Understanding the Muslim Dress Code: Modesty for Men and the Hijāb for Women (Islam 4.5 & 4.6)

Objectives: Explain and illustrate what is meant by hijab and the importance of this to Muslims.

Terms:

Modesty: A humble, unpretentious manner or appearance.

Hijāb: A term often used to mean scarf or outer garment that Muslim women wear, but in Arabic it means a ‘cover’ or ‘screen’.

Khimār: A scarf that covers the head, shoulders and chest of a woman.

Jilbāb: A large outer garment, one piece or two pieces, that covers the entire body except the face and hands.

Niqāb: A face veil.

(Purdah: An Urdu language term used by Western media to mean covering every part of the woman’s body.)

Allāh stated: “O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as a fine adornment and the clothing of righteousness, that is best.” (Al-A’rāf 7:26)

Allāh has mentioned here reasons for clothing: to cover the body and conceal what should not be revealed in public, and to beautify the body so the person looks better. Islamic clothing is known by its modesty. A Muslim is allowed wear whichever clothes he wishes so long as they are modest, free from impurities, not made forbidden materials and within textual guidelines. Textual guidelines means that it must abide by the commandments of the Qur’ān and Prophetic Tradition.

Both men and women are expected to show modesty in the clothes they wear. Women are expected to dress in a way that shows they are believing women. The Qur’ān instructs the Prophet, “Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to wrap their outer garments (the jilbāb) around themselves. That is more suitable so that they will be known as pious women, and not be harassed.” (Al-Ahzāb 33:59)

Women are also told not to display their finery. This means that dress is meant to protect the wearer from harassment and to prevent one from becoming obsessed with pride in one’s outward appearance. It is also a way Muslims can develop a society that respects the boundaries between men and women. In this way each person is judged for their piety, honesty, hard work and values, not mere outward beauty and fashion. Many Muslim women completely conceal themselves in a ‘jilbāb’ (outer garment covering them from head to toe), along with gloves, and a face veil (niqāb) that allows only the eyes to be seen. All of this is from Islam, however not all of it is obligatory: the gloves and face veil are not obligations, but merely recommendations and most women choose not to wear them.

So the hijāb is the Islamic practice of preventing women from being seen by men, except by their closest male relatives (referred to as mahrams). Men are not allowed to shake hands with women unless they are closely related to them, such as one’s wife, daughter, paternal aunt, maternal aunt, sister, etc.

Some Muslims wrongly believe that the hijāb is a cultural practice rather than a religious one. They are very much mistaken because Allāh has instructed the women, “and they are to draw their veils (khumur) over their heads and chests (juyūb) and not to reveal their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons…” (An-Nūr 24:31)

The crucial words in this verse are: وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ

In Arabic: wal-yadribna clearly proves that this is a command (due to the lām of command) so it means: “and they are to draw their veils…” The word Allāh uses in this verse for veil is Khimār (pl. khumur). The meaning of this word in the Arabic language is scarf/veil. The jurist, linguist, scholar of Arabic grammar and Quran, Ibn Uthaimīn said, “It is a cloth with which a woman covers her head.” (Tafsīr Surah An-Nūr, p. 167). The Quranic Scholar, Al-Baghawī (died 516 H.) said, “The term juyūb (sing. jayb) in this verse refers to their chests, hair, necks and ears.” (3/289) Ibn Uthaimīn said, “The Quranic scholars have said it means that ‘they are to cover their heads, necks, and chests with a scarf.'” (p. 168)

Allah instructed the men, “to lower their gaze from looking at women with desire other than their wives, and protect themselves from fornication. That is purer for them.” (An-Nūr 24:30) Men are commanded to dress modestly in loose garments that do not reveal what is between their navel and knees. All lower garments such as trousers or long shirts (i.e. thawb) must be above the ankles just as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has commanded, “What is below the ankles of a lower garment will be in the Fire.” (Reported by Al-Bukhārī, no. 793) And he said, “The lower garment of the believer should come to the mid-calf, but there is no sin on him if it comes between that point and the ankle. But whatever is lower than the ankle is in the Fire.” And he said three times, “Allah will not look at the one who lets his lower garment drag on the floor out of vanity.” (Reported by Ibn Mājah, no. 3704)

