The Word Hijab (Modest Dress)

We believe in a particular philosophy in Islam for woman's hijab or modest dress which forms our intellectual point of view and in regard to analysis, it can be called the basis for the Islamic modest dress.

Before we begin our discussion, it is necessary to look at the meaning of the word hijab which is used in our age to refer to a woman's covering. This word gives the sense of 'covering' because it refers to a veil or a means of 'covering'. Perhaps it can be said that because of the origin of the word, not every covering is hijab. That 'covering' which is referred to as a hijab is that which appears behind a curtain. The Holy Qur’an describes the setting of the sun in the story of the Prophet Solomon,

"...until the sun was covered (bil hijab) and time for the afternoon ritual prayer was over." (38:32).

The diaphragm separating the heart from the stomach is also called 'hijab'.

In the advice given by Imam Ali to Malik Ashtar, he states, "... prolong not your seclusion (hijab) from your subjects, for a ruler's seclusion from his subjects is a kind of constraint and (results in) a lack of knowledge of affairs. Seclusion from them cuts rulers off from the knowledge of that from which they have been secluded.1

Ibn Khaldun says in the Muqaddimah, "Governments do not consider a separation to exist between themselves and the people at the beginning of their formation but little by little, the separation and distance between the ruler and the people grows and finally it causes unpleasant results."2 Ibn Khaldun used the word hijab in the sense of meaning 'curtain' and 'separation' and not 'covering'.

The use of the word satr, in the sense of 'covering' was used instead of hijab, especially by the religious jurisprudents. The religious jurisprudents, whether in the section on the ritual prayers or inthe section on marriage, refer to this issue and use the word satr and not hijab.

It would have been best if the word had not been changed and we had continued to use the word 'covering' or satr because, as we have said, the prevalent meaning of the word hijab is veil. If it is to be used in the sense of 'covering', it gives the idea of a woman being placed behind a curtain. This very thing has caused a great number of people to think that Islam has wanted women to always remain behind a curtain, to be imprisoned in the house and not to leave it.

The duty for covering, which has been established for women in Islam, does not necessarily mean that they should not leave their homes. It is not the intention of Islam to imprison women. We may find such ideas in the ancient, pre-Islamic past of some countries like Iran or India but no such thing exists in Islam.

The philosophy behind the hijab for woman in Islam is that she should cover her body in her associations with men 'whom she is not related to according to the Divine Law'3 (na-mahram) and that she does not flaunt and display herself. The verses of the Holy Qur’an which refer to this issue affirm this and the edicts of the religious jurisprudents confirm it. We will refer to the extent of this covering by using the Qur’an and the Sunnah as sources. The relevant verses do not refer to the word hijab. Verses which refer to this issue, whether in Surah Nur (Chapter 24) or Surah Ahzab (Chapter 33), have mentioned the extent of the covering and contacts between men and women without using the word hijab. The verse in which the word hijab is used refers to the wives of the Holy Prophet of Islam.

We know that in the Holy Qur’an there are special commands about the Prophet's wives. The first verse addressed to them begins,

"O wives of the Prophet! You are not as other women..." (33:32).

Islam held the special relationship of the wives of the Prophet in such a great esteem that they were to remain at home for basically political and social reasons during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet and after his death. The Holy Qur’an says directly to the wives of the Prophet,

"Remain in your houses." (33:33).

Islam desired that the honor and respect of these 'Mothers of the Believers', who were held in great respect by the Muslims, not be misused and that they do not become a political and social tool for selfish and ambitious men.

I think that the reason why the wives of the Prophet were forbidden to marry after the Prophet's death was for this very reason. That is, a husband after the Holy Prophet might misuse the dignity and respect of his wife. Therefore, if commands are more emphatic and severe in regard to the wives of the Prophet, it is because of this.

At any rate, the verse in which the word hijab is used is,

"...and when you ask his wives for any object, ask them from behind a curtain (hijab)..." (33:53).

According to history and Islamic tradition, whenever you see the 'verse of hijab' referred to, for instance, "such and such was the case before the revelation of 'the verse of hijab" " or "such and such was the case after the revelation of 'the verse of hijab"", it refers to this verse which relates to the wives of the Prophet and not the verses of Surah Nur which states,

"Say to the believing men that they cast down their glance and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely God is Aware of what they do. And say to the believing women that they cast down their glance..." (24: 31).

Or the verse of Surah Ahzab which states,

"O Prophet! Say to thy wives and daughters and the believing women that they draw their outer garments (jilabib) close to them. So it is more likely that they will be known and not hurt. God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate." (33:59).

But there is a question as to why, in the recent era, the current expression of the religious jurisprudents, that is, satr, did not become prevalent instead of hijab? The reason is unknown to me. Perhaps they mistook the Islamic hijab for the hijab which is traditional in other countries. We will give further explanation about this later.

