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Home / Featured / Hijab vs Veil

Hijab vs Veil

By T.O. Shanavas

According to the current perception in Muslim society a head-cover (Hijab) for women is one of the Islamic obligations. Many Muslims believe that the head-cover is not enough to comply with God’s command but must cover all her body with a black robe with opening for eyes only. Some women wear the hijab because they believe that God has instructed women to wear it as a means of fulfilling His commandment for modesty. Muslim scholars claim that an unveiled woman is asking for sexual harassment or assault. They believe that the veil is added protection against the chance of assault. However, as we look at the Qur’an and the hadiths, we find that none of the above reasons hold waterbased on the circumstances that led to the revelation of these verses. The verses that most often quoted to justify body veil and Hijab are 24:30-31 and 33:59.The so-called“Hijab verses” were sent down in response to a specific situation occurring at the time. I will respond it by line by line. We need to read verse 24: 30-31 and 33:59. I believe the Quran explains itself most of the time.

First Line

We need to look at the matter independent of Post-Prophetic Medieval Arab society scholars who promoted social conventions and practices of their time as if they were religious norms for Muslims to abide by.
“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze thereof [ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ ] (Quran 24:30).
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze thereof… [ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ ] (Quran 24:31)…

Both verses start with Allah’s command, addressed to both men and women, to lower the gaze. We also notice that the verse does not specify the object that the gazes of the eyes should avoid. It is obvious that the Quran leaves it to us to decide what this should be—in accordance with existing social norms and moral etiquette.
The Arabic term used for ‘to cast down’ is يَغُضُّوا which, in its root [ غ ض ض ] meaning, connotes an act of politeness, that is, the opposite of being rude or impolite. The same verb is used in the same meaning in the following in verse 49:3
“Lo! they who lower their voices [ يَغُضُّونَ أَصْوَاتَهُمْ ] in the presence of the messenger of Allah, those are they whose hearts Allah hath proven unto righteousness. …”

So, what is the social meaning of being soft and tender in verse 24:30-31?It could mean that the verse addresses a social situation of embarrassment and how we can avoid such embarrassment with softness and tenderness. Just imagine the embarrassment when a man changes his clothes while several people, whom he does not know very well, surround him. Still, people cannot help but look at him. This naturally causes a lot of anguish for him. He feels utterly embarrassed and does not want to be seen by anyone, not even by his friends.

The same distress can be observed in a woman who does not want to be looked at while changing her clothes, not even by her best friends. This is the social context, I believe, that this is what Allah addresses in these two verses. He orders men and women to avoid staring at one another at those times when our looking could cause anguish and embarrassment. Today, it is seen as ‘good manners’ when people gently ‘cast down’ their eyes, pretending not to see the man or woman who does not wish to be seen. In all cultures this is regarded as good manners and praised as refined and civilized. In this context the phrase, ‘to lower your gaze,’ does not mean that men should not look at women or vice versa while in offices, shops, and restaurants.


1. Intentional glance or stareat anyone provoking embarrassment is not a good manner, and so “lower your gaze.”
2. There is nothing in this verse that prohibits face to face interaction between men and women in normal social and business situations.

Second Line

Verses 24:30… and guard their private parts [ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ]…
Verse 31… and guard their private parts [ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ ]

Men in verse 30 and women in verse 31 are asked to guard their furåj ( فَرْج ), which is often inadequately understood and translated as ‘modesty’. The term’s, (furåj ( فَرْج ), sexual connotation has been clearly overlooked. Allah has ordered men and women to protect their private parts ( furåj), to avoid two situations: first that their nakedness leads to adultery or any other form of illegitimate sexual contact as stated in the verse 23:5-6.
And those who guard their private parts (لِفُرُوجِهِمْ حَافِظُونَ ) except from their wives and what their right hands possess. [For these] they are not blameworthy… ( Al-Mu”minån 23:5–6)

All exegetes translate فُرُوجَهُنَّ into private part. So, the commentators left it to the imagination of the reader to interpret what is meant by “private part.”What is the literal meaning of “ فَرْجٌ”? All Arabic wordshave a three-letter root verb. The word, فُرُوجَهُنَّ, derived from the verb, (ف ر ج) which means“make opening with space between; make space two things.” (Ref: Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon),So, فُرُوجَهُنَّ means body parts with intervening space or located ‘between two sides’.

