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The Islamic obligation for Muslim women to wear the Hijab is agreed upon by all traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Although all of the schools of jurisprudence agree on the need for women to wear the hijab, modern discourse around the reason for this obligation vary a great deal. The verses from the Qur'an which describe this obligation indicate that protecting the modesty of the hijabi women is its main aim, however investigating the revelational circumstances of the verses describing this obligation show that, despite modern discourse the reasoning for this obligation was to keep the shape and features of women mysterious all men.
Qur'an Ayahs Regarding the Hijab
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 husband's 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.
Pickthal: And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or sisters' sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.
And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms
, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful.
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.
Pickthal: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.
O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
The first verse above states that the purpose is to hide women's beauty from men. The second verse makes it clear that it is to distinguish them (presumably from non-Muslim or slave women, who do not have to observe the hijab) in order to prevent them from being molested/harassed.
The view that an unveiled woman is at least deliberately exposing herself to the increased possibility of sexual harassment or assault (thereby diminishing the criminal's culpability in some way) is widespread among Islamic scholars and societies. However, the ahadith for the initial revelation of the hijab appear to present an very different reasoning for the practice, and ideas of modesty and protection against assault seem absent. While 24:31 suggests modesty as a reason for the hijab, this appears to have been a reasoning provided later on and having little or nothing to do with the initial prescription.
Revelation of the Hijab Verses
Umar bin Al-Khattab's Involvement
The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al-Manasi, a vast open place (near Baqia at Medina) to answer the call of nature at night. 'Umar used to say to the Prophet "Let your wives be veiled," but Allah's Apostle did not do so. One night Sauda bint Zam'a the wife of the Prophet went out at 'Isha' time and she was a tall lady. 'Umar addressed her and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda." He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verses of Al-Hijab (the observing of veils by the Muslim women) may be revealed. So Allah revealed the verses of "Al-Hijab" (A complete body cover excluding the eyes).
(the wife of the Prophet) 'Umar bin Al-Khattab used to say to Allah's Apostle "Let your wives be veiled" But he did not do so. The wives of the Prophet used to go out to answer the call of nature at night only at Al-Manasi.' Once Sauda, the daughter of Zam'a went out and she was a tall woman. 'Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her while he was in a gathering, and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda!" He ('Umar) said so as he was anxious for some Divine orders regarding the veil (the veiling of women.) So Allah revealed the Verse of veiling. (Al-Hijab; a complete body cover excluding the eyes). (See Hadith No. 148, Vol. 1)
'A'isha reported that the wives of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) used to go out in the cover of night when they went to open fields (in the outskirts of Medina) for easing themselves. 'Umar b Khattab used to say: Allah's Messenger, ask your ladies to observe veil, but Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) did not do that. So there went out Sauda, daughter of Zarn'a, the wife of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), during one of the nights when it was dark. She was a tall statured lady. 'Umar called her saying: Sauda, we recognise you. (He did this with the hope that the verses pertaining to veil would be revealed.) 'A'isha said: Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, then revealed the verses pertaining to veil.
This hadith has been narrated on the authority of Ibn Shihab with the same chain of transmitters.
The sequence of events as laid out in the ahadith are as follows:
- Umar repeatedly asks Muhammad that Allah should reveal verses for the Qur'an pertaining to the veiling of women.
- No such revelation is sent down.
- Umar follows Muhammad's wives one night when they go out to relieve themselves (go to the toilet) and calls out to Muhammad's wife Sauda.
- Sauda goes home in a state of embarrassment and relates to Muhammad what has happened.
- Allah then reveals the hijab verse as Umar had wanted all along.
Allah Agrees with Umar
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)
I said, "O Allah's Apostle! Good and bad persons enter upon you, so I suggest that you order the mothers of the Believers (i.e. your wives) to observe veils." Then Allah revealed the Verses of Al-Hijab.
Ibn Umar reported Umar as saying: My lord concorded with (my judgments) on three occasions. In case of the Station of Ibrahim, in case of the observance of veil and in case of the prisoners of Badr.
