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All schools of Islamic law require that Muslim women over the age of majority observe the hijab when in the presence of non-mahrams. Conceptually, the hijab is a set of requirements according to which both women and men must cover certain parts of their body (the Arabic word hijab literally referred to the concept of veiling as with a screen or curtain). While the requirements for men are similar to common expectations of public decency in the modern world, those for women extend to covering the entirety of the body except for the face and hands, with legal schools differing on the requirements for women to cover their feet, face, and hands. Colloquially, the word "hijab" refers to headgear employed by Muslim women to cover their hair and neck. There are many cultural variations on the hijab garment, many of which provide different degrees of coverage, including famously the burqa, niqab, and dupata. Some modern scholars disagree with the traditional interpretations that require head covering and many Muslim women choose not to do so, as discussed below.
In a few verses the Quran sets out requirements regarding the jilbab (overgarment or cloak) and the khimar (probably a piece of cloth over the head and mentioned in terms of covering the bosom). One verse mentions the word hijab in terms of a separating curtain or veil behind which visitors may ask things of Muhammad's wives. Later this term acquired the conceptual meaning mentioned above. While the Quran contains general guidelines on the purpose of these requirements, the hadith literature is more particular in its discussion of what the circumstances behind the revelation of these verses were, though hadiths still provide scarce information on what precisely they entail. One account in the hadith suggests that the verse of hijab regarding Muhammad's wives was a result of pressure from Umar, who objected to them being recognisable in public. The Quran indicates that the dress requirements for believing women in general were to prevent molestation and for purposes of modesty.
Classically, these accounts have been embraced, though in recent times they have been criticised as problematic. The Quran has been objected to because it suggests that women must bear the burden for their harassment by changing their attire, and the hadith accounts about Umar have been criticised both because it paints this highly-revered religious figure, the second of the rightly-guided caliphs and friend of Muhammad's, as an unsavory character and because it suggests that Allah was not alone responsible for the formulation of the Sharia, which is supposed to be divinely-revealed and unchanging.
In her short but detailed book, The Islamic Veil, Professor Elizabeth Bucar has written on the role and interpretations of hijab through history and modernity. Her book will be referenced at many points in this article.
In modern times
In most Muslim majority countries there is no legal enforcement of hijab (in some former soviet states it is not even common for women to wear it). Hijab adherance saw a revival in some Muslim majority countries during the mid-20th century after falling out of favour and in the West it is commonly worn voluntarily. However, alongside such social norms it is also common that women and girls (even in the West) sometimes feel community or family pressure to adhere to hijab against their wishes, especially in the case of adolescents living with their parents. In a small number of Muslim majority countries (such as Iran) hijab in one form or another is legally enforced. The "Women, Life, Freedom" protests of 2023 in Iran highlighted that this enforcement is against the wishes of millions of women there. Saudi Arabia removed its legal requirements for head covering in 2018.
Elizabeth Bucar explains that for Muslim women in Western countries, hijab is often a way of expressing Muslim identity, and specific styles of hijab can further be a way of maintaining identity with a specific cultural heritage. In 20th century Algeria, hijab served as a symbol of cultural defence and resistance against colonialism, while in Palestine it became a symbol of national identity, while unveiling was associated with Israeli collaboration.
In the Quran
The Quran contains verses which mention the jilbab (overgarment or cloak), khimar (piece of cloth that covers the head, and hijab (screen to shield Muhammad's wives from the gaze of visitors to his home). Bucar summarises that Q. 33:53 was a command concerning Muhammad's wives to separate the public and private space; Q. 33:59 was a command for free believing women to preserve their bodily integrity from harrassment; and Q. 24:30-31 was a command to all Muslim women for modesty purposes.