There are several parts in women that are located ‘between two sides’, for example, the area between, and under her breasts, under her armpits; the area of her genitalia, thighs, and her buttocks. These areas are her فَرْجٌ literally. It is these areas of the women’s body that believing women are required to cover. The rest of the body are included in “except what [visibly of her beauty] appears thereof (إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا)…”


Based on the literal meaning of the word furåj ( فَرْج ), the area between, and under her breasts, under her armpits; the area of her genitalia, thighs, and her buttocks are protected from exposure, and so must be covered.

Third Line

“…that they should not display their [hidden] beauty ( يُبْدِينَ) except what [visibly of her beauty] appears thereof (إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا)…”

This line, like the rest of the verse, is different from 24:30 (the instructions to men) because lines 3–11 were revealed so that women could receive additional instructions about their dress code.

A woman’s beauty/ornament, charms, or finery, can be divided into two parts: an outer (visible) part and an inner (invisible) part. Beauty is of two kinds:

1) beauty of things or material beauty; something that is added to the basic substance of a thing, for example, special decoration to rooms, hair-clips to hair, make-up to the face, and such; these external additions make something more attractive and enhances its basic beauty. The “beautiful apparel [ زِينَتَكُمْ ]” is beautiful only because it makes the person wearing is beautiful.Such a material beauty is described in:
“O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel [ زِينَتَكُمْ ] at every time and place of prayer… (7:31)

2) beauty of places, or spatial beauty; this beauty can be seen in the public parks, zoological gardens, or herbaceous borders that one finds in big cities. In other words, it is not limited to the beauty emanating from one flower or few shrubs; but it is the consolidated beauty (type 2) reflected from the nature around you.

It is important to understand the meaning of the word, زِينَةَ, from its use in the Qur’an to explain “both hidden and open beauty.” The following verses guideus to the meaning of “adornment.”

Chapter 16 (sūrat l-naḥl): verse 8

وَالْخَيْلَ وَالْبِغَالَ وَالْحَمِيرَ لِتَرْكَبُوهَا وَزِينَةً ۚ وَيَخْلُقُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

“And [He created] the horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and [as] adornment ( زِينَةَ).And He creates that which you do not know.”

Chapter 18 Surat l-Kahf verse 46

الْمَالُ وَالْبَنُونَ زِينَةُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا ۖ وَالْبَاقِيَاتُ الصَّالِحَاتُ خَيْرٌ عِنْدَ رَبِّكَ ثَوَابًا وَخَيْرٌ أَمَلًا {46}

“Wealth and children are [but] adornment ( زِينَةَ) of the worldly life. But the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward and better for [one’s] hope.”

Chapter 37 (sūrat l-ṣāfāt): verse 6

إِنَّا زَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِزِينَةٍ الْكَوَاكِبِ

“Indeed, We have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment ( زِينَةَ) of stars”

Horses, mules, and donkeys in verse 16:8, children in verse 18:46, stars in verse 37:6 are described as adornments (زِينَةَ). In another word, all that exist in nature are God’s decorations (زِينَةَ). That means every human body parts are also adornment (زِينَةَ). So, adornments ( زِينَةَ) mean the micro and macro parts of the universe that God created, not anything that human created.

Hijab5The line, “…what [visibly of her beauty] appears thereof (إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا)…,” gives unabridged freedom for women to choose any appropriate and convenient clothes, provided it does not expose furåj ( فَرْج ) . For example, a woman attending the mosques for prayers, or attending a funeral prefer to wear culturally conservative clothes. A woman playing sports or on combat duty in war zone would wish to wear clothes that do not hinder movement.


1. adornments ( زِينَةَ) in Qur’anic context mean the micro and macro parts of the universe that God created, not anything that human created.
2. Human body as a whole or its parts are adornments ( زِينَةَ).
3. The Qur’andivide into exposed and hidden beautiful parts.
4. زِينَةَ in the verse 34:31 ‘[…they should not display their [hidden] beauty
( يُبْدِينَ)… )” refers to furåj ( فرْج ), i.e. the area between, and under her breasts, under her
armpits; the area of her genitalia, thighs, and her buttocks.
5. All other ”adornments ( زِينَةَ) “ of woman’s body can be exposed if she desires so.
6. Women’s make-up and jewelry are not included in the definition of “adornments ( زِينَةَ).”
7. Women is free to choose any appropriate and convenient clothes, provided it does not exposefuråj ( فرْج ).

