Islamic Perspectives



The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, 2003

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(October, 2003)

This book, edited by Sajida S. Alvi et al and published by Women’s Press, has several positive features. But it also suffers from one big flaw: it rejects hijab without providing sufficient basis for doing so and whatever basis it does provide or may be read in-between the lines is extremely unsound. In this review, I first mention the book’s positive features and then critically examine its rejection of hijab in some detail. My purpose is to offer Muslim women a different, and hopefully a much more Islamic perspective, so that they can make more informed choice about hijab.



One of the book’s positive features is that it speaks for Muslim women’s rights and encourages them to regain them through “intellectual vigour and activism.” “Women played an active and central role in the affairs of the community right from the inception of Islam, when Khadija became the first to accept the message of Islam brought home by her husband around 610 CE. They were warriors, Sufis, artists, scholars, teachers and freedom fighters. It is tragic to note how Muslim women lost many of their rights and the status given to them by Islam. The main reason for ‘the present epistemological crisis in Muslim jurisprudence over women’s issues is the blatant absence of female voice in Islamic legal discourse’.” (p. 174-175) 

A second positive feature of the book is that it contains some interesting sociological data about the Muslim and non-Muslim women’s attitudes towards hijab, what it means to those who practice it and what it means to those who do not practice it. See for this the articles contributed by Homa Hoodfar, Patricia Kelly Spurles, Reem Meshal and Sheila McDonough. 

A third positive feature of the book is that although it rejects hijab as an Islamic practice without a sound basis, it at the same time combats the hostility towards the practice by many people in the West.



That the book rejects hijab is shown by statements such as these: 

“Cultural evidence of the historically diverse forms of women’s dress – from the sari (commonly worn on the Indian subcontinent) to the Sudanese tobah, the Egyptian jalabiyah and ‘aba`ah, and the burqa‘ among the Pushtun of Afghanistan – demonstrates that Muslimness has had little to do with a particular dress code. 

“Clearly the history of Muslims in the Diaspora indicates that the idea of a specific dress code for women (often calling for long, loose dresses), with emphasis on the hijab, found a consensus among Muslim religious leaders in North America and Europe only within the last twenty years. Many Muslims are trying to comprehend the process by which this consensus came about, given the near absence of public discussion in the community.” (p. xiii) 

To deduce from the diversity of forms of women’s dress in the Muslim world that Muslimness has nothing to do with a dress code seems to be a rather unsound logic. A dress code can consist of either prescribed form of dress like a school uniform or it can consist of general guidelines with actual form left open to individual tastes and climatic conditions in various regions. For most people it should be obvious from the relevant Qur`anic verses such as the following that Islam does give a dress code for women and hence Muslimness does have something to do with such a code: 

And tell the believing women to reduce their gaze and (thus) guard their chastity, and not to display of their adornment (zinah) except what (normally) becomes apparent thereof and to draw their head-coverings (khumur) over their bosoms. (24:31) 

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

One may argue about the exact meaning of the phrases used in the above passages, but it is obvious that they are giving some instructions for women’s dress. 

The claim that in North America and Europe the consensus on the Islamic dress code emerged in the past 20 years, even if true, is not significant. At least in North America the Muslim community is not very old and it takes time for members of a community scattered over a vast continent to come together, for leadership to emerge and for that leadership to give expression to a position. As for the many bewildered Muslims who are said to be trying to understand this consensus, perhaps they can once again read the relevant Qur`anic passages, not with a view to create room for their own positions but with a view to see what the Qur`an is saying. If the Qur`an is so concerned with the chastity of  men and women as to repeatedly and severely condemn fornication/adultery and to instruct them to lower (or reduce) gaze, and to tell women not to display their zinah, to cover their bosoms/necklines with their head-coverings and to put over them jalabib, why is it surprising that the religious leadership in the Muslim communities in the West has reached the consensus that Islam prescribes for women long, loose dresses along with head-coverings? This consensus is as understandable as the unhappiness about it on the part of those who do not believe in any dress code. 

It may be that this consensus was reached without much public debate, but it is doubtful that in this particular case the result would have been much different had their been debate, provided the debate was based on what the Qur`an and the Hadith say. Indeed, such a debate would have made the consensus even more solid and the attempt by the editors of the book to make a dent into that consensus would have become harder, since the debate would have exposed to the Muslim community at large the irrationality and weakness of the arguments of those who want to do away with the hijab.



The contributors to the book are, of course, well aware of the Qur`anic verses I have cited. So we must ask: How do they deal with these verses while maintaining that Islam or Muslimness has nothing to do with a dress code? 

Behind the book’s rejection of hijab in the face of the Qur`anic verses quoted above there lies a somewhat confused appeal to the following three ideas: 

Primacy of the people 

This is the idea that what a religion teaches is far less important than what its followers say and do, if the former has at all any meaning apart from the latter. For this reason the statement quoted above from the book talks of Muslimness and not Islam. Muslimness is defined by what Muslims do and think. Since Muslim women dress in many different ways across the globe – some wearing sari with their bellies showing and some wearing burqa‘ with everything covered – there is nothing common in their dress and therefore Muslimness has nothing to do with any dress code. 

