Answered by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, SunniPath Academy Teacher
The Qur’anic verse, “Say to believing women, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward; and let them drape their headcoverings over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment . . .” (Qur’an 24:31) is a specific requirement for Muslim women to cover their hair.
The word “headcoverings” (Ar. singular khimar, plural khumur), more familiar in our times as the hijab, is a word of well-known signification among scholars of Arabic, at their forefront the authors of the classical lexical reference dictionaries like Zabidi’s encyclopedic Taj al-arus or Mutarrizi’s al-Mughrib, both of which define khimar as “a woman’s headcovering”; or Fayumi’s al-Misbah or Fayruzabadi’s al-Qamus, which both define it as “a cloth with which a woman covers her head.” The Taj al-arus also notes that a man’s turban is sometimes referred to as a khimar “because a man covers his head with it in like manner as a woman covers her head with her khimar when he disposes it in the Arab manner, turning part of it under the jaws nearly in the same manner in which a woman disposes her khimar.” These authorities are cited in the eight-volume Arabic-English Lexicon of Edward William Lane, who describes the khimar as “a woman’s muffler or veil with which she covers her head and the lower part of her face.”
There is no other lexical sense in which the word khimar may be construed. The wording of the command, however, “and let them drape their headcoverings over their bosoms,” sometimes confuses nonspecialists in the sciences of the Qur’an, and in truth, interpreting the Qur’an does sometimes require in-depth knowledge of the historical circumstances in which the various verses were revealed. In this instance, the elliptical form of the divine command is because women at the time of the revelation wore their headcovers tied back behind their necks, as some village women still do in Muslim countries, leaving the front of the neck bare, as well as the opening (Ar. singular jayb, plural juyub, translated as “bosoms” in the above verse) at the top of the dress. The Islamic revelation confirmed the practice of covering the head, understood from the use of the word khimar in the verse, but also explained that the custom of the time was not sufficient and that women were henceforth to tie the headcover in front and let it drape down to conceal the throat and the dress’s opening at the top.
This is why Muslim women cover their heads: because the Qur’an unambiguously orders them to, and there is no qualifying text or hadith or even other lexical possibility to show that the Qur’anic order might mean anything besides obligation. Rather, the hadiths all bear this meaning out, Muslim scholars are in unanimous agreement about it and have been from the time of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) down to our own day, and it is even known by all non-Muslim peoples about them.
There was thus nothing new or surprising in the Islamic legal opinion promulgated in December 2003 by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Jumua of the Egyptian Fatwa Authority (Dar al-Ifta’ al-Misriyya) that “the hijab is an obligation on all Muslim female adults, as firmly established in the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s hadiths, as well as unanimously agreed upon by Muslim scholars.” He pointed out that unlike the cross sometimes worn by Christians, or the skullcap worn by Jews, the hijab is not a “symbol” of Islam but rather that “Islam orders female adults to wear hijab as obligatory religious clothing.” It is part of every Muslim woman’s religious practice.
Some ink and words have been spent by some contemporary ethnic Muslim women writers (and an occasional convert) trying to do away with the covering of hair mandated by the Qur’an and the unanimous consensus of Muslims. They sayaccurately enough, for a Muslim does not leave Islam merely by committing a sinthat one can take off the hijab and still remain a Muslim. But such a person remains a bad Muslim, who deems aping non-Muslims better than practicing Islam. For what? The Supreme Being knows our benefit better than we do; and if one believes in Allah, Master of every atom in the universe, it is only plain sense to follow Him. When all else fails, read the directions. Those who refuse to wear the hijab are acting out of ignorance or bad faith, and when one meets them, one seldom finds they manage to practice the other aspects of their religion. In the end, it is a matter of hearts. The heart that is alive has a sense of eternity, and knows that the infinite is greater than the finite. The heart that is dead follows the trends of the trend makers because it has turned its back on the Divine and forgotten endless time.
© MMV Nuh Keller