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Chastity and Hijab in the Teachings of Prophets Muhammad and Jesus 

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat



In our age many people consider chastity as a value of little or no importance. In North America this became vividly clear when a majority of Americans were not overly bothered by the fact that President Clinton engaged in all kinds of sexual relations outside of his marriage. This erosion of the value of chastity seems to be connected at least in part to a very negative attitude in the West to the Muslim practice of hijab, which as understood in Islam, is a means and a symbol of modesty and chastity. This is ironically also true of those in the West who describe themselves as Christians, even though in the past centuries Christians prided at their sexual ethics and criticized Muslims for "promiscuity" because under certain conditions divorce as well as polygamous marriages are allowed in Islam. The new modern attitude on the part of Christians is no doubt due to their bowing to modern trends. However, for those Muslims and Christians who want to be true to their religions the most important thing should not be what the current trend is but what the Prophets Muhammad and Jesus had to say. In this article I examine the teachings of these two religious figures on the subject of chastity and hijab and in the process attempt to correct some Western and Christian misconceptions about hijab.

More specifically, the contents of the paper may be outlined as follows:



  • The Qur`an

    • Clothing of material and clothing of righteousness (7:22, 26)

    • Purity of eyes

    • Khimar (24:30-31, 60)

    • Lowering gaze or reducing gaze?

    • Hijab and jilbab (33:32-33, 53, 59)

    • Head to be covered?

    • Arguments for and against.

    • Face to be covered?

    • Arguments for and against.

    • Confined to the houses?

    • Clearly not.

    • Participating in the community life?

    • As much as desired

  • Hadith

    • The story of ifk

    • Versions in Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari, and Muslim

    • Version in Ibn Sa`d

    • The earliest recorded version does not assume covering of face

    • The occasion of the revelation of the hijab verses

    • First version

    • Second contradictory version

    • Hijab from the blind Ibn Umm Maktum

    • First version

    • Second contradictory version

    • Turning the head of al-Fadl bin ‘Abbas

    • Ahadith about haya

    • Other ahadith


  • The Jewish background

  • The Old Testament

  • The Rabbinic or oral tradition

  • The sayings attributed to the Prophet Jesus with a discussion of their authenticity

  • Purity of the eyes

  • Prohibition of divorce as a way to stress chastity

  • Celibacy

  • Later developments

  • Divorce

  • Celibacy

  • Head-covering


  • The perception that hijab is a symbol of women’s subjugation to men

  • The perception that hijab is a suppression of female sexuality

  • The perception that through hijab more burden is put on women than on men

  • The argument that hijab is not needed in the West where people are used to partial nudity




The primary source of the divinely inspired teachings of the Prophet Muhammad is the Qur`an whose authenticity in its present extant form, apart from some minor uncertainties about vowels and dots, is above any doubt despite some Muslim traditions insinuating to the contrary (see John Burton, Collection of the Qur`an, 1977) and despite the misuse of such traditions by some non-Muslim scholars to raise doubts. A second source is the Hadith literature, which records many sayings and actions of the Prophet but this literature needs to be examined critically for the authenticity of its reports, since it is not above all suspicion. However, even unauthentic reports are valuable in that they tell us how the teachings of the Prophet were understood by the Muslims in the earlier centuries and in this way they can shed some light on his teaching also. In what follows I discuss what the Qur`an and Hadith have to say about chastity and hijab.


The Qur`an

In the earlier period of the Qur`anic revelation there is a frequent exhortation to guarding one's chastity and restricting sex to within well-recognized publicly known sexual partnerships. As the Muslim community enlarged, the Qur`an prescribed more specific regulations on various matters, giving more concrete form to its general moral and ethical teachings. The principle of chastity was also expressed in a concrete form through some regulations, in particular some regulations about dress.



Some connection between clothing and sexuality is established in the Qur'an at the very beginning of humanity. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God at the temptation of Satan and ate the forbidden fruit, they became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves:

Thus (Satan) led (Adam and Eve) on with guile. So when they tasted of the (forbidden) tree they became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with pieced-together leaves from the garden ... (7:22).

A few verses later the Qur`an describes human clothing as a sign of God and two purposes of clothing are mentioned: covering the nakedness and providing a "plumage," a reference to the protection from weather as well as beautification that plumage provides the birds with.

O children of Adam! We have bestowed unto you the garments to cover your nakedness and as plumage; but the garment of righteousness is best. This is among the signs of God, that they may pay heed (7:26).

Here the Qur'an recognizes that righteousness is what is really important. This statement provides the spirit in which regulations about clothing and hijab should be understood. This emphasis on the spirit however should not reduce the importance of the more concrete regulations. For an idea or attitude which is not expressed in terms of concrete actions usually dies or at least becomes too weak to exert any real influence. Likewise, an action which has lost its purpose and spirit becomes ineffective. Consequently, the Qur'an always brings idea and action, inner spirit and outer form together. Therefore, while teaching that the "garment of righteousness is best" the Qur'an also gives concrete guidance in order to help the attainment and maintenance of righteousness. 



Probably the earliest such regulation is found in 24:30-31 which begins as follows:

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and (thus) guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Lo! God is aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and (thus) guard their chastity, ....

"Lowering gaze" does not mean looking downward. The Arabic term is ghadda which means to reduce something but not necessarily to the zero level. In 49:3 and 31:19 it is used of lowering one's voice without, of course, being silent. Just like voice, "looking" also has different degrees of intensity. One can look without really noticing anything or look and register every detail. "Lowering gaze" means to bring down the intensity of looking or to use some restraint while looking. In the context of the present passage, it means not to look with an observant lustful look. This may at times mean turning one's eyes away.

The passage quoted above in part continues:

and not to display of their adornment (zinah) except what (normally) becomes apparent thereof and to draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. [And also tell them] not to reveal any of their adornments save to their husbands or their fathers or their husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children as yet unaware of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to draw attention to what they hide of their charms. And turn unto God, O believers (both men and women), in order that you may prosper (24:30-31).

  ... The women who have arrived at the stage when they do not expect to get married commit nothing wrong by lightening (literally, laying aside) their clothes without making a show of their adornment (zinah). If they also maintain modesty it is good for them. GOD is hearer, knower (24:60).

Zinah (translated above as adornment) includes attractive clothes as well as ornaments, make-up, and bodily features that attract the opposite sex. In addition to zinah there is also the concept of 'awrah which means:

1) a place of danger;
2) something, of which exposure is embarrassing;
3) something naked and unprotected.

In 33:13 the hypocrites want to return from the battle field on the false excuse that there houses are 'awrah, that is, unprotected from the enemies and open to danger. In 24:57 three occasions at which slaves and children should take permission before coming in the presence of the parents are described as three 'awraat (plural of 'awrah), times of privacy. The present passage mentions children as yet unaware of women's nakedness among the exceptions to the rule against women displaying their adornments. The word for nakedness is 'awraat which is used in the sense of private sex-related things concerning women. In Islamic fiqh the term came to refer to the part of body that should not be exposed except to one's spouse.

In time the 'awrah in this sense was fixed as follows:

For women in front of men this is the whole body except hands, feet, and the head. For women in front of other women as well as for men in front of other men and women it is the part between navel and knees.



Arabian women, both before and after Islam used to wear head-covering (khimar; pl. khumur) both as a protection from the sun and as an adornment. In accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, leaving her breasts partly bare (Ibn Kathir). Undoubtedly, women at times showed modesty by covering their bosoms with their head-covering. The Qur`an is enjoining that such modesty should be a regular feature of Muslim women's dress.

The Qur`an does not explicitly tell women to cover their heads. Does that mean that the covering of the head is not obligatory? The focus of the passage is certainly on the covering of the bosom and one may argue that the reference to the head-cover reflects the situation of Arabia. Because of intense heat, both men and women carried some piece of cloth to cover their head when they went out. The Qur`an is simply telling the women to use this piece of cloth to cover their bosoms as a practical matter and not with the expectation that the head should necessarily be covered. On the other hand, one could argue that it is understood that the head-covering will cover the head. To appreciate this point suppose somebody asked a person to cover his navel with the trousers. It would be a mockery of this suggestion, at least in the context where modesty is being taught, if the person took off his trousers and wrapped them around his waist to cover the navel, remaining naked below the waste. For in the context of teaching modesty it is understood that the trousers must cover what they normally cover. Similarly, when in the context of teaching modesty the Qur`an tells women to cover their bosoms with the head-coverings it is understood that the head-coverings must cover what they normally cover, namely, the heads. Furthermore, hair is among the attractive parts of a woman's body and the Qur`anic commandment is to hide female charms unless it is awkward to do so. Now there is nothing awkward about covering the head. Women in all cultures often do it, either as fashion or for some religious or practical reasons.

Some who deny that the Qur`an enjoins the covering of the head also point out that khimar does not necessarily mean head-cover, but any sheet or cloth that is used to cover something such as a blanket or curtain or table-cloth (the word is related to khamr ( an alcoholic drink, which is so called because it covers the consciousness). But the word can certainly mean "head-cover". In the Qur`anic verse it certainly refers to something that women normally carried, for the verse does not say that they should cover their bosoms with a khimar but with their khumur, and women normally did not carry a table-cloth or a curtain or a blanket.

It seems from the above considerations that the arguments in favor of the interpretation that head should be covered are stronger. But the case for covering head becomes even stronger in view of other verses to be discussed further below.

The words "except that which becomes apparent" are understood in two ways:

1) that part of a woman's zinat which is exposed by some accident, e.g. her head covering is removed by a strong wind; according to this interpretation, a woman needs to cover the whole body, including her face (except eyes);

2) woman need not cover what is awkward to cover such as the face and the hands.

The second interpretation is almost certainly the correct one. If the Qur`an meant the words in the first sense, why does it tell women only to cover their bosoms with their head coverings?

However, it would also be against the spirit of the Qur`an if a woman put a very attractive make-up and/or ornaments on her face and/or hands and exposed them while covering the rest of her body or making the head-covering itself very attractive and fashionable or wearing transparent or very tight clothes. Notice how the Qur`an often combines the concrete regulations about dress with a reminder of their purpose and spirit. Thus in 24:60 while the requirements of dress are relaxed for elderly women the requirement of inner modesty are still inculcated. And in 33:33, 53, to be discussed next, it is said that regulations about hijab are for the purpose of removing uncleanness and for achieving purity.




Sometimes after the revelation of the verses discussed above, the following verses were revealed:

33:32. O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the [other] women. Therefore, if you are mindful [of your duty to God] do not be over-soft in your speech, lest any whose heart is diseased should be moved to desire, but speak in a proper and goodly manner.

33:33. And stay in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as they used to do in the time of ignorance. Pray regularly and give the due portion in charity, and obey God and His messenger. God just wishes to remove uncleanness far from you, O members of the [Prophet's] household, and lead you to complete purity.

33:53. ... And when you (O believers) ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask of them from behind a hijab. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts ...

33:59. O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw over them some outer garments [when in public]. That is better for being recognized and not being annoyed. God is ever forgiving, merciful.

The words in verse 33, "stay in your homes" seem to have suggested to some that in Islam the ideal is almost total physical seclusion of women through confinement to homes. But in regard to these words it should be noted that they are addressed to the wives of the Prophet and the passage begins with the statement that they are not like other women. Moreover, the command "stay in your homes" should be understood in the light of the subsequent words: "and do not flaunt your charms as they used to do in the time of ignorance". That is, the command does not exclude going out for other purposes such as work or prayers or participating in some legitimate activity which is beneficial for the woman individually or for the community at large. This is as true of the wives of the Prophet as of other women. Thus, in verse 59 the Prophet's wives and daughters are specifically addressed along with other women and told to draw their outer garments over them. This instruction will not make sense if women, including wives and daughters of the Prophet were to always stay home. Finally, in 4:32 it is taken for granted that some women might engage in jobs or businesses, which of necessity will require going out.

