is the plural of jilbab. Surah 33.59 makes the assumption that Muslim women were actually already wearing the garments known as jilbabs, but now they had specific instructions to draw these jilbabs around themselves.


Professor  Muhammad Abdel Haleem, however, comments that the Arabic idiom adna al-jilbab means ‘make it hang low’ rather than ‘wrap around’ as so many translators have assumed. This suggests he assumes that the khimar is or can be part of jilbab.


Basically, a jilbab is a coat or cloak, an outer-garment, something to be put on over the normal everyday clothing when a Muslim woman goes out in public.

Concession for elderly women – Surah 24.60

More evidence that the jilbab represented an outer-garment comes in Surah 24.60, which mentioned a concession for certain women.


‘And as for elderly women, those who do not have hope of marriage, there is no fault on them if they lay aside (some of) their clothing, so long as they are not making a display of their adornment. And that they refrain is better for them. And Allah is the Hearer, the Knower.’


‘Wa al-qawa'idu min an-nisa allati laa yarjuuna nikahan fa laysa alayhinna junahun an yada'na thiyab hunna ghayra mutabarrijat bi zenat. Wa an yasta'fifna khayru la hunna. WaAllahu Sami'un Alim.’


I am not quite sure what age-range is implied by the phrase ‘elderly’, when I read of many Muslim women companions of the Prophet getting married well into their fifties – not least, some of his own wives.


How could an elderly woman lay aside any part of her clothing without making a display of her body? The concession does not alter the fact that Surah 24.31 rules that when she is around non-mahrem men, she must cover all of her body except her face and her hands, whether indoors or outdoors. So, it must surely mean that her concession is that once she has got past her ‘sell-by date’ (meaning that her charms will not be such as to overcome passing males with sexual arousal) she has permission to leave off the extra outer-garment layer of her clothing if she wishes, since the layer she wears underneath will still cover everything of her that should still modestly be covered.[4]


How much should a jilbab cover?


All the scholars agree that the jilbab is an outer-garment, but they do disagree as to how much of the body the jilbab is to cover.


The Shafi’i scholar Yusuf Qaradawi and the Salafi Shaykh Muhammad Albani, for example, would  both accept – along with the majority of scholars - that a jilbab was an opaque outer-garment that covered the clothing under it, and the woman's form.


However, other scholars, including  the Hanafi Maududi, and the Salafi  Shaykh Abdul-Aziz ibn Baz, Chief Mufti of Saudi Arabia, have taught that the coat-jilbab is just one sort of specific garment, and is not the same concept as the Qur’anic jilbab, which, in their interpretation, should also cover the face. Some scholars of the Saudi ulama, including Ibn Baz, hold that the jilbab must be a one-piece outer-garment that covers everything but the eyes. Others have ruled that it should cover a woman completely except for one eye. It should also be noted that most of these scholars also hold that Surah 24.31 orders the covering of everything but the eyes around non-mahrem men even when the Muslim woman is indoors. These latter scholars can be found on all the sites that explain and encourage the wearing of niqab, or face cover.


Typically, the tafsir of Al-Qurtabi and Drs Hilali and Khan render Surah 33.59: ‘O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their jalabib all over their bodies (screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way - Tafseer Al-Qurtabi) that is most convenient that they should be known (as free respectable women) and not molested: and Allah is Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.’

The majority opinion - that the jilbab or outer-garment should cover everything but the face and the hands - subdivides into two main opinions, either that everything that must be covered should be covered by a single garment (something like the garments known as abaya and chador), or that a combination of garments may substitute for the jilbab if they cover what the jilbab is to cover. As long as a sister covers her head and neck with the khimar, then her jilbab does not need to cover over her head, but may be like a coat, which just covers from the shoulders on down. And as long as her feet are completely covered with socks and shoes, then her jilbab does not need to come down to the ground but may come down only to the ankles.

So, according to the majority opinion of the scholars, the jilbab can be any garment or combination of garments that meet the following criteria:

·                     It is an outer-garment; an extra layer; something worn over the normal clothing.

