The “Islamic veil” in Islamic Literature

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Pascal Sébah, « Femme de Djeddah (A Woman from Jeddah) », 1873, in Louis Blin, La Ville d’Ève. Djeddah dans l’iconographie française jusqu’en 1940 (The City of Eve. Jeddah in the French Iconography up to 1940), Paris, Geuthner, 2021, p. 446.

Everyone talks about the “Islamic veil” on both sides of the Mediterranean, but who really knows what he is talking about? One can find the answer to this question – and to others raised by those tormented by the dress of the Muslim women – in a book by the Franco-Lebanese Nadia Kantari which has just been published: Des mots, des voiles, des femmes en islam (Words, Veils and Women in Islam, Paris, Geuthner, p. 308), a very well documented study which contrasts with the ignorance of the “veilophobic” publicists. Wishing to be clear about what her religion prescribes for women’s clothing, the author competently and conscientiously dissects what comes about the topic in the Koran, its exegetical commentary (tafsir), the Sunnah, Sunni jurisprudence (fiqh), the four Sunni legal schools and Jaafar Shi’ism, taking care to bring her conclusions close to what is known of the social practices of the societies under consideration. It took her talents as a translator, a profession she has practiced for a long time, her sociological posture and her political awareness to achieve her clear and edifying result: almost no one really knows what he is talking about!

Let us start with the head veil – hijab –, since the word comes up in the Koran. We know the extreme difficulty of translating a holy book that does not follow a chronological or even sometimes logical order, uses a language which vocalization can lead to confusion and words which meaning has subsequently diverged. Such is the case with the hijab of verse 53 in surah 33: “If you (Muslims) were to ask them (the wives of the Prophet) for something, ask from behind a curtain (hijab)”. What a difference between the hijab-curtain in the Koran, and the scarf it designates today! Note, moreover, that the matter here, on the one hand, lies with propriety and not dogma and, on the other hand, that the obligation only affects the wives of Muhammad, of whom the same surah assures: “You are not like the other women” (verse 32). The Koran therefore does not compel any other woman to wear any hijab whatsoever, and warns that any imitation would go against its prescriptions. It also reserves the confinement decreed in verse 33 (“Stay in your homes!”) to these wives only.

One may object that beyond this misleading homonym, the Koran contains other provisions on women’s clothing. There are actually two clothes designated by the words khimar and jilbab, but this is not of much help, because we have no description of the time specifying what they used to cover. Such is moreover the case of many names of clothes, which designate evolutionary realities. These two names have fallen into disuse, but we can conclude from other occurrences in ancient texts that the jilbab designated at the time of the Prophet a large piece of cloth to wrap around oneself, somehow like the cloaks with which Arab women cover traditionally nowadays. The word jilbab is of Ethiopian origin, and has no religious connotation. Verse 59 of surah 33 enjoins Muslim women to “draw part of their jilbab over their bodies”, without specifying what they should hide, to differentiate themselves from non-Muslims, therefore for a community and not a dogmatic objective.The khimar, meanwhile, seems to have designated the lighter garment worn at home or under the jilbab when going out: “Tell the believers to wrap their khimar over their indentations (juyub, that is to say between the breasts) and to expose their zina (adornment)” only to close members of their family (surah 24, verse 31)! This time it is a question of modesty, quite understandable when we see on engravings of the 19th century – twelve centuries after the Koran therefore – Meccan women walking around with their chests uncovered, as attested to by a French convert to Islam who visited the place …

Adolphe François Pannemaker, “Young Arab girl”, Mœurs, usages et costumes de tous les peuples du monde (Manners, customs and costumes of all the peoples of the world), Brussels, Historical-Artistic Library, 1843.

“Arabia. Woman of Mecca”, in Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, Voyages pittoresques dans les quatre parties du monde (Picturesque Travels in the Four Parts of the World), Paris, Veuve Hocquart, 1806, in L. Blin, La Ville d’Ève, op. cit. Even though the author did not travel to Mecca and therefore had to imagine his model, the latter wears a dress that one may liken to a khimar, covered with a large sheet corresponding to a jilbab. Her veil, which covers her hair but not her breast, is topped with a turban. The first photo ever taken of a woman in traditional Hejazi attire (see top of article) confirms this double layer.

