The Quran on women’s public conduct

Published: August 4, 2010
The writer is Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville, US

The writer is Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville, US

There has been much discussion on what ‘khimar’, mentioned in Surah 24: An-Nur: 31, denotes. Having enjoined believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, the Quran commands them “not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof: hence, let them draw their head-coverings, ‘khimar’, over their bosoms”.

With reference to the first part of the last injunction, Dr Fathi Osman states: “Women are required not to display the charms of their bodies in public beyond what decently be apparent thereof. According to early Muslim practices and several juristic views, these charms have not been indicated in detail. Such details may not be possible or suitable for a general permanent law because of differences and changes in the social customs from time to time and from place to place…The prominent commentators reflected this flexibility in their commentary on the verses Surah 24: An-Nur: 30-31. Al Fakhr al Razi stated that what should be covered is left to the prevailing custom, while al Zamakshari left it to the custom and nature. Al Wahidi and Ibn Atiyya allowed half of the arm to be uncovered, while al Nisaburi allowed the uncovering of the arm to the elbow. Ibn Hayyan, in addition to considering custom and nature in what may be uncovered considered the needs of poor women.”

Explicating the term ‘khimar’ Muhammad Asad states: “The noun ‘khimar’ (of which khumar is the plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less like an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer’s back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare.”

Dr Fathi Osman endorses Muhammad Asad’s statement. He adds: “The Quranic verse obviously stresses covering the bosom and avoiding the prevailing custom of displaying it.”

Muslim woman are also instructed not to walk in an exhibitionist way. The rationale for this directive is contained in the Quranic view of the ideal society and the social and moral values to be upheld by both Muslim men and women.

It is worth noting that older Muslim women who are “past the prospect of marriage” are not required to wear “the outer garment” as stated in Surah 24: An-Nur: 60 which states: “Such elderly women are/past the prospect of marriage. However, there is no relaxation as far as the essential Quranic principle of modest behaviour is concerned. The verse recognises the possibility that women may continue to be modest even when they have discarded “the outer garment”.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Naz
    Aug 5, 2010 - 12:28AM

    A well reserached piece, but sadly lacks logic and is not objective, otherwise the respected writer would have first and foremost included not just opinions of Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) but also Imams and scholars like Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Shafaee. Writer herself agrees that Khimar means head-cover but implies there is no need to cover the head. EXPRESS is a worl renowned publication, how can you publish something that had such subjective and partial research on a matter like this?Recommend

  • shy
    Aug 5, 2010 - 7:22AM

    Insufficient and incomplete article.Recommend

  • Aug 5, 2010 - 12:19PM

    Salaams! very sad approach… i felt like the writer is justifying her NOT carrying hijab!!! im sorry but ur article is a reminder of the “Days of Ignorance”! may Allah swt forgive u and guide u ,AmeenRecommend

  • Samreen
    Aug 5, 2010 - 2:06PM

    The article is not elaborate and it’s probably because the topic is very broad and all details cannot fit in an article written for newspapers. I have myself researched about hijab issue and I agree with Dr. Riffat Hasan. She’s not justifying her not carrying hijab, stop accusing someone if you don’t have knowledge. Read her work and be thankful to her for her excellent scholarship regarding women’s rights in Islam. Also, imam Hanifah and other popular imams are not the only one we should respect and consult. There are many other scholarships too. Take some time to read them too. Only then you’ll be in a position to give your ‘expert’ opinion about this article.Recommend

  • Jameel ur Rasheed
    Aug 5, 2010 - 8:12PM

    what you are saying about Imam Abu Hanifah and other popular imams is really very upsetting. If you don’t think these personalities to be respected then surely there is no one after them dead or alive to have reached there marks. And as said earlier the writer has adopeted a very poor approach and perhaps providig a justification for not wearing hijab herself.Recommend

  • Muhammad Ziad
    Aug 5, 2010 - 8:34PM

    Is there anything known as the reference books of the aforementioned scholars?

    Rather than relying on all these scholars , is it not necessary to abide to the opinions of the companions RadhiAllahuanhu and Prophet Muhammad salalahoalaiyhewasalam ?

    Hadith – Bukhari 6:282

    ‘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 faces with the cut pieces.”

    Hadith – Abu Dawud, Narrated Umm Salamah, Ummul Mu’minin

    When the verse “That they should cast their outer garments over their persons” was revealed, the women of Ansar came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing outer garments.

