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Why are Muslim Women Required to Cover (Part 2)?

Adopted from the book "A New Perspective : Women in Islam" by : Sayyid Mustafa Qazwini and Fatma Saleh

Fatma: Were most Qur’anic injunctions originated by actual events, such as the order for women to cover?

Sayyid: Many of the injunctions that are stated in the Qur’an were not necessarily as a result of certain incidents or predicaments. Islam slowly was introduced into a society for over twenty-three years as guidance for humanity. Guidelines, recommendations, orders, and laws emerged throughout these years. Considering that the particular society in which the Prophet lived was lawless and in need of direction and reform, such changes could not simply have been done in a short time. Islam was dealing with a society that had been accustomed to their traditions for centuries and deliberated the changes with caution.

In some instances, the Qur’an would intermittently touch upon a matter and mention it in a way to draw attention to it. In some instances, the Qur’an made advantage of incidents as preludes to introduce certain laws or revelations, such as the incidents in the market that instigated laws of trade. Sometimes, the Qur’an would introduce a resolution that ultimately would lead to an injunction. Take for example, the drinking of alcohol.

Islam wanted to abolish alcohol consumption completely, but it had to gradually introduce its prohibition into a society that was accustomed to drinking. Initially, the Qur’an mentioned that when a Muslim stood before prayers, their minds should not be intoxicated. Then, ultimately, the Qur’an prohibited alcohol completely. Then there were laws that were ordained, but later abrogated. There is a variety of reasons as to why certain ordinances were applied, but not all of the injunctions resulted from particular incidents.

The verses that requested Muslim women to cover were instigated by incidents (but did not necessarily originate with the incidents themselves). The verses were predetermined, but the occasions introduced them.

The incident that generated the first revelation regarding the covering of women was of a young man who was overtaken by the beauty of a woman passing him. While looking at her, he walked into a wall and cut his head on a protruding object. 75

The second incident occurred in the Medina market between a Jewish merchant and a Muslim woman patron. Apparently, her dress was revealing parts of her bosom that enticed the merchant to harass her provocatively.

Fatma: The Qur’an applies the words “julbab” and “khumur” in describing the form of attire for covering, but the word “hijab” is used in describing the form of covering for the wives of the Prophet. “When you ask his wives for anything you want to ask them from before a screen” (33:53). Some scholars have applied this verse as a form of covering, which includes the face and hands for all Muslim women. Does the verse only pertain to the Prophet’s wives or all Muslim women?

Sayyid: Although some scholars believe that verse 33:53 may be applied to all Muslim women, the consensus of scholars is that the verse refers to and addresses the wives of the Prophet only.

Scholars describe a series of events that surrounded the Prophet as reasons for the aforementioned verse. Enemies of the Prophet, during his lifetime, continuously mocked and teased him by suggesting when he died they were going to marry his wives. This disturbed the Prophet. Thus ensued the dissension of the verse.

However, the idea behind the verse is to protect a woman from being perpetrated as an object of a man’s desire.

“Ask them from a screen; that makes for greater purity for your hearts and theirs” (33:53).

The details of the verse may be ideal and realistically used in some societies where women still are being victimized or judged by their physical appearance.

Fatma: Nevertheless, there are some scholars who recommend that in certain societies women should cover completely. Would this not go against the ideology that men should “lower their gazes” and not think of women in an ill manner? How are men to learn and practice this idea if Muslim women are continuously asked to cover extensively?

Sayyid: Most scholars do not advocate the extent of such practices (complete covering). Certainly, it would be optimal if all men adhered to the teachings and principles of Islam, but it may be very challenging. Men, in general, are physically attracted to the sight of women and, for some men, one way to curb this attraction is to conceal this potential attraction.

Fatma: You mentioned the basic criterion for the dress code is from the foreline of the face to the wrist and to below the ankles. Is this how scholars define the verse that states “what must ordinarily appear” (24:31)?

Sayyid: Although the Qur’an does not mention the specifics of “what must ordinarily appear,” Ahl al-Bayt scholars have made extensive studies of traditions from the Prophet and Imams of Ahl al-Bayt which generally state the areas that are permitted to be uncovered are the feet, hands, and face. 76

Fatma: Why was the face not included since it may be one of the most attractive features of a woman?

Sayyid: Theuncovering of the face is a form of identification. The face needs to be recognized; in addition, the woman needs to see and converse. The cause for the hands and feet to be uncovered is mainly for mobility.

Fatma: Some scholars have made it incumbent upon women to cover the soles of their feet. Why is that?

Sayyid: Scholars whomake such rulings are relying on traditions that claim a woman should cover the soles of her feet because most of the traditions regarding covering exclude only the face and hands from being covered. Additionally, there is an authentic tradition that states when there is doubt about a particular matter, then precautionary measure (ihtiyat) is advised.

Fatma: The Qur’an states “that they [women] should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear” (24:31). Then, the Qur’an goes on to mentionwhich people are allowed to see the woman unveiled. However, Allah seems to be revealing varying degrees of dress regarding certain people in relation to the woman. Could you explain the varying degrees of dress for a woman in front of other people?