In verse 53 believers are told to communicate with the Prophet's wives from behind a "hijab". This word means some form of barrier such as a curtain that secludes one party from the other. Thus in 19:17 Mary chooses seclusion (hijab) from her people to receive glad tidings of Jesus' birth. In 7:46 it refers to a barrier that will separate the people of heaven from the people of hell and in 83:15 we read that the unbelievers will be debarred (mahjub) from God. God is said in 42:51 to speak to man only by way of inspiration or from behind a hijab. In these verses the word may not refer to a physical barrier, since God, Heaven and Hell are not physical realities in our ordinary sense. Surah 17:45 speaks of a hidden barrier (hijab mastur) that is created between the Prophet and the unbelievers when he reads the Qur'an (see also 41:5). But in Islamic tradition the word has come to signify one or the other of the ways whereby men and women to varying degree separate themselves from each other for the purpose of promoting modesty and chastity. Very often the word is further specialized to the head cover that Muslim women wear. However, the word used by the Qur'an for head-cover is khimar.

The fact that the believers can communicate with the wives of the Prophet albeit from behind a hijab shows that the purpose of the Qur'an is not to isolate women from community life.

In the verses of Surah 24 women were only commanded to draw their head coverings over their bosoms while keeping the dress that they normally wore, which was a long tunic, although they were told not to display their adornments. In 33:59 they are asked to draw some outer garments (jalabib, plural of jilbab) over them. Jilbab, in classical Arabic means a large sheet, as we can see from the usage of the word in Hadith (see further below). But a sown outer garment such as is often used by many women in the Middle East can serve the same purpose. Like khimar respectable women might have used jilbab cover themselves over them in pre-Islamic times. The Qur'an made that practice into a rule.

Jilbab and hijab serve the same purpose. When a woman goes outside she covers herself by jilbab. But at home, of course, she is dressed in a much more relaxed way. Consequently, first of all, people are told to enter the house only after getting permission and second of all women are told to speak from behind a hijab. This hijab is only for extra convenience. Otherwise, if women are always wearing a jilbab there will be no need for hijab.

The word used for putting the jilbab on is idna' 'ala. idna' means to bring something near or close. Thus in the same verse (59) it is said that it is better for being recognized, where "it is better" is a translation of 'adna' which may be more literally translated, "it is closer". When followed by ila the word means wrap around while idna' 'ala means to put over. Thus in the verse there may be a word play: idna' 'ala of the jilbab is 'adna' for being recognized as respectable women.

How far jilbab should cover the woman is subject to interpretation. Clearly, it is not intended that everything should be covered, since at least the eyes need to remain uncovered. Some, including most of the classical interpreters such as Tabari, Zamakhshari, Razi are of the opinion that only eyes should be uncovered. On the other extreme it is said that even the head need not be covered. The words idna' 'ala, however, are more naturally interpreted that covering of the head is intended. Books of Hadith can be used to support both interpretations, although we will show later by a detailed analysis of a very early hadith that in the first century hijri the face was not covered. The interpretation that everything except the eyes needs to be covered became a prevalent view sometimes during the second century. The classical interpreters seem to be guided by this second-century prevalent view rather than by the words of the Qur’an or any authentic hadith.

Against the covering of the face one may argue that this can cause undue hardship for women, especially in hot countries and it is not the intention of the Qur'an to make life unduly hard for believers:

God desires ease for you; he does not desire hardship for you (2:185).

Another argument against the covering of the face is that in 24:30 the Qur’an tells the believing men to lower their gaze. This will not be necessary if women were to cover their faces. This argument will, however, loose its force if the verse about jilbab came after the verse about lowering gaze. Also, even after the verse about jilbab there can be occasions when a person will be face to face to a member of opposite sex and when the lowering of gaze will be relevant.

In interpreting any Qur`anic regulation we should keep in mind that an interpretation stricter than the one intended can be as wrong as an interpretation more liberal than the one intended. For, each time when we become stricter we prohibit what God has permitted while each time we are more liberal than the Qur`an we allow something that God has prohibited and the Qur`an makes it clear that both are wrong (5:87, 6:150, 7:32, 9:37, 66:1). It is one of the missions of the Prophet to prohibit exactly what is necessary and in the performance of this mission the Prophet sometimes lifts from earlier ummahs the strict regulations in which they had imprisoned themselves (7:157), either by too strict interpretations of the divine regulations or by adding to those regulations (3:93). That people can imprison themselves in stricter interpretations may seem difficult to understand, for, we generally expect people to take the easy route. There are two reasons why people may insist on stricter interpretations:

a) The tendency to relax the requirements of a regulation for making things easy for oneself are fought by the opposite tendency to insist on stricter interpretations.

b) The stricter interpretation gets associated with piety and some people who want to feel or show themselves to be very pious choose the stricter interpretation without being too concerned with what the regulation itself intends.



As might be expected the hadith literature contains several traditions mentioning khimar, jilbab or hijab or related concepts. We now examine these traditions in detail, especially those found in the four most reliable books: Ibn Ishaq, Mu’watta, Bukhari, and Muslim. Our examination shows that hadith literature does not add any substantial authentic teaching to what we can already deduce with considerable probability from the Qur’an.



Probably the most reliable tradition mentioning hijab is the story of the false accusation (ifk) against A’isha because it has the earliest documentation and deals with an incident referred to in the Qur'an. This story is found in such relatively early books as Ibn Ishaq (sirat rasul allah, preserved in an edited form by Ibn Hisham), Bukhari, where it occurs in a detailed form thrice (kitab al-maghazi, bab hadith al-ifk; kitab al-shahadat, bab ta’dil al-nisa’ ...; and kitab al-tafsir, bab law la idh sami’tumuhu ...) and Muslim (kitab al-tawbah, bab fi hadith ifk). The earliest documentation of the story is found in Ibn Ishaq (died 151 AH) as quoted by Ibn Hisham (died 218 AH). Ibn Ishaq’s authority is Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri.

Az-Zuhri, as quoted by Ibn Ishaq, says the story was first told by ‘A’isha herself and then from her related in parts by four men:

'Alqama bin Waqqas,
Sa'id bin Jubayr,
'Urwa bin al-Zubayr, and
'Ubaydullah bin Abdullah bin 'Utba.

After mentioning these four sources, az-Zuhri said:

"each contributing a part of the story, one remembering more of it than another, and I have put together for you what the people told me."

The three detailed narrations of the story in Bukhari have different final link in the chain of narrators but they all quote Ibn Shihab as follows:

"Related to me 'Urwa bin al-Zubayr, Sa'id bin al-Musayyib, 'Alqama bin Waqqas and 'Ubaydullah bin Abdullah bin 'Utba bin Mas'ud from 'A'isha, the wife of the Messenger of God (may God bless and raise him evermore) regarding the time when the slanderers said about her what they said. Everyone among them related to me a part of the story and some of them who had better memories reported more and with better retention, and I tried to retain from what everyone related to me from A’isha and their reports confirmed one another."

This quotation is from kitab al-maghazi. The detailed narrations in kitab al-shahadat

and kitab al-tafsir quote Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri in essentially the same terms.

In Muslim we read:

"Sa'id bin al-Musayyib, 'Urwa bin az-Zubayr, 'Alqama bin Waqqas and 'Ubaydullah bin Abdullah bin 'Utba bin Mas'ud on the story of 'A'isha, the wife of the Messenger of God (may God bless and raise him evermore) when the slanderers said to her what they said God exonerated her of their allegation -- everyone of them reported a part of the story and some of them who had better memories reported more and with better retention, and I tried to retain what every one of them reported to me, their reports confirming one another."

All three documents agree that the source of the story are partial reports communicated from A’isha herself by four men: Sa'id bin al-Musayyib, 'Urwa bin az-Zubayr, 'Alqama bin Waqqas and 'Ubaydullah bin Abdullah bin 'Utba bin Mas'ud. Ibn Ishaq and Bukhari also agree that the partial reports were put together by Ibn Shihab az-Zuhri. Muslim does not clarify exactly who put the pieces of the story together, but after relating the story he too refers to az-Zuhri as follows:

And az-Zuhri said that this is the last we have received of the matter concerning these people (who were involved in ifk}.

Thus it is almost certain that the versions in Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari, and Muslim are all dependent on the account produced by az-Zuhri and not directly on what the earlier reports said. Despite the reported trustworthiness of az-Zuhri the possibility must be admitted that in the process of weaving the earlier partial reports into a comprehensive story some new elements were introduced and others were given a new light. But even after the story was once put together by az-Zuhri it underwent significant changes during its transmission. This is evident from numerous differences among the various extant versions and some other problems that they all raise.

Thus in Ibn Ishaq's version we read:

The Prophet "went out to the men and addressed them and recited to them what God had sent down concerning that. Then he gave orders about Mistah bin Uthatha and Hassan bin Thabit and Hamna bint Jahsh who were the most explicit in their slander and they were flogged with a precise number (80, Qur'an 24:) of stripes."

Muslim, however, does not mention at all any such flogging of the three participants in the slander and concludes his version, as already noted, with the words:

"az-Zuhri said that this is the last we have received about the matter concerning these (the two men and the woman involved in the slander),"

which leaves no room whatever of any report of flogging. Bukhari is also completely silent about any flogging. In Abu Da'ud, however, we read:

"'A'isha said: When my vindication came down the Prophet mounted the pulpit and mentioned that. Then when he came down from the pulpit he ordered the two men and the one woman (who were involved in the slander) should be given the prescribed beating."

Ibn 'Abd al-Barr in Isti'ab also mentions flogging but while he says that Mistah was flogged he is uncertain about the flogging of Hassan and Hamna. Muslim and Bukhari seem to be more reliable, since the people involved committed their crime before it was made a crime and punishment for it was prescribed. Usually punishment for an action is not given if the action is committed before the law prescribing the punishment for it has been laid down. Thus we do not hear of any punishment for drinking or stealing or adultery given for such acts committed before the punishment for them was prescribed.

It is also significant that Ibn Sa'd (died 230 AH) in his Tabaqat, probably written a little before Bukhari (died 256 AH) and Muslim (died 261 AH) compiled their collections of ahadith, presents us with some drastic differences from the three versions based on az-Zuhri’s account. Thus in his chapter on Ghazwah al-Musayri` --named after a well of that name, and also called Ghazwah al-Mustaliq (after the tribe that used the well and were involved in the battle) -- Ibn Sa`d says:

"The Messenger of God (may God bless and glorify him) arrived in al-Muraysi` ... He ordered that his tent be erected there. He was accompanied by ‘A`isha and Umm Salamah. ... It was in this Ghazwah that 'A'isha's necklace fell and when people stopped in its search the verse about tayammum came down. Usayd bin al-Hudayr said, 'O family of Abu Bakr! how good is this first blessing of yours.' In the same Ghazwah the incident regarding 'A'isha and the false accusation against her took place. The narrator said that God sent down a declaration of her innocence. In this Ghazwah the Messenger of God stayed away from home for 28 days and returned to Medina when the moon for the month of Ramadan was sighted."

