The Veil
Social Issues
Question asked by .
Answered by Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Somewhere in your answers you have made a passing reference to the fact that women are not required to cover their faces? In my opinion, wearing Hijāb on the face is a duty of women, and it is not optional. Allah says: ‘O Prophet! tell your wives and daughters and the wives of the believers to draw their cloaks on their faces (33:59). Can you tell me your arguments of holding a contrary view.


I am afraid that the verse you have referred to does not direct Muslim women to cover their faces. If one deliberates on its words as well as on its context, one comes to the conclusion that it has a specific background. The verse describes a particular situation which in no way relates to Hijāb directives regarding the face.

But first a few words about meaning of the verse. If due consideration is given to its Arabic words, its correct translation would be:

O Prophet! tell your wives and daughters and the wives of the believers to draw a part of their cloaks over them.

‘To draw cloaks over their faces’ is an erroneous translation. The directive means that Muslim women should draw a part of their cloaks on them so that these cloaks should dangle in front. Nowhere does the verse says that the face should be covered. In fact the verse is devoid of the word ‘face’. If the face was required to be covered, words to this effect should have been present: yughatīna wujūhahunna (they should cover their faces).

Consider now the context and background of the verse. The remaining part of the verse sheds ample light on it:

That is more proper so that they may be recognized and not harmed. Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. (33:59)

The picture that comes to mind if one also keeps in consideration the contents of this sūrah is that in Madīnah there had come a period when the Prophet’s lenient and sympathetic behaviour with the hypocrites had turned them into miscreants and scandalmongers. They would try as much as they could to disparage the Prophet’s personal life and those of his wives. It was in this period when the incident of Ifk took place. Ā’ishah (rta), the illustrious wife of the Prophet (sws), was dragged into a scandal by these mischief makers. This sūrah upbraids these people and asks them to observe certain limits. They are told that they should not become a source of trouble for the residents of the Prophet’s house by coming at the wrong time or unnecessarily prolonging their stay:

O you who believe! enter not the Prophet’s dwellings unless permission be granted to you for a meal [and] not [so early as] to wait for its preparation. But if you are invited, enter and when you have eaten disperse. Linger not for conversation. Such behavior distresses the Prophet and he shows his regard for you but of the truth Allah does not have regard for anything. (33:53)

Similarly, these hypocrites who would freely enter the house of the Prophet (sws) to eavesdrop for their scandalous activities are asked that if they want anything from within the house, they must not charge inside, but ask for what they want from outside:

If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind the curtain. That is purer for their hearts and theirs. (33:53)

After sometime, the nuisance they had been causing reached such a stage that the Qur’ān gave them an ultimatum in the following words:

Those who [try to] torment Allah and His messenger, Allah has cursed them in this world and in the next. And He has prepared for them a humiliating punishment. And to those who torment believing men and women without their having deserved it, they then have surely taken the burden of a calumny and a clear sin. (33:57-8)

Now, the verse under discussion (33:59) sheds light on one of their subversive activities: They would tease and torment believing women and when they would be called to account they would say that they did not know that these were believing women. While explaining the background of this verse Ibn Kathīr, the celebrated commentator of the Qur’ān, records the opinion of Suddī in the following words:

The mischief-mongers among the people of Madīnah would come out on the streets at dusk and get after the women of the Ansār. The houses of the people of Madīnah [in those days] were very small in size and at nightfall the women would go out on these streets [making their way to the fields] to relieve themselves. These evil people would be tease these women. If they saw a woman who would be wearing a cloak they would say she is a free woman [and not a slave] and would abstain [from any evil activity] and if they saw a woman who would not be wearing a cloak [in the way prescribed by the Qur’ān] they would pounce on her by saying that she is a slave woman. (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Azīm, vol. 3, [Beirut: Dāru’l-Ahyā wa al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, 1969], p. 518)

He then records the opinion of Mujāhid in the following words:

These women would wear cloaks [in the way prescribed by the Qur’ān] so that it be known that they are free women and the mischief-mongers would not then harm or tease them. (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Azīm, vol. 3, [Beirut: Dāru’l-Ahyā wa al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, 1969], p. 519)

Evidently, in order to curb this prank of theirs, the Almighty directed believing women to make themselves distinct in appearance from other women so that these people could have no excuse to tease them. This distinction in appearance was to be made by drawing a part of their cloaks in front of them so that it protruded over their bodies.

It is evident from this discussion that the directive given in the verse has no bearing in any way to Hijāb directives in general let alone the face. It only prescribes a way to deal with a particular situation that had arisen in the times of the Prophet (sws).

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