We know the distribution between the early Meccan surahs and the later Medinan ones, which appeared within a context influenced by the Bible. Surah 24, a late Medinan one, may therefore be viewed in the light of the passage in the New Testament asking women to “dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold or pearls » (1 Timothy 2, 9). It recalls the coquettish Bedouin women of the dawn of Islam, to the order of propriety which model appears in the treatises of the Syriac Orthodox Church, disseminated in Arabia at the time from a then more “modern” society. The matter lies here in social morality consecrated by religion, in this case that of the community of believers in the process of formation, breaking with its Badu environment. We find in pre-Islamic Badu poetry another feminine attire, the burqu’, a thin leather mask worn until today by the Arabs of the Gulf, which has nothing to do with the burqa’ which covers the whole body in Afghanistan, and leaves only a grid at eye level (again, beware of misleading names).

The objurgations in surah 24 are of a social and not religious nature. Their application will also come up against the way the Bedus resist any kind of authority, proverbial in Arabic literature. The Koran partly subdues to their lawless mood by giving only vague advice in matters of clothing and, more generally, by admitting that there is “no compulsion in din” (surah 2, verse 256), that is to say in the “right chosen path” (ruchd, as mentioned just after) and not only in matters of religion (another anachronistic translation), including with regard to dress. But the absence of strict dress codes and any requirement to cover the face or hair in the Quran proved a poisonous gift for women, as it left the way open for (male) theologians to sanctify patriarchal customs by interpreting dogma. The many Muslim women who have adhered to their exegesis, now wear a hijab despite the absence of Koranic prescription, as convinced that it is a canonical obligation as, for their part, the nuns wearing a Catholic hijab…

The Shariah, developed well after the Koran, passed through there. And yet… Nadia Kantari shows in detail that neither the Sunnah nor the exegesis lay down precise rules in terms of female dress, moreover focusing on that of men. Why and how did we go from vague Koranic prescriptions aiming to distinguish Muslim women from other women with the probable aim of consolidating the ranks of the small group of the first converts, to rules with universal claims? As the Koran sanctifies the inferiority of women (cf. in particular surahs 2, verse 228 and 4, verse 34), while improving her condition before Islam, the Muslim woman would have to comply with the social rules enacted by men, including clothing. We thus understand the variation of her dress over time and space, but also the tendency of men to link their injunctions to dogma. In a patriarchal society, it is about their honor. Some theologians would consider that the hair forms an adornment (zina) which should be covered, the ears and the throat becoming elements of seduction to be concealed as well! Yet their disclosure would only be legally blameworthy (makruh) and not illicit (haram). On the other hand, almost nothing come up in the classical literature on the full veil (niqab), rejected nowadays by many ulemas and which occurrence in history seems erratic. The dress, especially for women, seems to matter too much to comply with rigid religious rules. First of all because it is cultural in nature and therefore evolutionary, unlike any creed, fashion being the opposite of dogma. Secondly, because tolerance in this area is a necessary condition for the universality of Islam. A simple visit to the great mosque of Mecca, where worshipers from all over the world mingle, is edifying on this subject. There is no more Islamic dress than Islamic veil, only Muslim women who dress and veil themselves according to varied customs, although qualifying them as such.

Every human group needs to display its collective identity. However, women are its custodian and their clothes its marker, like a flag. One recalls that the Prophet at war used to wave the black veil of his favorite wife Aisha as a banner. Considering the female veil as a Muslim flag amounts to transforming it into a political weapon and the woman into a flag bearer. We are then no longer in religion, but in history, which leads the author to conclude, philosophically: “A woman is free to wear the veil or not, knowingly, and not under social pressure, political or patriarchal! »


[1] “Her breast is shown above a low-cut corset through the transparent fabric of a shirt” (Jean Prax, Bulletin de la Société de Géographie de l’Est, t. XV, 1841, p. 250).