Quran 33:53 mentions a hijab, or screen / barrier behind which visitors to Muhammad's home should ask things of his wives without seeing them. Bucar observes that besides this verse, the word hijab is used elsewhere in the Quran for a concealing veil, screen or partition (see Quran 42:51, Quran 7:46, Quran 41:5, and Quran 17:45). Quran 19:17 where Mary secludes herself is the only other verse where hijab is used in relation to women. In Quran 33:53 it is unclear upon whom the responsibility for adherance of the command rests, the men or Muhammad's wives.
Traditions about the occasion of revelation for this verse are mentioned in a number of hadiths, and are covered later in this article. Quran 33:32-33 is another command specifically addressed to Muhammad's wives ("O wives of the Prophet, you are not like anyone among women [...]").
Quran 33:59 states that the purpose of drawing over the jilbab (overgarment or cloak) is to distinguish free Muslim women (presumably from non-Muslim or slave women, who do not have to observe it) in order to prevent them from being molested/harassed.
Bucar explains that Quran commentators agreed that the occasion of revelation for this verse was that the hypocrites (al-munafiqun) in Medina (who are mentioned in the next verse, Quran 33:60) were physically harrassing slave women in public spaces. This context is mentioned for example in Tafsir al-Jalalayn regarding the verse. The jilbab thus made free believing women visibly distinct. It was a responsibility placed on them by the Quran to mitigate the immoral behaviour of certain men. Bucar says that the meaning of jilbab is unclear, but most scholars believed it to be a type of outer covering.
Bucar notes that unlike the above two verses, only late traditions provide an occasion of revelation for Q. 24:30-31. Believing women are told to draw their Khumur (singular: Khimar) over their bosoms (juyub). Bucar comments that the word khimar, which some Quran commentators glossed as a veil, mainly meant a kerchief worn on the head, and that the root of the word juyub meant a space between, so probably meant cleavage. Thus she argues that the purpose of this part of the verse is that the cleavage must be covered. In the same year (2012) a PhD thesis by Sheikh Mustapha Mohamed Rashed at al-Azhar University similarly concluded that the verse only commands that the bosom be covered.
Except in specifically defined company, the verse also says that women must not reveal their adornment (zina, which besides illicit sexual activity is a word used in a few verses for stars adorning the heavens). It seems to essentially mean a woman's attractiveness, though Quran commentators have always disagreed on the meaning of hidden zina in this verse. Some suggested it meant ankle bracelets due to the final part of the verse telling women not to stamp their feet. Quran 24:60 later in the same surah exempts older women from the command to wear garments hiding their adornment. Some Quran commentators like al-Tabari thought it allowed a woman's face to show, based on a hadith in which Muhammad defines what a woman can reveal of herself when she reaches the age of menstruation (Sunan Abu Dawud 33:4092, quoted in the next section below). For al-Zamakhshari, adornment in this context meant jewelry and makeup. Ibn Taymiyyah and al Baydawi said that even a woman's face and hands must be covered in public except during prayer.
Bucar notes that there was similarly no consensus on the meaning of the word 'awra in the verse. For men, hadiths made clear that a man's 'awra was from his navel to his knees. As for a woman's 'awra, there is an isolated hadith collected by al-Tirmidhi quoted in the next section on hadiths below. For some scholars it referred to a woman's bosom, neck and head, for others everything except her face and hands, or for others just the genital region (as with men).
Bucar observes that there are no explicit references in hadiths to women being required to cover the face or hair (a popular translation of Sahih Bukhari 6:60:282 mentions the women covering their faces, but this is not clear in the Arabic text and another version of the narration in Sunan Abu Dawud 32:4089 refers only to them making Khimars). Bucar observes that hadiths distinguish a time before and after the revelation of the hijab verse concerning Muhammad's wives, particularly narrations about the event of the slander (al-ifk) in which 'Aisha was accused of adultery. By the time of these narrations, hijab had come to be transformed from a literal screen in the home of Muhammad's wives to a complex ideology of segregation, privacy and social status, perhaps reflecting post-Muhammad cultural practices of specific Muslim communities.
