The Hijab Controversy

Abdul H. Manraj

About nine years ago, I wrote an article dealing with the head-covering / hijab, which generated much feedback – both verbally and written – at that time and in the intervening years. Some of the comments on the article were positive but there was also a lot of virulent criticism. As one would expect from much of the intellectually stagnant Muslim world, when revisiting or questioning rulings and traditions that have been handed down to us with accretions over the centuries, the approach is not to analyze the logic and evidence presented, but to attack the author / messenger. Moreover, my qualifications were questioned, the insinuation being that only “scholars” are eligible to indulge in such analyses, and the rest of the Muslim world is obliged to follow their edicts / fatawa like a blindly adherent flock. Admittedly I’m a layman and not an Islamic scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I submit that common sense and intellect are not exclusive to scholars alone. In fact, I have experienced numerous situations where so called “Muslim scholars” display neither trait, which of course has a profound effect on the Muslim laity.

My position (and the overlooked premise of the almost decade old article) has been – and still is – that the hijab is cultural. It has since evolved into an icon of Muslim identity and the prevalent belief nowadays is that it is a religious requirement. While I do not share the view that the hijab is mandatory, I do feel that women who choose to wear the head-covering should be allowed to do so. In its Qur'anic use, hijab actually refers to a wall or curtain and applied specifically to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, but over the centuries, the interpretation became synonymous with head-covering. Muslim organizations and the majority of Muslim men and women portray the hijab as a religiously mandated item of clothing, which is also the position of orthodox Jews and Catholic nuns. The term “religiously mandated” is somewhat of an oxymoron, as the Qur’an clearly states that “there shall be no coercion in religion” (Q2:256), so on the one hand, Muslims are fond of quoting this verse to prove that Islam advocates freedom of choice, and in the same breath these Muslims dichotomously claim that the hijab is mandated. In some cases, those who choose to wear the hijab make some of their Muslim sisters feel religiously inferior for not abiding by the same dress code, so in essence outward appearance determines one’s level of piety.

While certain things would certainly seem ordered, every single order has circumstances that might temper it, and anything that is controversial should ipso facto not be seen as "religiously mandated," more so since the hijab certainly does not fit the category of ordered / mandated. When quoting the Qur'an to make a case for the hijab, Muslims usually cite 24:31 and 33:59, which tells the believing women "to draw their head-coverings over their bosoms and not reveal their charms..." (first instance), and then "to draw over themselves some of their outer garments when in public so that they are recognized as decent women and not annoyed..." (second instance). It is paradoxical to presume that prior to these revelations, women were covering their hair to protect themselves from prying eyes because the hair was an "enticing charm", but leaving their bosoms partially exposed as an act of modesty. This style of dress was obviously in vogue at the time or the instruction to cover the bosom would be pointless. It is preposterous to argue that a woman's exposed head of hair is a more flirtatious act than a partially exposed bosom (unless the medieval Arabs were more turned on by a head of hair instead of cleavage), therefore the Qur'anic instructions are clearly about modesty and not covering the hair per se.

Recently, there was an example of how ludicrous arguments are sometimes presented in the name of religion. A Muslim woman sued the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for not being allowed to wear the hijab while in prison (for more information, see Muslim sues over right to wear head scarf” by H.G. Reza, September 5, 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times). Besides the fact that this Muslim woman was in prison for welfare fraud, the issue is that in jail, anything that presents a security threat must be mitigated and that also includes items like the Sikh turban or dagger. And what is this female Muslim prisoner afraid of, same-sex attraction? Governments do not have to cater to sectarian interpretations, but rather to general and national security. Since this Muslim woman chose to live in a secular country, then she automatically took an oath to live according to secular law. The US Constitution does not allow for two laws. Freedom of religion is not unlimited, for example, one cannot make animal sacrifices in open / public areas, or arbitrarily decide that one's personal interpretation of a religious text must be made normative for all.

