Why the hijab is still obligatory (and why it is not only a vestige of 7th century Arabia)

Below is a response I wrote to someone who sent me a YouTube video in which the speaker argues that the hijab was necessary in ancient Arabia due to sexual harassment but that it is no longer necessary in the modern world

I will first speak of the problem with her way of thinking, then will cover the topic of hijab. What the  speaker is doing is what I refer to as historical localization, which is the belief that a particular verse of the Quran applied then but does not necessarily apply now, that times have changed. If the Quran was written by the Prophet , then that would make sense. He was only a human and could not foresee all eventualities. But we believe the Quran is from God, it is His unchanged Words, which means that we have to treat it like a book written by an infinitely wise person who could foresee the fact that humanity would continue for the next 100,000 years (or however long). If something was supposed to only apply to one circumstance and not to others, then God would have told us so. What we believe is that the Quran was written by the Creator to be applied for all time. Saying that God was so short-sighted that He gave a universal command in His book that does not apply any longer is a great insult against the Creator of the universe.

So the main question is about the status of the Quran. There are two ways of looking at the Quran:

  • It is by a God who is wise enough to realize that humanity would develop and change greatly over time, so that He only issues universal commands in His Book when they are meant to be applied by all people for all time (such as the commandment that we should not murder people). It does not matter whether you look at the Quran in 630 CE, in the year 2018, or in the year 50,000. God was intelligent and wise enough to give us a Book that could be applied for all time, that would stand the test of time.
  • It is by someone who issues universal commands but does not realize that circumstances will change, so that he issues commands that we can ignore today.

The extreme liberal Muslims who say the Quran’s command to wear the hijab is outdated have the second view of the Quran. They believe God was not intelligent enough to realize that circumstances would change so much that the hijab would become unnecessary. But mainstream Muslims believe that since the Quran is from an infinitely wise Creator, we should treat it as if it was revealed today, whether we ourselves live in 2018 or in the year 50,000. We can use our knowledge of the circumstances of revelation to help us understand the Quran better and to discover its meaning and intent. But once we have the meaning, that meaning applies everywhere always. When the Quran says robbery is prohibited, then it is never a valid argument to say that that command only applied then and not now.

To put it another way, overwhelming evidence is needed to show that there is any command in the Quran that can be ignored, because our default assumption toward the Quran is that it is written in a timeless way that would make it stand the test of time regardless of what year or age of the universe it is.

The extreme liberals say that they themselves can work out whether the Quran is being general or specific using their own reasoning, since to them the Quran is not from an infinitely wise Creator, but from someone who is incapable of seeing beyond the circumstances of 7th century Arabia. Their way of looking at the Quran would make perfect sense if it was written by a human, or if it was thoroughly corrupted by humans. But since we believe in the Quran as coming from our eternal Creator, then we cannot support their way of thinking. We believe God is intelligent enough to only give universal commands when they are meant to be universal. We cannot say that when God tells us to avoid murder or usury that He was stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia and could not foresee that we modern humans have great needs for murder and usury.

The type of thinking that tries to defuse the Quran’s meaning, saying this or that no longer applies, without providing overwhelming evidence, really originates from a lack of belief in the Quran. These are often the same people who say the miracles that are mentioned in the Quran are actually referring to metaphors rather than actual events, and that the physical Paradise mentioned in the Quran is actually a metaphor for something spiritual. They find it embarrassing to express belief in miracles in this age of science and rationality. They think that we are now past that, that we have to make a choice between either being modern and rational people or people who really take the Quran as seriously as mainstream Muslims do. This comes from misunderstanding both the nature of science and the nature of religion. As I explain in my essay Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template, a Muslim can be just as much a rationalist as any scientist or atheist while also believing in the Quran absolutely and completely. There is no conflict between the two once we can think “outside the box” of this universe as al-Ghazali did. Al-Ghazali solved the problem of the supposed conflict between science and religion 900 years ago, it is just that some people have yet to catch up to his time.

Onto the topic of the hijab, the Quran commands women to use their khimārs to cover their chests:

And tell the believing women to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates, and not display their beauty except what is apparent thereof, and to draw their khimārs over their chests, and not expose their beauty except to 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. And they should not strike their feet to draw attention to their hidden beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, so that you may succeed.1

In the above verse, it is assumed that Muslim women will be wearing khimār, otherwise the command to use their khimārs to cover their chests would not make sense. The issue therefore hinges on the definition of khimār. The khimār is described as a “head-covering” in the respected dictionaries of the Arabic language (Lisān al-ʿArab, The Mughrib, al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ, Tāj al-ʿArūs, al-Miṣbāḥ). It is what in English is called the hijab, a head-covering that is wrapped in a way that also covers the neck and chest.

