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Ḥijāb (Arabic: حجاب) in a religious context is used as an expression to convey the act of covering certain parts of the body of men and women, required by the Islamic legislation. However, hijab existed in pre-Islamic religions and cultures, too. The Qur'an and the hadiths show the importance of hijab and its obligation. Muslims consider the hijab as a means of keeping the community immune from moral dangers.
Lexical and Expressional Meaning
The term "hijab" means obstacle, something that separates two things from each other, covering, or to cover. Nowadays, common people and religious texts use hijab to refer to the religious covering required for women.
The word hijab has been used seven times in the Qur'an to mean obstacle. In Qur'an 33:53, which is called the Hijab verse, men are commanded to speak with the Prophet's wives from behind the hijab (veil). In the jurisprudential and traditional texts, the word sitr (Arabic: سِتر) is used to refer to the meaning of covering and clothing.
Women covering was also practiced in pre-Islamic tribes and religions. Christians and Jews accentuated on women covering their hair, believing it to be a sign of modesty. In his book De cultu Feminarum (Of Women's Dress), the Christian theologian Tertullianus (d. 225 C.E., also known as Tertullian), obligates women to refrain from following polytheists in their dressing, hair style, walking, and use of jewelry. In modern society, Orthodox Jews still insist on covering of women's hair.
Hijab in the Qur'an
وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِن وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ أَطْهَرُ لِقُلُوبِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِهِنَّ
"... When you ask [his] womenfolk for something, do so from behind a curtain. That is more chaste for your hearts and theirs..."
|— Qur'an 33:53|
This verse tells men to talk to the Prophet's wives from behind a curtain (Arabic:مِنْ وَراءِ حجابٍ) and that the Prophet's wives should not be seen by non-mahram men, for it is better for the purity of their hearts. The use of the word "Hijab" makes this verse popularly recognized as the Verse of Hijab, but it only addressed the Prophet's wives at the time, without obligating other women.
In addition, Ibn Umm Maktum's narration, whereby the Prophet (s) tells his wives to cover themselves behind a curtain even when blind men come, bears the same message.
The Prophet's wives' commitment in obeying this rule, and the general understanding of the early Muslims, shows that the original reason for the hijab was to respect the dignity and position of the Prophet (s), as it was considered special respect to his wives.
Prohibiting Jahili-Style Makeup
Prior to the revelation of this verse in 5/626 (same year the Prophet (s) married Zaynab bt. Jahsh) none of the verses of the Qur'an had obligated the hijab for all women, although other verses of the same sura had discouraged the Prophet's wives and other Muslim women from Jahili-style makeup. However, neither discouraging Jahili-style makeup meant obligating the hijab, nor did refraining from makeup make hijab meaningless. The limits and rulings on women's covering are explained in other verses, and this verse doesn't directly address the subject.
Sura al-Ahzab, Verse 59
With the revelation of Qur'an 33:59, the obligation for the Prophet (s)'s wives and daughters, in addition to pious women, to cover themselves with a robe (Jilbab) to avoid being recognized or disturbed was made clear.
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ
"O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw closely over themselves their chadors [when going out]. That makes it likely for them to be recognized and not be troubled"
|— Qur'an 33:59|
Lexicologists and interpreters have defined various meaning for Jilbab:
- A cloth acting as a full cover from head to toe, like the Chador
- A women's clothing loose enough to cover her legs
- A sheet or maqna'a, or head scarf to cover a woman's head and herself
Some reports suggests that "Jilbab" may have referred to a kind of males-wear too. However, the ruling which has been revealed in this verse increases the possibility that a covering like the chador was meant by Jilbab.
There are various interpretation on what is meant by "That makes it likely for them to be recognized" (Arabic: ذلک اَدْنی اَن یعْرَفْنَ) and who this verse separates them from.