The approach that Muslims take to the Qur’an and ahadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s reported sayings and actions) will determine their position on various decrees and cultural norms. Some believe that the Qur’an and ahadith are immutable regardless of the time space factor. Others (myself included) believe that all statutes and traditions have to be understood in context, and regulations have to be revised as conditions change. For example, I don’t believe that any rational person would posit that slavery should still be institutionalized today, since the Qur’an acknowledges the practice but did not specifically abolish it. Furthermore, the majority of Muslims unquestioningly accept thousands of ahadith as infallible, even though many of these narrations are at odds with the Qur’an’s universal message. Also conveniently ignored is the fact that these stories were passed down through several generations over hundreds of years. At the time that these ahadith were collected, hundreds of thousands were reportedly discarded, yet we are supposed to believe that those generations of Muslims were somehow flawless, and that the ahadith that remain with us today are impeccable. Documenting capabilities were not anywhere close to the level we have today, yet at a time when writing was done on leather skins, parchments, etc., and travel took weeks, months, or years on foot, horseback, and camel, we are supposed to believe that the hadith collectors either had a "tractor trailer" of documents that they travelled with, or superhuman memory. Bukhari supposedly collected roughly 600,000 traditions before finally settling on about 7,000. If all of these ahadith were memorized instead of written, then this uncanny ability to store such massive amounts of data in memory and recall thousands of ahadith without error has not been seen before or since that period. When people lose the ability to think, question, and continuously progress, then the result is the kind of decadence that is currently manifest in much of the Muslim world.

The fact is that women played a prominent role in Muslim society during the Prophet’s time and in a couple of centuries following his demise. Women were jurists and even educated men, but all this changed (due to a large extent) wit the proliferation of the ahadith, which relegated women to second class citizens and an almost slave-like status. The majority of the ahadith are perceived as reliable (especially Bukhari and Muslim), so we are supposed to accept without question reports like the ones below that are attributed to the Prophet, which claim that the majority of women are mentally deficient, ungrateful, and destined for hell.

Narrated Abu Sa’id Al−Khudri: Once Allah's Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of 'Id−al−Adha or Al−Fitr. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of hellfire were you (women)." They asked, "Why is it so, O Allah's Apostle?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?" He said, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in her religion." (Bukhari 1.301)


“...I also saw the hellfire and I had never seen such a horrible sight. I saw that most of the inhabitants were women." The people asked, "O Allah's Apostle! Why is it so?" The Prophet replied, "Because of their ungratefulness." It was asked whether they are ungrateful to Allah. The Prophet said, "They are ungrateful to their companions of life (husbands) and ungrateful to good deeds. If you are benevolent to one of them throughout the life and if she sees anything (undesirable) in you, she will say, 'I have never had any good from you.” (Bukhari 2.161)

Sayings like the above (there are many others in the various hadith collections) are used to remind Muslims that women have a propensity towards evil, and they should essentially not be heard or seen in public. With such patriarchal attitudes dominating Islam for centuries, it is no surprise that many Muslim women have come to believe that they are responsible for some of society’s ills, analogous to an abused woman blaming herself for her oppressor’s cruelty. There is historical evidence that this notion of the woman being the temptation towards evil infiltrated Muslim beliefs by way of some of the early Jewish and Christian converts to Islam, as there is nothing in the Qur’an that denigrates women to a fraction of the level that the ahadith do. The practice of veiling initially started among the Syrian and Iranian elite to differentiate them from the commoners, and then became a norm among the Jews and Arabs. Besides the mode of dress, the arrogance was also preserved over the centuries as many Muslim women who wear the hijab carry themselves with an air of superiority and look down on their fellow Muslim sisters who do not cover their heads. There is a lot of well-researched material available on the Internet that reinforces my belief that the hijab is not mandated by the Qur’an or authentic ahadith, but is rather a result of Judeo-Christian influence (for example, see To Cover or Not to Cover: That is the Question - Jewish Hair Laws Through the Ages by Dr. Leila Leah Bronner, Head Covering by Ellen Kavanaugh, and Head covering - Women: will you cover your head?). Also below are a few Biblical references.