The fallacy in this line of thinking is that while it is obvious that what Muslims do or think is an important determinant of what Muslimness is, it is equally obvious that Muslimness of conduct or thinking has degrees. That is, some of what some Muslims do or think is more Muslim than what some other Muslims do or think. If this were not so, the term Muslimness – and for that matter Hindu-ness or Sikhness or Christian-ness – would be emptied of all meaning. For, just as the book argues that Muslimness has nothing to do with a dress code, we could argue that the five daily prayers or the Ramadan fast or prohibition of drinking have nothing to do with Muslimness, since some Muslims do not pray, some Muslims do not fast, and some Muslims drink. 

In view of the above comments, it is imperative that after noting that Muslim women wear different styles of clothes we should raise the question: which style is more “Muslim” than which other – a sari showing a woman’s belly or a long loose dress with a head covering? But the book does not raise such a question. 

Furthermore, Muslims -- like all other human beings -- not only give expression to what they are at any time but they -- again like other human beings -- also have ideas and visions of what they should be or should do. Religion is primarily concerned with this latter dimension of human existence. Consequently, no religious discourse is worth much unless it also includes a discussion of how people should behave. But this dimension is all but absent from the book. It does not consider the question as to what style of dress, if any, is ultimately best for society’s spiritual, moral and material health. Had the book been written as a purely sociological or anthropological study, this question could have been avoided. But since the book takes and promotes a religious position on a religious practice, it needed to consider the question. 

Validity of all interpretations 

Another idea misapplied in the book to reject hijab is that our backgrounds and assumptions often heavily influence our interpretation of texts. This idea expresses a very important fact. We can see a very clear illustration of the validity of this idea right before us in the interpretation of Islamic practice of hijab given in the book under review. Almost all, if not all of the seven writers who have contributed to the book are women who do not believe in hijab. The result is almost exactly what is expected: a book claiming that the sacred texts of Islam do not require hijab

What is problematic is not the idea that our backgrounds and assumptions can often enter, at times unknowingly, into the way we read texts but the conclusion from this that all interpretations are valid. This conclusion is expressed in the following statement by L. Clarke in her contribution on “Hijab According to the Hadith: Text and Interpretation”: 

“The author of this essay happens to believe that interpretation consists of the effective and creative interaction of the interpreter with the text rather than the discovery of demonstrable truths. From this point of view (in my case, an outsider’s view) all interpretations are valid on their own grounds and taken in their own terms. Thus conservatives, liberals and all shades between can produce viable exegeses if only they endeavour to do so.” (p. 266) 

Just as no concept of degree is allowed in the “Muslimness” of various types of dresses worn by Muslim women, so also no degree is allowed in the validity of various interpretations of the text, all being considered equally valid. But just as regarding all Muslim conduct equally Muslim is irrational, so also is the view that all interpretations are equally valid. 

If the assertion that “all interpretations are valid on their own grounds and taken in their own terms” means that all interpretations are valid for the persons who advance them, then this is very often true, except that some persons can advance certain interpretations to serve a purpose without actually believing in them, like lawyers in a courtroom. But if this assertion means that we can say nothing confidently and objectively about what texts say or do not say, then this is easily seen to be false. 

Texts, whether religious or not may be open to different interpretations but interested readers are not totally helpless in distinguishing various interpretations according to the degree of their validity. They can, beyond a reasonable doubt, grade them, e.g. as impossible, improbable, probable, possible. If this were not so, we could not put any trust in any judgements in courts or in the conclusions of science, since both require interpretations of statements of facts and/or texts. It does not help to use phrases like “on their own grounds” and “taken in their own terms” because “grounds” and “terms” are also subject to examination that can lead to some of them being found sounder than others. 

To say that the Islamic sacred texts do not prescribe a dress code is an example of an interpretation that can be easily seen to be improbable, if nor impossible. In the Qur`anic passages quoted above, there is room for various interpretations of the phrases “not to display of their zinah”, “except what becomes apparent thereof” and to draw their khumur over their bosoms.” But it is almost impossible to say that the texts give no dress code. 

Another example of an interpretation of the above texts that is improbable, if not impossible, is provided by the views of Muhammad Shahrur. He takes the words “what becomes apparent thereof” to mean parts of the female body that would be immediately apparent if she stood nude such as the limbs, the head, the back. These need not be covered unless social norms demand it! What should be covered are the parts and areas of the female body that by divine design are not immediately visible such as the underarms! This interpretation by Shahrur is mentioned by Sorayya Hajjaji-Jarrah in the article, “Women’s Modesty in Qur`anic Commentaries: The Founding Discourse” that she contributed to the book. At first she seems to be grateful that some writers have departed from the commonly held interpretations. She says: 

“Only a few voices contest the centuries-old prescriptions of women’s style of clothing in Islam, and they do so in a timid manner marked by reservation and precautions. 

