By Muhammad Yunus, NewAgeIslam.com
(Joint Author), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
- The article offers a textual analysis of key Qur’anic verses on personal modesty, drawing on a duly authenticated exegetic work  that is based on the most preferred methodology of explaining the Qur’an through the Qur’an.
- The article also answers, in the Afterword, some of the burning questions surrounding the theme, traces it theological root, and investigates its present day relevance and broader implications.
- The article in no way refutes the substance or any the contentions made in recently published related article, A Fatwa that stirred Muslims by Asghar Ali Engineer and Purdah and Islam by Anees Jilani. It complements and technically supports them, and adds some fresh insights and an Afterword tabling some critical points and caveats and to put to an end this unending debate.
At an early stage of the revelation, the Qur’an declares:
“Children of Adam! We have sent you clothing to cover your nakedness, and for (your) beauty (risha),* but the cloak of heedfulness (taqwa) is the best. This is among the signs of God, that they may be mindful”(7:26). *[Lit., ‘plumage’ – metaphorically derived from the bird’s plumage.]
The Qur’an expands on this in the Medinite period in a long and cryptic passage (24:30/31) asking both believing men and women to avert their glances (from what they should not see) in addition to covering their private parts (furujah). The passage also commands womenfolk to ‘draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms’ permitting a casual display of ‘what is (normally) apparent’ and forbids them from exposing their ‘charms’ (zinat)’ except in the presence of the immediate members of their household, and restrains them from walking in a provocative manner. The fuller interpretation of these injunctions, which will be contingent to the exact meaning of the word zinat, is evolved in the commentary following the rendering of the passage.
“Tell believing men to restrain their glances and guard their private parts (furujah). This is (conducive) to their purity. Indeed God is Informed of whatever they contrive (in their minds) (24:30). And tell believing women to restrain their glances and guard their private parts (furujah), and not to expose their charms (zinat) except what is (normally) apparent of it, and to draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms, and not to expose their charms (zinat) except (in the presence of) their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those under their lawful trust, or the male attendants not having any (sexual) desire, or children not yet conscious of women’s sexuality; nor let them strike their feet so as to make known what they hide of their charms (zinat). And turn to God together, you believers, that you may succeed” (24:31).
Textual analysis of the Qur’anic verse 24:31
The interpretation of the critical words and phrases of the verse is tabled below.
1. zinat : The Qur’an often uses the word zinat and its other forms to denote the gifts of God, alluring to humans, such as the worldly life (2:212), pleasures from women, children and wealth (3:14, 18:46), and all sorts of beautiful gifts of God (7:32). Based on this analogy, the word zinat in the above verse must be something beautiful and alluring that God has gifted to a woman, and this can only be her ‘physical’ charms, – not the ornaments that she may or may not wear. This corollary is reinforced by the permission of casual exposure in the presence of (i) male family members of the household and (ii) male attendants not having any (sexual) desire, or children not yet conscious of women’s sexuality.’ If zinat were to mean ornaments, these instructions will be meaningless as:
• It will be virtually immaterial for a male member of a household, whether the female inmates (sister, wife, mother, aunty etc) reveal or hide their ornaments. The instruction will only make sense if zinat connoted with the physical charm of the body that is liable to be exposed in day-to-day life.
• If zinat were to mean ornaments, the instruction should have been to hide them from the male attendants as well as children, as they both might be attracted by its glamour. The instruction will only make sense if zinat connoted with the physical charm for which none of them would have any appeal.
2. ‘what is apparent of it’: Muhammad Asad quotes al-Qiffal to interpret the phrase as ‘that which a human being may show in accordance with prevailing custom,’ obviously within the Qur’anic spirit of modesty .
3. ‘to draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms’: In pre-Islamic Arabia, many women did not cover their breasts as a dressing norm – a practice dictated both by scarcity of clothes and pagan relaxed attitude towards sexuality. So, the instruction is simply to pull the shawl around the upper part of the body.
4. ‘nor let them strike their feet’: In the scarcity society of the time when a woman wrapped herself with merely a single piece of clothing and wore but little ornaments, this instruction forbade her from walking about in a seductive and revealing manner. In its universal context, it is a general guideline for women against adopting a provocative gait - despite proper covering of body.