By referring to the occasion of revelation, some believe that the Jilbab was issued to distinguish free women from slaves and keep them safe from being irritated by misbehaving men; they were frequently annoyed by such men who when questioned excused themselves that they thought those women were slaves. It should be noted that this issue does not mean that God didn't mind annoying slaves.
Nevertheless, some interpreters believe that wearing the Jilbab was to distinguish virtuous and modest women from the rest. Although most interpreters, Sunni scholars, and some Imamiyya scholars cite this verse to explain the obligation of the hijab, nevertheless some believe that the command in this verse is neither obligatory, nor for the general public. They believe the Jilbab simply represents the virtuousness of a women and that she is a free woman, and is an instrument to preserve her respect. This could be the reason why some women in Medina wore Jilbab.
Sura Al-Nur, Verse 31
وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا ۖ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ...
"And tell the faithful women to cast down their looks and to guard their private parts, and not to display their charms, beyond what is [acceptably] visible, and let them draw their scarfs over their bosoms,..."
|— Qur'an 24:31|
With the revelation of the thirty first verse of Qur'an 24 after Qur'an 33, hijab became obligatory. In this verse, faithful women are ordered to lower their gaze, cover their private parts, hide their beauties, except for parts that are normally seen and is considered normal, put a scarf over their collar, not to show their beauties except to specific people (who have been mentioned in the verse), and not to walk in a manner that would reveal their hidden beauties.
This verse is the most important document that scholars use to prove the obligation of covering and its limits. Narrations on hijab have mostly contributed to interpreting and explaining this verse, specifically the part on «اِلّا ما ظَهَرَ» (beyond what is [acceptably] visible, the revealed beauties), and the ruling on looking at them. Of course sometimes other verses have been mentioned too, such as Qur'an 33:33 which forbids makeup, the Jilbab verse, and verses thirty and thirty one from Qur'an 24. Some narrations explain about other approaches to hijab as well, such as hijab for the elderly, the age at which hijab becomes obligatory, and hijab in front of some specific men or children who have not reached puberty.
Meaning in Jurisprudence
Previous jurisprudential sources referred to women's covering with the word "Sitr" (Arabic: سِتر ) and hijab simply meant cover and covering. Modern jurisprudence and commoners however use the word hijab to refer to women's covering. Although this new meaning of hijab has been in use in Jurisprudence and by commoners for no longer than a century, some narrations and jurisprudential texts have also used the word hijab to refer to women's covering as an expression.
Abu Hilal al-'Askary believes that hijab means to conceal and cover, in order to hide and prevent others from entering, and thus is different from Sitr. Therefore, some writers nowadays have considered using Sitr instead of hijab. Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din believes that using this word is a kind of compromise, because hijab, with respect to how it has been used in the Qur'an, is a ruling special to the Prophet (s)'s wives, and other women have only been required to cover themselves as stated by the rulings.
Mutahhari believes that this relocation of words is because of mistaking the Islamic covering with the difficult culture of women's covering in other nations, which required women to stay behind a curtain and at home. It is possible that the Muslims' strictness regarding women's covering, influenced by social traditions, was the source of the aforementioned relocation of words, whereby Sitr lost its meaning to "staying behind the curtain".
Subjects which address the hijab
The hijab has not been mentioned as a separate subject in jurisprudential sources, instead, it has usually been referred to in the subjects below:
- Prayer, since it discusses the clothing and covering of the person who prays. The difference between Prayer Clothing (Sitr al-Salat) and non-Prayer Clothing is that the former is obligatory, regardless of the presence of a foreigner, while the latter refers to covering from the sight of others, even in darkness. According to popular Imami belief, rulings on covering during prayer is not related to the covering obliged in the presence of a foreign person.
- Marriage, to discuss the ruling of the two parties who would want to look at each other when proposing. The rulings related to this case may be found in the general section, or the section on covering. It should be noted that Sitr and looking are two different issues, but are in some cases interrelated.
