The Reality of Hijab

1- What is Hijab?

Hijab is one of the most debated and commented aspects of Islam. But, what does the word hijab actually mean? In tackling such an issue, one must first look at the roots of the word hijab and its derivatives to attempt to understand. In Arabic, hijaba literally means a curtain, veil, partition or separation, and the most common and popular understanding of hijab today is the veil in regard to the dressing of women. However, the meaning of hijab is much vaster and is not limited to women’s clothing. The true meaning of hijab or cover must be reviewed and understood.

2- Hijab - The Veil of ignorance

The hijab of ignorance is the veil that drapes the heart, and separates the seekers from attaining submission to and union with God, and prevents cognition of the inner reality. Our negative attributes and behaviors such as selfishness, greed, materialism, egoism, envy, our desires and using our senses in limitations, like a heavy drape, block the light of God from shining in our hearts. Therefore, we do not cognize our reality, our true “I”, and instead remain confined to only an image of reality.

Our limited perceptions create a veil. We listen to the teachings we receive from our religion, yet as “words do not convey the meanings”1,  instead of uncovering the reality behind words, we only see our wants and desires. For example, when we perform prayers, many of us pray not for His remembrance and to seek union with the beloved, but we do so wanting material prosperity and other desires, and that desirous image is the veil. In the Holy Qur'an it is stated that the veils are on the eyes, hearing, and heart of the nonbelievers. Eliminating the veil of ignorance is the goal of the seeker of the truth.

خَتَمَ اللّهُ عَلَى قُلُوبِهمْ وَعَلَى سَمْعِهِمْ وَعَلَى أَبْصَارِهِمْ غِشَاوَةٌ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ عظِيمٌ

God has sealed their hearts and their hearing, and over their eyes is a veil; and awesome suffering awaits them. Holy Qur'an- 2:7

Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said: there are more than 70,000 veils of light and darkness separating the seeker from the beloved. The veils of darkness refer to the veils of ignorance created by our limitations. The veils of light refer to the stages (horizons) in the journey of Self-knowledge or Seyr va Solouk, which the seeker witnesses and must pass through them to reach the destination. Any distraction or stoppage in the path is by itself a veil which creates a delay.

سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَتَّى يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِ بِرَبِّكَ أَنَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ

In time We shall make them fully understand Our messages in the utmost horizon and within them­selves, so that it will become clear unto them that this [revelation] is indeed the truth. [Still,] is it not enough [for them to know] that thy Sustainer is witness unto everything?
Holy Qur'an – 41:53

3- Hijab- The Spiritual/ Inner Cover

The spiritual inner cover, which all seekers of the path must have in all times, is the hijab that acts as a shield. It is a shield that protects from all the chaos surrounding us and from our own negative qualities and lower self. This protective shield allows each individual to unfold and develop his/her inner true capability. For example, in order for a seed to grow, it needs to have its outer shell to shield and protect it from the harshness of the soil till it is ready to sprout and break the shield away and bring about what is within it. The same applies to the human being. We need the protective shield in order to unfold and develop our inner capabilities so we can live in balance and harmony and cognize our reality. This is the veil which is truly required by the seeker. Our aim in prayer, zikr, fasting and other Shari’at that God has given to all mankind is to sustain and enhance a suitable inner environment conducive to the development of more delicate dimensions of our being, and be capable of receiving the words of God.

وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَن يُكَلِّمَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَّا وَحْيًا أَوْ مِن وَرَاء حِجَابٍ أَوْ يُرْسِلَ رَسُولًا فَيُوحِيَ بِإِذْنِهِ مَا يَشَاء إِنَّهُ عَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ

And it is not given to mortal man that God should speak unto him otherwise than through sudden inspiration, or [by a voice, as it were,] from behind a veil, or by sending an apostle to reveal, by His leave, whatever He wills [to reveal]: for, verily, He is exalted.

