FATWA: On Hijab (The Hair-covering of Women) UPDATED



In the name of God, the Most Gracious and Most Merciful


Al-salāmu ʿalaykum. Recently, I have received numerous inquiries from Muslim women regarding the wearing of the headscarf, commonly known as the hijab. Feeling the rise of hostility and animosity towards Muslims in the West, a number of women have inquired whether NOT covering their hair is permissible in Shariʿah. A number of these women expressed concern about their own personal safety and/or expressed the desire to relieve public anxiety about the foreignness or alienness of Muslims. Moreover, these queries typically explain that the wearing of a headscarf has become a contributing factor to some form of crisis, spiritual or other. In the past, I have responded to such queries individually as they arise. In addition, more than six months ago I did issue a fatwa regarding the wearing of the hijab (see below). However, after the election of Donald Trump and the clear rise of Islamophobic hostility to Muslims, I have decided to address this matter publicly and more extensively, praying to God for guidance and to forgive my errors in all cases.


In my view, it is an error for a Muslim woman to continue wearing the headscarf, or the hijab if doing so brings such a person undue attention, or puts her at risk of harm of any sort, or even stands as an obstacle to her ability to testify on behalf of God and to educate non-Muslims as to the truth of the Islamic message. When it comes to matters of ādāb, or applied/practical ethics, the practices and habits of people are often decisive in defining what is good and desirable, and differentiating it from what is not good and not desirable. This is most often what defines al-maʿrūf as opposed to al-munkar. Maʿrūf, by its own terms, is something that people have come to recognize as good through their pragmatic and practical experiences, while munkar is something that has become socially recognized as unacceptable and undesirable through pragmatic and practical experiences. Like all questions of practical ethics, there is often a debate as to the relevant empirical basis for claiming something to be socially desirable or undesirable. So, for instance, is it the practices of Muslims in a specific region, nation, or some other recognizable social unit that is relevant; or is it the practice of humanity at large; or is it the practices of Muslims and non-Muslims in a particular region or nation? What are the proper boundaries and limits to be drawn?


The Qurʾan addresses women's dress and modesty primarily on two different occasions: 1) In the first of these occasions, the Qurʾan states: "And say to believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments (zīnah) except what [must ordinarily] appear thereof; that they should draw their veils (khumur) over their bosoms (juyūb) and not display their beauty (zīnah) except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male servants who have no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the ‘awrāt of women. And they should not stomp with their legs lest they reveal what they hide of their ornaments (zīnatihinna)" (Q. 24:31)


2) In the second of these occasions, the Qurʾan states: "O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women believers to lower over them their garments (jalābīb). That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused/harmed." (Q. 33:59)


As to the first verse, the question is what is khimār/pl. khumur, and what did the khimār intend to cover? Many scholars have argued that khimār by definition is a piece of cloth that covers a woman's entire body and is drawn upon the face, so in effect, enclosing a woman's entire body in a veil. Many others have argued that a khimār is a piece of cloth that covers the hair and the entire body except for the face. However, in my view, and God knows best, both schools of thought—that which contends that the khimār covers the face, and that which contends that the khimār covers the hair but not the face—are ahistorical in presuming the existence of an historical practice that has not been proven. The evidence that the khimār in pre-Islamic Hijaz covered the face or covered the hair is simply not there. The only thing that the verse allows us to say conclusively is that Muslim women were called upon to draw a piece of cloth (khimār) over the juyūb (bosoms)—whether it covered the hair or the face, we don't know. In other words, the Qurʾan in this verse calls upon women to cover their bosoms. Anything beyond that would require extensive research into the social practices of khimār dressing at the time of revelation, and the historical evidence is far more diverse and complex than many contemporary scholars assume it to be.


The issue of the khimār is closely related to the issue of zīnah. The first Qurʾanic verse starts out with an instruction that Muslim women not reveal their zīnah and then proceeds to say that the khimār must be struck over the bosom. The critical issue in this verse is what is considered to be contrary to the practice of lowering the gaze, being modest, and not revealing zīnah. Put differently, the Qurʾan starts out by setting out a paradigm of modesty with the instruction to lower the gaze and then specifies that modesty entails not displaying zīnah except before people of acceptable relationships, such as a husband, father, or son, before proceeding to assert that the khimār should come over the bosom.


