In a constant climate of Islamophobia, Muslim women have regularly been relegated to a single talking point by non-Muslims inquiring about their faith and status within it: the hijab. The constant interrogation about whether or not we are oppressed and the endless assurances we need to give about how Islamic female liberation and veiling works can be exhausting. However, it is not only within this realm that Muslim women are made to continuously justify the wearing of a headscarf and modest clothing: it is also within our own communities. Reformist Muslims and others argue that the hijab is a patriarchal tool of women’s oppression that is either a male-developed innovation of the Deen or is historically contingent and need not be practiced in the modern moment, and certainly not in the West. The constant debating back and forth tends to revolve around etymological (linguistic) discussions of the Arabic terms found in the verses of the Qur’an commonly believed to enjoin the obligation of the hijab on believing Muslim women. Here, I am using the term hijab in its colloquial (rather than Qur’anic) understanding, meaning: the Islamic headscarf.
But before taking a historical approach to put these linguistic games to rest once and for all, I will take a closer look at these very terms that are used in the most popular Qur’anic verses regarding Muslimah veiling. In Chapter 24, Verse 31, Allah subhana wa ta’ala states:
There are multiple translations of this verse, as many as there are translations of the meaning of the Qur’an itself. One of the more common translations (Sahih International) follows: And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.
In other versions by Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Shakir, Muhammad Sarwar, Mohsin Khan and Arberry, the bolded term-in-question is universally translated as either “bosoms” or “breasts”. This is because the Arabic term used in the Qur’an is (transliterated) Juyubihinna, about which there is little question as it means breasts, bosom, and/or cleavage (including the neck and décolleté).
Thus, we can see that, at the very least, Allah subhana wa ta’ala implores us to cover our chests. So where does the term come in for the veil or headscarf, now commonly called the hijab? Just prior to this, Allah subhana wa ta’ala states that the Khemarhinna must be wrapped over the bosoms or chests (in the first translation I put above) of women. Hinna is a possessive word referring to “their”.Khemar, in fact, is the primary term in question and our understanding of its meaning hinges on a few simple vowel markings known in the Arabic language as harakat. The kh letter in this word appears in the Qur’an with a kasrah – a small diagonal line below the letter which designates as the following pronunciation: /i/. Occasionally, you may come across other Qur’anic scripts where the kh letter appears with a damma – a small curl-like diac ritic above the letter which designate this pronunciation: /u/ and makes the term plural. What is important here is that it does not appear as a fathah – a small diagonal line above the letter which designates as this pronunciation: /a/. Thus, rather than signifying khamar, meaning (simply) the covering of something with another thing (which is subject to vigorous and wide interpretation or application), the harakat show us that the word is pronounced khemar or khumur instead. And although it shares the same root (jthr) or family of meanings with khamar, the term khemar/khumur means something quite different and much more literal: a cloth covering the head of a woman (or in the case of the latter, cloths). Grammatically, the singular or plural version of the term does not change the meaning of the verse in any way (i.e. Their veil over their bosom verses Their veils over their bosoms). If the term, however, appeared with a fathah, it would completely change the nature of both the term and the verse itself.
Now, opponents of the hijab will simply argue that the Qur’an was not ordered and canonized in its current form until after the Prophet Muhammad’s (saallahu alayhi wa salam) death, under the orders of the first Rightly Guided Caliph, Abu Bakr (ra), and that the vowels were not added until the rule of the third Rightly Guided Caliph, Uthman (ra). It must be recalled, however, that this does not necessarily signify that an innovation had occurred in the text of the Qur’an through the inclusion of the harakat. In fact, besides being a deeply insulting insinuation of bid’ah against the closest companions of our beloved Prophet (sallahu alayhi was salam), the plethora of memorizers of the Qur’an in this period would easily have prevented such an innovation from occurring because the pronunciation of khemar/khumur and khamar are so fundamentally different in both sound and meaning.
If that, however, is not convincing enough for the remaining skeptics, one need only look to the other body of evidence in favour of the hijab as we know it, which is plentiful and undeniable: the ahadith. The ahadith are collections of authenticated traditions containing the sayings and witnessings of the actions of Prophet Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa salam) with accounts of his daily practice (Sunnah) and guidance. While many (to their own demise) are quick to overlook or diminish the importance of the ahadith and the Sunnah in informing our religious beliefs, practices, behaviours and mannerisms, the Qur’an is very clear on this issue, imploring believers again and again not only to not abandon the way of the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa salam) but that his guidances must be followed. What do we find when we look to the ahadith for guidance? Nothing less than clearcut answers: not a single woman in the vicinity of the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa salam) or his companions at the time that the above verse was revealed had any confusion as to the clarity of its meaning.
A single example, of many, proves this point. It is relayed in Sahih Bukhari (4481) that “it was narrated from Safiyyah bint Shaybah that ‘Aa’ishah (ra) used to say: When these words were revealed – “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna” – they took their izaars (a kind of garment) and tore them from the edges and covered themselves with them (as a hijab).”