Holy Qur'an- 42:51

According to the teachings of the M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi® School of Islamic Sufism®, the source of this sacred light resides in the heart of the believer. Hazrat Molana Shah Maghsoud Sadegh Angha, the 41st Sufi Master of the school has named it the “Source of Life.” He teaches that the human system has a built-in mechanism which is equipped with 13 electromagnetic centers. Cognition and development of these centers create the required harmony which facilitates development of the spiritual dimension of the human being. The Arif (Sufi Master) is the light of the path, and guides the seeker in the path of Self-knowledge.2

4- Hijab- as Women’s Clothing

History of Hijab

Another and the most common meaning of Hijab today is the veil worn by women.
Along with scriptural arguments, scholars argue that a head covering should not be compulsory in Islam because the veil predates the revelation of the Qur’an. Head-covering was introduced into Arabia long before advent of Islam, primarily through contacts with countries, where the hijab was a sign of social status.

Lelila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam:Historicial Roots of a Modern Debate describes that the veil was apparently in use in Sassanian society, and segregation of the sexes and use of the veil were heavily in evidence in the Christian Middle East and Mediterranean regions at the time of the rise of Islam. During Mohammad’s lifetime and only toward the end of that time, his wives were the only Muslim women required to veil. After his death and following the Muslim conquest of the adjoining territories, where upper-class women veiled, the veil became a common place item of clothing among Muslim upper-class women.3
She further explains:
“Veiling was apparently not introduced into Arabia by Muhammad but already existed. Veiling was connected with social status, as it was used among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Assyrians, all of whom practiced veiling to some degree. It is nowhere explicitly prescribed in the Qur'an; the only verses dealing with women’s clothing, aside from those already quoted, instruct women to guard their private parts and throw a scarf over their bosoms (Sura 24:31-32). Throughout Mohammmad’s lifetime veiling, was observed only by his wives. Moreover, that the phrase “[she] took the veil” is used in the hadith to mean that a woman became a wife of Mohammad. It is not known how the customs spread to the rest of the community. The Muslim conquest of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Mohammad’s wives being taken as models probably combined to bring about their general adoption.” 4

The term chador, which is the form of veiling most used in Iran today, means a tent, and has its roots in the pre-Islamic practice of ferrying wealthy women around in covered sedan chairs.5

John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, writes that the customs of veiling and seclusion of women in early Islam were assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies and then later on they were viewed as appropriate expressions of Qur'anic norms and values. The Qur'an does not stipulate veiling or seclusion; on the contrary, it tends to emphasize the participation and religious responsibility of both men and women in society.6

Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali in his book Sunna Between Fiqh and Hadith declares that all traditions that function to keep women ignorant and prevent them from functioning in public are the remnants of jahiliya and that following them is contrary to the spirit of Islam. Al-Ghazali says that during the time of the Prophet women were equals at home, in the mosques and on the battlefield. Today true Islam is being destroyed in the name of Islam.7
In Islam ruh al-madaniyya (Islam: the Spirit of Civilization) Shaykh Mustafa Ghalayini reminds his readers that veiling pre-dated Islam and that Muslims learned from other peoples with whom they mixed.8

Nazira Zin al-Din points out that veiling was a custom of rich families as a symbol of status. She quotes Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Maghribi who also saw in hijab an aristocratic habit to distinguish the women of rich and prestigious families from other women. Nazira concludes that hijab as it is known today is prohibited by the Islamic shari'a.9

Another Muslim scholar, Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa, wrote a scholarly study of women in Islam entitled Tahrir al-mara'a fi 'asr al-risalah: (The Emancipation of Women during the Time of the Prophet)10 He agrees with Zin al-Din and al-Ghazali about the discrepancy between the status of women during the time of the Prophet Mohammad and the status of women today.
For more than a century now, to wear or not to wear a veil has been a central division within the Islamic world.

In The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi attacks the age-old conservative focus on women's segregation as a mere institutionalization of authoritarianism, achieved by way of manipulation of sacred texts, "a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies."11

5- Verses about Hijab in the Holy Qur’an

Regardless of the history and origin of the veil, it was institutionalized through shari’a, the religious laws of Islam. The hijab was associated with two of the Qur'an's verses, and imposed upon all Muslim females. The verses include: the verse of 24:30, 31, and 33:59.

