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Muslim Women and the Veil

by Mohammad Asghar
-- Nov, 2008
Allah asked Muhammad:
24:30: Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty:
that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
24:31: And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their
modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (mist
ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms except to their
husbands, their fathers, their husbands fathers, their sons, their husbands sons, their brothers
or their brothers sons, or their sisters sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right
hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense
of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to
their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may
attain Bliss.
We understand that it was necessary for Allah to make such rules, as, in His j udgment, were
needed, to regulate the uncivilized social behavior of a people Muhammad and his
companions were going to rule over once Allahs mission to establish Islam in the Arabian
Peninsula was accomplished. But what about those rules through which He had sought to
instill a sense of purity and modesty in Muslim men and women? Let us go over those rules.
Avoiding eye contact and covering appropriately sexual organs are two of the ways through
which both Muslim men and women can avoid commission of adultery or fornication among
them. It was His knowledge of human behavior that prompted Him to ask Muslims of both
genders to lower their gaze, when they find themselves face to face with strangers. He has
also asked them to cover their sexual organs appropriately in order to preserve their purity
and modesty.
Believing that what Allah had thought were the appropriate measures for preventing Muslims
from committing adultery or fornication, we wonder why He asked only the women to cover
their bosoms as well as to refrain from displaying their beauty before none, but their
husbands and close relatives! Why asked them to hide their ornaments and also not to strike
their feet in order not to draw strange mens attention to them? Why He wants women to
draw their veils over their bosoms, when He ordered strange men not to look up, and gaze at
them?
Veil worn by Muslim women is a highly sensitive and contentious issue. The Western world
does not understand why they should cover themselves up from head to toe, and continue to
suffer discomfort, among others, in humid weather. Muslims counter that wearing of veil is
not at all uncomfortable for their women and that it is an obligation that Allah has imposed
on them so that they may be able to maintain their physical and spiritual purity. They also
contend that when the Western world does not find any problem with the Christian nuns
covering themselves up with veil, why it should feel concerned with the Muslim women
wearing the same attire!
A complex issue, such as the wearing of veil by the Muslim women, calls for a detailed
discussion. We, therefore, wish to do exactly the same here by relying on other statements of
the Quran that are connected with the subject of veil. But before doing that, we must point
out an important fact, it being: three different words have been used in the Quran to describe
what Muslim women need to do to protect themselves from the prying eyes and assault of
strange men. These words are: khimar, hijab and jilbab.
We find the word khimar in verse 24:31, quoted above. Here are two other verses with the
words hijab and jilbab in them:
1. O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophets house,- until leave is given to you,- for a meal,
(and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when ye are invited, enter; and
when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behaviour)
annoys the Prophet: he is ashamed to dismiss you, but Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the
truth.
And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen {hijab}:
that makes for greater purity for your hearts and theirs. Nor is it right for you that ye should
annoy Allahs Apostle, or that ye should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such
a thing is in Allahs sight an enormity.[1]
2. O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast
their outer garments {jilbab} over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that
they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most
Merciful.[2]
To understand the true implications of the above and other verses, we must also note that the
revelation of each of the Qurans verses had a reason, and an occasion. Verse 33:53 was
revealed at the time Muhammad was celebrating his success at acquiring Zainab, the divorced
wife of his adopted son Zaid, through a grand reception he had thrown at his home in
Medina.[3]
The reception, held by Muhammad, to celebrate an occasion that the Pagans considered to be
highly harmful to, and contagious for, their social order, brings to light one of his hitherto
before hidden characteristics, it being: though he had taken a multiple of women in his
wedlock, he is not reported to have ever thrown any party to welcome any one of them to his
harem. The strange behavior he displayed in case of Zainab was representative of a sadistic
pleasure he derived from the successes he achieved through manipulations and illegal and
unethical maneuvers he is known to have used throughout his life to fulfill his desires, goals
and ambitions.
What followed after Muhammads invited guests arrived at his home is clearly mentioned in
verse 33:53. This verse came to him from a Book that Allah had written down, and preserved
in Luh-e-mahfooz,[4] long before He began the process of creating the Universe and
everything else that it contains. Allahs Plan required Muhammads guest to arrive at his
home before the time of the feast not only to satisfy their hunger, but also to have a glimpse
of his new, but unwed wife. Their early arrival caused Muhammad a serious problem: though
he wished to spend as much time as was possible for him to spend with Zainab - his life-
long passion - the early arrival of his guests forced him to come out of her cabin to give them
company. And this he did not like at all and he became angry at them.
Again, the guests did not leave his home immediately after partaking of their meal; instead,
three of them became engrossed in a conversation, thus delaying their departure.[5] Since
Muhammad could not leave them to themselves, he failed to return to Zainab at the height of
his craving for her. This made him impatient and restless.
