Published in  
October 3, 2020

A Brief Understanding of Hijab & Niqab in the Light of the Quran & Sunnah

The Goal of this article is to give the society a clear overview on the presence of face veil in Islam, as well as a response to the false accusation against it. The concept of covering the rest of the body excluding the face and the hands are not emphasized much as its obligation is already clear among the society. The references used in this article are all authentic and the closest to the time of Prophet ﷺ, of which are numerous Tafseer starting from Muqaathil (150 Hijri), followed by Ibn Sallam (200 Hijri) up until Ibn Katheer (774 Hijri) and Hadeeth collections of Musnad, Sihaah, Sunan, etc and the Fiqh Books of Major Scholars of the Muslim Ummah.    

Linguistic definition of Hijab:

Hijab is a veil or partition or screen[1] that is placed between two bodies or things that prevents any view between the two[2], as it is mentioned in The Quran (42:51)

وَمَا كَانَ لِبَشَرٍ أَن يُكَلِّمَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَّا وَحْيًا أَوْ مِن وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ

“And it is not possible for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a Hijab or that He sends a messenger to reveal” [Surah ash-Shura, Ayah 51]

What is the definition of Hijab in Shari’ah?

The definition lays within the understanding of The Quran and Sunnah;

Allah ﷻ says

وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ

Translation: “Wrap your khimaar over your chest” [Surah Nur, Ayah 31]

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا

Translation: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers Yudneen (to put over from above to below) the Jilbaab over their bodies. That is more suitable that they will be known (so that they will be distinct in their appearance from slave women) and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” [Surah al-Ahzab, Ayah 59]

Reason of revelation: This ayah was revealed when the Munafiq (hypocrite) men were gazing and harassing the believing women and female slaves who go out of the house at night to relieve themselves. When the Munafiq men were confronted about for this, they replied that they thought those women were the slaves who indulge in adultery[3]. So, Allah ﷻ commanded the believing women to wear the Jilbaab so that they are not abused.

What is Jilbaab?

Before these ayahs were revealed the women did not cover their faces or chests except they wore a cloth called khimaar over their head letting it hang from behind their backs[4] and their clothing changed completely after the revelation of these two ayahs in Madinah.ﭐ

In the ayah, Allah ﷻ commands the wives of the Prophet ﷺ and the Muslim women to wear Jilbaab, where we should understand that the definition of Jilbaab is from the clothing and practices of the wives of Prophet ﷺ and the believing women of those times and afterwards.

  • Tafseer of At-Thabari; “Narrated by the chain of Ya’qub from Hashim from Hisham from Ibn Sireen that Abida As Salmani was asked about this ayah and he said it is to cover the entire body including the face except one eye[5]” (Sahih)
  • Tafseer of ibn Sallam; “Jilbab is to cover their entire body and cover the face with only the left eye visible[6]
  • Sunan Abi Dawood; Narrated by Umm Salamah رضي الله عنها “When the verse يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَٰبِيبِهِنَّ was revealed, the women of Ansar came out as if they had a flock of crows (black in colour) over their heads by wearing outer garments[7]” (Sahih)
  • Sunan Saeed bin Mansoor; Narrated by Aisha رضي الله عنها “The believing women lets the Jilbaab hang loosely from the top of her head until the bottom and covers their faces with a veil[8]” (Sahih)

This defines that Jilbaab is a cloth which is hung loosely from the top of the head until the bottom which does not reveal the adornment of a woman[9].

Other clothing that is used as a part of the Hijaab is the Niqab or Burqu’ which is a material used to veil the entire face which either includes an opening for the eyes to see or the material is thin enough to look through it without any eye-holes [10]. All these clothes are part of the Hijab.

The original principle is the concealment of a believing woman’s Zeenah (beauty) except to their Mahram (relative to whom marriage is forbidden)

…وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَائِهِنَّ

“Do not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, ………” [Surah Nur, Ayah 31]

وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا

“And do not expose their adornment except  إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا (which is visible)” [Surah Nur, Ayah 31]

Ibn Abbas and Ibn Masood رضي الله عنهم said that which is visible means the clothing on the outside [11]

Points to be noted regarding this verse:

  • The Tafseer of  إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا “except which is visible” has a difference of opinion among the scholars in the subject of a woman’s Awrah (obligatory to be covered from non-mahram men).
  • There is Ijmaa[12] among scholars that the body of a woman excluding her face and the hands are Awrah and that it is forbidden for a man to gaze at a non-mahram woman and vice versa.
  • The scholars differed whether the interpretation of this ayah denotes that the face and the hands of a woman are the exceptions or whether it denotes the clothing that is visible on the outside, as both sides have evidences.
  • Even among the scholars who agreed that the face and hands of a woman are not part of the Awrah, majority of them have denoted that this Awrah is specific to Salah and not when she departs from home or among non-mahram men. As mentioned in the ayah.

