Hijab and a Revelation that was not


Mohammad Omar Farooq, PhD

Courtesy: Message International [March 2004]

I. Introduction

The decision of the conservative French government, led by President Chirac, to ban headcovering of girls/women in public institution has created a major controversy inside and outside France. While the banning initiative targets all “ostentatious” religious symbols, including Jewish skull-caps, Christian cross, etc., the real target, quite clearly, is the Islamic dress code of modesty for women. Popularly known as hijab, the issue is now mixed up with headscarf.

As Catherine Field explains, while claiming that secularism in France is threatened by headscarfs and that Muslims are being intransigent in assimilating into the French culture, the initiative to ban headscarf (cross and skullcaps too to balance) is also mired in domestic French politics. France has the largest Muslim minority in any European country, mostly of Algerian origin, the former colony of France. The right wing party is becoming more popular, especially by attacking foreigners and foreign cultures. Chirac’s government wants to outdo its rival political force by banning hijab.

Originally, the issue emerged as some young girls, even at the elementary grades, are wearing hijabin public schools. But soon the issue was expanded to all public offices and institutions. However, since the cultural milieu of France has become generally skewed against the presence of the large and growing immigrant Muslim community, there are now cases of even private businesses, such as banks, refusing to serve Muslim women covering their heads.

The domestic politics is reflected in the rift inside the French government. The interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy is no friend of scarf. He has bluntly stated that Muslims should abide by the cultural and legal environment of France. However, he is also vehemently opposed to enacting laws to enforce any ban. According to Sarkozy, imposition of any such bans would be “secular fundamentalism.” That this is indeed secular fundamentalism was echoed in an New York Times editorial too. [IHT]

The controversy has further widened, engulfing the global Muslim community, especially the Muslims in the West, as the very basis of hijab is being challenged by some people, whose views are being widely reported in the western media. There are also a few well-positioned Muslim-sounding names, some of which are non-practicing anyway, but have taken an intellectually militant position of challenging hijab altogether. Amir Taheri, a neoconservative, associated with Benador Associates, wrote about wearing headscarf in New York Post: “This is not Islam.” [NYP] He went even further and revealed an hitherto unknown information. He labeled this wearing of headscarf as neo-hijab and claimed that it was invented in early 1970s in Lebanon by a Shi’ite Muslim leader, Musa Sadr.

Ali Ahmad Said, an Arab poet popularly known as Adonis,  went even further claiming: “… nowhere in the Quran or hadith is there a single, unequivocal passage that imposes the veil on Muslim women.” [Adonis]  He further suggests that hijab is simply based on an incorrect human interpretation of some minorities, who have imposed their minority interpretation over the Muslim women. Echoing many in the West and elsewhere who believe that Islam is a primitive religion that discriminates and even represses women, he is of the view that hijab is actually the symbol as well as a tool of repression of women. He further blames the Muslims for their failure to blend with the society to which they migrated. Other lesser known cheerleaders soon joined in clamoring that this “new-fangled” hijab or neo-hijab must be resisted, as it is being promoted and defended by the Islamists. Indeed, they seem to be grateful to the French leadership for taking up the cause of repressed Muslim women.

In this essay, we deal with several interrelated issues. (a) the basis of hijab in the Qur’an and hadith; (b) the terminology involving hijab/veil/scarf; (c)  the “minority” interpretation involving hijab as a mandatory religious requirement; (d) The revelation of Amir Taheri that headscarf as a form of hijabwas invented in early 1970s in Lebanon by Musa Sadr.

II. Islamic guidance for dress in the Qur’an and Sunnah

Islam prescribes modesty for both men and women, which includes lowering of gaze between non-mahrams of opposite sex. [33/al-Ahjab/59] The Qur’an speaks of Jilbab: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments [jilbab] over their persons (when outside): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [33/al-ahjab/59]  It also prescribes in a latersurah “… say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings [khimar] over their bosoms, …” [24/an-Nur/31]

Whatever is the meaning of khimar or jilbab, which one can learn from Arabic lexicons, the two verses of al-Ahjab and an-Nur undoubtedly give some dress codes. However, it is still not too specific, but the details are available through hadith (narrations) and sunnah (practice sanctioned by the Prophet). “When a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.” (Sunan Abu Dawood # 4092). There are other hadiths, further corroborating this.

Therefore, basically, the guidance is that women, when around non-mahrams, should keep only face and hand exposed. Islam does not mandate or prescribe any specific type of dress. Thus, as long as the dresses are not revealing or too tight, cultural variations can add tremendous diversity in the fulfillment of this guideline. Chador in Iran, abaya in most Arab countries, burqa in South Asia are examples of such variations.

