How Should We Understand the Obligation of Khimar (Head Covering)?

Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah

Question: Asalamo Alekum,

1. Traditional scholars have always stated that the legal ruling for the headscarf has never been debated (since the time of the companions) up until the 20th century, therefore it is absurd to assert they were incorrect for all these centuries. I have two issues with this argument.

a) It contains a logical fallacy which concludes that something must be true if it is held to be a truth for a long period of time. 

b) This opinion masks the historical complexities involved in defining a woman’s awra.. For example, we are told there is ijma for centuries on the obligation of wearing khimar, however we are not told much about the consensus of slave woman not having the same obligation.

c) How could one make the argument that scholars have agreed for centuries when the practice of taqleed closed the door for any scholarly debate. Doesn’t the practice of taqleed force scholars to accept a ruling as truth and leave them with no chance or choice to debate the topic?

2. Is there evidence in hadith that explain the physical appearance of khimar and jilbab? How did scholars and jurists come to conclusions about how these clothing appeared? How do we know that khimar was of only one type that necessarily covered all the hair? For example, in our contemporary age we have several types of head gear such as hats, bandannas, winter hats, and scarves.

3. Quran commentators report that women used to wear a cloth on their head and threw the ends behind their back. Surah nur then instructed them to bring the ends to the front to cover their neck, chest and ears. Is there any authentic report to support this historical claim? The reason I ask is because of the hadith of Aisha claiming that they had to make khimars which suggests they didn’t already wear them. Doesn’t this create conflict between two historical accounts?

4. What is the correct meaning of zeena in surah Nur? Does it mean the natural beauty of the body, or does it mean adornments, which are ornaments, and objects added to the body to bring attention to body parts?

5. Scholars assert that Allah implicitly commands to cover the hair and head in surah Nur. Is there any other command in the Quran that is implied? Is this a common characteristic of the Quran? If it is, could you provide an example.

6. Was the khimar the only practical tool that could have been used to cover the chest effectively?

7. When the verse about jilbab was revealed, it was to address a specific social problem between free woman and slave women. Does this still apply today? If so, what is the given explanation? Given the current situation of Muslim women being harassed because of their headscarf, could we not learn from this surah and modify the dress code in such a way that would prevent any harrassement?

8. Is there a single authentic hadith (from the Prophet or the companions) that unequivocally states that it is mandatory for a woman to cover her head or hair in public, or that women covered their hair after the verses regarding dress code were revealed? Could the hadith about women looking like black crows refer to the fact that it was night time and it was dark outside when they went out to relieve themselves?

9. The rulings of what constitutes a woman’s awra in public was determined by her awra during prayer. What is the reasoning behind this logic? In prayer one must be in a state of wudu, must only be thinking of God, and must perform certain rituals. If they do not have to perform all these acts in their daily lives, why do they have to wear the dress of prayer in their daily public lives?

10. If the prophet and Allah didn’t explicitly define a woman’s awra, why did the scholars and jurists take it upon themselves to decide?

11. If there are no direct statements from the prophet that specify a woman’s physical awra, then do jurists analyse how the sahabas dressed? If so, then could we not also say a man should also wear khimar since the prophet wore it so often, and during prayer?


Answer: Assalam ‘alaykum. Jazakum Allah khayr for your questions.

The obligation of khimar / hijab is a ruling that has a rigorous and explicit basis in the Qur’an and the Sunna. We’ll answer your specific questions (numbered and in bold) in order, while providing links to more detailed explanations on the subject.

Answer to question 1a: Legal rulings are derived from the following: The Quran, The Sunna, Scholarly Consensus, Analogy, Language, and Custom. The different legal schools may differ slightly in the order of importance of the latter 3 sources.

The obligation of the hijab has been established, first and foremost, by the Quran and sunna. One may refer to the links given in some of the answers in this article for textual proofs.

The ruling is further established and confirmed by scholarly consensus (ijma’). Consensus means agreement among the Mujtahid Imams and the great scholars of this ummah. Scholarly consensus is not something that should be viewed as having no weight in the religion, on the contrary, it is an established source of reaching a definitive ruling. The Prophet said, ‘Allah will not cause my ummah to agree on falsehood. The hand of Allah is with the group’ [al Tirmidhi]. This holds true for all times and places.

Allah has preserved the scholars of this nation from unanimously agreeing upon something false. As Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari stated, ‘The hadith indicates that if the Muslims unanimously agree on something, then it must be true, and what is meant is the unanimous agreement of the scholars. The consensus of the common folk does not carry any weight, because it is not based on knowledge.’ [Mirqat al-Mafatih]

Sheikh Abdur Rahman al Shaghouri (May Allah have mercy upon him) used to say, ‘What the Imams have recorded is our religion’. We must ask ourselves; if we do away with scholarly consensus, or undermine the vast body of knowledge and agreed opinions, that have developed over thousands of years, who are we then going to rely on? Ourselves? The opinion of a few modern voices? If so, how does this approach fit in with the words of the Prophet ﷺ in the above hadith?