The most prominent example of hijab, and in the opinion of some, the only example, is the covering of a Muslim woman who has reached the age of competency, in front of a foreign man who has also reached the age of competency or a child who understands. According to jurisprudence, the minimum covering required for slave-women is much less than that of a free woman. In addition, with reference to Qur'an 24:60 (« القَواعِدُ مِنَ النِّساء » (women advanced in years who do not expect to marry)) , the ruling compromises for elderly women who have passed the stage to marry. Based on hadith, scholars have legalized taking off the Jilbab, and some scholars have even permitted taking off the hijab and revealing parts which are normally revealed. It should be noted that Islam's stress on Sitr is because of the sexual difference between men and women.
The obligation of women's hijab in front of all foreign men is in consensus agreement among jurists of all Islamic denominations, but the limits and minimums vary, mostly in regards to the parts of the body which have been exempted from covering.
Most Imami and Sunni scholars believe that covering the whole body, except the face and hands, is obligatory. Their most important piece of evidence is «لایبْدینَ زینَتَهُنَّ الّا ماظَهَرَ مِنها» (not to display their charms, beyond what is [acceptably] visible) from verse 31 of Sura al-Nur. The hadith mentions various beauties in appearance which have been exempted in this verse, such as clothes, henna on the palm, kohl, rings, bracelets, the face, and the hands.
When discussing beautifiers, many scholars argue that the legality of revealing the body part where the beautifier is applied to must be resolved first, such as the face and hands. The narration that explains the permission to exempt the face and hands (and in some cases the feet) from covering and to look at them, confirms this approach.
Other reasons for this approach:
- Another phrase in this verse (وَلْیضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ علی جُیوبِهِنَّ) (let them draw their khumur over their bosoms) points to the covering of the neck and chest. Khumur (Arabic: خُمُر) which is the plural form of khimar (Arabic:خِمار) means scarf or mukena. According to the reports of interpreters and what is implied in narrations, before Islam women would push the scarf behind their ears, thus revealing their ears and neck. This verse commands them to wear the scarf in a manner that covers their neck and their chest. That means to bring forward their scarf. In other words women already covered their hair, but this verse has obliged covering the neck and chest, while saying nothing about covering one's face.
- Many narrations quote the Imams (a) responding to questions about the ruling of looking at women's hair, however in regards to looking at foreign women's face, which is more frequent and thus is expected to have been asked more, there is no such narration, except in the issue of suitors. This shows that the exemption of covering the face or the prohibition of looking at a women's face was obvious to them.
Naturally, the face and the hands are uncovered. Covering these body parts acts as a serious obstacle for everyday tasks in life. Hadith and jurisprudential sources disoblige covering the face and hands, but this does not mean that doing so is unacceptable. As a matter of fact, more covering and more attention to one's boundaries with foreigners is better. However, moral teachings which focus on the health of the society to prevent misbehavior must not be mistaken with jurisprudential rulings.
On the other hand, some Imami and Sunni scholars rule that the whole body, including the hands and the face must be covered. Part of their argument is the arguments on the obligation of full covering, and the prohibition of gazing which itself requires the other party's covering, however, based on verse thirty of Sura Al-Nur, looking at foreign women is forbidden for men, and that includes their face and hands. In addition, they cite other narrations which completely prohibit looking at foreign women, and other narrations that obligate women to cover their whole body. In response, those who disagree argue that the grammatical structure which has been used in these narrations and the use of the word 'Awrat, means that these are ethical advices and not obligations, and suggest full covering as recommended for women.
Other reasons for the obligation of covering the face and hands in women:
- Narrations which state that «الّا ما ظهر» (beyond what is [acceptably] visible) in Qur'an 24:31, means clothes.
- The tradition of the pious was to cover their face and hands. This kind of argument is a valid jurisprudential reason in Islam. Some scholars believe that the permission to not cover the face and hands does not necessarily permit foreigners from looking at these parts.