Interpretation of Qur’anic verses on modesty
The clear pronouncements of the verses 7:26 and 24:30 and the textual analysis of 24:31 as tabled above demonstrate that for any public appearance, the Qur’an asks, men and women to restrain their glances and cover their private parts (furujah). The Qur’an also takes account of a woman’s innate power to provoke the male sexual impulse by wearing revealing outfit. She is therefore asked to dress modestly, commensurate to the prevailing custom, and to bear herself in a non-provocative manner. Wearing of any external head to toe veil (burqa, (niqab), covering of head and gender-based segregation are not specified.
For joint family accommodation, however, women will not incur any blame for any casual exposure of their natural charms before close relatives, such as their fathers, father-in-laws, brothers, nephews, children and senile male attendants.
The Qur’an features two more verses on the theme that need to be explained.
i) On concession to elderly women:
“(As for) the elderly women who sit around and do not look forward to marriage, there is no blame on them in taking off their garments (provided they do so) without showing off their charms (zinat), but modesty is better for them. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (24:60).
Explanation: In historical context, common people in most parts of the world barely had any extra clothing apart from what they wore, and used community washing and bathing facilities in a modest way. The verse relents towards the elderly women who may be instinctively less conscious of their sexuality - that they may go about their daily chores without being blamed for showing off their physical charms (zinat).
ii) Dressing guideline for the Prophet's household and other Muslim women
In a clearly stated verse, the Prophet is asked to tell the womenfolk in his household and other believing women to pull their cloaks around themselves for others to recognize them without causing them any annoyance (33:59).
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the womenfolk of believers that they should draw their cloaks about themselves: this may be more appropriate as they may be recognized (in public), but not annoyed. (Remember,) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (33:59).
The specific time bound reference to the Prophet’s wives and daughters, and the deliberate vagueness of the instruction, by not specifying what part of the body to be covered, make it clear that the verse carries a general moral guideline as is reinforced by the concluding God’s attributes of Mercy and forgiveness . Furthermore, this verse implicitly prohibits wearing of any face veil as that will prevent them from being recognized.
Some burning questions need answering to put to an end this unending debate.
Q.1. How did the notion of veiling for common Muslim women enter Islam?
Answer: Until the advent of Islam, women were oppressed and subjected to various forms of restrictions in practically all the major civilizations. Therefore all the Christians (including the Romans and Greeks), Zoroastrians, pagans and Hindus who embraced Islam brought notions against women from their previous religions. This inevitably influenced their interpretation of Qur’anic exhortations on modesty. With time, this gave rise to imposition of varying restrictions upon women, including their full veiling and segregation when outside the house – a custom borrowed understandably from “the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long veiled and segregated their women in this manner .
Q.2. What is the basis of the orthodox view on veiling?
Answer: The orthodox scholars interpret the word zinat in the verse 24:31 as ornaments, women wear to enhance their appeal. They argue that since women wear ornaments around their neck and on their ears and arms and hands, and so forth, all these parts of the body must be covered, and accordingly they advocate head-to-toe veiling . They draw on a tradition that the Prophet had told his young sister-in-law Asma that an adolescent girl’s body should not be visible except her face and palm . But (i) the compiler (Abu Daud) himself classified it as a weak tradition, (ii) the tradition was not reported by earlier Imams, al-Bukhari and Muslim and (iii) it imposed a clothing requirement that was excessive for the scarcities of the time, as indicated by a number of traditions , and by the prevalent custom of men and women wearing single pieces of unstitched cloaks around their bodies . Thus, the authenticity of the tradition remains too questionable to support the classical interpretation of the passage. Hence, the traditional meaning of the term zinat as external ornament, which provides the basis for the classical interpretation, is also untenable.
Q.3. Should Muslim women wear the veil / headscarf?
Answer. As a first and irrefutable premise, the Qur’an does not invest men with the guardianship of women and expects them to live together as friends and protectors of one another (awliya’, 9:71). Hence, this writer can only give his opinion that may be accepted or rejected by any woman – as much as she can accept or reject any fatwa, which is no more than a legally non-binding opinion of a scholar. Now I turn to the question:
A Muslim woman living in or visiting countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran or some rural areas of other Muslim majority/minority countries where women wear veil/ headscarf as part of tradition, would do better by following suit. But if she is living/ visiting a country (such as the Western world) where women go without any veil/headscarf, she will be liable to draw un-necessary attention and even suspicion by wearing the veil or traditional headscarf.