For she had said unto the servant, What man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, It is my master: therefore she took a vail, and covered herself. (Genesis 24:65)


And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. (Genesis 38:14-15)


And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse. (Numbers 5:18)


But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. (Corinthians 11:5-7)

The Qur’an contains very little in the way of legislation and is actually quite vague about men’s or women’s attire, instead primarily focusing on ethics and spirituality. On the other hand, the ahadith are replete with minutiae. In fact, many of the ahadith present such conflicting reports that they actually create confusion. There are several ahadith that advocate that women should veil themselves, and there are also reports that Muslim slave-women are exempt from covering their hair, presumably because it was somewhat restrictive for them in getting their work done. Muslims certainly cannot argue convincingly that Muslim slave-women were less pious or not as sexually attractive as free women simply because of their status in society. While the focus is usually on the ahadith that promulgate veiling, the following ahadith about hair extensions and wigs are seldom mentioned.

Narrated ‘Abdullah (bin Mus'ud): Allah's Apostle has cursed the lady who uses false hair. (Bukhari 6.409)


Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "Allah has cursed the lady who artificially lengthens (her or someone else's) hair and the one who gets her hair lengthened and the one who tattoos (herself or someone else) and the one who gets herself tattooed." (Bukhari 7.816)


Narrated ‘Aisha: An Ansari woman gave her daughter in marriage and the hair of the latter started falling out. The Ansari women came to the Prophet and mentioned that to him and said, "Her (my daughter's) husband suggested that I should let her wear false hair." The Prophet said, "No, (don't do that) for Allah sends His curses upon such ladies who lengthen their hair artificially." (Bukhari 7.133)


Narrated Asma: (the daughter of Abu' Bakr) A woman came to Allah's Apostle and said, "I married my daughter to someone, but she became sick and all her hair fell out, and (because of that) her husband does not like her. May I let her use false hair?" On that the Prophet cursed such a lady as artificially lengthening (her or someone else's) hair or got her hair lengthened artificially. (Bukhari 7.818)

We have to assume that whether or not Muslim women wore hair extensions in early Muslim society could not be determined when they were in public, since they would presumably be wearing the head-covering. It would appear then that the Prophet took a keen interest in how women appeared in the privacy of their homes with their husbands and immediate family members. In fact, the Prophet who was sent as a “mercy to mankind” allegedly preferred to see a Muslim woman get divorced rather than wear a wig to save her marriage, as the above ahadith claim. Given women’s proclivity towards sinfulness and rules to restrict them, one would also expect that there would have been some guidelines for handsome or muscular looking men, but there are none, or if there are, they are never cited. The burden is solely on women to prevent societal promiscuity. Some women don the hijab in Muslim gatherings and segregate themselves, even in the presence of close male relatives and friends, but discard the head-covering when in "non-Muslim" environments, e.g., corporate America. Moreover, they have no problems interacting with non-Muslim males, shaking hands, embracing, etc. Either these Muslim women are being hypocritical, or they feel safer with non-Muslims than they do with Muslims. Ironically, even though the Qur'an states that women advanced in years will incur no sin if they discard their outer garments (Q24:60), many women choose to wear the hijab when they are older and no longer garner any attention.

The arguments for the hijab have now been spun to illogically claim that the head-covering actually empowers women. The hijab controversy has reached a level of comic proportions. Now there are advertisements about fashionable hijabs so that women can appear more "beautiful" with their covered heads, defeating its "alleged" purpose of modesty and not attracting attention to oneself. I have seen young Muslim women in shorts with their stomachs exposed and their heads covered. If the focus on the hijab is hiding the woman's hair from lustful eyes and keeping men's predatory urges in check, some women today obviously do not feel the same way about exposed flesh. Or is the idea that "exposed flesh" is not as tempting as exposed hair? This traditional style of dress also has health implications as it results in vitamin D deficiency even in parts of the Muslim world where there is an abundance of sunshine (see Middle Eastern women may have vitamin D deficiency by David Douglas, and Vitamin D “Inadequacy” Endangers Lives of Middle East Women). Regardless of any evidence or rationale presented, Muslim traditionalists would have us believe that God, in His infinite wisdom, made the woman's hair part of her overall beauty (awrah) to be viewed only by her husband and immediate family. We can infer from this then that a woman's face, regardless of its beauty or lack thereof, will not attract any unwanted attention, and only the exposed hair will provide a "turn on".