Islamic etiquette also includes separating unrelated men and women in social and religious gatherings as much as possible – for example, by giving them separate entrances to the mosque and separate prayer rooms at airports and hospitals, etc. – and separate rooms at social gatherings. The Prophet stated,“Beware of entering upon womenfolk or upon the gatherings of women.” 

The practice of seeking a marriage partner must be done without dating or courting. Families from both sides must be involved from the outset for a marriage to be correct. In the case of women who have converted to Islam and have no Muslim relatives, then their guardianship for marriage becomes the responsibility of the head of a mosque or Islamic centre.

Traditional Islamic rules for modest dress from the Qur’ān and Sunnah:

For women when in public among unrelated (non-mahram) men:

  • Clothing must cover the entire body except for the face and hands when in the company of non-related males.
  • Clothing must be loose, so the shape of the body is not seen.
  • Thick enough so that it is not see-through.
  • Should not resemble the clothing of men.
  • Should not be ostentatious.

For men:

  • Clothing must conceal whatever is between the naval and knee.
  • Must be loose and thick, so that the private area remains concealed.
  • All garments must be above the ankle bone.
  • Should not resemble the clothing of women.
  • They should not resemble something that merely seeks to imitate un-Islamic practices/fashions (e.g. clothing of Buddhists, priests, rabbis, hip-hop artists, movie stars, etc.)
  • It cannot be made of silk or coloured/dyed with saffron.

Hijāb: A lot of people mistakenly think that hijāb means a headscarf, but it actually means “a screen” or “cover”. The word khimār means scarf which is worn over the head, shoulders and chest of a woman. The jilbāb is an outer garment that is worn over the ‘house-clothes’ and over the khimār of a woman. The jilbāb covers her from the head to her feet. It can be one piece or two pieces – and she wears it before she leaves the home or when in the company of non-mahrams (unrelated men). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: When a woman reaches the age of adolescence, it is not correct that she displays any part of her body except this and this – and he pointed to his face and hands.” (Abu Dawood 4104) This hadeeth is a clear proof for the obligation of covering the body for a woman.

Modern attitudes: There is a trend among some Muslims to avoid adhering to the Islamic dress-code as they find it hard to stick to it in a modern Western country. They feel strange and do not like the unfriendly and even abusive comments that they may sometimes encounter. They understand that in a more tolerant society, they would be accepted as normal practising Muslims. Other Muslims, males and females, decide that regardless of the occasional Islamophobic attitudes, they will not allow the practice of their faith to be compromised, and their love of Allah and love of adherence to his laws outweighs any hardship they face from a minority of unfriendly and Islamophobic people in society. There is yet another group who believe that the hijāb and the Islamic dress code is outdated and not fit for our times, and regardless of the Quranic and Prophetic law obligating it, Muslims must abandon these ancient religious practices – and some go as far as to say that the hijāb should be banned altogether. Practicing Muslims find this attitude scary because it seeks to stop them from the practicing their religion freely, to alienate them, and their religion. They ask: Would they call for a ban on nuns and women of the church from their ‘habits’ and coverings that resemble very closely the hijāb of the Muslim women? Evidence shows that the vast majority of Muslim women choose to wear the hijāb and are not at all forced. They also ask that society respects their decision to choose their own way of life.

Questions:

  1. What do you think non-Muslims in Europe and the US today think is “modest” dress?
  2. Why should Muslim women wear modest dress? Find and write down four reasons mentioned in this worksheet.
  3. What is modest dress for a man?
  4. What is the dress code for the Muslim woman?
Different attitudes to the Hijab

Objectives: Consider different attitudes to the hijab.