“Some exceptions to this traditional approach can be found in the writings of the contemporary Syrian author Muhammad Shahrur, and the contemporary Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi.” (p. 209) 

But later she recognizes Shahrur’s absurdities for what they are, albeit in an understated way: 

“In  presenting such an interesting interpretation, Shahrur, however, stretches the meaning of two key Qur`anic terms almost beyond recognition. These are adornment (zinah) and bosoms/necklines (juyub).” (p. 210) 

It seems that L. Clarke herself does not really believe that all interpretations are valid. For in the same statement where she asserts the validity of all interpretations she talks of “viable exegeses”, suggesting that some interpretations may be “unviable”. But if we have a way to distinguish between “viable” and “unviable” interpretations, then the same way can be used to recognize some interpretations as more viable than others. This means that we cannot simply stop after arriving at a viable interpretation but need to proceed further and enquire whether some of the interpretations are more viable than others. There is no reason why such an enquiry may not sometimes lead to one interpretation being recognized as the most faithful to the text. When this happens the discovery of “demonstrable truth” indeed becomes possible, if “truth” refers to the meaning conveyed by a text. 

There are yet other comments by the author showing that she does not really believe that all interpretations are valid. Thus criticizing some interpreters, she writes that the examples they adduce from the Hadith “seem sometimes not to be apropos, a result, perhaps, of seizing on single instances rather than reading reports in the context of others with similar themes.” (p. 267). In this comment, it is correctly implied that interpretations constructed by seizing on single instances and ignoring other relevant material are not as viable as some others. 

Even though those who declare that all interpretations or all “viable” interpretations are valid may not really believe in their own assertion, it may still seem surprising to some that writers can make such an assertion. But this position does make some sense in the Western Christian tradition, which is the background of some contributors to the book and primary influence for some others. 

The Bible is a collection of many different books written by many different writers in very different times and places. Furthermore, most of the books themselves are not the works of individual writers to whom they are attributed but are instead the results of editing whereby materials written or spoken by other unknown writers or speakers was combined with considerable editorial freedom. Such a book as a whole has almost no point of view of its own -- not even monotheism, considered a central feature of Judaism and an important feature of Christianity, is consistently maintained in the Bible.  As a result, a very bewildering variety of views can be held by selecting suitable passages and reading them together. Also, since the text of the Bible could not set many meaningful and clear limits to beliefs and practices, the task of setting such limits fell in the hands of church officials who acquired greater and greater authority culminating in the establishment of an infallible papacy in Western Christianity. The church officials controlled the beliefs and practices of the people not only by using this enhanced religious authority but also by prohibiting them from reading the Bible and by a very harsh treatment of “heretics”. 

The gross misuse of authority by the church officials and the inherent difficulty of guiding people on the basis of a tradition that points in many different directions led to a revolt against the catholic church and to the secularization of the Christian world. Dissent from the official church positions became easier and this freedom increased where democracy developed. Many people began to read the Bible for themselves and discovered that with very few exceptions, e.g. that the Jews are a chosen race, there is nothing one can settle on its basis. This would easily lead to the conclusion that the Biblical text has very uncertain contents and that even its plainest and consistent statements such as the disapproval of homosexuality may not mean what they say. People reacted to this situation in different ways. Some did not want to do anything with religion, some settled for traditional interpretations as the only truth while others saw validity in all interpretations.  This last mentioned “liberal” view is the proverbial swing in the pendulum from the traditional exclusive claims of possessing truth to the other extreme of eliminating any distinction between truth and falsehood, that is, from absolute exclusiveness to absolute inclusiveness. 

Within the Christian tradition this “liberal” view is an understandable development and it also contains some universal lessons – texts can be interpreted in many different ways and we should be tolerant to different interpretations – lessons taught by Islam and heeded by many Muslims throughout history. But to apply “liberal” way of reading the Bible to the Islamic sacred texts is to ignore profound differences between Islam and Christianity. 

It is true that the Islamic sacred texts are also subject to different interpretations like all other texts. But the Qur`an and to a much lesser degree the Hadith result from the mission of a single person at a very specific time and place and from a very strong consciousness that this mission is universal and lasting. They therefore define much more carefully, clearly, and consistently the limits to belief and practice and these limits are meant for much greater applicability across time and cultures. Moreover, while the Islamic religious leaders can exercise a lot of influence on people, both positive and negative, they never gained an infallible or even priestly type of status, at least not among the Sunnis who constitute about 90% of the Muslim population in the world. Consistent with this, ordinary people not only have always been free to read the Qur`an and the Hadith but have been encouraged to do so. Also, the right to interpret the texts did not require a seal of approval from a religious authority. This situation is more like the situation in the scientific community than in the Christian church. Just as any person can present a theory about a phenomenon, regardless of whether s/he gained knowledge through a formal education or informal education, any Muslim with knowledge, whether acquired formally or informally, can interpret the texts, giving evidence for the interpretation. This does not mean that every interpretation gets the same attention or respect any more than every scientific theory gets the same attention or respect in the scientific community. Since people can come up with very irresponsible interpretations Muslims have to show caution about which interpretation they entertain. This caution has probably led too many Muslims to close their minds to some new interpretations, but this is not the real character of the Muslim religious culture. 


Contextualization is another concept that is misapplied in the book for casting doubts on the Islamic character of hijab. This term means that in interpreting the Qur`an and the Hadith one should take into account the social, political, and economic realities of the time in which these sources emerged and which to some extent determined the way they formulated their teaching. 

