Is hijab obligatory?
Do women have to wear a headscarf?
It is commanded by Allah that believing women have to wear a headscarf.
The Quran is absolutely clear on this matter. Though some argue that it is not a requirement, in fact there is no room for debate on this as we will see in this article.
The debate about the hijab is purely a modern phenomenon.
As we will see, the language of the command in the Quran is not ambiguous, it is further confirmed through the sunnah, it was historically understood by the companions and applied by believers until modern times.
The command in the Quran
The Quran contains two types of verses, those which are clear and those which are unclear. The ayah regarding the headscarf falls in the category of clear verses.
Indeed Allah Almighty begins Surat Nur, by stating this:
سُورَةٌ أَنزَلْنَاهَا وَفَرَضْنَاهَا وَأَنزَلْنَا فِيهَا آيَاتٍ بَيِّنَاتٍ لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ
A chapter that We have revealed, and made obligatory, and revealed in it clear Verses, that you may take heed. (24:1)
This prepares the believer for the command to cover by spelling out that He is making 1) an obligation, 2) which is clear and 3) which believers must follow.
Then Allah states in the surah that women should pull their khimaar (headscarf) over their chests.
Note that He used the imperative form of the verb liyadribna i.e. pull/draw, making clear that it is a command.
وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا ۖ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ۖ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَائِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَائِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِي إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِي أَخَوَاتِهِنَّ أَوْ نِسَائِهِنَّ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُنَّ أَوِ التَّابِعِينَ غَيْرِ أُولِي الْإِرْبَةِ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ أَوِ الطِّفْلِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يَظْهَرُوا عَلَىٰ عَوْرَاتِ النِّسَاءِ ۖ وَلَا يَضْرِبْنَ بِأَرْجُلِهِنَّ لِيُعْلَمَ مَا يُخْفِينَ مِن زِينَتِهِنَّ ۚ وَتُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
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 draw their headscarves over 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. Believers, all of you, turn to God so that you may prosper. (24:31)
Who is being addressed?
The ayah begins by calling on believing women (lil muminati). This means the command is not just for the Arabs, or believers at that time, but for all women until the end of time.
The definition of headscarf
In the ayah, Allah used the word ‘khimaar’. Khimaar has only one definition in Arabic. It means headscarf. If you look it up in the dictionary you will only find that meaning. It is what English speakers understand as hijab – the piece of cloth a woman wears on her head.
Therefore Allah used the word that was crystal clear to His audience. It was instantly understood, and as we know the female companions immediately drew their khimaar’s over themselves.
How do we know Allah commanded women to cover their head when He said cover their chest?
While it was a cultural practice for men and women in Arabia at the time to cover their heads in some shape or form, Islam came to give clarity on this. He therefore states exactly how and when the headscarf should be worn.
In this ayah Allah addresses women, saying, they must wear the headscarf in a way that it covers their beauty properly. It is not enough for their scarf to fall behind them.
A simple analogy is when you tell a child to button up his coat, it presupposes that he is wearing a coat. Moreover it shows that you want him to wear the coat fully. It is not necessary to say ‘put on your coat and then button it up’. In the same way, the headscarf has to be on the head before it is pulled across the chest. If I say ‘pull your headscarf across your chest’, your headscarf has to be on your head in the first place.
Moreover if I say button up your coat unless you are just with your father there is absolutely no doubt that you have to wear your coat when you are with anyone else.
To question the meaning of this command shows a lack of understanding of the language of the Quran and knowledge of Islam.
The headscarf was not simply the culture of the time, but is a divine command for all time
If it was merely a cultural practice of the time to cover the head, Allah Almighty would not have clarified exactly how that covering should be worn.
As women already covered their heads, as decoration rather than for modesty, Allah Almighty was drawing their attention to the fact that the scarf has a function and a purpose, which is the opposite of adorning them.
Allah Almighty is telling women to wear the headscarf in a way that conceals what makes them attractive – which is undoubtedly their hair. He is saying that women must not leave their necks and cleavage exposed. With the exception of ‘what is apparent’ – which is their face, as explained in the hadith later.