Fourth Line

“…that they should draw their veils over their blossom [ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ] and not display their adornments [ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ ]…”

Geography and climate generally determine the traditional dress of the people in the ancient. So, Arabian men and women wore a loose head cover ( khimar )extending over the neck, and they continue the tradition even today. During Sand storms, common in Arabian cities and deserts, the men and women draw the loose head cover ( khimar ) over their face for safe breathing and to protect eyes from sand particles. So, khimaris not a new dress code originated with Prophet Muhammad (s).

Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Qur’an, one of most respected tafsirs, gives a different explanation. He states: “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 familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet) 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.”

It is important to note here that Arabic word for breast, صُدُورِ, is not used in this verse. Allah asks the women to cover the juyåb ( جُيُوبِهِنَّ ) in this verse. The Arabic term juyåb ( جُيُوبِهِنَّ ) is derived from j-y-b jīm yā bā (ج ي ب) refers to an opening, a ‘cleft, crack or split’ that opens up between two sides. For example, a shirt sleeve or round opening in the upper part of a shirt. A low cut area of a blouse of women is also juyåb ( جُيُوبِهِنَّ ) as Muhammad Asad describe above. So, the implication here is to draw khimarover the area of blouse (juyåb جُيُوبِهِنَّ ) that exposes the breast.


1. Long before Prophet (s), Head cover ( khimar) wasone piece of entire Arabian
dressand nothing to do with Islam or Prophet (s).
2 Climate and geography demanded khimar as protective cover for eyes and to breathe
when exposed to sand storm of Arabia.
3 So, Hijab (( khimar ) is for Sand storm.
4. The verse asks women to cover their exposed breast from their low-cut blouse with their traditional head cover.
5. There is no commandment to cover the head in the verse. Khimar( خُمُرِ ) does not necessarily relate to a decree and a duty to use of a khimar by women as such. A properly cut blouse can be used to cover the breast in non-Arabian culture where women traditionally do not wear khimar.
6. Quranic verses identify human body or any part of the body or any part of nature as “adornments.” In the context of the verse 24:31 “the adornments”is meant to be her breasts.

Fifth Line

It is important to know the accepted practices of dress code among Arabs at the birth of Islam.The people’s feelings of embarrassment and shame over nakedness depend on cultural norm of anera or community. In my childhood lower class Hindu women in my home town and all over Kerala did not wear blouse and chest was uncovered. Similarly, in Arabia women did roamed around minding their business exposing breasts. It was not anything bizarre, obscene or immoral. Some women covered the chest in public,but it was normal for them walk around bare-chested at home. Ahmad ibn al-Husayn ibn `Ali ibn `Abd Allah ibn Musa, Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi (AH 384-458), was “the jurisprudent imam, hadith master, authority in the foundations of doctrine (usuli), scrupulous and devoted ascetic, defender of the School both in its foundations and its branches, one of the mountains of Islamic knowledge.” Imam al-Beyhaqi record in ‘Al-Sunnan al-Kubra’ Volume 2 page 227:


Anas bin Malik said: ‘The slave-girls of Umar were serving us with uncovered hair and their breasts shaking”

The “Musannaf” of ‘AbdurRazaq ibn Humam As-San’ani (d 211) is among oldest and greatest books of Sunnah. He reports:

Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, prohibited slave women from wearing the jilbab:

عبدالرزاقعنمعمرعنأيوبعننافعأنعمررأىجاريةخرجتمنبيتحفصةمتزينةعليهاجلبابأومنبيتبعضأزواجالنبيصلىاللهعليه و سلمفدخلعمرالبيتفقالمنهذهالجاريةفقالواأمةلنا – أوقالواأمةلآلفلان – فتغيظعليهموقالأتخرجونإماءكمبزينتهاتفتنونالناس

Umar once saw a young girl leaving the house of Hafsa (his daughter), adorned with a jilbab — or, from one of the houses of the Prophet’s wives. Umar entered the house and said, “Who is this girl?” They said, “A slave of ours” — or, a slave of someone’s family. He became enraged at them and said, “Your slave girls left with their jilbab, and created discord (fitna) amongst the people.”

