Quranic Verses About Veiling And Ambiguities In Definition Of Hijab

Quranic Verses About Veiling And Ambiguities In Definition Of Hijab

by Swati Goel Sharma - Friday, September 9, 2022 11:02 AM IST
Quranic Verses About Veiling And Ambiguities In Definition Of Hijab  The origin of veiling.
  • The practice of veiling women is clearly much older than the emergence of Islam.

Veiling didn’t originate in Mecca or Medina. The Quran is not the first text that directed women to cover their head or body though it is the Muslim world that practises it with the greatest zeal.

Historians trace the diktats for veiling of the women to more than 3,000 years ago. The Assyrian laws coded in 1500 BC asked the men to see that their wives and daughters veiled their head.

The mandate was extended to widows. Prostitutes, slaves and maidservants were prohibited from it. The penalty for the forbidden could be public thrashing.

Later texts of Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian religions that emerged from the region advocated veiling of women.

The following verse from the Bible (1 Corinthians 11:6-7) deals with veiling:

“A man should not wear anything on his head when worshiping, for man is made in God’s image and reflects God’s glory. And woman reflects man’s glory. For the first man didn’t come from woman, but the first woman came from man. And man was not made for woman, but woman was made for man. For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.”

Orthodox Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians still wear the veil in some form. Christian nuns wear it.

Jewish women after marriage sport a headscarf they call ‘sheitel’. A white headscarf called ‘mathabana’ has traditionally been part of a Zoroastrian woman’s attire.

Parsi women in India have worn the mathabana for centuries.

Thus the practice of veiling women is clearly much older than the emergence of Islam.

Many scholars are of the opinion that it is rooted in the inferior status accorded to women compared to men, and tendency to control women’s sexual liberty by linking it to piety, chastity, honour and virtue.

Veiling was encouraged as a means of differentiating between prostitutes and married women, and between free women and slaves. For this reason, it also became a sign of nobility and aristocracy and came to be accepted by the masses.

Even in the Arab world, women practised veiling much before the birth of Prophet Mohammad’s, the founder of Islam, in the sixth century.

Iranian-American author and television host Reza Aslan says that “the tradition of veiling and seclusion (known together as hijab) was introduced into Arabia long before Mohammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran, where the hijab was a sign of social status. After all, only a woman who need not work in the fields could afford to remain secluded and veiled.” (No God But God, 2005).

Now that the question whether hijab is an essential practice of Islam is again being argued in the Supreme Court, let us review some of the verses of Quran that are often quoted to defend 'hijabisation' and see how they are completely vague about imposing any modern form of dress code upon Muslim women — from headscarves to full-body burqas.

Of the more than 6,000 verses in the Quran, there is one verse that is said to be the “foundation” for enforcing full-body veils on Muslim women. It is Surah 33 Verse 53.


The verse says (The Quran, Abdul Haleem):

Believers, do not enter the Prophet’s apartments for a meal unless you are given permission to do so; do not linger until [a meal] is ready. When you are invited, go in; then, when you have taken your meal, leave. Do not stay on and talk, for that would offend the Prophet, though he would shrink from asking you to leave. God does not shrink from the truth. When you ask his wives for something, do so from behind a screen: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs. It is not right for you to offend God’s Messenger, just as you should never marry his wives after him: that would be grievous in God’s eyes.

This verse uses the word ‘hijab’, which in Arabic means a barrier, curtain or screen. The modern usage of this word, however, is for a woman’s clothing. Today, hijab is used for describing all kinds of veils, be it a headscarf or a cloak or a ‘shuttle-cock burqa’ popular in Taliban.

Many progressive Muslims have contested the interpretation of ‘hijab’ in this verse to mean any kind of clothing.

Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, who studied the origin of veiling in the first Islamic society, said that this verse is regarded by religious scholars as “the basis of the institution of the hijab” (The Veil and The Male Elite, Addison-Wesley, 1991).

She says that for a long time, scholars have interpreted this verse wrongly to rationalise the imposition of clothing restrictions on women.

Mernissi argues that the Hadith that narrates the story of how this verse was revealed, show that Prophet Mohammad did not intend to throw a full-body covering on women. The verse is directed not at women but at Mohammad’s Muslim followers (“believers”) as it asks them to communicate with his wives from behind a barrier, she says.

The story, as reproduced by Mernissi in her book, goes like this: Prophet’s companion and follower Anas Ibn Malik recounted an incident from his master’s life (as interpreted by Al Tabari), where he was struggling to get rid of a group of tactless guests who had come to meet him and eat with him while his wife Zaynab Bint Jaysh was at home.

The Prophet wanted to be alone with his newly-wed wife but the boorish guests just wouldn’t leave, engrossed as they remained in their conversations. Eventually, all the guests left except for three.

Annoyed, the Prophet made rounds of the entire house, met his other wives, hoping the guests would have left when he returned. The guests had still not left. He went out again.

This time, he returned soon as got information that the guests had left. When he went to Zaynab, he stood with one foot in her room and another outside her room, and drew a curtain between himself and Anas Ibn Malik, who was the only other man in the house. The verse of the hijab descended at that moment.

Reza Aslan writes that this restriction “makes perfect sense when one recalls that Mohammad's house was also the community's mosque: the center of religious and social life in the Ummah”.

However, the veil applied solely to Mohammad's wives. Aslan argues that it is “further demonstrated by the fact that the term for donning the veil, darabat al-hijab, was used synonymously and interchangeably with "becoming Mohammad's wife" — and, during the Prophet's lifetime, no other women in the Ummah observed hijab, says Aslan.