III. Hijab/veil/scarf: The terminology confusion

Though inaccurate, it is very common to use hijab, veil and scarf interchangeably. Indeed, scarf, as headcovering, has become the crux of the controversy in France. Scarf is also described as veil orhijab and vice versa. As explained above, Islam does have some dress code, which is based on the Qur’an and Hadith/sunnah, contrary to the vacuous claims or challenges offered by some people. Actually, this guidance is generally referred to as Hijab, a terminology that is not to be found in the Qur’an or Hadith in the context of dress code. However, it is important to note that Hijab, when used as related to dress code, has nothing to do with seclusion of women or depriving them of their full participation in life’s activities. Scarf, by itself, is not Hijab, because it relates to only head-covering. Veil is often used as a synonym of Hijab, while scarf is used also as a word for veil. However, to avoid any confusion, veil should be understood as face-covering, which is not part of the mandated Islamic dress code, even though among some Muslims in some parts of the Muslim world, it is practiced. If by veil, Adonis meant face-covering, then he is right in his assertion that there is no verse in the Qur’an mandating such veil. However, if Adonis’ assertion was not limited to face-covering, as corroborated above, both in the Qur’an and hadith, there is clear guidance about this matter.

Referring to scarf-wearing, Amir Taheri, wrote: “This is not Islam.” In that essay, he equated scarf (headgear) with hijab – a common mistake – and argued: Various legal cases of Muslims,

“… are based on the claim that the controversial headgear is an essential part of the Muslim faith and that attempts at banning it constitute an attack on Islam. That claim is totally false.

The headgear in question has nothing to do with Islam as a religion. It is not sanctioned anywhere in the Koran, the fundamental text of Islam, or the hadith (traditions) attributed to the Prophet.”

What Taheri’s arguments boil down to is this: Wearing scarf/headgear, which he labels as neo-hijab, is a new invention since 1970s in Lebanon and this particular form of hijab has no mandate in Islam. By claiming so, he indirectly acknowledges that there are other forms of hijab (such as abaya, chador,burqa, etc.), but this neo-hijab has no mandate in Islam. This very argument renders his case against so-called neo-hijab utterly irrelevant. Why?

Taheri’s position would have some merit, if France were banning this neo-hijab, which supposedly is not mandated by Islam, but France would have been willing to accommodate or tolerate other forms of hijab, such as abaya, chador, burqa, etc. That is obviously not so. As France is opposed even to scarf, it would be that much more opposed to a full body-covering. By the way, while the controversy is focused on scarf or headgear, no Muslim, man or woman, has insisted that scarf (or headgear of any particular type) is mandated in Islam. Those who are opposing this French ban are opposing French initiative to ban what Muslims regard as Islamic guidance for body-covering, of which head-covering is a part, and they are opposing an unacceptable imposition by the French government on Muslims’ right to practice their faith. The world criticized the coercive Taliban imposition of complete covering of women and mandatory beard for men in Afghanistan. Muslim world also shunned Talibanism as an unacceptable extremism that contravenes Islam. The same principle against such imposition now galvanizes Muslims around the world to oppose Talibanism, the French-style.

Where does then the proposition – hijab is not mandated in Islam and headscarf is neo-hijab that was invented by a Shiite cleric in Lebanon in 1970s – fit in? Well, it is a sheer fabrication that came from a neocon, Amir Taheri, who has also been closely working with the extremist neo-conservative movement, to provide the public relations support to the war of George Bush that conned the American people and the world in claiming that Iraq, loaded with WMD is a threat to the USA, and it must be attacked to declaw Saddam regime, a monstrous regime that was the former bedfellow of USA.

A revelation that was not

Amir Taheri’s article was quickly picked up by the Western media and a number of people with Muslim names and some avowedly non-practicing Muslims emerged as Taheri’s cheerleaders as they started circulating this article containing a great revelation: scarf (headgear) has no place in Islam. It is a new invention from Lebanon by a Shiite cleric in the 1970s. Islamists are duping the simpleton Muslims, especially women, in embracing and upholding something that is not Islamic.

Some self-proclaiming rationalists even challenged Muslims to prove that Amir Taheri’s claim is wrong, as if rationalists (or Objectivists) don’t have to do any of their own due diligence regarding the facts. Blindly, they can throw anything at Muslims, and the burden is on the Muslims to prove or disprove whatever is being thrown at them.

As soon as I read about this revelation of Taheri, I knew it was wrong. But one can’t simply dismiss such a claim merely by a counter-assertion. Therefore, the issue must be dealt with an appropriate level of due diligence.