Hijab6Syrian scholar, Muhammad Shahrur in his book, The Qur’an, Morality, Critical Reason reports in page 311:“Bedouin women dressed themselves in public by basically covering their breasts with a long shawl; while inside their private homes they wore clothes that did not cover that area of their body.”

Even in 1864 slave women did not cover the chest in Arab world.

Based on these facts ,the fifth line of the verse has to be analyzed in its context.

“…not display their adornments [ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ ]…except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment…,”

So, taking account of accepted dressing practices of Arab women, over 500 Hanafi scholars council interpreted the verse 24:31 and issued the following fatwa and fiqh rule:

Awra in front of (Muslim) Mahrams (unmarriageable kin)

“The Awra of a woman in front of her Mahram men (those with whom marriage is permanently unlawful), such as the father, brother, son, paternal uncle (father’s brother), maternal uncle (mother’s brother), father in-law, grandson, husband’s son (from another marriage), son in-law, etc consists of the area between the navel and knees, and also the stomach and back.

Thus, it will be permissible for a woman to expose the following parts of her body in front of Mahram males: head, hair, face, neck, chest, shoulders, hands, forearms, and legs from below the knees. It will not be permissible to expose the stomach, back or any area which is between the navel and knees. (See Reference: al-Fatawa al-Hindiyya, 5/328 & al-Hidaya, 4/461).

This ruling is based on the verse of the Qur’an in Surah al- Nur:
“They (believing women) must not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers, their brother’s sons, their sister’s sons or their women…” (24-31).


1. The context of the phrase, “Not to display Adornments” in the verse means covering the breasts. Nothing to do with veiling women’s head, neck, face or jewelry.
2. In the 7th century Arabian culture,women in their home did not feel embarrassed to walk around bare-chested andit was a normal way of life. There was nothing immoral about it.
3. The verse 24:31 decreed that the women must cover the chest except in front of Mahrams (unmarriageable kin).
3. Head cover (Hijab) is not an Islamic obligation for women.
4. In our time and culture and even in current Arab culture exposing women’s naked chest is not acceptable and therefore must be covered.

VERSE 33:59

“O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments ( جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ); this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”

Unlike in the modern times there was no in-house toilets or covered toilet area in Arabia, women aa well as men used open field as latrine. So, after the matter was brought to the attention of Prophet (s), the veil verse (33:59) was revealed to preserve the intimate privacy of women during their time to answer nature’s call. So, verse 33;59 is not a decree to wear veil all the time but use it as a cover for privacy during answering the call of the nature.

The meaning of the verse 33:59 as above is grounded on the following Hadiths in Bukhari reported by Aisha (ra).


Narrated ‘Aisha: (the wife of the Prophet) ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab used to say to Allah’s Apostle “Let your wives be veiled” But he did not do so. The wives of the Prophet used to go out to answer the call of nature at night only at Al-Manasi.’ Once Sauda, the daughter of Zam’a went out and she was a tall woman. ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her while he was in a gathering, and said, “I have recognized you, O Sauda!” He (‘Umar) said so as he was anxious for some Divine orders regarding the veil (the veiling of women.) So, Allah revealed the Verse of veiling. (Al-Hijab; a complete body cover excluding the eyes). (See Hadith No. 148, Vol. 1)
Sahih Bukhari 8:74:257


We have in-house toilets and bathrooms now. There is no reason or logicfor women to hide behind veils to protect their privacy in this instance. So, Veil (jilbab) is for toilet time.
Reference:Muhammad Shahrur, “The Qur’an, Morality and Critical Reason”

[T.O. Shanavas is a native of Kerala, is now based in the USA. He is the author of “Islamic Theory of evolution of Evolution the Missing Link between Darwin and The Origin of Species.” Co-author of the book, And God Said, “Let There Be Evolution!” Reconciling The Book Of Genesis, The Qur’an, And The Theory Of Evolution. Edited by Prof. Charles M. Wynn and Prof. Arthur W. Wiggins. He can be reached at shanavas@comcast.net]

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