The verse mentioned above is not in a context that deals with sexual harassment, therefore it was not revealed solely to solve the problem of sexual harassment as some say. The verse before it commands that we lower the gaze. And before that it talks about the rules regarding how to enter someone’s home in the proper way. And the verses after it talk about some rules regarding marriage. We have no hint anywhere in the passage that this verse is talking about a special circumstance. We have no choice but to consider it a general command meant to be followed for all time. A person who thinks it is not so, as I said, is saying that God is so unwise that He made general commands that would stop making sense eventually.

For those wondering, the Quran is not our only evidence for the hijab being obligatory. In Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim it is mentioned that Umar kept asking the Prophet to tell his wives to cover their hair when going out, then the verse was revealed that made the hijab obligatory (al-Bukhari 147, Muslim 2170). Additionally, Imam Mālik says that it is not permissible in Islam for a woman to uncover her hair and chest to strangers, but that strangers can look at her face. Imam Mālik’s teachings were derived from what is known as ʿamal ahl al-madīna (“Medinan praxis”). This refers to the way the descendants of the Companions of the Prophet practiced Islam. These are Islamic customs that were passed down from generation to generation without necessarily being recorded in books of hadith (such as the way to say the call to prayer). Imam Mālik was taught by the Successors, who were taught by the Prophet’s Companions . One of his teachers was Nāfiʿ, a servant of the Companion Ibn ʿUmar. When Mālik says something, he is telling us the common view of the people of Medina. When he says a woman should wear the hijab, he is telling us that the people of Medina and its scholars, who were descended from thousands of the Prophet’s Companions, had the opinion that women should wear the hijab as a religious duty. So besides the Quran and a few narrations, we also have Medinan praxis supporting the hijab: the thousands of the descendants of the Companions who lived in Medina in Mālik’s time all believed that the hijab was an Islamic duty.

If, like the extreme liberals, we were to say that verse 24:31 only applied to 7th century Arabia or medieval Arabia, we would be giving ourselves the right to nullify any verse of the Quran we want. The Quran forbids usury, but a person today could say that the verses only applied to 7th century Arabia and in this more enlightened times we have modern finance which cannot function without interest. The Quran forbids homosexuality, forced marriages, murder, stealing, and insulting one’s parents, but using historical localization,  anyone can make a case for any of these things no longer applying in our modern, enlightened age.

We mainstream Muslims reject their way of treating the Quran not out of ignorance, but out of appreciation for the status of the Quran. Either the Quran is what it says it is (an unchanged and divinely protected book from an all-wise Creator), or it is false and should not be believed in. There is no middle ground here, as the majority of Muslims realize. Any error or mistake in the Quran proves either that God made an error, or that God could not protect His Book, both of which would prove that He is not all-powerful and all-knowing.

Through historical localization, you can start with any prejudices you have, throw out the verses that get in your way by saying they no longer apply, and turn Islam into anything you want. We will be perfectly happy to abandon anything in Islam if it is conclusively proven that it wasn’t meant to be applied for all time. But in the absence of such evidence, the proper assumption upon which all of Islam is built is that the Quran is universal through time and space, the way that God is universal through time and space. If the meaning of anything in the Quran could “expire” as extreme liberals think it could, that would mean the book is not timeless.

The majority of Muslims who have read the Quran, including converts, have come to the mainstream conclusion that the Quran is universal through time and space. This is not a conclusion coming out of ignorance, it is a conclusion reached from taking the book as seriously as it asks to be taken and analyzing and critiquing everything it says. This is a conclusion reached by people with deepest knowledge of historical criticism and other Western scholarly theories, so it is entirely false to claim that anyone with the right amount of knowledge would reach the extreme liberal conclusion.

The extreme liberals have the right to interpret the Quran the way they want, but it is dishonest and deceitful if they suggest that anyone with a great deal of modern knowledge would come to their conclusion that things like the hijab can be abandoned. We have extremely well-educated scholars of Islam who are familiar both with classical Islam and with Western knowledge, people like Hamza Yusuf, Umar Faruq Abd-Allah and Jonathan Brown, all of whom believe in the obligatoriness of the hijab.

