Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Muslim Women and the Veil

Allah asked Muhammad:
24:30: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.”

24:31: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (mist ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.”

We understand that it was necessary for Allah to make such rules, as, in His judgment, were needed, to regulate the uncivilized social behavior of a people Muhammad and his companions were going to rule over once Allah’s mission to establish Islam in the Arabian Peninsula was accomplished. But what about those rules through which He had sought to instill a sense of purity and modesty in Muslim men and women? Let us go over those rules.

Avoiding eye contact and covering appropriately sexual organs are two of the ways through which both Muslim men and women can avoid commission of adultery or fornication among them. It was His knowledge of human behavior that prompted Him to ask Muslims of both genders to lower their gaze, when they find themselves face to face with strangers. He has also asked them to cover their sexual organs appropriately in order to preserve their purity and modesty.

Believing that what Allah had thought were the appropriate measures for preventing Muslims from committing adultery or fornication, we wonder why He asked only the women to cover their bosoms as well as to refrain from displaying their beauty before none, but their husbands and close relatives! Why asked them to hide their ornaments and also not to strike their feet in order not to draw strange men’s attention to them? Why He wants women to draw their veils over their bosoms, when He ordered strange men not to look up, and gaze at them?

Veil worn by Muslim women is a highly sensitive and contentious issue. The Western world does not understand why they should cover themselves up from head to toe, and continue to suffer discomfort, among others, in humid weather. Muslims counter that wearing of veil is not at all uncomfortable for their women and that it is an obligation that Allah has imposed on them so that they may be able to maintain their physical and spiritual purity. They also contend that when the Western world does not find any problem with the Christian nuns covering themselves up with veil, why it should feel concerned with the Muslim women wearing the same attire!

A complex issue, such as the wearing of veil by the Muslim women, calls for a detailed discussion. We, therefore, wish to do exactly the same here by relying on other statements of the Quran that are connected with the subject of veil. But before doing that, we must point out an important fact, it being: three different words have been used in the Quran to describe what Muslim women need to do to protect themselves from the prying eyes and assault of strange men. These words are: “khimar,” “hijab” and “jilbab.”

We find the word “khimar” in verse 24:31, quoted above. Here are two other verses with the words “hijab” and “jilbab” in them:

1.  “O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s house,- until leave is given to you,- for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when ye are invited, enter; and when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behaviour) annoys the Prophet: he is ashamed to dismiss you, but Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the truth.

And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen {hijab}: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and theirs. Nor is it right for you that ye should annoy Allah’s Apostle, or that ye should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is in Allah’s sight an enormity.”[1]

2.  “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments {jilbab} over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”[2]

To understand the true implications of the above and other verses, we must also note that the revelation of each of the Quran’s verses had a reason, and an occasion. Verse 33:53 was revealed at the time Muhammad was celebrating his success at acquiring Zainab, the divorced wife of his adopted son Zaid, through a grand reception he had thrown at his home in Medina.[3]

The reception, held by Muhammad, to celebrate an occasion that the Pagans considered to be highly harmful to, and contagious for, their social order, brings to light one of his hitherto before hidden characteristics, it being: though he had taken a multiple of women in his wedlock, he is not reported to have ever thrown any party to welcome any one of them to his harem. The strange behavior he displayed in case of Zainab was representative of a sadistic pleasure he derived from the successes he achieved through manipulations and illegal and unethical maneuvers he is known to have used throughout his life to fulfill his desires, goals and ambitions.

What followed after Muhammad’s invited guests arrived at his home is clearly mentioned in verse 33:53. This verse came to him from a Book that Allah had written down, and preserved in Luh-e-mahfooz,[4] long before He began the process of creating the Universe and everything else that it contains. Allah’s Plan required Muhammad’s guest to arrive at his home before the time of the feast not only to satisfy their hunger, but also to have a glimpse of his new, but unwed wife. Their early arrival caused Muhammad a serious problem: though he wished to ‘spend’ as much time as was possible for him to spend with Zainab - his life-long passion - the early arrival of his guests forced him to come out of her cabin to give them company. And this he did not like at all and he became angry at them.

Again, the guests did not leave his home immediately after partaking of their meal; instead, three of them became engrossed in a conversation, thus delaying their departure.[5] Since Muhammad could not leave them to themselves, he failed to return to Zainab at the height of his craving for her. This made him impatient and restless.

While being in the company of his guests, Muhammad’s desire to have sex with Zainab, (or should we say ‘to torture her’), drove him crazy. It was visible from his face and restlessness, yet his guests failed to take notice of his condition.