Like other concepts discussed above, this idea has also some merit and it has been applied by Muslims to the interpretation of the sources of Islam from the earliest time. Thus they preserved traditions about asbab al-nuzul, the reasons for the revelation of particular passages even if these traditions are not all reliable. They also admitted that a change in circumstances can change the way the Qur`anic injunctions are or are not applied. A familiar example is the reported suspension by ‘Umar of the punishment for stealing in time of severe famine. Both the examination of the connection between the social, political, and economic circumstances and the formulations in the sources of Islam as well as of the dependence of the application of their teachings on changing circumstances can be and should be done at a more systematic and deeper level than was the case in the past. This can only improve our understanding of the letter and spirit of the Islamic teachings and our implementation of them. 

But what is problematic is that some people, including it seems most of the contributors to the book under review, are too quick to use contextualization to disregard clear commandments in the Qur`an. Thinking that they have explained a commandment in terms of its social, political and economic context they seem quick to conclude that there is nothing eternal about the commandment, especially in its letter. Likewise, appealing to the idea that application of Islamic teachings depends on the social conditions prevailing at a given time, they too quickly conclude that some commandments are not applicable in our present age. But this type of approach makes a mockery of the Qur`anic belief that the Prophet Muhammad is the last and universal Messenger and that therefore his teachings are formulated by an all-knowing God for maximum effectiveness and applicability over space and time. This means that injunctions of the Qur`an and the authentic Sunnah aught to be followed both in letter and spirit, until discussion has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the spirit of those teachings is better preserved by reinterpreting or suspending the letter. 

The contributors to the book provide no reasonable demonstration, much less beyond a reasonable doubt, why in this day and age hijab is to be rejected. They never raise and answer relevant questions like: Is hijab not a way to maintain chastity and loyalty/commitment to marriage partners? Have chastity and loyalty, then, become irrelevant? If chastity and loyalty are important, is it not true that these values have been greatly corroded, so much so that the President of the USA can fill the Oval Office with the odour of illicit sex with an intern and get away with it? Also, is it not true that in our age, corrosion of the values of chastity and loyalty has accompanied increasing bareness in dress? 

The book mentions the example of slavery. “For centuries, in many cultural and political contexts, Muslims considered slavery acceptable according to Islam; this is no longer the case.” (p. xx) If the implication is that acceptance of hijab that was a reality for centuries is similarly no longer necessary now, then this is an illustration of the fallacious ways facts are used in this book to reject hijab. In case of slavery, the very founding document of Islam provides clear basis for considering its elimination desirable. In the Qur`an, from the early Makkan to later Madinan chapters we find clear statements showing that freeing slaves is not just a good thing but that – and this point is rarely noted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- it is part of being a believer and a righteous religious person (90:10-17, 2:177). Consistent with this the Qur`an legislates that if slaves want their freedom, their owners should help them earn it (24:33). It is clearly a valid deduction from these and other verses that if there is a practical way to free all slaves and prevent any more slaves from being made, that is, to eliminate slavery, we should find and adopt such a way and if such a way has been found by humanity at large we should accept it. Now where in the Qur`an do we find a similar basis to eliminate hijab

Contextualization finds its fullest use in the article contributed by Soraya Hajjaji-Jarrah, “Women’s Modesty in Qur`anic Commentaries: The Founding Discourse”. This article begins by a series of comments on the relevant Qur`an verses –  primarily 24:31 and 33:59 we quoted earlier -- to show that the verses do not clearly support hijab

Regarding 24:31, the article comments that the word zinah refers to the external adornment that a woman wears such as rings, necklaces, make-up etc. and does not include any part of the body. The argument is that the word in its 43 Qur`anic usages “invariably carries a connotation of being unessential and/or extraneous to the original” (p. 188) and body parts are not unessential and/or extraneous to a woman. This comment is meant to downgrade the importance of covering the body. The fact that the same verse tells believing women to cover at least one part of the body -- bosoms/necklines – is not given due importance. 

As for the other verse, 33:59, the article neutralizes it by contextualizing it. It is noted that the verse has something to do with the activities of the hypocrites who are said to annoy Muslims and stir sedition in the city (33:58, 60, 61) and concludes that the verse deals with a specific situation in the Prophet’s time. These comments are clearly have some validity, but the article seems to use them to suggest that the verse does not apply in our age. But the verse cannot be too closely tied to those preceding and following it (33:58, 60, 61).  The verse 33:58 talks not only of some people annoying women but also of annoying men! And 33:60-61 talk of the hypocrites stirring up sedition in the city which seems to refer to something more than molesting women in the city. It is a characteristic of the Qur`an that its verses while connected with other verses often move in a new direction of their own, so that they should be read both as isolated statements and as statements connected with other parts of the Qur`an. 

After her comments on the relevant Qur`anic verses, Hajjaji-Jarrah turns to other devices to achieve her objective of doing away with the hijab. She mentions three examples to show that in very early Islam women did not practice hijab (p 194-196). All these examples are weak in the extreme. 

