Islam is once again in the news and once again for reasons that are not positive. And every time Islam is in the news the question of Islamic practices are put in the spotlight. One practice that is almost always a topic is the hijab worn by Muslim women. Although there is no clear command for wearing hijab or punishing for not wearing one in Islamic theology, unlike in Christian doctrine:
For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.- 1 Corinthians 11:6
Muslim women and the hijab are almost synonymous. But this begs the question: what does the Qur’an say about the hijab? Surprisingly, not what many Muslims and non-Muslims may think. The word “hijab” is not used in the Qur’an as an article of clothing, but as a spiritual tool. With a few examples from The Qur’an I hope to convey this idea of a “spiritual hijab”.
And when you recite the Qur’an, We put between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter a concealed partition(hijab). Surah Isra: 17
In this first example we see Allah saying that when a Muslim recites The Qur’an there “We” put a partition(hijab is used in Arabic) between Muslims and non-Muslims. Clearly this does not mean a physical barrier, but a spiritual barrier. What separates the Muslim is the heart not necessarily what is outwardly seen.
And mention, [O Muhammad], in the Book [the story of] Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place toward the east.
And she took, in seclusion from them, a screen(hijab). Then We sent to her Our Angel, and he represented himself to her as a well-proportioned man. Surah Maryam: 17-18
This example from Surah Maryam begins with Maryam(mother of Jesus) withdrawing from her family. Then The Qur’an goes on to describe her seclusion as a screen. In Arabic this screen is called a hijab. This spiritual hijab is actually spiritual seclusion.
And they say, “Our hearts are within coverings from that to which you invite us, and in our ears is deafness, and between us and you is a partition(hijab), so work; indeed, we are working.” Surah Fussilat: 5
To put the last example in context, it describes what was said by those who did not accept Islam as a religion. They confess that there is something that divides them and the Muslims. Whatever it is that is dividing them is called a hijab in The Qur’an.
But, when did the word “hijab” begin to be used to describe something physical? When did the hijab cease to be a spiritual term and morph into an article of clothing? Certainly, one can attribute this to Muslims’ obsession with rules. Even more so the patriarchy that is within certain Muslim communities.
By no means am I saying the hijab as a physical article of clothing is useless. It is part of Muslim women’s identity and many Muslim women enjoy the freedom the hijab gives them. At the same time it is important for us as Muslims to understand the deeper meaning of the hijab. Hijab is a tool the both men and women can use in order to cope with everyday life.
Sometimes we need to put a hijab between ourselves and the physical world and really hone in our spirituality. Like Maryam, we may need to put physical distance between ourselves and the world. And at times when we do not understand something, maybe it is our heart that does not understand. Maybe it is our hearts that stops us from connecting to a person or understanding a situation.
The Qur’an tells us the exact purpose of hijab in Surah Nas. We are to seek refuge from the one that whispers evil into the heart of men. And the perfect defence is to cover – the hijab. But we must also be aware when we should lift the hijab from our hearts to better understand.
Either way, the hijab is something we need.