I often get asked by (well meaning and sincere) people to reference them to the ayahs in the Qur’an in which Allah – Great and Glorious is He! – mentions the ‘hijab’. I thought I would share the verses, as well as a scholarly commentary on the meanings of the verses. I read Muhammad Asad’s translation and commentary, which was recommended by Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, and I have literally ‘copied’ the verses below, without adding my own reflections on it.
The reason why I won’t add my own ‘interpretation’ of it is because in matters of Islam, I feel that giving our own little fatwas on matters discussed in the Qur’an is a hefty responsibility that I admit I am not even the tiniest bit capable of taking on. My knowledge is extremely limited and that’s why I ask people to be careful of arguing with scholarly opinion in the public domain; it’s one thing to interpret something yourself and to consequently practice an understanding based on what your heart feels drawn to, but another thing completely to claim that is “what Islam says” and to present and preach it as such. Not only do you risk misinterpreting and then spreading that flawed understanding, but a false sense of arrogance can overcome you when you feel like you are “qualified” to give out rulings. This is why, when there are differences of opinion about matters, you never find respectable scholars argue about their differences or slander one another in a public or private domain. ALL scholars, regardless of whether or not we “agree” with them, deserve respect insofar as their opinions are derived after years of studying the deen, and dedicating their lives to gaining knowledge from their pious teachers.
So, whilst I understand the ayahs on hijab a certain way for myself, I do so based on the word of Allah and the interpretation given by scholars. I don’t expect for everyone to have the same understanding as me, however, I always encourage people to do what personally feels right for them whilst keeping their intentions in check.
The mentioning of hijab occurs in two specific places in the Qur’an. I have included the quotes with numbers – for example, (1) – to indicate an area in which commentary has been provided by Asad.
Surah an-Nur (The Light)
(24:30) Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity(1): this will be most conducive to their purity – [and,] verily, God is aware of all that they do.
(24:31) And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof;(2) hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.(3) And let them not display [more of] their charms to any but their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, (4)or children that are as yet unaware of women’s nakedness; and let them not swing their legs [in walking] so as to draw attention to their hidden charms.(5)
(1) Literally, “to restrain [something] of their gaze and to guard their private parts”. The latter expression may be understood both in the literal sense of “covering one’s private parts” – i.e., modesty in dress – as well as in the metonymical sense of “restraining one’s sexual urges”, i.e., restricting them to what is lawful, namely, marital intercourse (cf 23:5-6). The rendering adopted by me in this instance allows for both interpretations. The “lowering of one’s gaze”, too, relates both to physical and to emotional modesty (Razi).
(2) My interpolation of the word “decently” reflects the interpretation of the phrase ilia ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi), as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-’adah al-jariyah)”. Although the traditional exponents of Islamic Law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of “what may [decently] be apparent” to a woman’s face, hands and feet – and sometimes even less than that – we may safely assume that the meaning of ilia ma zahara minha is much wider, and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for all the time-bound changes that are necessary for man’s moral and social growth. The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand, addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to “lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity”: and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately – i.e., in consonance with the Qur’anic principles of social morality – be considered “decent” or “indecent” in a person’s outward appearance.
(3) The noun khimar (of which khumur is the plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer’s back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term so familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet sallalaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman’s breasts are not included in the concept of “what may decently be apparent” of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed.
(4) i.e., very old men. The preceding phrase “those whom they rightfully possess” (literally, “whom their right hands possess”) denotes slaves.
(5) Literally, “so that those of their charms which they keep hidden may become known”. The phrase yadribna bi-arjulihinna is idiomatically similar to the phrase daraba bi-yadayhi fi mishyatihi, “he swung his arms in walking” (quoted in this context in Taj al-’Aras), and alludes to a deliberately provocative gait.
Surah al-Ahzab (The Confederates)
(33:59) O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all (other] believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public] : this will be more conducive to their being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed.(6) But [withal,] God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!(7)
(6) Same as notes (2) and (3) above.
(7) The specific, time-bound formulation of the above verse (evident in the reference to the wives and daughters of the Prophet), as well as the deliberate vagueness of the recommendation that women “should draw upon themselves some of their outer garments (min jalabibihinna)” when in public, makes it clear that this verse was not meant to be an injunction (hukm) in the general, timeless sense of this term but, rather, a moral guideline to be observed against the ever-changing background of time and social environment. This finding is reinforced by the concluding reference to God’s forgiveness and grace.
I highly recommend that everybody read a translation of the Qur’an; once its meaning sinks deep into the hearts of Muslims, our ummah will see a big reform, insha’Allah. May we all live to see that day! Whilst reading in Arabic is undoubtedly the best language in which the Qur’an can be recited – after all, it is the language of Revelation! – it is also vital that if we do not fully understand the language, we read a translation and a scholarly commentary. Understanding the words from Allah and reflecting upon their meanings – even if it is a few lines or whatever we can manage in a day – has the power, insha’Allah, to purify our hearts and transform our lives.
‘The Message of the Qur’an’, which is the Qur’an that I own and have referenced above, is also available online as an e-book, which you may download or view if you are unable to get your hands on a physical copy. Just click on this link to go to the website that is offering a free e-text copy of this Qur’an; please share with others who might be interested.
Much love and peace