Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran. The tradition of veiling and seclusion (known together as hijab) was introduced into Arabia long before Muhammad, primarily through Arab contacts with Syria and Iran , where the hijab was a sign of social status. After all, only a woman who need not work in the fields could afford to remain secluded and veiled.
In the Ummah, there was no tradition of veiling until around 627 C.E., when the so-called “verse of hijab” suddenly descended upon the community. That verse, however, was addressed not to women in general, but exclusively to Muhammad’s wives:
“Believers, do not enter the Prophet’s house…unless asked. And if you are invited…do not linger. And when you ask something from the Prophet’s wives, do so from behind a hijab. This will assure the purity of your hearts as well as theirs” (33:53).
This restriction makes perfect sense when one recalls that Muhammad’s house was also the community’s mosque: the center of religious and social life in the Ummah. People were constantly coming in and out of this compound at all hours of the day. When delegations from other tribes came to speak with Muhammad, they would set up their tents for days at a time inside the open courtyard, just a few feet away from the apartments in which Muhammad’s wives slept. And new emigrants who arrived in Yathrib would often stay within the mosque’s walls until they could find suitable homes.
When Muhammad was little more than a tribal Shaykh, this constant commotion could be tolerated. But by 627 C.E., when he had become the supremely powerful leader of an increasingly expanding community, some kind of segregation had to be enforced to maintain the inviolability of his wives. Thus, the tradition, borrowed from the upper classes of Iranian and Syrian women, of veiling and secluding the most important women in society from the peering eyes of everyone else.
That the veil applied solely to Muhammad’s wives is further demonstrated by the fact that the term for donning the veil, darabat al-hijab, was used synonymously and interchangeably with “becoming Muhammad’s wife.” For this reason, during the Prophet’s lifetime, no other women in the Ummah observed hijab. Of course, modesty was enjoined on all believers, and women in particular were instructed to
“draw their clothes around them a little to be recognized as believers and so that no harm will come to them” (33:60).
More specifically, women should
“guard their private parts…and drape a cover (khamr) over their breasts” when in the presence of strange men (24:31-32).
But, as Leila Ahmed observes, nowhere in the whole of the Quran is the term hijab applied to any woman other than the wives of Muhammad.
It is difficult to say with certainty when the veil was adopted by the rest of the Ummah, though it was most likely long after Muhammad’s death. Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to emulate the Prophet’s wives, who were revered as “the Mothers of the Ummah.” But the veil was neither compulsory, nor for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Muhammad’s death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet’s egalitarian reforms.

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Comments (3)

  1. Said A Said says:

    saying, Hijab is exclusively for Prophet wives is a big blockmindedness! If indeed you understand the verses that oder the wives of Prophet to wwar Hijab is as well ordering Muslims women to do the same. And the way you adress our beloved Prophet SAW shows who you are! We seek refuge from Allah SWT from being like you!

  2. i’d lyk 2 refer d writer bak 2 d follown verses u quoted. Chptr33v59 whc says.’O Prophet!tel ur wives n ur daughters n d women believers 2 draw deir cloaks(veils)al ovr deir bodies…’ mind u women believers r mentioned here,so dey did nt copy d wearing of veil 4rm prophets wives as u put bt rathr it ws ordained by Allah upon d women believrs in general.dis is a dres code given 2 dm by Allah. In d same chptr33v33 Allah forbids dm 2 display dr bodies,i quote.”And stay in ur houses,n do nt display urslves like d@ of d times of ignorance,…”d times of ignorance is time wen women xpose dr bodies 2 attrct men. D secnd chptr24v31 says,i quote.”And tel d believin women 2 lower dr gaze n protect dr private parts n nt 2 show off dr adornment xcpt only d@ whc is apparent(like palms of hnds,face or feet)n 2 draw dr veils al ovr juyubihinna(i.e dr faces,bodies,necks,bosoms etc) n nt 2 reveal dr adornment xcpt 2 dr husbands….” to protect dr private parts’ means 2 abstain 4rm illegal sexual acts. If u undrstnd d word ‘khamr’ in arabic,d arabic context in d Quran says.”Wal yadribna bi khumurihinna ala juyubihinna…” Here d word ‘khumurihinna’ is a word borrowd 4rm ‘khamr’. We al knw khamr has 2 do wth alcohol,sth d@ twist brain wen consumed. Ds word is borrowd 2 indicate d@ women shud use veil 2 covr dmslves. D word khamr here refer 2 veil,whc women use 2 cover dr head.Xample of d word khamr is in anodr verse in chptr2v219,i’l quote in Arabc context,”Yas’alunaka anil khamri wal maisir”(Trnsltn)”They ask u(O muhammad s.a.w)concernin alcoholic drink n gamblin…”. In anodr chptr5v90,khamr ws also mentiond as alcohol. So pls do nt conclude wthout deeply researchn on d Quran. Do nt tek such negative responsibility on ur head 2 mek women dres wrngly bcz Allah wil hold u accountable. In chptr17v53 Allah say,”And Say 2 my slaves d@ dey shud say dose words d@ r d best,…”. On ds verse i’d lyk 2 draw curtain,May Allah gv us useful knowledge d@ wil benefit us,ameen.

  3. ibrahim A, says:

    I refer to the openning statement of this your write up which made awrong assertion as follows:

    “Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran”

    For correction PLS refer to QUR an CHAPTER 33 (s.Ahzab) VERSES 59 and you will see where Allah SAW commands the use of veils by women to cover their body.

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