    Had these incidents been wrong or misunderstood by the women of Ansar, Prophet Salalahoalaiyhewasalam must have instructed them what it actually means or corrected them. ‘like crows’ certainly does not mean one can cut their sleeves to half. Recommend

  • Hamza
    Aug 5, 2010 - 8:38PM

    Samreen is very correct. Dr. Riffat is a well respected scholar, and those belittling her views are not doing anyone a service. The issue is complex, multi-layered, and cannot be elaborated in a single newspaper article. Dr. Hassan’s point is is not to discourage the hijab, but to argue that a womens public conduct must be in line with Quranic injunction. This however does not mean that women have to wear a full abaya or burqa. If they do so, that is fine as well, but her opinion has always been that such covering is not specifically mandated in the Quran or the hadith. Public modesty is much more important than specific covering of the face or wearing an abaya. Recommend

  • Aug 6, 2010 - 7:44AM

    For the benefit of readers who could not fully understand this article due to its brevity (in keeping with the words restriction in all newspapers), I suggest that this article should be read in conjuncton with Dr. Riffat Hassan’s articles entitled “The Quran on the issue of Modesty”, 03 July 2010 and “Modesty not Segregation”, 16 July 2010. I am sure that it will give any reader a very good idea of the Quranic Teachings on the subject of modesty of dress and conduct for both women and men.

    Readers may disagree with Dr. Hassan’s views but making a personal attack on her is not acceptable from an Islamic point of view. Dr. Hassan’s scholarship is internationally recognized and is neither “subjective” nor “partial”.

    In my considered opinion, it is to the credit of EXPRESS for making place for such a scholarly discussion even of fiercely-debated subjects. This is very educational for general public, which has little opportunity to access such a discussion.Recommend

    Aug 6, 2010 - 12:53PM

    Why can’t Dr.Riffat ever come up with solid religious doesn’t suit her stature to put up mediocre articles.
    @Muhammad Ziad. Nice comment.Recommend

  • Thinking
    Aug 6, 2010 - 5:42PM

    While this article may not be complete in itself, I fail to understand the obsession with hijab. Modesty is the rule, and that is usually driven by culture. I see no one preaching the five pillars of Islam, as much as they do, about women covering themselves. Get over it. It is each woman and her Allah.Recommend

  • Muhammad Ahsan Khan
    Aug 7, 2010 - 12:40AM

    There are many aggressive comments against the present Post. It appears that the writers are not very happy because Dr. Riffat Hassan has written her article without any reference to Popular Imams, Prophet’s Companions or his Wives. They have some doubt in the interpretation of a verse.

    This particular doubt will also persist in the interpretation of the same verse by any other authority.

    According to III-7, Allah has revealed unto Muhammad (peace be upon him) the (1) “Scripture wherein are clear revelations – they are the substance of the Book” and (2) “others (which are) allegorical”. About these allegorical verses, it is further stated that “None knoweth its explanation save Allah”. Thus the allegorical verses may have multiple interpretations. No human being, no matter how intelligent, educated and pious (imams and muftis included) he may be, can claim that his interpretation is the only one ‘true and correct’. Because, by this he will declare himself to have the same ‘Intelligence and Knowledge’ as God Almighty.

    Hence, Dr. Riffat Hassan’s analysis as good as any other’s or may be even better!

    Dr. Hassan has presented 24:30/31 , translated by Muhammad Asad:

    “And tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity – [and,] verily God is aware of all that they do.”

    Do you find any mention of hiding a face in the above?

    In 33:59 He says “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters as well as all [other] believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed. But [withal,] God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!”

    Here again there is no mention of hiding the face. There is a question of decency. By hiding her face a woman does not become decent if she is not without hiding her face. Perhaps it is simply to hide their breasts because it was common in pre-Islamic period that women did not hide the breast (as it is written by Dr. Hassan). He does not talk of any head-to-heal garment (Burqa=Shuttle-cork) for a woman.

    The origin of Burqa is not the Holy Book but it is in the interpretation by the self-proclaimed Religious Experts of the messages of Allah . Any interpretation is an extrapolation of a single or some similar statements. There can be many diverging different interpretations. All interpretations are doubtful statements, their TRUTH is based on Belief and any Belief is a Doubtful Reality.

    The word Burqa is indeed an Arab Word but this word does not exist in the command of Allah.Recommend

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