The Real Visage Of The Modest Dress

The fact is that the covering or its new expression, hijab, is not concerned with whether or not it is good for a woman to appear in society covered or uncovered. The point is whether or not a woman and a man's need of her should be a limitless, free association or not.

Should a man have the right to satisfy his needs with every woman and in every place short of committing adultery?

Islam, which looks at the spirit of the problem, answers: No. Men are only allowed to satisfy their sexual desires with their legal wives within a marital situation based upon the laws of marriage which establish a series of heavy commitments. It is forbidden for men to have any physical relations with women they are not related to by marriage.

It is true that the question externally appears to be, "What should a woman do?" Must she leave her home covered or uncovered? That is, the person about whom the question is raised is a woman and the question is often expressed in very heart-rendering tones, "Is it better for a woman to be free or condemned and imprisoned in the modest dress?" But something else lies at the root of the question. That is, should men be free to take sexual benefit from women in any way they choose short of committing adultery or not? That is, the one who benefits here is a man and not a woman or at least a man benefits more than a woman does. As Will Durant has said, "The mini-skirt is a blessing for everyone in the world except cloth merchants."

So the depth of the question is whether or not the seeking of sexual pleasure should be limited to the family environment and legal wives or is the freedom of seeking sexual fulfillment something that should be satisfied in society at large? Islam defends the first theory. According to Islamic precepts, limiting sexual desires to the family environment and legal wives helps to maintain the mental health of the society. It strengthens the relationships between the members of the family and fosters the development of a perfect harmony between a husband and wife. As far as society is concerned, it keeps and preserves energies to be then used for social activities and it causes a woman to attain a higher position in the eyes of man.

The philosophy of the Islamic 'covering' depends on several things. Some of them are psychological and some relate to the home and the family. Others have sociological roots and some of them relate to raising the dignity of a woman and preventing her debasement.

The modest dress in Islam is rooted in a more general and basic issue. That is, Islamic precepts aim at limiting all kinds of sexual enjoyment to the family and the marital environment within the bounds of marriage so that society is only a place for work and activity. It is opposite of the Western system of the present era which mixes work with sexual enjoyment. Islam separates these two environments completely.

Psychological Tranquility

Without limits being established for relations between men and women or with unlimited free associations, sexual excitement and stimulation increase and demands become unquenchable and insatiable. The sexual instinct is a powerful, deep-rooted instinct which resembles the fathomless ocean. Although one thinks that by obeying it, one will have tamed it, its rebellious nature continues to show forth. It is like a fire: the more fuel is added to it, the greater would be its flame. In order to comprehend this, two points should be noted.

Firstly, just as history recalls those who coveted wealth, who were continuously seeking to add to what they already had and however much more they gained, they were still greedy for more, it also mentions those who were covetous for sexual pleasures. In no way were they satisfied by possessing beautiful women and dominating over them. This was the situation of all of those who had harems and, in truth, all those who had the power to possess women.

Christensen writes about the Sassanian rulers: The women we see carved into stone at Taq-i-Bustan are only a few of the 3000 women Khosrow Parviz possessed in his harem. This king was never satisfied sexually. Whenever girls, widows or women with children were presented to him for their beauty, he would order that they be sent to his harem. Whenever he desired to replenish his harem, he would write letters to his governors wherein he would describe the perfect and beautiful women he wanted. They then would send him any women who fit his description."4

Stories like this are endless in history. In most recent times, this greed does not take the form of harems but exists in another form with the difference that today it is not necessary for a person to have the wealth and possibilities that Khosrow Parviz or Harun al-Rashid had. Today, with the blessing of contemporary culture, it is possible for a man who only has one-thousandth of the possibilities of Parviz or Harun to take advantage of women.

Secondly, have you ever considered what the desire to serenade or write love poems stems from in humanity? A large part of world literature is filled with love poems. In this type of literature, a man praises his beloved, asks for his needs to be satisfied by the beloved, raises the position of the beloved as he lowers his own status and suffers greatly from separation. What is this? Why does humanity not behave in the same way towards other needs?

Have you ever seen a person who worships money or a person who is ambitious for higher material positions, writing love poems on money or on ambition? Has anyone ever written a love poem asking for bread? Why is it that people enjoy listening to or reading the love poems of another? Why is it that so many people receive such pleasure from Hafiz's love poems? Is it not because each person senses that it conforms to some very deep instinct which possesses their whole being? How mistaken are those who say that the one and only reason which forms the basis for human activity is an economic one!

Human beings have developed special literary rhythmic forms to express sexual love just as they have done with spiritualities whereas no special literary rhythmic forms have been developed for things which are essentially material like bread and water. We do not want to insinuate that all loves are sexual nor do we mean to imply that all of Hafiz's or Sa'adi's poems stem from their sexual instinct. This is something which needs to be discussed separately at another time.

