Is Head Cover For Women Mandatory In Islam?

by Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph.D

Hijab (head cover) for Muslim women is not mandated in the Qur’an. If it is, it is only the subjective interpretation of an ayah (verse) on the part of the reader. Hence, many Islamic scholars say that according to hadith, a woman should cover her whole body, except her face and hands. The majority of Muslims do not know in which hadith this is mentioned. A very limited number of Muslims know that this is in Sunan Abu Dawud. The English translation of Sunan Abu Dawud is in three volumes. Again, nobody ever mentions that it is in Volume Three. Actually, it is in Volume 3, Book XXVII, Chapter 1535, and Hadith number 4092, titled: "How Much Beauty Can A Woman Display?" For the benefit of the readers, the exact hadith is reproduced below:

(4092) 'Aisha said: Asthma', daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) turned his attention from her. He said: O Asthma', when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of the body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands. (Note 3523)

Abu Dawud said: This is a mursal tradition (i.e. the narrator who transmitted it from 'Aisha is missing) Khalid B. Duraik did not see 'Aisha.

[3523. When a woman reaches the age of puberty, she must observe purdah and have a thick veil which conceals her beauty. She may unveil her face and hands up to the wrists. In modern times, some scholars have prohibited unveiling the face out of precaution.]

It is very interesting to note that no one - neither the Muslim scholars nor the Muslim ummah, ever pointed out that this is a mursal (weak) hadith. It is imperative that when one uses a weak hadith for any reason, then one should explain to the people that it is such. What is a mursal hadith? But first of all, what is hadith?

Hadith is an Arabic word which in its real sense means a tale, speech, chat, conversation, or communication. In a technical sense, hadith or tradition means all the sayings, deeds, decisions of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w), his silent approval of the behavior of his companions, and descriptions of his personality. Each hadith is prefaced by a chain of narrators called al-'isnad. Al-'isnad was the chain of people through whom the hadith was transmitted. The second part of the hadith is al-matn, the content, which reports the teaching or the incident. Every hadith or tradition must have a chain ('isnad), as well as the text (matn).

There are three main categories of the hadith called (1) as-sahih or the authentic hadith, (2) al-hasan or the good, as some of its narrators have been found to have a weaker memory in comparison to the narrators of sahih hadith, and (3) ad-da'if or the weak. This refers to traditions in which there is some problem in the chain of transmission, in the proper understanding of the transmitter, or in its contents, which may be in disagreement with Islamic belief and practice.

Ad-da'if traditions are further divided according to the degree of problems with their reporter (ruwaat), or in the text (al-matn) of the reports. A few of these divisions are as follows:

  1. Al-mursal: A hadith in which a tab'i (those who succeeded the sahabah or companions of the Prophet) transmits from Rasulullah (s.a.a.w), directly dropping the sahabi from the 'isnad.
  2. Al-munqati: A hadith going back to the tab'i only.
  3. Al-mu'dal: A hadith in which two continuous narrators are missing in one or more places in the 'isnad.
  4. Al-mu'allaq: A hadith in which one or two transmitters are omitted in the beginning of the 'isnad.

In Shari'ah or Islamic law, only the authentic (sahih) and good (hasan) ahadith (plural of hadith) are used in deriving rules. The weak (da'if) ahadith have no value for the purpose of Shari'ah.

As stated above, Imam Abu Dawud himself said that this is a mursal tradition (i.e. the narrator who transmitted it from 'Aisha is missing). What I interpret is that the narrator of this hadith is Khalid B. Duraik, who did not see 'Aisha (radhi Allahu anha, may Allah be pleased with her). Since this is a weak hadith, it has no value for the purpose of Shari'ah. That means that no Muslim, Islamic Republic, or government can pass laws punishing a Muslim woman who does not observe hijab, particularly covering the hair on her head. This is not being practiced in the so-called Islamic countries, where religious police with their canes are threatening and punishing Muslim women who do not observe hijab.

All along, I have maintained in my arguments that Islam emphasizes modesty in the dress of a Muslim woman, but nowhere does it mandate the wearing of the hijab (head cover). As a matter of fact, modesty in dress is also required on the part of Muslim men.

Readers are invited to subscribe to the Aalim (Scholar), which is published quarterly by the Islamic Research Foundation International (IRFI). Phone: 502-423-1988 or email

Posted November 6, 1998. This article was printed in the April 1998 issue, Volume 19, No. 3 of "The New Trend" publication.