A few hadiths refer specifically to Muhammad's wives covering their heads and faces with jilbab in public such as Sahih Bukhari 5:59:462, which is the above mentioned event of the slander. It mentions Aisha drawing her jilbab over her face, though it also says this was after the verse of hijab had come down, which was a requirement specifically for Muhammad's wives.
Bucar says that the few relevant hadiths detailing requirements for believing women in general concern the avoidance of thin clothing or short hemlines while an isolated hadith collected by al-Tirmidhi is the exception, describing a woman in her entirety as 'awra.
A narration mentioned by some Quran commentators such as Ibn Kathir attributes to Ibn Abbas a view that a woman should be entirely covered by her jilbab except for a single eye.
يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَـبِيبِهِنَّ
(to draw their Jalabib over their bodies.) He covered his face and head, with just his left eye showing.
ذلِكَ أَدْنَى أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلاَ يُؤْذَيْنَ
Some other relevant hadiths were collected by Abu Dawud (all graded Sahih by al-Albani):
The following hadith account mentions the use of hijab (screen) to conceal Muhammad's wives from a eunuch, or effeminate man in other translations (similarly see Sunan Abu Dawud 32:4095).
Some observe that a eunuch could not pose any threat to the chastity or safety of Muhammad's wives, which distinguishes the purpose of hijab in Q. 33:53 from that of jilbab or khimar for protection or modesty in the other verses discussed above.
In Islamic Law
Bucar details how different opinions on the veil existed between and within the schools of Islamic jurisprudence over time, probably influenced by the differing cultural contexts (she uses the term "veil" to mean the relevant Islamic concepts in a general sense).
She writes that "Early fiqh discussed veiling in the context of prayer, and in general saw veiling as an issue of social status and physical safety". Later, it was not a central concern of medieval legal scholars, though their reasoning remains relevant to modern discussions about veiling. Regarding the concept of 'awra mentioned in Q. 24:31 and discussed above, the majority view was that it excluded a woman's hands and face (the main Maliki and Hanafi view), though a minority view was that everything should be covered except her eyes despite no mention of this in the Quran, while hadiths indicate this was not common practice for early Muslim communities. Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328 CE) who inspired modern day Salafism said that her face should be covered in public, which became the standard Shafi'i and Hanbali legal position. Legal scholars also commonly linked 'awra with the concept of fitnah mentioned separately in the Quran. Bucar quotes the prominent jurist al-Nawawi (d. 1278) as an exemplar of this view, which is a motivation argued by some emerging Islamic governments in modern times:
Some modern Islamic jurists such as Khaled Abou El Fadl (d. 1963) have criticised this linking of a woman's 'awra with the concept of fitna and preventing illicit intercourse. He argues that modesty is a Quranic ethical command in and of itself and the relevant verses do not link it to fitna. The medieval jurists invocation of fitna in addition thereby shifted the blame for potential sin from men to women (whereas the hypocrites are blamed in Q. 33:59-60 for violating women's modesty). Thirdly, since even medieval jurists allowed exemptions (for example slaves labouring in fields), he argued that the rules must be "contigent and contextual in nature". In the late 19th and early 20th century a renewed juridical interest in veiling led to a wide range of debates and opinions.
Saudi Arabia (until it revoked its legal head covering requirement in 2018), Afghanistan, and Iran base their laws on veiling on the Hanbali, Hanafi, and Shi'a Jafari schools of jurisprudence, respectively.
Proposed benefits of hijab and modern criticisms thereof
Bucar categorises three types of traditional and modern purposes for hijab that have been articulated. Firstly, it was seen as a means of building moral character (modesty, shyness) and a path to piety because it is not an easy thing to start wearing it. With repetition, over time a woman would feel uncomfortable at the thought of not wearing it. Indeed, one could add that ex-Muslim women commonly describe how leaving home without hijab for the first time takes some courage. Secondly, it has been said to have the benefit of preventing inapproprate desires, which could end in zina (illicit sexual activity), and strengthens the marital bond since a woman's sensuality was reserved for her husband. Finally, it is seen as having a social purpose, to regulate and prevent sexual urges in society running out of control. Arguments in this last category are of four types: 1) that it prevents constant male arousal, protects social dignity and a tranquil society; 2) that it supports educational and economic productivity due to reduced male distraction; 3) that it allows women to participate more fully in society as every public space is a morally safe zone; and 4) that it serves as a guard against westernizing influence.