This account differs radically from the other versions. Thus it tells us that the loss of 'A'isha's necklace was the cause of people stopping. But in the other versions people are unaware of the loss of the necklace and the loss is the cause of 'A'isha being left behind:

"I touched my chest to find that my necklace of zifar beads (Yemenite beads partly black and partly white) was missing. So I returned to look for my necklace and my search for it detained me. (In the meantime) the people who used to carry me on my camel, came and took my howdah and put it on the back of my camel ... and all of them left " (Bukhari, similarly Ibn Ishaq and Muslim).

Furthermore, the versions based on az-Zuhri’s account tell us that whenever the Prophet intended to go on a journey he used to draw lots among his wives and take with him the one on whom the lot fell. In Ghazwah al-Mustaliq the lot fell on A’isha and therefore he took her with him. Ibn Sa`d, on the other hand says nothing about drawing lots and says that not only 'A'isha but also Umm Salamah went with the Prophet. From such differences it seems highly probable that Ibn Sa'd is using traditions that are independent of the versions in Bukhari, Muslim, and Ibn Ishaq.

Ibn Sa`d’s story that A’isha lost her necklace which caused people to stop and search for it and provided the occasion for the revelation about tayammum is found in the books of Hadith, including Bukhari and Muslim. The necklace is sometimes said to be of Asma’ (Bukhari, kitab al-tafsir (on Qur’an 4:43)) or of A’isha (Bukhari, kitab al-tafsir (on Qur’an 5:6)) or given to A’isha by Asma’, her sister (Bukhari, bab fadl A’isha). It would be somewhat strange that A’isha lost her necklace twice, so that the possibility must be admitted that one story about the loss of a necklace is taking different forms in Ibn Sa’d and the other three sources, Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari, and Muslim.

Neither in terms of his ability as a historian nor in terms of the date of his writing Ibn Sa'd is to be preferred over Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari and Muslim but the fact that there existed alternative traditions about the incident of ifk does provide some cause for caution.

Let us now look more closely at the direct and indirect references to hijab in the story. It is expressly said in all versions that the incident took place after the verses about hijab had been sent down. This is called into question by several facts:

The verses about hijab and jilbab are believed to have been revealed sometimes after Ghazwah al-Ahzab (the Battle of Confederates, also called Ghazwah al-Khandaq , the Battle of the Trench) as they are found in the surah which refers to that Ghazwah. Now Ibn Ishaq quotes az-Zuhri expressly saying that ifk took place during Ghazwah al-Mustaliq or Ghazwah al-Muraysi'. But there are reports which suggest that Ghazwah al-Mustaliq took place before Ghazwah al-Ahzab, in which case ifk took place before the verses about hijab and jilbab were revealed, and not after, as Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari and Muslim tell us.

Ibn Sa'd in his Tabaqat explicitly gives the following dates for the two battles:

Ghazwah of al-Muraysi' or al-Mustaliq --- Sha'ban 5 AH

Ghazwah al-Ahzab ---- Dhu al-Qa'dah 5 AH.

Thus Ghazwah al-Mustaliq took place 3 months before Ghazwah al-Ahzab and hence the incident of ifk took place at least three months before the verses about hijab and jilbab.

The uncertainty about the dates of the two Ghazwat and therefore of their relative temporal order and the relative temporal order of ifk and the revelation about hijab/jilbab is raised not just by the evidence from Ibn Sa`d. It is also raised by the evidence from Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari and Muslim themselves.

Bukhari mentions the following dating by Musa bin 'Uqbah about the two battles:

Ghazwah al-Mustaliq ---- 4 AH

Ghazwah al-Ahzab ---- Shawwal, 4 AH

(See the chapters in Bukhari on the two Ghazwat). Bukhari does not say which month Ghazwah al-Mustaliq took place and therefore we cannot say which of the two Ghazwat took place first.

Ibn Ishaq, however, gives the following dating:

Ghazwah al-Mustaliq ---- Sha'ban 6AH

Ghazwah al-Ahzab ----5 AH,

thus agreeing with Ibn Sa'd as far as Ghazwah al-Ahzab is concerned and disagreeing with the dates of both battles as given in Bukhari on the authority of Musa bin ‘Uqbah..

Dating the incident of ifk after al-Ahzab not only conflicts with the dating of the two battles in some sources but also creates another difficulty. In all three versions there is an argument between some people from different tribes about whether the person(s) responsible for the slander should be killed. In Ibn Ishaq the argument is between Usayd bin Hudayr and Sa'd bin Ubada. But in Bukhari and Muslim the argument also involves Sa'd bin Mu'adh who is universally believed to be martyred during Ghazwah Banu Qurayza which took place immediately after Ghazwah al-Ahzab. Ibn Ishaq puts the martyrdom of Sa'd bin Mu'adh during Ghazwah Banu Qurayza which is said to have taken place soon after Ghazwah al-Ahzab before Ghazwah al-Mustaliq. Imam Nawvi raises the problem in his Sharh of Muslim and says that "the reference to Sa'd bin Mu'adh is difficult to understand because he died soon after Ghazwah al-Khandaq (= Ghazwah al-Ahzab) whereas the incident of ifk took place during Ghazwah Banu al-Mustaliq which was undertaken in 6 H." All writers of siyar are agreed on this date except Waqidi. Qadhi Ayad said that the reference to Sa'd bin Mu'adh in the story is not factual. The fact is that it was only Usayd bin Hudayr who spoke along with Sa'd bin Ubada. Musa bin 'Uqba said that Ghazwah al-Muraysi' (=Ghazwah al-Mustaliq) took place in 4 AH which is also the year of Ghazwah al-Khandaq. Then it is possible that both Ghazwah al-Mustaliq and the incident of ifk took place before Ghazwah al-Khandaq when Sa'd bin Mu'adh was alive". Thus either Bukhari and Muslim are both wrong in mentioning Sa'd bin Mu'adh in the story of ifk or all three versions are wrong in mentioning that the incident took place after the regulations for hijab.

While some facts suggest that the incident of ifk took place before the revelation of the verses about hijab, there is at least one argument that supports it. Thus the versions of the incident of ifk in Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari, and Muslim all assume that the marriage of the Prophet with Zaynab bint Jahsh had already taken place. For example, it is said that Zaynab's sister Hamna bint Jahsh was among those who spread the false accusation and the reason given is that "her sister Zaynab bint Jahsh was one of the apostle's wives and only she could rival me in his favor" (Ibn Ishaq; similarly Bukhari and Muslim). Now some traditions in Bukhari and Muslim (see below) tell us that the verses about hijab were revealed on the day of the walimah (marriage) party for the Prophet’s marriage with Zaynab. This means that the incident of ifk took place after the revelation of the verses about hijab.

That the uncertainty about the dates and the relative temporal order of the two battles was considered significant enough is shown by the versions of the incident of ifk in Bukhari and Muslim. Bukhari refers to the view of az-Zuhri that the incident took place in Ghazwah al-Mustaliq but himself shows reservations about that view. He first has a chapter on Ghazwah al-Mustaliq, then on Ghazwah al-Anmar and then on the incident of ifk. And in his version of the story of ifk it is simply stated that the Prophet took 'A'isha on "one of the Ghazwat" without mentioning the name of the Ghazwah. Muslim's version also does not mention the name of the Ghazwah and simply speaks of "a Ghazwah". Clearly the versions in Bukhari and Muslim are trying to avoid the problem created by the dating of the Ghazwat.

In view of the uncertainty about dates pointed out above, the possibility remains that the incident of ifk took place before the regulations of hijab and jilbab and consequently the statements to the contrary in Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari and Muslim are historically inaccurate.

In any case, let us now look at the references to hijab and jilbab in the story of ifk in the various versions and compare them. As we shall soon discover this comparison brings to light an important fact.

The part of the story of ifk related to hijab in the various versions read:

Ibn Ishaq: So I wrapped myself in my outer garment and then lay down where I was, knowing that if I were missed they would come back for me, and by God I had but just lain down when Safwan bin al-Mu'attal al-Sulami passed me; he had fallen behind the main body for some purpose and had not spent the night with the troops. He saw my form and came and stood over me. He used to see me before the veil was prescribed for us, so when he saw me he exclaimed in astonishment, "The Apostle's wife" (za'ina, a woman carried in a howdah)" while I was wrapped in my garments. He asked me what has kept me behind but I did not speak to him. Then he brought up his camel and told me to ride it while he stood behind. So I rode it and he took the camel's head going forward quickly in search of the army, and by God we did not overtake them and I was not missed until the morning. The men had halted and when they were rested up came the man leading me and the liars spread their reports and the army was much disturbed.

Bukhari, kitab al-shahadat: So, I went to the place where I used to stay, thinking that they would discover my absence and come back in my search. While in that state, I felt sleepy and slept. Safwan bin Mu'attal As-Sulami Adh-Dhakwani was behind the army and reached my abode in the morning. When he saw a sleeping person, he came to me, and he used to see me before veiling. So, I got up when I heard him saying, "inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (We are for God, and we will return to Him)." He made his camel kneel down. He got down from his camel, and put his leg on the front legs of the camel and then I rode and sat over it. Safwan set out walking, leading the camel by the rope till we reached the army who had halted to take rest at midday.

Bukhari, kitab al-maghazi: [Sometime during night time departure of the troops is announced and 'A'isha is left behind.] So I intended to go to the place where I used to stay, thinking that they will miss me and come back to me. While I was sitting in my resting place, I was overwhelmed by sleep and slept. Safwan bin al-Mu'attal as-Sulami adh-Dhakwani was behind the army. When he reached my place in the morning, he saw the figure of a sleeping person and he recognized me on seeing me as he had seen me before hijab (was prescribed). So I woke up when he recited istirja (that is, inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un) as soon as he recognized me. I veiled my face with my outer garment (khammartu wajhiya bijilbabi) at once, and by God, we did not speak a single word, and I did not hear him say any word besides the istirja'. He dismounted from his camel and made it kneel down, putting his leg on its front legs and then I got up and rode on it. Then he set out leading the camel that was carrying me till we overtook the army in the extreme heat of midday while they were at a halt.

Bukhari, kitab at-tafsir: Then I found my necklace after the army had gone. I came to their camp but found nobody therein so I went to the place where I used to stay, thinking that they would miss me and come back in my search. While I was sitting at my place, I felt sleepy and slept. Safwan bin Al-Mu'attil As-Sulami Adh-Dhakwani was behind the army. He had started in the last part of the night and reached my stationing place in the morning and saw the figure of a sleeping person. He came to me and recognized me on seeing me for he used to see me before veiling. I got up because of his saying: "inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un," which he uttered on recognizing me. I covered my face with my outer garment, and by God, he did not say to me a single word except, "inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un," till he made his she-camel kneel down whereupon he trod on its forelegs and I mounted it. Then Safwan set out, leading the she-camel that was carrying me, till we met the army while they were resting during the hot midday.

Muslim: The story in Muslim is very similar to that in Bukhari, kitab al-maghazi.