1)              Nusaybah bint Ka‘b participated in the battle of Uhud as a combatant. She fiercely fought defending the Prophet when he came under attack from some Makkan pagans. During the fight, she lifted her garments and gathered them around her waist, presumably exposing her legs in the presence of a large number of men. The extreme weakness of this example is clear from two facts: First, the verses about hijab, by all accounts, were revealed after the battle of Uhud and hence after this incident. Second, it is a widely accepted principle of Shari‘ah, well-rooted in the Qur`an, that in case of necessity rules get duly relaxed. Nusaybah is engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the Prophet and for herself and her dress was in the way. She did exactly what was needed to be done.

2)              Ibn Sa‘d reports one ‘Urwah bin ‘Abd Allah bin Qushayr as relating that he went to the house of Fatimah, daughter of the fourth khalifah ‘Ali and an umm walad. He saw two thick bracelets on each of her wrist, a ring on her fingers, and a necklace of beads around her neck. He asked about this and she replied: “a woman is not like a man”. This is the story as I find it in a translation of Ibn Sa‘d, but as paraphrased by Hajjaji-Jarrah, ‘Urwah actually watches Fatimah put on these adornments. In any case, from this tradition Hajjaji-Jarrah concludes that women in early Islam exposed such parts of their bodies to non-mahram males as the neck that, according to the classical commentators, should be concealed. There are several problems with this conclusion. First, the author presents no evidence that ‘Urwah was a non-mahram. Fatimah was the daughter of an umm walad and we need to explore whether this ‘Urwah was in some way related to Fatimah through this umm walad. Second, the fact that ‘Urwah was admitted in the presence of Fatimah in her home means at least that he was a trusted friend of the family. Fatimah is, therefore, in the privacy of her own home with a trusted friend of the family. In such situations it is possible to argue from our sources for a more relaxed attitude to dress. Thus one hadith suggests that a woman need not observe strict hijab in the presence of slaves and by analogy one can extend this rule to cover trusted friends of the family. Third, the conduct of Fatimah the daughter of ‘Ali who was born after the death of the Prophet cannot take primacy over the conduct of another much greater Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet; this Fatimah observed hijab according to a tradition as reliable as the one Hajjaji-Jarrah is using (see below).

3)              The third example concerns the conduct of Zaynab daughter of ‘Ali from Fatimah bint Muhammad in the battle of Karbalah. “She not only leaves her face, ears and neck revealed, she is also described as having torn, in a moment of despair and in public, the neckline of her garment”. Again it is easy to see the extreme weakness of this example. First, unlike other stories we cannot find this one before Tabari (d. 310). Second, the Qur`an has more relaxed rules of clothing for aged women (24:60). At the time of the battle of Karbalah, Zaynab must have been at least about 50 years old, a relatively old age for those times. Her mother Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, died in 11 H and the battle of Karbalah took place in 60 H. Third, the story is taking place in extremely tragic and difficult circumstances, during which men, most of whom were relatives of Zaynab, are not expected to pay attention to the ears and neck of a relatively old grieving woman. Islam has rules but those rules are not to be followed in a blind, rigid, and heartless way. 

Another device the author uses to oppose hijab is to contextualize the commentaries. She makes the following rather perceptive and valid observations: In the Qur`an there is no indication that its dress code is only for free believing women and 24:33 in fact shows concern for the chastity of slave women. However, a distinction between the requirements of dress for free and slave women is assumed in the classical commentaries such as al-Tabari and al-Razi and even in some ahadith (see note 1). Hajjaji-Jarrah convincingly argues that this restriction of the dress code to free women reflects the circumstances of the times in which these commentaries were written. In those times there were in Muslim cities a large number of slave women who enchanted elite men with their charms, education and arts such as singing, music and dancing. It had become socially acceptable for these women not to be covered like free women. It is this circumstance that the author says is reflected in the classical commentaries, especially al-Razi. According to al-Razi for slave women it is not required to cover the head, the arms, the legs, the top part of the chest and the bosom. He refers to some religious authorities that even allow exposure of the breasts, requiring only the covering of the body from navel to the knees. 

The above observations should lead us only to the conclusion that under the influence of the circumstances of their times the commentators misrepresented the Qur`an when they made distinction between free and slave women in the matter of hijab. In the article under consideration, however, these observations are put to another use: they are meant to discredit the commentators and hence also to call into question what they say about hijab in case of free women. But any rejection of what they say about the Qur`an must ultimately be based on the Qur`an and the author has not been able to show that the Qur`an does not enjoin hijab.



We have examined above the way the book deals with the Qur`anic verses about hijab. Let us now examine the way the book treats ahadith on the subject. 

This treatment is found in the article contributed by L. Clarke, to which we have already referred. This article is said to be “ground breaking” and to “represent the first critical survey in a Western language of the hadith texts concerning hijab.” (p. xxii) But four years before the publication of the book such a survey was done by this reviewer in the English language (“Chastity and Hijab in the Teachings of the Prophets Muhammad and Jesus,” J. Muslim Research Institute, 1999), which has been available both in the National Library of Canada in hard copy and on the web ( And my survey also may not be the first one, even in a Western language. 