But Allah was not insensitive like them. Having dedicated Himself to Muhammad’s service, Allah came to his rescue and required the three insensitive guests, through the above revelation, to leave Muhammad’s house immediately, telling them simultaneously that though their host was shy at asking them to leave him alone, but He was shameless, hence His directive to them.

Allah also told them that if they needed anything before leaving, they should ask Muhammad’s wives from before a screen (‘hijab’), for it was good for keeping their and his wives’ hearts pure. Taking advantage of a gathering of many guests, Allah also told them they should not marry Muhammad’s widows after he was dead.

A close reading of verse 33:53 makes the following points clear:

1. Allah put the responsibility for creating, and observing the barrier (hijab) between Muhammad’s wives and his male visitors squarely on his guests, hence the words “when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen.”

Above instruction was given to men; so, it were they who were asked by Allah to erect barriers (hijab) in front of their eyes, before asking anything from Muhammad’s wives. It does not say, nor imply, that He required Muhammad’s wives to go behind the screen before attending to their male guests’ requests.

This verse also indicates that Muhammad’s wives were not in the habit of hiding themselves behind screens or barriers, while confronted with strange men, hence Allah’s instruction to men to observe hijab in order to save their purity.

Even if we were to believe that the instruction contained in the verse equally applied to Muhammad’s guests and his wives, even then it does not change the fact that Muhammad’s wives did not hide themselves from men not related to them through blood, until they were made to do so by Allah’s above stated order. Otherwise, there was no reason for Allah to tell them to hide themselves behind a screen or barrier (hijab), if they had already been doing it!

Our second thought on the verse convinces us that the requirement of isolating women from the view of men could not have come from Allah. It was Muhammad’s brainchild through which, he tried to control his sexually starved wives from getting in touch with other men in order to meet their physical needs. Whether he had succeeded in his efforts or not is not known to the historians of Islam.

2. The dress (or uniform) worn by the Christian nuns is, firstly, different from the hijab or the veil we see the Muslim women in. And, secondly, the Christian nuns are the women who bound themselves by vow to poverty, chastity and obedience and dedicate their lives to the service of the church. In other words, they are equivalent of male monks, hence the dress they wear to segregate them from the rest of the Christian women.

Conversely, Muslim women do not belong to the category of nuns, nor do they dedicate their lives to the service of their mosques or religion; therefore, comparing them and their dress code with the Christian nuns is a fallacy on the part of the Muslim scholars and historians.

Moreover, the word “hijab” does not mean veil, the one that the Muslim women put on their faces. Rather, as we have stated before, it means a “screen” or a barrier that we use to separate one thing from another. Therefore, the veil that the Muslim women wear has no basis in the Quran.

3. Verse 33:53 came down to Muhammad, when he was with his guests, with all of his faculties functioning well. He narrated its content to his guests for their compliance as the angel Gabriel was relaying it to him.

The condition under which Muhammad received his revelations from Allah established, we will like to know why are we told that he received them either in a state of vision or in quasi-dreams, or when he used to sink into a deep strata of consciousness, usually accompanied by certain physical concomitants i.e. convulsions, followed by a deep trance?[6] Did he feign receipt of revelations from Allah in order to obtain advantage over his foes, or was the story relating to revelations was invented by the later-day Muslims to add credibility to what he had said and preached in his lifetime?

Having spent some time, and space as well, on the background of verse 33:53; the implication of the word ‘hijab” and on the mode in which Muhammad claimed he received his revelations from Allah, we now turn to the issues of khimar and jilbab, as we read about them in the Quran. But before taking up these issues for discussion, we need to mention here an important “fact” that the Muslim scholars and historians often come up with in their attempts to defend Islam and the Quran. And the fact is:

Before the arrival of Islam, the Arab Pagans lived in the Times of Ignorance.[7] They had neither a religious book to seek guidance from, nor they had a prophet or apostle to advise them on the important issues of their lives. They somehow lived their lives, without knowing anything about good health hygiene.

When Allah realized their situation, He sent Muhammad with the Quran to them. He taught them through Muhammad and the Quran how they should carry out their ablutions before their prayer as well as how they should purify themselves after attending to their nature’s calls or after having sex with their women. In short, Allah introduced to the Pagans anything and everything that they were ignorant about, or were not wont to practicing in their lives through His Prophet and the Quran for their knowledge and meticulous compliance.

We shall approach the issues of khimar and jilbab from the standpoint of our standing of the situation that we believe prevailed in the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam. We hope our effort on these issues will clear most of the questions many of us want answered to our satisfaction.