About the possible reasons behind the subsequent tradition of mandatory veiling of Muslim women, Aslan writes that while it’s “difficult to say with certainty when the veil was adopted by the rest of the Ummah”, it was “most likely long after Mohammad's death”.

He writes,

“Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to emulate the Prophet's wives, who were revered as "the Mothers of the Ummah".

But the veil was neither compulsory nor, for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Mohammad's death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet's egalitarian reforms.”


The verse from the Quran that the petitioners cited in front of the Karnataka High Court, and are now citing in front of the Supreme Court, for hijab to be declared essential practice, is not 33:53 but Surah 24 Verse 31.

The reason is that while the word ‘hijab’ in verse 33:53 has come invariably to be associated with full-body veil, the schoolgirls have, in their petitions, asked for a headscarf covering only the hair and neck.

Verse 24:31 says (The Quran, Abdul Haleem):

And tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their womenfolk, their slaves, such men as attend them who have no sexual desire, or children who are not yet aware of women’s nakedness; they should not stamp their feet so as to draw attention to any hidden charms.

This verse does not use the word ‘hijab’. It uses the Arabic word ‘khimar’ (or khumur).

Historians differ on the exact description of ‘khimar’ because of paucity of relevant literature in pre-Islam Arab society, but have largely translated it as headscarf (as done by Abdul Haleem, shown above).

Islamic scholar and current Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, commenting on the Karnataka row, told the media in February that ‘khimar’ was like the modern-day dupatta.

Khan said that historically, Arab women would dress up in a way that their neck and chest were not covered (Khan said he was quoting from the works of Saiyad Ameer Ali), but they threw ‘khimar’ around the upper-body.

Readers may note here that the reference to headscarves is secondary in this verse. It does not demand mandatory wearing of headscarf and, instead, refers to headscarf as a part of the dress of those times.

It makes one conclude that had the intent of the verse-provider been to make hijab mandatory, he would have unambiguously stated that “all women must cover their heads with headscarf”.

Also, the verse clearly states that covering of the head is not mandatory in front of men who have no sexual desires for them.

Thus, it is ridiculous to assume that within a classroom of an all-women school or college, where only the teacher and fellow students are present, sight of a girl’s hair would arouse sexual desires.

Then, is the demand for allowing headscarf in the classroom of a girls’ school not against this verse from Quran?


During the course of hearing, several intervention petitions were filed in the Karnataka High Court, boosting the case for declaring hijab essential religious practice. Some of them cited verse 33:59.

Surah 33, Verse 59 (The Quran, Abdul Haleem):

Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful.

The above is a conservative and literal translation. The same verse, as interpreted in Tafsir e Ibn Kathir, considered the most authentic Tafsir of Quran, is as follows:

Here Allah tells His messengers to command the believing women, specially his wives and daughters, because of their position of honor, to draw their Jilbabs over their bodies, so that they will be distinct in their appearance from the women of Jahiliyyah and from slave women… if they do that, it will be known that they are free, and they are not servants (slaves) or whores.

This verse does not use the word ‘hijab’ or ‘khimar’. It instead uses ‘jilbab’.

The verse encourages all Muslim women, and not just Mohammad’s wives, to draw their “jilbabs” close to their bodies so as to be recognised as Muslims.

Scholars have struggled to find out what exactly a ‘jilbab’ looked in the times the verse was written but most agree it must have been a loose garment or a cloak.

The corresponding Hadith, recorded by Ibn Saad, gives the context of this verse: The wives of Prophet Mohammad would go out at night to answer nature’s call but miscreants from Muslim community would attempt to molest them.

The Hadith narrates that public harassment of women in Medina was so common that the time of going out was a risk for all women.

There is, in fact, a word for it - ‘ta'arrud’, which literally means "taking up a position along a woman's path to urge her to fornicate” (Mernissi, page 180). Ta’rrud was then a common practice.

Critics have contested the interpretation of this verse to impose veiling in the modern society. They say the verse was made in context of a “slave-owning jahili society” in seventh century Medina and is no longer relevant.

In chapter ‘Women’s Reading of the Quran’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Quran (edited by Jane Damien McAuliffe), author Asma Barlas, writes:

“…the function of the jilbab was to make Muslim women visible to non-Muslim (jahili) men as being sexually unavailable because of the prevalent practice of molesting uncovered slaves in the public arena. That is, the Qur’an explicitly links the jilbab to a slave-owning jahili society, that no longer exists, not to the dangers posed to Muslim men by viewing an unveiled body…”

Ambiguities In The Definition Of Hijab

This matter of ambiguities in the definition of ‘hijab’ came up during the Karnataka court hearings and has again come up in the Supreme Court.

A clear answer from the petitioners and pro-hijab demonstrators is now needed.

-Are they really demanding ‘khimar’? If yes, why are they not calling it so?

-If they are demanding ‘hijab’, why are they not citing the relevant verse, that is 33.53?

-If they are citing verse number 24.31 to make a demand for headscarf, what is the guarantee that someone tomorrow would not cite 33.59 to demand a cloak or 33.53 to demand a full-body covering?

-As seen above, quite contrary to the claims of modesty, the popular translations and explanations of verse 33.59 call for the need of jilbab as a tool to distinguish Muslim women from non-Muslim and slave women. What is the guarantee that it would not be used for discrimination or harassment of those non-Muslim girls who do not wear hijab?

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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