Should we tolerate veils or headscarves, except during official business like taking a photo for an ID? Where does this custom come from? Is donning it Quranic or merely cultural?
This article is Part 13 in the sharia series.
This series of articles is written for educators, legislators, city council members, police officials, judges, lawyers, government bureaucrats, think tank fellows, journalists, TV and radio talk show hosts, and anyone else who occupies positions of influence in society. They initiate the national dialogue and shape the flow of the conversation. They are the decision- and policymakers.
This article is about the Islamic headscarf and full-face veil. We must first understand original sharia laws, and then move to the present day. It may be impossible for the intellectual elites to figure out why the Quran and traditions are so important to Muslims who live in the modern world, but these two sources are very important for them. The elites must get used to that.
In Paris, France, two Muslim women were arrested and fined for wearing a full-face veil (except the eyes) – called a niqab.
Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali were caught wearing the niqab in public outside Meaux town hall, eastern Paris, in May. The women immediately vowed to appeal their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if the fines are confirmed by a higher court. Miss Ahmas, 32, was ordered to pay a 120-euro (£104) fine, while Miss Nait Ali, 36, was fined 80 euros (£70). The court chose not to order them to take a citizenship course, as had been requested by the prosecutor.
In Boulder, Colorado, a sheriff allowed a young woman to keep her headscarf on while he took a photo of her. The headscarf, known today as the hijab, does not cover her face.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle will allow a Muslim woman to wear her head-covering in a jail booking photo, provided she push the scarf back far enough to expose her hairline and ears. The compromise puts an end to a controversy sparked when Maria Hardman, a University of Colorado student and convert to Islam, refused to take off her hijab for a booking photo when she reported for a two-day work-release sentence. The decision came a day after a Boulder County judge denied Hardman’s request to either serve an alternative sentence or keep on the scarf, which exposed her face. However, Boulder County Judge Noel Blum asked jail officials in his ruling to consider whether some accommodation could be made.
What is going on here? The difference from the outset is the burka covers the face (except a mesh covering over the eyes), while the hijab does not cover the face, only the hair.
But should modern society even allow the Islamic veil, whether it covers the head and face or only the head?
For images of the different veils, see this link: Islamic Clothing Glossary.
We begin at the source.
There are several words for veil or covering in the Quran, though their definitions are not precise. Should they cover the face or not? Their Arabic roots are included.
- Ghashiyah or ghishawah (gh-sh-y): covering or enveloping (7:41, 12:107, 88:1, 2:7, 45:23);
- Ghita (gh-t-y): veil or covering (18:101, 50:22);
- Hijab (h-j-b): veil or curtain (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51);
- Jalabib (j-l-b-b): veils (plural of jilbab) (33:59);
- Akinnah (k-n-n) (plural): veils, covering (6:25, 17:48, 18:57, 41:5);
- Khumur (Kh-m-r) (plural of khimar): veils (24:31).
The only three verses that are relevant for our purposes are 24:31, 33:53, and 33:59, because they command women to cover up with a veil or conceal themselves behind a screen, while the Muslim community was forming in Medina.
Moderate Translation and Interpretation
M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Quran is very readable and clear, but he typically chooses words that make Islam appear the best it can be, smoothing out and modernizing any jarring ideas. He can be considered a moderate.
It is his translation we use for the next three passages. We also use Abdul Mannan Omar’s Dictionary of the Holy Quran, which defines the words for veils in the three verses in a moderate way, without a hint of covering the woman’s face.
Quran 24:31 says believing (Muslim) women should let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines:
31 And tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should draw their coverings [kh-m-r] 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. (Quran 24:31)
Khimar can be defined as “head cover, scarf, covering and specially a woman’s head; veil; screen.” The word “necklines” is j-y-b (jayb) and means “bosom.” It appears only two other times in the Quran (27:12 and 28:32). In both verses Moses is commanded to put his hand inside his cloak or in his bosom area, and it will miraculously come out white, that is leprous like snow. But when he takes it out again, it will be miraculously healthy – though the Quran shortens the Biblical passage and misses the full miraculous element (Ex. 4:6-7). The main point here is that the Arabic word indicates Moses put his hand in his bosom. It says nothing about his head or entire body or face.
Quran 33:53 is known as the “verse of the veil.” Maybe it should be renamed the “verse of the screen” or “curtain.”
53 Believers… When you ask his [Muhammad’s] wives for something, do so from behind a screen [h-j-b]: 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. (Quran 33:53)
Evidently the Quran commands Muslim men to talk to Muhammd’s wives from behind a screen, so both the questioner and the wives can keep pure. Hijab in the Quran can mean, depending on the context, in its verb form “to cover, veil, hinder anyone from access; shut out”; and in its noun form: veil, curtain, screen, barrier . . . blind.”
Quran 33:59 says that women should cover up with their outer garment, but in such a way that they are recognized.
59 Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments [j-l-b-b] hang low over them – so as to be recognized and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful. (Quran 33:59)
If women can be recognized, does this mean they must not cover their faces? Or does it mean that they should be recognized as pure women, and their specific identity is unimportant, so their faces can be covered? The root for “recognized” is ‘-r-f, which means “to know, acquaint with, perceive, recognize, acknowledge, discern.” But in some usages and contexts it can have a connotation of “distinguished,” “just,” or “beneficial.” In any case, jilbab can mean, depending on the context, a “loose outer covering over-garment; women’s gown; smock; large outer covering worn by women; outer cloak; women’s outer wrapping garment.” Culturally the veil hung from the head and was wrapped around various parts of the body. But does the clause “garments hang low” come down from the head and over the face, or does it suggest the garment is to hang low and cover the chest and not the face?