The reference to stomping with the feet or legs most likely refers to a specific historical context. There is a report that at the time of revelation, women of disrepute would wear ankle bracelets that would make noise as they walked. Apparently, this was used as a form of advertising their services. Whether this report is historical or not, the reference to leg-stomping and not revealing ornaments teaches modesty and not bringing unwanted attention to oneself.


Most contemporary scholars DO NOT differentiate between the issue of ʿawrah (parts of the body that are to be covered) and zīnah. In other words, they assume that zīnah is equal to or the same as displaying private parts and that revealing the ʿawrah is identical to zīnah. The word ʿawrah is mentioned in the Qur’an in two relevant contexts: 24:31 and 24:58—both times it connotes something private and personal. In the hadith literature, the term ʿawrah refers to something that is personal and should be secluded or hidden. There is a hadith that describes women, in general, as ʿawrah; the authenticity, connotation, and context of this hadith would require a lengthy discussion. In fiqh literature, ʿawrah refers to private parts that should be covered and not revealed. As I mentioned, contemporary scholars have grown accustomed to not differentiating between ʿawrah  and zīnah. In other words, they read the Qur’anic reference to zīnah as a reference to the ʿawrah of women before foreign men. This eliding of zīnah and ʿawrah is unjustified. Zīnah is what a person adorns himself/herself with or what a person displays in order to be noticed and attract attention. In my view, it is very clear that what is considered to be zīnah, or the ornaments, is a question of applied ethics—i.e. it differs from one place to another and from one time to another. What is considered to be immodest ornamental displays of beautification in a part of Africa could be entirely different than the same in Mongolia. In essence, the Qurʾan is counseling against the immodest flouting of physical appearance. There is no evidence that displaying of the hair is by definition a part of a woman’s zīnah. Depending on the place and context, a woman could be modest while not covering her hair, and the opposite is also true. A woman can cover her hair but still be immodest by displaying her zīnah. In many ways, in my view, it is clear that the Qurʾan is repeating and reaffirming a long established biblical command to lower the gaze, be modest, and avoid displays of flashiness and vain conceit. 


As to the second verse, the terminology in Arabic is to lower one’s jilbāb (outer garment) so as to cover the lower part of the body or the body. A jilbāb is any outer garment worn by men or women that covers unspecified parts of the body. (The translator M.A.S. Abdel Haleem correctly points out that the expression utilized by the Qur’an means to make the garments “hang low,” not “wrap around” as other translators have assumed.) The context of this verse indicates that the purpose of the Qur’anic revelation is to address a specific social problem at the time of revelation. This is made clear with the verse that follows the one cited above. Verse 33:60 threatens the men causing the problem (i.e. the harassers or molesters) by saying that if the hypocrites, perverts, and rumor mongers in Medina do not desist from causing harm, they might be expelled from the city all together. Various sources report that at the time of the Prophet, scoundrels would hang out in the streets, and harass or molest slave girls. If a woman would turn out to be free, these men would leave her alone. Some classical scholars claimed that the purpose of the revelation was to distinguish between free women and slave girls by instructing free women to cover with their jilbāb because slave girls did not wear a jilbāb. Other sources report that the purpose was precisely the opposite: Muslim women would cover with the jilbāb so that scoundrels could not tell the difference between a slave and a free woman, and so they would be unable to harass either. It is clear by the very language of the verse the purpose of this injunction is to protect women from harm, and in my view, it is also clear that the narrative sought to support equity between classes and the equal treatment of women of divergent social status.


It bears emphasis that if one takes both Qurʾanic revelations, what seems clear to me is that the Qurʾan is placing great emphasis on modesty and humility. The narratives on khimār and jilbāb do not necessarily generate the kind of uniform and determinative headgear and attire known as the hijab in our contemporary age.


Much of what is considered the ʿawrah of women comes from the hadith tradition. There is a report attributed to the Prophet (pbuh) in which the Prophet reportedly instructs Asmāʾ that once a woman reaches puberty, the only body parts that may be shown are the hands and face. This tradition, however, has been the subject of considerable debate and at a minimum, its isnād (chain of transmission) is problematic. Another report attributed to ʿĀʾisha states that when the hijab was decreed in the last year of Prophet’s life, women promptly covered their heads so that they looked like “black crows.” However, there are a number of problems with the authenticity of this hadith. As many scholars have pointed out, this hadith narrative raises a number of contextual and historical issues. 

