Muslim Women and Tradition

by Abdul Hafeez Manraj


Tradition and culture are an integral part of any society. None of the major world religions, including Islam, are free from cultural influences. In fact, our religion promotes the concept of unity in diversity. Allah (s.w.t) tells us in the noble Qur’an that: "He made us into nations and tribes, so that we may get to know one another, and not despise each other."[Q49:13] As a way of life, Islam is a thinking person’s faith, which crosses territorial and cultural boundaries the world over. It does not require the export of eastern tradition to the West, or vice versa, in order to understand and practice its tenets. Therefore, there is no "one culture fits all" or "my way or the highway" policy in Islam.

There are some Muslims who make a big deal about trivial issues that border on ignorance. For example, we are told that the use of nail polish invalidates one’s ablution (wudu): hence, some women perform wudu before applying nail polish as a "workaround." Also, we are told that perfume which may contain alcohol must not be applied to one’s skin, because it can get into the pores, and this is equivalent to drinking it (i.e. the alcohol); moreover, owning a TV or camera has also been deemed prohibited (haram) by some;… and so on. In fact, there are those who do not tolerate anything that was not practiced or known to the inhabitants of seventh-century Arabia. These are strange ideas to associate with the most universal and rational religion in the world. Obviously, these alien notions fossilize Islam and constitute a serious misreading of the true Islamic message.

There are other Muslims who are in the habit of singling out verses of the Qur’an and (mis)interpreting them as law, or applying the Prophetic tradition (hadith, plural ahadith) using the same rationale, when in fact they are not meant as such. To counter such mistaken ideas, Fazlur Rahman, a pre-eminent Islamic scholar, proposes that if a ruling is given based on certain factors, and the conditions no longer exist, then the ruling no longer applies. Then there are those Muslims who restrict everything "wholesale", while Islam teaches us that everything is lawful unless forbidden. For between the obligatory and the prohibited, Muslim jurists identify three other categories of actions: the recommended, the permissible, and the disapproved. Hence, there is a context to everything, described by modern scholars as "the time-space factor."

The Hijab

Another major misunderstanding common among scholars and laymen alike, is a woman’s place and conduct in Islam. Under this subject, one particular item that requires re-examination and re-interpretation is the question of the Muslim woman’s dress code. Probably no other single issue relating to women generates as much controversy as the female head covering (hijab). Even though many Muslims believe it is mandatory, this article will address the subject of hijab from a different perspective, one that is seldom advanced. This topic is presented using a common sense approach, based on my interpretation of the Islamic message. It does not seek to discredit or discourage women who choose to wear the hijab from doing so. In fact, it encourages the wearing of the hijab for those who wish to do so voluntarily.

Millions of Muslim women live in societies where the hijab is not traditionally worn. Even though these women may dress modestly, some Muslims may confront them because their heads are not covered, thereby implying that these women are dressed improperly. Another misconception is that the hijab symbolizes a certain level of piety. However, as you will see, the hijab is a traditional piece of clothing that presently serves as an icon of identification, comparable to a skull-cap or beard. It is not an indispensable part of a woman’s attire as many Muslims dictate.

Both men and women are commanded by Allah to dress modestly. This is the fundamental criterion espoused by Islam. The two primary verses in the Qur’an addressing the issue of women’s modesty are shown below, based on Muhammad Asad’s "The Message of the Qur’an."

And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms... [Q24:31]

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, as well as all [other] believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed. But [withal,] Allah is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. [Q33:59]

Regarding Q24:31, Muhammad Asad explains that Arabian women covered their heads prior to the advent of Islam in the seventh century C.E. The head covering (khimar) was worn as an ornament, hanging down loosely over the wearer’s back. In accordance with the fashion of that era, the upper part of a woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, which left her bosom partially exposed. Hence, the command is for the covering of the bosom as an act of modesty, and not for the wearing of the khimar or covering of the head. According to some other commentators, women wore the khimar to keep sand and dust out of their hair. Incidentally, men also wore turbans and traditional long gowns to cover themselves.

In reference to Q33:59, women were asked to draw their outer garments over themselves so that they would be identified as "believing women" and not be molested by the hypocrites, or be mistaken for unchaste women. Murad Hofmann proposes that today, it is no longer necessary to impose the hijab on women as a means of protection. Ironically, in many Western societies, a woman wearing the hijab is sometimes singled out for ridicule, contempt, and even pity as an oppressed person, thus achieving the opposite of its intended purpose.

The glorious Qur’an provides evidence of tolerance for certain societal norms. Reference is made in the divine text to Dhul Qarnayn, who came across an aboriginal tribe during one of his expeditions. In his commentary on Q18:90-91 (see below for verses), Muhammad Asad noted that while living in their primitive and natural state, these people needed no clothes to protect them from the sun. Dhul Qarnayn (a powerful and just ruler who resolutely believed in Allah) did not fuss over their primitiveness, but left them as he had found them, being mindful not to upset their mode of life and cause them misery.

[And then he marched eastwards] till, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found that it was rising on a people for whom We had provided no coverings against it: thus [We had made them, and thus he left them]; and We did encompass with Our knowledge all that he had in mind. [Q18:90-91]

Thus, while observing the Qur’anic code of modesty, any Muslim woman should have the right to decide what is appropriate for her, based on the environment in which she was raised, and the society in which she now lives. Islam promulgates the concept of choice, moderation, and the prohibition of coercion. Nobody should judge a woman according to whether she wears the hijab or not.