In many points there is agreement between the three sources but when it comes to jilbab and hijab there are serious disagreements:

1) In Ibn Ishaq 'A'isha wrapped herself in a smock and is recognized by Safwan as the Prophet's wife because before the regulation about hijab came down he had seen her. This means that her face was not covered. Bukhari and Muslim also say that 'A'isha was recognized but the two versions in Bukhari and the one version in Muslim say that after seeing Safwan she covered her face. Ibn Ishaq and one version in Bukhari (kitab al-shahadat) say no such thing. Clearly in the time of Ibn Ishaq the view had not yet been established that women have to cover their faces. Such a view probably got prevalent only sometimes between the writing of Ibn Ishaq and of Bukhari, that is, sometimes between the first half of the second century and the early decades of the third century. But Ibn Ishaq does say that Safwan recognized 'A'isha as the Prophet's wife because he saw her before the regulation about hijab came down. Does that mean that after the verse about hijab he could not have seen her since she would not have gone out without covering her face? Not necessarily. The verse about hijab might have limited opportunity of seeing 'A'isha because now believers could not enter the Prophet's house (and each others' houses) without permission and were to talk from behind hijab and the Prophet's wife went out of the houses much less.

2) In Bukhari and Muslim it is said that 'A'isha fell asleep and was still sleeping when Safwan discovered her. In Ibn Ishaq 'A'isha does not fall asleep. Perhaps the purpose of sleep in the versions in Bukhari and Muslim is to explain why 'A'isha's face was not covered when Safwan saw her and recognized her. In Ibn Ishaq this question does not arise since his version is not assuming that women's face needs to be covered.

3) In Ibn Ishaq, Safwan exclaims: za'ina, a woman carried in a howdah and then asked 'A'isha how she got left behind but she did not speak to him. But in Bukhari and Muslim the only word that Safwan speaks is the istirja'. Besides this neither he nor 'A'isha say any thing. The tradition it seems is overstressing that the two did not even talk, even though the Qur'an only says that believers should talk with the wives of the Prophet from behind a hijab and not that they should not talk at all.

Thus our examination of the most reliable hadith mentioning hijab shows that the first generations of Muslims did not think that women have to cover their faces.



There are two different types of accounts about the circumstances under which the verses about hijab were revealed. Both accounts are found in both Bukhari and Muslim.

First account. The more reliable account is attributed to Anas bin Malik and describes the occasion as the party (walimah) for the marriage of the Prophet with Zaynab. Various versions of this account are collected by Muslim in his kitab al-nikah, bab zawaj Zaynab bint Jahsh wa nazul al-hijab. Bukhari also has most of these ahadith in his kitab al-isti’dhan, bab ayah al-hijab and kitab at-tafsir, bab la tadkhulu buyut an-nabi .... . One of these ahadith reads:

Anas bin Malik narrated that he was a boy of ten at the time when the Prophet emigrated to Medina. He added: I served the Messenger of God for ten years (the last part of his life) and I know more than the other people about the occasion whereupon the order of hijab was revealed. Ubay bin Ka'b used to ask me about it. The order about hijab was revealed during the marriage of the Messenger of God with Zaynab bint Jahsh. In the morning, the Prophet was her bride-groom and he invited the people, who took their meals and went away, but a group of them remained with the Messenger of God. When they prolonged their stay the Messenger of God got up and went out so that people leave. I too, went out along with him till he came to the lintel of 'A’isha's dwelling place. He thought that those people had left by then, so he returned, and I too, returned with him till he entered where Zaynab was and found that they were still sitting there and had not yet gone. The Prophet went out again, and so did I with him till he reached the lintel of 'A’isha's dwelling place, and then he thought that those people must have left by then, so he returned, and so did I with him, and found those people had gone. At that time the ayah of hijab was revealed, and the Prophet set a screen between me and him (his family).

Let us recall the verse about hijab. It reads:

33:53. O believers! Do not enter the dwellings of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time unless permission is granted to you. But when you are invited do enter and when the meal is over then disperse. Do not linger for (idle) chat. This would indeed annoy the Prophet but he would be shy of you (to ask you to go). And when you ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask of them from behind a hijab. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts. And it is not for you to annoy the Messenger of God nor that you should ever marry his wives after him. That in God’s sight will be an enormity.

This verse fits well with the story described in the above hadith and that supports the authenticity of the hadith in some form. But hadith is not without difficulties, for there are many important differences among the various versions. Thus while in the above version the Prophet goes to the dwelling of ‘A’isha in other versions he goes to the dwellings of all the wives and greets them. In the above version he goes away several times, in others he goes away only once. Also in the above version Anas goes with the Prophet as he leaves the gathering, but in others he seems to stay behind and then informs the Prophet when people leave, as in the following version:

Anas bin Malik narrated: When the Prophet married Zaynab, the people came and were offered a meal, and then they sat down (after finishing their meals) and started chatting. The Prophet showed as if he wanted to get up, but they did not get up. When he noticed that, he got up, and some of the people also got up and went away, while some others kept on sitting. When the Prophet returned to enter, he found the people still sitting, but then they got up and left. So I told the Prophet of their departure and he came and went in. I intended to go in but the Prophet put a screen between me and him, for God revealed:-- 'O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses..' (33.53) (Bukhari, kitab al-istidhan).

Note also that in the above two versions all the people are gone when the verse about hijab is revealed and screen is set between Anas and the wife of the Prophet. But in another version the people are still present when the verse is revealed and the screen (hijab) is set up in their presence, after which they leave:

So the Prophet went out and then returned several times while they were still sitting and talking. Then God revealed the verse [33:53]. So the screen was set up and the people went away.

Still other important differences exist between the various versions. Thus in some versions meat and bread are served at the walimah while in others only hais (a sweet dish made from butter cheese and dates) was served. According to a version in Muslim, hais was sent by Umm Sulaym, Anas’ mother, and was miraculously multiplied to serve several hundred people, a story that is told in Bukhari in connection with the Prophet’s marriage with Safiyyah and not Zaynab.

Second account. Another account of the circumstances that led to the revelation of the verse of hijab is also found in both Bukhari (kitab al-istidhan, bab ayah al-hijab, kitab at-tafsir, bab la tadkhulu ...) and Muslim (kitab as-salam, bab ibahat al-khuruj li an-nisa ...). According to this account it is at the prompting of ‘Umar that the verse about hijab was revealed. In one simple form in Bukhari the account runs as follows:

Umar narrated: I said, "O Messenger of God! Good and bad persons enter upon you, so I suggest that you order the mothers of the believers (i.e. your wives) to observe hijab." Then God revealed the verses of hijab.

But in other versions a more elaborate story is told:

'A’isha narrated: ‘Umar bin al-Khattab used to say that the Messenger of God, "Let your wives be in hijab". But he did not do so. And the wives of the Prophet used to go at night to al-Manasi (a vast open place near Baqia at Medina to answer the call of nature). Once Sawda bint Zam'a (the wife of the Prophet) went out and she was a tall lady. 'Umar bin al-Khattab saw her while he was in a gathering and said, "I have recognized you, O Sawda!" (He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verse of al-hijab may be revealed.) So God revealed the verses of al-hijab.

This account raises some questions. Why was ‘Umar more anxious for the verse of hijab than the Prophet and why was the revelation so dependent on what ‘Umar thought? In the hadith quoted earlier ‘Umar tells the Prophet, "Good and bad persons enter upon you". Were God and his Messenger unaware of the situation and needed to be reminded of it? More seriously, we have another hadith where ‘Umar sees Sawda not before but after the verse of hijab had been revealed:

Narrated ‘A’isha: Sawda (the wife of the Prophet) went out for her need after hijab had been ordained. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could recognize her. So 'Umar bin al-Khattab saw her and said, "O Sawda! By God, you cannot hide yourself from us, so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out. Sawda returned while the Messenger of God was in my house taking his supper and a bone covered with meat was in his hand. She entered and said, "O Messenger of God! I went out for a need and 'Umar said to me so-and-so." Then God inspired him (the Prophet) and when the state of inspiration was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put it down, he said (to Sawda), "You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs." (Bukhari, kitab at-tafsir, bab la tadkhulu buyut an-nabi ... )

It is possible to argue that ‘Umar twice saw Sawda go out, once before the revelation of the verse of hijab and once after. But it is more natural to conclude that we are dealing here with a single story that is being used in two different ways. And it is far from certain that there is any historical truth behind any of the two traditions. This second tradition is confused about the issue involved. ‘Umar is telling Sawda to dress in a way that she is not recognized. He is not saying whether women can get out. But when the Prophet receives inspiration, he says that women can go out for their needs, which is not at all the issue for ‘Umar. This is also not an issue in the verses about hijab and jilbab, where the Qur’an is taking it for granted that women including the wives of the Prophet can go out (see above). So why is there need for a non-Qur’anic revelation for permitting women to go out? Also, on what grounds in Islamic teaching ‘Umar is saying that a woman should be dressed in such a way that she is not recognized.

It seems that some people who in contrast to the authentic teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith wanted to cover women from head to toe or to confine them to houses were inventing all kinds of stories to project their sentiments and of course in the process producing traditions with all kinds of contradictions.



There are several references in Hadith where looking at a member of the opposite sex is mentioned. In some cases the reference can be taken to a lustful look only but in others it seems to be in a more absolute sense.

Thus in one hadith the Prophet tells 'Ali, "Do not follow one look by a second one. For while the first look is (automatically) forgiven, the second is not" (Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Abu Da'ud, Darimi). (See also the hadith about al-Fadl bin ‘Abbas discussed below.) In another hadith a lustful look is described as an adultery of the eyes:

Ibn ‘Abbas narrated: I have not seen a thing resembling ‘lamam’ (minor sins) more than what Abu Hurayra reported from the Prophet who said: "God has written for son of Adam (i.e. human being) his share of adultery which he inevitably commits. The adultery of the eye is looking (with desire), the adultery of the tongue is talking; the self wishes and desires and sexual organs then either testify all this (i.e., go along with the desire) or deny it" (see, e.g. Bukhari, kitab al-'isti'dhan, bab zina al-jawarih ...).

The Qur'an makes parallel statements about men and women in that it commands both to lower their gaze. One hadith points in the same direction. Thus in Ahmad, Abu Da'ud, and Tirmidhi it is reported that two of the wives of the Prophet, Umm Salamah and Maymuna, were sitting with the Prophet when his blind companion Ibn Umm Maktum came. The Prophet told the wives to do hijab. They said, "Is he not blind? He will not see us, nor recognize us." The Prophet said, "Are you two also blind? Will you not see him?" Contrary to this we have another hadith found in the earlier collections Mu’watta (kitab at-talaq, bab ma ja’a fi nafaqat al-mutallaqa) and Muslim (kitab at-talaq, bab al-mutallaqah al-na’in la nafaqah la ha), according to which the Prophet advised a divorced woman to stay in the home of the same Ibn Umm Maktum, saying "He is blind. You can stay there with freedom to dress with ease." While the first tradition is closer to the Qur’an in that it expects similar standards from both men and women, it may have misinterpreted the Qur’an in assuming that lowering gaze is complete avoidance of looking. The second hadith may have captured the Qur’anic spirit better in that it does not view lowering of gaze literally and absolutely. The concern in the hadith is more about privacy than about looking, although the latter is also important within the limits of the Qur’an. Incidentally, this hadith in Mu’watta and Muslim shows us another aspect of the atmosphere in early Islam. For the hadith relates that before sending the divorced woman to the house of Ibn Umm Maktum the Prophet considered the possibility of sending her to the house of Umm Sharik, but discarded the idea saying that "this is a woman whom my companions visit". Clearly, we do not have here a segregation of women that later became part of the Muslim ideal of piety.



