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: Historical 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. 1
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 Mohammad’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.” 2
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. 3
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. 4
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. 5
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. 6
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. 7
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). 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. 8
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.” 9
- Ahmed, Leyla, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate , (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p.5
- Ibid., p. 56
- Aslan, Reza, No god but God, (Random House Inc. New York , NY , 2005) p.65
- John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path,(Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition, 2005) p.98
- Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali.: Sunna Between Fiqh and Hadith (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1989, 7th edition, 1990)
- Shaykh Mustafa al-Ghalayini, Islam ruh al-madaniyya(Islam: The Spirit of Civilization) ( Beirut : al-Maktabah al-Asriyya ) 1960) P.253
- Nazira Zin al-Din, al-Sufur Wa’l-hijab (Beirut: Quzma Publications, 1928) pp.255-56
- Abd al-Halim Abu Shiqa, Tahrir al-mara’ fi ‘asr al-risalah (Kuwait: Dar al-Qalam, 1990)
- 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)