It appears from the Quran that following their Pagan traditions, Muhammad’s wives, even after converting to Islam, continued to maintain a complaisant tone and continued to speak seductive words that moved other men with desire for them. They also moved around boisterously; and made dazzling display of themselves in front of strangers.[8]

They also did not say their Islamically mandated regular prayers; neither did they practice charity. They disobeyed Allah and their husband, the Prophet of Islam. To top all the above, they did not ‘recite what Muhammad rehearsed to them in their homes.’[9]

To remove all the abominable things from the lives of Muhammad’s wives, Allah approached them directly and told them: ‘O Consorts of the Prophet! You are not like any other women and if you fear Allah or your husband, then you will have to change your ways of life’ so that I can cure the malaises of your hearts. Whether or not they changed their ways or life, or if Allah was able to cure their malaises is not recorded in the Quran.

After admonishing Muhammad’s wives for their un-Islamic acts and urging them to behave like respectable women, Allah turned His attention to other believing women of Muhammad’s era and told them what we read in verse 24:31.

For understanding the full import of Allah’s commandment to the Muslim women, we must find out whether the word “veil” (khimar in Arabic) used in the English rendering of the above verse is correct or not. Here are our findings:

Three of the five English translations we have read,[10] have the word “veil” in them. One translator has used the phrase “head-coverings,”[11] instead of veil. According to this translator, Muslim women were required to wear their head-coverings over their bosoms. Another translator[12] used the word “shawls” which Muslim women have been advised to fold over their bosoms.

It is clear from the above examples that the use of the word “veil” in English translations of the verse is correct, even though some translators have used different words in their translations to convey the same sense as does the word “veil,” its literal meaning being: “a piece of cloth or mesh material that can be used to hide or cover something.

In our understanding, the khimar or the veil Allah spoke of in verse 24:31 is what is known as orhni or odhani used by the women of the Indian sub-continent. Also known as dupatta, it is a diaphanous piece of cloth that they use mostly to cover their breasts. This illustration should make clear how a veil or dupatta looks like, and how it is worn by the most Muslim women of the Indian sub-continent:

With the picture of veil or khimar clear to us, we must try to find out why Allah asked the women of Muhammad’s time to veil, cover or hide their bosoms, if they had already been doing that in their pagan days?

The answer to the question can be deduced from the following assumption: the Pagan women of pre-Islamic days did not cover or hide their bosoms .Their historic tradition continued to be present in the Muslim society due, firstly, to the lack of an Islamic injunction on the matter, and secondly, on account of their economic conditions. Muslim women began to cover their bosoms with khimar or dupatta (Indian word) only after Allah told them to do so. Prior to the revelation of verse 24:31, Muslim women did not cover their bosoms.

With the above situation in our mind, we would now want to briefly discuss the content of verse 24:31, not only to point out what it really means, but also to see if it supports our contention, as we have outlined it in the foregoing paragraphs.

The verse says “… that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers” and so on. To understand the implication of this statement, we must note, first, what relationship a female’s bosoms have with her beauty.

We know that beauty is for its beholder. We feel no hesitation in asserting that a female body is the finest artistry of nature. Every part of her body exudes beauty; be it her feet, legs, gait, hands, bosoms, neck, voice, eyes, face and hair.

But neglecting almost all the above important components of a female body, many of us often deem a woman to be beautiful only when she appears before us with a beautiful face. True, a female face is the focal point of man’s attraction, but it does not create in him as much sexual arousal as does her two nicely shaped, firm and smooth looking bosoms, also known as breasts to most men.

It is the above reason that remains at the back of a sculptor’s minds, when he or she fashions a sculpture of a female body with a pair of beautiful looking bosoms incorporated in his or her creation. The contours of a beautiful looking face create an ever lasting impact on the minds of its viewers. Two round and artistically designed bosoms added to the beautiful face take many men to a world from which they never want to come out.

It is also on account of the above reason that many clever and sensible women, with financial ability, take trouble, and go to an extra mile, to get their breasts clinically enhanced or enlarged, not for the sake of fun, but to give their men’s eyes something sexually attractive to feast on. Attractive and good sized bosoms play a vital role in the foreplay that most men undertake in order to prepare him and his partner before engaging themselves in the satisfying act of sexual intercourse. In contrast to them, many women, who do not have attractive bosoms, or the means to make them artificially attractive, not only end up having problems with their men, they also miss in their own lives the immense pleasure that can result only from the full preparedness of both the parties to their sexual act.

Allah was aware of the above sexual phenomenon. He, therefore, prohibited Muslim women from exposing their bosoms before the strangers. He required them to keep their bosoms hidden from them and others, and not to display their beauty except to their husbands and other close relatives, mentioned in the verse. How the Muslim women were to hide their facial beauty is not clearly mentioned in it.