The problems we find with the hadith literature on this topic are mirrored by the range of juristic opinions on the issue of ʿawrah. After extensive discourses on the Qurʾan and hadith reports, the clear majority of jurists conclude that the ʿawrah of a free woman is all her body except the face and hands. A minority of jurists conclude that all of a free woman's body—including her face and voice—is ʿawrah. Importantly, a clear majority of jurists also conclude that the ʿawrah of a slave girl is from her navel to her knee. For classical jurists, the issue was the social status of women. Free women were expected to cover their bodies; slave girls/women were not expected to cover their bodies except for the area between the knee and the navel. Very often when it came to working women, such as women in the bazaar, jurists would allow the women not to cover their hair or would contend that women who had to make a living should dress in a fashion that would not encumber their livelihood.


One can conclude that the critical issue for the classical jurists was not fitnah or sexual seduction, but rather the social status that various forms of dress would signify. If by definition the arms and hair of women were considered ʿawrah, then it would make no difference whether a woman was of slave or free status. The fact that the vast majority of classical jurists set different expectations depending on the social position of women underscores the fact that customary law and social habits played a critical role in this field.


In my opinion, since there are no reliably dispositive hadith traditions and the classical juristic discourse is hinged on the social status of women, it forces us to focus on and give weight to the Qurʾanic discourse above all else. As discussed above, the Qurʾanic discourse emphasizes modesty, lowering the gaze, and not flaunting one’s zīnah. Moreover, the Qurʾan emphasizes that women must be protected from harassment or molestation. In my opinion, taking all these factors into account underscores and emphasizes the role of social habits and customs in this field.


As I mentioned above, the historical practice of the early generation of Muslims is far more nuanced and diverse than what many contemporary writers presume it to be. For instance, we do have reports of women in the Hijaz shortly after the death of Prophet (pbuh) not covering their hair in public. The great descendant of the Prophet, Sakinah bint al-Ḥusayn bin ‘Alī (also known as Fāṭimah al-Kubrā) is reported to have invented a hairdo or style known as al-ṭurrah al-Sukayniyyah (Sukaynah-style curls) that she wore in public. She refused to cover her hair and is reported to have been imitated by the noble women of the Hijaz.


I should also mention that texts on makārim al-akhlāq (ethical conduct) often report opinions of the companions and successors that covering of the ʿawrah is more of a moral value than a physical measure. So, for instance, it is reported that safeguarding the ʿawrah entails respecting the privacy and dignity of others and not simply respecting their physical integrity. Backbiting or speaking ill of people is a violation of their ʿawrah (kashf al-ʿawrah), and far more serious than seeing a part of their physiology. This again points to the fact that the issues of ʿawrah and zīnah should not be approached in the formalistic and mechanical fashion employed by contemporary Muslims. Contemporary Muslims should be far more focused on comprehending and pursuing the ethical qualities invoked by the aspiration of modesty, humility, and dignity than the regimented adornment of a dress code.

Having stated all of the above, it is my conclusion, and God knows best, that if the hijab causes women to stand out, and brings unwanted attention to them, and poses the risk of bringing harm to women—and considering that per the social habits and customs of the United States, a woman exposing her hair would not be considered immodest or licentious to any extent—it is permissible for a woman NOT to wear a head-covering in the United States. In my opinion, it is contrary to the purposes of Shariʿah for a woman to expose herself to harm of any kind simply for the purposes of covering her hair. Indeed, it is far more consistent with the purposes of Shariʿah for a woman to place more emphasis on educating her fellow citizens about Islam and Muslims instead of focusing on her physical appearance.


