Short Answer: The command to “wear hijab” is a vague command in the Quran which requires historical and cultural context; it was not all about covering the hair, but about covering the chest, since women at that time were already covering their hair but exposing their neck and upper chest. But, not wearing it should not be called “sinful”: “In Islam, there are many different grades of things. There’s something that’s haram, which is absolutely a sin. Then, there are things which are close to haram, and it might be said to be makrooh, or objectionable… covering the head would be a recommended practice because is it what we’ve known from Muslim tradition throughout the ages. But I would hesitate to say that it is such a requirement that omitting it would make a person sinful.”
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Dr. Shabir Ally addresses this question in the video below:
Aisha Khaja: Dr. Shabir, the question today is about hijab. And someone is asking, is it a sin to not wear the hijab?
Dr. Shabir Ally: OK, first to say that something is a sin, we have to have a very clear mandate, either in the Quran or in an authentic saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
We can’t make it up ourselves because people are not our servants.
They’re God’s servants and only God has the right to legislate for them and declare what is a sin and what is not a sin. We are only the interpreters of those declarations.
So, we go to the Quran for this.
And in the Quran in surah 24 verse number 31 it says [paraphrasing]: “Tell the believing women to draw their head coverings over their bosoms so that they will not display their beauty, except for some specified individuals…”.
In the case of the husbands, obviously, all of their bodies can be shown.
And in case of some close relatives, a more relaxed sort of home dress would be appropriate, as opposed to when one is going out of doors.
As to when one is going out of doors, surah 33 verse number 59 seems more to the point, saying [paraphrasing], “Tell the believing women to draw a part of their jilbabs…”—here’s an Arabic word “jilbab”, meaning like a large outer cloak—to bring part of that jilbab over themselves so that they would be recognized and not molested.
Now, putting these two statements together, one still comes down to a situation in which the statements in the Quran are a little bit vague.
To begin with, the word “hijab” nowadays is used for the woman’s head cover. But in the Quran the term used for the head cover is khimar, a different term.
But we shouldn’t get caught up so much on the term. The meaning is what is important. What was being said here?
Was the Quran saying to women, “you must wear a head cover”?
Or is it saying “the head cover that you are already accustomed to wearing, bring the ends of that over the neckline to cover the exposed chest area”?
Aisha Khaja: Because at the time women would cover their heads anyways?
Dr. Shabir Ally: Apparently, this was so.
This is how ibn Katheer states the matter in his Tafseer of the Quran, a famous commentary on the Quran.
He says that women used to wear a head cover, but the ends were trailing behind their shoulders, and they were leaving a low neckline exposed.
And so, the Quran’s directive was that for them to bring the ends of that over the neckline to cover the chest.
Aisha Khaja: So, long story short, is it considered a sin or …?
Dr. Shabir Ally: Well, you know, in Islam, there are many different grades of things.
And then, there’s other things which are objectionable but not of the haram type, and so not necessarily sinful, but the pious people may want to still avoid those as well.
So, showing that obviously, covering the head would be a recommended practice because is it what we’ve known from Muslim tradition throughout the ages.
But I would hesitate to say that it is such a requirement, that omitting it would make a person sinful.
I hope this helps answer your question. Please keep in touch.
(From AboutIslam’s archives)