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The Islamic Concept of Hijāb
Social Issues
Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Islam has based its social structure on the institution of family. For the development of such a society in which the basic unit is the family, it is essential to regard chastity and modesty as fundamental values. It is to safeguard and protect these values that the Shar’iah has laid down a whole code of social etiquette and communal conduct. These directives have been discussed in the Qur’ān very minutely. Since, their interpretation, in recent times, has often touched the two extremes, it is, once again, necessary to contemplate on the Qur’ān in quest for the ariston metron --- the golden mean.

A deep deliberation on the Qur’ān reveals that these directives, which have been dealt with in detail in Sūrah Ahzāb and Sūrah Nūr, are basically of three categories. Following is a brief analysis of these directives.


The first category of directives pertains to safe and secure places. According to the Qur’ān, such secure places may either be residential ones (bait-i-maskuna) like houses and apartments or non-residential ones (bait-i-ghair maskuna) like offices and schools. It says that if some friends, relatives or acquaintances visit one another, they should follow a certain decorum. If the visited place is residential in nature, the visitor should first of all properly introduce himself by paying salutations to the residents of a house. In this regard, the Prophet (sws) has instructed the visitor to knock three times at the door and if he hears no reply, he should turn back and not start an incessant session of pounding the door. Furthermore, if the residents are not in a position to welcome him and they ask him to return, he should withdraw without any ill-will towards them. However, in case the visited place is non-residential, no formal permission is required. Once a person has entered his destination, the men and women who are present, should observe two regulations: they should guard their gazes from taking undue liberty and take care that the dress they are wearing properly covers them. Women should observe one additional regulation as well: they should not display their finery except those which is evident, that is their clothes or any adornments worn on the face and hands. For this purpose, the Qur’ān says they should cover their chests by their head-coverings and should not strike their feet in a manner which draws attention to any ornaments they may be wearing. Furthermore, the Qur’ān says that it is not necessary to observe this third regulation with mahram relatives, but as far as the first two regulations are concerned they must be observed without exception to anyone whosoever. It is evident, therefore, that men and women while observing these regulations can eat and converse together. The Qur’ān says:

O ye who believe! Enter not the houses other than your own until you have introduced yourselves and wished peace to those in them. That is best for you that you may be heedful. If you find no one in the house, enter not until permission is given to you. If you are asked to go back, go back, for it is purer for you. Allah has knowledge of all which you do. It is no sin for you to enter non-residential places in which there is benefit for you. And Allah has knowledge of what you reveal and what you conceal.

[O Prophet!] tell believing men to restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. And Allah is well aware of what you do. And tell the believing women to restrain their eyes and to guard their private parts and to display of their finery only that which is apparent by drawing their coverings over their bosoms. They should not reveal their finery to anyone save their husbands or their fathers or their husbands’ fathers or their sons or their husbands’ sons or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or their sisters’ sons or other women of acquaintance or their slaves or male servants lacking in physical needs or children who have no awareness of the hidden aspects of women. [In order not to reveal their finery except which is apparent], they should [also] not stamp their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. Believers turn to Allah in repentance that you may prosper." (24:27-31)


The second category of directives pertains to places which are not secure and unprotected from people of lewd character. Markets, road sides, shops and parks are examples of places where such people might create nuisance for women. The Qur’ān tells Muslim women to wear large cloaks when they go out so that a part of the cloaks covers their faces as well, for this is the way dignified women dress up when they go out. This dress will identify them as decent women and they will not be teased. The Qur’ān says:

"O Prophet! tell your wives and daughters and the wives of the believers to draw a part of their cloaks on their faces [when they go abroad]. That is more proper so that they may be recognized and are not harmed. Allah is Forgiving and Merciful." (33:59)


The third category of these directives relates to the leading women of a society, who set an example for others. Owing to the special position of the Prophet (sws), his wives occupied this place in his times. Consequently, these directives have been addressed to them. It is clear that the leading women of a society play a very essential role. The values which they adopt become the values of the society, and the trends they set become the trends of the society. If they falter, the whole society falters and if they remain on the right path, the whole society remains on the right path. It is due to the special position of such women that some additional directives have been given to prevent any scandal mongers from spreading mischief.

Firstly, womenfolk of such stature must refrain from openly exhibiting their embellishments. The Qur’ān strictly forbids them to adorn themselves and go about displaying themselves. It says:

Wives of the Prophet! stay in your homes and do not display your adornments as women used to do in the days of ignorance. (33:33)

Secondly, they should take care that whenever, they have to say something to people in whose hearts there is the ailment of lewdness, they should speak without showing any softness to them:

"O Wives of the Prophet! you are not like other women. If you fear Allah do not be too complaisant of speech lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire." (33:32)

In this regard, the people who assemble in the houses of the leading men of the society are also directed to observe certain manners.

Firstly, they should not become a source of trouble for the residents of the house by coming at the wrong time or unnecessarily prolonging their stay. In the words of the Qur’ān:

"O ye who believe! enter not the Prophet’s dwellings unless permission be granted to you for a meal [and] not [so early as] to wait for its preparation. But if you are invited, enter and when you have eaten disperse. Linger not for conversation. Such behavior distresses the Prophet and he shows his regard for you but of the truth Allah does not have regard for anything." (33:53)

Secondly, If these people want anything from within the house, they must not charge inside, but ask for what they want from outside:

"If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind the curtain. That is purer for their hearts and theirs." (33:53)


These are the Qur’ānic directives of Hijāb. The social etiquette they depict is poised magnificently between the extremes human civilizations have often witnessed. Like all other directives of Islam their object is to purify the soul and to purge it from evil, which is essential if man has to become worthy of the eternal life Heaven --- the eternal life for which the Almighty actually created him.

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