Instructions on whom to cover in front of
Next, Allah Almighty made the guidelines even more explicit by stating when the headscarf has to be worn.
And tell the believing women… to draw their coverings over their breasts, and not expose their beauty except to their husbands.
If it was optional for women to cover, the ayah would not then go on to list the people in front of whom the scarf was not required. Women must cover except in the company of:
their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, what their right hands possess, their male attendants who have no sexual desires, or children who are not yet aware of the nakedness of women.
Why did Allah command the headscarf?
Allah Almighty states the reason for His command. It is to promote chastity and modesty within the community. This is why the ayah is preceded by the command for both men and women to lower their gaze:
Tell the believers to restrain their looks (in the presence of women not closely related to them and so lawful for marriage) and guard their chastity. That is purer and best for them. Surely, Allah is Well-Aware of what they do. (24:30)
Having set the scene that men and women need to guard their chastity, Allah Almighty puts this physical mechanism in place knowing that we are weak and will struggle. He is given us a simple method to control men’s gaze.
This adds the next layer of protection – for women against men’s unwanted looks and from being objectified sexually. It is for the protection of women, and benefit of society.
Taking the attention away from appearance
Allah is shifting society’s preoccupation with looks, appearances and external factors for evaluating each other, towards the internal. He is making it harder to pass judgement on others based on superficial markers.
The internal becomes more important and a source of confidence and high self esteem. It becomes the focus. It also means that we work on our heart and character more than our clothes and make-up.
How the ayah was understood and applied
The ayah does not require ijtihad (scholarly reasoning to derive a ruling). It was understood by the companions and has been understood by the vast majority of scholars throughout history.
During the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) when the ayahs regarding the head-covering were revealed in the 4th/5th year after migration, there was no ambiguity in their meaning.
The confirmation of the command in the Sunnah
It is misleading when people selectively pluck one ayah or one word to deduce rulings from it, without looking at the whole picture. You cannot deduce full rulings from one ayah. If you cut the Quran from the sunnah – which is the application of the Quran, you are distorting it.
The Prophet (peace be on him) confirmed the understanding of the ayah through his hadith.
Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said that when Asma daughter of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) came in to visit God’s Messenger (peace be on him) wearing thin clothes he turned away from her and said:
“When a woman is old enough to menstruate, Asma, it is not right that any part of her should be seen but this and this,” pointing to his face and his hands. (Transmitted by Abu Dawud. It is a sahih hadith)
Can those who say there was no command to cover the head, bring a single narration which shows this in practice?
If it had not been made obligatory, after the revelation came, there would have been instances of women who were not covered. Yet out of the 120,000 companions of the Prophet (peace be on him) of which half would have been women, there isn’t a single narration out of the million that we have which indicates that believing women were not covered.
Following the revelation, there is no mention again of Aisha’s hair (may Allah be pleased with her).
If there was some lee-way, surely there would have been some women who wore scarves and others who did not? However, overnight women reached for whatever material they could (such as aprons) to cover themselves.
The command to cover hair in all the Abrahamic faiths
Furthermore the command for women to cover their head goes back even earlier to previous prophets.
All three Abrahamic faiths understood that women had been commanded by God to cover their hair. For centuries women all over the world covered their hair. Within Europe it was the norm for married women to cover their hair – whether it was with a hat, scarf or in the case of Orthodox Jewish women, with wigs.
In the Israelite tradition, this is still practiced by Orthodox Jewish women. In fact, part of the punishment of the unfaithful wife (sotah) as that her hair is uncovered in public. Having a bare head is symbolic of dishonour and disgrace:
After he has made the woman stand before the LORD, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell. (Numbers 5:18)
In the Bible, it says:
‘But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is the same as having her head shaved.’ (1 Corinthians 11:5)
This is why all images depicting Mary show her in a headscarf, and nuns still don the veil as part of their habit. Nuns’ wimples and brides’ veils are the traces of the head-covering tradition.
Hats had been a fundamental part of women’s attire until the 1940s and 1950s, when upper and middle class women would feel naked without them.