While being in the company of his guests, Muhammads desire to have sex with Zainab, (or
should we say to torture her), drove him crazy. It was visible from his face and restlessness,
yet his guests failed to take notice of his condition.
But Allah was not insensitive like them. Having dedicated Himself to Muhammads service,
Allah came to his rescue and required the three insensitive guests, through the above
revelation, to leave Muhammads house immediately, telling them simultaneously that
though their host was shy at asking them to leave him alone, but He was shameless, hence
His directive to them.
Allah also told them that if they needed anything before leaving, they should ask
Muhammads wives from before a screen (hijab), for it was good for keeping their and his
wives hearts pure. Taking advantage of a gathering of many guests, Allah also told them
they should not marry Muhammads widows after he was dead.
A close reading of verse 33:53 makes the following points clear:
1. Allah put the responsibility for creating, and observing the barrier (hijab) between
Muhammads wives and his male visitors squarely on his guests, hence the words when ye
ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen.
Above instruction was given to men; so, it were they who were asked by Allah to erect
barriers (hijab) in front of their eyes, before asking anything from Muhammads wives. It
does not say, nor imply, that He required Muhammads wives to go behind the screen before
attending to their male guests requests.
This verse also indicates that Muhammads wives were not in the habit of hiding themselves
behind screens or barriers, while confronted with strange men, hence Allahs instruction to
men to observe hijab in order to save their purity.
Even if we were to believe that the instruction contained in the verse equally applied to
Muhammads guests and his wives, even then it does not change the fact that Muhammads
wives did not hide themselves from men not related to them through blood, until they were
made to do so by Allahs above stated order. Otherwise, there was no reason for Allah to tell
them to hide themselves behind a screen or barrier (hijab), if they had already been doing it!
Our second thought on the verse convinces us that the requirement of isolating women from
the view of men could not have come from Allah. It was Muhammads brainchild through
which, he tried to control his sexually starved wives from getting in touch with other men in
order to meet their physical needs. Whether he had succeeded in his efforts or not is not
known to the historians of Islam.
2. The dress (or uniform) worn by the Christian nuns is, firstly, different from the hijab or the
veil we see the Muslim women in. And, secondly, the Christian nuns are the women who
bound themselves by vow to poverty, chastity and obedience and dedicate their lives to the
service of the church. In other words, they are equivalent of male monks, hence the dress they
wear to segregate them from the rest of the Christian women.
Conversely, Muslim women do not belong to the category of nuns, nor do they dedicate their
lives to the service of their mosques or religion; therefore, comparing them and their dress
code with the Christian nuns is a fallacy on the part of the Muslim scholars and historians.
Moreover, the word hijab does not mean veil, the one that the Muslim women put on their
faces. Rather, as we have stated before, it means a screen or a barrier that we use to
separate one thing from another. Therefore, the veil that the Muslim women wear has no
basis in the Quran.
3. Verse 33:53 came down to Muhammad, when he was with his guests, with all of his
faculties functioning well. He narrated its content to his guests for their compliance as the
angel Gabriel was relaying it to him.
The condition under which Muhammad received his revelations from Allah established, we
will like to know why are we told that he received them either in a state of vision or in quasi-
dreams, or when he used to sink into a deep strata of consciousness, usually accompanied by
certain physical concomitants i.e. convulsions, followed by a deep trance?[6] Did he feign
receipt of revelations from Allah in order to obtain advantage over his foes, or was the story
relating to revelations was invented by the later-day Muslims to add credibility to what he
had said and preached in his lifetime?
Having spent some time, and space as well, on the background of verse 33:53; the
implication of the word hijab and on the mode in which Muhammad claimed he received
his revelations from Allah, we now turn to the issues of khimar and jilbab, as we read about
them in the Quran. But before taking up these issues for discussion, we need to mention here
an important fact that the Muslim scholars and historians often come up with in their
attempts to defend Islam and the Quran. And the fact is:
Before the arrival of Islam, the Arab Pagans lived in the Times of Ignorance.[7] They had
neither a religious book to seek guidance from, nor they had a prophet or apostle to advise
them on the important issues of their lives. They somehow lived their lives, without knowing
anything about good health hygiene.
When Allah realized their situation, He sent Muhammad with the Quran to them. He taught
them through Muhammad and the Quran how they should carry out their ablutions before
their prayer as well as how they should purify themselves after attending to their natures
calls or after having sex with their women. In short, Allah introduced to the Pagans anyt hing
and everything that they were ignorant about, or were not wont to practicing in their lives
through His Prophet and the Quran for their knowledge and meticulous compliance.
We shall approach the issues of khimar and jilbab from the standpoint of our standing of the
situation that we believe prevailed in the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam. We
hope our effort on these issues will clear most of the questions many of us want answered to
our satisfaction.