Finally, I want to point out that it is rather ironic that in the modern age the hijab has become symbolic of Islamic identity. Historically and theologically, head-covering is found among certain Christian and Jewish sects and is supported in these traditions with textual injunctions which are far more clear and determinative than in their Islamic counterpart. It is rather ironic that modern Muslims, at least since the late 1970s, have chosen to make the head-covering an integral component of identity politics when their own scriptural injunctions are far less dispositive than their Jewish and Christian counterparts. There is nothing uniquely Islamic about the hijab except for the fact that Muslim social movements, at least since the late 1970s, have chosen to make it a part of Islamic catechism. In my view, humility, modesty, and personal piety are far more worthy in Allah’s eyes than any formal physical attire regardless of its sanctified appearance.


And God knows best.




ORIGINAL FATWA ON HIJAB (in response to letter below)


Dear Dr. Abou El Fadl,


Salaam. I wanted to write you a note thanking you for all the amazing work you do and have done. I am sad that I am only just learning about you now. A friend told me to listen to your hijab lectures, and I was blown away by your knowledge, critical thinking, and sincerity. I looked up your bio and was just so so grateful to God that we have someone with your intelligence and achievement on our side as Muslims--someone who has memorized the Quran, memorized a huge quantity of ahadeeth, studied 13 years traditionally, studied in the best academic institutions, and who is devout and practicing. And not only that, but someone who has achieved award upon award for his great work. And finally, someone who is also incredibly accomplished in the human rights arena with the top human rights groups in the world. I am overwhelmed and just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you do and for being one of us while doing it. As a human rights lawyer, a devout practicing Muslim, a sincere learner of Islam, and an artist who must grapple with so many of the cutting edge questions in Islam--I am personally grateful for your work in every arena you work in.

If I may, there was one question I wanted to ask as a follow up to your hijab lecture... were you concluding that hair-covering for women is either wajib or adaab, and that either conclusion could be a sound conclusion? And if so, does that mean it is a sin for women not to cover their hair, whether it is wajib or adaab to do so, because not doing something that is adaab is still a small sin? (I am asking because I am trying to make a decision for myself.)


Jazak Allahu khayr.


(Name withheld for privacy)




Dear Sister:


Al salamu alaykum. May Allah bless and protect you and aid and increase your iman. Thank you very much for your kind message and support. I am always happy when I hear from my readers. I pray that my efforts will always be in guidance with the sirat al-mustaqim. As to your question, in the hijab tapes, I really did not come to a conclusion as to whether the hijab is wajib or adab, but I was presenting the evidence to a group of students who were interested in an objective presentation of the material. If you are asking me for my personal opinion on the matter, in my opinion, hijab in this country is clearly not a fard and no sin is acquired for failing to wear the hijab. The reason for this position is that the 'illa (operative cause) for hijab was to protect women from harm and to avoid bringing undue attention to them. In the United States, hijab often results in the exact opposite, in other words, bringing undue attention to a Muslim woman and heightening the risk of harm. To say the least, in my opinion, hijab is not at the core of the Islamic faith, and not the kind of arguable duty that would be worth risking one's safety for. Put differently, if a Muslim woman wears the hijab in the U.S., I ask that Allah to reward her for the extra effort, but I never advise a Muslima to wear the hijab in the U.S. nor am I keen on raising it as an issue of significance for a woman's deen. If a woman does wear a hijab in the West and harm does come to her, that gives me serious pause (meaning I am troubled by the fact that the very purpose of the possible rule is now completely contravened). And in all cases, God knows best.


My sister, especially when it comes to converts, I often remind people that at the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, that hijab was not an issue and was not raised as a topic until a year before the Prophet's death, meaning that many Muslim women worked on their iman and their belief for ten and in some cases fifteen years before they had to even think about the matter of hijab. What I'm saying is that, especially when it comes to converts or people who have not been practicing Muslims for most of their lives and then decide to become religious, first, work on aqaeda, your iman, your understanding of the wisdom and the purpose of Islam before you start delving into the legalities of hijab or no hijab. Remember that every convert or practicing Muslim is a living, breathing, ambassador of Islam in the West, and as Islam's ambassadors, there are priorities or awlawiyyat that pertain to the sincerity and substance of our agency on behalf of Allah's message. My humble opinion is that the matter of hijab of a Muslima in this day and age has become of a highly exaggerated importance. And again, Allah knows best. I pray that Allah guides you to the straight path and whatever benefits you, Muslims and humanity and creation at large.


Wa al salamu alaykum,


Shaykh Abou El Fadl