We begin where all jurists first turn to address a legal dilemma: the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the foremost primary source in Islamic law because it has been definitively established (qaṭʿī al-thubūt). Put differently, because the Qur’an has been massively transmitted (mutawātir), we can be certain that the text that we have today is the same text revealed to the Prophet ﷺ. In turn, because we believe the Qur’an to be direct revelation from God, rulings in the Qur’an are unquestionably upheld as divine commands. That being said, although a Qur’anic verse may give us a clear command, the way in which a command is applied may be open to interpretation (ẓannī al-dalālah). For example, Allah commands believers in verse 6 of Sūrat al-Māʾidah to wash when they rise for prayer:
O believers! When you rise up for prayer, wash your faces and your hands up to the elbows, wipe your heads, and your feet to the ankles… [5:6]
This verse clearly establishes that we must wash before prayer. Yet, at the same time, it does not provide the details of how to fulfill this command. At first glance, we may agree on which limbs need to be washed, but is wuḍūʾ limited to washing these limbs alone? And do we have to wash them in a particular way or sequence? These open-ended questions demonstrate how a verse in the Qur’an, although providing a clear command, may still need to be interpreted. Through various sources such as Qur’anic exegesis, Prophetic precedent, and other methods of legal analysis, jurists, nonetheless, were able to establish precisely the limbs and process for carrying out wuḍūʾ. Similarly, the Qur’an establishes the command for women to cover in a way that, on the face of it, seems to leave room for interpretation. Thus, in order to establish what exactly is divinely commanded, one must consult other source texts for a more definitive conclusion.
There are a number of verses in the Qur’an that address the question of women’s clothing and/or modesty in general, one of which is of direct interest. This primary verse reads:
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment (zīnah) except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap their headcovers (khumurihinna) over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women... [24:31]
For the sake of this paper, we will focus on the first half of the verse that addresses the details regarding women’s dress. In addition to the command upon men to lower their gazes and guard their private parts that appears in the preceding verse [24:30], women are commanded to 1) “not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof” and 2) “wrap their ‘headcovers’ over their chests.” These two Qur’anic injunctions are clear commands that serve as the foundations for the legal obligation of “hijab.” Let us begin by addressing the first clause of the command, which many often skip, instead citing the second clause as the primary injunction for wearing hijab. However, when jurists address women’s covering in legal discussions, it is this first clause that serves as the central command, while the second condition primarily functions to provide further clarity.
In this first clause, Allah informs the Prophet ﷺ to command the believing women to cover their zīna
, which is often roughly translated as adornment or beauty. In order to properly understand the meaning of this instruction, we turn to the science of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr
). Early commentary on the Qur’an by the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ is critical in our understanding of the Qur’an. It not only relays to us the reasons and chronology in which a verse was revealed, but clarifies the meaning and implications of the original Arabic words used within a verse. It is also important to note that the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ had the most intimate knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as they witnessed its revelation and application, and learned directly from the Prophet ﷺ. Ibn ʿAbbās, a giant in Qur’anic exegesis and the cousin of the Prophet ﷺ, for instance, explained that this clause meant that everything should be covered except the hands and face.
It was also narrated from ʿĀʾishah (rA) that the intended meaning is “what appears from the hands and face.”
Thus, “except that which appears thereof,” is understood to be an exception to the rule of fully covering wherein a woman can expose parts of her body that are required for daily activity, such as the face and hands. Jurists explain that these exceptions are granted because their exposure is necessary for the average woman to carry out the activities of her daily life.
Showing her face may be required to legally complete a transaction, while her hands are required for taking and giving in the process. In line with the reasoning that exceptions are made based on necessity, the Ḥanafīs allowed a woman to expose her feet because they are among the body parts that involuntarily show when walking.
Some Mālikīs also held this exception since covering the feet all the time may prove difficult.
The second clause, which proceeds to command believing women to draw their khumur
over their chests, further clarifies what must be covered. The word khumur
here is translated as headcovers, but it is often rendered as simply “veils”—hence the confusion and ensuing debates about whether or not covering one’s hair is a commandment. A simple linguistic analysis, however, confirms the former meaning. Khumur
, the plural word for khimār
, is derived from the root letters kh-m-r
, which at its most basic understanding means to hide or to conceal. These same root letters in the form “khimār
” specifically take on the meaning of veiling one’s head and, in some denotations, the face as well. This understanding is reaffirmed in a number of ways. For starters, we can consider the meaning of khimār
in light of other words with the same root letters. This is because, according to the general rules of Arabic grammar, words that contain the same root letters often share a common meaning. Wine in the Qur’an, for instance, is dubbed khamr
. According to one of the most prominent classical Arabic dictionaries, Lisān al-ʿarab
, it is labeled thusly since it conceals the intellect (li-annahā khāmarat al-ʿaql
In other words, wine shares the root letters for khimār
since it literally “covers” (i.e., intoxicates) the mind. Hence, in both scenarios, kh-m-r
is that which is related to covering the head in particular. In another example, the Companion Bilal (rA), when describing how the Prophet ﷺ once made wuḍūʾ
, used the word khimār
to illustrate the Prophet’s act of wiping over his turban.
This verifies once more that the word “khimār
” itself is used in reference to a head covering.
Analyzing this verse hence leaves us with two primary conclusions. One, women are required to cover their entire body except that which must necessarily show. The exceptions to this rule, primarily the face and hands according to the majority, are delineated based on prophetic narrations and the precedent of the Companions as will be further detailed below. They are also permitted on the basis of necessity (ḍarūra), since these body parts are required to show when women engage in business sales and other transactions. Second, and after the clausal command on covering, this verse provides us with further clarification as to what covering entails—primarily, that one must continue the practice of covering the hair and extend that to include covering the chest.