But what is clear is that many of the love poems are ones written by men in devotion to women. It is sufficient for us to recognize that a man's attention towards a woman is not based on bread and water so that it can be satiated when the stomach is full. Rather, it either takes the form of greed and worship of variety and multiplicity or the form of love and love poems. We will later discuss under what conditions the state of greed and sexual covetousness is strengthened and under what conditions love and love poems assume a spiritual quality.

At any rate, Islam has placed special emphasis upon the amazing power of this fiery instinct. There are traditions which speak of the danger of a 'look', the danger of a man and woman being alone together and, finally, the danger of the instinct which unites a man and a woman.

Islam has established ways of controlling, balancing and taming the instinct. Duties have been given to both men and women in this area. One duty which is the responsibility of both men and women relates to looking at each other.

"Say to the believing men to cast down their glance and guard their private parts..." (24:30).

"Say to the believing women to cast down their glance and guard their private parts." (24:31).

In summary, the command is that a man and a woman should not fix their eyes upon each other; they should not flirt with each other; they should not look at each other with lust or with the intention of seeking sexual pleasure (unless it is within the sacred bounds of marriage).

Islam has established a particular command for a woman which is that she covers her body from a man with whom she is not mahram and that she should not flaunt herself or put her body on display in society. She is asked not to stimulate the attention of men by any means.

The human soul readily accepts stimulation. It is great error to think that the sexual desires of humanity are limited in extent and that after a certain point, are naturally satisfied. Just as the human being, man or woman, is never satiated with wealth or position and is continuously seeking more, in the area of sexual desires, it is the same. No man is ever naturally satisfied by beauty and no woman is ever naturally satisfied by a man's attention and the conquest of his heart. Clearly the desires of the heart are never satiated.

On the other hand, unlimited demands are never fulfilled and a sense of deprivation is continuously felt. Not achieving one's desires results in psychological illnesses and complexes. Why is it that in the West psychological illnesses have increased? The reason is freedom of sexual ethics and continuous sexual stimulation through the newspapers, magazines, cinemas, theaters and official and unofficial parties and even the streets and alleys.

The reason why the Islamic command to cover is exclusive to women is because the desire to show off and display one's self is a particular trait of women. She is the hunter in the domination of the hearts of men and man is the prey, whereas man is the hunter in the domination of the body of women and she is the prey. A woman's desire to display herself comes from this essence of the hunter. It is the female instinct which, because of its particular nature, wishes to capture hearts and imprison the male. Thus, the deviation begins with the female instinct and therefore the command to cover was issued.

Solidifying The Root Of The Family

There is no doubt that anything which confirms the roots of the family and increases the perception of marital relations is good for the family unit. The greatest efforts must be made to have this happen. The opposite is also true. Anything which causes the relationship between a husband and wife to grow cold is detrimental to a family and must be struggled against.

Finding the fulfillment of sexual desires within the family environment and within the framework of a legal marriage will strengthen the relationship between a husband and wife causing their union to become more stable.

The philosophy of the modest dress and the control of sexual desires other than with a legal wife, from the point of view of the family unit, is so that one legal partner will be the cause for the wellbeing of the other, whereas in the system of free sexual relationships, one's legal partner is psychologically considered as a competitor, someone who gets in the way of that person's 'fun' like a prison guard. As a result, the basis for the family becomes enmity and hatred.

The youth of today have fled from marriage and whenever marriage is suggested to them, they say, "It is too soon. I am still too young," or give some other excuse because of this very reason. In the past, one of the greatest desires of the young people was to get married. They were not so particular before about the blessings of Europe which introduced so many women as goods.

Marriage in the past was undertaken after a time of anticipation and wishful thinking. For this very reason, the partners saw their happiness and well-being in their partner. But today, sexual desires are so freely satisfied outside of marriage that there is no longer any reason to have the former feelings. Free relationships of girls and boys have made marriage look like a duty and a limitation to them. It then becomes necessary to speak to them about ethics, morals, etc. As some magazines suggest, it must be forced upon the young people.

The difference between the society which limits sexual relations to the family environment and a legal marriage with a society which promotes free relationships is that marriage in the first society is the end to the anticipation and deprivation whereas in the latter, it is the beginning of deprivation and limitation. In the system of free sexual relationships, the marriage contract ends the free period of boys and girls and it obliges them to learn to be loyal to each other whereas in the Islamic system, their deprivation and anticipation is met.