Bukhari and Muslim tell the following story:

Al-Fadl bin 'Abbas rode behind the Prophet as his companion rider on the back portion of his she-camel on the Day of Nahr (slaughtering of sacrifice, 10th Dhul-Hijja) and Al-Fadl was a handsome man. The Prophet stopped to give the people verdicts. In the meantime, a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khath'am came, asking the verdict of God's Messenger (on a question relating to hajj). Al-Fadl started looking at her as her beauty attracted him. The Prophet looked behind while Al-Fadl was looking at her; so the Prophet held out his hand backwards and caught the chin of Al-Fadl and turned his face (to the other side in order that he should not gaze at her). She said, "O God's Messenger! The obligation of performing hajj enjoined by GOD on His worshippers, has become due (compulsory) on my father who is an old man and who cannot sit firmly on the riding animal. Will it be sufficient that I perform hajj on his behalf?" He said, "Yes." (see also Muslim, kitab al-hajj, bab alhajj an al-ajiz ...).

This shows that even as late as the farewell hajj of the Prophet women did not cover their faces. This is sometimes justified by the argument that the incident took place during hajj and ihram and women are not allowed to wear niqab during hajj. Yet for this argument to carry any weight the view that women cannot wear niqab during hajj has to be firmly established. But that is far from being the case. Traditions in this connection do not go very early and are contradictory. Thus in Mu’watta there are two opinions of the companions, one permitting niqab during the state of ihram and one prohibiting it:

Abdullah ibn Umar used to say that a woman in ihram should wear neither a veil (niqab) nor gloves.

Fatima bint al-Mundhir said, "We used to veil our faces when we were in ihram in the company of Asma bint Abi Bakr as-Siddiq." (Mu’watta, kitab al-hajj, bab takhmir al-muhrim wajhahu)

But about a generation later the opinion that women cannot wear niqab while in ihram is attributed to the Prophet. Thus in Bukhari we read:

Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar said: A person stood up and asked, "O Messenger of God! What clothes may be worn in the state of ihram?" The Prophet replied, "Do not wear a shirt or trousers, or any headgear (e.g. a turban), or a hooded cloak; but if somebody has no shoes he can wear leather stockings provided they are cut short off the ankles, and also, do not wear anything perfumed with wars or saffron, and the muhrima (a woman in the state of ihram) should not cover her face, or wear gloves." (Bukhari, kitab jaza al-sayd ..., bab ma yunha min al-tayyib li al-muhrim wa al-muhrima)

The words "the muhrima (a woman in the state of ihram) should not cover her face, or wear gloves" are exactly the same in Arabic as the words attributed to ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar as quoted in Mu’watta. The above hadith from Bukhari is also quoting Abdullah ibn ‘Umar but while in Mu’watta the words are no more than the opinion of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar in Bukhari ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar is attributing them to the Prophet. One naturally asks, Why did Imam Malik not attribute these words to the Prophet? Malik taught in Medina in the first half of the second century hijri. Many men and women had performed hajj by that time. Various sayings of the Prophet about hajj would have been reported in order to know the procedure for hajj. It seems difficult to believe that sitting in Medina Imam Malik did not hear about the Prophet prohibiting the wearing of niqab during ihram. This suggests the conclusion that this prohibition existed as an opinion of some individual, possibly that of ‘Abdullah ibn Umar, and by the time Bukhari compiled his Sahih the opinion was attributed to the Prophet himself. It is evident from the second tradition in Mu’watta (which talks of women wearing niqab in the state of ihram in the presence of Asma) that the opinion was not shared by all.

One may argue that the very existence of the opinion that women should not wear niqab during the state of ihram means that they were expected to wear niqab when not in ihram. However, if we use this argument we would have to conclude that men should also cover their faces when not in ihram. For, in Mu’watta it is stated:

‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar used to say that a man in ihram should not cover anything above his chin. (Conflicting with the opinion of ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan who was once seen, according to another tradition in Mu’watta, covering his face when in ihram).

This clearly does not mean that outside of ihram a man should cover what is above his chin -- face and head. Similarly, the view that a woman should not wear niqab while in ihram does not mean that she should wear niqab when out of ihram.



Books of Hadith talk of a quality called haya which means modesty (especially in relation to sexual matters), bashfulness, self-respect. It is probably the same quality which makes Adam and Eve cover themselves with leaves when they became conscious of their nakedness. In Mu’watta, the Prophet is reported to have said that every religion has a characteristic (khuluq) and the characteristic of Islam is haya (kitab husn al-khuluq, bab ma ja’a fi al-haya). Another hadith in the same chapter of Mu’watta reports the Prophet as saying that haya is a part of iman. This latter hadith is also reported by Bukhari (kitab al-adab, bab al-haya) and Muslim (kitab al-iman, bab sha’b al-iman). Bukhari reports two other ahadith in the same chapter. In one the Prophet is reported to say that nothing but good can come from haya while in the other it is said the Prophet himself had more haya than a veiled virgin girl.



In Bukhari we read the following report:

Hafsa said: "We used to forbid our young women to go out for the two 'Id prayers. A woman came and stayed at the palace of Bani Khalaf and she narrated about her sister whose husband took part in twelve holy battles along with the Prophet and her sister was with her husband in six (out of these twelve). She (the woman's sister) said, "We used to treat the wounded, look after the patients and once I asked the Prophet, 'Is there any harm for any of us to stay at home if she doesn't have a jilbab?' He said, 'She should cover herself with the jilbab of her companion and should participate in the good deeds and in the religious gathering of the Muslims.' When Umm 'Atiya came I asked her whether she had heard it from the Prophet. She replied, "Yes. May my father be sacrificed for him (the Prophet)! (Whenever she mentioned the Prophet she used to say, 'May my father be sacrificed for him) I have heard the Prophet saying, 'The unmarried young virgins and the mature girl who stay often screened or the young unmarried virgins who often stay screened and the menstruating women should come out and participate in the good deeds as well as the religious gathering of the faithful believers but the menstruating women should keep away from the Musalla (praying place).'" Hafsa asked Umm 'Atiya surprisingly, "Do you say the menstruating women?" She replied, "Doesn't a menstruating woman attend 'Arafat (Hajj) and such and such (other deeds)?" (Bukhari, kitab al-hayd, bab shuhud al-ha’id ...)

For the authenticity of this hadith it can be said that it brings to mind extreme poverty so much so that some women could not afford even a jilbab. By the time of Uthman and even Umar it seems that the days of such poverty were gone. Even if not authentic, this hadith clarifies the meaning of the word jilbab. For it tells us that jilbab is not a sown cloth but rather a sheet of any kind. If one woman does not have a jilbab she can share the jilbab of her companion which of course cannot be done for a sown cloth.

In Bukhari (kitab al-isti’dhan, bab awl Allah, ya ayyuha-lladhina ‘amanu la tadkhulu buyutan ...) we find the following tradition:

The Prophet said, "Beware! Avoid sitting by the road sides." The (people) said, "O Messenger of God! We cannot avoid sitting there as we have talks there." The Prophet said, "If you insist on sitting there, then give the roads its right." They asked, "What is the right of the road?" He said, "Lowering your gaze, refraining from harming others, returning greeting, and enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil."

In Abu Da'ud (kitab al-libas) there are some ahadith to the effect that when 24:30f was revealed Muslim women made scarves out of what they could find -- sheets, other pieces of clothes -- and started to wear them. An earlier version of this is found in Bukhari:

'A’isha used to say: "When (the verse): "They should draw their head-covers (khumur) over their bosoms [24:31]," was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered with (the cut pieces)" (kitab at-tafsir, wal yadribna bi khumuri hinna ...).

In his translation of Bukhari Muhammad Muhsin Khan writes "covered their faces". But "faces" are not at all mentioned in the original Arabic. And in any case it would not make sense that the Qur’an commanded women to cover their bosoms and they, in fulfillment of the Qur’anic command started to cover their faces, as if they could read the mind of God! In earlier times many people used to fabricate or modify ahadith to project their points of view, as we have seen above. In our time we do so through our translations!

In Sunan Abu Da’ud we read the following story:

Thabit ibn Qays narrated: A woman called Umm Khallad came to the Prophet while she was veiled. She was searching for her son who had been killed (in the battle). Some of the Companions of the Prophet said to her: You have come here asking for your son while veiling your face? She said: If I am afflicted with the loss of my son, I shall not suffer the loss of my modesty. The Messenger of God said: You will get the reward of two martyrs for your son. She asked: Why is that so, O Messenger of God? He replied: Because the people of the book have killed him.

This story does not seem to be attested by any earlier book of hadith. Also, it is not clear why martyrdom at the hand of the people of the book should double the reward. Little creditability can be given to this hadith, but even if true the story does not establish the need for covering the face, since the Prophet does not in any way comment on the woman’s actions or words. It seems that an incident of the type mentioned in the story took place well after the time of the Prophet when niqab had become common. Later the incident was projected back into the time of the Prophet.

A mention may also be made here of the following hadith in Bukhari which concerns shaking the hand of a member of the opposite sex.

Narrated 'Aisha: (the wife of the Prophet) When believing women came to the Prophet as emigrants, he used to test them in accordance with the order of God. 'O you who believe! When believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them . . .' (60.10) So if anyone of those believing women accepted the above mentioned conditions, she accepted the conditions of faith. When they agreed on those conditions and confessed that with their tongues, God's Messenger would say to them, "Go, I have accepted your oath of allegiance (for Islam)." By God, the hand of God's Messenger never touched the hand of any woman, but he only used to take their pledge of allegiance orally. By God, God's Messenger did not take the pledge of allegiance of the women except in accordance with what God had ordered him. When he accepted their pledge of allegiance he would say to them, "I have accepted your oath of allegiance." (Bukhari, kitab at-talaq, bab idha aslamat al-mushrikah...,; see also another hadith from A'isha in kitab al-ahkam, bab bay'ah an-nisa).

Later books such as Ibn Majah and Nasa'i also mention this hadith, but Muslim (which was written about the same time as Bukhari) and Mu'atta (which is earlier) do not. In Bukhari the two versions have the same source, said to be A'isha. Bukhari does record another tradition on the pledge of allegiance taken by the Prophet from women which comes a different source (Umm Atiyyah), but that tradition says nothing about the touching of women's hands:

Narrated Umm Atiyyah: We gave the pledge of allegiance to the Prophet and he recited to me the verse (60.12): "That they will not associate anything in worship with God ..." (60.12). And he also prevented us from wailing and lamenting over the dead. A woman from us held her hand out and said, "Such-and-such a woman cried over a dead person belonging to my family and I want to compensate her for that crying" The Prophet did not say anything in reply and she left and returned. None of those women abided by her pledge except Umm Sulaym, Umm al-'Ala', and the daughter of Abi Sabrah, the wife of al-Mu'adh or the daughter of Abi Sabrah, and the wife of Mu'adh (Bukhari, kitab al-ahkam, bab bay'ah an-nisa).

After reading this version you would observe that here there is no mention of the Prophet not touching the hands of women. From this fact and the from the observations made earlier we can see that the authenticity of the report that the Prophet while taking the pledge of allegiance from women did not touch their hands is far from assured.

Since the Qur'an tells the believers to lower their gaze when encountering members of the opposite sex, it is understandable why some Muslims do not regard shaking hands with them permissible. Nevertheless it is important to recognize that this position is probably not founded on authentic tradition. It is a matter of ijtihad. Since politeness is also an Islamic principle, at the very least we should not refuse to shake hand with a member of the opposite sex if the hand is extended and if refusing to shake it would be taken as impoliteness.