Therefore, there is no logical fallacy. The obligation of hijab is not just because scholars have held it to be so for centuries and therefore it is true, even though we have already established that scholarly consensus is a definite proof for the validity of a ruling, as established by the Prophet ﷺ himself in the above hadith.

Rather, and unlike the shape of the earth, the obligation of hijab is clearly established in the primary sources and further confirmed by every qualified scholar, and they reached this shared conclusion despite their differences in legal methodology. Nor has changes in lifestyle or political situations changed the basic obligation of the hijab over the centuries.

We should also note that the obligation of hijab, meaning covering everything but the hands and face (and for some scholars the feet), is not something which was debated amongst the Companions (which included female scholars and Companions) as the verses of the Qur’an and words of the Prophet ﷺ were very clear to them, and they were certainly better placed to understand the message, the meanings, and the rulings than anyone else. In short, there was consensus amongst the Companions on the obligation of the hijab.

While the obligation of the hijab is not open to ijtihad, specific details of the hijab, such as covering the face, the colour of the hijab etc. was left for further scholarly consideration.

[al Luma’, al Khulasah]

Answer to question 1b: A slave woman must cover herself just as a free woman in front of non-mehrams meaning everything but the hands and face, or even the face according the reliable opinion of the Shafi’i school. The only difference between a slave woman and a free woman is their awra during prayer and other private settings.

If there is certain leeway during prayer which allow a slave women to show more of the awra, this is not due to the customs or lifestyle, but rather due to the necessity needed for a slave to fulfil her duties which often consisted of physical labour, and because a slave usually owned very little clothes, and even these clothes were given to them by the owner. A free woman was not in the same position in any way, and therefore the legal considerations are very different. However again, in public, their awra are the same.

Answer to question 1c: I hope the answer to question 1A has answered this.

Answer to question 2: Please refer to this previous answers on the khimar and jilbab, and what is meant by it:
Can You Clarify the Standard Explanation of the Verse of Hijab?
What Are the Requirements of Hijab?

Answer to question 3: The full account of the narration you mention is that A’isha said, ‘By Allah, I never saw any women better than the women of the Ansar or stronger in their confirmation of Allah’s Book! When sura al-Nur was revealed, “and to draw their ‘khumur’ over their bosoms”, their men went back to them reciting to them what Allah had revealed to them in that [sura or verse], each man reciting it to his wife, daughter, sister, and relative. Not one woman among them remained except she got up on the spot, tore up her waist-wrap and covered herself from head-to-toe with it. They prayed the very next dawn prayer covered from head to toe.’ [Abu Dawud]

There is no conflict between the revelation to cover and the fact the women hastened to cover themselves. The norm was to cover the head and tied behind the neck, but not the front part of the neck and chest area, and this was the garments that they had. When the verse was revealed to cover fully, they covered those areas.

In regards the Ansar women, it is clear from the hadith that some men went to tell the female family members, so their heads may or may not have been covered at home or the place they were in, but when they heard the verse they immediately tore up their waste wraps and covered themselves in their entirety, head and all.

Answer to question 4: Please refer to the answers below:
What does the word “adornment” (zeena) in the Qur’an refer to?
Can Women Wear Colorful Clothing?
Modesty: Kohl, Jilbabs, and Allah

Answer to question 5: The words of Allah Most High, ‘And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty.’ [24:31] are explicit in the sense that it is clear that they must cover everything except that which is apparent, or ordinarily appears.

This ‘covering’ was then explicitly clarified by the Prophet ﷺ in the hadith we will mention below. The narration of A’isha above also tells us how the Muslim understood the verse. It should also be noted that the words are directed at all believing women, not just slaves, free-women, or the Mothers of the Believers.

Answer to question 6: Please refer to this previous answers on the khimar and jilbab, and what is meant by it:
Can You Clarify the Standard Explanation of the Verse of Hijab?
What Are the Requirements of Hijab?

Answer to question 7: While many commentators have stated that the Quranic verse of the veil was revealed due to slave girls interacting with men of ill-repute in Medina, it is not a rule that the context or reason for a verse being revealed necessarily limits its application only to that time and people.

The mujtahid Imams analysed and deduced which rulings applied to only a specific time and place, and which are universal. This is not done by considering their own personal interpretation, but rather weighing up all the evidences, material, opinions and actions of the Companions. The work of the mujtahid Imams was amongst the greatest and gravest undertakings in the religion, and this was a responsibility they bore with God-fearingness and great caution.