It is perfectly fine to examine the question of whether the hijab was only meant for the Prophet’s time or whether it is universal. There is always the possibility that something that applied in the 7th century would not apply now. But in order to properly carry out this examination, we need to agree on standards of evidence; which piece of evidence weighs more or less than another piece? The mainstream Islamic standard of evidence is that since the Quran is timeless and unchanged, when it declares a universal commandment without any hint of restrictions, then that commandment is meant to be timeless and universal. If we have a very good sociological theory about how the hijab could have applied then without applying now, that theory has to compete with our standard for judging Quranic evidence. And the Quran comes out ahead, due to having far greater weight. So we do not say that the sociological theory is nonsensical or foolish, just that it requires overwhelming evidence, sufficient evidence to overrule the Quran and the known sunna of the Prophet . And since there is no such evidence, we cannot in good conscience follow the sociological theory. So if an extreme liberal wishes to prove that their theory is correct, then they need to prove to us that the Quran is not universal through time and space. This is really the main question, the issue of the hijab is only a subsidiary of this question. The extreme liberal attitude is that God couldn’t possibly be wise and powerful enough to give us a scripture that is universal through time and space, while we believe that He is.

The purpose of hijab in Islam

So recently, I found out about the Quran being vague about the hijab. This person was saying many scholars argue that it's left vague so that it can fit into any culture. But I heard many sheikhs say that it's haram to not wear the hijab, even if it's uncommon in your society.I don't have any problems with my hijab, but my parents more or less force me to wear maxi skirts and dresses, which makes me sad because I end up being a cast out at school

I’m an extremely shy person and I don’t wish to be so ‘different’ that I end up on the foreground. I don’t want to wear any skinny jeans or anything but I wish I could wear loose trousers because almost all hijabis at my school do that. And sometimes, I get the question why I always wear skirts and I don’t know what to answer since it’s something from my parents. Personally, I think it’s something cultural because it’s worn a lot in my home country. Could you tell me more about this?

(Part 2)I’m an extremely shy person and I don’t wish to be so ‘different’ that I end up on the foreground. I don’t want to wear any skinny jeans or anything but I wish I could wear loose trousers because almost all hijabis at my school do that. And sometimes, I get the question why I always wear skirts and I don’t know what to answer since it’s something from my parents. Personally, I think it’s something cultural because it’s worn a lot in my home country. Could you tell me more about this?

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

There are many differing ways of interpreting the Islamic texts (Quran, hadith and post-Prophetic reports) on the issue of hijab. The two verses on hijab in the Quran are:

And say to the female believers to lower their gaze, and preserve their private parts, and not display their adornment except such as is outward, and let them fix closely their head-coverings over their bosoms… (The Quran, verse 24:31)

O you Prophet, say to your spouses and your daughters and the women of believers, that they draw their outer garments closer to them; that will (make) it likelier that they will be recognized and so will not be hurt. And Allah has been Ever-Forgiving, Ever-Merciful. (The Quran, verse 33:59)

These two verses define the hijab the way it is worn throughout the Islamic world. The first one mentions a “head-covering”, therefore we know from that that hijab involves covering the head, and it also mentions that the head-covering should cover the chest, therefore the image of hijab that we get is a head-covering that is large enough to be wrapped in a way that also covers the neck and chest. The part that says “not display their adornment except such as is outward” provides a great room for maneuvering, allowing women to wear various styles of dress as long as it includes hijab and it is considered modest and appropriate by the Muslim society around them.

The second verse provides the rationale behind the Islamic dress code. According to Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s commentary on the Quran, where it says “that will (make) it likelier that they will be recognized”, it means that women dressed as such will be likely to be recognized as modest, i.e. as women who are not interested in flirtation and being admired by men.

If you look at the way nuns dress, the meaning of this verse becomes very clear. When men see nuns, they immediately know that these are women who should not be approached or admired as sex objects. Even the most rude and lecherous men often become quiet and respectful when faced with a nun. Hijab is meant to do the same for Muslim women, signalling to such men that these are women who are not interesting in being sexually admired or flirted with.

Some say that it is “unfair” that Islam puts the burden on women to dress modestly instead of asking men to stop looking. That’s a typically simple-minded understanding of Islam. Islam does ask men to “lower their graze”, and looking at the context of the second verse above, you see that the hijab is not intended for the benefit of devout Muslim men, but for the benefit of irreligious and lecherous men who are found in all societies. The verse after 33:59 says:

If the hypocrites, the sick at heart, and those who spread lies in the city do not desist, We shall rouse you [Prophet] against them, and then they will only be your neighbours in this city for a short while. (33:60)

It was these “hypocrites, the sick at heart” who were sexually harassing Muslim women. As it is mentioned in hadith narrations, some Muslim women did not use to wear hijab (this included some of the Prophet’s wives), and the Muslim men had no problem with this nor did they harass them. But once the irreligious hypocrites in Medina started the harassment, these verses came down to deal with them, telling the Muslim women to dress in a way that would cause such men to ignore them.

As for wearing loose trousers, there is no issue with it as long as it is part of a modest costume that does not hug your body tightly. The point is to dress in such a way that does not attract admiring glances from men.

