It must be well-known that the primary purpose of hijab, or the proper Islamic dress code, is to safeguard the modesty, dignity and honor of men and women. Allah, the Creator of humans, knows our nature better than ourselves, and thus He has prescribed appropriate rules of behavior and appearance to be observed when men and women interact with one another. These rules of interaction also include a prescription for modest dressing, which applies to men as well as women. Almighty Allah says, “Say to the believing men to lower their gazes and guard their chastity…” (An-Nur: 30) He also says: “And tell the believing women to lower their eyes, and guard their modesty, and that they display not their ornaments except what appears of them.” (An-Nur: 31)
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states: Since the Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic language, we must understand its meanings by reference to the usage and conventions of that language. To use a translation, however accurate it may be, often does not properly convey the full nuances of the revealed Word.
Let us now turn to the specific verse on hijab in the Qur’an: “And tell the believing women to lower their eyes, and guard their modesty, and that they display not their ornaments except what appears of them. And that they draw their scarves (khumurihinna) over their bosoms…” (An-Nur: 31)
The word used in this context is khumur which has been variously translated as veils or scarves; the latter is more precise for it is the plural of khimar, which has been defined as “a woman’s head covering; a piece of cloth with which a woman covers her head.” (See Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-`Arab.) Imam Raghib al-Isfahani in his famous work, Mufradat alfadh al-Qur’an defines the terms by saying, “The root meaning of the word is to cover, and the khimar, therefore, is the cover or veil, but it has become synonymous with veil with which a woman covers her head (i.e., headscarf); the plural of the word is khumur (as used in the Qur’an: An-Nur: 31).” Because, according to the Arabic usage, covering the head is the most important function of khimar, no scholar in the past that we know of has ever disputed the fact that women are commanded by Allah to cover their heads; they only argued whether the face and hands are also included in the above order. The majority of scholars are of the opinion that they are allowed to uncover their faces and hands.
Furthermore, one of the basic principles of the Qur’anic exegesis is that we must seek to understand the Qur’anic verses as they were originally revealed to, received, understood, and applied by the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), both men and women. We have incontrovertible evidence in the sources to suggest that it is in the above sense, and in the above sense alone, that they related to, and applied the above verse. We read the report of `A’ishah, the beloved wife of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who said: “By Allah, I never saw more excellent women than those of the Ansar in their zeal to believe and act according to the Revelation. When Allah revealed the verse, “and let them draw their veils over their bosoms”, their men rushed to their homes in order to recite the same to their wives, daughters and sisters and relatives. No sooner they heard the verse, everyone of their women without exception rushed to cut a piece of their long gowns and covered themselves with it, and thus they stood behind the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) with their heads covered as if they had crows sitting on them (because of the color of their head-scarves)!” (See Tafsir works such as those of Ibn Jarir, al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir, etc.)
In light of the above, it is easy to conclude that covering the head (and not the face and hands) is a stated requirement of the proper Islamic attire for Muslim women. It is clearly not one of those scholarly interpretations which one may choose to accept or ignore but a clear commandment of Allah stated in the Qur’an. May Allah guard us all against the evil inclinations of our souls and help us to remain steadfast on the truth. Amen.