The approach of the article to the Hadith seems to be that the Hadith is something to be “used” to one’s advantage. Thus the article describes its purpose as showing to “contemporary liberals” who reject hijab that they can “use the hadith to their advantage”, that is, they can present their position as a viable interpretation of the Hadith (p. 269). In its author’s view she completed this mission successfully: “I believe I have adequately demonstrated that conservative understanding of at least one set of hadith texts – the hadiths concerning hijab – are not inherently more plausible than others.” (p. 266) This assessment of the author is hardly surprising, considering that she believes that “conservatives, liberals and all shades between can produce viable exegeses if only they endeavour to do so.” In her view all you need to do in order to produce any type of viable interpretation, as good as any other, is to endeavour to do so. She endeavoured to produce a “liberal” interpretation as plausible as the “conservative” one and so in her view she was able to produce one! 

But is the “liberal” interpretation comparable in plausibility with the “conservative”, as the author claims? 

Any use of the Hadith requires an answer to the question: What confers authority on the Hadith? In the main, there are two possible sources of authority for the Hadith that may be combined to various degrees: a) Canonicity, that is, authoritative ahadith are those that the Muslim community has accepted. b) Historicity, that is, authoritative ahadith are those that can be demonstrated to be authentic reports about the Holy Prophet by some sound judgments. For many Muslims the two concepts are almost identical in the sense that almost all the canonical ahadith are also historical if they have complete and sound isnads. The author of the article in question, however, uses a vague combination of the two concepts to advance her thesis. She expressly excludes historicity as her primary criterion, since she says, “this essay” is not “about history; my aim, as I said at the beginning, is not to extract from the hadith a social reality supposedly existing in the time of the Prophet”. (p. 269) Consistent with this she presents in some other statements canonicity as her primary criterion. Summarizing her main argument she notes that in the “canonical collections” there “is no real attention to women’s covering and virtually no mention of their hair and ‘awrah” but “outside the canonical collections, hair and covering hadiths multiply”. (p. 270). But at the same time the historical judgments, e.g. “soundness” of canonical collections has “some basis in fact” (p. 270) also seem to be part of the author’s argument. 

This argument seems to run as follows: The ahadith about covering, especially the hair, are found mostly outside canonical collections. Since the canonical collections have not only gained greater acceptance but are also historically more reliable, the liberals can go by the scarcity of references to covering head and hair in the canonical collections and ignore the multiplicity of such references in non-canonical literature. They can then conclude that the rejection of hijab is a viable interpretation of the Hadith. 

There are several problems with this argument.

First, in the Sunni tradition, which is what the article concentrates on, the distinction between “canonical” and “non-canonical” collections is of no real significance. From the time when Hadith began to be collected Muslims have used all available collections. Even to this day a very popular collection Mishkat al-Masabih has ahadith not only from the six “canonical” collections but also from other collections. The ancient and more recent tafsir literature and fiqhi discussions use ahadith from non-canonical collections without giving any special justification for doing so. The very idea of six collections is rather late being first encountered in the sixth century AH. The six books have been given more importance by Shi‘ah writers. Christian writers also seem to find the idea of canonical Hadith books understandable because of its similarity to their four canonical gospels. Perhaps under the influence of Shi‘ahs and Christians, the status of the six books among the Sunnis also increased in recent centuries. It is interesting that when in the last century Fazlul Karim produced a revision of Mishkat under the title al-Hadith (1938, 1939 CE), he distinguished the ahadith in the original according to whether they belonged to one the six books or not.

In short, for most of the past Islamic history the six collections have not been distinguished from the rest of the collections like the four canonical gospels are distinguished from the apocryphal ones. In Islamic terms it is better to talk of canonicity of individual ahadith rather than of collections. And an individual hadith is canonical if it has complete and sound isnads, regardless of which collection contains it.

A consequence of this is that, to the extent ahadith acquire authority by their acceptance by the community, we cannot easily dismiss the ahadith found outside the six collections.

Second, even limiting ourselves to the six collections, the “liberal” position is not as plausible as the “conservative” position: There are no ahadith that exempt the head from covering while there are traditions in the six books that clearly expect women to cover their heads. We are not thinking here about the hadith of ‘Aishah in Abu Da`ud, in which the Prophet tells Asma` that a woman should cover everything except the face and hands, since about this hadith, Abu Da`ud, with a scientific spirit that characterized the classical hadith experts, tells us that it is mursal and therefore weak. We are rather thinking of the following ahadith about which Abu Da`ud points no such weakness:

Umm Salamah said: When the verse “they should put their jalabib over them” was revealed, the women of Ansar came out as if they had crows over their heads from wearing jalabib.” (Abu Da `ud) 

Anas said: The Prophet brought Fatimah a slave and donated him to her. Fatimah wore a garment; when she covered her head, it did not reach her feet, and when she covered her feet by it, the garment did not reach her head. When the Prophet saw her struggle, he said: There is no harm to you: here is only your father and slave. (Abu Da`ud) 

If canonicity is our criterion to use a hadith, then in this second hadith we have a clear proof, further reinforced by the first one, that the Prophet had taught the covering of head, for otherwise the Prophet would have told Fatimah that a woman is not required to cover her head instead of saying that only Fatimah’s father and slave were present. One may argue that the hadith talks of head and not hair. But that will not serve the “liberal” cause, since those who reject hijab do not say that women should cover their heads without necessarily covering all their hair. 