·                     if the khimar is not worn, this garment must cover from the top of the head down, but if the khimar is worn, this garment only needs to cover from the shoulders down.

·                     it should be made of fabric that is opaque so that it does not show what is beneath it, and it must be loose so that it does not reveal the contours of what is beneath it.

·                     for modest feet, some scholars add that if socks are not worn, the garment must cover down to the ground, but if socks are worn so that the feet are completely covered, this garment only needs to cover down to the ankles.

Outdoor clothing

These scholars are agreed that the jilbab is to be worn outdoors and in open public places like the market, the masjid, etc, and does not need to be worn indoors, such as in the house or a building where access is controlled. This is because the jilbab serves the purposes of asserting the Islamic identity of a sister, and of protecting her from harassment, which are concerns only outdoors and in public. The rules in Surah 24.31 govern the dress of the Muslim woman indoors. Thus a sister may wear the khimar and any suitable modest clothing indoors, and this is her hijab for this location. However, when she goes outdoors or to open public places, she should cover her indoor clothing with outer-garments.


There are many styles that are possible, and there are many outer-garments in many Muslim cultures that can be used for what the Qur’an means by jilbab. These may be called abaya, chador, djellaba, charshaf, purdah, burnous, haik, milaya, murut, or a thousand other names. In fact, any outer-garment that meets the criteria for modesty is a jilbab.


It is worth bearing in mind that some covering garments are extremely flimsy, or extremely hot. Silky garments, or those made of polyester, can be very revealing if the wind is blowing them against the female shape beneath. It may well be prudent to wear a dress beneath of stiffer cotton, or some lining fabric, or trousers.


Jilbabs usually open down the front, and are closed with either buttons, Velcro patches or zips. According to style, the front opening may be only enough to pull the garment over the head, or it may be down to the waist, or completely down to the hem. The fabric may  be light or heavy depending on the season or climate.  A popular style is put on like a coat, and made secure with straps inside which hold it in place and keep it from slipping to the sides.

The abaya, very popular in Saudi Arabia, is also meant to be worn loosely over clothing as an over garment.  It could even go over a  jilbab for extra coverage. Many ladies prefer to wear a light black crepe fabric because of the heat. Polyester may be flowing, but it is extremely hot to wear, and really more suitable for colder places. Cotton ‘breathes’  better, but the damp of sweat showing through may spoil the appearance. Fine black crepe eliminates this problem, and can be actually dampened with water to cool the wearer down without this showing.

The word murut, the plural of mirt, is used in some hadiths instead of jilbab. For example, Aishah narrated: ‘The faithful women wrapped in their murut used to attend the fajr prayer with Allah's Messenger, and after finishing the prayer they would return to their homes and nobody could recognize them because of the darkness.’  (Bukhari 1.552).

The mirt (pl. murut) was a cloth (usually made out of wool) that was wrapped around the body and held closed in front, another form of outer-garment. Dr Muhammad Hilali expands the translation of murut to include ‘a woollen dress (meaning item of dress, or garment?), or a waist-binding cloth, or an apron,’ but in the above hadith it does seem to be something interchangeable with the jilbab. Thus any hadiths which mention the Muslim ladies wearing murut could also be cited in general support of the wearing of outer-garments (jilbabs).


The niqab or face-veil.


The face-veil is the item of clothing generally known as a niqab, and there is no known Qur’anic text or hadith that commands women to wear these. None of the scholars quoted above put forward the suggestion that the khimar was supposed to cover the female face. If Allah had intended the women to cover their faces with their khimars, Imams Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir would most certainly have said so.


Some confusion has arisen because it is possible to find hadith translations that state that the women ‘tore their garments and covered their faces with the cut pieces,’ but this is actually a mistranslation. The word faces does not appear in the Arabic text. The Arabic text says that they tore their garments and ikhtamarna bi ha. This means that they made khimars or head-veils from the garments. When a scholar such as Ibn Hajar, who wrote a commentary on Sahih Bukhari, says that ikhtamarna should be translated as ‘covered themselves’ which meant ‘covered their faces’, this is just an opinion of one scholar. There is no word ‘faces’ in the Arabic text of this hadith, and the supporters of niqab only do so because they identify the niqab with the khimar.