وَقَرْنَ فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ وَلَا تَبَرَّجْنَ تَبَرُّجَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ الْأُولَىٰ

“And abide in your houses (believing women) and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance” [Surah al-Ahzab Ayah 33]]

Therefore, the Hijab is defined in Shari’ah as anything that prevents the gaze of any non-mahram men on a woman due to the fear of fitnah. The definition includes Jilbaab as a part of the hijab when a woman leaves the house.

A list of some major scholars of jurisprudence who viewed that veiling the face (Niqab/Burqu’) is obligatory except in urgent situations

  • 4th Century Hijri: Imam Abu Bakr Al Jassas (died 370H) (Hanafi) – “Obligatory upon a young Muslim woman to cover her face in front of non-Mahram men, protecting her chasteness and honour when leaving the house[13]
  • 5th Century Hijri: Imam Al Haramain Al Juwaini (died 468H) (Shaf’i) – “The Muslims have unanimously agreed that a woman must cover her face and protect her chastity, this represents the beauty of Shari’ah[14]
  • 6th Century Hijri: Imam Ibn Alarabi (died 543H) (Maliki) – “The entire of a women is an Awrah including her body and voice so it is not permissible to show the face (in front of non-Mahram men) except for urgent needs e.g.: recognition of identity by witnesses, medical check-ups, to learn something necessary, etc[15]
  • 8th Century Hijri: Imam Ibn Rif’ah (died 710H) (Shaf’i) – “As for her Awrah except to her husband and Mahram-men it is her entire body[16]
  • 8th Century Hijri: Imam Ibn Taymiyah (died 728H) (Hanbali) – “The prominent view in the Madhab of Ahmed bin Hanbal is that the entire woman is an Awrah including her fingernails, after the revelation of the ayah of Jilbaab the Muslim women covered their faces[17]
  • 10th Century Hijri: Imam Al Hathhaab Ar Ru’aini (died 954H) (Maliki) – “If there is a possibility of Fitnah it is obligatory upon a woman to cover her face[18]

A list of some major scholars of jurisprudence who viewed that veiling the face completely (Niqab/Burqu’) is Sunnah or those who viewed it is permissible to uncover.

  • 5th Century Hijri: Imam As Sarakhsi (died 483 Hijri) (Hanafi) – “It is permissible to unveil the face[19]
  • 6th Century Hijri: Al Qadhi Iyaadh (died 544 Hijri) (Maliki)– “It is not obligatory upon a woman to cover her face rather it is a sunnah, but haram upon non-mahram men to look at her according to the ayah (24:31)[20]” – This same ruling is narrated and approved by Imam An Nawawi[21] (died 676 Hijri) (Shaf’i)
  • 6th Century Hijri : Imam Al Kaasaani (died 587 Hijri) (Hanafi) – “It is reported from Imam Abu Haneefah that it is permissible for a woman to expose her face and her hands due to the necessity in certain places but this ruling applied when there is no fear of fitnah e.g.: identification during trade[22]

The in-depth analysis of the stance of all the scholars in this matter can be categorized into three rulings;

1: Obligatory to veil the face.

2: Sunnah to veil the face.

3: Permissible to reveal the face.

The important point is that there is no opinion of any scholar which states that it is obligatory to expose the face in front of non-Mahram men.

Therefore, it is not upon a person who believes in the opinion of obligation on veiling the face to refute the one who is not in that opinion, neither vice versa. Further on, this matter of ruling is upon the Ijtihad of scholars thus any refutations against the views are not tolerated in Islamic Jurisprudence[23].

The critical element is that a Mu’min (believing man or woman) should follow the rulings and teachings of Islam sincerely for the sake of Allah ﷻ and not for any other worldly gains.