Besides the factors already mentioned above, people's interpretation of religious obligations is also heavily influenced by their environment, level of education / intellect, cultural upbringing, and personal bias much more so than the actual wording of any doctrine. Whether or not Muslims choose to acknowledge it, there are many creedal beliefs and practices that were passed down to us as a result of Judeo-Christian influence, sectarian and political affiliations, various cultural norms, and outright fabrications, yet Muslims have adopted and refined these beliefs and practices without question throughout the millennia. Besides the hijab, other tenets include (but are not limited to) stoning to death, the second coming of Jesus, punishment in the grave, etc., so I encourage Muslims to do more research on their own. Established beliefs and practices are difficult to discard, so my objective is not to discredit Muslims who choose to wear the hijab as an icon of religion, identification, modesty, liberation, or whatever. Rather, this article is meant for Muslims (both male and female) who believe that God did not create women to be second class citizens who are supposed to be isolated and regarded as sex objects, but to be treated as equal partners in all aspects of life. There is no scriptural basis in Islam for mandating the hijab, and enforcing this kind of sartorial deportment is usually done by people who have an abnormal obsession with the seductive power of women, and need to appease male chauvinism, egotism, and insecurity. Furthermore, faith is a personal relationship between an individual and God. Claiming that something is a religious requirement is actually speaking for God, so one has to be careful that the evidence is incontrovertible when issuing such decrees. Advocating that anything is compulsory in Islam, or any religion for that matter, perpetuates the notion of theocratic authoritarianism, rigidity, and intolerance, which stifles debate and denies people freedom of choice and personal accountability to God. And Allah knows best.

[Webmaster's Note Part 1:] It should be noted that traditionally, the beard is highly recommended for Muslims as part of the Prophetic Sunnah, and even viewed as mandatory in some extremist intepretations (e.g., as practiced by the Taliban). What gets conveniently overlooked is that there are several Biblical verses (a few are cited below) indicating that both the beard, and the head-covering or veiling for females as shown in the Biblical verses already mentioned above, are to be viewed as Judeo / Christian traditions that were adopted by the early Muslims, then projected back to the Prophet to give them legitimacy.

You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard. Leviticus 19:27

When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, “Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return.” 2 Samuel 10:5

It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments. Psalm 133:2

[Webmaster's Note Part 2:] The revelation of the curtain verse was intended for the throngs of people vying for the Prophet Muhammad’s attention, and to provide a modicum of privacy for his wives: “If you are invited into the presence of the Messenger, enter, and when you’ve eaten, disperse. If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more chaste for your hearts and theirs.” (Q33:55)

The curtain in question was just that: a piece of muslin draped over a section of each room in the house, and only applied to the Prophet’s wives. There is no historical indication that he ever intended for it to be taken as an order for any woman to veil. While the Qur’an advocates modesty for both men and women, it does not specify veiling. The “veil” was in fact a thin shawl, and when it was first adopted in Islam decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, it was a matter of status to a large degree. For women in the rapidly rising Islamic aristocracy, it was flamboyantly worn as a mark of distinction, just like it was previously in Syria and Persia. It’s similar to public status indicators today like an expensive manicure or a pair of Prada shoes, a sign that these women had servants and were above any kind of hard work.

The bitter irony here is that the whole system of aristocracy and wealth was exactly what the Prophet had opposed all of his life. The proto-democracy he envisioned would devolve into a succession of ruling dynasties. Just like in Judaism and Christianity before, class distinctions grew in Islam, along with an all-male clerical elite, who became the gatekeepers of the faith and projected their patriarchal conservatism on the Qur’an itself. As they built the vast body of Shari’a Law, they enforced “the veil” on all women, which eventually, in its most extreme form, led to “the burqa.” Certainly the Prophet nor any of his wives had any idea that the curtain verse would lead to such excesses and render women virtually invisible. – The above synopsis is from Lesley Hazleton’s book “The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad.”

Posted September 16, 2007