The basics of egalitarian body ethics for men and women


The basics of egalitarian body ethics for men and women

Asma Lamrabet

September 2013


More than ever, the human body seems to be today at the heart of several contemporary ethical questions in both the East and the West, where all cultures are governed by the same body standards. The diktat of appearance has become one of the most important socioeconomic markers of our era and seems to develop into one of the most intricate and controversial topics in our hypermodern societies.

There is no doubt that these socio-cultural standards of appearance are mostly related to women whose “body” has become the main challenge to the image-based representation, carefully handled by the culture of the media, but also and mainly by the industries of cosmetics and esthetics. Modernity is defined today more than ever through the women’s body that has become the battlefield of all the current ideologies. 

The recurring “image” of women, more used in advertising business compared to men, reflects a real “commodification” of the body through sponsored and trivialized images. Despite the legitimate struggles to emancipate and liberate women, their image is unfortunately confined in all societies to the same ideology of eternal youth, beautiful body and the utopian ideal female.

Women’s emancipation has certainly solved some rights-related problems such as their financial independence and autonomy. However, it is worth mentioning that “the liberation of manners”, claimed by many women’s movements, could not dismantle the traditional power of seduction that has been governing humanity for centuries, and that is resisted differently by every context according to its own means. In the hypermodern societies, this power of seduction responds to the same power relations since women are always perceived as the ingrained representation of a dominant and ubiquitous male desire.

Regarding this body relation, Eastern and western societies share the same perception-albeit in different ways- and hence according to the culture of each society, they praise the image of hypersexual bodies, eternally young, exploited and exposed to the “external viewers” of the huge consumption market.

Ironically, this consumption of the body image-based market is more dominant in countries where age-old traditions limit the visibility of women’s body[1]. In parallel to this ideology of body and physical appearance, the most traditionalist and rigid Islamic discourses on women’s dress and physical appearance are given in these societies.

In fact, these discourses generally disseminate a codified image of the body and dress standards that extremely focus on the bodies of women considered as the “guardians of the honor” of Islam and Muslims.

The hyperglobalized culture conveys an ideology of the body worship that manipulates the female body and makes women believe that they are liberated. With the same logic, the Islamic cultural ideologies dominate the female body by imposing, in the name of Islam, some dress codes pretended to be in conformity with “Sharia”, also called “el libāss ashar’i” that can be translated as a “dress in compliance with the Islamic legislation”.

Hence, the majority of contemporary Islamic discourses tend to reduce the Islamic body ethics to an elaborate legal conduct that mainly focuses on women.

In other words, the Islamic debate on the body or dress ethics revolves around one dimension. It is the so-called “Hijab” or the veil that should be worn by Muslim women. Besides, the term “Hijab”, which is totally inappropriate as we will see later, symbolizes “THE” main criterion of the Islamic body deontology in the Muslim collective imaginary. Nowadays, the discussions about Islam and body ethics systematically refer to the so-called Islamic women’s “veil”. Through the ideological brainwashing, the hijab has become the symbol of Islam, identity, resistance to the decadence of good manners supposed to be exclusively associated with the western culture! It is also worth reminding that this idea is completely wrong because all societies witness, to varying degrees, moral and social decadence due to the globalization of the culture of “appearance” and human “triviality”.

But what does the Qur’an really say and what does not it say about the ethics of the body and dress?

Libāss a-ttaqwā or ethics of the inside:

According to the Qur’anic global approach, the ethics of the body and dress called “Libāss” are stated in a Qur’anic verse that seems to be essential in evaluating such ethics. In this verse, Allah says: “O Children of Adam, We have given you clothing to cover your private parts and for beauty, but the clothing of piety is the best. Thus is the guidance of God so that you may take heed.[2](Qur’an 7:26).

This verse addressed to all human beings, men and women, describes three types of “clothing” or Libāss. The first dress is the one that covers the nakedness of human beings, the second one is used as an “adornment”, while the third clothing is described in the Qur’an as “Libāss a-ttaqwa” or “the inside” clothing.