Responding to Speculations

1. Is there any evidence from the Qur’an and Sunnah for Niqab?

Yes, there are numerous evidences from Qur’an and Sunnah which shows that Niqab is waajib (obligatory) or mustahab (recommended) of which a few are mentioned above in the article.

2. Isn’t the face veil (Niqab) a security issue in a safe country as the person cannot be identified?

In the first place there is no issue in opening the face veil to be identified by the appropriate authorities and we should not forget that there are various technological ways to identify a person in today’s highly advanced technological era. To elaborate further there are much more serious issues which have not been sorted out when it comes to facial identification in maintaining security, like the facial make-ups which make a person unrecognizable including plastic surgery, etc.

3. If the face veil is ordered to be removed in Ihram, then why do we need it in normal circumstances?

Ihram is the state a person is in during the pilgrimage to the Noble city of Makkah. It is a state in which many actions that are allowed in normal circumstances for a person have been prohibited e.g.: Nikaah, proposing for a marriage, hunting, etc. In the same manner it is prohibited for a man to cover his head and a woman her face. Additionally, know that Islam has permitted the woman to draw over a cloth in front of her face during Ihram if she wishes to do so.

4. In the article, why is there such a difference within the same Madhab (school of thought)?

Madhab is not the opinion of one Imam or the mujtahid Imam who established the Madhab himself e.g.: Imam Abu Haneefa. Rather a madhab means a collection of Ijtihad scholars, who derived rulings from the Qur’an and Sunnah following the Qawaid (established fundamental principles) within the madhab. Therefore, difference of opinion between scholars of the same madhab is common. The beauty of this is that it shows the value of a madhab where each Ijtihad scholar derives the ruling directly from Qur’an and Sunnah.

5. Allah ﷻ has commanded men to lower their gaze in The Qur’an (24:30). Then why does a woman need to cover?

There is no correlation between the two rulings; lowering the gaze and unveiling the face, because lowering of the gaze is there for numerous purposes at many levels e.g.: prohibition of looking at immoral images, private parts of other people, etc. Even when it comes to women, not all of them are Muslims who cover, rather you would find women of different religions and customs wearing different kinds of clothing. As stated previously, the two rulings do not correlate with each other, therefore such a linking or association is invalid.

6. The ayah states “……the Jilbaab over their bodies. That is more suitable that they will be known (so that they will be distinct in their appearance from slave women) and not be abused”, so why do we need it now, as there are no slave women present to be distinguished from believing women?

The ruling of Hijab in this ayah is not based on separation between a free woman and a slave woman, rather the ayah first states the obligation of Jilbaab and then the benefit is that they will not be abused. This is one of the حِكمة (Hikmah-wisdom) behind the ruling of the verse and not the عِله (Illah) for its application.

To understand further, we must follow certain foundational principles in Islamic Jurisprudence.  We must understand that there is علة (Illah) and حكمة (Hikmah) behind the ruling, which are two different things. Illah is the presence of a certain characteristic that brings a ruling into application and Hikmah is the wisdoms and benefits of the ruling. In the same manner the ruling of Hijab comes into place when the Illah is present which is to preserve the chasteness of a woman from a non-mahram man[1]. And one of the Hikmah (wisdom) of it was that the believing women be distinguished from slaves and not be abused.

For example, in the prohibition of Alcohol; the Illah is intoxication and the Hikmah is that it leads you to sin[2]. If a person says that wine is halal, because he drinks wine at a time when it does not disturb anybody and sleeps to prevent from falling into sin, does his reasoning sound logical? No, because he is confusing the Illah with the Hikmah of the rule.

7. As the Jilbaab was revealed for the believing women only, were the protection of slave women not a concern of those days?

In Surah Ahzab verse 57 -58 preceding the ayah of Hijab, Allah ﷻ forbids and curses the one who harms or harasses any woman of the society. The reason why Allah did not order the slave women to wear the Jilbaab was that they had to be consistently on the move with the society outside while serving their masters so it would be a burden on them.

8. Isn’t complete veiling (including face) special to the wives of Prophet ﷺ only?

We must keep in mind that the rulings are based on avoiding fitnah with the opposite gender and that Islam has prescribed these rulings as part of upholding the modesty and chasteness of a believing woman. We have been created on earth to worship Allah ﷻ The Mighty and earn His pleasure.

