The Hijab: A Religious History

Understanding how this tradition became commonplace for Muslim women — and why it continues

It’s human nature to fear what we don’t know. It has kept our species safe through a variety of events, our sense of caution keeping us from danger. But is the hijab something to be feared?

A hijab is traditionally a head covering for Muslim women, worn not just during prayer but during daily life. Though Islam came to be through the prophet Mohammed between 570-692 A.D., the tradition of head covering has been around long before Islam itself, showing up in Jewish and Christian traditions.

“If he orders us to veil, we veil, and if he now demands that we unveil, we unveil.”

Part of what makes the hijab so controversial is the thought that women are forced to wear this head covering — that they’re not given a choice in the matter. That’s a thought process that is in direct conflict with our Western notion of spirituality. We’re taught in Christianity the concept of free will, that we’re able to choose this way of life. Perhaps when presented as a command rather than an option to symbolize devotion, many American Christians find within themselves a feeling of personal disconnect.

Many Muslim women, however, feel the opposite. They believe wearing the hijab is an opportunity to show the outside world their level of devotion to their spiritual belief system and religious identity. For them, wearing the hijab is a source of pride.

So what does it stand for?
Primarily, it stands for modesty, an attribute shared across many religions — that our sexuality is to be guarded, kept pure. Muslim women are encouraged to cover their bodies, all but their faces, while men are encouraged to cover from the waist to their knees. Historically, the hijab was also a symbol of wealth, with the wealthiest of women able to afford more fabric, thus being able to cover a larger portion of their bodies.

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This cross between spiritual piety and cultural status is not new. We see this today in our churches all the time; we subconsciously view others by what they wear. This, however, is not the goal of the hijab. In its purest form, it simply keeps the body covered and is a reminder of spiritual reverence, not unlike fasting or other spiritual disciplines.

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While some argue that the original text applies to only the wives of the prophet Mohammed himself, many Muslims have chosen to implement this tradition into their current religious practices.

When did it come to be a part of religious culture?
Because the hijab predates modern Islam, the exact dates as to precisely when the hijab was entered into Muslim society is questionable. Veiling was first reported in Assyrian texts as early as 15 B.C., but for the purpose of Islam, established some 600 years later, the hijab was embraced by Islamic culture in the 7th century. During this time, more women used this spiritual covering to mark their traditional and religious piety and commitment to sexual purity.

The Quran states: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed.” (Quran 33:59)

How has it been used in modern times?
Since the 1800s, the hijab has been used for cultural reasons more than religious. The hijab is a part of embracing one’s true cultural identity, not simply a religious obligation. The rules for the hijab become much more lenient when at home and around close friends and relatives.  The purpose of the hijab is to set Muslim women apart from those of other lifestyles and religions. Because it is assumed that home is a safe place and that the men therein are respectful, the woman is then permitted to do as she pleases regarding her hijab.

As styles and fashions change for any culture — so did the implementation of the hijab. Women in the 1960s and 1970s in the Western world, as well as Eastern countries, began to dress in jeans, skirts, dresses, etc., and excluded the hijab.

Related: Merkel Calls for Full-Face Veil Ban in Germany

In 1979, however, laws were passed in Tehran requiring women to keep their heads covered when leaving their homes, a decree against which many women protested and rebelled. This was not unlike the cultural and sexual revolutions seen in the U.S. around this time.

Many women choose to use the hijab as a way of staying true to their cultural roots and denouncing the influence of the Western world, while others choose to wear this covering simply as a sign of devotion to their religion.

The interpretation of the religious texts varies from teacher to teacher, from follower to follower. While some believe there is a definite command to keep the head covered, some believe this to be dated or to apply only to a certain group (i.e. Mohammed’s wives). Many believe these changes came to be in the late 1800s — not because of Islam itself but because of the cultural practice of newer Islamic converts.

There is no doubt that in our modern times, the attention drawn to the hijab and other traditional Muslim attire has been a cause for great controversy, leading some women to desire to hold this tradition in even higher regard; they fear the right is being encroached upon.

Related: America’s Chance at Redemption

Many question the role and influence of men over such an overtly woman-related issue. Malak Hifni Nasif, a 19th-century outspoken feminist critic, is quoted as saying, “If he orders us to veil, we veil, and if he now demands that we unveil, we unveil. There is no doubt he has erred grievously against us in decreeing our rights in the past and no doubt that he errs grievously in decreeing our rights now.”

As styles and cultural trends shift, so does the usage and implementation of the hijab and other more modern forms of head coverings, like simple scarves. There is a freedom among women in the Western world to make this distinction, while this freedom may not be as prevalent in other parts of the world. These rules vary from region to region, from believer to believer. There is no doubt the hijab plays a large part in a Muslim woman’s identity — but it is not the sole defining factor of an individual of this belief system.

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