Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

What the Quran Says about Hijab or Veil!

We read in the Quran:
“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.” [Q 24:30]

“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 (must 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.” [Q 24:31]

I understand that it was necessary for Allah to make such rules, as, in His judgment, were necessary to regulate the uncivilized social behavior of a people Muhammad and his companions were going to rule once Allah’s 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 briefly go over those rules.

Avoiding eye contact and covering sexual organs appropriately are two of the ways through which, Allah believes, both Muslim men and women can avoid commission of adultery or fornication among them. It was this knowledge of human behavior that had prompted Allah to ask both Muslim men and women to lower their gaze, when they find themselves face to face with strangers. He prohibited women from ‘displaying her figure or appear in undress except before their husbands, near relatives who would be living in the same house, and with whom a certain amount of negligee is permissible.’[1] He has also asked them not to display their ornaments[2] before anyone, but the men mentioned in the above verse, in order to protect themselves from their lustful desire.

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 and to refrain from displaying their beauty before none, but their husbands and close relatives? Why He asked them to hide their ornaments and also not to strike their feet in order not to avoid drawing strange men’s attention to them? Why He wants women to draw their veils over their bosoms, while requiring 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 Muslim women should cover themselves from head to toe, and continue to suffer discomfort, among others, in humid and fetid climate. 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. Many Muslim women claim that covering their bodies with burqa liberates them, and enhances their sense of safety. 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. I, 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, I 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 Prophet’s 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 Allah’s Apostle, or that ye should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is in Allah’s sight an enormity.”[3]

  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.”[4]

To understand the true implications of the above and other verses, I must also note that the revelation of each of the Quran’s verses had a reason, and an occasion. Accordingly, verse 33:53 was revealed when Muhammad was celebrating his success at acquiring Zainab, the divorced wife of his adopted son Zaid, through a grand reception he had arranged at his home in Medina.[5]

The reception, held by Muhammad, to celebrate an event that the Pagans considered to be highly licentious and therefore harmful to, and contagious for, their social order, brings to light one of his hitherto hidden characteristics, it being: though he had taken a multiple of women in his wedlock, he is not reported to have ever thrown a 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 had followed after Muhammad’s 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,[6] long before He began the process of creating the Universe and everything it contains. Allah’s Plan called for Muhammad’s guest to arrive at his home before the time of 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’ with Zainab – his life-long passion - as much time as was possible for him, the early arrival of his guests forced him to come out of her cabin to give them company. And, he did not like this at all and became angry at them.

Again, all 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.[7] 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, Muhammad’s desire to have sex with Zainab (or should we say ‘to torture her’), drove him crazy. Restlessness was visible on his face, but his insensitive guests failed to take notice of his condition.

But Allah was not insensitive like them. Having dedicated Himself to Muhammad’s service, Allah came to his rescue and required the three callous guests, through the above revelation, to leave Muhammad’s house immediately, telling them simultaneously that although their host was shy at asking them to leave him alone, but He (Allah) was shameless, hence His directive to them.

Allah also told them that if they needed anything before leaving, they should ask Muhammad’s wives from before a screen (‘hijab’); for, it was good for keeping the hearts of theirs and the Prophet’s wives pure. Taking advantage of a gathering of many guests, Allah also asked them not to marry Muhammad’s widows after he was gone from the earth...

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 Muhammad’s wives and his male visitors squarely on the 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, and not Muhammad’s wives, who were responsible for creating a barrier (hijab) in front of their eyes, before asking anything from Muhammad’s wives. It does not say, nor imply, that Allah had required Muhammad’s wives to go behind the screen before attending to their male guests’ requests.

This verse also indicates that Muhammad’s wives were not in the habit of hiding themselves behind screens or barriers, while confronted with strange men, hence came down Allah’s 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 Muhammad’s guests and his wives, it does not change the fact that Muhammad’s wives did not hide themselves from men, who were not related to them through blood, until they were made to do so by Allah by revealing the above-mentioned verse. 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!

My second thought on the verse convinces me that the requirement of isolating women from the view of men could not have come from Allah. It was Muhammad’s 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 is not known to the historians of Islam.

2. The dress (or uniform) worn by Christian nuns is, firstly, different from hijab or veil, which Muslim women wear. And, secondly, the Christian nuns are the women, who bind themselves by vow to poverty, chastity and obedience and dedicate their lives to the service of the church. In other words, they are equivalent to male monks, hence the dress they wear to differentiate themselves from normal 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 their dress code with that of Christian nuns is a fallacy on the part of Muslim scholars and historians.