Last Ramadan, I was invited by a Palestinian Muslim family in a neighboring town. At their home, they shared with us a wedding video of their family and relatives in Palestine. My friend, in early 40s, was introducing to me various people in the video. When he showed his grandmother, something struck my mind. She was wearing scarf – neo-hijab (according to Taheri’s cheerleaders, “new-fangled” hijab). I asked my friend how old his grandmother was.  “In her late 80s,” he responded. I asked how long since, did he think, she has been wearing this kind of scarf? He said that as long as he could remember. I asked whether this was something that his grandmother picked up in the 70s. He chuckled and said that his family pictures including his grandmother’s go back a long time. I mentioned to my friend and his wife that someone has come up with a momentous revelation that this is neo-hijab that was invented in the 70s; they broke out in laughter.

I knew I had found the corroboration against a revelation that was not. But what I found at my friend’s home was merely anecdotal and as an academic, committed to due diligence, I took that merely as a starting point to dig further. Fortunately, I did not have to dig too far.

A. Huda Shaarawi:

Huda Shaarawi was a pioneering Muslim feminist from Egypt and the founder of Egyptian Feminists Union. One of the events related to her life in 1923 remains a milestone in the history of Arab/Muslim women standing up for their rights and dignity, challenging the orthodox religious establishment and the prevailing male-dominant culture. She grew up in a well-known family, where parallel to commitment to women’s education, strict adherence to dress code prevailed. As Muslim girls/women, they were required not just to wear a long outergarment, but also face-covering (niqab). As she grew up and availed the opportunity to educate herself about Islam with an open and independent mind, she discovered as many Muslim men and women do that face-covering was not mandated by Islam. Knowing the fact and convincing herself of it were easy. Unveiling herself was not. It would be a revolutionary step, with potentially serious social consequences in a traditional society.

In 1923 Shaarawi went to attend an international feminist conference in Rome and her picture shows her with friends without any niqab (face covering). [Harem Years, p. 128] While she was quite free in Rome in this regard, due to an entrenched orthodoxy and the domestic culturalmilieu, it was still quite different in Egypt. A milestone was set upon return from the conference, when at the Cairo rail station, she and one of her friends deliberately and publicly took off their veils (face-covering, niqab). [p. 8] The momentous event shook the entire country and its reverberations reached far beyond.

Another “episode in the summer of 1923 is telling: she was sailing to Egypt on the same boat that carried Saad Zaghlul, accompanied by his wife, home from exile. Huda’s veil now simply covered her head; her face was free. Observing this, Saad asked Huda to help his wife arrange her veil the same way.” [Harem Years, pp. 129-130]

Her autobiography includes several pictures of herself, wearing scarf, without any face-covering (niqab). See the one above, Huda wearing scarf at age forty-four. “This is one of the first photographs of an unveiled Egyptian woman to appear in local newspapers.” [p. 121] Once she removed the veil (niqab), her friends also joined in. The picture of Wafd women’s committee meeting in 1925 is quite illustrative. Shaarawi’s step to take off niqab already made its mark on Egyptian women. In that Wafd meeting, as the caption mentions, only four women wore veils (read face-covering), “the rest are Hijabed” (i.e., dressed with a scarf or headgear).

B. Scarf and the Bedouin tradition

Dawn Chatty, a social anthropologist at Oxford University and an expert on Arabian societies, writes about the Bedouin society: “The women, without exception, always wear traditional bedouin dress. This consists of a long dress that sweeps the ground, generally in solid brown, dark blue, or black, and one or two black scarfs.” [p. 402] In a personal communication, I asked her: “Was that practice of wearing scarf – adding to a long or any other dress – been in vogue for long time?” She wrote back: “Bedouin women and men both cover their hair and have been doing so for a very long time.  Certainly documents from the 19th century talk about this and the early photographs of men and women form Bedouin tribes at the end of the 19th and early 20th century show men and women wearing head scarfs.”

C. Women in Morocco

Women in the Muslim World is a book by two prominent American female scholars on the Middle East: Lois Beck, a well known anthropologist at Washington University (St. Louis) and Nikki Keddie, a historian at UCLA. The inside cover of the book has the following picture of a woman wearing a scarf..

The picture is credited to Susan Davis. I contacted her to find out the date of that picture. She wrote: “… the one inside the cover was taken while I was in the Peace Corps in Morocco, between Sept. 1965 and June 1967.” 

Susan Davis presented another photograph of women musicians in rural Morocco. She wrote to me: “The one of the women musicians was probably taken during my dissertation research, 1970-72, but might have been in the earlier period.” A relevant point is that even if it was taken during 1970-72, adoption of an invention in 1970s by a Shia cleric, in the context of the Shia-Sunni theological rift, can’t be expected to spread at a lightening speed to the rest of the Muslim world.

Thus, adding a scarf to one’s dress goes back a long way – much further back than the fabricated revelation of Amir Taheri. If Morrocan women were already wearing scarfs as part of their dress, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the revelation of Amir Taheri claiming that some Musa Sadr of Lebanon invented this neo-hijab in 1970s is utterly preposterous, if not fabrication. How far off is the claim of Amir Taheri?