Umar Spies Again
Sauda (the wife of the Prophet) went out to answer the call of nature after it was made obligatory (for all the Muslims ladies) to observe the veil. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could recognize her. So 'Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her and said, "O Sauda! By Allah, you cannot hide yourself from us, so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out. Sauda returned while Allah's Apostle was in my house taking his supper and a bone covered with meat was in his hand. She entered and said, "O Allah's Apostle! I went out to answer the call of nature and 'Umar said to me so-and-so." Then Allah inspired him (the Prophet) and when the state of inspiration was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put in down, he said (to Sauda), "You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs."
A'isha reported that Sauda (Allah be pleased with her) went out (in the fields) in order to answer the call of nature even after the time when veil had been prescribed for women. She had been a bulky lady, significant in height amongst the women, and she could not conceal herself from him who had known her. 'Umar b. Khattab saw her and said: Sauda, by Allah, you cannot conceal from us. Therefore, be careful when you go out. She ('A'isha) said: She turned back. Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) was at that time in my house having his evening meal and there was a bone in his hand. She (Sauda) cline and said: Allah's Messenger. I went out and 'Umar said to me so and so. She ('A'isha) reported: There came the revelation to him and then it was over; the bone was then in his hand and he had not thrown it and he said:" Permission has been granted to you that you may go out for your needs."
Umar was unsatisfied with the first set of verses regarding hijab, and hoped by his second round of spying that verses would be revealed that would make all women, or at least the wives of Muhammad, totally unrecognizable.
Reasoning on the Hijab
A common claim by apologists is that the Hijab protects women against unwanted sexual attention from men. Well known apologist Zakir Naik takes this line of reasoning in his defense of the hijab mandate. Before considering this claim one should examine a few more ahadith:
'Abd bin Hamid reported from 'Abd Ar-Rizaaq reported from Ma'amar, reported from Az-Zuhri, from 'Urwa, from 'A'isha that a eunuch used to come to the wives of Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) and they did not count him as a male with sexual desire. Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) one day came as he was sitting with some of his women and he was busy in describing the bodily characteristics of a lady and saying: when she approaches you it is with four (folds of fat) and if she goes away from is it with eight (folds of fat). Thereupon Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: Do I not see that this one knows what, behold, is here, the women ought not to be exposed like this. She (" A'isha) said: Then they began to wear hijab around him (the eunuch)[sic
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Billboard in Tehran reading "hijab is security"
Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin:
A mukhannath (eunuch) used to enter upon the wives of Prophet (peace be upon him). They (the people) counted him among those who were free of sexual desires. One day the Prophet (peace be upon him) entered upon us when he was with one of his wives, and was describing the qualities of a woman, saying: When she comes forward, she comes forward with four (folds in her stomach), and when she goes backward, she goes backward with eight (folds in her stomach). The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Do I not see that this (man) knows what here lies. Then they (the wives) observed veil from him.
Evaluating the "Protection" Claim
Given that these verses were revealed after Umar spied on Muhammad's wives while they were going to the toilet, and that Muhammad told women to wear the veil even in the presence of a eunuch, one may conclude that the veil is only intended to prevent men from evaluating the physical attributes of females. Since eunuchs have no sexual desire, the claim that it is to prevent sexual molestation and not just gossip/verbal harassment appears scripturally incorrect.
That women in Islamic societies suffer from endemic harassment seems to further problematize this line of reasoning (e.g. in Egypt where women and young girls are harassed 7 times every 200 meters or in Saudi Arabia where the observance of hijab is strictly enforced but the country still has one of the highest rape scales in the world).
Different Types of Veiling
There are other ahadith that talk of the 'verses of al-hijab' but these are concerning a different type of hijab with a different set of reported revelational circumstances.
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
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)
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
I of all the people know best this verse of Al-Hijab. When Allah's Apostle married Zainab bint Jahsh she was with him in the house and he prepared a meal and invited the people (to it). They sat down (after finishing their meal) and started chatting. So the Prophet went out and then returned several times while they were still sitting and talking. So Allah revealed the Verse:
'O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses until leave is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation .....ask them from behind a screen.' (33.53) So the screen was set up and the people went away.