Bucar gives examples of Muslim figures who have criticised such arguments for hijab. Some reformists and progressives interpreted hijab metaphorically in terms of a principle of modest behaviour and controlling one's desires. Other Muslim critics have noted that veiling is not sufficient to suppress desire, and in a modern context can even stimulate desire for that which is "forbidden". Others criticise mandatory veiling for removing moral choice. Secular observers might add that most of the arguments for hijab pre-suppose a conservative moral order in which sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage (or in the past, slavery) must be forbidden, and the risk of such, mitigated.
Some critics argue that if the hijab is intended to protect women from sexual assault, it wholly fails to serve this purpose. Islamic countries where the overwhelming majorities of women observe the hijab have been found to have some of the highest rates of women experiencing all manner of sexual harassment, notably in the case of Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, where the observance of hijab is strictly enforced throughout the country, women experience one of the highest rates of rape in the world.
'Umar and the revelation of the hijab verse (Quran 33:53)
A hadith narrated from Anas bin Malik describes how he witnessed the revelation of the hijab verse. See also Sahih Muslim 8:3328.
A somewhat different account, or background leading up to the revelation of the verse is reported regarding pressure exerted on Muhammad regarding his wives by 'Umar, as detailed below.
Umar bin Al-Khattab's spies on Sauda
According to hadiths found in Sahih al-Bukhari, the most authoritative hadith collection, the series of events leading up to the revelation of the verse of the hijab (Quran 33:53) was as follows. First, Umar repeatedly asked Muhammad that Allah should reveal verses of the Qur'an pertaining to the veiling of women. Next, when no such revelation was forthcoming from Muhammad, Umar went out one night and stalked one of Muhammad's wives when she went out to relieve herself. Identifying the wife as Sauda bint Zam'a, he called out to her by name, noting that he had succeeded in recognizing her in her compromised circumstance. After this, Sauda presumably returned home embarrassed by the incident and reported what occurred to Muhammad, finally resulting in the revelation of the verses pertaining to the hijab.
Note that the Sahih al-Bukhari translator's comment attempting to define hijab as "a complete body covering excluding the eyes" at the end of the hadiths is not present in the Arabic. Moreover, in the Arabic these hadiths do not mention "verses" of the hijab plural, but at most mention the "verse" singular. This is in reference to Q. 33:53 which concerns concealing Muhammad's wives from public view (this is even clearer with the related hadiths in the section after this below).
Allah agrees with Umar
Following the incident with Sauda and a number of other incidents where Umar had directly preceded revelation in his recommendations to Muhammad, Muhammad proclaimed that Allah had come, on multiple occasions, to agree with Umar.
Note that the translation of the hadiths below are incorrect. The Arabic text of these hadiths refers to "the veil" (hijab) singular, and "verse" singular, not plural i.e. the various versions of this hadith refer to the revelation of Quran 33:53 concerning the screen (al hijab) between visitors and Muhammad's wives.