Various styles of “hijab” are worn all over the world and this is fine as long as the conditions of hijab are met. Some Muslim women do not wear it at all. The Qur’an regards that as an act of disobedience to the Lord because it opposes a direct command of Allah Himself. Many outsiders wrongly think that women are forced to wear hijāb by men. This is clearly not how the vast majority of Muslim women see it. They are proud to wear the hijab as an outward sign of their faith and their modesty. Another reason women give for wearing the hijāb is that it makes men treat them as people. They feel that women in countries like Britain are only valued by men for their looks, and that Western women have to dress to please men if they are going to get on in society. However, Muslim women want to be treated as individuals, not as mere objects on display for men to see in public.

The value of a woman:

“In Britain, women and girls are valued for their looks. Men want to be seen with a beautiful woman just to impress their friends. It is as if having a pretty woman at their side is proof that they are successful and important. I think women who like that kind of attention do not value themselves; they are only worried about their appearance, and whether men fancy them or not. Women should value themselves. We want to be respected for our character and intelligence, so we wear the hijab. Our outward physical appearance is private and precious to us; we don’t want to share it with everyone. We want to be able to give the gift of seeing it to our chosen husbands. We want to be respected by society, and we want people to know that we are respectable when they see us. Many men value each other for their friendship, intelligence, kindness and good character. We should want people to value us in the same way.”  (by A’ishah, a 17 year old girl living in Britain)

In contrast, some people do not think it is necessary for Muslim women to wear the hijāb. They give many reasons such as: “We are living in a modern society where the hijāb may seem backward,” “The best of clothing is piety, so I will just be pious and not wear the hijab,” “the hijāb is about behavior, not about clothing,” “people get scared off by the hijāb,” “you can’t get a job if you wear the hijāb,” and so on. These arguments contradict the clear verses of the Qur’an and the numerous commandments of the Prophet (peace be upon him). True, the hijāb can be a challenge for some Muslim women living in the West, but they are encouraged to put God first rather than their fears, personal feelings or the negative attitudes of society.

Summary: You should be aware that there are at least two different attitudes to the hijab. One is that wearing the hijab shows that a woman is obedient to God and respectable. Alternative views state that “the hijab is an attitude and a way of behaving not clothing.” Textually only one view is correct (especially since each view contradicts the other). In an exam you should be able to argue your point of view and know the opposing view, and argue your case. Look at this image and contrast it with attitudes to the hijāb:

There is a growing trend of institutes wearing the traditional ‘habit’, including The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles (only founded in 1995), who wear the full habit, complete with a veil and the voluminous cuculla (a type of choir robe). Lucienne Roberts says, ‘For us, these choices raise complex and thought-provoking questions about identity, purpose and visual symbolism.’ Source.

Questions:

  1. Give three reasons why A’ishah has chosen to wear the hijab.
  2. The way a Muslim woman appears is very important. Do you agree? Does it matter? Give your reasons.
  3. Some people say: “It doesn’t matter how you dress – and people shouldn’t judge you”. Others respond: “but people will treat you differently depending on how you dress and in the end it is God who has told you how to dress not people, and He will judge you.” Which one do you agree with? Why?
  4. Is it correct for people, politicians and media to look down on women who wear hijāb? Explain.
  5. Look at the dress of nuns in a church. Does it look as though they wear hijab? Do you think they are treated differently to Muslim women who wear hijab? (Here is a good way of explaining to non-Muslims the importance of hijab and not being afraid of it since even devout Christian women wear “hijab”).
  6. What is the meaning of: a) hijāb b) jilbāb c) khimār d) niqāb – which of these is obligatory and which is recommended.

NOTE:

I initially compiled these worksheets for my students at the Redstone Academy (aged between 13 and 16 years), Moseley Road, Birmingham, UK who were working towards their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). I felt that others who do not attend the school could also benefit from these topics since they are presented in simple bitesize chapters. I have relied upon GCSE text books and adapted them (quite a lot) for my classes.
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