Third, to the extent the article uses historical argument its weakness is that it does not duly take into account the Qur`an, the earliest and the most reliable source of history for early Islam. If we duly take the Qur`an into account, then the scarcity of references to the covering of head actually becomes a strong argument in favor of the “conservative” position. For we can argue thus: 

The Qur`an tells the believing women to cover their bosoms with their khumur and to put their jalabib over (‘ala) them. It can be safely assumed that many Muslims paid attention to these commands both during the life of the Prophet and soon afterwards. The question is how did they understand and follow these commands? The word khumur, in the context of discourse about dress is best translated as “head coverings”, which suggests that head was expected to be covered. The word ‘ala normally means “over” and putting jalabib over them may also suggest the same thing. But suppose that this was not the case and that in the time of the Prophet and soon afterwards women did not cover their heads. Since we do know that at some time in the second century the Muslim women were expected to cover their heads, there must have been a departure from the practice established by the Prophet and followed by the Companions soon after him. This departure must have generated some controversy just as the departure from the traditional ways by the “contemporary liberals” who reject hijab is now creating controversy. This controversy is then expected to generate conflicting traditions, some supporting the covering of head and some opposing it. But the truth is that there are no traditions that reject the covering of head while there are several that assume that head is to be covered. This shows almost conclusively that the Qur`anic commands must have been understood from the very beginning to include covering of head. 

The above historical argument can be appreciated by looking at the question of covering the face. In regard to this question we find in the Hadith a very mixed picture. Some ahadith support it while other traditions do not. Thus in the hadith of ‘Aishah about Asma` face is clearly excluded from the parts of the body to be covered. There are other ahadith that suggest that face was not covered in early times. Moreover, there are opinions attributed to all the four founding imams of the Sunni schools of fiqh that exempt the face from obligatory covering. On the other hand, some traditions show that the face was or should be covered. Thus a hadith from Ibn Mas‘ud in Tirmidhi reports the Prophet as saying that “woman is ‘awrah,” which can imply that the whole body of a woman is to be covered, an idea that seems to have led to the use of ‘awrah as another word for “woman” in some Muslim languages. Also, in the hadith about false accusation (ifk) against ‘Aishah two versions in Bukhari say that when ‘Aishah saw the man who found her left behind, she covered her face with her jilbab (khammartu wajhi bi jilbabi, which, incidentally, is wrongly translated in the article under review as “drew her cloak around her”, p. 233)[i] while one version in Bukhari and the one in Ibn Ishaq do not mention that. In contrast to this mixed picture regarding the face, we have, as noted above, a very consistent picture in favor of covering the head. 

Fourth, contradicting its own claim that the “liberal” position is as plausible as the “conservative” the article has to make the following admission: 

The liberal position on freedom of movement takes cancellation of purdah [=hijab] as only a preliminary to a vision in which women play a full role in society, unhampered by any necessary division between male and female. This position depends, in the final analysis, on an ideal of voluntary restraint – of a society, in effect, free from sexual guilt. It would be difficult, I think, to extract this position from the Qur`an, the hadith, or the law on the basis of strict textual criticism. … The potential for building a durable, rooted foundation for ideas such as these would appear to lie in hermeneutical procedures more radical than the “simple excavation” illustrated in this essay, so that the challenge for liberals becomes to develop and – most important – gain wide acceptance for those procedures, without skipping over or losing hold of the tradition. (p.265, emphasis added). 

This is not the place to deal with all the questions raised by the above statement, e.g. whether for women to play a full role in society it is necessary to do away with the hijab and whether the hijab is based on “sexual guilt”. What concerns us here is the admission that the “liberal” position cannot be extracted from the hadith and other souces of Islam. To support them we need new ways of interpreting these sources (“hermeneutical procedures”). This new way is not going to be “simple extraction” from the words used by the texts. That is, they will ignore what large parts of the texts are actually saying, mimicking liberal Christian ways of interpreting the Bible. 

In view of the above considerations we are constrained to conclude that the “conservative” position finds far greater support in the Hadith than the “liberal” position. 

In summary, the book has several positive features but they pale in front of its one huge flaw: rejection of hijab on the basis of unsound arguments. 

Also, while the book stands for female voice in Islamic discourse and provides an opportunity for some women scholars to have that voice, it is unfortunate that the book only includes writers with one point of view. Almost all, if not all of the seven women writers contributing articles to the book about the Muslim veil are either non-Muslim or Muslim women who do not believe in the veil. To be sure some articles report interviews with Muslim women who practice hijab and in this way they are given some voice. But it would have been far better if some of the Muslim female scholars who practice hijab and truly believe in it as a religious requirement were allowed to speak for themselves in their own way in their own articles to explain why they consider hijab a requirement. The reader would then have been in a much better position to compare the two opposing points of view. 

One reason for excluding women writers who believe in hijab could be that their traditional point of view already has a strong voice. But while this may be true in the Muslim world it is not true in the West. Moreover, if the non-traditional point of view presented in the book has any strength from an Islamic or rational point of view, then it should be able to stand its ground along side with the opposite point of view. Apparently, the editors of the book did not feel such confidence in their positions and hence they decided to exclude the representatives of the opposite point of view except on their own terms. 