However, after the Second World War, a fashion revolution took place in Western Europe. Apart from baring the head, the body became exposed. The bikini arrived on the scene in 1946. Hemlines which had been rising since the beginning of the century, rose until they could not possibly rise any further when they reached the level miniskirt in the 1960s. Hats, which had already been shrinking and eventually disappeared.
With the rising demand for more freedom across Europe, including the growing refusal of women to be told what they could wear, meant that the concept of what could be shown in public was radically altered.
The Biblical requirement for women to cover their head in church, which had been part of Cannon Law, lasted until 1983.
Meanwhile, in the East, Ataturk banned the headscarf in 1934 as part of his secularisation of Turkey, and as the Indian subcontinent modernised itself, the dupatta began to slip off the heads of the upper classes. As a result, the longstanding head-covering for women became relegated to lower classes or rural parts, and confined to the Middle East.
By the twenty first century, society is filled with amnesia that head coverings were the norm, and generations have grown up seeing women’s heads uncovered. With this new norm in place, and desire to fit in with the customs of colonial powers, the questioning of the Quranic ayahs began.
Why did Allah not use the word hijab?
Unlike khimaar, which means only headscarf in Arabic, the word hijab has a broader meaning. It can mean a barrier, a veil, and a screen. This is why the word hijab was not used in this ayah, but in fact occurs in other places in the Quran meaning barrier.
Whilst the word khimaar specifically means a head covering and is connected to the word khamr used for intoxicants as they ‘cover the head’ i.e. obfuscate the mind.
The word hijab is used in the ayah from Surat Al Ahzab, in which Allah Almighty instructed the wives of the Prophet (peace be on him) to be screened (hijabin):
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لا تَدْخُلُوا بُيُوتَ النَّبِيِّ إِلا أَنْ يُؤْذَنَ لَكُمْ إِلَى طَعَامٍ غَيْرَ نَاظِرِينَ إِنَاهُ وَلَكِنْ إِذَا دُعِيتُمْ فَادْخُلُوا فَإِذَا طَعِمْتُمْ فَانْتَشِرُوا وَلا مُسْتَأْنِسِينَ لِحَدِيثٍ إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ يُؤْذِي النَّبِيَّ فَيَسْتَحْيِي مِنْكُمْ وَاللَّهُ لا يَسْتَحْيِي مِنَ الْحَقِّ وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِنْ وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ ذَلِكُمْ أَطْهَرُ لِقُلُوبِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِهِنَّ وَمَا كَانَ لَكُمْ أَنْ تُؤْذُوا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَلا أَنْ تَنْكِحُوا أَزْوَاجَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ أَبَدًا إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ عَظِيمًا
“You who Believe, 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. Allah does not shrink from the truth. When you ask his wives for something, do so from behind a barrier: that is purer for your hearts and theirs. It is not right for you to offend Allah’s messenger, just as you should never marry his wives after him: that would be grievous in Allah’s eyes. Allah has full knowledge of all things, whether you reveal them or not.” (33:53-54)
The issue of the face veil (niqab) is separate from the command to cover the head
Unlike the headscarf, which is a clear injunction, the niqab (face veil) is point of argument. It’s agreed upon that Niqab is a fadilah (virtue), but disagreed upon that it is a faridah (obligation). The ayah in the Quran refers specifically to the wives of the Prophet (peace be on him), not women in general.
When you ask his wives for something, do so from behind a screen: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs. (33:53)
You are not allowed to cover your face in Hajj. And there were believing women at the time who did not wear niqab, unlike the hijab which all believing women adopted. Therefore there is no consensus among scholars that this is an obligation.
Niqab is a spiritual choice, not a public fatwah. It is a personal choice. In situations where people have a position of interaction within the community, such as a doctor or teacher then niqab is obstructive to communication. If you wish to wear niqab, restrict it situation where you do not have to work with people, as it disconnects you and alienates you.
Ladies who leave careers in medicine, because they want to wear niqab, have sacrificed being a good role model and helping others in order to isolate themselves and restrict themselves to their homes. Alienation is not the spirit of Islam.
