From veiling to prevailing: The evolving Muslim attire.

Saleem Ahmed, PhD. President, Pacific Institute for Islamic Studies, Honolulu.


The centuries-old lawlessness rampant in pre-Islamic Arabia, which compelled

terrified women to veil themselves as protection against potential rapists, was

transformed into a lawful society during the 23 years of Muhammad’s prophethood.

Women could then move around freely, dressed modestly, without the need to

“protect” themselves by wearing a veil. However, since the Qur’an’s non-
chronological arrangement precludes the possibility of tracing this transformation,

some Muslim women continue to veil themselves in the belief it is required. This

suggests the need for Muslims to understand the chronology of the evolving guidance

on various subjects. This might help trigger a paradigm shift in the Muslim perception

of their religiously-obligated actions on several issues which are currently tearing

apart the Muslim society.


Like the ebb and flow of tide, perceptions of the Muslim veil fluctuate across cultures.

In theocratic Muslim societies, for example, while many women consider veiling a

religious obligation and follow it zealously, others consider it “cultural annihilation”

and wear the veil grudgingly. In still other Muslim societies, a rainbow of attires –

from the burqa, chador, niqab, and hijab (full/partial veil), to no veil – fills the

landscape (while niqab, chador, and burqa are full tent-like coverings enshrouding

the woman’s body, the hijab generally leaves the face uncovered. In this article, the

term hijab is being used to refer to all three.). With emotions running high, the

controversy simmers on the back-burner, with much being written about it,

emotionally, eloquently, and effectively, by veiling proponents and opponents

(Ahmed, L; Mernissi; Vanzan; and https//



Since no Qur’anic verse asks women to wear the veil (except for verse 33.53 asking

men to speak to the prophet’s wives from “before a screen”) the belief that Muslim

women are required to do so is generally based on the following hadith:

Narrated Asma (elder sister of the prophet’s wife Aisha): “I visited the prophet

wearing thin clothes.” He said: “O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of

menstruation, it does not suit her to display her body parts except this and this,” and

he pointed to my face and hands” (Hadith: Abu Dawood 1902).

Reflection: This hadith raises some serious questions: (i) Could Asma, a devout

Muslim woman, have gone to see the revered prophet – her brother-in-law — wearing

“thin clothes”; (ii) Wouldn’t she have violated sacred guidance on modesty, such as

verse 24.30-31 asking men and women to “dress modestly”? (iii) Wouldn’t she have

invited herself to ta’arrud in that revealing outfit on the way to, and back from, the

prophet’s home, on the streets of Mecca, where terrified women enshrouded

themselves to deter potential Romeos? (iii) Why was she not stopped by Aisha and the

prophet’s other twelve wives? (iv) Did she go clandestinely?

Alternative responses are: (1) We don’t care; we follow this hadith; and (2) This is a

false hadith and we don’t follow it. I propose a third response: (3) This is an authentic

hadith; but our assumption about its chronology is incorrect. I suggest this incident

occurred in Mecca, probably even before Muhammad became a prophet (which was

in 610 CE. Living next door to Muhammad was Abu Bakr with his family, including

daughters Asma and Aisha. Around 605 CE, pubescent Asma (born around 595 CE),

may have gone next door in night clothes to play with the prophet’s daughters. Since

Khadija (Muhammad’s first wife), came from a Christian background, the prophet

may have had in mind the habit worn by Christian nuns in suggesting Asma’s dress to

help her avoid any unpleasant incident on the streets of Mecca. It is noteworthy that

the prophet did not suggest that Asma enshroud herself inside the pre-Islamic veil.

The fact that such questions about this hadith have not been raised over the past 1,400

years underscores the absolute and unquestioned devotion with which Muslims

generally view the Qur’an and hadith. To them, any such questioning is blasphemy.

Based on the above questions, however, I believe it would be inappropriate to use this

hadith to conclude that veiling is required by all Muslim women.

Proposed evolution of guidance on veiling

I suggest guidance on people’s attire in Islam went through three stages during the

period 623 CE to 627 CE, before the final revelation (verses 24.30-31) asking men

and women to “dress modestly” was decreed in 630 CE. It is interesting that, in all

four cases presented below, a Qur’anic revelation came to the prophet’s rescue when

he was apparently at a loss regarding how to respond to the situation on hand.