In Surah Ahzab verse 53 Allah ﷻ commands the companions of the Prophet ﷻ “If you ask them (wives of Prophet ﷺ) something ask behind a Hijab (partition). That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.” We must understand that Allah ﷻ is commanding the Ummahatul Mumineen (wives of Prophet ﷺ) and the Companions of Prophet ﷺ who were the most knowledgeable and the best of the best people in this Ummah, to maintain Hijab as it is purer for their hearts. Are our hearts purer than theirs?

9. The face-veil is from Arab Cultures from pre-Islamic days and not from Islam. Why should we follow what Islam does not command us?

Is it logical to say that everything that was there before Islam is not part of Islam afterwards? Example: The Arabs used to host guests in a very beautiful manner and always speak the truth about anything whether it be bitter or sweet in the pre-Islamic days. Does that mean hosting guests is not mustahab and speaking the truth is not obligatory in Islam?

Even though face veiling was practiced on a minor level among some Arabs and other communities, the advent of Islam established the ruling of face veiling on the Muslim women. It was the commandment of Allah ﷻ upon the Muslim women to wear hijab. Therefore, Niqab is an act of worship in Islam and we should abide by our religion.

10. Does face-veiling mean that a woman cannot communicate with the opposite gender (non-Mahram)?

Face veiling (Niqab) does not set any limitation on communicating with the non-Mahram men, rather it is obligatory upon every Muslim woman whether she exposes the face or not that they communicate with the non-Mahram men when necessary on certain conditions[3] i.e. not to be soft in speech, with proper Aadaab (moral values) and in a modest way that the speech must not result in fitnah.


[1]  “ وليس على ناري حجاب يكنها  لمستوبص ليلًا، ولكن أنيرها” Deewan Hatim At Thaa’i from the poems of Jahiliyah written in 577 AD (46 years before Hijri)

[2] Kitab ul Ayn by Khalil bin Ahmed Al Farahidi (died 170 H)

[3] Tafseer Muqaathil bin Sulayman (died 150H) and Volume 2 pg 738 Tafseer Imam Yayha bin Sallam (died 200H)

[4] Tafseer Al Kashshaaf by Az Zamakhshari (538 Hijri) Volume 3 Page 231

[5] Tafseer At Thabari (310 Hijri) Volume 20 Page 324

[6] Tafseer of Yahya bin Sallam (200 Hijri) Volume 2 Pg 738

[7] Hadeeth No. 4101 Book of Clothing, Sunan Abi Dawood

[8] Fathhul Bari explanation of Sahih Bukhari Volume 3 Pg 406

[9] Tafseer ibn Katheer Volume 6 Page 481 (774 Hijri)

[10] Lisanul Arab Volume 1 Page 768 (711 Hijri)

[11] Tafseer of ibn Jarir At Thabari (310 Hijri) Volume 19 Page 156

[12] A consensus agreement of the Ijtihad scholars on a matter

[13] Tafseer Ayaath Al Akhamul Quran lil Jassas (370 Hijri) Volume 5 Page 245

[14] Nihayathul Mathlab Fi Dirayathil Madhab (478 Hijri) Volume 12 Page 31

[15] Ahkam ul Quran (543 Hijri) Volume 3 Page 616

[16] Kifayatun Nabeeh Fi Sharah At Thanbeeh Volume 2 Page 486

[17] Majmoo’ Al Fatawa of ibn Taymiya (728 Hijri) Volume 22 Page 110 – 111

[18] Mawahibul Jaleel Fi Sharah Mukhtasar Khaleel (954 Hijri) Volume 1 Page 499

[19] Al Mabsooth (483 Hijri) Volume 10 Page 152

[20] Ikmaalul Mu’allim Bifawa’id Muslim (544 Hijri) Volume 7 Page 37-38

[21] Al Minhaj Sharah Sahih Muslim bin Al Hajjaj (676 Hijri) Volume 14 Page 139

[22] Badai’ As Sanai’ Fi Tarteebish sharai’ (587 Hijri) Volume 5 Page 121-122

[23] Al Manthoor Fi Qawaid Al Fiqhiyah (764 Hijri) Volume 2 Page 140

[24] Rawai’ul Bayan Volume 2 Page 379

[25] Surah Baqarah Verse 222

[26] Surah Ahzaab Verse 32

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