Since hiding nakedness is one of the first moral rules of humanity, the first dress is supposed to “cover” the nakedness of human beings. The Qur’an reminds us of the old fact of hiding nakedness that symbolizes an instinctive discomfort, humiliation and disunion rather than the human well-being.[3]

This nakedness, that means the human “discomfort”, is related in the story of Adam and Eve who were denuded and expelled from paradise because of their disobedience to the Creator. Not only was nakedness physical, but also moral as it revealed their weakness, defects and human imperfection[4].

The second dress is described in the Qur’an as an adornment or “ornaments” referred to in Arabic as “rīshan”. This term was used by Arabs at the Revelation time to symbolize beauty and ornament. Indeed, Ibn Abbass interpreted it as wealth[5].

This verse reveals the Qur’an’s approval to wear beautiful and elegant dress. The Prophet of Islam also said: “Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty[6].

The Qur’an reminds the human beings that these aspects do not stand against the religious and spiritual life, and that austerity and self-denial do not necessarily reflect the religious piety. The beauty mentioned in the Qur’an may be internal and external. Yet, being attracted to profane beautiful objects does not necessarily contradict the fact of being a faithful lover to the Creator. There is a hadith of the Prophet that explains how Allah loves to see His welfare on the dress of His servants[7].

The tradition of the prophet of Islam advocates the elegance of the body and soul. The prophet used to be well-presented in the presence of his visitors, companions or relatives. He used to dress nicely and appropriately as a sign of politeness and respect of others.

Through this ethic of “Libāss”, the Qur’an teaches us that beauty and elegance are gifts from Allah. Yet, “libāss a-ttaqwa” remains the best libāss or dress for Allah when He said: “but the clothing of piety is the best one. It is the guidance of God”.

The Qur’anic expression of “libāss a-ttaqwā” was understood differently by the early classical interpreters. For instance, Ibn Abbass interpreted it as being “the best deed” or “al ‘amal a-ssālih”. Others talked about the “good-looking”, “dignity”, “decency”, “virtues”, “refinement”, “honesty”, “humility” and “respect”[8].

Some of these scholars interpreted “libāss a-ttaqwā” as the dress that is never “worn off” (libāss lā yablā) since it represents the beauty of the heart and soul “jamāl al qalb wa rūh[9]. This is corroborated by a saying of the Prophet that combines all these interpretations: “Allah does not judge you upon your physical appearance or wealth, but rather according to your hearts and deeds”. This hadith reaffirms the Qur’anic recommendation of “libāss a-ttaqwā” as the best dress for the Creator.

It is one of the key concepts in the Qur’anic approach concerning the human beings’ clothing. The dress and its value are not as important as the human’s internal integrity and honesty. Our “inside” is reflected to others regardless of the attractiveness of our external appearance.

Preserving decency by a dress that covers the body nakedness is a basic element in body ethics. Wearing beautiful and precious clothes without arrogance or indecency is a sign of accepting the divine generosity. Yet, the human’s spiritual perfection is achieved in the eye of the Creator through “libāss a-ttaqwā”. Undoubtedly, Allah judges people according to their “inside” dress as it is the best one.

The same verse urges to wear in a decent and beautiful way and behave with respect, dignity and sincerity. It is a Qur’anic call to maintain harmony between body and soul, the inside and the outside. It sums up the main dress ethics of the Qur’an.

Ghad El Bassar… the ethics of respecting others…

After dealing with the general principles of clothing, the Qur’an recommends a set of attitudes for the believing men and women’s behavior.

In this regard, the Qur’an says: “Tell the believing men to lower part of their gaze (yaghudū min absārihim), and protect their private parts (yahfadū furūjahum), That is purer for them. Allah is certainly aware of what they do.” “And tell the believing women to lower part of their gaze (yaghdudna min absārihinna), and protect their private parts (yahfadna furūjahuna)” Qur’an (24:30-31).

These are two verses that seem to be reiterated as they mention the same ethical principles relating to the gaze and illegal sexual acts. The Qur’an reaffirms these injunctions for men and women respectively, separately and equally.