It appears from the Quran that following their Pagan traditions, Muhammads wives, even
after converting to Islam, continued to maintain a complaisant tone and continued to speak
seductive words that moved other men with desire for them. They also moved around
boisterously; and made dazzling display of themselves in front of strangers.[8]
They also did not say their Islamically mandated regular prayers; neither did they practice
charity. They disobeyed Allah and their husband, the Prophet of Islam. To top all the above,
they did not recite what Muhammad rehearsed to them in their homes.[9]
To remove all the abominable things from the lives of Muhammads wives, Allah approached
them directly and told them: O Consorts of the Prophet! You are not like any other women
and if you fear Allah or your husband, then you will have to change your ways of life so that
I can cure the malaises of your hearts. Whether or not they changed their ways or life, or if
Allah was able to cure their malaises is not recorded in the Quran.
After admonishing Muhammads wives for their un-Islamic acts and urging them to behave
like respectable women, Allah turned His attention to other believing women of
Muhammads era and told them what we read in verse 24:31.
For understanding the full import of Allahs commandment to the Muslim women, we must
find out whether the word veil (khimar in Arabic) used in the English rendering of the
above verse is correct or not. Here are our findings:
Three of the five English translations we have read,[10] have the word veil in them. One
translator has used the phrase head-coverings,[11] instead of veil. According to this
translator, Muslim women were required to wear their head-coverings over their bosoms.
Another translator[12] used the word shawls which Muslim women have been advised to
fold over their bosoms.
It is clear from the above examples that the use of the word veil in English translations of
the verse is correct, even though some translators have used different words in their
translations to convey the same sense as does the word veil, its literal meaning being: a
piece of cloth or mesh material that can be used to hide or
cover something.
In our understanding, the khimar or the veil Allah spoke of in
verse 24:31 is what is known as orhni or odhani used by the
women of the Indian sub-continent. Also known as dupatta, it
is a diaphanous piece of cloth that they use mostly to cover
their breasts. This illustration should make clear how a veil or
dupatta looks like, and how it is worn by the most Muslim
women of the Indian sub-continent:
With the picture of veil or khimar clear to us, we must try to
find out why Allah asked the women of Muhammads time to
veil, cover or hide their bosoms, if they had already been doing
that in their pagan days?
The answer to the question can be deduced from the following
assumption: the Pagan women of pre-Islamic days did not
cover or hide their bosoms .Their historic tradition continued to be present in the Muslim
society due, firstly, to the lack of an Islamic injunction on the matter, and secondly, on
account of their economic conditions. Muslim women began to cover their bosoms with
khimar or dupatta (Indian word) only after Allah told them to do so. Prior to the revelation of
verse 24:31, Muslim women did not cover their bosoms.
With the above situation in our mind, we would now want to briefly discuss the content of
verse 24:31, not only to point out what it really means, but also to see if it supports our
contention, as we have outlined it in the foregoing paragraphs.
The verse says that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their
beauty except to their husbands, their fathers and so on. To understand the implication of
this statement, we must note, first, what relationship a females bosoms have with her beauty.
We know that beauty is for its beholder. We feel no hesitation in asserting that a female body
is the finest artistry of nature. Every part of her body exudes beauty; be it her feet, legs, gait,
hands, bosoms, neck, voice, eyes, face and hair.
But neglecting almost all the above important components of a female body, many of us often
deem a woman to be beautiful only when she appears before us with a beautiful face. True, a
female face is the focal point of mans attraction, but it does not create in him as much sexual
arousal as does her two nicely shaped, firm and smooth looking bosoms, also known as
breasts to most men.
It is the above reason that remains at the back of a sculptors minds, when he or she fashions
a sculpture of a female body with a pair of beautiful looking bosoms incorporated in his or
her creation. The contours of a beautiful looking face create an ever lasting impact on the
minds of its viewers. Two round and artistically designed bosoms added to the beautiful face
take many men to a world from which they never want to come out.
It is also on account of the above reason that many clever and sensible women, with financial
ability, take trouble, and go to an extra mile, to get their breasts clinically enhanced or
enlarged, not for the sake of fun, but to give their mens eyes something sexually attractive to
feast on. Attractive and good sized bosoms play a vital role in the foreplay that most men
undertake in order to prepare him and his partner before engaging themselves in the
satisfying act of sexual intercourse. In contrast to them, many women, who do not have
attractive bosoms, or the means to make them artificially attractive, not only end up having
problems with their men, they also miss in their own lives the immense pleasure that can
result only from the full preparedness of both the parties to their sexual act.
Allah was aware of the above sexual phenomenon. He, therefore, prohibited Muslim women
from exposing their bosoms before the strangers. He required them to keep their bosoms
hidden from them and others, and not to display their beauty except to their husbands and
other close relatives, mentioned in the verse. How the Muslim women were to hide their
facial beauty is not clearly mentioned in it.