Flexibility in the Obligation
A study into the various rulings regarding clothing and women's hijab in jurisprudential sources shows that this obligation is subject to various levels, depending on the circumstances a woman is in. For example, based on Qur'an 24:60 scholars believe that hijab has been compromised for old women who have passed the stage to marry. Also, based on Qur'an 24:31, women's covering when confronted by men with sexual or cognitive disability is compromised as well.
On the other hand, the phrase «او نِسائِهِنَّ» (their wives) in this verse, does not allow women to reveal their beauties to foreign women, since they might describe it for their men.
Women's covering in front of non-foreign men, other than their spouse, is much less than what is required in other cases. Popular fatwa believes that the head, neck, and chest are not required to be covered.
The wisdom behind the ruling of hijab, which has been clearly stated in the Qur'an and Hadith, is to preserve the psychological and moral health of the society and value humbleness, virtue, and modesty. With this in mind the different levels of hijab can be easily understood and analyzed. The Qur'an's emphasis on acquiring and empowering virtue and piety, importance of humbleness and modesty with foreign men, prohibition of some issues (such as being in a closed place with a foreign man, strong prohibition of ogling for men, obligation of women to cover themselves in front of foreign men and refraining from any kind of sexual stimulants, such as flirting or romance) shows the close relation between virtue and modesty with hijab.
Based on the same logic, in order to stabilize hijab as a religious and social value in all aspects of the society, men have to respect a level of covering and modesty when encountering foreign and non-foreign women, and even men, based on Islamic jurisprudence. Although men's hijab is much less than that of women, but some Shi'a and Sunni scholars believe that covering parts of body which are normally covered in front of foreigners is obligatory for men.
In addition, some Shi'a scholars believe that men are also obliged to cover their body in situations where they may be the cause for sexual stimulation, for it is considered association in sin.
Using the same logic, citing verse thirty one of Sura Al-Nur, some scholars believe that women should cover from male children who have yet to reach the age of puberty.
Novelty and Obligation
Muslim scholars stress that the ruling on hijab is novel and obligatory in Islam. Therefore, even if hijab is a threat to woman's marital life, she may not take it off. Nevertheless, in special conditions such as illness, taking off the hijab is permitted only as much as is needed.
The rulings issued by the scholars shows that they do not consider the hijab to conflict with women's social communication and activities. The rulings permit women to work or study, so long as the hijab is respected.
In Different Cultures
Islamic jurisprudence doesn't specify a specific clothing and only obligates covering the body, of course some exemptions exist. Some scholars do not obligate covering the body shape, however, colorful and thin clothes that are stimulating have not been permitted either, and have considerations for colorful or decorated clothes.
Hijab and the criteria for the standard Islamic covering changed based on elements such as culture, tradition, beliefs, custom, geographical conditions, and sometimes the limits existing in an area. The popular Islamic covering in Iran was the Chador which had different varieties in history, but at least in the past decades, chador has seldom been used. Arabs of the Middle East used and still use the Abaya, and the Moroccans use the Jallab. Women living in non-Islamic countries, who sometimes face limits regarding the hijab, have also tried to design and use a covering suitable to their community and acceptable to Islamic Jurisprudence.
Duty of Islamic Government
The hijab is a social Qur'anic ruling and religious obligation, which means that respecting or disrespecting this ruling affects the society. On the other hand, the arguments for this ruling apply to both the individual and the society, hence the rulings must be applied to the society as well, otherwise God will be dissatisfied.
Similar to how an Islamic government cannot permit the community to publicly consume alcohol, even for adherents of other religions, it cannot permit disrespecting the hijab, because the hijab is more than a personal religious duty- it is an obligation for the religious community.
Some of those who oppose hijab obligation claim that state enforcement of hijab holds no historical or jurisprudential grounds, and argue that the Prophet (s) and Imam Ali (a) only sufficed to reminding and guiding the uncovered women, without ever enforcing a penalty. In response supporters of state enforcement reason that women commonly covered themselves in the past, even with the modernity of their time. The issue of women uncovering themselves in the broad manner we face today is a novel innovation, resulting from Western attempts to remove women's covering and hence the modesty of Muslim women.