The first order of “ghad Al-bassar” is often interpreted by the majority of scholars as “lowering part of the gaze” as a sign of “decency” between men and women, since it seems to be associated with the second order of “hifd al faraj” or keeping oneself away from illegal sexual relations.

These two Qur’anic orders mentioned in these verses deeply remind us of the importance of the gaze in men and women’s relationships, as they reflect “chastity” and moderation.

These two verses are addressed to men and women who live together and practice the same activities in the public sphere and their community respectively.

In the two verses, the spiritual message tackles the historical and universal body issue and the entire philosophy of pleasure, desire of the other and the body concept. It also deals with the nature and meaning of gender relations and defines the broad lines of an “attitude” expressed by body gestures and the inside of each human being, men and women.

This general “attitude” is expressed first and foremost in the gaze that mostly determines the future of a relationship with the other. The Qur’an urges human beings to “lower part of their gaze” (ghad al bassar) in respect of the other person. “Ghad al bassar” means to be able to keep one’s “distance” out of respect, to see the human nature of the other person and to transcend the superficial and abstract gaze that judges solely the body appearance, beauty or ugliness…

In the framework of the gaze ethics, the second order of “Hifd al faraj” is often translated as “chastity”. It should be understood as a “regulation of sexuality”. In Islam, as in other religious traditions, it does not mean to “depreciate” the body, its sexuality, rigidity or the sexual abstinence of asceticism. Yet, it rather means to be able to balance the human instincts and achieve harmony between the body and soul.

These two Qur’anic principles are correlated and defined by some contemporary Christian theologians who dealt with the question of chastity through the gaze. “… The innocent look stands for reserve and respect of the other (that is not confined to difference). It considers the body as something personal and expressive before being considered as an object of desire … the chastity is freedom or, more particularly, freedom from sexual desire. The difficulty to look innocently at a naked body is certainly a sign of decency, respect of other’s privacy and an attempt to make a difference between desire and liberty. The concept of the eye and heart purity should be rediscovered.”[10]

The spiritual message encourages us to uphold liberty by “being ourselves” through our gaze and attitudes towards others. To look at someone with respect reflects the intention of one’s body and heart and the ability to be free by “resisting” some instinctive physical temptation.

The concepts of decency, modesty and respect of other’s body and privacy are important today, mainly, after the invasion of a culture that “idolizes” the body and the profane pleasures, and disseminates the sexual violence through libertine among the young generation. Many sociologists are currently worried about the revival of various sexual stereotypes and the impact of sexualizing the public space on the way young people think and behave[11].

We should be able to hold to the logic of moderation without falling in excessive austerity that confuses between decency and prudishness, and considers any relationship between men and women as a starting point of an inevitable moral deviation. The spiritual message educates the believing men and women, first and foremost, to “humanize” their relations.

Unfortunately, the classical Islamic speeches disregarded the spiritual message as they are “suspicious” about any relationship between men and women, and confine the gender relation ethics to an outdated concept of an excessive or misplaced “decency” (al hayā’). The latter seems to be an “obligation” limited to women who are accused and “imprisoned” in their physical anxiety.

Yet, the concept of “al hayā’” or decency, in its broad meaning advocating the respect of one’s privacy, is a Qur’anic value that concerns men and women equally. The Prophet said in various hadiths that “al hayā’u mina al īmān” i.e. “decency is part of faith”[12]. The prophet of Islam was known by his decency[13] and encouraged the believing men and women to be “decent” towards their Creator when he said: “Istahyū min Allah haqqa al haya’[14], by respecting the spiritual divine principals.

“Decency” in its Qur’anic meaning is not limited to the inter-human relationships between men and women and does not refer to obedience or erasing one’s personality.

The concept of decency is sometimes corrupted to the point of becoming equivalent to the social hypocrisy and prudery. This distorts the human relations, mainly, between men and women, while it should be based on mutual respect and modesty. It is the “natural” decency that stems from peaceful souls without hiding behind a “fake appearance” considered as a model of piety, while it deeply reveals a physical and psychological frustration.