This translation and dictionary definitions nowhere explicitly say that women must cover their faces either with the burka (a head covering that veils the face with narrow netted eye slits and goes down the length of the body) or the niqab (head covering with a veil hanging just below the eyes). But they are moderates. What does the opposite side say?
Traditional Translations and Interpretations
Hilali’s and Khan’s translation was funded by the Saudi royal family. The two scholars inserted parenthetical comments which are not literally in the original Arabic, but are their interpretations. For the commentary we use Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi’s (d. 1979) multivolume set. He was an Indo-Pakistani who tried to set up sharia law in Pakistan through his Jamaat-i-Islamic political party.
The verse says:
31 And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like palms of hands or one eye or both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils [kh-m-r] all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.)…. (Quran 24:31)
Hilali and Khan translate j-y-b as “all over” with a parenthetical gloss, specifying where it should cover the women’s bodies. In their opinion, the veil goes far beyond the bosom and covers the face and neck.
Maududi writes of the verse that the veil covered up much more than what it did before Islam came on the scene.
In the pre-lslamic days of ignorance, women used to wear a sort of head-band, which was tied in a knot at the rear of the head. The slit of the shirt in the front partly remained open exposing the front of the neck and the upper part of the bosom. There was nothing except the shirt to cover the breasts, and the hair was worn in a couple or two of plaits hanging behind like tails… At the revelation of this verse, the head-wrapper… was introduced among the Muslim women, which was meant to cover the head, the breasts, and the back, completely.
The hadith (see below) do not go into details about what women looked like in pre-Islamic Arabia and before Muslim women were told to cover up, but the hadith, not surprisingly, since they emerge in old culture, tends to favor Maududi’s description (see Quran 11:5).
Quran 33:53 – the “verse of the veil” – says that the messenger’s wives should sit behind a screen, if someone asks them anything.
53 you who believe!… When you ask (his wives) for anything you want, ask them from behind a screen [h-j-b], that is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. And it is not (right) for you that you should annoy Allah’s Messenger, nor that you should ever marry his wives after him (his death). Verily! With Allah that shall be an enormity. (Quran 33:53)
Maududi says that after 33:53 was proclaimed, women hung curtains at their door, and so did women who were not Muhammad’s wives, in imitation of them.
At last, this command came down that except for the mahram males [those ineligible to marry a woman under any circumstance, like her father]… no other man should enter the Holy Prophet’s houses, and whoever had to ask something from the ladies, should ask for it from behind a curtain. After this command curtains were hung at the doors of the apartments of the wives, and since the Holy Prophet’s house was a model for the Muslims to follow, they too hung curtains at their doors. The last sentence of the verse itself points out that whoever desire that the hearts of the men and women should remain pure, should adopt this way.
In Quran 33:59 Hilali and Khan let their conservative outlook or starting point show clearly.
59 O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) [j-l-b-b] all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 33:59)
Thus, women should screen (i.e. veil) themselves by drawing their cloaks over themselves completely except for the eyes. And maybe they should cover one eye and not the other, so they can at least see the way – but with only one eye.
If Maududi had lived to see Hilali and Khan’s translation, he would agree. He comments that the verse means women should cover their faces, saying that Islam should not be influenced by the West:
Jilbab is a large sheet and idna’ is to draw close and wrap up, but when this word is used with the associating particle ala, it gives the meaning of letting something down from above. Some modern translators, under the influence of the West, have translated this word “to wrap up” so as to avoid somehow the command about covering of the face. [After explaining Arabic, he concludes:] The verse, therefore, clearly means: The women should wrap themselves up well in their sheets, and should draw and let down a part of the sheet in front of the face.
But how does covering their faces allow them to be recognized? Morally and socially, say Hilali, Khan, and Maududi. Women are to be recognized as “free respectable women” (Hilali and Khan) and as “noble and chaste women from their simple and modest dress” (Maududi) … As noted above with the root ‘-r-f, their interpretation has some linguistic merit. Thus, in their opinion the veils should conceal women’s faces, because their specific identity is not important. Rather, covering their faces as an act of piety, they will be recognized as virtuous and godly.
Which tone and spirit is the best translation and interpretation of the Quran? Do the (possible) reformists absorb too much of the modern world and water down the Quran’s meaning, or do the ultraconservatives take too much of seventh-century culture into the modern age?
All religions that emerge in the ancient world and counsel people on how to look have to wrestle with these matters.
A Cultural Observation
Church Father Tertullian (c. 160/70-215/20 A.D.) lived several centuries before Islam arrived on the scene. Defending a particularly conservative policy, he argues that women, both unmarried young girls and married ones, should wear a veil, but not like the women of Arabia.
Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also, so entirely, that they are content, with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face. A female would rather see than be seen. And for this reason a certain Roman queen said that they were most unhappy, in that they could more easily fall in love than be fallen in love with; whereas they are rather happy in their immunity from that second (and indeed more frequent) infelicity, that females are more apt to be fallen in love with than to fall in love. And the modesty of heathen discipline, indeed, is more simple, and, so to say, more barbaric.
What is of interest in that passage is that Arab women in Tertullian’s day covered their faces, so that only one eye showed; they would rather see than be seen. This is precisely what Hilali, Khan and Maududi advocate in their free translation and commentary. But a Roman queen observed that the women were “most unhappy,” because they were so well covered, men did not fall in love with them. Tertullian thinks that is a virtue, but he still concludes the Arab version of modesty was barbaric.