Moreover, the word “hijab” does not mean “veil”, which Muslim women put on their faces. Rather, as stated above, it means a “screen” or a barrier that we often 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 if 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?[8] Did he feign the receipt of revelations from Allah in order to obtain advantage over his foes, or was the story relating to the mode of revelations was invented by latter-day Muslims to add credibility to what Muhammad 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, I now turn to the issues of khimar and jilbab, as we read them in the Quran. But before taking up these issues for discussion, I need to mention here an important “fact”, which Muslim scholars and historians often come up with to defend Islam and the Quran. This fact is:

Before the arrival of Islam, the Arab Pagans, according to Allah, lived in the Times of Ignorance (Jahiliyah).[9] They had neither a religious book to seek guidance from, nor 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 and hygiene.

When Allah realized their situation, He sent Muhammad with the Quran to them. Allah taught them through Muhammad and the Quran how they should carry out their ablutions before their prayer; how they should purify themselves after attending to the nature’s calls or after having sex with their women. In short, Allah introduced anything and everything to the Pagans that they did not know about, or were not wont to practicing in their lives, as Allah had not given them lessons on these prior to Muhammad’s arrival in their midst.

I shall approach the issues of khimr and jilbab from the standpoint of our understanding of the situation that, I believe, prevailed in the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam. This, I hope, will answer satisfactorily most of the questions many of us have on these issues.

It appears from the Quran that following the Pagan traditions, Muhammad’s wives, even after converting to Islam, continued to maintain a complacent tone and used seductive words in their conversations with Muhammad's male disciples, which aroused desire amongst them for his wives. They also moved around boisterously, and made dazzling display of themselves in front of strangers,[10] or before their would-be paramours.

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. On top of these, they did not ‘recite what Muhammad rehearsed to them in their homes.’[11]

To remove all abominable things, such as these, from the lives of Muhammad’s 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 they changed their manners, or Allah was able to cure their malaises is not recorded in the Quran.

To Allah, Muhammad’s wives were like queens; hence, Allah has used the word “Consorts” in their honor!

After admonishing Muhammad’s wives, or queens, for their un-Islamic acts and urging them to behave like respectable women, Allah turned His attention to other believing women of Muhammad’s era and told them what we read in verse 24:31.

For understanding the full import of Allah’s commandment to 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 my findings:

Three of the five English translations I have read,[12] have the word “veil” in them. One translator has used the phrase “head-coverings,”[13] instead of veil. According to this translator, Muslim women were required to wear their head-coverings over their bosoms. Another translator[14] used the word “shawls” which Muslim women should wear over their bosoms.

It is clear from these 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 my 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 most Muslim and non-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 Muhammad’s time to veil, cover or hide their bosoms, if they were already 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 with an extra piece of cloth: the khimr. Their historic tradition continued to be present in Muslim societies 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 this situation in mind, I 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 my contention, as outlined 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 female’s bosoms have with her beauty.

It is said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. I feel no hesitation in asserting that a female body is the finest artistry of nature. At least for a man, every part of her bodybe it her feet, legs, gait, hands, bosoms, neck, voice, eyes, face or hairexudes beauty.

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 man’s attraction, but it does not create in him as much sexual arousal as does her two nicely shaped breasts.

It is this reason that remains at the back of a sculptor’s minds, when he/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 face create an ever lasting impact on the minds of its viewers. A pair of artistically designed bosoms, added to the beautiful face, creates intense attraction in the minds of most men.

Obviously, for this reason, many women take the trouble to go to extra miles to get their breasts clinically enhanced or enlarged; they do it not for the sake of fun, but to be more attractive to the eyes of men. Well-sized attractive bosoms also make the male partner easily aroused, and sexually more potent, helping a more satisfying copulation. In contrast, 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, such couples also miss the pleasure of copulation to its best.

Allah, the engineer of both and women, was obviously aware of this aspect of human sexuality. He, therefore, prohibited Muslim women from exposing their bosoms before strangers. He required them to keep their beauty and the shape of their bosoms covered with an extra piece of cloth, not only from strangers, but also from many other close relatives, mentioned in the verse. How the Muslim women were to hide their facial beauty is not clearly mentioned in the Quran.