Unveiling and the Published Books in Iran
Unveiling in Iran became obligatory with Reza Shah Pahlavi's order to unveil in 1354/1935, however this ideology can be traced back to twenty five years earlier, during the constitutional revolution in Iran, when thoughts of modernity were spreading. In response, numerous independent articles were published on the certainty of hijab obligation in Islamic law.
It seems that the first of such books, known as the hijabiyya, began with the publication of Risala fi wujub al-hijab wa hurmat al-sharab (Book on the Obligation of hijab and Prohibition of Alcohol) by Fakhr al-Islam (a Muslim scholar who had converted from Christianity and is also the author of Anis al-a'lam ), but most hijabiyya books had been written in 1346/1927 and 1347/1928. Books and articles were still published even after the fall of Reza Shah in Sha'ban 1360/September 1941 and the abrogation of obligatory unveiling in 1362/1943. Some of these books were republished in 1422/2001 by Rasul Ja'fariyan, named Scriptures of hijabiyya.
The Content of hijabiyya books generally follows the structure below:
- History of hijab in other religions, and its existence amongst other tribes and religions
- Study on verses and narrations, and rulings of religious leaders regarding the penalty of unveiling
- The philosophy of hijab
- The importance of educating women, and that hijab does not limit them from education
- Studying the goals of the supporters of unveiling
- Responding to criticisms
- Studying the negative impact of unveiling, such as indecency, decrease in marriage rates, and increase in divorce rates
Books and articles which opposed the hijab typically followed the structure below:
- Distortion in the true meaning of verses regarding covering
- hijab's incompatibility with modern lifestyle
- Necessity of women's freedom
- Incompatibility of hijab with the process of educating, raising, and social activities for women
- The unoriginality of hijab in Islam, and that it has been imported from other cultures
- Denying any connection between modest covering and decency, and emphasizing on the negative impact of hijab in rousing unethical sexual feelings.
It is worth noting that one of the important and influential books defending the ruling on hijab was published in the final years of the 1380s/1960s by Murtada Mutahhari, titled Mas'aliy-i hijab (The Issue of hijab) and gained widespread popularity because of its uniqueness.
The hijab became an even more important issue in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1399/1979, a nation which had revolted to establish a religious government, and hence many articles and books were published after the revolution.
Islamic Revolution of Iran and the Hijab
After the fall of Reza Shah in Iran, scholars and the religious class of the society created the possibility for women to appear in the society with hijab. According to reports, use of Islamic hijab increased in the years which were followed by the Islamic Revolution, and in the early days of the revolution, the hijab became a major symbol of conveying dissatisfaction with the government and the role models they had enforced, and opposing them.
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Imam Khomeini spoke about the importance of hijab in many occasions, some of which were in response to questions asked about how hijab will be practiced in Iran? In Rabi' II 1400/March 1980, women brought up the issue of obligating hijab and hence, based on its jurisprudential ruling which considered an unspecified punishment for those who violate it, a clause was added to article 638 of the Islamic Penal Code to enable judges to consider a punishment.
In the Contemporary Era
For Muslim women, amid all opposition, hijab is a symbol of resistance against an imposed culture on the Islamic World. Nowadays, specifically for women who live in the West, hijab resembles religiosity, Islamism, compatibility of Islamic teachings and modern life, and rejection of Western culture. With the presence of 450 million Muslims in 150 countries which are not a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, banning the hijab has become a subject of discussion and debate based on International Law, and the legislations ruling on the rights of minorities.
Since the Islamic World's approach to globalization is to find a suitable method to preserve the cultural identity of Muslims, therefore hijab and women's covering holds a special place in this effort.
Every legally competent person, except husbands and wives, and slaves and their owners, must cover their genitals from everyone else, even children who can discern between good and bad (however opinions differ for such children if their sexual desires have not developed yet), and people with unsound mind.
