Burqa and Niqab



I became intrigued about the history of when women started wearing the burqa or niqab, and why does it bother people so much that women wear it? Did the Prophet Mohammad(saw) wives wear it straight away when they married him?

If the woman’s husband didn’t want her to wear the niqab or burqa, would she just need to obey and wear the head-scarf? We get brought up to be comfortable with what we wear. So is there any specific way we wear our clothes nicely? Like the top, it can be loose or tight? And to wear the skirts that are long.

May Allah bless you and shukriya for your time to read this message.


`Alaykum Salam and thank you so much for your question. It is surprising to many people that there is no requirement (or encouragement) in Islamic law to wear the niqab or burka. There are a few verses in the Holy Qur’an that are most important in the discussion of modesty and clothing requirements. I will discuss three of the verses below, and also try and answer some of your questions inshallah.

First Verse: “Tell believing men to restrain their glances and guard their private parts. This is more pure for them. Indeed God is informed of whatever they contrive. And tell believing women to restrain their glances and guard their private parts, and not to expose their charm (zinat) except what is apparent of it, and to draw their shawls (khumur) over their bosoms (juyub), and not to expose their charm (zinat) except (in the presence of) 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 their women, or those under their lawful trust, or the male attendants not having any (sexual) desire, or children not yet conscious of women’s sexuality; nor let them strike their feet so as to make known what they hide of their charm (zinat). And turn to God together, you believers, that you may succeed” (24:30-31).

In this verse, the important words are juyub, khumur, and zinat. Authoritative Arabic dictionaries like Lisan al-‘Arab tell us that khimar (singular of khumur) is a piece of cloth worn on the head by men or women such as a turban. Jayb (singular of juyub) is the chest, or the area where the neck and chest meet, or the top of a woman’s cleavage. Women in pre-Islamic Arabia traditionally let the khimar hang down their back and kept their head and chest bare, which is why many scholars say the Qur’an particularly stresses covering the chest with the khimar. The word zinat is often used in the Qur’an to mean the gifts of God that are tempting to humans (2:212, 3:14, 18:46, 7:32), in this case sexual charms. In this verse, women are asked to dress and act modestly, in the context of the prevailing custom. The verse also asks believing men to lower their gazes. Had the women’s faces been fully covered, the command to men to lower their gaze would have made no sense.

The phrase “except what is apparent of it” was understood in several ways. Ibn Abbas (ra) understood it as the hand, the ring, and the face, Abdullah Ibn Omar Ibn Al-Khattab (ra) as “the face and hands”, and Anas Ibn Malik (ra) as the hand and the ring. Some scholars said that a woman can show only her face, some said she can show her face and hands, some said the face, hands and feet, and some that the lower part of the arm may also be shown. An early scholar, al-Qiffal, interpreted this phrase as meaning ‘that which a human being may show in accordance with prevailing custom,’ so that what a woman may show of her body in public changes according to the custom of the land she is living in (that is, she dresses modestly in the context of the place she is living in).

For example, wearing a hijab in Egypt or a dupatta in Pakistan is a sign of modesty, and fits the clothing style of each country. In Europe or America, wearing a loose long shirt or tunic and loose pants or long skirt is a sign of modesty and fits the clothing style of the area. The best thing is to dress modestly in a way that blends in with the style of the place where you live, that looks clean and neat and attractive and pleasant, and that does not attract too much attention.

Second Verse: “O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments (jalabib); this will be more proper, that they may be recognized, and thus they will not be given trouble; and God is Forgiving, Merciful.”(33:59)

The second verse asks women to lower their jilbab (singular of jalabib) or to draw it closer to their bodies. The word jilbab means a stitched garment, and not a veil. Most scholars interpreted this verse to mean that women should cover the entire body except the face, hands and feet. Some said that the verse only asks women to cover the legs or chest. This verse was revealed to protect against a group of young ruffians in Medina who harassed women at night.

Third Verse: “O you who believe! Do not enter the houses of the Prophet unless permission is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation– but when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken the food, disperse. Linger not for conversation; surely this gives the Prophet trouble, and he is shy of (asking) you (to go), but God is not shy of (telling you) the truth. And when you ask of them (the Prophet’s wives) anything, ask of them from behind a curtain; this is purer for your hearts and (for) their hearts; and it does not behoove you that you should give trouble to the Messenger of God, nor that you should marry his wives after him ever; surely this is grievous in the sight of God.” (33:53)

In the third verse, the word that is used for curtain is hijab. The verse was revealed to the Prophet (saws) on the evening of his marriage to Bibi Zainab (ra), when several guests stayed on too long and didn’t let the Prophet (saws) be alone with his new wife. After the Prophet (saws) tried to hint to them to leave, this verse was revealed, and the Prophet drew a curtain between himself (and his wife) and the guests. While this verse deals primarily with issues of politeness and privacy, most scholars deduced that this verse made it obligatory for the wives of the Prophet (saws) to cover their faces. They also agreed, however, that this does not make it obligatory on all women.  Earlier in the same chapter, it is stated that the wives of the Prophet (saws) are not similar to other women. They belong to a special category and accordingly, in many cases, different rules apply to them.

O Wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women (33:32)

As we can see, the Qur’an does not command women to cover their faces. The law does not wish to create hardship where there is no need for hardship, and covering the face is a hardship. A hadith in Sahih Bukhari, narrated by Bibi Ayesha (ra), reports the Prophet (saws) as saying:

Why do people impose conditions which are not in Allah’s book? Whoever imposes conditions that are not in Allah’s Laws, then that condition is invalid even if he imposes one hundred such conditions, for Allah’s conditions (as stated in the Qur’an) are truth and more valid.

To come back to your second question, in the case of a husband not wishing a wife to wear the niqab: because the niqab is not a requirement or even considered favorable for a Muslim woman, the husband is not asking the wife to do anything un-Islamic. Therefore, in this particular case, it is better for marital happiness to wear a head-scarf instead.

In the end, we should all remember that it is not the clothes we wear that make us a good Muslim. As we read in the Holy Qur’an:

“Children of Adam! We have sent you clothing to cover your nakedness, and for beauty, but the garment of God-consciousness (taqwa) is best. This is among the signs of God, that they may be mindful”(7:26).

And Allah knows best.

Dr. Homayra

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