Is hijab in the Qur’an?

The headscarf is the core identifier of a Muslim woman

Many assume that the hijab is in the Qur’an – or, more specifically, many assume that what is thought of today as female Islamic dress is required by the Qur’an.

In this post I clarify what the Qur’an itself says on this disproportionately emotive subject.

The word ḥijāb occurs 7 times the Qur’an (at 7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51).

It denotes:

  • A barrier between believers and deniers in the hereafter (7:46)
  • A barrier placed between the messenger and those who do not believe in the hereafter when he recites the Recitation or qur’ān (17:45)
  • A barrier or partition which Mary mother of Jesus placed between herself and her people (19:17)
  • A barrier or partition in the house of the prophet so that protocol might be observed between common believers and wives of the prophet (33:53)
  • A barrier or partition behind which the sun disappears at the end of the day (38:32)
  • A barrier or partition which prevents those who hear the message from understanding it (41:5)
  • A barrier from behind which God gives instruction to a mortal (42:51)

We plainly see that in none of those instances in which the Qur’an uses the term ḥijāb does it denote clothing of any sort – female or otherwise.

So, clearly, the idea that ḥijāb denotes a particular style of female headwear was devised outside the Qur’anic revelation.

The question, then, is whether that which we call ḥijāb today has any Qur’anic basis, and what the Qur’anic position is on the subject of female dress.

There are only two verses which treat of dress for women: 24:31 and 33:59.

And say thou to the believing women that they restrain some of their vision
And guard their modesty
And that they show not their adornment save that apparent of it
And that they draw their coverings over their bosoms
And not reveal their adornment save to their husbands
Or their fathers
Or the fathers of their husbands
Or their sons
Or the sons of their husbands
Or their brothers
Or the sons of their brothers
Or the sons of their sisters
Or their women
Or what their right hands possess
Or the attendants who have not the urge of men
Or the children not yet aware of a woman’s private parts.
And let them not strike their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment.
And turn to God altogether, O believers
That you might be successful. (24:31)

O prophet: say thou to thy wives
And thy daughters
And the women of the believers
To draw down over them some of their garments.
That will tend to them being recognised and not hindered.
And God is forgiving, merciful. (33:59)

The verses are self-explanatory with the only remaining question being what we mean by adornment as per 24:31.The case is clear what is meant from the end of the verse: adornment is that which is revealed by striking the feet (or walking suggestively). If we are to be reasonable, there is no case in which a woman could walk in such a way as to reveal her face or hair were it covered.

However, she could walk in such a way as to make her bottom and breasts visible to others – as we all know.

The key takeaways as found in the Qur’an regarding women’s dress then, are:

  • That a believing woman should restrain some part of her vision (i.e. not stare) – a directive which is the same for men
  • That a believing woman should guard her modesty (i.e. be chaste and modest) – a directive which is the same for men
  • That a believing woman should cover her bosom and not walk in such a way as to reveal such parts of her body which suggestive walking can reveal
  • That a believing woman is not to walk in the way outlined above (i.e. provocatively or suggestively)
  • That a believing woman is to draw down (i.e. lengthen) some part of her garments (i.e. wear longer rather than shorter clothes)
  • The point of longer clothes is that believing women might be recognised as such and not hindered

These imperatives are for believing women. The context is perfectly clear: there will be other women who do not dress in such a manner (otherwise there would be no-one from whom to distinguish believing women).

Nowhere is there any hint that believers are to coerce non-believers to dress likewise.

This summarises the entire Qur’anic dress code for women.

Since this is a central issue for many people what follows are my own thoughts, and you are welcome to disagree with them. I begin by summarising my key points in the following way:

Q: Is it true that the Qur’an requires a head-covering for all believing women?
A: No, it is not.

Q: Does the Qur’an require believing women to dress modestly?
A: Yes, it does.

Q: Do societies exist where a head-covering is a requirement of modesty?
A: Yes, there do.

Q: Does traditional ‘Islamic’ dress (i.e. long dress and headscarf) encompass the Qur’anic requirement for believing women?
A: Yes, it does.

Q: Is the traditional ‘Islamic’ dress the same thing as the Qur’anic requirement?
A: No, it is not.

Now, while I know the claim that traditional ‘Islamic’ dress is a Qur’anic imperative to be false, I must add the following point: women are told to dress so that they will be recognised as believers and not hindered. A headscarf and the other modesty requirements found in traditional ‘Islamic’ dress together meet this criterion for historical reasons (i.e. such women are by dint of custom known to be women of faith).

However, traditional Jewish and Christian (Orthodox) women’s dress meets these requirements also.

Distinct from these observations, it is my opinion that women who choose to dress modestly are providing a great service to themselves, their families and their societies.

The problem in today’s media-driven society, of course, is that the association with faith which the headscarf once had has given way to other associations: those of intellectual and cultural backwardness and unthinking adherence to violent ideologies.

It seems to me that many women are put off wearing some form of headscarf due to fear that they will be incorrectly associated with ideologies which they don’t support. On the other hand, some choose to wear it because they wish to feel part of a club.

Women I have spoken to who wear or have worn a headscarf speak both of feeling protected by it from the general degradation around them, and of feeling misunderstood and wrongly judged on its basis.

I personally think the so-called ḥijāb can be extremely beautiful and refined and truly feminine. It makes almost every woman who wears one a queen and shows that she respects herself and her femininity as well the society in which she lives. But that does not mean that the headscarf – for me at least – is any sort of arbiter of faith. I hold it to be a crime before God to ascribe to the Qur’an imperatives which the Qur’an simply does not contain, and it is not one I wish to be guilty of.

There is no Qur’anic directive to wear what we call the ḥijāb. If women choose to see the wearing of what they call the ḥijāb as a requirement of their faith, they should be clear in declaring the source of that requirement to be other than the Qur’an.

I include the clip below for historical context.


About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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