Hijab today is a word that you either stand for OR stand against. There is no middle ground sadly. It wasn’t always the case, pre ‘War on Terror’ World was relatively very tolerant and this word wasn’t always so divisive. However this won’t be the main focus of my article today. I would like to discuss what Hijab is, what it means to a Muslim woman (and man!), its religious significance, its cultural & traditional interpretation and what the word means in today’s World. I would love to hear from you all even if it’s just criticising my style of writing 🙂
The word hijab in Arabic means ‘to cover’ and generally implies modesty. It also means partition or barrier. It is quite clear from the different meanings of this word of the intended usage of hijab that is a piece of clothing that would cover the beauty of person and act as barrier or partition between the sexes.
Hijab is not exclusive to women contrary to the popular opinion. In fact Muslim men are asked to lower their gaze and this is their hijab. More on this later in the next section.
What Noble Quran says about Hijab
Basically we must always remember that for us Muslims, Allah’s word i.e. Quran is the foremost and most authentic source of guidance for mankind. I will now quote meanings of several verses of Quran that are related to Hijab:
“ Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do.” – Al Noor (24:30)
“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 to 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, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands….. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment….” – Al Noor (24:31)
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the 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). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allaah is Ever Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful” – Al Ahzaab (33:59)
Although there are several other verses in the Quran which talk similarly of the subject but these are enough to convey the meaning. It is very interesting to note that the verse that mentions men’s hijab precedes the verse that talks about women’s hijab. Contrary to the popular opinion and in response to the common insult hurled towards Muslims as to why men don’t wear hijab, this is a proof that men’s hijab is also commanded by our creator Allah (swt), however its nature for men is different.
What Saheeh Ahadith say about Hijab
Safiyyah bint Shaybah (ra) narrated that Aisha (ra) used to say: When these words were revealed “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” they took their izaars (a kind of garment) and tore them from the edges and covered their faces with them.
Al Bukhari (4481)
It was narrated from ‘Urwah that ‘Aa’ishah said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) used to pray Fajr and the believing women would attend (the prayer) with him, wrapped in their aprons, then they would go back to their houses and no one would recognize them. Al Bukhari (365) & Muslim (645)
Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said: The riders used to pass by us when we were with the Messenger of Allah (saw) in ihram, and when they drew near to us we would lower our jilbabs from our heads over our faces, then when they had passed we would uncover them again.
Abu Dawood (1833). & Ibn Majah (2935)
What Hijab means today – Cultural & traditional interpretations
The meaning of hijab has changed a lot over the period of time. Although the general meaning still remains the same which is to cover up and represents modesty, you will be surprised to see how much it varies from country to country.
Hijab in Middle East & Africa – Abaya & Niqab
In my experience in the Middle East, there was no standard definition of hijab shared across the Arab World. In countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait & Qatar (latter two to a little extent) hijab is mostly used from the perspective of a woman and mostly involves wearing an outer garment that is known as ‘Abaya’. This Abaya is usually worn with another piece of garment that is called ‘Niqab’. Niqab is a face covering that covers your face except for the eyes. Abaya is usually black in colour and is quite loose to hide the curves of the woman wearing it.
Both Abaya & Niqab are relatively popular in the rest of Muslim World. In most African Muslim countries especially the North Africa, most women wear the Abaya but not the Niqab. Abayas are also not only of black colour in these countries but brown ones are very popular too.
Hijab in Asia – Chadar & Dupatta
In Asia, Abaya is still popular among the younger generation of Muslim women. Niqab is gaining popularity however it is still rarely seen. Countries like Pakistan and Iran, the form of hijab prevalent is known as ‘Chadar’ or ‘Dupatta’. Both Chadar & Dupatta are long piece of lose sheets that are wrapped around chest, shoulders and sometimes also to cover hair. Dupatta is also a fashion accessory today available in very bright colours and expensive embroidery. Among the older generation it was actually the most popular form of hijab but its usage has declined in the favour of Arab-styled Black Abayas in the younger generation.
Hijab in UK, rest of Europe & Asia Pacific – Colourful Headscarves
In West especially in UK and France, that have a sizable Muslim population, Hijab is used to refer to the Headscarf only wheras Niqab is usually mentioned as optional. This meaning is also common in few Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey & Egypt. Abayas are not popular in aforementioned countries whereas colourful headscarves are used for the purpose of hijab. There are load of different styles to do a hijab (referring to headscarf as you would commonly hear in London). Sometimes colourful gowns are used by young girls in these countries in places of Abaya.
Speaking of popularity of Hijab, it is interesting to note that if you go around on streets in most Muslim majority countries today and ask them about the popularity of Hijabs, it is surprising to hear that Hijab despite the negative connotations attached to it by few feminists and generally the West, it is a resurgent trend among young educated Muslim women whether it be London, Istanbul, Cairo or Karachi. In my opinion this has to a lot with the West’s War on ‘Terror’. Iraq war especially has forced a lot of young Muslim men and women, who were not very interested in the religion before it, now consider religion an integral part of their identity! Internet could be another reason for its popularity since a few decades ago most women were solely reliant on your local cleric for religious information whereas now technology has broken all such barriers. May be some young women consider it a symbol of resistance, like the image of Che Guevara used by socialist and liberals around the World, during tough times of persecution and media trial of Muslims.
Summary – Hijab in Islam
To summarise, Hijab means to cover up in literal terms, however it is evident that Muslim women and men around the World have different meanings attached to it. What may be considered as mandatory may be too extreme in the other country, likewise what may be too conservative may be too liberal in the other. If you solely look at Quran and Hadiths especially from the last wife of Prophet Muhammad i.e. Aisha (ra) mentioned earlier in this article, it is quite clear that hijab should be used to cover the face as well. However there is much difference of opinion at this issue around the World and there are lot of Muslims which consider covering of face as optional.
I hope that this would inshaAllah prove useful for our readers looking to find out more about Hijab. Till the next time, Asslamu Alaikum – Peace be upon you!