However, Maududi’s description, above, disagrees with Tertullian. Maududi says pre-Islamic Arab women dressed immodestly. So who is right? Since the Arabian Peninsula was so large, maybe women’s covering were diverse: some chose less coverage, while other chose more.
The question still remains, though, but in an advanced form. If the ultraconservatives are right in their interpretation of the Quran (facial covering), then it conforms to a pagan Arab custom of covering women’s faces, except an eye or both eyes. If the moderates are right (no headscarf or a headscarf without facial covering), then the Quran conforms to its “freer” Arab culture and liberates women from the “barbaric” custom of facial veils.
So which direction does the Quran go – more coverage or less? It is surprising that the Quran does not provide clearer guidance. Maybe the hadith can clarify matters.
The hadith is a collection of written reports about the deeds and words of Muhammad and his companions, which are not in the Quran. They and the Quran are the two main sources of classical law, even Islamic law today. For more information about this, see the article What Is Sharia? in this series.
The translator of Bukhari’s hadith is Muhammad Muhsin Khan, one of the translators of the Quran named in the previous section. His parenthetical comments are inserted in his hadith translation as well. But we should not dismiss his translation; it is still very valuable for English speakers. In any case, our goal is not to analyze the words, but to get the tone of the hadith. Do they move in a restrictive (more coverage) or liberal direction (less coverage)?
Unveiled women should not go into the Musalla or prayer hall or place of prayer generally.
Narrated Umm Atiyya: We were ordered to bring out our menstruating women and veiled women in the religious gatherings and invocation of Muslims on the two Eid festivals. These menstruating women were to keep away from their Musalla. A woman asked, “O Allah’s Messenger! What about one who does not have a veil [j-l-b-b]?” He said, “Let her share the veil [j-l-b-b] of her companion.”
It is not clear how two women are supposed to share one veil if it hangs over their faces, except the eyes. Maybe the woman who has two is to share one with the other woman, though the word for “veil” is singular in that hadith. It could be that the woman who had one could cut it in two and share it.
In the next two hadith, which comment on Quran 24:31, we have before and after pictures of women. Before the verse was revealed, women did not cover up adequately; they did not even have enough material to obey the command when it was first given, so they came up with some makeshift cloth. After this was done, they were covered up much more than before, including their faces. Therefore it is clear from the hadith that 24:31 moves in a conservative direction: from less or inadequate cover to more cover.
Narrated Aisha: May Allah bestow His Mercy on the early emigrant women. When Allah revealed: ” … and to draw their veils [kh-m-r] all over their Juyubihinna [j-y-b] (i.e., their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms) … ” (24:31) they tore their Muruts (woolen dresses or waist-binding clothes or aprons etc.) and covered their heads and faces with those torn Muruts.
Narrated Safiyya bint Shaiba: Aisha used to say: “When (the verse) … ‘and to draw their veils [kh-m-r] all over their Juhubihinna [j-y-b] (i.e., their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.)’… was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist-sheets from their margins and covered their heads and faces with those cut pieces of cloth.”
If a moderate had translated those hadith, he would not have inserted the parenthetical gloss after the root j-y-b, but would have probably used the word “bosom” or “neckline.” But the cloth did cover the face, in the last line.
One purpose that Quran 33:53, the “verse of the veil,” has is to prevent bad characters from getting too close to Muhammad’s wives. Umar, the future second caliph (r. 634-644), recommends it.
Narrated Umar: I said, “O Allah’s Messenger! 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.
A parallel hadith, next, says the entry of bad characters was the fault of Muhammad’s wives, and Umar feared that Muhammad would divorce them, so Umar told them to stop.
Narrated Anas: “Umar said… ‘O Allah’s Messenger! … 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 Messenger better wives than you.’”…
Yet there is another reason Muhammad put up the curtain in his door: his marriage to Zainab bint (daughter of) Jahsh, who was extra-beautiful. She had been the wife of his adopted son Zaid and therefore was unlawful to Muhammad, but he got a revelation that made her lawful for her father-in-law (Quran 33:37). So Zaid divorced her, and his “adoption father” and his ex-wife got married. Muhammad threw a wedding party, which is the context of this hadith.
Narrated Anas bin Malik: When Allah’s Messenger 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 found those people still sitting (so 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! Enter not the Prophet’s houses”… (33:53).
Moreover, Muslim women did not have to put up their curtain when a close relative visited them, like an uncle. But this implies that they did have to put on the veil when a distant relation or an unrelated friend visited. Thus Islam again moves in a conservative direction: from no veil to veil.
Narrated Aisha: Aflah asked the permission to visit me but I did not allow him. He said, “Do you veil [h-j-b] yourself before me although I am your uncle?” Aisha said, “How is that?” Aflah replied, “You were suckled by my brother’s wife with my brother’s milk.” I asked Allah’s Apostle about it, and he said, “Aflah is right, so permit him to visit you.”
In that hadith, it seems that two kinds of veils are pictured: The curtain that prohibits access to Muhammad’s wives (33:53) and the veils that women wear (24:31). Either way, only close relations could view and visit with women without it.
So, Quran 24:31 commands the veil [kh-m-r]. Quran 33:59 reinforces the command and says that women will be recognized while wearing it. But will they be recognized for their piety because their faces are covered or because their faces are uncovered, so people can identify them? Coming in the context of Quran 33:53, perhaps this next hadith will shed light on recognizing women who wear it. Sauda was one of Muhammad’s wives, and she was overweight. Aisha implies that people who knew Sauda before the veil? could recognize her by her weight alone. When Sauda went outside to answer the call of nature, Umar, the same future second caliph, noticed her by her size, not necessarily by her face. Does this hadith mean her face was covered except the eyes? It seems so. In any case, Muhammad got a revelation while he was eating dinner with Aisha and holding a meat bone and told them that women could go outside for their needs.