The original meaning of decency should be restored after it has become an obsolete term. The right to an ethic of decency should be claimed, especially that our natural decency is frequently “attacked” by the universal culture of “voyeurism” and “indecency” considered as part of modernity and liberty-related-values.

Jilbāb, beyond the dress…

The Jilbāb is stated in the following verse: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful”. Qur’an (33:59)

The Jilbāb means in Arabic all what is put on the clothes and protects the entire body. It may refer to an overcoat, cape or ‘Abaya (a long thin coat in the Saudi Arabia tradition).

Concerning the circumstances of this verse, the majority of the classical exegetes unanimously assumed that it was revealed after some women, who prayed with the prophet in the mosque at night, were harassed by some young men in the dark alleys of Medina[15].

Some commentators assert that this verse was revealed to make a difference between free and slave women. This interpretation means that this Jilbāb  should be put on solely by free women to be recognized and protected from any possible harassment at night and be “socially distinguished” from slave women who did not have the right to wear it. Therefore, harassing or offending slave women would not be considered as an immoral act.

This interpretation is inconsistent with the global ethics conveyed by the spiritual message of Islam that seeks the social justice. How can we admit that the Qur’an could prefer some women to others? And how could the Qur’an make such social distinction to the detriment of justice, while it calls for the liberation of female and male slaves?

Some contemporary scholars revised this interpretation and assumed that the verse concerned both free and slave women at the revelation time.[16]

In fact, this verse does not refer to any distinction between free and slave women. It aimed to advise all women at the revelation time to wear that jilbab  in order to be protected from any harassment. This recommendation to wear the jilbab should be put within the context of the revelation time. It cannot, in any way, be generalized or considered as universal since it remains circumstantial and associated with specific events at the time of building the first Muslim community.

Nevertheless, we should keep in mind the main everlasting goal of the Qur’anic verse about protecting the weak minorities at the revelation time, including free and slave women. In this verse, the Qur’an tried to protect women without preventing them from going out at night to the mosques regardless of the dangers that may be encountered.

It is the meaning that should be deduced from this verse instead of interpreting it as a dress “imposed” to an elite of “free” women. The Qur’an urged ALL women, regardless of their social background, to accomplish the Salat in the mosque, even at night. It is worth reminding that the mosque was a sociopolitical meeting place for the emerging community at the revelation time. Therefore, the Qur’an sought to temporally protect women by means of a dress and maintain the presence of women along with men in the mosque.

The most important thing for the Creator is to educate the community equality despite the cultural prejudices targeting women as their presence in the streets of Medina and the Mosque of the Prophet at night was socially refused at that time. Therefore, the Qur’an aimed to highlight the importance of women’s presence along with men regardless of other considerations.

Unfortunately, interpreters of the Qur’an could not, culturally speaking, adopt this divine pedagogy of gender equality. Indeed, this is reflected in their subsequent interpretations and the cultural reality of Muslim societies that impedes this Qur’anic liberation movement by “restoring” the social distinctions and women’s seclusion in the Harems and other seraglios. Unlike the Qur’anic instructions, women were prevented from taking part in the public space for many cultural reasons, and any Fitna or social conflict would be an opportunity to forbid any presence of women in the Muslim sociopolitical sphere in the name of Islam.

Khimar or Hijab ?

The question of Hijab or the veil is currently one of the most controversial issues in both the land of Islam and the West, where it causes collective hysterical paroxysm. The issue of the "veil" is undoubtedly the core of a very intricate subject linked -in a fairly confusing way- to various concepts such as tradition, modernity, freedom, women's body, tragedies of identity and the challenge of living together in multicultural societies.


All the discussions on this topic have the merit of “unveiling" two major contemporary issues. The first one is related to the increasingly important visibility of Muslim women in the West, and hence, the position of Islam in these societies as they undergo a process of identity restruction. The second one is in the lands of Islam where "the veil" issue has revealed the existence of a deep and serious identity crisis driven by an intensive "emotional support"  of the veil as a symbol of the Muslim identity.


But beyond the question of the right to claim the “veil” and its religious legitimacy, we should first go back to the Qur’an to see how the sacred text addresses this issue along with the terminology used in relation with the ethical clothing of women.