The system of free relationships, in the first place, causes boys to become soldiers of fortune because of marriage and the formation of a family and not until their high, young spirits tend to become weak, do they turn to marriage. Then a girl is taken because she will bear children or clean the house or act as a maid. In the second place, it weakens the roots of the existing marriage. Instead of the marriage being based upon a pure love and deep affection where they know their partner to be the person who shares in their happiness, the reverse happens.

They look at their partner with the eyes of a competitor, as a person who prevents freedom and brings limitations. As they say, each one becomes the other's prison guard. When a boy or girl want to say, "I am married," they say instead, "I have taken on a prison guard." What does this mean? This means that before marriage they were free to go wherever they wanted to flirt.

There was no one to tell them what to do. But after marriage, these freedoms were limited. If a man goes home late one night, there will be an argument with his partner. "Where were you?" If he talks with a young girl, his wife objects. It is clear to what extent family relations become weakened and cold in such a system.

Some people like Bertrand Russell believe that the prevention of free relationships is not just for the certainty of men in relationship to future generations because methods of birth control have been developed to solve this difficulty. Thus, the issue is not just the knowledge of who the father is. The other issue is that the purest of emotions exist between the marriage partners and the relationship should be based on unity and solidarity.

These goals can only be met when the partners close their eyes to other relationships, when the man closes his eyes to other women, when the wife is not bent on stimulating and attracting anyone but her husband and when the principle of forbidding the satisfaction of sexual desires outside of the family, even before marriage, exists.

In addition, when a woman who has progressed following Russell and people like him and in accordance with the 'new sexual ethics' still seeks her love in another in spite of having a legal husband. When she sleeps with a man who has become the love of her life, what assurance is there that she will take preventing measures with a man who is her legal husband whom she does not love and not get pregnant by the man she now loves and then claims her legal husband to be the father of the child?

It is clear that such a woman will prefer to have her child be the product of the man she now loves, not of the man who the law says is her legal husband and the only person by whom she should have children. It is natural that a man should have children by a woman who loves him and not by a woman who is forced upon him by the law. Europe has clearly shown that the statistics for illegitimate children has risen at an alarming rate despite the modern means for preventing pregnancy.

The Perseverance Of Society

Taking sexual desires from the bounds of the family environment to society has weakened society's capacity for work and activity. Contrary to the opinion that 'the modest dress results in paralyzing half of the energy potential of the individuals of society', the lack of the modest dress and the gradual development of free relationships has caused the social force to fail.

That which has caused the paralysis of women's power and that which has imprisoned her talents is the lack of the modest dress. In Islam, there is no question of the modest dress prohibiting a woman from participating in cultural, social or economic activities. Islam neither says that a woman cannot leave her home nor does it say that she cannot seek knowledge and learning.

Rather, men and women must both learn and seek knowledge. There is no objection to women's economic activities in Islam. Islam has never wanted women to be useless and unoccupied. It has never desired that women bring up useless and indifferent children. The covering of the body, except for the face and hands, is not to prevent any kind of cultural or social or economic activity. That which paralyses the working force is the corruption of the work environment by the element of seeking the satisfaction of sexual pleasures.

If a boy and a girl study in a separate environment or in one environment where the girl covers her body and wears no makeup, do they not study better? Do they not think better and listen to the words of the teacher better? Or is it better when a boy sits beside a girl who has on make-up and is wearing a short skirt which barely reaches her knees?

Will men work better in an environment where the streets, offices, factories, etc., are continuously filled with women who are all wearing heavy make-up and are not covered or in an environment where these scenes do not exist? Any company or office that is serious about its work and endeavors to produce good products or services prevents these kinds of inter-mixings. If you do not believe this, check it out yourself.

The truth is that the disgraceful lack of the modest dress in Iran (he is speaking before the victory of the Islamic Revolution) whereby we were even moving ahead of America, is a product of the corrupt Western capitalist societies. It is one of the results of the worship of money and the pursuance of sexual fulfillment that is prevalent in Western capitalism.

It is one of the means they use to manipulate human society and stimulate them by this force to become consumers of their products. If an Iranian woman only wants to put on make-up for her legal husband or only wants to get dressed up for gatherings with women, she will not be a consumer of Western products. She will not be obliged to unconsciously corrupt the morals of young boys and girls, to weaken them so that they are no longer active members of society which is to the benefit of the exploiters.

  • 1. Letter to Malik Ashtar, the Nahj al Balaghah, Translated from the Arabic by William Chittick in Shi’ite Anthology.
  • 2. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal.
  • 3. A man and a woman are related in two ways according to the Divine Law, either through close kinship, which is clearly stipulated in the Qur’an, or they are married to each other. That is, a man and a woman are related in the Divine Law if their kinship is too close for marriage or they are actually married. This is referred to as mahram. Non mahram refers to a man and a woman who can marry each other.
  • 4. Arthur Christensen, L’Iran sous Les Sassanides.