(1) Around 623 CE: When Umar (later, the second caliph) suggested to the prophet to

ask his wives to veil themselves, and since Muhammad was apparently against

veiling, the following Qur’anic verse was revealed (Hadith Bukhari 1.148):

(Verse 33.59). O Prophet! Tell your wives, daughters, and believing women, that they

should cast their outer garment over their persons (when abroad).

Comment: Since this verse asks women to wear an “outer garment”; it seems to

“veto” Umar’s suggestion of veiling.

(2) Around 626 CE: When Sahla, a Muslim woman, asked the prophet how should she

be dressed when her pubescent adopted son, Salim, visits her at home while she is

“uncovered” (not wearing her outer garment), the prophet probably received Qur’anic

verse 4.23 clarifying relationships which are considered mahram (incestuous or

illegal), in which the woman does not have to wear a veil in the presence of a mahram

person. This includes mother-son relationship. So, the prophet suggested to Sahla to

give the young boy Salim 10 drops of her milk to make him her son (Hadith Al-
Muwatta 30.12). ( I believe Salim, whom Sahla adopted after the Battle of Badr, might have

been in his early teens when this incident took place).

Compliance: (i). Later, when Aisha learned of this hadith (after the prophet had died),

she took it as precedent and would ask her sister and nieces to give their milk to men

Aisha desired to see unveiled; so also did Hafsa, another widow of the prophet (hadith

Al-Muwatta 30.12). Since both had no children, they would get milk from their close

relatives. (ii) Following upon this hadith, on June 9, 2010, a Saudi cleric advised

Saudi women who wished to see their male friends while unveiled, to feed them their

male-friends/. As a follow-up, on June 29, 2010, some Saudi women threatened to

breast-feed their drivers if they were continued to be disallowed to

fatwa-in-driving-bid.html. (I am not sure how the issue was resolved – except that

some women were jailed for a day and had their passports confiscated).

(3) 627 CE: On the day that the prophet married Zaynab bint Jhash, some guests

lingered on. Since Muhammad did not know how to ask them to leave, God revealed

verse 33.53 advising men to speak to the prophet’s wives from “before a screen”. So,

he hung a curtain between Zaynab and his lingering guests (Hadith Bukhari 7.375).

Comment: While verse 33.53 specifies veiling was for the prophet’s wives only, some

conservative Muslims apply it to other Muslim women as well.

(4) 630 CE. After the prophet conquered Mecca, Hind, a pagan woman, came to him

wearing a veil (the normal pagan custom) and desired to convert to Islam. After

conversion, she unveiled herself and informed the prophet who she was. Perhaps

verses 24.30-31, asking men and women to “dress modestly”, were then revealed. So,

the prophet welcomed her as a Muslim, unveiled.

Compliance: Later, Aisha led her army, unveiled, against caliph Ali in the Battle of

the Camel, (656 CE, www. Ali bin Talib). That was the first Muslim civil

war. Dismayed at caliph Uthman’s assassination and caliph Ali’s apparent delay in

pursuing the case, Aisha fought against him. She was defeated and subsequently led a

life of seclusion.

And here are two cases of Muslims women with hair exposed: (i) Laila, a Muslim

woman, whose “breath-taking beauty and long glossy hair” impassioned Khalid bin

Walid (an army general) so much that he killed her husband and married her (632

CE, Biography of ‘Umar); and (ii) Qataum, a Kharajite Muslim

woman, whose “outstanding beauty and flowing jet black tresses” captivated Abdur

Rahman bin Muljam al Sarimi, Ali’s designated assassin (661 CE,,

Khalifa Ali bin Talib). Conservative Kharajites assassinated caliph Ali for apparently

not following “their” version of Islam.


During the prophet’s time: Following the Qur’anic command asking men to speak to

the prophet’s wives from “before a screen” (verse 33.53, revealed in 627 CE), veiling

was then apparently observed by his wives only, and the phrase ‘she took the veil’ is

used in some hadith to mean that a woman became Muhammad’s wife (Ahmed, Leila:

55). Leila explains that “for some time after Muhammad’s death, veiling and

seclusion were considered as being peculiar to Muhammad’s wives. It is not known

how the custom spread to the rest of the community. The Muslim conquest of areas in

which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes (see the earlier section on

the history of veiling), the influence of wealth, the resultant changed status of Arabs,

and the prophet’s wives being taken as models, probably combined to bring about

their general adoption” (Ahmed, Laila: 55-56).