According to Ruth Roded, a social historian at the Hebrew University of Israel:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, some Muslim women began to copy Western dress, wearing short skirts and form-fitting bodices instead of the earlier loose garments. It was apparently the women of Istanbul who adopted the European dust coat, which covered the ankles and had long sleeves, for outdoor wear. The head was covered by a scarf. This apparel was advocated by a prominent Egyptian feminist in one of the earliest public lectures for Middle Eastern women in 1909. Since that time, some Muslim women have continued to copy the changing Western fashions; in reaction, the cry was raised for a return to more modest dress. The dust coat adopted by some neo-Islamic circles as a return to tradition was a Western-inspired innovationalmost a hundred years ago.” [Roded, p. 137; emphasis is mine]

Thus, it could not be in the 1970s, not in Lebanon and not by any Mulla Sadr who could be credited with this invention(?). Moreover, it was not a men’s invention or imposition. Rather, it evolved in Muslim women’s response to the rampant imitation of west, where less cloth was deemed a symbol of modernity. This change of fashion was not initiated either by men or the traditional, uneducated women. Rather, it evolved through the conscious role of educated and often independent-minded women, who did not mind the West, but did mind its blind imitation.

V. Conclusion

So, why is such preoccupation with Islam and dress of Muslim women? There are many Muslims who have a reductionist tendency. They tend to reduce Islam and women to the issue of hijab. Do we encounter any outrage in the Muslim world against the widespread illiteracy or poverty, where women are more disproportionately affected by these maladies? Do we see animated religious clerics and organizations taking bold stand against, for examples, Saudi ban on women being able to drive alone, whil3 such ban is clearly contradictory to Islamic teachings, or against dowry system in South Asia  (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan) where, contrary to Islam, bride’s family is often demanded of dowry, while it should be the groom who should be offering the same to the bride?

Unfortunately, those in the West or intoxicated with the West also have a reductionist tendency, as ifhijab is the problem or real problem in regards to Muslim societies or communities, especially when it comes to women. The reality is not so. The women who stood up for their hijab against Secular Fundamentalism in Turkey were among the students and faculty at some medical schools, where such schools generally attract and admit top brass of students. Moreover, the female students who stood for their rights to practice hijab were among the top graduates from their institution. These are not timid, subservient, less or poorly educated women. It is no different elsewhere. Huda Shaarawi in Egypt or Begum Rokeya in Bangladesh were among illustrious Muslim women, whose activism in defense of women’s rights, status and dignity were not inhibited by hijab.

In her book Women and the Middle East and North Africa, Judith E. Tucker, a professor of history at Georgetown University, dispels some of the stereotypical and simplistic misconceptions about hijab. Referring to the works of Tucker as well as others, Susan Darraj, a feminist of Arab-Christian background, writes: “… the veil is not a simple, one-dimensional marker of gender oppression. In her book Tucker has written of some of the complexity associated with women’s choice of dress, which cannot always be attributed directly to patriarchal admonitions … Many women in the Middle East today see the issue of the veil as an important locus of discussion; … Many other women see the veil as irrelevant to the central issue of women’s rights; arguing over it serves to distract from the real problems of women’s access to education and health care, and the increasing poverty in which Arab families find themselves.” [Darraj]

Shoddy and misleading works like that of Amir Taheri have no relevance in this regard. Just like Muslim societies need to re-focus on the overall lives of women than reducing it to dress codes, France and other secular societies should also deal with the discriminated and neglected status of Muslims as minorities, rather than imposing such ban that contradicts Islam and the rights of Muslims or any religious community to practice their way of life and in all probability that it would alienate the Muslim community in France and worldwide.


Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie (eds). Women in the Muslim World [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978]

Dawn Chatty, “Changing Sex Roles in Bedouin Society in Syria and Lebanon,” in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie (eds). Women in the Muslim World [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978], pp. 399-415.

Susan Muaddi Darraj, “Understanding the Other Sister: The Case of Arab Feminism,” Monthly Review, Vol. 53, No. 10, March 2002.

Kevin Edgecomb, “Chronological Order of Quranic Surahs.”

Catherine Field, “French headscarf ban set to misfire,” New Zealand Herald, February 3, 2004.

NYT Editorial, “Secular Fundamentalism,” [IHT, December 19, 2003] 

Ruth Roded. Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sa’d to Who’s Who [London: Lynne Rienner, 1994]

Ali Ahmad Said (Adonis), “Pulling a veil over reason itself,” October 15, 2003.

Huda Shaarawi. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879-1924). NY: The Feminist Press, 1987.

Amir Taheri, “This is not Islam,” New York Post, August 15, 2003.