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.