Home In English Essays Deconstructing the‘Niqab-is-cultural’ myth
Deconstructing the‘Niqab-is-cultural’ myth PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 16 October 2009 07:55

It is often said that the face-veil has its origins in pre-Islamic, that it is "merely" a cultural practice with no real basis in Islam, and hence, an unnecessarily restrictive and uncomfortable manifestation of one’s faith. As the number of Muslim women who wear the face-veil in the public sphere increases, so does the frequency and intensity of the ideological, verbal and sometimes even physical attacks on them.

Speaking from the point of view of a researcher who is looking up this topic for a forthcoming book on the status of the face-veil in Islam, and the varied experiences and insight of the women who choose to wear it; and as someone who wears the face-veil myself, I feel compelled to share my findings.

Let’s take an article on the history of the veil on Wikipedia as a case in point, which states:

"The first recorded instance of the face-veil is an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BCE, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it.

Greek texts have also spoken of veiling and seclusion of women being practiced among the Persian elite. [...] Classical Greek and Hellenistic statues sometimes depict Greek women with both their head and face covered by a veil."

So far, so good. The implication is that in the ancient world, the face-veil was a means to separate the ‘elite’ from the commoners, an article of apparel that was a means of denoting social distinction. It was not a widespread phenomenon, but was restricted to a certain social class of women.

This is not the case with the Islamic veil, which has been adopted by Muslim women who do not conform to or recognize any "pecking order" in society, in consonance with the precept: "Indeed, the noblest among you near Allah, is the one who is most conscious of Allah." (Qur’an, 49:13)

There were various instances where women adopted the face-veil owing to special circumstances: during a period of mourning, as a means of hiding the identity of a woman who was "doing anything she didn’t want other people to find out about" (for instance when keeping a secret tryst with an illegitimate paramour); or to protect the complexion from sun and wind damage or to keep dust out of a woman’s face.

As is obvious, the practice of the ancient and medieval women – from whom Muslim women are alleged to have "imported" and "adopted" the practice of wearing the face-veil – has nothing in common with the Islamic veil.

In Islam, every action is accepted on the basis of the underlying intention, and the basic intention of a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the face-veil is adherence to the concept of Islamic Hijab (covering).

The attitude of a Muslim woman who wears the face-veil is primarily obedience to the injunctions of Allah, as enjoined by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and practiced by the foremost of Muslim women – the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the women Companions.

While it is true that there is a difference of opinion among the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence on the obligation of wearing a face-veil – with the Hanbali, Shafi’I and Maliki schools considering it Wajib (obligatory), the Hanafis considering it Mustahabb (recommended), and some modern scholars considering it Mubah (permissible) – there have never been any questions raised on the validity of wearing a face-veil.


There are numerous Ahadith that conclusively prove that the entire community of Muslim women covered their faces with an external garment as they went about their business – not just the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

○ Narrated Ayesha (part of a much longer narration): "...When he reached my place in the morning, he saw the figure of a sleeping person and he recognized me on seeing me, as he had seen me before the order of compulsory veiling (was prescribed). So I woke up when he recited Istirja’ (i.e. "Inna lillahi wa inna llaihi raji’un") as soon as he recognized me. I veiled my face with my head cover at once, and by Allah, we did not speak a single word, and I did not hear him saying any word besides his Istirja’. (Volume: 5, Book Number: 59, Hadith Number: 462)

○ Narrated Ayesha: "The woman is to bring down her Jilbab from over her head and (then place it) upon her face." (Bukhari, 6/60, no. 282; Abu Dawood, 32/4091)

○ Narrated Ayesha: "The riders used to pass by us when we were with the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) in Ihram. When they came near, each of us would lower her Jilbab from her head over her face, and when they passed by we would uncover our faces." (Abu Dawood, 1/1833)

○ Narrated Aasim Al-Ahwal: "We used to enter upon Hafsah Bint Sirin who had put her Jilbab thus and covered her face with it, and we would say to her: May Allah have mercy on you. Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): ‘And as for women past childbearing who do not expect wedlock, it is no sin on them if they discard their (outer) clothing in such a way as not to show their adornment...’ (Qur’an, 24:60)

"And she would say to us: What comes after that (verse)? We would say: ‘But to refrain (i.e. not to discard their outer clothing) is better for them.’ And so she said: (Referring to, ‘But to refrain is better for them’), "It is to keep the Jilbab." (Al-Bukhari, 3/311:1)


○ Narrated Ibn Abbas: "Allah commanded the believing women, when going out of their homes for some need, to cover their faces from above their heads with their Jilbbs, leaving one eye (or both) to see the path." (Tafsir At-Tabari, 2/123)

○ From Asma’ Bint Abi Bakr, that she said, "We are used to covering our faces from the men, and cutting our hair before that in Ihram (for Haj). (Ibn Khuzaymah, 4/203)

○ From Ibn Abi Khaytamah: We entered upon Umm Al-Mu’minn on Yawm At-Tarwiyah and we said to her, ‘O Mother of the Believers! Here is a woman who refuses to cover her face and she is a Muhrimah (in iharm). So Ayesha lifted her Khimar from her chest, and covered the woman’s face with it. (At-Talkhees Al-Habeer of Ibn Hajr Al-Asqalani, 2/272)

○ Narrated Ayesha: "When (the Verse): ‘They should draw their veils over their Juyubihinna,’ was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces." (Al-Bukhari, 60:282:1)

○ Narrated Ayesha: Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized. (Al-Bukhari, 8:368:1)

○ Narrated Um Atiya: We were ordered by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to bring out our menstruating women and veiled women in the religious gatherings and invocation of Muslims on the two Eid festivals. These menstruating women were to keep away from their Musalla. A woman asked, "O Allah’s Apostle ‘What about one who does not have a niqab?" He said, "Let her share the veil of her companion." (Al-Bukhari, 8:347:1)

○ Narrated Thabit Bin Qays: A woman called Umm Khallad came to the Prophet while she was veiled. She was searching for her son who had been killed in the battle. Some of the Companions of the Prophet said to her: You have come here asking for your son while veiling your face? She said: "If I am afflicted with the loss of my son, I shall not suffer the loss of my modesty." (Al-Bukhari, 14:2482:1)

As is obvious from these narrations, Muslim women have a historical precedent of covering their faces that goes back to the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that is independent and completely exclusive of cultural or any other influence. May Allah enable the women of our time to follow those who have preceded them in faith, despite the discouragement and deviation of those who hate to see them doing so.