1- Sura Noor (Light) verses 30 -31

The Qur'an lays down the principle of law of modesty in chapter 24- Noor (Light), verses 30-31 – Modesty is enjoined both upon Muslim men and women:

"Say to the believing man 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.30
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands...31" (Holy Qur'an 24:30-31)

According to the above verse, Muslim women should cover themselves modestly. It specifies only that their bosoms be covered. The Qur’an does not, however, spell out the details of such a covering. It is important to note that Qur'an does not specify any penalty for a woman who is not veiled!

The respected scholar, Muhammad Asad 12,   commenting on Qur'an 24:31 says:
“The noun khimar (of which khumur is plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women as an ornament (not as hijab to cover their head) before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer's back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, her chest was left bare. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term so familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet) does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman's chest is not included in the concept of "what may decently be apparent" of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed. Covering of the head, therefore is not a requirement. In the matter of hijab, the conscience of an honest, sincere Believer alone can be the true judge, as has been said by the Noble Prophet: "Ask for the verdict of your conscience and discard what pricks it."

2- Sura 59 (al-Ahzab) verses 58 -59
The other verse about women’s clothing is the verse 59 from Sura al-Ahzab:
Those who harass believing men and believing women undeservedly, bear (on themselves) a calumny and a grievous sin. O Prophet! Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad). That is most convenient, that they may be distinguished and not be harassed. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Qur’an 33:58-59

According to the Qur'an, during that time both Muslim men and women were subject to harassment and aggravation. The reason why Muslim women should wear an outer garment when going out of their houses is not get harassed. The purpose of this verse was not to cover or to confine women to their houses but to make it safe for them to go about their daily business without being harassed. In societies where there is no danger of a "believing" Muslims being confused with the others or in which "the outer garment" is unable to function as a mark of identification for "believing" Muslim women, the mere wearing of "the outer garment" would not fulfill the true objective of the Qur'anic decree.13

Apparently, instead of embracing the true message of Islam, the societies carried on with their cultural and tribal practices, and incorporated the lowest meaning of the hijab as a dress code for women rather than focusing on the deeper and vast meaning of Hijab.
Nazira Zin al-Din stipulates that the morality of the self and the cleanness of the conscience are far better than the morality of the veil. No goodness is to be hoped from pretence; all goodness is in the essence of the self. She concludes this part of the book, al-Sufur Wa'l-hijab by stating that it is not an Islamic duty on Muslim women to wear hijab. If Muslim legislators have decided that it is, their opinions are wrong.14

Veiling has today become a political statement in some countries, a dramatization of the desire for freedom from interference by foreign powers, and for sovereignty.
Whatever one’s views on women literally veiling the face and /or head, there is no instruction to do so in the Holy Qur'an.

1- Molana Shah Maghsoud Sadegh Angha, Dawn (Verdugo City Ca: M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi Publications, 1991)
2- Molana Salaheddin Ali Nader Angha, Theory "I",(Riverside, CA: M.T.O. Publications, 2002)
3- Ahmed, Leyla, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p.5 4- Ibid., p. 56
5- Aslan, Reza, No god but God, (Random House Inc. New York, NY, 2005) p.65
6- John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path,(Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition, 2005) p.98 7- Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali.: Sunna Between Fiqh and Hadith (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, 7th edition, 1990)
8- Shaykh Mustafa al-Ghalayini, Islam ruh al-madaniyya (Islam: The Spirit of Civilization)(Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Asriyya)1960) P.253
9- Nazira Zin al-Din, al-Sufur Wa'l-hijab (Beirut: Quzma Publications, 1928) pp.255-56
10- Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa, Tahrir al-mara' fi 'asr al-risalah (Kuwait: Dar al-Qalam, 1990)
11- Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. translated by Mary Jo Lakeland (Addison-Wesley, 1991)
12- Translated and explained by Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur'an ( Dar al-Andalus, Gibraltar. 1984) p.538
13-Ibrahim B. Syed, article on Women in Islam: Hijab, (Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc, Louisville, KY. November 3, 1998)
14-Nazira Zin al-Din, al-Sufur Wa'l-hijab (Beirut: Quzma Publications: 1928), p 37