While some Muslims are very harsh and strict about hijab, the Quran only dedicates two verses to it and never mentions any punishment or threats toward women who do not wear hijab. The command to wear hijab is softened by other verses like:

And fear God to the best of your ability… (The Quran, verse 64:16)

While it is very easy for some women to wear hijab, for others it can be very difficult. The Quran contains many commandments that many Muslims do not follow fully, such as the command to provide income for one’s close relatives. Hijab is obligatory, but we are not meant to force religion on people, and people should be free to choose to wear it if and when they are ready for it, they way they are free to choose to start taking care of their close relatives.

Most people judge things by appearances, so it will always be a fact that many Muslims will not consider a woman really Muslim until she wears hijab. Similarly it is seen that in democratic countries people vote for the politicians that belong to their own race without caring about the politician’s principles. It is only more intelligent and better educated people who can go beyond appearances.

The niqab is neither obligatory nor sunna

In answer to questions about whether the niqab is obligatory for Muslim women:

The respected Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi has done a detailed study of the evidence regarding the niqab, published as al-Niqāb Bayna Farḍīyatih wa Bidʿīyatih1, and his conclusion is that the niqab is neither a duty, nor is it a bidʿa (false innovation) to be condemned, it is rather a tool, an item of clothing, that a woman chooses to wear if and when she wants. If a woman sees that it is beneficial for her to wear it in her particular time and place, then she can do it. And if other women elsewhere decide not to wear it, like the majority of Muslim women have decided, then that’s their choice. There is nothing wrong with a woman veiling her face at a certain occasion, the way Victorian women used to, if she decides that she is more comfortable that way and expects benefits from it.

Dr. Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt from 2003 to 2013, has the same opinion.2 Egypt’s present Grand Mufti Dr. Shawki Allam says the same.3 This is also the opinion of Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University.4 He says the the niqab is not a sunna and that there is no special virtue in wearing it.

The Syrian scholar Dr. ʿAli al-Shaʿʿāl says it is not obligatory.5

Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, also has the opinion that the niqab is not obligatory.6

The above are just some examples of the opinions of mainstream Islamic scholars. They represent the opinions of the majority of Muslims. There is also no strong evidence that the niqab is a sunna either, something that Muslim women should supposedly hope to one day wear. Neither the Quran nor any hadith recommend that women should wear it. The niqab, like sandals and water containers made of goat skin, is something that was present in medieval Arabia, it was part of their culture and had a useful function at the time, which was to help women avoid the attention of uncouth men who would make them uncomfortable through ogling. As someone who has traveled a bit, I have met such men in some Middle Eastern countries. If even a slightly attractive woman comes into their field of view, they will stare at her, and stare, and stare, as if watching a TV program. That objectifying gaze is extremely uncomfortable and demeaning for a woman, so if she lives in a society where she is unlucky enough to face such men often, then it would be beneficial for her to have a niqab handy.

But in a civilized, middle class society where the men do not act like that, there is little point to the niqab. Whether one should wear niqab or not should be judged according to its potential benefits and harms and one’s own present time and culture. Just because we have reports of the people of that time doing some thing does not automatically mean it is recommended for us to do it. Thinking the niqab is recommended just because some women in medieval Arabia wore it is probably similar to thinking that hanging water containers made of goatskin in the living room, as the Prophet did, is somehow virtuous. A sunna, or virtuous act taught by the Prophet , can only be established when we have clear and multiply-verified evidence that the Prophet recommended that act. But we have no such evidence. As al-Qaradawi mentions, we have numerous authentic hadiths in which Muslim women are mentioned as showing their faces in public, and we have no convincing evidence that that Prophet would have liked them to hide their faces, even as a voluntary act of piety.

A woman who wishes to hide her face as a personal act of piety can certainly be rewarded for it, but it would be wrong if she said it is a sunna. Not every good deed is a sunna. For example if you choose to donate 5% of your income to charity, we have no evidence that the Prophet did the same or recommend that we do this, but you can do it with a good intention and get rewarded for it.

Those who say the niqab is obligatory are often converts or people who know little about Islam and who are now trying to be good Muslims. They sometimes come under the influence of Saudi-funded websites like IslamQA.info and due to their lack of knowledge end up thinking that these websites represent some true or authentic version of Islam. And due to the way that these websites teach their followers to think of themselves as the only true Muslims, they end up looking down on everyone else and try to force their opinions on them. Usually after a few years of crusading against mainstream Muslims they either abandon Islam (since they can no longer live with themselves) or they become moderate as their knowledge increases.

For more about Saudi-funded sites see my article about IslamQA.info.