There are numerous authentic ahadith that testify to the fact that, when women of this period heard the verses revealed, there was absolutely no question in their minds what it meant: that they were to cover their heads and their bosoms… and this certainty and conviction came long before the whole debate about written harakat erupted later. The fact that this is even a question or assertion of ambiguity now would likely baffle the companions of Prophet Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa salam), his wives (ra) and other Muslims from his time period. Likewise, the continuing assertion by anti-hijab activists that the hijab is simply a holdover from Arab cultural norms, rather than a Qur’anic invocation, also fails. Women in pre-Islamic Arabia did often wear a head covering (known as the khemar) with the ends tossed behind their backs or tied up as turban-style, which is why the Qur’an even refers to it; however, it was not until revelation that they began pulling the ends under their chins to cover their necks and chests in the Islamic manner we commonly see today. Reasoning by anti-hijab proponents that makes claims about how Islamic things must be totally unique from past Arabian (or other cultural) practices is not only anachronistic and ahistorical, but it is also unIslamic as well. What is Islam, if not a series of timely abrogations, amendments and corrections of existing social practices and behaviors?
Finally, once the understanding is solidified that the obligation to veil in the traditional Islamic manner is incontestable, we must take care to veil properly – according to the rest of the parameters laid out in the ahadith. These parameters provide further evidence for the incontestability of the hijab as an Islamic obligation. While the official manifestation of hijab and veiling is not completely limited in terms of our personal expression, there are some factors we need to take into account that should change how we think about wearing the hijab. It is easy, in the age of countless hijab tutorials and companies, to lose sight of these prescriptions gradually, so I strongly recommend veiling Muslimahs return to the original sources for their information on hijab. Failing to do so can result in dire consequences later. I once heard a sheikh aptly state that Shaytan is not waiting for believers at the entrance of the nightclub, for it is there that he has already claimed victory. Rather, Shaytan stands in wait at the door of the masjid, looking to deflect the attention of dutiful worshippers from the Straight Path by making it gradually, and imperceptibly ever-more crooked. May Allah protect us from this straying and keep us steadfast with adequate and continuous knowledge of our Deen.
1. Renew your niyyah. This cannot be overstated. It is important to remember why you are wearing the hijab every single day, or why you might be putting it on for the very first time. Remember that the primary reason for wearing the hijab is to submit oneself to Allah, the Most High. 2. You must be clean, presentable and righteous. In Surah al-‘Araaf, Allah states, ““Children of Adam, wear your best clothes to every mosque.” (7:31) Just prior to this, Allah subhana wa ta’ala states: "O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness. These are some of God's signs, that they may take heed." (7:26) It should be noted that the Prophet Muhammad (sallahu alayhi wa salam) wore the best of the clothing of his culture and time period. Some scholars have noted that this signifies that many different types of clothing can be worn by Muslims (there is no standard “uniform,” so to speak) but within certain key parameters. This includes the fact that your private areas must be covered, you should not be imitating members of other religions (for example, by wearing their religious garb), you should not be intentionally drawing attention to yourself (beyond the attention that will naturally be drawn by wearing Hijab in the West), and while your clothes need to be clean and free from tears, they should not be more extravagant than what is needed. 3. Express yourself but be aware that standing out from your sisters is not recommended and can be considered adornment. In an authentic hadith, “it was narrated from ‘Urwah that ‘Aa’ishah (ra) said: The Messenger of Allah (sallahu alayhi wa salam) used to pray Fajr and the believing women would attend (the prayer) with him, wrapped in their aprons, then they would go back to their houses and no one would recognize them.” (Sahih Bukhari 365; Sahih Muslim, 645.) 4. Be wary of veiling but still appearing “naked” and of hijab-filling tools that resemble camel humps. It was narrated that Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allah (sallahu alayhi wa salam) said: “There are two types of the people of Hell whom I have not seen, men with whips like the tails of cattle with which they strike the people, and women who are clothed yet naked, walking with an enticing gait (or turning away from righteousness and leading others astray) with their heads like the humps of camels leaning to one side. They will not enter Paradise nor smell its fragrance, and its fragrance may be detected from such and such a distance.” Imam al-Maaziri (may Allah have mercy on him) said: What this means is that they will enlarge their heads with cloth and head wraps so that they will resemble the humps of camels. (al-Mu‘allim bi Fawaa’id Muslim (3/361)) Imam an-Nawawi (may Allah have mercy on him) said: What is meant by the words “with their heads like the humps of camels” is that they will make them bigger and enlarge them by wrapping a headcover, headband or the like around them. (Sharh Muslim (14/110).) Of course, with all of this being said, wearing hijab is a very personal journey for every Muslim woman and we should refrain from passing judgment on our sisters who might be at differing stages than us. Self-righteousness and judgment of our fellow Muslim siblings is a grave sin, one which Allah subhana wa ta’ala warns against in the Qur’an, stating “Is it not time that the hearts of all who have attained to faith should feel humble at the remembrance of God and of the truth that has been bestowed [on them] from on high?…” (57:16) Good manners is a cornerstone of faith in Islam, particularly as discord and judgment between Muslims can cause animosity or, even worse, scaring fellow Muslims off the Deen. Always remember that the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa salam) stated, “The nearest of you to me on the Day of Judgement will be the one who is best in character.”(Bukhari) With Jannah and nearness to the Prophet (sallahu alayhi wa salam) as our end goals, we can pray for one another, serve as quiet examples for one another (rather than violent chastisers), and we can set aside the ego-driven compulsion to always be right. May Allah subhana wa ta’ala guide us all. And Allah knows best.
Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She recently finished graduate studies and works as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta. Nakita sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp, and the Edmonton Heritage Council. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II, the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015, the Sir Guy Carleton Award for Graduate Studies in History for 2016 and a Government of Alberta Graduate Student Scholarship in 2017. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co- founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.