At first, it is important to highlight the idea that the term "Hijab", which is frequently used, does not absolutely mean what is supposed to be the scarf that covers the hair of Muslim women. Nowhere in the Qur'an has the term hijab reflected this meaning. And the semantic and conceptual interpretation of the Qur'anic term Hijab shows the opposite of what is supposed to be in reality.



The term "Hijab" in the Qur’an


The term “Hijab” is reiterated seven times in the Qur'an referring each time exactly to the same meaning, unlike other Qur’anic expressions which  can be polysemous.


“Hijab” means curtain, separation, wall and, in other words, anything that hides and conceals. This corresponds to the French term "Voile" that veils, masks and protects something. The equivalent of Hijab in Arabic is "Satr" that means anything that separates as a wall, screen or any virtual separating object.


This meaning of “Hijab” appears in the following Qur’anic verse: “And when you recite the Qur'an, We put between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter a concealed partition” Quran 17;45.

And in another one that says: “And it is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a partition or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills. Indeed, He is Most High and Wise.” Quran 42 ; 51.

But the verse that has been most often used to prove the "obligation" of veiling for women and that mentions the term Hijab[17] is the following: " O you who have believed, do not enter the houses of the Prophet except when you are permitted for a meal… And when you ask [his wives] for something, ask them from behind a partition (Hijab)" Quran 33; 53.


This verse was revealed at the marriage of the Prophet with Zeynab bint Jahch. The prophet on this occasion invited a large number of people for a dinner party held in his house. It is said that after the meal, three men remained to debate late at night in the room with the prophet and his wife . The prophet, known for his courtesy,  could not ask them to leave and was extremely embarrassed by this situation. Hence, this is how this verse was revealed[18]. Other versions provide the same explanation of the causes of this revelation and agree that this verse is meant to educate the believers at that time to respect the privacy of people and leave the host’s house at the appropriate time.


Other commentators point out that the other wives of the Prophet were present at the ceremony, including Aisha, the new bride. And this exasperated the companion of the Prophet Omar Ibn al Khattab known to be strict and conservative. On several occasions, he reiterated the need for the Prophet to set a “Hijab” or curtain between the foreign men, who used to come to the Prophet’s house, and his wives in order to get the respect they deserve[19].


It is clear now that this verse was revealed for educational purposes about respecting the privacy of the prophet because of his specific status as the  messenger of God who, along with his wives, require a special esteem. This event has definitely allowed the wives of the prophet to get  the special status of "Mothers of the Believers" and to be respected and honored by all the members of the community.[20]


As indicated here, the Hijab concerns only the wives of the Prophet and meets a circumstantial requirement in order to respect the private life of the Prophet. Besides, it does not represent, in any way, a particular model of clothing. The essence of this requirement aimed, mainly, to educate Arabs of that time to respect the privacy of people and good manners.


It is worth mentioning here that the hijab was not meant to "shut up" the wives of the Prophet in a secluded area and isolate them from their environment. The wives of the Prophet did not understand it in this way since they could get out and go about their business whenever they like, and it did not prevent Aisha from receiving at her own home, even after the prophet's death, many companions and scholars coming  from distant lands in search of her vast knowledge in the religious sciences.[21]


It is therefore quite clear that the term Hijab does not absolutely refer to the meaning given nowadays as the scarf that should cover the head. Meanwhile, this term is mistranslated into French by the expression “Voile”. The Hijab has nothing to do with any Islamic female dress. It is rather a symbol of separation between public life and private life at the time of the Prophet. It aimed to make of the prophet's wives Mothers of the Believers.



The "Khimar" ... the scarf in the Qur’an ...


There is another verse that mentions a term that stands for  the scarf or the wrap. This verse says: "... And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not to expose their adornment (Zinatahuna) except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers (Khumurihina) over their chests (Juyubihina) and not to expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons” Quran 24;31


It is this verse - and not the other one that speaks about “Hijab” – which states some "aspects" of the dress of the believing women.