Narrated Aishah: 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 [h-j-b]. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could recognize [‘-r-f] 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 Messenger was in my house taking his supper, and a bone covered with meat was in his hand. She entered and said, “O Allah’s Messenger! I went out to answer the call of nature and Umar said to me so-and-so.” Then Allah revealed upon him (the Prophet) and when the state of revelation was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put it down, he said (to Sauda), “You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs.”
Another before-and-after image is set up in the following hadith. Before the command to put on the veil was given, women did not have veils on their heads. But after it was given, they did. The reference to crows means that the veils were black.
Narrated Umm Salamah: … When the verse “That they should cast their outer garments over their persons” [33:59] was revealed, the women of Ansar [helpers in Medina] came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing outer garments.
So far all of the previous hadith show Islam going in a conservative or strict direction. However, in the next hadith certain women did not wear their veils when they were in the presence of Muhammad, but when Umar walked in, they quickly put them on because he was sterner than their prophet. Muhammad was smiling when Umar walked in.
Narrated Sad bin Abi Waqqas: Umar bin Al-Khattab asked the permission of Allah’s Apostle to see him while some Quraishi [large tribe in Mecca] women were sitting with him, talking to him and asking him for more expenses, raising their voices above the voice of Allah’s Apostle. When Umar asked for the permission to enter, the women quickly put on their veils. Allah’s Apostle allowed him to enter and Umar came in while Allah’s Apostle was smiling, Umar said “O Allah’s Apostle! May Allah always keep you smiling.” The Prophet said, “These women who have been here, roused my wonder, for as soon as they heard your voice, they quickly put on their veils. Umar said, “O Allah’s Apostle! You have more right to be feared by them than I.” Then Umar addressed the women saying, “O enemies of yourselves! You fear me more than you do Allah’s Apostle?” They said, “Yes, for you are harsher and sterner than Allah’s Apostle.” . . .
That hadith shows standards were not as strict with the messenger as they were with other men, especially stern ones. So that hadith is mixed: women were freer in Muhammad’s presence (more liberal), but they covered up for Umar (more conservative).
It is clear from the next hadith that women used to cover their faces when a stranger approached. Aisha was taken on a military campaign when she was a little girl. She lost her necklace and looked for it, while the army moved on without her. Left behind, she stayed put until someone would notice she was missing and come back to get her. A young man approached and recognized her because he saw her before the veil was commanded.
Narrated Aisha: … He [the young man] had started in the last part of the night and reached my stationing place in the morning. When he saw the figure of a sleeping person, he came to me and recognized me on seeing me for he used to see me before veiling [h-j-b]. I got up because of his saying, ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un [Truly to Allah we belong, and truly to him we shall return] which he uttered on recognizing me. I covered my face with my garment [j-l-b-b], and by Allah, he did not say to me a single word except, ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un” . . . .
In that hadith, Aisha was out in public alone, and she did not have her face covered, until the young man appeared. This shows that things could be somewhat relaxed for women in public in the seventh century. But we should not overstate things. She was alone. In any case, she covered her face after the command in Quran 24:31 to put on veils was given. This implies that she had other options before the verse was revealed. Thus, once again the dress code moves in a conservative or restrictive direction in original Islam.
Here Aisha narrates that only a post-pubescent girl’s hands and face may show, so we have some ambiguity about what can be seen, compared to the more conswervative hadith, above.
Narrated Aisha: … Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah… wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah… turned his attention from her. He said: O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.
So the face and hands apparently can be seen. However, they are contrasted with the girl’s extra-thin outfit that displayed too much of her body. She still could have had most of her face covered when she walked in, and only that small uncovered part of her face is allowed to be seen, while the body cannot. Yet, it must be conceded that the thrust of the hadith indicates that the full face can be in view – not just a small part of the face.
To conclude this section, though there is some ambiguity about the full face being seen, the weight of the evidence in the hadith suggests that the veil that women wore covered their faces except their eye or eyes, whether the women wrapped their face with their outer garment or wrapped their head covering over their faces. The implication in the above hadith is that before Islam came, women did not have to cover their faces all the time, despite Tertullian’s observation that many Arab women did. Perhaps the custom varied throughout Arabia. Women had options. Whatever the case, the hadith tend to favor more coverage, in conformity to a pagan Arab custom.
CLASSICAL SHARIA LAW
Classical law is built mainly on the Quran and hadith. For more information, see the article in this series, titled What Is Sharia?
Fortunately, we do not have to look widely cross many Islamic laws about the veil because, first, it can be easily predicted that the jurists would be very conservative and, second, a later Shafi’i jurist named Ahamd ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368) confirms summaries what the schools of laws say.
He says a majority of scholars say that women should not leave the house with faces unveiled, but they are unanimous when temptation lurks – as it always seems to do in a traditionalist’s opinion.
A majority of scholars (n: with the exception of some Hanafis)… have been recorded as holding that it is unlawful for women to leave the house with faces unveiled, whether or not there is likelihood of temptation. When there is likelihood of temptation, scholars unanimously concur that it is unlawful, temptation meaning anything that leads to sexual intercourse or its usual preliminaries. As for when there is real need… looking is not unlawful, provided temptation is unlikely.
CAN MODERN ISLAM BE REFORMED?