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 lust.

Before closing this discussion on the use of veil or khimar by Muslim women, and taking up the question of jilbab or burqa, let me emphasize 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. Therefore, Muslims should neither insist upon wearing of veils by their women, nor  should they pay attention to what the Quran says about it. This will obviously make their lives easier and free from unnecessary tension.

Let us now ask: What about burqa and headscarf that many Muslim women wear these days?

I have noted earlier that it is the responsibility of Muslim men to create a barrier (hijab) between them and the women they are about to talk to, or in whose company, they are about to find themselves in. But, they will 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. The susceptibility to sexual assaults on women by the Pagan-turned rowdy Muslims increased manifold on the streets of Medina, especially in the darkness of night. Under the compulsion of this 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.”[15]

Two facts come out of the above verse:

  1. Muslim women, including Muhammad’s wives, were asked to cast their outer garments (jilbab), like the dupatta worn by women of the Indian sub-continent, over their persons at home and before going out of their homes.

  2. This was necessary for them to indicate to the would-be molesters that they were free women of high status and that some of them were the wives of Muhammad. It did not matter to Allah if the Muslim female slaves faced molestation from their Muslim brethren. 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 at the hand of their Muslim “brothers’” physical attacks,[16] despite wearing an outer garment over their bodies to distinguish themselves from slave-women, most of their Muslim masters gradually became financially well off, thanks to plunders they perpetrated upon the Jews under the command and 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 the Arabs had been sending caravans since ages before the advent of Islam.

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 hide their physical features inside. An onlooker can never find out what lies inside a burqa!

The black color of the fabrics, used in making burqa then, helped its wearer blend well with the darkness of night, thus enabling them to evade would-be attackers. This color has since become almost universal: today, if not all, almost all the burqas are made of black cloth, worn mostly by suppressed Muslim women of the world.

Headscarf became a part of Muslim women’s Islamic dress when Spain and some other European territories fell into Muslim hands. Worn by Christian Nuns in Europe, its adoption by Muslim women was intended to make an equivalent religious statement of their own. Its introduction amongst European Muslim women was also necessitated, perhaps, by their refusal to wear bulky burqas, which their sisters-in-faith used to wear elsewhere in the Muslim world. Hence the headscarves are in extensive use mainly by the white Muslim women today.

The gist of my 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[17], behind which unrelated men should hide themselves while talking to Muslim women. Muslim women can also hide themselves behind hijab, if they want to avoid the gaze of men at them.[18] Jilbab is a body-covering Muslim women are required to wear at home and outside of it. That fact that, young Muslim women at home are also required to shield their bodies from the eyes of the young men of the house as well as of Allah with the help of a cloth, is also evident from verse 24:60. In it, Allah has clearly stated: “Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage; there is no blame on them if they lay aside their outer garments,[19] provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty:[20] but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.” The form of the jilbab (burqa) that is used by 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 Muslim women to wear headscarf when they are outside of their homes. It is a concept, which European Muslim women had borrowed from Christian nuns. It is not Islamic; therefore, has no Islamic value or importance.

[1] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran, vol. 2, p. 904.
[2] The word “beauty” that appears in the verse with the word “ornaments” is an addition of the translator; he has done this to force Muslim women into covering themselves by a head to toe cloak, or burqa. It is evident from the translations of other translators. They have not used this word in their translations.
[3] The Quran; 33:53.
[4] The Quran; 33:59.
[5] Maulvi Muhammad Naimuddin, Quranul Majid, p. 616.
[6] The Quran; 85:21-22.
[7] Maulvi Muhammad Naimuddin; Quran Majid, p. 616.
[8] Fazlur Rahman; Islam, p. 13.
[9] The Quran; 33:33.
[10] The Quran; 33:32-33.
[11] The Quran; 33:34.
[12] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall and N. J. Dawood.
[13] M. H. Shakir.
[14] Dr. T. B. Irving.
[15] The Quran; 33:59.
[16] Cf. Tafsir al-Jalalayn’s commentary on verse 33:59.
[17] Cf. The Quran; 42:51 where it is stated that Allah speaks to man from behind a veil.
[18] Cf. The Quran; 19:17.
[19] According to Mududi, the literal translation should have been ‘if they lay aside their clothes.’
[20] It is the adornment or ornaments, and not beauty that Allah has spoken of here.

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