The term Khumurihina (plural of Khimar) stated in this verse refers to the scarf or sash that women used to wear  in the Arabian Peninsula and in all the other civilizations at that time.


The Qur'an invites the believing women to fold their scarves (Khimar) over their chests (Juyubihina) to cover the upper part of their busts when they are in public. In fact, the classical commentaries report that the Arab women of Mecca used to uncover their neck and upper chest. for this reason, the Qur’an invited the believing women to fold the sides of the Khimar  over their busts.


The Qur'an also calls the believing women to hide their “appealing” parts, translated as "Zinatuhuna", apart from what is normally visible as indicated in the Qur'an: "what appears of it".


Regarding the phrase "what appears of it". Ibn Abass explained it as being "the face and the hands." This is what the majority of Muslim scholars and exegetes conclude on this verse.  They agreed that the believing women must cover their hair by putting on a Khimar and leave only their faces and hands uncovered in the presence of men who do not have a direct family relationship with them. Indeed, the following part of the verse explicitly introduces the list of men to whom they can uncover their adornments  like their fathers, step fathers, brothers, nephews ect ...


A minority of scholars belonging to the Hanbali School advocates the covering of the whole body including the hands and face. It is the same school  that requires the Niqab or burqu’.


Their argument is not  based on the Qur'an where the Khimar verse is clear and does not give details on the dress. The argument is basically cultural and stems from the traditions of some regions in Saudi Arabia that remained so faithful to their ancestral clothing customs.


We should keep in mind that covering women’s face would abrogate a Qur’anic prescription, namely that of "ghad el Bassar". Therefore, it would be meaningless to recommend respecting this Qur’anic ethic.


There is another evidence that reinforces the idea that Niqab has no origine in the Qur’an; it is a saying of the Prophet that forbids the Niqab during the pilgrimage and in the holy place of Ka’ba. This confirms the cultural origin of this dress known to be a pre-Islamic tradition, and also the fact that unveiling the face is a social obligation in the most sacred place in Islam, strongly contradicts the arguments of the supporters of this dress.



Between Hijab and Khimar: a semantic incidental shift?



Since there is a difference between Hijab and Khimar, we have the right to ask why do we keep using the term Hijab for what has been named in the Qur'an  scarf or Khimar?


This semantic confusion is generalized in all Muslim societies and communities among scholars, academics and laymen.  They all, without exception, erroneously use the term Hijab to mean what is described in the Qur’an as Khimar.


Since this semantic error is currently widespread, reproduced unconsciously and standardized, it has become almost impossible to try to correct it rationally.


It is also surprising to see that none of the academic or religious institutions have tried or thought to correct this error despite the prevailing confusion.


Some may argue that this semantic error is a trivial linguistic error that does not need to be corrected, especially that it is generalized and accepted as an implicit consensus. But, there is an urgent need to draw attention to this problem considering the effects of the sterile debates on the question of the so-called "Hijab" and its religious misuse that generated confusing ideas. This issue can further be resolved if the whole conceptual literature that founded it is deconstructed.


This error is currently made unwillingly and mostly reproduced unconsciously, but it is worth mentioning that this semantic shift was not made innocently or casually throughout the history of the Islamic intellectual production.


The semantic shifts are usually the result of incorrect translations and interpretations and socio-cultural factors, which aimed at one point in history to create  "made-to-measure" concepts  to serve the political interests. And this is what happened with Hijab when it was imposed on Muslim women by  inserting it willingly in the register of Islamic body ethics.


When we go back to the origin of the term Hijab, which means to "hide" or "separate", and notice the changing process that it has undergone to bear  the name "scarf", we have the right to wonder if this concept was given this double meaning to religiously justify the isolation of Muslim women.


The "Hijab" was imposed on Muslim women as a way of "separation" in order to show them their place in society, and  exclude them, in the name of Islam, from the socio-political sphere. Thus, replacing the Khimar with Hijab means to confuse different and opposing semantic and conceptual fields in order to endorse, in the name of Islam, the exclusion of women and from the sociopolitical space behind a curtain!