For our purposes, a reformist calls for the reform of Islam, while a traditionalist believes Islam, revealed in the Quran and presented in the authentic hadith, is fine the way it and defends it. Usually, religious leaders are selected in this section, but sometimes a Muslim who is in the public eye or a study is included too.
Wearing the full veils, the niqab and burka, which cover the face except the eye or eyes (the burka has a meshed covering for the eyes), is undergoing debate in Islam today. The hijab is also being debated.
Before we get to the moderate and traditional perspectives, reports have been written of late that warn of vitamin D deficiencies from underexposure to sunlight.
DUBAI: Inadequate sun exposure and vitamin D deficiency have put people at risk of serious illnesses including cardiovascular diseases, tuberculosis, cancer and diabetes, according to an expert.
“Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic of such magnitude that it is not only alarmingly widespread, but also a root cause of many serious diseases,” said Dr Afrozul Haq, Senior Clinical Scientist, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Institute at the Shaikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC).
These include rickets (childhood bone disease), psoriasis, osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, tuberculosis, respiratory infections, allergy, autoimmune diseases, neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as, common cold and flu. In the Middle East region, despite the year round sunshine, statistics are grim.
At the first International Conference on Vitamin D Deficiency in studies, which showed that a high percentage of children are vitamin D deficient — 90 per cent of students in Abu Dhabi. Eighty-one per cent of postmenopausal women in the Middle East tested for osteoporosis also have inadequate vitamin D levels. In the UAE, 90 per cent of the population were vitamin D deficient when first tested (2009) while 82 per cent of infants were found to be lacking of vitamin D supplement (2006).
Dr Haq, who is also the Chairman of the Conference’s Scientific Committee, attributed these high prevalence rates to the very hot climate which discourages outdoor activities, the wearing of abaya and burqa, lack of regulations for vitamin D fortification of food and drinks and prolonged breast feeding without vitamin D supplementation.
In interpreting Islam, no one is more conservative than Saudi Sunni Sheikh Muhammed Salih al-Munajjid and his online fatwa-issuing organization called Islam Q & A. He writes many edicts about the hijab, a terms that he uses for covering the face except one eye or eyes, as he notes in many fatwas (the hijab in most contexts today means head covering without veiling the face). A Muslim woman writes her question; then the sheikh and his team answer.
Being a Muslim woman, how must they [sic] wear their attire to say that she is a Muslim woman?
The scholar and his team reply:
Praise be to Allaah.
The scholars have based the conditions of the hijaab (covering) which Muslim women must wear in front of non-mahram men [men who are eligible to marry a woman, like a neighbor] on the evidence in the Qur’aan and Sunnah [example of Muhammad eventually written in the hadith]. So long as a woman adheres to these conditions, she may wear whatever she likes in public places and elsewhere, and her hijaab will be considered Islamic. These conditions may be summarized as follows:
The hijaab must cover her entire body;
It should be thick enough to conceal what is underneath it;
It should be loose-fitting, not tight;
It should not be so attractive as to call men’s attention to it
It should not be perfumed;
It should not be a dress of fame and vanity (i.e., it should be extravagant or excessively opulent);
It should not resemble the dress of men;
It should not resemble the dress of kaafir [infidel] women;
It should not be adorned with any crosses or pictures of animate beings.
Though the sheikh and his team are really traditional, they make a concession. If a Muslim woman lives in a land that outlaws the veil that he defines as covering her face, she is permitted not to wear one. However, if she can break the law and not get hassled, then she should do so.
If the laws forbid women to cover, and you fear persecution because of covering your faces, then there is no sin on you if you do not do it in that case, so long as that is based on necessity. So a woman should not go out of her house with her face uncovered except in cases of necessity. If she can break the law and put up with a little bit of hassle, let her do so for there is no obedience to any created being if it involves disobedience towards the Creator.
The last two sentences are puzzling. Islam must take priority in facial veils, even if they break the law – provided the wearer’s law breaking does not lead to a hassle (arrest and a fine?). Does this mean the Muslim women in France should take the sheik’s advice and not wear the burka?
If a traditionalist gives ground like this in telling women not to break the law and suffer prosecution, then maybe there is hope for reform.
The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) is made up of religious scholars, most of whom have their doctorates in Islamic law or other Islamic subjects. Their site uses the write-in Question and Answer format.
A woman asks:
Is wearing the full veil (niqab) an obligatory duty on the Muslim woman, or not? For, I wear the full Islamic dress (hijab) sixteen years ago, but I did not wear the full veil (niqab), in belief that it is not an obligatory duty. However, my husband says it is an obligatory duty, and whoever does not wear it, she would be counted as sinful, though we live in Sweden, and such act would be a little bit difficult for us there. Please, kindly counsel us and support your answer with evidences.
The reply by the AMJA scholar is long, but it reveals the traditionalist way of thinking and interpreting the Quran and hadith.
… The evidences from the Quraan and the Sunnah show that a Muslim woman should cover her face, as Allah the Almighty says: “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 God is Oft Forgiving, most Merciful”, (Quraan, 33:59). The “outer garment” is the head cover that also covers parts of the face.
Dear sister, you have to fear Allah in this matter, and combine between the two responses and obedience of the two orders: the order of Allah the Almighty; and the order of your husband. There is no doubt that in doing this act, you will have the goodness and the well-being as an obedient wife, and at the same time, this matter will make your husband happy and your house cheerful, and if you feel bored with this act, I assure you that with patience you will feel happy by being accustomed to wearing it. There are so many sisters who abide now by wearing the full veil (niqab), though they regretted the bad old days when they used to uncover their heads and faces, and they feel proud now of wearing it. Moreover, there are many sisters who abandoned their husbands because they wanted to press them to take off their full veils (niqab)!