Allah was also aware that exposed bosoms aroused sexual desires in men; He therefore,
asked Muslim men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty in order to protect their
manly purity from being soiled by their lust.
Before closing our discussion on the use of veil or khimar by Muslim women, and taking up
the question of jilbab or burqa, we want to say unequivocally that:
Since most Muslim women of our time wear dresses that hide their bosoms from others
sight, the Quranic stipulation on veiling the upper part of their bodies with a piece of cloth
has lost its purpose. Muslims, therefore, should neither argue on the type of veils their women
need to wear, nor they should pay any attention to what the Quran says about it, thereby
making their lives easier, and free from unnecessary tension.
The necessity of veils for the Muslim women of 7th century explained, and its uselessness for
the women of the modern time also pointed out, it is time for us to ask ourselves: What about
burqa and headscarf that Muslim women wear these days?
We have noted earlier that it is the Muslim mens responsibility to create a barrier (hijab)
between them and the women they were about to talk to, or in whose company they were
about to find themselves in, but they were never able to comply with this requirement of
Allah. Instead, they continued to molest, mostly, the former slave-women, in spite of their
conversion to Islam. Their susceptibility to physical attacks by the former ignorant Pagan-
turned Muslims increased manifold on the streets and, especially, in the darkness of night.
Forced by their habit, they not only molested or tried to molest the women of higher status,
they even molested or tried to molest the wives of Muhammad. To protect women of higher
status as well as the wives of the Prophet, Allah decreed:
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast
their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they
should be known (as such) and not molested: and Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most
Merciful.[13]
Two facts come out of the above verse: (1). Muslim women, including Muhammads wives,
were asked to cast their outer garments (jilbab) over their persons before going out of their
homes, and (2). This was necessary for them to indicate to the would-be molesters that they
were free women of higher status and that some of them were the wives of Muhammad. The
form or the shape of the jilbab, nor the material with which it was made or to be made is not
mentioned in the verse.
While the former slave-turned Muslim women continued to suffer from their Muslim
brothers physical attacks,[14] most of their masters gradually became financially well off,
thanks to plunders they perpetrated on the Jews under the command and the leadership of the
Prophet of Islam. Now, they were able to buy fabrics and other things, which they could not
afford before, from markets in Syria and other countries to which they had been sending their
caravans for thousands of years.
Eventually, Muslim masters of the women-slaves devised a means to protect them from their
molesters attacks. It was burqa that not only hid their faces from being seen by the would-be
assailants; it also helped them hid their physical features inside its encompassing for m.
The black color of the fabrics, used in the making of burqa then, helped its wearer blend well
with the darkness of night, thus enabling them to evade their would-be attackers. This color
has since become almost universal: today, if not all, almost all the burqas are made of black
color; and these are worn mostly by the poor Muslim women of the world.
Headscarf became a part of Muslim womens Islamic dress when Spain and some other
European territories fell into Muslim hands. Worn by the Christian Nuns of Europe, its
adoption by the Muslims was intended to make a religious statement of their own. Its
introduction among the European Muslim women was also necessitated, perhaps, by their
refusal to wear bulky burqas their sisters-in- faith then wore elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Hence its extensive use mainly by white female Muslims the world over today.
The gist of our discussion on hijab (veil), khimar (a piece of cloth) and jilbab (outer garment
or burqa) is the following:
Khimar is a piece of cloth Muslim women need to cover their bosoms with, when they are
inside their homes; hijab is a screen or barrier[15] behind which Muslim men should hide
themselves before talking to Muslim women that are not related to them through blood and
jilbab is a body cover they are required to wear, when they intend to go out of their homes.
The form of the jilbab (burqa) that is used by the Muslim women today to cover themselves
from head to toe has no sanction in the Quran.
There is no provision in the Quran that requires the Muslim women to wear headscarf when
they are outside of their homes. It is a concept, which the European Muslim women had
borrowed from the Christian Nuns. It is not Islamic and it, therefore, has no Islamic value or
importance.


[1] The Quran; 33:53.
[2] The Quran; 33:59.
[3] Moulvi Muhammad Naimuddin, Quranul Majid, p. 616.
[4] The Quran; 85:21-22.
[5] Moulvi Muhammad Naimuddin; Quran Majid, p. 616.
[6] Fazlur Rahman; Islam, p. 13.
[7] The Quran; 33:33.
[8] The Quran; 33:32-33.
[9] The Quran; 33:34.
[10] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall and N. J. Dawood.
[11] Shakil.
[12] Dr. T. B. Irving.
[13] The Quran; 33:59.
[14] Cf. Tafsir al-Jalalayns commentary on verse 33:59.
[15] Cf. The Quran; 42:51 where it is stated that Allah speaks to man from behind a veil.