I suggest the identification of khimar with niqab should not be made. One could use as a supporting text the hadith of Aishah which recorded that the Prophet (pbuh) said: ‘Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who has reached puberty unless she wears a khimar.’ (Abu Dawud 251). Thus, for all time, Muslim women know they should be wearing a khimar each time they pray the five compulsory prayers, even when they are completely alone. Yet scholars are unanimous that women do not have to cover their faces for their private prayers. If the khimar was to be taken as a niqab, and the Prophet (pbuh) had commanded women to wear khimars in salat, then that would most definitely mean they would be obliged to cover their faces in salat. Of course, they are not required to do so, anywhere in the Islamic world. So, the Prophet’s (pbuh) ruling that a woman must wear a khimar for her prayers yet is permitted to show her face clearly proves that the khimar is not the same thing as a face-veil or niqab.


The black crows


One of the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives, Umm Salamah recorded a very interesting hadith, which I believe has given rise to some misunderstanding: ‘When the verse, ‘That they should draw their jalabib close around them’ was revealed, the women of the Ansar (ie the women of Madinah) came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing jalabib. (Abu Dawud 1900).


The bit about the outer garments is clear, but the reference to crows has been used to ‘prove’ that they had covered their heads with black cloth. Some have even found in this a reference to the beak-like niqabs worn in Saudi Arabia – the black cloth and ‘beaks’ made the women look ‘like crows’.


However, I maintain that Umm Salamah’s words mean nothing of the sort, but rather that they did not hesitate or delay or make excuses, but put the command into action forthwith. The phrase to have ‘birds on your heads’ was an Arabic idiom often in use, and its usual meaning was that the person had become ‘as good as gold’, completely still, completely alert, focussed, obedient, paying attention, mind ‘switched on’, and so on.


Here is an example of such a usage: Usamah ibn Sharik narrated: ‘I came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions were sitting as if they had birds on their heads. I saluted and sat down. The desert Arabs then came from here and there. They asked: ‘Apostle of Allah, should we make use of medical treatment?’ He replied: ‘Yes, make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease, namely old age.’ Abu Dawud 1755.


Here is another: Bara ibn Azib narrated: ‘We went out with the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) accompanying the bier of a man of the Ansar. When we reached his grave, it was not yet dug. So the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) sat down and we also sat down around him as if birds were over our heads. He had in his hand a stick with which he was scratching the ground. Abu Dawud 2214.


If this is right, then Umm Salamah’s comment did not even mention head-cover at all, but was a statement that the women carried out the command of Allah immediately with no complaint, by wearing jilbabs when they went outside and drawing them across their bosoms!

Other concerns besides modesty.

Whenever a Muslim lady goes outdoors or in public there are other concerns besides her modesty, and Surah 33.59 mentions these concerns when it gives the reason for the command of jilbab – ‘that (to wear jilbab) is better so that they are recognized and not annoyed.’ 

The preceding verse, v.58 reads: ‘And those who annoy believing men and women undeservedly bear (on themselves) a calumny and a glaring sin.’

Wa- 'alladhena yu'dhon al- mu'minen wa- al- mu'minaat bi- ghayr maa iktasabo fa- qad ih.tamalo buhtaan(an) wa- 'ithm(an) muben(an).

The jilbab, therefore, is not just for the purpose of modesty, which is already satisfied by the khimar and conservative clothes, but is for the additional purposes of identity and protection, issues that are only factors of concern outdoors and in open public places. The object was not to restrict the womens’ liberty, but to protect them from harm and molestation. Interestingly, Assyrian law of the 7th century BCE enjoined the veiling of married women, and forbade such veiling for prostitutes or slaves – thus exposing these lower classes to all sorts of abuse. When veiling for all Muslim women became standard, it gave a much-needed protection to female servants.