Finally we may mention some ahadith which concern ‘awrah, the part of the body that must not be exposed even to the member of the same sex. Muslim records the tradition which prohibits women to look at the 'awrah of a woman and a man looking at the 'awrah of a man without specifying what that 'awrah is. Abu Da'ud, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah have traditions which specify the ‘awrah for men and women, as previously mentioned in this paper.

To summarize, the authentic teaching of the Prophet Muhammad, as seen from the above discussion of the Qur’anic passages and prophetic ahadith, enjoins that:

** men and women should show respect to the members of the opposite sex, avoiding lustful looks.

** women should, moreover, use extra modesty in dress, talking to men behind a screen (hijab) when in the privacy of their houses and covering themselves with a large sheet or a similar outer garment (jilbab) when going out, so that their charms (zinah), whether in the form of hair, or adornments or bodily shape are not displayed. They can either use one outer garment to cover their heads and bosoms as well as to hide their shapes. Or they can use a head cover to cover their heads and bosoms and use another sown outer garment to hide their shapes .There is no requirement for them to cover their faces.

** women are not to be confined to houses, although neither women nor men should roam around purposelessly.




The Jewish Background




In the Old Testament chastity is stressed. One of the ten commandments is :"You shall not commit adultery" (Exod 20:14, Deut 5:18). A woman guilty of illicit sex is to be stoned to death whether or not she is married. A man guilty of illicit sex with an unmarried woman is to be forced to marry her and to stay married to her for the rest of his life while a man guilty of such sex with a woman married or engaged to another man is to be stoned to death (Deut 22:20-29). On the other hand, in 2 Sam 11:1-12:25 we are told that one afternoon King David saw from the roof of his house a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, taking a bath and committed adultery with her. He had her husband murdered and then married her, later begetting Solomon through her. Although condemned by God through Nathan the prophet for these actions, the law of Deut 22 is not at all mentioned. Since Bathsheba was married, both she and King David were punishable by death by stoning. Yet this punishment is not at all considered. This probably means that the law of Deut 22 took shape after King David, that is, centuries after Moses, to whom it is attributed. In any case, it is certain that by the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, adultery became a serious crime in Judaism.



The concern for chastity in the Old Testament does not seem to be accompanied by any regulation about modesty in dress. In Gen 24:65, Rebecca covers her head when she sees Isaac, to whom she is to be married. But this is not in any way equivalent to hijab, since earlier she does not cover her head when she meets with Abraham's servant and the party of men with him. Rebecca=s  veiling herself represents her reverence and subjection to her would-be husband and not, as in Islam, a means and a symbol of chastity and modesty in general. A traditional Christian commentary on the Bible explains Gen 24;65 as follows: Ashe took a veil, and covered herself‑‑The veil is an essential part of female dress. In country places it is often thrown aside, but on the appearance of a stranger, it is drawn over the face, as to conceal all but the eyes. In a bride it was a token of her reverence and subjection to her husband@ (Jameison-Faussett-Brown Commentary and Explanatory on the Whole  Bible).


Another  interesting  text is Genesis 38:15, where Tamar is taken for a prostitute (zonah) by Judah because Ashe had covered her face@. Later in 38:21 she is described as Atemple prostitute@ (kedeshah). In ancient pagan religions prostitutes were employed and their hire was used to pay for the sacrifices (cf. Num 25:1-2, Deut 23:18, Hosea 4:14). It was the custom for such a Asacred@ prostitute to cover her face by a veil. Writing in the 5th century BCE  Herodotus (1;199) describes this veil as being like a wreath of string covering the head and face. This veil could signify an attempt to appear respectable or the prostitute=s submissiveness.


In the Old Testament divorce and polygamy are permitted. To be sure in Deut 17:17 it is said that the king should not multiply wives for himself, but this is not set as a law against polygamy but rather an advice against luxury. For the same passage says that the king should not multiply horses and wealth for himself. Clearly this does not mean that it is illegal to have more than one horse. Also, when in 1 Kings 11:3-8 and Neh 13:25-27 Solomon is said to sin under the influence of his wives, the issue is not polygamy but having foreign wives.




From the few references found in the Old Testament, it does not appear that something like the veil or head cover is a well established practice in Judaism. But Jewish traditions are not entirely based on the Old Testament. Rather, oral traditions, many of which were written by the Rabbis at various times,  play as much or greater part in determining Jewish beliefs and practices. From these it becomes evident that head-cover was widely practised by the religious Jewish women. According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer,  Ait was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye free.@ Ancient rabbinical authorities said that "it is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered," "cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen,@ and Aa woman who exposes her hair for self‑adornment brings poverty." Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman's hair is considered "nudity". During the Tannaitic period (between the advent of Christianity and Islam) Athe Jewish woman's failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense." But the veil was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman's inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband (The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective (Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986,  pages 139, 316-317, quoted from Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem, AThe Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth & the Reality@).





According to Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, pages 237-239), the veil signified a woman's self‑respect and social status. Women of lower classes would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf in order to look respectable.  Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until the nineteenth century when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth century forced many of them to go out bare‑headed. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with a wig as another form of head covering. Today, most pious Jewish women do not cover their head except in the synagogue.  Some of them, such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig.




The emphasis on chastity already found in the Jewish tradition is enhanced greatly in sayings early attributed to Jesus. These consists of the sayings where Jesus stresses the purity of eyes and prohibits divorce. One also needs to consider his presumed celibacy.


Jesus and purity of eyes. In a saying recorded only by Matthew among the four canonical gospels Jesus is reported to have said:


You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery". But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt 5:27-28).


This saying is found in the famous sermon on the mount. While this sermon contains some authentic material, the sermon as a whole cannot be considered reliable words of Jesus. It is even doubtful that Jesus stood on a mount, as Matthew tells us, since Luke in recording some of the parallel sayings says that Jesus stood on a "level place" (Luke 6:17). Matthew it seems brings Jesus on a mountain because he wants to present Jesus as the second Moses who like the first Moses receives or delivers his law on a mountain. Usually the reliable material about Jesus is to be found among sayings which have an independent attestation by another source, especially Luke. The above passage has no independent attestation by Luke or any other source and hence cannot be confidently accepted as Jesus' word. However, it teaches something that Jesus could have said.


The above saying, of course, recalls the Qur=anic verse about lowering gaze. But two important differences are worth noting.  In the gospel saying only men are addressed, whereas the Qur=an addresses both men and women, thus recognizing that women are as much sexual beings as men (this is  also recognized in the New Testament, as in 1 Cor 7:2-5). Secondly, the Qur=an avoids the exaggerated position that a lustful look already amounts to adultery. The gospel saying  resembles  more closely the hadith in which looking (with desire) is described as a form of adultery (see above). But again a more balanced attitude is shown in that the looking  is described as one of the minor sins (lamam) whereas actual adultery is a major sin.



Jesus and divorce. Another saying of Jesus which is relevant to chastity has much greater claim to authenticity. This is the saying about divorce which in fact is one of the best-attested sayings of Jesus, being quoted or referred to by varied sources -- Paul, Mark, and Q (the material common to Matthew and Luke but not to Mark)  and the Shepherd of Hermas (4.1:6, 10), written about 100 CE in Rome. Unfortunately, the various sources quote the saying in different forms making it necessary to reconstruct the probable form of the original story by a detailed analysis.


In addition to the saying, Mark and Matthew also record a controversy story in which Jesus answers a question about divorce.  We can begin our analysis by examining this controversy story. Its versions in Mark and Matthew read:


              MARK                                                                           MATTHEW


Some Pharisees came, and to test him                     Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him

 they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to                     they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to 

divorce his wife?" He answered them,               divorce his wife for any cause?@ He answered,

 "What did Moses command you?"    

They said, "Moses commanded a man to

 write a certificate of dismissal and to

divorce her." But Jesus said to them,

 "Because of        

your hardness of heart he wrote this

commandment for you. But from the                      "Have you not read that the one who 

beginning of creation, >God made them                         made them at the beginning 'made them male

male and female.' 'For this reason a man                and female,' and said 'For this reason a man

shall leave his father and mother and be                  shall leave his father and mother and be     

joined to his wife, and the two shall                           joined to his wife,' and the two shall

become one flesh.' So they are no longer                  become one flesh'? So they are no longer

two but one flesh. Therefore what God has             two but one flesh. Therefore what God has

joined together, let no one separate."                       joined together, let no one separate."

                                                                                 They said to him, "Why then Moses commanded

                                                                                  us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce

                                                                                her?" He said to them, "It was because you were                                                                                                so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to                                                                                                        divorce your wives, but from the beginning                                                                                                        it was not so.


Then in the house the disciples asked                      And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife,

 him again about this matter. He said to                   except for unchastity, and marries another,

them, "Whoever divorces his wife and                     commits adultery" (Matt 19:3-9).

marries another commits adultery against                                                 

her; and if she divorces her husband and

marries another, she commits adultery"

(Mark 10:2-12).


Some of the differences between Mark and Matthew are worth noting:



1)  In Mark the Pharisees ask the question, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" This question, though understandable in Mark's Gentile church, is strange in the Palestinian context, since every Jew must have known that the law allows divorce. Matthew therefore has added to the question the words: "for any cause." That is, in Matthew the question is about an unqualified permission for divorce.


2)  Just as in Mark the question raised by the Pharisees is strange in a Palestinian environment so also is Jesus' response in the form of the question: "What did Moses command you?" Matthew has taken care of this also. In his gospel Jesus answers the Pharisees' question using Gen 1:27 and 2:24 as in Mark. This answer does not fit with the general understanding of the Mosaic law on divorce and naturally leads the Pharisees to ask, "Why then Moses commanded us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" Jesus then answers with a reference to the hardness of hearts as in Mark.


3) In Matthew Jesus says to the Pharisees: "but from the beginning it was not so." These words, which are not found in Mark, presumably mean that at some point in history hard-heartedness and/or the permission to divorce did not exit.


4)   In Mark the saying about divorce is spoken after the controversy with the Pharisees in a house to the disciples privately while in Matthew it is part of the public dialogue. This is because in his version of the sermon on the mount Matthew has already made this a part of Jesus' public teaching. Also, the words "And I say to you," which are not found in Mark's version are an echo of the sermon on the mount. These are special to Matthew and probably reflect his way of saying that Jesus as the second Moses brings something new.


5)   In Mark the saying about divorce is found in two parallel parts, one about men and the other about women: "whoever divorces his wife ... if she divorces her husband ...". In Matthew the part about women is omitted. This is because in the Jewish tradition a woman does not divorce her husband, she only asks for a divorce. But in Roman custom in the New Testament times women could divorce their husbands. Mark probably reflects this Roman custom.


It is almost certain that Matthew knew and used Mark rather than other way around. Thus the more original form of the story is to be found in Mark. But the story in Mark reflects the environment of the Gentile church rather than the Palestinian environment in which Jesus lived. Hence it is difficult to attribute it to Jesus. This is further suggested by the fact that unlike the saying about divorce the controversy story is not attested independently of Mark. It seems that  the story was composed by someone outside Palestine using legal arguments about the Jewish law concerning divorce that were already going on there among the Hellenist Jews.


But even if the controversy story is authentic, it does not amount to an abrogation of the Mosaic law of divorce. For it can be interpreted as follows: The law has to make allowances to all kinds of human weaknesses. What man should or should not do cannot therefore always be determined by looking at the law. The law does indeed allow divorce, but that does not mean that divorce should be practised.


Let us now examine the saying about divorce more closely. We have five canonical versions. Mark 10:11-12, Matt 5:32, 19:9, Luke 16:18, 1 Cor 7:10-11. The last of these passages reads:


To the married I give this command -- not I but the Lord -- that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Cor 7:10-11).