(ii) After the prophet’s death: With an emotional following of the Qur’an and hadith

becoming popular, Abu Dawood’s hadith No.1902 – with which we started this article

– became sine qua non; the unquestionable point of reference supporting veiling.

Some conservative Muslims even consider veiling to be a “commandment of Allah”.

Thus, the debate thus far has been more on different interpretations and implications

of the status quo than on questioning the status quo itself. Ibn Ishaq, who wrote on the

prophet’s life within 100 years of his death, effectively presents the evolving political

and socio-cultural context of the prophet’s actions. This can serve as an effective

backdrop to a meaningful discussion of veiling among Muslims. Here are some other

recent and thoughtful insights – for and against veiling — on this issue:

1. Arlene MacLeod challenges the stereotypical Western view of the meaning of the

veil and veiling and attempts to disentangle the confusion existing between languages

regarding the veil. Her analysis illustrates the layers of meanings attached to veiling,

in Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

2. In discussing the practice of veiling in Algeria, Malek Alloula displays postcards of

supposedly Algerian women that were sent by the French in Algeria to their relatives

in France during the French colonization period of Algeria (early twentieth century).

We get to experience the French “colonial gaze” of Algerian women.

3. Faeghehi Shirazi’s provocative book underscores the diversity of views on veiling

that go beyond current clichés and homogenous representations. She emphasizes that,

whether seen as erotic or romantic; or as symbol of oppression, or sign of piety,

modesty, or purity, the veil carries thousands of years of religious, sexual, social, and

political significance.

4. Entekhabi-Fard emphasizes that, while many westerners see veiling as a symbol of

repression, many Iranian women feel they have gained through the wearing of the


5. Alvi elucidates the importance of veiling in Islamic contexts and the reasons for its

persistence. Veiling, she argues, is a value held by both genders and may be located in

diverse contexts, such as death, marriage, gift-exchange, Sufi-poetry, asceticism,

mysticism, and sacredness. The word sharam, so often invoked in regard to the

Muslim veil, is commonly translated in English as shame, and is associated with

modesty, morality, piety, and female sexuality. Alvi, however, points out many more

meanings of the term, including: nakedness of humans and sacred items, virginity,

honor in responsibility and as embodied self-control, reverence for the other, self-
sufficiency, vulnerability, security and protection, embarrassment, an obligation to be

humble, and humiliation. All this shows that the veil is much more than a female

garment, and Alvi argues that concealment is a way of life, not merely a fashion or a

religious obligation, and it reflects a culturally specific relation of a person to the


6. Emphasizing the need to understand the context of Qur’anic revelations, Fatima

Mernissi (93) clarifies: “It is impossible to understand a verse without the qissa

(story/context) and the causes that led to its revelation.” And arguing against a blind

following of the Qur’an and hadith, Leila Ahmed (62) underscores: “From the

beginning, there were those who emphasized the ethical and spiritual message (of

Islam) as fundamental and agreed that the regulations that Muhammad put into effect,

were merely the ephemeral aspects of the religion, relating only to that particular

society at that historical point. They were never intended to be normative or

permanent”. She concludes that the current view (requiring women to be veiled) stems

from a manipulation of hadith, misinterpretation of the Qur’an, and male elitist

authority as opposed to the actual tenets of Islam. Thus, Mernissi and Leila Ahmed

seem to be among the few researchers who have questioned the status quo. I do not

think that veiling is due to a “misinterpretation” of the Qur’an and hadith; I believe it

is due to a misplacement of the chronology of revelations.

In the absence of information on the chronology of events, debate between veil

supporters and opponents has often focused on semantics and meanings of words

rather than on chronology of revelations. This is exemplified by the following

opposing views of the following two Qur’anic verses:

Verse 33.59: O prophet! Tell your wives, daughters, and (other) believing women that

they should cast their jilabib (outer garments) over their persons: that is most

convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested.

“Conservative” interpretation: Al-Hilali and Khan (p. 536) add the following

extrapolation (in bold) to their translation of this verse:

O prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and women of the believers to draw

their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the

eyes or one eye to see the way). . . .”