Umar said, "I agreed with Allah in three things," or said, "My Lord agreed with me in three things. I said, 'O Allah's Apostle! Would that you took the station of Abraham as a place of prayer.' I also said, 'O Allah's Apostle! Good and bad persons visit you! Would that you ordered the Mothers of the believers to cover themselves with veils.' So the Divine Verses of Al-Hijab (i.e. veiling of the women) were revealed. I came to know that the Prophet had blamed some of his wives so I entered upon them and said, 'You should either stop (troubling the Prophet ) or else Allah will give His Apostle better wives than you.' When I came to one of his wives, she said to me, 'O 'Umar! Does Allah's Apostle haven't what he could advise his wives with, that you try to advise them?' " Thereupon Allah revealed:--"It may be, if he divorced you (all) his Lord will give him instead of you, wives better than you Muslims (who submit to Allah).." (66.5)
Umar ups the ante
After Umar's wish of having Muhammad's wives veiled was fulfilled, he set his sights on having the clothing requirements increased to the point of making the women completely unrecognizable. To this end, he again spied on Sauda as she had gone out to relieve herself, this time notifying her that because she was a distinctively "fat huge lady", the newly-obligated veil did not suffice in obscuring her identity. Embarrassed yet again, Sauda returned home to inform Muhammad. Then feasting on a piece of meat and apparently disturbed by the interruption, Muhammad immediately received revelation from God alerting Sauda that Umar's demands would not this time be met. Accordingly, Sauda was informed that she would be allowed to relieve herself outdoors in spite of Umar's harassment.
Another hadith records how Umar attempted to apply the ruling of hijab (curtain) to other women in Muhammad's house besides his wives (the same account is in Sahih Bukhari 8:73:108).
Umar struck a slave girl for wearing jilbab like free women
One tradition relates Umar's strident views also to the theme of Quran 3:59, the verse in which believing women in general are instructed to wear the jilbab to distinguish themselves and to avoid harrasment.
Umar saw a slave-girl wearing a veil, so he struck her. He said, "Do not emulate free women."
Narrated Anas ibn Malik:
Hijab as a screen or physical barrier
Another type of veiling, also referred to in Arabic as hijab, is that effected through physical barriers. This was the original meaning of the term as discussed above regarding Quran 33:53. While Islamic legal schools disagree about the requirement and use of physical barriers in addition to hijab as matter of personal clothing, the use of physical barriers is the rule rather than the exception in much of the Islamic world and even make frequent appearance in Western diasporic settings.
In addition to the generic employment of physical barriers wherever both men and women are present, there is the more specific practice of the "household hijab". The idea of separating male and female visitors at one's home is inspired by hadith accounts which describe this practice in Muhammad's household as well as a Quranic allusion thereto in Quran 33:53. According to the hadiths, the separate revelation regarding the household hijab was also situationally inspired. Here, the story is that Muhammad had visitors and was bothered to find them lingering to chat with his wives after they had dinner.
When Allah's Apostle married Zainab bint Jahsh, he invited the people to a meal. They took the meal and remained sitting and talking. Then the Prophet (showed them) as if he is ready to get up, yet they did not get up. When he noticed that (there was no response to his movement), he got up, and the others too, got up except three persons who kept on sitting. The Prophet came back in order to enter his house, but he went away again. Then they left, whereupon I set out and went to the Prophet to tell him that they had departed, so he came and entered his house. I wanted to enter along with him, but he put a screen between me and him. Then Allah revealed:'O you who believe! Do not enter the houses of the Prophet...' (33.53)
- Why dress codes can’t stop sexual assault - Washington Post
- Elizabeth Bucar (2012) The Islamic Veil, Oxford: Oneworld Publications
- Elizabeth Bucar (2012) The Islamic Veil, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, pp. 119-122
- Elizabeth Bucar (2012) The Islamic Veil, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, pp. 77-83
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, p. 45
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, p. 35
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 38-40
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 40-45
- Hijab is Not an Islamic Duty: Muslim Scholar - Morocco World News, 24 June 2012
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 47-48
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, p. 34
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 49-58
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 56
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 65-66
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, pp. 19-23
- Elizabeth Bucar, The Islamic Veil, p. 24
- See Sexual Harassment Laws in Egypt: Does Stricter Mean More Effective? by Habiba Abdelaal, The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy - December 2021
- Manar Ammar - Sexual harassment awaits Egyptian girls outside schools - Bikya Masr, September 10, 2012
- "The High Rape-Scale in Saudi Arabia", WomanStats Project (blog), January 16, 2013 (archived), http://womanstats.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-high-rape-scale-in-saudi-arabia/.