This is of course the earliest reference to the saying about divorce. But since here Paul is paraphrasing in his own words what Jesus was reported to have said, it does not provide any direct help in determining what Jesus actually said.


Luke 16:18 and Matt 5:32 probably come from a common source (Q) and may be looked at together:


Anyone who divorces his wife and marries                  Anyone who divorces his wife, except on    

another commits adultery, and whoever                      the ground of unchastity, causes her to

marries a woman divorced from her husband               commit adultery; and whoever marries a   

commits adultery (Luke 16:18).                                  divorced woman commits adultery  (Matt 5:32).  


Likewise, Mark 10:12-13 and Matt 19:9 are parallel sayings. We have already quoted them, but for the sake of convenience they are reproduced below:


Whoever divorces his wife and                                  And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife,  

 marries another commits adultery against                except for unchastity, and marries another,  

 her; and if she divorces her husband and                   commits adultery (Matt 19:3-9).

marries another, she commits adultery"

(Mark 10:11-12).


As already noted, Mark's version reflects non-Jewish custom when it refers to a woman who divorces her husband. This together with the fact that other versions do not mention divorce by a woman, makes it highly improbable that Mark has the original saying. Similarly, the exception made by Matthew in favor of "unchastity" which is not found in any other source is an addition made by Matthew.


There is another difference between the various versions. According to Matt 5:32 anyone who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery while according to Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 anyone who divorces his wife and marries another himself commits adultery. 


So what did Jesus really say? In the absence of any other indication we can say that the statements found in the maximum number of  versions may be accepted as the most original. This leads us to Luke 16:18, which is reproduced below:


Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).


Each of the two parts of this passage, one highlighted by italics and the other by underlining, is  found in at least two versions.



Now that we have reconstructed the probable form of the original saying, how are we to understand it? In this connection we need to keep in mind that if authentic the saying was probably spoken in Aramaic whereas we possess only Greek version. As we all know a single word can sometimes make a big difference in meaning. Also, interpretation requires knowing the context in which the original words were spoken. Luke provides us with no context for the saying. He has taken isolated sayings and put them together. Matthew puts the saying once in the context of the sermon on the mount and once in the context of a controversy story, in both cases spoken in public. This is contradicted by Mark, according to which the saying was spoken privately to the disciples after the controversy. Thus we cannot determine the context with any confidence. We would therefore examine the saying within the two contexts provided by Mark and Matthew: the controversy story and the sermon of the mount, keeping in mind that both may be unhistorical.


In interpreting the saying the first question is whether it should be considered a legal statement. In the past most Christians interpreted the saying as an absolute legal prohibition of divorce, but while such a legal interpretation of the saying is understandable it raises several difficulties:


If we look at the saying in the context of the sermon of the mount, then it cannot be taken literally and legally. For just before the saying about divorce the sermon on the mount records another saying in which Jesus tells people to cut the part of the body which makes them sin. This cannot be taken literally. Most other sayings in the sermon are also exaggerated statements to make people think in terms of morality rather than balanced and practical statements of the law. Hence the saying about divorce should be put in the same category and not be taken literally and legally.


If we read the saying in its Markan context, then the categorical prohibition of divorce is spoken privately to the disciples, which may mean that Jesus was only setting a special standard for his apostles rather than modifying the Law for all.


Most importantly, there are many indications that Jesus accepted the authority of the Old Testament and the Mosaic law. This is suggested by such gospel passages as Mark 1:44, Luke 16:17, Matt 5:17-20, 23:2-3, 23, Luke 11:42, and also by, where even Paul who abrogates the Jewish law admits that Jesus was under it during his life on earth. When Jesus did say things  about the law his tendency was, as the Qur=an also says, to liberalize it rather than to make it more strict. Therefore it is highly unlikely that in this one instance of divorce he overturned the Mosaic law making it more rigid and strict. So we should look for a non-legalistic interpretation.


One such interpretation is that Jesus is using here exaggeration to discourage people from leaving their  spouses for marrying others whom they desire. Notice that it is not said simply that divorce is wrong. The emphasis is on divorcing and marrying another. If somebody divorced but did not marry another, there would be nothing in the saying to condemn that (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11).  Or, if someone divorced without the purpose of marrying someone else but later met someone and married him or her, still this may not be blameworthy. That is, Jesus is against desiring someone other than one=s spouse. This very desire can be called adultery according to one of the sayings of Jesus considered above. Acting on the desire by divorcing one=s spouse and then marrying the person of one=s desire would  be adultery all the more.



.           Jesus and celibacy. Jesus is often said to be celibate. This is not explicitly stated in the New Testament but is rather a deduction from a lack of any references there to Jesus' wife, marriage or children. One argues that had Jesus been married we would find such references in the gospels just as we find references to his parents, brothers and sisters. But this argument is not conclusive, since the gospels do not concern themselves much with the time between Jesus' birth and childhood and his baptism by John and the subsequent start of his ministry. Mark and John say nothing at all about these years of Jesus' life while Matthew and Luke start their gospels with diverging and sometimes conflicting traditions about the birth and childhood of Jesus and then move to Jesus' baptism and his ministry. The absence of any infancy material in Mark and John and contradictory material in Matthew and Luke show that tradition preserved almost nothing reliable about Jesus' life before his baptism. Consequently, if before his baptism Jesus was married at one time and then was divorced or became a widower, one cannot expect a reference to this in the gospel tradition. Only if Jesus was married during the crucial period after his baptism should we expect tradition to know and preserve some reference to his wife or marriage. Notice that if the gospels have references to Jesus' mother, brothers and sisters it is because they were alive at this crucial period. The references to his father or step-father Joseph are much rarer and this has been taken to mean that Joseph died before Jesus' baptism. Thus from the gospels we can conclude only that Jesus was probably not married when he started his ministry.


Outside the gospels, in the New Testament epistles and Revelation, evidence of Jesus' celibacy is again lacking. Indeed, Paul does not seem to know that Jesus was celibate because otherwise we should expect him to mention Jesus' celibacy in addition to his own when he talks to his converts about celibacy:


I wish that all were as I myself am. ... To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry ( 1 Cor 7:7-8).


If Paul knew that Jesus was celibate, we should expect him to recommend to the unmarried and the widows to remain unmarried as "the Lord was and as I am". But he only has his own example to mention.


But the question whether Jesus was single or married is not the real issue. For the word "celibacy" has two meanings: 1) the condition of being single; 2) the condition of being single as a result of a vow or some other religious intention. The really important issue is whether Jesus was celibate in the second sense: that is, whether Jesus was celibate with a religious intention. For one can remain single for many reasons: for lack of sufficient income or time, inability to find a suitable spouse, some disease or psychological problem. Since the New Testament does not mention Jesus' celibacy, we cannot expect it to give us his reasons for it, assuming, of course, that he was celibate. We can only determine his attitude towards celibacy from his recorded sayings. Only in one passage in the gospels does Jesus support celibacy. Matthew, after recording the controversy about divorce and Jesus' prohibition of it, gives the following dialogue between the disciples and Jesus:


His disciples said to him, "If such is the case with a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can" (Matt 19:10-12) .


In this passage living as a eunuch (i.e. being celibate and avoiding all sexual activity) for the sake of the kingdom of God is considered the highest ideal. But for two reasons this passage must be regarded as a later creation possibly of Matthew himself. First, this dialogue is missing from the parallel Markan material (10:1-12). Second, Paul provides us with a positive evidence that Jesus never recommended celibacy. In 1 Cor 7:25-31 we read:


Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife do not seek a wife. ... I mean brothers that the appointed time has grown short ... For the present form of this world is passing away.



Here Paul is recommending that virgins and other unmarried people should remain single while married people should not divorce. He then states explicitly that in his recommendation he has no command of the Lord, i.e. Jesus. In prohibition of divorce Paul does know of the command of Jesus. Consequently, what he does not have is any words of Jesus that speak about the desirability of celibacy. It may be noted in parentheses that Paul gives a reason for why divorce and marriage both should be avoided: the end of the world is near. From other parts of the New Testament we know that this "near" means within the lifetime of the first generations of Christians. Since, however, many generations have passed since Paul without seeing the end of the world, Paul's reason for celibacy are clearly proved to be wrong.


The practice of the most prominent eyewitness apostles also does not seem to favor celibacy. Thus Peter, who is said to be the rock on which Jesus built his church, was married during Jesus' ministry. Mark tells us that Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law who was sick with fever. This took place in the house of Peter, so that his mother-in-law either visited him or was actually living in his house, which leads us to the probable conclusion that Peter was married at the time. Indeed, long after Jesus we see Peter still married and even travelling with his wife during missionary journeys, as we learn from Paul in 1 Corinthian, a letter written more than two decades after Jesus:


Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife [literally, a sister as wife], as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [=Peter]? (1 Cor 9:5)


Here Paul mentions Peter specially but his reference to "other apostles and the brothers of the Lord" shows that many if not all the apostles and brothers of Jesus were married, that is, the men who had sat in Jesus' company and held the highest positions in the Jerusalem church. It is, of course, possible to argue that Peter and the apostles married before Jesus started to teach and stayed married because of the prohibition of divorce. Had they been not married before they became Jesus= disciples they would have stayed celibate. But we have no positive evidence to support this argument.


Thus if Jesus was celibate it is very unlikely that it was because of any religious reasons. It was for some of the other reasons mentioned above. At least one of these reasons was present in Jesus' life and that is lack of sufficient income. Thus during his ministry Jesus travelled constantly and  was dependent on the support of those who believed in him. There were times that this support was not available to him so much so that he did not even have roof over his head, as we learn from the following saying in Q:


Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but this one has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20=Luke 9:58).


The Greek behind our translation "this one" literally means "son of man" which is a translation of the Aramaic bar nasha. This Aramaic expression really means "man" and could be used by a person to refer to himself. The expression in this saying should not be understood in terms of the apocalyptic Son of Man, for what have holes and nests and the homelessness of Jesus to do with that figure? In any case, for our purposes the saying provides evidence that Jesus' economic situation was probably not such as to enable him to marry.



Jesus and  hijab. Jesus does not give any practical guidance to help the community preserve chastity. In particular, he does not talk about modesty in dress. The saying attributed to him in Matthew talks about the Ahijab@ of the eyes but not of the clothes. However, it should be noted that Jesus taught within a Jewish environment and assumed many of the Jewish laws and traditions. We should not expect his teaching to confirm explicitly every single Jewish law or tradition that he accepted. Since, as appears from what we said above about the  Jewish background,  Jewish women covered their heads and Jesus does not anywhere condemns the practice,  it is quite possible that he took the practice for granted. If so, it is impossible to tell what interpretation he gave to the practice.  From what was stated above about the Jewish background it seems that head covering could have both a negative connotation of women=s subjugation to men or a positive connotation of respectability and dignity.


To summarize, we conclude, therefore, that in all probability the Prophet Jesus


** did not practise celibacy with a religious understanding and did not  teach that celibacy is good or desirable. The examples of eyewitness apostles, some of whom were appointed by Jesus himself, shows furthermore that to be priests, if at all priesthood is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, celibacy is not a necessary condition.


** he did not prohibit divorce in a legal sense; but condemned divorcing one=s spouse out of a desire to marry another.


** he took the Jewish practice of women covering their heads for granted.




After the departure of Jesus traditions related to some of  the topics touched above underwent in the church considerable development, which we now briefly trace.


