Islam requires the believers, both men and women, to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. First the Qur’an requires the men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and then it requires the women to discharge these obligations. However for women, the fulfillment of certain additional responsibilities in the matter of dress and make-up have been prescribed. Let us discuss the obligations of men and women in the light of the verses of the Holy Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet as under:

Obligations of men to guard modesty

Verse 30 of Surah 24 of the Qur’an says: “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is Aware of what they do.” Thus verse 30 of chapter 24 of the Qur’an makes it obligatory on men to keep modesty. The following rules emanate from this verse as held by the scholars and the jurists.

a)     The men should lower their gaze. They should cast down their looks. In other words it means that they should restrain their gaze and avoid looking at women intentionally or purposely. The men have been thus commanded to avoid gazing or looking at the women or at the “satar” (shame) of others or at indecent scenes.

            There are so many Traditions reported in Hadith literature, according to which the Prophet (peace be upon him) strictly forbade his followers to cast their gazes at the women intentionally and unnecessarily. According to one Hadith, the Holy Prophet told Hadrat Ali: “Do not cast a second look after the first look. The first look (look by chance) is pardonable but not the second one (which is generally intentional).” In another Tradition quoted in Abu Daud, it is related that Hadrat Muhammad (peace be upon him) turned the face of his young cousin Fazal-bin-Abbas to the other side, on one occasion, when the latter was fixing his gaze at a woman. The Prophet of Islam once declared: “Evil look at the other woman is the adultery of the eyes…..” (Bukhari, Muslim). However, when it is really necessary to look at a woman, the same is permitted. The Prophet permitted to see a woman when one wants to marry her. Jurists have held that a physician can look at his female patient, a judge can look at a woman witness and in similar occasions, when it is very essential, a man can look at a woman.  

b)     They should observe modesty or they should be modest. According to the literal translation of the relevant Arabic words, the men should guard their private parts. Guarding the private parts means: firstly that they should not indulge in unlawful sex activities like fornication, adultery etc., and secondly that they should abstain from exposing their private parts (satar) before others. In other words, the men should keep chaste and avoid exposing their Satar.

            According to a Tradition, the Prophet (Allah’s peace be upon him) prohibited the believers to expose their satar except before their wives.   (Abu Daud)

            For males, the satar is the part of man’s body from the navel to the knee and this part of the body is not to be exposed intentionally before any body. Thigh is included in satar and on some occasion the Prophet of Islam declared: “Do not expose your thighs”.   (Abu Daud).

Obligations of women to guard modesty

1-Verse 31 of Surah 24 of the Qur’an says: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts, and not to display their adornment except what normally appears thereof, and draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male servants, who lack vigour, or children who have no knowledge of women’s shame. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide regarding their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance together, O believers, so that you may attain success.” From this verse, following rules are derived: -

a)     The believing women should lower their gaze and should not intentionally gaze at men or at the satar of others or at the indecent scenes.

            According to the traditions of the Prophet of Islam, the commandments             regarding restraining of gaze in case of women are rather less strict as compared to those regarding restraining of gaze by men. It is reported that a deputation of some negroes came to Al-Madinah in 7 A.H. and they gave a performance of physical skill in the courtyard of the mosque of the Prophet             and the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself showed that performance to his wife Hadrat Ayesha. Similarly according to another Tradition, the Holy         Prophet instructed a divorcee Fatimah-b-Qais to observe her Iddah in the       house of a blind man.  

b)     They should be modest, protect their chastity and guard their private parts. Guarding of private parts means abstaining from indulging in illicit sex gratification and also to avoid exposing their private parts or satar. Satar of a woman is the entire body except her face and hands.

            Hadrat Ayesha reports a Tradition that her sister Asma once came in thin clothes and the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s peace be upon him) turned his face away from her and remarked: “O, Asma when a girl attains maturity, she is not permitted to expose any part of her body except face and hand.”

c)     The women should not display their adornment except that which is displayed of itself. Adornment means ornamentation and decoration and, to use the modern terminology, make-up. The women have been prohibited to display their make-up except that which is apparent and which is beyond their control to hide. It means that they cannot intentionally display their adornment except that which becomes exposed without any intention or purpose on their part.