Covering dresses – indoor dresses

A kaftan, gelabiya or dishdash is a long loose dress with long sleeves. They come in all sorts of designs and fabrics to suit the climate of the country or season. They can be plain or intricately embroidered, and can be either casual or formal to suit all sorts of occasions. Thoubs (or thuyub) are another such garment – dresses that reach the ankles with long sleeves, often fully embroidered in the traditional manner of specific cultures. They were once, and to some extent still are, the only socially accepted outfit to be worn by women in Muslim rural areas. A sharqyat is yet another sort of covering garment, this time in the style of the Indian subcontinent, often with bead, mirror and sequin decoration added to the embroidery. All of these garments come under the category of house-dresses, and all of them could be worn with trousers too if that was wished. If these dresses are of the thickness of an outer-garment, then they may also be used as jilbabs. The Pakistani/Bangladeshi shalwar-qameez is obviously most suitable indoor clothing. A sari is also perfectly acceptable, so long as a blouse concealing the cleavage, arms and midriff is worn beneath it.

The face-veil or Niqab.

Those who wish to maintain that the niqab is fard usually take the words of Surah 24.31 as their foundation text, but at the same time they insist that the khimar was a niqab and covered the face. Words about the face are routinely used in their translations, and those without knowledge of Arabic can easily be misled.

In fact, the face and the head are clearly distinguished in Arabic. Consider the ritual wash before prayer, the wudu, in which  instructions to wash the face and the head are given and carried out quite separately, although the face is situated on the front of the head and is therefore a part of the head. So, in order to say that something covers the face it is not specific enough to merely state that it covers the head.

The following translation of Bukhari 6.282, shows how those who wish to make the argument that the face-veil or niqab is compulsory sometimes manipulate the text to give it their interpretation.

Safiyyah bint Shaybah narrated that Aishah used to say: ‘When (the Verse): 'They should draw their veils (khumur) over their necks and bosoms,' was revealed, (the ladies) cut their murut at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces.’ (Bukhari 6.282).

The Arabic text that the translator has rendered ‘covered their faces with the cut pieces’ is simply ‘ikhtamarna bi ha’, meaning that they ‘made khimars from it’. The word ‘faces’ does not appear in the Arabic at all.

In another version of this hadith Aishah narrated: ‘May Allah have mercy on the early emigrant women. When the verse that they should draw their head-coverings (khumur) over their breasts was revealed, they tore their murut and used this as khimar.  (Abu Dawud 1901).

All we can deduce fairly from these is that when Surah 24.31 commanded women to cover their breasts they did so, but that khimar was in no way specified as a face-veil.

Bukhari 1.368 provides another example of how pro-niqabi supporters can stretch a meaning to suit their interpretation: Aishah narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) used to offer the fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized. However, Shaikh Ibn Uthaimin’s tafseer of this hadith explains: ‘This hadith makes it clear that the Islamic dress conceals the entire body, as only with complete cover including the face and hands can a woman not be recognized. This was the understanding and practice of the Sahaba and they were the best of groups, the noblest in the sight of Allah, with the most complete iman and noblest of characters. So if the practice of the women of the sahaba was to wear the complete veil then how can we deviate from their path? (Ibn Uthaimin in the book "Hijaab" pp.12 and 13)

As it happens, the same story of the women going out to salat al-fajr is told in several other hadiths in Bukhari and Muslim. In these, we should note that it was the darkness that prevented the ladies from being recognized, and not that their faces were hidden, or that they were completely hidden or disguised by their clothing. Most ladies are very easily recognized by their clothing, since they do not have an unlimited supply of different garments and those they do have they usually wear regularly, and are soon known to their friends and acquaintances. The point of the hadith is rather to indicate that the ladies were very devout, and had got up and attended fajr prayers while it was still dark – not that they had covered their faces.

(I find it so strange that some of our stricter brethren who would cover their womens’ faces, tend at the same time to try to prevent them from attending fajr prayers in the mosque, or indeed, any of the prayers!)