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 and not display their beauty 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 from 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 toward God, that you may attain Bliss (24:31).

Sayyid: Your observation is correct. The verse has varying degrees of dress for a Muslim woman in relation to others.

Imam Muhammad Al-Baqir 77 explained that there are three classifications or levels for displaying a woman’s ornament (ziina)—meaning her physical features. The first ornament is for the public or strangers. The second level is for the immediate family members; the father, brother, or son. The third classification is for the husband. 78

If a Muslim woman is in public encountering or associating with men, then she is required to cover by the example given of the julbab and khumur attires. Areas that she is not required to cover when in public are the hands and face.

When a woman is at home and among her immediate family members, or only females, she is to be modest in her attire. For example, her clothing apparel should cover the areas of the upper chest to below the knees. Even though she may be among her father, sons, brothers, or females, she should still be moderate in her dress.

When she is in private quarters with her husband, she should be uninhibited and free to reveal any part of her body in front of her husband.

Islam believes that women have two sides; one is humanitarian and the other is feminine. Islam wants women to reveal their humanitarian qualities among the public. The Qur’an makes an allegorical statement regarding this point. “They should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments” (24:31).Not only is a Muslim woman required to cover herself physically, but also she must behave accordingly. Covering is only one aspect of hijab; another factor is her demeanor.

Fatma: Does the Qur’an mention what sort of punishment awaits a Muslim woman if she does not adhere to hijab?

Sayyid: After the Qur’an mentions the covering of women, it concludes with, “O ye Believers! Turn you all together toward God, that you may attain bliss: wa tuubuu ‘ilal-laahi jamii-‘an ‘ay-yuhal-Mu’-minuuna la ‘al-lakum tuflihuun” (24: 31). Tuubuu comes from the word inebba, which means going back or turning back. Ithas a very significant meaning to this particular verse in that Allah invites faithful women to turn humbly toward Him, to sincerely abide to His commandments, hence that they may attain righteousness and become prosperous.

Fatma: Do you believe that hijab has become a testimonial of a woman’s faith?

Sayyid: For some women it has become a testimonial factor of their faith, in particular women who live in Western societies or in countries that claim to be Islamic yet have banned hijab. The practice of hijab for some women who live in these societies has become a symbol of their religious faith; an emblem of religious pride based on firm convictions of their faith; furthermore, hijab has become a means of preserving their Islamic identity.

Fatma: Could you discuss the parameters of a Muslim woman beautifying herself?

Sayyid: There is no limit for a woman to beautify herself for her husband; in fact, it is highly encouraged. However, when she is out in public she should be natural, with the exemption of two items in which may be added for health benefits, khoel and henna. Khoel is a natural black substance that resembles black eyeliner. It is used around the eye as a remedy to strengthen eyesight. Henna is a natural dye substance that is used to enhance skin tone and hair texture. Henna, however, cannot be exposed publicly in the form of tattooing or decorative body art.

Fatma: Some scholars have ruled that jewelry is forbidden for a woman to wear. Are the reasons that “they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments” (24:31)?

Sayyid: This verse is metaphorical in that any means of intentionally attracting, provoking, or enticing men is forbidden for women to do, whether it be by her clothing, jewelry, make-up, or mannerism.

Yet, if a woman wears excessive or extraordinary jewelry in public, then it would be forbidden. The consensus of the scholars is that a woman may wear basic jewelry such as her wedding ring and an ordinary watch. Nose rings, bracelets, charms, and necklaces should not be displayed in public.

Fatma: What are the rules regarding men’s attire?

Sayyid: Interestingly, before the regulation of women covering, Allah addressed the men. “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them” (24:30).Rules of modesty are equally applicable to men. When men are aware that their body structure has become a form of attraction for women, then they must adhere to the spirit of the verse.

Fatma: But a man’s form of dress is not defined by boundaries like that of a woman. Why?

Sayyid: Men do, in fact, have regulations concerning their attire. They do have a limit on covering themselves when among women. They must be covered from the chest to below the knees. The clothing is not to resemble that of women's attire. A man’s clothes cannot be tight, revealing, or enticing. Scholars add that,if a man becomes aware that his body is attracting women, then he must cover.It becomes incumbent upon him to dress properly. It is forbidden for men to wear silk and gold, as well.

Fatma: Why was the Qur’an silent on the dress regulations for men?

Sayyid: Traditionally, in the pre-Islamic era, men in that society did cover while, generally, women did not. When Islam advanced, it made changes in areas that needed reform. During that era, men were already dressed appropriately; hence, the Qur’an was not going to direct a particular issue when it was already being practiced. However, the traditions of the Prophet still mention the criteria regarding men’s apparel.

Fatma: Butmost Muslim men do not recognize that they are obligated in any way to cover.

Sayyid: This is because they are unaware of the laws and practices of Islam.

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