            The words “what is apparent”or“which is displayed of itself” have always generated a lot of controversy and difference of opinion among the Muslim scholars and jurists. Even the Companions of the Prophet of Islam had different views about the interpretation of this expression. ‘What is apparent’ or ‘which is displayed of itself’, according to Abdullah-b-Abbas, means all those parts of the body which normally remain exposed like hands and face. So, in his view, the hands and face can be kept exposed and need not be covered. On the other hand Hadrat Abdullah-b-Masud and his followers hold that hands and face and the adornment of these parts cannot be exposed. The view of Ibn Abbas has been accepted by the Hanafi jurists and their followers and according to them the woman can keep uncovered their hands and face along with adornments of these parts of the body.

d)     The women should draw their veils on their bosoms. It means the women should cover their bosom properly with a wrapper and should not keep exposed any part thereof.

e)     The women should not reveal their adornment except before the following:

I. Their husbands. II. Their fathers. It includes grandfathers and great grandfathers on paternal and maternal side. III. Their husband’s fathers: It         includes grandfathers and great grandfathers on maternal and paternal side       of their husbands. IV. Their sons. It includes their grandsons through their           sons as well as daughters. V. Their husband’s sons, including grand sons. VI.             Their brothers. VII. Their brother’s sons, including grandsons. VIII. Their             sister’s sons, including grandsons. IX. Their female associates: Such women     who are familiar or who are known or who are friends etc.  X. Their slaves.        XI. Male servants who lack sexual vigour and are not interested in sex matters. XII. Children who have no knowledge of sex. 

f)      The women should not stamp their feet on the ground so as to reveal their hidden adornment. Thus the sound of ornaments should not be audible.

2-         Verse 59 of Chapter 33 of the Qur’an says: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and       your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks over      their persons (when they come out of their homes). That will be better, so that they may be recognized (as noble women) and then they may not be annoyed. And Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful”. Thus the Qur’an in this verse commands the women to draw their cloaks close round them when they go abroad. The purpose of this injunction has been disclosed in the latter part of this verse in the words: “…so that they may be recognized (as decent and noble ladies) and not annoyed (being taken as women of ill repute).”

            The Arabic word ‘Jalabeeb’ is the plural of ‘Jalbab’ which means cloak or gown or outer garment. A lot of heat has been generated about the    interpretation of this verse. The Orthodox opinion is that the word ‘Jalbab’ means veil and it should cover the face also. But the liberal commentators interpret it to mean that the women should wrap up their gowns or outer garments covering their heads, necks and bosoms but not faces and hands.

3-         Verse 60 of the chapter 24 of the Holy Qur’an says: “As for the women past      the age of child-bearing who have no hope of getting married, it is no sin for         them if they lay aside their outer garments in such a way as not to show   their adornment. But to refrain from it is better for them. And Allah is Hearer, Knower.”

            Thus the above verse of the Holy Qur’an relaxes the conditions regarding purdah in respect of the old women who are past the prospect of marriage and no longer capable of exciting the passions of men. According to the verse, it is no sin for them if they discard their outer clothing in such a way as not to display or exhibit their adornment or make-up. However this permission cannot be used by those women who still have sexual desires or who want to attract others by displaying their embellishments. 

Criticism against Hijab

            It is clear from the discussion made above that the Qur’an obliges both the Muslim men and the Muslim women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, particularly when they come in presence of each other. It is also clear that the women are required to fulfill certain additional responsibilities in matters of dress and adornment or make-up. They are instructed to cover their bodies and bosoms properly and not to disclose their make up except to their husbands, near relatives, children and servants. Verse 59 of Surah 33 especially directs the women to cast their cloaks or gowns over them when they come out of their homes. This casting of cloaks over them is called Hijab or scarf which has unfortunately been subjected to very hostile criticism by the western people.

            According to them, Islam shuts the women within four walls of the house like prisoners and thus keeps one half of human beings backward. This view is highly misconceived and misleading. Islam in no way debars the women from playing their useful role in socio-economic development of the Muslim community. In the days of the Prophet of Islam, the women participated in public worship like prayer and Hajj; they were permitted to participate in Jihad; they attended the classes held by the Prophet in the mosque for imparting religious instructions and Qur’anic teachings, and above all they were allowed to come out of their homes to earn livelihood and engage in business or profession. So Islam does not treat a woman like a prisoner and does not want to keep her within the four walls of the house. She can come out of her house for getting education, for participation in Eid or Jumuah prayers, for earning livelihood for the family, for participation in other socio-political activities, etc. after decently observing her obligations regarding dress.

            Recently some western countries have either put some restrictions on scarf of Muslim women or have totally banned it. This has been done inspite of the fact that these countries claim to be secular democratic states and are champions of the human rights. Religious freedom is one of the fundamental human rights, but it is unfortunate that they are not going to honour it in respect of Muslim woman’s freedom to observe her religious obligations.


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