Again, these masters used different legal methodologies, yet there is consensus as to the universal nature of this ruling. As such, the hijab ruling is a general ruling that applied to all women, free, slave, and even the Mothers of the Believers, and until the end of time.

Please also refer to this article for more details on the context of revelation and how the ruling was derived: Unveiling Hijab

Answer to question 8: The above narration of Aisha, is also found with very similar wording in Sahih al Bukhari,

‘Aisha used to say: ‘When [the Verse]: ‘They should draw their veils over their necks and bosoms,” was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their heads and faces with those cut pieces of cloth.’

In Sahih Muslim, we find the hadith of Abu Huraira, who said, ‘I invited my mother, who was a polytheist, to Islam. I invited her one day and she said to me something about Allah’s Messenger ﷺ which I hated. I came to Allah’s Messenger ﷺ weeping and said: Allah’s Messenger, I invited my mother to Islam but she did not accept (my invitation). I invited her today but she said to me something which I did not like. (Kindly) supplicate Allah that He may set the mother of Abu Huraira right. Thereupon Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said: O Allah, set the mother of Abu Huraira on the right path. I came out quite pleased with the supplication of Allah’s Apostle ﷺ and when I came near the door it was closed from within. My mother heard the noise of my footsteps and she said: Abu Huraira, just wait. And I heard the noise of falling of water. She took a bath and put on the shirt and quickly covered her head with a headdress and opened the door and then said: Abu Huraira, I bear witness to the fact that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His bondsman and His Messenger.’

It is also narrated in al Bukhari that Hafsa said, ‘We used to forbid our young women to go out for the two `Id prayers. A woman came and stayed at the palace of Bani Khalaf and she narrated about her sister whose husband took part in twelve holy battles along with the Prophet (ﷺ) and her sister was with her husband in six (out of these twelve). She (the woman’s sister) said, “We used to treat the wounded, look after the patients and once I asked the Prophet, ‘Is there any harm for any of us to stay at home if she doesn’t have a veil?’ He said, ‘She should cover herself with the veil of her companion and should participate in the good deeds and in the religious gathering of the Muslims.’

It is clear from the above authenticated ahadith that covering the head and body were clearly understood as an obligation that applied to all Muslim women.

Other narrations regarding the hijab are weak, however, in aggregation, and with the support of other textual proofs and scholarly consensus, their meanings are valid. An example is the words of the Prophet ﷺ to Asma bin Abu Bakr, ‘O Asma’! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to the face and hands.’ [Abu Dawud]

Answer to question 9: I hope the above answers have clarified that the versus and explanation put it beyond doubt that the observation of hijab applies to all times and places. There is a minimum awra in different situations.

I am not sure what validates the statement, ‘The rulings of what constitutes a woman’s awra in public was determined by her awra during prayer’ as we have seen that the verse was revealed when women already covered their heads but left certain parts exposed, and after the verse it was understood that these exposed parts must be covered in front of non-mehrams.

Answer to question 10: The Quran and Sunna are the primary sources of the religion. We also look at the acts and rulings of Companions who were the best to understand the meanings of verses and words of the Prophet ﷺ. It is clear from what we have discussed that all the Companions understood what covering meant. In fact, A’isha, as the leading female scholar of this ummah, is well known to have been even stricter than the male Companions when it came to the awra, and held views stricter than many of the later Imams.

As to why the scholars took it upon themselves to further define the awra, then this was their duty, and it is no different to anything else that needed defining in the religion. Allah Most High says, ‘Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know’ [16:43] and the Prophet ﷺ said, ‘The Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets’ [al Tirmidhi].

If the scholarly giants of our ummah did not define the details of our religion for us, who will? Is there any person today, scholar or laymen, who is better placed to define the details of the religion better than the Salaf and early scholars of this nation and those who painstakingly followed their footsteps, whose knowledge of the Quran and sunna and its application, and their level of God-fearingness and uprightness, let alone their proximity to the time of the Prophet, Companions and Followers?

The reality is that the Mujtahid Imams and their students were far too God-fearing to bring personal preferences into matters of the religion. Rather they deduced their rulings from clear proofs from the Quran, Sunna, sound principles, and then laid out their findings for others to analyse and refine. Anyone who studies such works will see how objective and brilliant such works are.

Answer to question 11: I hope that we have provided sufficient answers to this. It is clear from all the above texts that the obligation of hijab / khimar was for women and not men. Men are not obligated to wear khimar, and nor did the Prophet ﷺ wear khimar. It is sunna for men to wear a turban or other head covering such as hat or a scarf.

Warmest salams,

[Shaykh] Jamir Meah

Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Jamir is a qualified homeopath.