Examining some of the hadiths which suggest that niqab was fard.

Ibn Umar reported: ‘Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) forbade women pilgrims (ie. on hajj) from wearing veils, gloves, and clothes dyed with saffron or warse (a plant that was used to dye clothes yellow that had a sweet smell). Besides these, they may wear anything else, any color, silk clothes, ornaments, trousers, or a shirt or shoes.’ (Reported by Abu Dawud, Baihaqi and Hakim, with a sound chain of authorities). If the women had to be forbidden from wearing veils, it suggests that they normally did so.


The issue of niqab and ihram is in fact one of the big controversies, but it is only a problem for those who maintain that niqab is fard (compulsory). If it was compulsory (fard) for women to cover their faces, why should they be told not to wear niqab whilst in ihram, since the obligatory duties of the hajj are all done in public, and usually in the midst of very large crowds.


Fiqh us-Sunnah 5.49 gives us a ruling for women recorded by both Bukhari and Ahmad that certain women did cover their faces, but they were forbidden from doing so on hajj: ‘As for a woman pilgrim, she is forbidden to use perfumed clothes, a veil that covers the face, and gloves.’ Some scholars added that there was no ruling against her covering her face with something other than a veil, such as an umbrella or a fan.  So, we may deduce that there would be little point in forbidding women to wear a face-veil if none of them ever did so.


It is interesting to note that in the Fiqh us-Sunnah there is mention made of men covering their faces whilst on Hajj. Fiqh us-Sunnah 44a: Shafi'i and Sa'id ibn Mansur reported from Qasim that he said: ‘Uthman ibn Affan, Zaid ibn Thabit, and Marwan ibn Hakam all used to cover their faces while in the state of ihram.’ Tawus commented that: ‘A person in the state of ihram may cover his face if there is dust or ashes.’ Mujahid said: ‘If there was a sandstorm they covered their faces while in the state of ihram.’  (Fiqh us-Sunnah 5.49).


The scholars Ata, Malik, Thawri, Shafi’i, Ahmad, and Ishaq all held that it was permissible for women to cover their faces in the state of ihram, but I think we may assume that this is referring to the above times of need, and the sayings actually refer to both males and females when faced with the same climatic circumstances. The women were not to ‘wear’ face-veils over their faces, but could use something as a temporary cover in adverse circumstances.


Aishah suggested that modest women on the hajj journey to Makkah who did not wish male strangers to look upon their beauty would pull material up over their faces when men came near, and then remove them again. She said: ‘Men on camels used to pass by us while we were with the Prophet (pbuh) and in the state of ihram. We would cover our faces with our gowns while they passed by us, and then uncover them again.’ This is reported by Abu Dand Ibn Majah. This suggests two things – that the face-veils had indeed been forbidden on hajj, and also that at least some women did wear them as their normal practice outside of hajj.

Here is a niqab-supporting hadith from Fatimah bint Mundhir who recorded that: ‘We used to veil our faces when we were in ihram in the company of Asma bint Abi Bakr.’ (Muwatta 20.16)

This shows not only that many women companions did cover their faces even when they were not supposed to – ie. whilst wearing ihram – but again, it does not prove that wearing a niqab was fard.  It could suggest nothing more than Aishah’s comment that whilst on the hajj journey, if men coming near them, they temporarily hid their faces.

Several hadiths indicate that at least some of the Muslim lady companions veiled their faces. For example, Thabit ibn Qays recorded how Umm Khallad came to the Prophet (pbuh) while veiled, searching for the body of her son who had been slain in battle. Some of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) said to her: ‘You have come here looking for your son while veiling your face?’ She said: ‘If I am afflicted with the loss of my son, I shall not suffer the loss of my modesty.’ (Abu Dawood 10.26).

So, it seems that Umm Khallad was wearing niqab. The comment of the Companions is interesting – were they surprised at her for veiling her face? Would it have caused any comment if she was merely doing what was the normal command for a woman? Or should the emphasis be rather that they were surprised that a woman in niqab would have come out on to a battlefield (a public place) at all? Again, this hadith proves that some women did indeed wear niqab, but it is long way from being evidence that it was fard.