Indeed, to substitute the Khimar with the Hijab is to confuse two different registers. While Khimar remains, according to the Qur’anic vision, a sign of women’s social visibility , Hijab is undoubtedly syumbolizes their relegation to the private space, privacy and the sphere of Fitna or temptation and Awra or shamelessness and disgrace associated with women and their body...


Therefore, Muslim women are perpetually secluded through these two concepts of Awra and Fitna, as "side effects" of Hijab. It is worth reminding here that these two concepts do not exist with such meaning in the Qur'an.


It would be interesting to look back in history and investigate when the concepts of hijab and Khimar were confused in the Islamic speech and legislation, bearing in mind that this confusion is not found in the writings or social events  at the revelation time and the early period of the Islamic civilization.


Moreover, the deliberate decision of the first Muslim women  to opt for the Khimar according to its Qur’anic meaning, after the revelation of the verse, was a sign of  their liberation. By "wearing" the Qur’anic Khimar, they were claiming, among other things, their freedom from discriminating traditions that had disgraced them legally and socially. So, the verses that particularly concern the Khimar should be reread in line with other verses that grant women the right to economic independence, inheritance, free choice of spouse, and social and political participation.


In fact, The first Muslim women put on the Khimar as part of the Qur’anic message of liberation and a symbol of dignity. This global vision and the holistic approach of the spiritual message of the Qur'an are important and even essential to understand the deep meaning of these verses.


It is not the Khimar -that existed before revelation- which is important, but rather its new meaning and the context in which it was revealed. The Khimar, according to its original meaningof women's liberation and as a symbol of their participation along with men in the socio-political space, was therefore gradually replaced by the other Qur'anic concept of Hijab to prevent women from participating in the social field.


By considering Hijab as sacred and disregarding the Islamic vocabulary of Khimar, a new Islamic social code is invented to endorse the separation of men and women.


The Hijab - and its translation into all the languages - is henceforth considered as a symbol of Islam through the body of women who are "hidden" and marginalized over history in favor of patriarchal structures, undermined at the beginning by the liberating message of the Qur'an.


This is what happened in all religious traditions and civilizations wherein the veil -reduced to its true meaning of "hiding"- was the main tool of the women’s submission to the patriarchal order.


By "veiling" women, they will lose all the rights acquired  at the advent of Islam. And the "veil" or Hijab will remain  the single powerful indicator of the deterioration of women’s legal status in the land of Islam, since they will be secluded and excluded from the public space, from men, from the world and life in the name of this symbol...


Being totally invisible, the woman "veiled" behind a Hijab, imposed by the Man-made-law and not a divine one, becomes paradoxically the only visible image of an Islam in decline.


Finally, the confusion between Khimar and Hijab is politically delicate and serves, above all, the interests of different ideologies including radical Muslims, supporters of the official Islam of states and the modern Islamophobia which joyfully criticizes the "veil" or Hijab considered today as the banner of Islam...





Hence, We have seen how the Qur'an presents the body ethical guidelines for women and men without any descrimination, apart from the two verses that tackle the Khimar and Jilbab. These are also the only two verses that evoke the ethical clothing without going into details that are given today a careful attention in the books addressing "practicing Muslim women"!


Unfortunately, the whole Qur'anic ethics seem today to be reduced to women’s dress and body, to the way they should be covered, the color, thickness and uniformity of the dress ect ... However, given that the Qur’an did not insist on a specific clothing or appearance for women, it would be very simplistic to analyze the few verses on the dress far from the guidance of the spiritual message about the global body ethics for both men and women.


The Qur'an invites both the believing men and women to behave with "decency" and "integrity", both physically and morally. This general and subtle expression on  the "external appearances" reveals the flexibility of the spiritual message for women at any time to enable them to keep balance between their spiritual beliefs and social context.


The Qur'an does not legislate a strictly religious "uniform" as it is shown here, and the first spiritual message did not intend to stipulate rigid or "fixed" dress standards  once and for all, but rather to "recommend" an "attitude" or an"ethic"  regarding the body and soul.