Therefore, think of the great difference between your condition now and theirs. Where do find now those who care for the well-being and chastity and virtues of their women?! They are very few! Should we give up this “few”, or should we thank them and encourage them for doing such good deeds that would promote goodness in the Muslim societies?!
We would remind you, dear sister, to fear Allah, and be along with those who do good deeds of the Muslim women who responded to the order of Allah Who says: “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 husband`s sons, their brothers or their brother`s sons, or their sister`s 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 God, that ye may attain Bliss” (Quraan 24:31). Aiyeshah [Aisha] . . . narrated that: “When this verse was revealed upon the prophet, prayers and peace of Allah be upon him the immigrant Muslim women took their garments and ripped them from the laces so as to make head and face covers from them” (reported by Al-Bukhari).
You must wear the full veil (niqab) that covers the whole body. Unless there would be a risk for you in the non-Muslim lands that would expose you to jeopardy if you wear the full veil (niqab) there! . . .
The last sentence says that if she lives in a non-Islamic country, the niqab is optional, if it might expose her to jeopardy.
However, in a fatwa issued three years later, an AMJA scholar says the hijab covering the face may be optional.
An enquirer asks:
… Some people think that Muslim women continue to cover up today because women wore veils in the past, so when the verses were sent concerning the women covering their necks and bosoms, they might have just covered their body in addition to the hair that they always covered. Can you please help?
The scholar replies (in its entirety):
The hijab mentioned in the Quran encompasses covering the head according to the unanimous agreement of scholars, along with the entire body. The only debatable point in the hijab issue is the status of covering the face, and whether that is mandatory or merely preferred.
So which one should a Muslim woman wear, the niqab or hijab? Though the two terms are different in the two fatwas, could this shift from the first fatwa to the second one at AMJA signal a relaxation of the requirements?
The Muslim Canadian Congress recently called for banning the face-covering veils – the burka and niqab.
TORONTO – The Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) is asking Ottawa to introduce legislation to ban the wearing of masks, niqabs and the burka in all public dealings.
In a statement, the MCC said, not only is the wearing of a face-mask a security hazard and has led to a number of bank heists in Canada and overseas, the burka or niqab are political symbols of Saudi inspired Islamic extremism. The MCC dismissed the argument that wearing of a face-mask by Muslim women is protected by the Charter’s guarantee of religious freedom. The MCC said, there is no requirement in the Quran for Muslim women to cover their faces. Invoking religious freedom to conceal one’s identity and promote a political ideology is disingenuous. The MCC pointed to the recent decision by Egypt’s highest Muslim authority, Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar University, who said he will issue a Fatwa (religious edict) against the niqab and burka.
Sumba Ali-Karamadi is a Muslim lawyer and researcher who holds a Juris Doctor’s or law degree and a graduate degree in Islamic law at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She is the author of the Muslim Next Door. She writes that the head covering is a free choice, concluding:
A woman should be able to dress how she wants. Of course there are limits in the U.S., too, not just religious ones but cultural ones; for instance, we don’t allow people to appear nude in public, and we require that – for the public safety – driver’s licenses should show faces. But banning a headscarf is just as much a violation of personal liberty as requiring one. In Turkey and France, where women have not been allowed to wear headscarves in public institutions, scores of women have tragically been denied the opportunity to attend school or get jobs.
It’s wonderful that Roqaya al-Ghassra [Saudi runner] participated in the Olympic games dressed as she was, because the hijab is a choice, and it’s not about “religious dress” or oppression. It’s a decision about modesty, the same as wearing long sleeves instead of short or a high neckline instead of a plunging one. Her choice is not the same as mine – but it doesn’t have to be under Islam.
A leading cleric at the Al Azhar Mosque in Egypt supports the French ban on the full-face veil or niqab:
A leading cleric at Egypt’s prestigious Al Azhar Mosque today applauded France’s ban on the face veil worn by some devout Muslim women, saying the niqab harmed Islam’s image. Abdel Muti al Bayyumi, a member of an influential council of clerics at Al Azhar, said the niqab, a full-face veil that leaves an opening for the eyes, “has no basis in Islamic law and there is nothing in the Quran or Sunna [traditions] that supports it.”
“I personally support (the ban) and many of my brothers in the Islamic Research Academy support it. My position against the niqab is actually older than France’s,” said Mr al Bayyumi, who has authored a book against the practice. “I want to send a message to Muslims in France and Europe. The niqab has no basis in Islam. I used to feel dismayed when I saw some of the sisters (in France) wearing the niqab. This does not give a good impression of Islam.”
The Grand Sheikh and the Dean of Al Azhar University says the full-face veil or niqab has no part at the university:
Grand Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi the dean of Al-Azhar University and one of the highest Islamic authorities in Egypt and the Muslim world says so. He told a young female student to take the niqab off when he was on a visit to one of the schools affiliated to Al Azhar (one of the most prestigious Islamic institutions) The Grand Sheikh said the niqab is a tradition and not part of Islam, he apparently told the girl “I know more about Islam than your parents and I’m telling you to take it off.”
Sheikh Tantawi has also given directives that female students going to Al Azhar University be banned from wearing the niqab.