Q.4. Why shouldn’t Muslim women exert their right to wear a veil/ headscarf if they so desire?
Answer: Of course, they can! But in the context of growing Islamophobia in the West, and prejudice against the Muslims in general, its potentially negative fallouts listed below would discourage any discerning Muslim lady in the West (and in the urban areas of many Muslim minority countries) from wear a veil/ headgear, except for medical reason (receding hairline for example)
• Its distinctiveness gives a false signal of an exaggerated presence of the Muslims that may be threatening to some inviting hate crime.
• Its association with medieval papal attire creates a social barrier in that a non-Muslim woman (or even a Muslim woman) going about casually with her head and ear exposed may feel alienated from a woman wearing a uniform type veil or ear-chin wrap-around headscarf.
• In the context of pure Western landscape, it may give a false notion of regimentation and even a small number of veiled Muslim women in a public place may invoke a fear of a cultural invasion to the native onlooker – given high level of anti-Islamic prejudice. 
• It can be physically inconvenient to some working women as well as to those participating in outdoor games, sports, swimming and athletics by blocking natural ventilation around their head and ear.
• It has lost its original role of providing security in an exclusively male occupied public arena. Today, a Muslim woman in any backstreet of America or Europe is probably far safer without the veil/ headscarf than with it.
• The Qur’an does not specify “wearing of any external head to toe veil (burqa), face veil (niqab), covering of head.”
• Face veiling is already banned in many places including the premise of al-Azhar university, public places in France; besides, it conflicts with a clear Qur’anic directive to women to keep the face visible for personal identity (33:59).
Q.5. What about ‘fatwas’ on veiling of women?
Answer: A fatwa is the personal opinion of a scholar drawn on one or the other hadith narration. However, any fatwa or hadith on any theme that contradicts any of the Qur’an’s clear enunciation must be disregarded in favor of the Qur’anic dictate. A hadith narrated by Aysha, reported in al-Bukhari has the Prophet declaring:
“Why do people impose conditions which are not in Allah’s book (kitab il lah)? Whoever imposes such conditions as are not in Allah’s Laws (kitab il lah), then that condition is invalid even if he imposes one hundred such conditions, for Allah’s conditions (as stated in the Qur’an) are truth and more valid.” 
Therefore, the Muslims should be far more concerned with what the Qur’an says on the theme as expounded in this and referenced articles than what fatwa their Moulwi or ‘religious scholar’ issues.
Conclusion: The Qur’an forbids men and women from casting amorous/lustful glances at the opposite sex. Women who can readily arouse male sexuality are asked to dress modestly, commensurate to the prevailing custom, and to bear themselves in non-provocative manner. Wearing of any external head to toe veil burqa, niqab, covering of head and gender-based segregation are not specified, though women may wear them depending upon the dressing norm of their place.
It is hoped that this article will remove the misconceptions that have surrounded the issue of veil/headgear for centuries and is dominating Islamic and Islam.crtical discourses as though the identity of a Muslim woman lay in wearing the headgear, which, after all is a borrowed custom .
1. Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.
2. Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 24, Note 37.
3. Ibid., Chapter 33, note 75.
4. Karen Armstrong, Islam, A short history, New York 2002, p. 16.
5. Muhammad Shafi, Mu‘arif al-Qur’an, New Delhi 1993, Vol. VI, p. 396.
6. Sanan Abu Daud, Urdu translation by Wahiduz Zaman, Vol.3, Ch. 26/Acc. 704, p. 264.
7. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi 1984, Vol.1, Acc. 305, 309, 348-358, 360, 361, 366.
8. Ibid., Vol.1, Acc. 358.
9. According to 2010 international Gallup poll (USA) “43% of Americans admit to feeling some prejudice toward followers of Islam,” with 9% of the respondents feeling ‘a great deal’ of prejudice:’
10. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi, 1984. Vol. 3, Account 364, 735.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.