With all due respect to the scholarly contributors, the book does not treat the word of God and the Sunnah of his Messenger with the seriousness that is due. A vast majority of Muslims over the centuries have tolerated diversity in interpretation of the basic sources as also departure in practice from those interpretations out of human weakness. But a vast majority of them have also shown sufficient reverence to those sources so as not to drag them down to the level of our weak ways. Unfortunately, most of the contributors to this book, in my view, have departed from this Muslim approach, quite possibly unintentionally. They seem to be more concerned to let their choices determine the interpretation of the Qur`an and the Hadith rather than let the Qur`an and the Hadith determine their choices. 

In some Muslim and non-Muslim countries the governments prohibit hijab in some places while in some other countries hijab is prescribed by law. In most of the Muslim world, however, women are free to choose to practice hijab or not to practice, this “free choice”, as is almost always the case in all matters and all societies, being determined under various pressures and influences – family traditions, degree of exposure to religious education, understanding of Islam and commitment to it, influence of modern culture and of the Muslim culture.  This is not the place for me to enter into a discussion of whether and to what degree an Islamic state should use legal apparatus to enforce hijab. But as a rule my understanding of Islam is that “legal apparatus” should be the last resort and that there should be maximum “free choice” for people to find their own way to develop understanding of the teachings of Islam and to put them in practice. 

The criticism of the book under review done here is aimed at helping Muslim women to make better, more informed, Islamic choice regarding hijab. As all of us know, every choice is not equally good or beneficial. From a Muslim point of view the best choice is to choose iman (faith, belief), which means trying to find out what God and his Messenger have taught us and then freely give up our choice in favor of their teaching. This is exactly what the Qur`an teaches: 

And say, the truth is from your Lord. So whosoever wills, let him believe and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve … (18:29) 

It is not fitting for a believing man or a believing woman that when God and His messenger have decreed a matter they should have any choice in their matter. Whoever disobeys God and his Messenger has indeed strayed into a manifest error. (33:36)

A Sister’s Response 

As-salam alaykum! 

I read your review of the book. I would just like to say Jazak Allah, may Allah reward you for a very intelligent and compelling critique. I am only sorry that one of us Muslimahs did not write it, as it would have held so much more weight coming from a woman. I am a Muslimah living in Britain. I only started wearing hijab recently. Like the women who wrote the book, I previously believed that hijab wasn't really necessary. I think more importantly, I didn't want to wear hijab so I convinced myself that it wasn't necessary. 

I have since researched the Quran and authentic hadith on my own (without influence from anyone) and have come to the conclusion that Allah instructed us to wear hijab and his Messenger (may God bless and honor him evermore) re-affirmed this. I regret not going to the Quran and looking at its plain and simple messages earlier, instead of relying on the opinions of others. There are many free, Western Muslim women who would agree with your view. I definitely do. Thanks again, may Allah reward you. 

Nasreen Abdulla


Answer to the Sister 

Dear Sister Nasreen, 

Thank you for your kind email message. 

You are right that it would have been better if some Muslimah would have written the review. In fact, when working on the review I was at first a little uncomfortable criticising the women writers, sometimes in a strong language. But then I decided that in matter of  religion believing men and women are one and we all have the duty to speak for what we believe to be the teachings of Islam, regardless of whether the subject concerns men or women or both. The Holy Qur`an says: 

Believing men and believing women are supporters of one an other. They enjoin what is proper and forbid what is improper and establish regular prayers, give regular charity, and obey God and his Messenger. They are those on whom God will have mercy; surely, God is mighty, wise. (9:71) 

But I hope that even now some Muslimat will come forward and write reviews of this and other books. There is no harm in having many reviews of the same book. 


Ahmad Shafaat

[i] The essay suffers from other misrepresentations of what our sources say. Thus in relating a tradition about the battle of Khaybar it says: “It is reported that after the Jewish town of Khaybar was conquered and Safiyah, an inhabitant of the town, was chosen by the Prophet as spoils after the massacre of the male population (all this in accordance with Semitic custom), he spent some time on the road from Khaybar to Medina consummating their union and celebrating with a hasty feast.” (p. 232). The primary source L. Clarke cites for the report is Bukhari, kitab al-maghazi, ahadith number 3891 and 3890. But these ahadith do not at all mention any massacre. In fact, there is no evidence of any massacre of the male population in Khaybar. Ibn Ishaq says nothing about it. Ibn Sa'd tells us that 93 Jews and 17 Muslims were killed. Given the fact that Muslims were better fighters at that time and the attack on Khaybar was a surprise it is possible that almost all the casualties on the Jewish side were in combat. In any case, even if all the 93 persons were killed without combat (and the 17 Muslims died as a result of suicide!!!) it hardly amounts to a “massacre of the male population”. Even more, our sources including Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa‘d, and Bukhari tell us that the fields of Khaybar were left to the Jews for cultivation in exchange for half the yield. Clearly, this was not possible after a massacre of the male population and enslaving of the women. Finally, even orientalists such as Montgomery Watt (Muhammad in Medina) do not say anything about any massacre in Khaybar. L. Clarke is probably imagining a massacre in Bukhari’s ahadith under the influence of Jewish writers who have a common tendency to exaggerate what other nations do against Jews without properly dealing with what they say or do against other nations.