Even worse is imposing the hijab by force, as is the case in some Muslim societies. Two women were murdered in Algeria a few years ago, apparently because their heads were not covered. More recently, we have seen women become virtual prisoners at the hands of the infamous Taliban, following the aberrant example of some other "Muslim countries." Denying women access to education and jobs has made them totally dependent and subservient to men. Islam teaches us that a hypocrite is worse than a liar. By compelling men to grow beards, or women to cover their heads and faces, are we encouraging and enforcing hypocrisy?

Male chauvinism thrived prior to the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w), and continues to do so in our own era. It is not uncommon in the summer to see a Muslim woman covered from head to toe, while her husband is next to her in shorts and a T shirt. This double standard is always defended or excused with great ease. If you tell this Muslim brother that according to the Prophetic tradition, he should follow the same rules and wear a long flowing gown, turban, and a beard – long enough to grasp in his fist, he will find some pretext for his borrowed dress code. However, if one changes the subject to "women", the argument is quickly dismissed. This is clearly a sexist attitude.

The Muslim world has managed to suppress half of its population - women - by finding ways to oppress and prevent them from developing their full human potential. An American Muslim woman once delivered a speech wearing a head-scarf. A Muslim man later mentioned nothing of the content of her message, but quickly reprimanded her for leaving her ears and neck exposed. This type of mentality must be challenged and exposed. Some of these men who are perturbed at the sight of a Muslim woman’s hair or neck, have no problem freely mixing with non-Muslim women, greeting them with hugs, or by shaking their hands. However, this duplicity is always overlooked.

Many Muslim apologists argue that Islam liberated women more than fourteen hundred years ago. However, this theoretical emancipation is not manifest in the Islamic world. When it comes to Muslim women, sometimes no amount of modesty is ever enough. Women are almost always segregated from their families at Islamic functions, and some mosques have solid partitions so that they can be visually and audibly isolated. Some men also discourage women from going to the mosque or leaving their homes. This "quarantine mentality" stems from traditional baggage that has no place in Islam anywhere. During the Prophet’s time, women actively participated in Muslim society. However, since that period, the Biblical tradition of "the woman being inherently evil" has managed to infiltrate Islam. This ideology is perpetuated by some questionable ahadith, which proclaim that the majority of the occupants of hell will be women. This is contrary to the teachings enshrined in the Qur’an, which invites everyone to do good deeds, and promises both men and women their just rewards.

The following hadith is often quoted to justify the hijab: Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) turned his attention from her. He said: O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands. (Abu Dawood) It is generally agreed that this is a weak hadith.

Qur'an vs. Hadith

Another common misrepresentation is establishing parity or equivalence between the noble Qur’an and any hadith, regardless of the latter’s authenticity of the text (matn) or the veracity of its transmitters (isnad). Simply put, there is no equality between Allah’s revelation and the Prophetic tradition. For, when the Qur’an and the Hadith address an issue, the Qur’an always takes precedence, i.e. the Hadith must yield to the Divine Source. The Qur’an does tell us that the Prophet exemplified the Qur’an with his personal conduct (sunnah). However, Hadith scholars have graded and divided ahadith into three primary classifications: authentic (sahih), good (hasan), and weak (da`if). Therefore, not all ahadith that have come down to us are "wholly acceptable." Finally, it must be remembered that while all ahadith are sorted and graded as to authenticity and veracity, the Qur’anic revelation has remained unedited and unchanged, by man or jinn, and will remain so for all time.

The following scenario will illustrate how the ahadith were compiled. Imagine that you tried to record everything about your life - your work, habits, feelings, social interactions, etc. You will agree that much will be lost during the attempted chronicle. Now imagine that dozens of people around you were writing your life story for you. Even more will be lost, because they will write what they interpreted you said or did. What about if the documentation took place 150 to 200 years after your death, after being transmitted through hundreds of people? How can this literature be on the same level with the noble Qur’an?

I am not advocating that the ahadith be discounted. First, I recommend that serious scrutiny and re-appraisal be applied to their study, to determine which ahadith can be attributed to the Prophet. We must accept those authentic ahadith that do not contravene the Qur’an. Second and more importantly, the circumstances under which the Prophet promulgated these pronouncements must be taken into account. Many Muslims are in the habit of focusing exclusively on what the Prophet reportedly said, and inconsiderately applying it across the board, while totally disregarding the time-space factor. These Muslims overlook the fact that Islam has meant many things to different societies throughout history.


In conclusion, non-Muslims and even some Muslims perceive Islam as a chauvinist, oppressive, and barbaric religion. Of course, the opposite is the case, but true Islam is not universally practiced today. The Muslim world has been in a state of stagnation and intellectual sterility for centuries. I agree with Jeffrey Lang who advises that every generation of Muslims is obliged to re-investigate the foundation of its faith, "since knowledge grows with time." He holds that it would be a grave error to rely blindly on past judgments, and to "dogmatize opinion", unless one is willing to accept "atrophy and decay."

The best guidance is the guidance of Allah, as codified in the glorious Qur’an, and as exemplified in the actions, speech, and conduct of the noble Messenger, documented in the authentic compilations of ahadith. Allah knows best; may He increase us in knowledge and grant us the wisdom and intellect to understand and promote the true message of the Sacred Book. Ameen.


Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur'an (Redwood Press Limited: 1984)

Hofmann, Murad. Islam 2000 (Amana Publications: 1997)

Hofmann, Murad. Islam The Alternative (Amana Publications: 1997)

Lang, Jeffrey. Even Angels Ask (Amana Publications: 1997)

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam (Anchor Books: 1968)

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur'an (Bibliotheca Islamica: 1994)

Posted August 3, 1998. This article was printed in the April-May 1998 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter (published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).