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Hijab: Cultural or Religious?

21 May, 2021
Q As-salamu `alaykum. I know that my question is not about the essence of Islam but it is important for me. There is a huge argument about hijab whether it is fard (religious obligation) or it is a cultural thing. Please, I need a proof from the Qur’an and ahadith (Prophet’s traditions) about hijab and its importance. I am in a huge dilemma; I tried to seek the truth but couldn’t. Most of the scholars say it is fard but they don’t give me the proof, while thinkers (and secularists are winning) saying it is a cultural thing and give me different proofs. Jazakum Allah Khayran


Wa `alaykum as-salamu wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.

In this fatwa:

1- It is not acceptable for people, other than accredited Shari`ah scholars who are well-versed in the sciences of the Shari`ah, to issue fatwas about Islam or its rituals as they don’t have the qualifications to do so.

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2- Hijab, which is an Islamic obligation on Muslim women, is well-established by means of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the agreement of reliable Shari`ah scholars in past and present.

Answering your question, Dr. Wael Shehab, PhD in Islamic Studies from Al-Azhar University and currently the Imam of the Downtown Toronto Masjid in Canada, states:

Before delving deep into replying your question, I would like to make it clear that issuing fatwas on Islam and its values is the sole responsibility of the accredited Shari`ah scholars who possess the qualifications that enable them to carry out this noble and serious mission.

Thus, it is not acceptable—both logically and legally—for a person who is not a Shari`ah scholar to debate about Islamic rituals as he is not qualified to do so. A Shari`ah scholar should be well-versed in the Shari`ah sciences such as Qur’an, Hadith, TafsirUsl Al-Fiqh, Arabic language, etc.

A good Muslim, therefore, should refer only to trustworthy Muslim scholars, who are known for their profound knowledge of Shari`ah and its sciences, for Islamic professional counseling and fatwas.

This way, he or she will learn the true teachings of Islam and avoid disturbance and confusion over Islam and its teachings.

As far as the question of hijab is concerned, its prescription and obligation is well-established by the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and agreement of accredited Muslim scholars throughout centuries.

It is necessary here to first define hijab and its relevant words. Hijab is an Arabic word which linguistically means a cover, a screen or a partition. Islamically, it refers to the dress code of the Muslim woman.

As for the word khimar, it comes from the word khamara, the root meaning of which is to cover. For example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Khammiru al-aniyyah (cover the vessels).” (Al-Bukhari) Everything that covers something else is called its khimar.

But in common usage khimar has come to be used as a name for the garment with which a woman covers her head; in some cases this does not go against the linguistic meaning of khimar.

Some of the jurists have defined it as that which covers the head, the temples, and the neck of a woman. Then the difference between hijab and khimar is that the former signifies whole Muslim woman’s dress while the later commonly means the head-covering. Niqab, however, means what covers the woman’s face. (See The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Jurisprudence, vol. 17, pp. 5-6)

Prescribing the hijab, Allah says in the Qur’an:

“And say to the believing women to lower their gazes and guard their chastity, and let them not display of their charm–except what is apparent, and to draw their khumur (pl. of khimar, which means veils) over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.” (An-Nur 24:31)

Commenting on the phrase, “what is apparent”, Al-Qurtubi, the famous commentator of the Qur’an, said, “It applies to the face and hands.” In other words, a woman must cover all her body except her face and hands while in the presence of men who are not related to her directly, and the list of those in whose presence she needs not cover is clearly outlined in the above Qur’anic verse. (Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami` li Ahkam Al-Qur’an, vol. 15, p. 213)

Moreover, the Qur’anic command “to draw their khumur (plural of khimar) over their bosoms” indicates that a woman must wear a khimar to cover her head, neck, temples, and bosoms—in addition to covering her entire body with the exception of her face and hands with her clothes in the presence of non-maharem (marriageable) men.

The Sunnah also has many proofs for the obligation of hijab. For example, `A’ishah, Mother of the Believers, reported that Asma’, the daughter of Abu Bakr, entered into the presence of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) wearing transparent clothing, so the Messenger of Allah turned away from her saying: “O’ Asma’, when a women reaches the age of menstruation, it is not allowed that any of her body should be seen except this” – and he pointed to his face and two hands.” (Abu Dawud)

In addition to the above proofs, the majority of Imams – including those of the four schools – hold the opinion that a woman is obliged to cover her entire body with the exception of her face and hands in the presence of non-maharim men.

Given the above, it becomes crystal clear that hijab of the Muslim woman is well-established in the Shari`ah. It is a religious, not cultural, obligation that a Muslim woman should carry out and feel proud of. It secures a woman against the evil sights of the bad men and maintains her Muslim identity.

Besides covering the entire body with the exception of the hands and face, the Hijab also has other conditions, such as not being tight, transparent, or resembling the clothes of man.

Allah Almighty knows best.

Editor’s note: This fatwa is from Ask the Scholar’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.