Hadiths that suggest niqab was/is not fard

Having looked at the hadiths that are presented to claim that niqab is fard, let us now look at some hadiths that point instead to the opposite conclusion:


Sa’d bin Abu Waqqas recorded that once Umar asked leave to see the Prophet (pbuh) whilst there were some Qurayshi women talking with him and asking for more financial support. Some of the voices were raised. When Umar asked permission to enter, the women quickly screened themselves (fa badirna al-hijab). Umar went in and found the Prophet (pbuh) grinning. ‘O Allah’s Messenger!’ said Umar, ‘May Allah always keep you happy!’ The Prophet (pbuh) said: ‘I was amazed by these women here with me. As soon as they heard your voice, they quickly screened themselves.’ Umar said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! You have far more right to be feared by them.’ Then he addressed (the women) saying: ‘You enemies of yourselves! Do you fear me and not Allah’s Messenger?’ They replied: ‘Absolutely, for you are a fearful and fierce man by comparison to Allah’s Messenger!’ At that, the Prophet (pbuh) said (to Umar): ‘By Him in Whose hands is my life, when Shaytan sees you coming a certain way, he takes a different path other than yours.’ (Bukhari 4.515).


In this hadith, it seems that the women were not wearing niqab while they were actually with the Prophet (pbuh), since they either put it or withdrew behind a screen when his friend Umar came in. If that was the case, it suggests that it was not fard.  The occasion of this hadith seems to be much later than either 24.31 or 33.59, dating from after the conquest of Makkah in Ramadan 8 AH.


Abdullah ibn Abbas recorded that his brother Fadl (one of the Prophet’s (pbuh) favourite nephews) was riding up behind the Prophet (pbuh) on the back of his camel on the Day of Nahr (the slaughtering of sacrifice, 10th Dhu’l-Hijjah). Fadl was a very handsome young man. The Prophet (pbuh) stopped to give rulings to some of the people who came asking, including a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khath’am. Fadl began to gaze at her, as her beauty attracted him. The Prophet (pbuh) looked behind him and saw Fadl looking at her; so he stretched out his hand backwards and caught Fadl’s chin, and turned his face away.’ (Bukhari 8.247).


This would presumably not have been necessary if the lady had  been wearing a niqab, so again is proof that the niqab cannot have been ruled as fard, and shows that even as late as Dhu’l-Hijjah 10 AH (a few months before the death of the Prophet pbuh) it was allowed for women to have uncovered faces.


Jabir ibn Abdullah recorded that on one Eid day, after the prayer, the Prophet (pbuh) preached to the people and advised them. He then walked on till he came to the women and preached to them and admonished them and encouraged them to give alms, for most of them were fuel for Hellfire. A woman who had a dark mole on her cheek[5] stood up and asked: ‘Why is that so, Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘Because you grumble often and show ingratitude to your spouses!’ At that, they began to give alms out of their ornaments such as their earrings and rings, which they threw into Bilal’s outspread cloak.’


Jabir could not have known that the woman had a dark mole on her cheek unless her face was uncovered. Moreover, the ladies had obvious access to their earrings and other jewellery.


In a weaker hadith, Ibn Abbas recorded that: ‘A beautiful woman, one of the most beautiful of women, used to pray behind the Prophet (pbuh). Some of the men used to go to pray in the first row to ensure they would not be able to see her. Others would pray in the back row of the men, and would peep under their armpits to see her. It was because of this that Allah revealed: ‘Truly, We know those among you who are eager to be among the first, and truly We know the eager among you to be behind.’ (Surah 15.24)[6]  This hadith only makes sense if the woman's face was uncovered. We might well ask why Allah did not instead send the beautiful woman a command for niqab if niqab was fard, in order to prevent such situations?


From these four hadiths we can clearly see that the Prophet (pbuh) saw and spoke to women who were not wearing niqab, allowed it, and did not command them to wear it.