Choosing the right headscarf
While one’s choice of the fabric, design and style is personal and influenced by culture and the environment, the wearing of the scarf itself is required as stipulated in the Quran. This allows a broad spectrum of head coverings which are modest and further identify women from different regions and parts of the world, celebrating our diversity.
Struggling to cover
There is no doubt that it is challenging for women to cover and that they face many obstacles from society, family, and from their own selves.
The headscarf or hijab is an emotive topic in our times. It is challenging to wear in many places, sometimes due to the environment, at other times family members oppose it.
It is detested by the right wing factions in Europe and the West, particularly when it is perceived and positioned as a threat to the freedom of liberal, progressive values.
Moreover it is embroiled in debates of feminism where it is labelled a symbol of female oppression and at the same time, by others a symbol of emancipation.
Statements we frequently hear are:
‘It is a command but that it is too difficult to observe in this day and age.’
”Times have changed. It is no longer required.’
‘The hijab was simply the culture of the time.’
‘The Quran does not say a woman must cover her head; it specifies her chest.’
Pressure from husbands not to cover
In instances where husbands refuse to let their wives and daughters cover, I would ask the wife/daughter ‘Would you stop praying if your husband/father told you to?’ We cannot put the demands of our spouses or parents before Allah’s commands when they contradict them.
I would also add that they need to use wisdom in handling the situation avoiding confrontation and discord. Allah can hear and see your inner thoughts, so make du’a for Allah to guide them and to make it easy for you.
The new trend of YouTubers removing their hijab
The hijab in modern times has gone from being untrendy, to a fashion accessory and recently a matter of public rejection by certain influencers. For someone who used to wear hijab, to publicly remove it suggests to me that they have issues in their life. To remove the headscarf, which Allah commanded and then to share it and post it, is to brag about our sins and mistakes, when we should ask for forgiveness and conceal our mistakes.
We ask Allah Almighty to forgive our shortcomings and mistakes. If these young women knew it was haram to share sins in public, they would not have done this. They need someone to teach them and I make dua from my heart for them to be guided and protected from whatever takes them away from Allah.
They need to improve their knowledge, not through Google Shaykh! Many students use Google as their main source in their research.
Islamic knowledge needs to be acquired from from trustworthy people, whose piety and reputation and knowledge you trust.
I ask Allah to increase their knowledge and guide their hearts and bring peace and tranquility to their lives. Sometimes they have acquired their knowledge from the internet without checking its authenticity and source.
Are women permitted to remove their scarf when they are older?
There is a misconception that women may remove their scarves when they become old.
وَالْقَوَاعِدُ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ اللَّاتِي لَا يَرْجُونَ نِكَاحًا فَلَيْسَ عَلَيْهِنَّ جُنَاحٌ أَن يَضَعْنَ ثِيَابَهُنَّ غَيْرَ مُتَبَرِّجَاتٍ بِزِينَةٍ ۖ وَأَن يَسْتَعْفِفْنَ خَيْرٌ لَّهُنَّ ۗ وَاللَّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
Women past the age of childbearing, who have no desire for marriage, commit no wrong by taking off their outer clothing, provided they do not flaunt their finery. But to maintain modesty is better for them. God is Hearing and Knowing. (24:60)
This ayah refers to women removing their ‘outer clothing’, it is not referring to the headscarf (khimaar). Some scholars understand it to mean extra outer garments, others as the face cover, but they have not understood it to mean the headscarf.
The command for all believing women for all time
The command to cover is not limited by time or culture. It was understood and implemented for 1300 years, and its meaning was unquestioned until now. One must not discard divine laws are immutable for the sake of new ‘norms’ which society has chosen for itself.
We do not stop wearing a garment because the social norm has become warped and it seems to some to look incongruous with the rest of society. It is not the the headscarf which is incongruous, it is society.
Islam came with guidance for all time, because no matter how much the world may seemed to have changed, the human condition remains the same. Human psychology and behaviour is the same, and women’s need for protection is still the same.
May Allah grant women the tawfiq to observe this command.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim
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