But it is really unfortunate that the first intention of the spiritual message of Islam is often neglected or completely ignored at the expense of a literal reading which keeps  no more than "the obligation of wearing the Hijab” out of all the Qur'anic teachings about women! This contradicts the principles of the spiritual message and its spiritual ethics.


The question of Khimar or scarf is not part of the pillars of Islam, but rather of moral values, behavior and relational ethics. It may be categorized in the field of "mu’amalat"  or the social field or actions, not  in the  field of "’ibadat" or dogma.


The religious faith is meaningful only when it is practiced without pressure. Therefore, speaking about the obligation of Islam to wear a headscarf or Khimar is spiritually unacceptable because the Qur'an said : "No compulsion in religion." It is one of the main principles of Islam.


Reducing the whole global Qur'anic body ethics to the so-called "veil" is to  stand against the same message. And this is exactly what happened in the Islamic history by focusing on woman’s dress,  and the obligation to "hide "and" conceal "her body. As a result, this spiritual symbol has become a sign of oppression in the Muslim world.


It is therefore clear that the verses aim to encourage men and women to be free from and overcome materialism and codes of seduction of each era, which is a reflection of the dominant ideologies recurring throughout the history of the human civilization.


The Qur'anic injunction calls upon men and women to  behave with decency and respect as indicated in this key verse: “… But the clothing of righteousness  (libass a-Taquwa) – is the best. That is from the signs of Allah that perhaps they will remember.” ... Besides, this verse solely highlights a concept that should be taken into account today in the choes of ultraliberal consumption and exuberance, worshiping appearances and arrogance in the name of Islam: libass at-Taqwa, clothing of the inside ... It is the ethics of the inside, moral integrity and decency which is the best in the eye of the Creator ... It is one of the most important signs of God that should be considered by Muslim men and women, while the rest in no more than fleeting appearances... what  remains is the inside ... libass at-Taqwa ... The best clothing ..





[1] The consumption of cosmetics and perfumes per inhabitant in the Persian gulf countries is one of the highest in the world, in “Rapports économiques Emirates arabes/2008” by the Business network Switzerland;

[3] André Guindon, « L’habillé et le nu », for a an ethic of wearing and denuding, text prepared and presented by Rosaire and Réjean Robidoux, Ottawa, publishing house of Ottawa University/ Cerf, 1998.

[4] Qur’an (7 :22 ;20 :121).

[5] Tafssir Ibn Kathir.

[6] Sahih Hadith, reported by Muslim.

[7] Sahih Hadith, reported by Attirmidhi.

[8] Tafssir Ibn Kathir.

[9] Idem.

[10] Xavier Lacroix, « Le corps de chair » p88, in « La chasteté, une vertu pour tous » :

[11] In « La mode hypersexualisée, une mode controversée » ; Mariette Julien, Sisyphe Editions, January 2010 ; the author is worried about transforming the girls to objects of desire, while they did not even have the means to be it.

[12] Reported by Al-Bukhari under number 23.

[13] Idem, number 3298.

[14] Hadith transferred by Ibn Massoud and reported by Imam Ahmed.

[15] Tafssir Al-Kashaf of Imam Azzamakhshari.

[16] Commentary: “al wassit fi tafssir al Qur’an al karim”, Attantawi.

[17] Verses in which we find the word Hijab: 7 ; 46, 17 ;45, 19 ;17, 38 ;32, 41 ;5, 42 ; 51 et 33 ;53

[18] See Tafsir Ibn Kathir and al Qortobi about this verse.

[19] Tafssir al Qortobi.

[20] Atahrir wa Atanwir , Ibn Achour, tafssir of the verse.

[21] For more details, see our article: « Aisha, épouse du prophète où l’islam au féminin », Tawhid Editions.



À propos de l'auteur


Native de Rabat (Maroc), Asma Lamrabet, exerce actuellement en tant que médecin biologiste à l’Hôpital Avicennes de Rabat. Elle a exercé durant plusieurs années (de 1995 à 2003) comme médecin bénévole dans des hôpitaux publics d'Espagne et d’Amérique latine, notamment à Santiago du Chili et à Mexico.

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