Can we judge the quality of a Muslim woman’s Islam by the amount of covering she wears?


In a word, no. It is perfectly possible for a Muslim woman to be completely covered, eyes, face and all, and still indulge in behaviour or thoughts that are very far from what Allah requires of us. She could be completely covered and be selfish, uncaring, arrogant, cruel, abusive, dishonest, lecherous, miserly, and so on. What Allah judges us on is not our clothing.


Similarly, it is perfectly possible for a Muslim women to be wearing the normal modest clothing of her society and culture, and yet be a paragon of wonderful virtues and behaviours. The Prophet (pbuh) once told a woman with highly unsuitable dress (she was a prostitute) that she would gain Paradise because of her kindness towards an animal (Bukhari 4.538) – and another woman who prayed night and day and fasted regularly that she was in danger of Hellfire because of her cruelty to an animal! (Bukhari 1.712)


If a Muslim women has examined the texts, feels that she should be wearing particular covering dress, and chooses not to do so – then she has exercised her freewill and that is her own choice. Although others may advise, or nag or moan, it is not for any other person to judge or condemn her. It is between herself and Allah.


It may well be that because a Muslim woman wishes to live in the best possible way, and to please Allah, that she will adjust her clothing accordingly. If she does, then alhamdu lillah! Her sacrifice is sadaqah (something that will earn her blessing and reward), and her niyyat (intentions) are most surely highly to be recommended.


Ladies who wish to wear niqab for the purpose of extra modest cover will earn for it whatever blessing or reward Allah chooses to bestow. If the wearing of any particular Islamic clothing leads women towards finding themselves feeling superior, or arrogant towards others who do not ‘come up to their standards’, then such blessings and rewards may soon fly away. Allah knows best. May He show us the next step upon the Straight Path, and fill all our hearts with love and compassion. Amen.


God bless you, wasalaam, Ruqaiyyah.


PS: For those interested in purchasing Islamic ladies’ clothing, just look up the categories named in my article online, and you will find plenty of choices. I particularly recommend DesertStore.


[1] One frequent use of the term ‘veiling’ or ‘veiled’ is to suggest a lack of understanding, perhaps deliberately imposed upon us by limitations set by Allah Himself. So, for example, we have Surah 41.5 – ‘Our hearts were veiled, our ears deaf, and between us is a barrier.’ In other words, we did not understand. Surah 7.46 mentions a ‘wall’ between believers and unbelievers.

[2] This is not just a female thing. Men are ordered by Allah that should they come across a female who has an effect upon their libido, they should also ‘veil their eyes’ – look down, or look away. Even if a women presented herself stark naked in front of them, their duty would be not to look at her, and most certainly not to take advantage of her or what she offered.

[3] The dating of the expeditions and battles in the background of Surah 24 is not beyond dispute. Both Surah 24 and Surah 33.28-73 were sent down to repair cracks that had appeared in the unity of the Muslim Community, and to strengthen the moral front, which was the main target of attack on those occasions. Surah 24.31 was revealed because of the slander that arose when the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife Aishah inadvertently had an opportunity for adultery whilst returning from the battle against the Banu’l Mustaliq.  Surah 33. 28-73 was sent down to counteract the storm of propaganda that was raised on the occasion of his marriage to his cousin Zaynab bint Jahsh (who had previously been married to his foster-son Zayd). 

[4] It is therefore correct to say that shalwar kameez or any other conservative outfits, along with a head-veil, are sufficient to fulfill all the requirements for the purposes of modesty.

[5] This author could not track down the reference to the dark mole, although I have heard reference to it before.

[6] This hadith is found in ibn Majah, Abu Dawud, Tayalisi, Baihaqi, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, and Nasai and it is judged sahih by Albani. He includes it as 3472 in his Silsilat al-Ahadith as-Sahih (However, this author found no commentary on it in my versions of the text of Surah 15 – a late Makkan Surah, and I did not find it in Abu Dawud or Tirmidhi either. I did not have access to the other sources to check them. I would regard it as weak).