A banquet of bread and meat was held on the occasion of the marriage of the Prophet to Zainab bint Jahsh. I was sent to invite the people (to the banquet), and so the people started coming (in groups); They would eat and then leave. Another batch would come, eat and leave. So I kept on inviting the people till I found nobody to invite. Then I said, "O Allah's Prophet! I do not find anybody to invite." He said, "Carry away the remaining food." Then a batch of three persons stayed in the house chatting. The Prophet left and went towards the dwelling place of Aisha and said, "Peace and Allah's Mercy be on you, O the people of the house!" She replied, "Peace and the mercy of Allah be on you too. How did you find your wife? May Allah bless you. Then he went to the dwelling places of all his other wives and said to them the same as he said to Aisha and they said to him the same as Aisha had said to him. Then the Prophet returned and found a group of three persons still in the house chatting. The Prophet was a very shy person, so he went out (for the second time) and went towards the dwelling place of 'Aisha. I do not remember whether I informed him that the people have gone away. So he returned and as soon as he entered the gate, he drew the curtain between me and him, and then the Verse of Al-Hijab was revealed.
When Allah's Apostle married Zainab bint Jahsh, he made the people eat meat and bread to their fill (by giving a Walima banquet). Then he went out to the dwelling places of the mothers of the believers (his wives), as he used to do in the morning of his marriage. He would greet them and invoke good on them, and they (too) would return his greeting and invoke good on him. When he returned to his house, he found two men talking to each other; and when he saw them, he went out of his house again. When those two men saw Allah's Apostle: going out of his house, they quickly got up (and departed). I do not remember whether I informed him of their departure, or he was informed (by somebody else). So he returned, and when he entered the house, he lowered the curtain between me and him. Then the Verse of Al-Hijab was revealed.
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
I was ten years old when Allah's Apostle arrived at Medina. My mother and aunts used to urge me to serve the Prophet regularly, and I served him for ten years. When the Prophet died I was twenty years old, and I knew about the order of Al-Hijab (veiling of ladies) more than any other person when it was revealed. It was revealed for the first time when Allah's Apostle had consummated his marriage with Zainab bint Jahsh. When the day dawned, the Prophet was a bridegroom and he invited the people to a banquet, so they came, ate, and then all left except a few who remained with the Prophet for a long time. The Prophet got up and went out, and I too went out with him so that those people might leave too. The Prophet proceeded and so did I, till he came to the threshold of 'Aisha's dwelling place. Then thinking that these people have left by then, he returned and so did I along with him till he entered upon Zainab and behold, they were still sitting and had not gone. So the Prophet again went away and I went away along with him. When we reached the threshold of 'Aisha's dwelling place, he thought that they had left, and so he returned and I too, returned along with him and found those people had left. Then the Prophet drew a curtain between me and him, and the Verses of Al-Hijab were revealed.
Narrated Anas bin Malik:
that he was a boy of ten at the time when the Prophet emigrated to Medina. He added: I served Allah's Apostle for ten years (the last part of his life time) and I know more than the people about the occasion whereupon the order of Al-Hijab was revealed (to the Prophet). Ubai b n Ka'b used to ask me about it. It was revealed (for the first time) during the marriage of Allah's Apostle with Zainab bint Jahsh. In the morning, the Prophet was a bride-groom of her and he Invited the people, who took their meals and went away, but a group of them remained with Allah's Apostle and they prolonged their stay. Allah's Apostle got up and went out, and I too, went out along with him till he came to the lintel of 'Aisha's dwelling place. Allah's Apostle thought that those people had left by then, so he returned, and I too, returned with him till he entered upon Zainab and found that they were still sitting there and had not yet gone. The Prophet went out again, and so did I with him till he reached the lintel of 'Aisha's dwelling place, and then he thought that those people must have left by then, so he returned, and so did I with him, and found those people had gone. At that time the Divine Verse of Al-Hijab was revealed, and the Prophet set a screen between me and him (his family).
In addition to the personal hijab, a 'house hijab' is also required to separate the women of the house from visitors; in the form of a separating, opaque screen. This was also a situational revelation. Muhammad was annoyed that people stayed and chatted with his wives after having dinner at his house, so Allah revealed a verse requiring a separation.
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