Most scholars define the genital in men as the penis, scrotum, anus, and in women, the vagina and anus. Some have claimed there is a consensus on this. Some scholars have defined the genitals as the part of the body between one's belly button and knee, whether male or female, and have obligated covering this part, however the majority of scholars believe it is recommended to cover this part, and not obligated.
The whole mass of genitals do not need to be covered, but it must be noted that the covering should not be so thin that the genital can be seen through it. The material used for covering is not important so long as it covers these part, therefore even one's hand can be used for covering.
Special Rulings for Women
Rulings which are specific to women are either about her personal relation with a foreign man, or her duty in worship.
Relation with Foreign Men
Women have to cover their whole body, except their face, their hands from the finger to the wrists, and their feet from the fingers to the ankle joints, from foreign men. There are differences of opinion about the obligation of the aforementioned exemptions from covering.
According to the script of the Qur'an, women are also exempted from covering themselves from غیر اولی الإرْبَه (lacking [sexual] desire) men, but there is a difference of opinion about who this represents. Some believe the verse refers to the elderly whose sexual desires are low due to their age.
Covering hair is obligatory but opinions vary about artificial hair, hair bands, and jewelry on the hair (considering that hair is still covered). Old women who will not be marrying have been exempted from the aforementioned ruling according to the Qur'an, and hence are not required to cover that much of their hair which is common, on the condition that they do not have the intention to show (off) themselves. Nevertheless, it is better that they cover their hair.
- Prayer: A free woman must cover all her body, apart from her face, her hands from the fingers to the wrist, and according to popular opinion her feet up to her ankle joints, regardless of whether anyone is present to see her or not. Some believe that even the aforementioned exempted parts of the body must be covered if a foreign man is present. Some doubt on covering extra hair on the face or on the back or neck, but it seems that the majority of scholars believe that covering this hair is not obligated. Covering one's head is not obligated for legally competent slave-women and girls that are not legally competent yet.
Rulings for Men
Covering the private parts in prayer is obligatory, regardless of whether anyone is present to see or not, foreign or not. Praying while naked, so long as the private parts are covered is acceptable but discouraged. While in a pilgrim's garb, covering the head, and based on popular belief, the top of the foot in Ihram is forbidden.
Covering in Prayer
Covering in prayer is a bit different compared to other situations:
- It is obligatory, whether a foreigner is present to see or not
- In situations other than prayer, anything which acts as a cover is acceptable. For prayer however, unless it is necessary, only materials used in clothes can be used for covering. Whether covering with plant leaves or mud, in necessary situations or in normal situations is acceptable or not, is disputed.
It is recommended to start wearing the clothes from the right side of the body, and say the supplications which have been attributed to wearing new clothes. It is also recommended to wear the trousers while sitting, and doing so while standing is discouraged. The material used in clothes also has its own rulings. These rulings may vary depending on conditions, such as prayer or Ihram etc.
- Obligatory: It is obligatory for men to use two pieces of clothes in Ihram.
- Recommended: It is recommended to wear clean, white, cotton or linen clothes.
- Prohibited: Men are prohibited from wearing pure silk or silk lining, and gold. Popular views agree on the prohibition or discouragement of wearing these materials, but opinions vary about whether it voids prayer or not. Wearing clothes that are special for men is prohibited for women, and similarly wearing clothes special for women is prohibited for men (in both cases the community must consider the clothe to resemble the opposite gender). Whether this voids prayer or not is of discussion. Sewed clothes for men, and Qaffazin gloves for women during Ihram is prohibited. Wearing decorative clothes for a widowed woman who is in the waiting period because of her demised husband is prohibited.
- or children who are not yet conscious of female sexuality Qur'an 24:31
- As for women advanced in years who do not expect to marry, there will be no sin upon them if they put off their cloaks, without displaying their adornment. But it is better for them to be modest, and Allah is all-hearing, all-knowing. Qur'an 24:60
- The material for this article is mainly taken from حجاب in Farsi Wikishia.