Divorce.  At some point the main church came to understand Jesus= saying about divorce as an  absolute legal prohibition of divorce, as the Roman catholic church still does. The exception given by Matthew was understood by the main church to refer to those situations which make the marriage itself invalid, e.g., marriage with a blood relation such as a parent or sibling or an incontinence on the part of the wife discovered after marriage. Until quite recently this last rule did not apply to incontinence on the part of the husband.


Celibacy.  As already noted Paul, who himself was celibate, taught Christians that celibacy is an ideal state (1 Cor 7:7, 25-31). After the time of Paul there further developed the idea that there should be priests in the churches and that they have to be celibate.


Head covering.  We earlier saw that neither the Old Testament nor the gospels enjoin the headcovering although it was enjoined in oral and rabbinical tradition. It was again Paul who for the first time made not only the headcovering but also a very negative interpretation of it a part of the Christian scriptures.  Thus he wrote:


Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head - it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.  For a man ought not to have  his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection [or glory] of God; but woman is the reflection [or glory] of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman was made from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head, because of the angels (1 Cor 11: 4-10 in New Revised Standard Version).


Despite the fact that some have understood "authority on her head" in the sense of "freedom of choice regarding her head" and despite the obscurity of the words "because of the angels," it is clear that head covering is viewed in the above passage as a symbol of woman's inferior position in relation to man and of man's authority over her. This becomes even clearer when we recall some background from the Old Testament. Regarding the female slaves, the book of Deuteronomy says: "suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head ..." (21:12). It is this type of tradition in which shaving the head was some kind of indication of a man taking possession of a woman slave as a wife that probably lies behind Paul's words: "For if a woman does not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil." Such a view of the head covering existed in Judaism before  Paul (see our earlier comment on Gen 24:65). But in Judaism along with this type of understanding there was also the other interpretation which regarded head cover as a symbol of chastity and dignity.


In another epistle purportedly written by Paul we read:


I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission, I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (1 Tim 2:8-15).


Here, again, the reference to modesty in dress is followed immediately by a reference to the prohibition of women from teaching which in turn is related directly to the moral inferiority of women and their subjugation to men.


In the third century, Tertullian in his famous treatise 'On The Veiling Of Virgins' wrote, "Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers..." From this it seems that wearing a veil out on the streets was a very common practice among young Christian women. Tertullian=s exhortation is that they should also wear a veil inside in the churches, as laid down by Paul.


In view of the New Testament passages and the views of Tertullian cited above it is hardly surprising that among the canon laws of the catholic church today, there is a law that requires women to cover their heads in church (R. Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974,  p. 162). These official statements have been reflected in actual practice. To this day many Christian women, especially in more traditional Christian countries, go to church services with their heads covered. And of course  catholic nuns have been covering their heads both on the streets and inside the churches.            Some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their women veiled most of the time. The reason for the veil, as offered by their leaders, is "The head covering is a symbol of woman's subjection to the man and to God," the same logic introduced by  Paul (Mary Murray, The Law of the Father, London: Routledge, 1995, p. 67).





Hijab represents values that are affirmed in the New Testament to a much severer degree than even in Islam. Thus as in the Qur'an, so also in the Bible sex is permitted only within a publicly declared marriage relationship. The Christian Bible in fact goes further and considers complete abstinence from sex as the ideal state. Also, it permits sexual relationship only within one marriage whereas the Qur'an permits such a relationship within several marriages, either taking place successively through divorce or simultaneously through polygamous marriages, although the Qur'an enjoins considerable caution in the use of both the divorce and the polygamy.


After the formation of the New Testament the Christian church tried by and large to impose  the above teachings, in some ways making them even severer. Thus in addition to the practice of celibacy among priests and almost absolute prohibition of divorce for lay people the church introduced many days in the year during which sex was not permitted even within marriage. Also, pleasure in marital sex was considered undesirable. Because of this type of sexual morality, until the 19th century it would have been unthinkable for any serious Christian to speak against hijab, should he have been exposed to Muslim culture. Indeed, during earlier centuries the Muslim values would have been viewed by Christians as not going far enough. During those earlier centuries Christians presented Islam as a religion tolerant of promiscuity. Thus the Christian literature on Islam before the second half of the nineteenth century hurls untold insults on the Prophet of Islam because he is reported to have said that he loved women, because he at some point had several wives, and because he reportedly died talking to God with his head lying in the bosom of his wife 'A'isha.


Since the modern Western morality of sex is completely opposed to the New Testament morality, especially as found in the words attributed to Jesus, one would think that people in the West would think that either the modern values or the New Testament or both are wrong. But while some do seem to have reached this necessary conclusion, a large number of people here seem to think that both are right. This latter view assumes that right and wrong are socially determined. That is, right is what is socially acceptable at a particular time while wrong is what is socially unacceptable at that time. Therefore in earlier times it was wrong to have sex outside marriage and to divorce whereas all this is now right or at least tolerable. This view of right and wrong is where Islam and the modern Western culture differ most sharply. In Islam right and wrong are defined by the nature (fitrah) of human beings, of human societies, and of the particular universe in which they exist. Although, circumstances, including social conditions, do determine whether a certain action is right or wrong, but basic moral values cannot change unless the very nature of human beings changes. In particular, both the modern morality of sex and the New Testament morality cannot be right whatever the time-frame. One of them has to be wrong. The Muslim view is that both are wrong. The sexual morality as found in the Christian Bible is wrong because it is alienated from the nature of human sexuality while the modern morality is wrong because it is alienated from the nature of human family units.



Another Western reaction to hijab seems to be based on the perception that hijab is a symbol of women's subjugation to men. Related with this perception is the assumption that it is the husbands who force their wives to wear hijab. Once a Muslim woman went with her husband to a shopping center, wearing a veil which covered her face except the eyes. Some Canadian women stopped and started to yell at the husband saying that he should be ashamed of himself doing such a thing and that he should go back to his country. The husband in fact believes that women need to cover only the head and not the face. It is the wife who interprets the Qur=an to mean that everything should be covered except the eyes. Another married Muslim woman visited by herself a Christian family wearing the head-cover. The lady of the house told the Muslim woman: You can take off your head cover because your husband is not present. It is this perception that somehow Muslim women wear hijab because they are under the authority of men that had made an issue interesting for the feminists for whom therefore hijab has become something to be combatted for the liberation of women.


How did this perception of hijab develop in the West? For an answer we must turn to the  Bible and the church tradition outlined above. As we have seen the Biblical and church tradition by and large connects the head-cover with the inferiority of women and their subjugation to men. In 1 Cor 11:4-10 and 1 Tim 2:8-15 which we have quoted earlier it is said that women should wear the head-cover because they are under the authority of men. From this many Westerners have concluded  that Islamic hijab must have similar meaning. But of course in Islam hijab has no such meaning. The Qur'an, when it mentions hijab, does not in any way relate it to the question of authority and when it does say elsewhere that man is the head of the family it does not mention hijab. Also, man's position as the head of the family is not justified in the Qur=an by man's moral superiority, but is considered simply a biological and functional matter. In fact, the moral superiority of men over women is nowhere suggested in the Qur'an, which rejects the story that Eve was alone or first deceived by the devil and states explicitly that both were deceived.. Also, in the Qur'an birth pangs are a natural phenomenon and not a punishment for Eve's sin (unlike Gen 3:16). In the Qur'an hijab is mentioned only in connection with chastity. Its purpose is simply to stress and promote sexual purity in the society. And Muslim women should wear hijab only because God had commanded and they should do so  even if their husbands do not want it. For in Islam no one has the authority to prohibit what God has permitted or to allow what God has prohibited.


In regard to the two New Testament passages quoted above, it should be noted that from the Muslim perspective these do not define true, divinely revealed, Christianity. First Corinthian, from which the first passage comes was very probably written by Paul who never met Jesus, while 1 Timothy, the source of the second passage, is widely believed to be the work of an unknown person in the churches founded by Paul. Nothing similar to these passages is found in the words attributed to Jesus or to his eyewitness disciples. Likewise in the Old Testament we do not have any injunction about head cover much less an injunction with the interpretation given in the Pauline letters.


We also need to dispel any suggestion whatsoever that hijab is in any way a suppression or denial of female sexuality. In many cultures including some AMuslim@ cultures there has been a tendency to deny or suppress  female sexuality, one of the most cruel form of which is the female circumcision which is neither enjoined nor encouraged by Islam. It seems that some Westerners see in hijab a milder attempt to suppress female sexuality. No statement in the Qur'an or authentic ahadith supports such a view. In Islam female sexuality is as fully recognized and given as complete a freedom of expression within marriage as male sexuality. This is even shown by  the very  verse where the head-covering is mentioned. As noted earlier, when the Qur'an tells both men and women to lower their gaze it is giving the same recognition to female sexuality as to male sexuality.



It is sometimes suggested that Islam unfairly puts on women more restrictions than on men. This objection comes from the modern abhorrence of any differences between men and women. Male sexuality and female sexuality work differently. It is true that men and women are both attracted to each other physically and the Qur'an also recognizes this. But men are generally attracted by female physical charms to much greater degree than women are attracted by the male body. Similarly, both men and women react to how they feel for each other but women respond to man's feelings to a far greater degree than do men to women's feelings. This difference is clearly shown by the amount of time and money men and women spend on grooming themselves, by the fact that more women undergo plastic surgery than do men, by the fact that men visit female striptease shows much more frequently than women visit male striptease shows, by the fact that men are much more interested in looking at pictures in the playboy magazine than women looking at playgirl magazines, and by the fact that women are much more interested in reading romance novels where male feelings of deep love and commitment for the heroine are depicted although it does no  harm if the hero is also handsome. Thus display of physical charms is much more a part of female sexuality while being attracted to those charms is much more a part of male sexuality. The difference in the degree to which men and women are required in Islam to cover themselves reflects this difference in men and women.


A related objection is that hijab is a male imposition on women so that it may become easy for men to control their sexual urges. Once again this objection shows poor understanding of human sexuality. Women in the process of displaying their charms can get as much aroused as men in watching those charms. Consequently, hijab by preventing public display of female charms helps women to check their sexual urges as much as it helps men to check theirs. Ultimately, hijab helps the whole society by creating an atmosphere of modesty and sexual self-control. In 33:53 after laying down the regulation for hijab the Qur`an says that it is purer for both men and women. Hijab is meant to purify both men and women.


One appealing argument against hijab in the West is that since most women here dress with their hair, legs, and parts of their bosoms bare, men have gotten used to it and hence it is not necessary to cover these parts of the body. But every move to greater bareness in the West culminating in the modern standards must have been started by some immodest women, possibly under the encouragement of some even more immodest men. But should our standards of modesty be determined by the immodest? I think not.


Moreover, it is doubtful that men get completely used to greater nudity. It is only that the stimuli generated by contact with greater nudity are not felt at a conscious level but are driven to a subconscious level where they either create a drive for infidelity or they contribute to impotence or homosexuality.  At the very least they reduce the pleasure in marital sex, since some of the sexual energy is dissipated simply in dealing with the stimuli generated by increased bareness.


Finally, like parables, actions can have several meanings. Even if in societies like that of the West hijab is not necessary for helping individual men and women to guard their chastity, it serves a meaningful purpose. As recent sex scandals involving the Whitehorse and the public reaction to it show,  universally held values of modesty and marital control over sex are fast corroding here. Muslim women with hijab are silently giving the message to the West and to the world at large that these values are important.

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