Farazan Hasan, Muslim commentator and writer residing in Canada, participated in the Doha Debates, financed by the Qatar Foundation for Education, science, and Community Development. She argued that banning the niqab (facial veil) was necessary. Her introductory arguments on the motion that says, “This house believes France is right to ban the face veil”:
Thank you very much. I am supporting the motion because I believe that the burka and face veil have become a security threat leading to a number of bank robberies and suicide bombings across the world where the perpetrators have used the face veil to hide their identity and escape. The security of the public is paramount in this debate, especially in a tense political climate where the threat of terrorism is ever present. Permission to cover the face in public enables criminal elements to abuse the opportunity. I also believe that radicalism grows stronger by the day. The biggest challenge is that proponents of the burka are inherently evangelical and their ultimate goal is to spread this practice among all Muslims, especially by scaring them with theology. Women who choose not to wear the face veil are considered apostates at times. At other times they are told that they might be provoking rape or sexual assault if they don’t cover their faces, and women often succumb to these pressures and they adopt the face veil. But can such choices be considered genuine? It is to protect these women that a ban is absolutely essential. In the absence of a ban, the burka is likely to spread in society, which is bound to have societal implications, and a society allowing the marginalisation, the disappearance of a sizeable number of individuals must be seen as a dysfunctional society. It has been my experience that many in the West are reluctant to confront extremism. The face veil has hence already proliferated in many western neighbourhoods, and Western governments are reluctant to pass legislation that is likely to affect a significant number of individuals. A similar scenario must be avoided in countries such as France where the observance of the burka as yet remains on the periphery and restricting certain individuals’ rights to advance the common good is by no means outside the domain of democracy and pluralism. Individual freedom is not, in fact it cannot be, an absolute. Governments after all require people to be safe with compulsory seat belts and demand that they wear clothes in public.
A full 78% voted against the motion.
To wrap up this section on modern Islam, in a few years these excerpts will seem old and outdated. But the main point still stands: Islam is going through a struggle over the veil. On the web, those arguing for a head covering, though not necessarily a full-face veil, outnumber the reformists, many of whom allow women to choose between a headscarf and no headscarf. A full-face veil (except the eyes) is out of the question for the reformists.
Islam is an extremely conservative religion. The traditionalists have 1,400 years of the Islamic custom and history to support them. So Islam is difficult, even loath to reform.
The Quran is unclear about the veil. The garment began at the head. But does it wrap around the face and chest, or just the chest and leave the face uncovered? The hadith favored the ultraconservatives, but even here there was wiggle room (no pun intended). One or two hadith said the face could show. But classical Islamic law was clearer. The veil should cover the face, so men would not be tempted. So it seems that the two authoritative sources – the Quran first and hadith second – allows the reformers in the world today to tell women they do not have to cover their faces. Maybe the general principle we can draw from the Quranic verses and hadith is modesty.
But seventh-century culture was very patriarchal, particularly in Arabia. Church Father Tertullian said face-covering veils were barbaric and pagan. He said this while living in the ancient world. He was arguing for the veil (head covering) in the Christian community. No one can accuse him of a modern bias. He did not live under the weight of political correctness. He called it as he saw it.
The burka and niqab are cultural holdovers from the ancient past. We can say to the woman in a burka that this is cultural, not universal and timeless. If we cannot persuade her, then we should make her take it off for ID photos, to appear in courts, to go to school and in the classroom, and to drive a car, and so on. It is a safety hazard, after all. But to pass a law to ban it in all settings, like a walk in the park, is too oppressive. She should be free to follow her convictions. And we should feel free to pity her and sometimes, when the situation is right, to dissuade her.
However, if terrorists use the full-face veil that goes down the entire body to hide bombs, then for the safety of the public we should pass laws against it.
A woman wearing the headscarf (hijab) does not hurt us monetarily or physically. We can still see her face. We may prefer that she go without a headscarf to show her love for Allah, but that is ultimately up to her.
This article first appeared at Jihad Watch on August 25, 2012, but has been updated here.
Articles in the Series
Marital, Domestic and Women’s Issues
- Women’s Status and Roles
- Domestic Violence
- Divorce and Remarriage
- Marriage to Prepubescent Girls
Sexual “Crimes” and Punishments
- Islam’s Punishments for Drinking and Gambling
- The Law of Retaliation in the Quran and Early Islam
- Thieves, Give Muhammad a Hand!
- Crucifixion and Mutilation in the Quran
 Henry Samuel, “Burka Ban: French Women Fined for Wearing Full-face Veil,” www.telegraph.co.uk, September 22, 2011, with small mechanical edits.
 Erica Meltzer and John Aguilar, “Boulder Sheriff Will Allow Muslim Woman to Wear Hijab in Jail Photo,” Dec 14, 2010, Coloradodaily.com, with small mechanical edits.
 M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, the Quran, 2nd ed., (New York: Oxford UP, 2010). The first insertion is the translator’s; the second is mine. If readers would like to see various translations of the Quran, they may go to the website quranbrowswer.com and type in the references.
 Abdul Mannan Omar, Dictionary of the Holy Quran (Hockessin: Noor Foundation, 2003, 2004), 166, with small mechanical adjustments.
 Ibid. 110.
Abdel Haleem, the insertions in brackets are mine.
 Omar, Dictionary, 113, with slight mechanical adjustments.
 Abdel, Haleem, the insertion in brackets is mine.
 Omar, Dictionary, 367-68, with small mechanical edits.
Ibid. 100, with small mechanical adjustments.
 Muhammad Taqi-Ud-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, The Noble Quran, (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2002). Their comments are in parentheses; mine are in brackets.
It is available online at quranbrowswer.com.
 Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi, The Meaning of the Quran, 4th ed., vol. 3, trans. Ch. Muhammad Akbar, ed. A. A. Kamal, (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 2003), 364, note 36. His translation and commentary are available online at englishtafsir.com.
 Bukhari, Commentary, 6.4681, says: “Narrated Muhammad bin Abbad bin Jafar that he heard Ibn Abbas reciting: ‘No doubt! They did fold up their breasts’ … (11:5) and asked him about its explanation. He said, ‘Some people used to hide themselves while answering the call of nature in an open space lest they be exposed to the sky, and also when they had sexual relation with their wives in a open space, lest they be exposed to the sky; so the above revelation was sent down regarding them’” (cf. 6.4682), with small mechanical adjustments.
 Hilali and Khan, their comments in parentheses, mine in brackets.
 Hilali and Khan, their comments in parentheses, mine in brackets.
 Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, vol. 4, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995, orig. 1885), chapter 17 (p. 37), emphasis original. I owe this obscure reference to an anonymous poster at Wikipedia, “Niqab.”
 So who is right: the standard Muslim belief that Arabian women dressed loosely, or Tertullian who says they dressed more conservatively than women outside of Arabia? I believe that both may be right, as I indicate in the main text, above. However, Tertullian’s observation serves as a balance to Islamic scholarship. Scholars read a verse in the Quran that says X. So they conclude that the surrounding culture used to practice not-X. For example, the Quran says to cover up; therefore Arab women must not have covered up. Maybe that is true in some cases, but not always. These same scholars must cite non-Islamic sources to confirm their assertions. Too often they don’t give their references to non-Islamic sources, which are indeed sparse.
 Bukhari, Prayer (Salat), 1.351, with the slightest mechanical changes. The bracketed insertions are mine. The hadith are searchable online at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, under the aegis of the University of Southern California.
 Cf. Abu Dawud, Clothing, 3.4104 (32.4104) or Bukhari, Menstruation, 1.324 (001.006.321) or idem, Pilgrimage, 2.1652 (002.026.0714).
 Idem, Commentary, 6.4758, with slight mechanical adjustments. I added the bracket comment.
 Ibid. 6.4759, with small mechanical changes. I added the bracketed comment.
 Ibid. 6.4790, with small mechanical edits.
 Ibid. 6.4483, with slight mechanical edits. The translator’s comments are in parentheses.
 Bukhari, Military Expeditions, 5.4141 (005.059.462).
 Idem, Commentary, 6.4791, with small mechanical modifications.
 Idem, Witnesses, 3.2644 (003.048.812), with minor mechanical adjustments.
 A parallel hadith confirms that maybe both the curtain and the worn veil are in view: See idem, Asking Permission, 8.6238-39 (008.074.255-56).
 Idem, Commentary, 6.4795, with slight mechanical alterations. The parenthetical comments are the translator’s; the bracketed ones are mine. See Asking Permission, 8.6240 (008.074.257). This parallel hadith implies that the hijab is worn by women, not only put up as a curtain. More about Sauda’s being overweight: “Narrated Aisha: Sauda asked the permission of the Prophet to leave earlier at the night of Jam’, and she was a fat and very slow woman. The Prophet gave her permission” (Bukhari, Pilgrimage 2.1680 [002.026.740]).
 Abu Dawud, Clothing, 3.4090 (32.4090), my bracketed insertion.
 Bukhari, Companions of the Prophet, 5.3683 (005.057.32), with small adjustments. My comments are inserted in brackets.
 Idem, Commentary, 6.4750, with small mechanical adjustments. The translation belongs to the translator and is taken from his footnote. See Idem Military Expeditions, 5.4141 (005.059.462)
 Abu Dawud, Clothing, 3.4092 (32.4092), with small edits. My comments are in brackets.
 Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994), 512. The Hanafite exception is recorded on the next page (513) and reads: “(n: The following rulings from the Hanafi school have been added here as a dispensation … (Ahmad Quduri:) (1) It is not permissible for a man to look at a woman who is not his wife or unmarriageable relative except for her face and hands ((Maydani:) because of the necessity of her need to deal with men in giving and taking and the like). If a man is not safe from lust, he may not look at her face except when it is demanded by necessity. (2) A man may look at the whole body of another man except for what is between the navel and (A: including) the knees (A: as the knees are considered nakedness by Hanafis , though not by Shafi’is). (3) A woman may look at the parts of a man that another man is permitted to look at. (4) A woman may look at the parts of another woman that a man is permitted to look at of another man.” The scholar labeled “n” is the translator.
 Ibid. “Our Attitude towards the Differences of Opinions among the Imams with Regard to Covering the Face.”
 “Muslim Canadian Congress Wants Ottawa to Ban the Burka,” Oct 8, 2009, Muslim Canadian Congress, muslimcanadiancongress.org.
 Doha Debates, “This house believes France is right to ban the face veil,” October 11, 2010, thedohadebates.com.
 This series of articles does not contrast Christianity and Islam. But readers may be curious about. 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 argues for women using a head covering (not a facial veil) while they are praying and prophesying in a church meeting (so says the context). The church today has three possible interpretations to choose from: (1) it is binding today, as some orders of Catholic nuns and very strict (and few) Protestant denominations believe. (2) Christians are to draw the general principle of respect for the husband, regardless of the head attire and style. A woman’s hair is her head covering (see v. 15). (3) The passage is cultural and relevant only to the first century, but not to today. Most Christians take the latter two interpretations or the third alone. Hence, it is not a requirement that women today have to cover themselves. They may choose to do this out of their own free will, but they are under grace, not law.