Allah was also aware that exposed bosoms aroused sexual desires in men; He therefore, asked Muslim men to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty” in order to protect their manly purity from being soiled by their lust.

Before closing our discussion on the use of veil or khimar by Muslim women, and taking up the question of jilbab or burqa, we want to say unequivocally that:

Since most Muslim women of our time wear dresses that hide their bosoms from others’ sight, the Quranic stipulation on veiling the upper part of their bodies with a piece of cloth has lost its purpose. Muslims, therefore, should neither argue on the type of veils their women need to wear, nor they should pay any attention to what the Quran says about it, thereby making their lives easier, and free from unnecessary tension.

The necessity of veils for the Muslim women of 7th century explained, and its uselessness for the women of the modern time also pointed out, it is time for us to ask ourselves: What about burqa and headscarf that Muslim women wear these days?

We have noted earlier that it is the Muslim men’s responsibility to create a barrier (hijab) between them and the women they were about to talk to, or in whose company they were about to find themselves in, but they were never able to comply with this requirement of Allah. Instead, they continued to molest, mostly, the former slave-women, in spite of their conversion to Islam. Their susceptibility to physical attacks by the former ignorant Pagan-turned Muslims increased manifold on the streets and, especially, in the darkness of night. Forced by their habit, they not only molested or tried to molest the women of higher status, they even molested or tried to molest the wives of Muhammad. To protect women of higher status as well as the wives of the Prophet, Allah decreed:

“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested: and Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”[13]

Two facts come out of the above verse: (1). Muslim women, including Muhammad’s wives, were asked to cast their outer garments (jilbab) over their persons before going out of their homes, and (2). This was necessary for them to indicate to the would-be molesters that they were free women of higher status and that some of them were the wives of Muhammad. The form or the shape of the jilbab, nor the material with which it was made or to be made is not mentioned in the verse.

While the former slave-turned Muslim women continued to suffer from their Muslim “brothers’” physical attacks,[14] most of their masters gradually became financially well off, thanks to plunders they perpetrated on the Jews under the command and the leadership of the Prophet of Islam. Now, they were able to buy fabrics and other things, which they could not afford before, from markets in Syria and other countries to which they had been sending their caravans for thousands of years.

Eventually, Muslim masters of the women-slaves devised a means to protect them from their molesters’ attacks. It was burqa that not only hid their faces from being seen by the would-be assailants; it also helped them hid their physical features inside its encompassing form.

The black color of the fabrics, used in the making of burqa then, helped its wearer blend well with the darkness of night, thus enabling them to evade their would-be attackers. This color has since become almost universal: today, if not all, almost all the burqas are made of black color; and these are worn mostly by the poor Muslim women of the world.

Headscarf became a part of Muslim women’s Islamic dress when Spain and some other European territories fell into Muslim hands. Worn by the Christian Nuns of Europe, its adoption by the Muslims was intended to make a religious statement of their own. Its introduction among the European Muslim women was also necessitated, perhaps, by their refusal to wear bulky burqas their sisters-in-faith then wore elsewhere in the Muslim world. Hence its extensive use mainly by white female Muslims the world over today.

The gist of our discussion on hijab (veil), khimar (a piece of cloth) and jilbab (outer garment or burqa) is the following:

Khimar is a piece of cloth Muslim women need to cover their bosoms with, when they are inside their homes; hijab is a screen or barrier[15] behind which Muslim men should hide themselves before talking to Muslim women that are not related to them through blood and jilbab is a body cover they are required to wear, when they intend to go out of their homes. The form of the jilbab (burqa) that is used by the Muslim women today to cover themselves from head to toe has no sanction in the Quran.

There is no provision in the Quran that requires the Muslim women to wear headscarf when they are outside of their homes. It is a concept, which the European Muslim women had borrowed from the Christian Nuns. It is not Islamic and it, therefore, has no Islamic value or importance.

[1] The Quran; 33:53.
[2] The Quran; 33:59.
[3] Moulvi Muhammad Naimuddin, Quranul Majid, p. 616.
[4] The Quran; 85:21-22.
[5] Moulvi Muhammad Naimuddin; Quran Majid, p. 616.
[6] Fazlur Rahman; Islam, p. 13.
[7] The Quran; 33:33.
[8] The Quran; 33:32-33.
[9] The Quran; 33:34.
[10] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall and N. J. Dawood.
[11] Shakil.
[12] Dr. T. B. Irving.
[13] The Quran; 33:59.
[14] Cf. Tafsir al-Jalalayn’s commentary on verse 33:59.
[15] Cf. The Quran; 42:51 where it is stated that Allah speaks to man from behind a veil.

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