“Moderate” rebuttal: Isa rebuts as follows:

“If the intention of the Creator was to impose the veil, there was nothing stopping

Him from mentioning the face and the veil in this verse. But the verse does not use the

Arabic word for face (wajh, wujah, qubul), head (raas) or hair (shaar), nor uses the

word veil (hijab). . . The word jalabib means shirt, covering, or cloak. . . . Can the

meaning be extended to mean covering the face or being veiled? Clearly not. Women

are told to cover their bodies so that they should not be molested and that they should

be known. If a woman’s face is veiled, she cannot be known. In fact, the verse may be

interpreted to even mean that a veil may not be used, because . . . women must be

apparent and known; and if their faces are concealed by veils, they are neither

apparent nor known.”

Verse 24.30-31: Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard

their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them. . . . And say to the believing

women . . . that they should draw their veils over their bosoms. . .

“Conservative” interpretation: Al-Hilali and M. Khan (p 446) extrapolate the

translation (in bold) as follows:

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things)

and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not show off their

adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the

way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress-like veil, gloves, head cover, apron),

and to draw their veils (khomoorehenna) all over juyubihinna (i.e., their bodies, faces,

necks and bosoms) . . .”

“Moderate” rebuttal: The word khomoorehenna is derived from the word khumar

(plural khimar) and could be a shirt, shawl, blouse or any other covering. The word

juyubihinna is derived from the word jayb (plural juyub), meaning bosom. God the

Omnipotent directs believing men to lower their gaze. If women were veiled there

would be no need for men to lower their gaze.”


Breaking away from the pre-Islamic practice of veiling by women (also breaking

away from Judaism and Christianity) to avoid getting raped in that lawless pre-Islamic

Arab society, Islam first made it safe for women to venture out of their homes without

risking molestation, and then emphasized modest dressing by both men and women –

thereby underscoring that spiritual and internal contemplations were far more

important than material and external manifestations. But this transformation did not

materialize overnight: it went through three interim practices — of women wearing an

“outer garment before venturing out; of their feeding their milk to men they wished to

see while unveiled, and of men speaking to the prophet’s wives from “before a

screen” — before the final practice, of modest dressing by both men and women, was


The emotional and unquestioned devotion with which Muslims implement their

religion’s directives is underscored by the fact that many women, at the risk of facing

ridicule and possible bodily harm in non-Muslim countries, have continued to follow

this pre-Islamic practice of veiling under the impression that this is required by their


It is hoped that the thoughts presented herein will trigger large-scale introspection.

The Muslim Council of America could take leadership in organizing a conference to

discuss this topic objectively, unemotionally, and non-defensively.

And while I also possibly face ridicule for making this suggestion, I hope that the

suggested action, of the proposed objective introspection, will follow.


Ahmed, Leila. 1992. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University


Ahmed, Saleem. 2008. Islam: A Religion of Peace? Honolulu: Moving Pen


Al-Hilali, M.T. and M. Khan. 1996. Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble

Qur’an in the English Language. Riyadh: Dar-Us-Salam Publications.

Alloula, Malek. 1986. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota


Alvi, Anjum. 2013. “Concealment and Revealment: The Muslim Veil in Context.”

Current Anthropology 54:2. April 2013.

El Guindi, Fadwa. 1999. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. Oxford, New York:


Entekhabi-Fard, Camelia. 2001. Behind the Veil. Mother Jones.

Hasan, Irfan. 2016. “Hijab: How it protects and benefits women and

society”, retrieved

on August 14.

Isa, Qazi Faez. 2003. “Is wearing the veil Islamic?” Daily Dawn, Karachi. May 19.

Interne edition, Features.

Ibn Ishaq ~ 750. Seerat Rasul Allah. Translated into English as The Life of

Muhammad by A. Guillaume. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

MacLeod, Arelene Elowe. 1991. Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New

Veiling, and Change in Cairo. New York: Columbia University Press, p. xiv.

Mernissi, Fatima. 1992. The Veil and the Male Elite. New York: Basic Books.

Morgan, J.H. 2014. “Islam and Assimilation in the West: Religious and Cultural

Ingredients in American Muslim Experience.” Journal of Religion and Society.

Volume 16.

Shirazi, Faeghehi. 2001. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. University

Press of Florida.

Vanzan, Anna. 2016. “Veiled Politics: Muslim Women’s Visibility and Their Use in

European Countries’ Political Life”. Soc. Sci. 5(2), 21.

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