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Last Updated: 2011/12/10
Summary of question
How did the women dress themselves in the time of the Holy Prophet (s) before the advent of Islam?
Please tell me, with reliance on historical evidence, as to how the Islamic modest dress came into being during the period of the Holy Prophet (s).
Concise answer

The literal meaning of the word 'hijab' is to curtain, partition or place a barrier between something. The word hijab which refers to women's modest covering is a term used in our age; it is a new term which was not used in its technical sense in the early period of Islam. Instead of the word hijab, the word satr, in the sense of 'covering' was used especially by the religious jurisprudents. The point which is deciphered from historical sources is that hijab in the sense of 'covering' existed in one form or another among different religions long before Islam. However, Islam set its limits and expanded its boundary.

The women's covering in the time of the Holy Prophet (s) was the very conventional and customary covering of that time. That is to say, the women covered their body and hair but their ears, necks and a part of their chests would be visible. But then a verse was revealed and the Prophet (s) was commanded to tell women to cover that part also so that their adornments might not be visible.

Detailed Answer

The literal meaning of the word hijab is to curtain, partition or place a barrier between something[1]. It should be noted that the word hijab which refers to women's modest dress is a term used, more or less, in our age; it is a new term which was not used in its technical sense in the early period of Islam. Instead of the word hijab, the word satr, in the sense of 'covering' was used especially by the religious jurisprudents.[2]

The philosophy behind the hijab for woman in Islam is that she should cover her body in her associations with men 'whom she is not related to according to the divine law' (na-mahram) and that she does not flaunt and display herself. The verses of the Holy Quran which refer to this issue affirm this and the edicts of the religious jurisprudents confirm it. The concept of hijab is to create a healthy environment in the family and society.

The point which is deciphered from historical documents is that hijab in the sense of 'covering' did exist in one form or another among different religions long before Islam. Therefore, Islam did not create or innovate this law. In fact, Islam accepted and affirmed it. As can be inferred from the history of the time of the Holy Prophet (s), Islam widened the boundary of Hijab and laid further emphasis on it. It existed before Islam among many of the ancient nations and it was stronger in Iran, India and among Jews. In ancient Iran, fathers and brothers were considered non-mahram towards a married woman.[3]

Therefore, what is understood from historical sources is that women were observing hijab in the time of the Holy Prophet (s) but not complete hijab because the Arab women would wear a scarf but they would place the ends behind their head so that their earrings, neck and chest would show since their dresses were most often v-necked. They used to wear dresses with open collars leaving their necks and part of their chests visible.[4]

The conclusion is that the women's hijab in the time of the Holy Prophet (s) was the very conventional and customary covering of that time except that the women did not cover their ears, necks and a part of their chest on which they wore ornaments and which would provoke men sexually. It has been reported from Imam Baqir, peace be upon him, that he said: "One day, while a pretty young woman, who had thrown her veil behind her neck and her neck and ears were visible, was passing through a street, a man from the companions of the Prophet of God was coming from the opposite direction. That beautiful scene badly attracted his attention, so he became so engrossed in looking at her that he became totally unmindful of himself and his surroundings. He was not even looking ahead of himself. That woman entered a street and the young man kept following him with his eyes. As he was walking and looking at the woman, a bone or mirror which had thrust out of the wall hit his face. His face instantly started bleeding and he noticed that his head and face were stained with blood. With the blood on his body, he went to the Prophet (s) and told him the story.[5] It was then that the verse of Hijab was sent down:[6] "Say to the believing women that they cast down their glance and guard their private parts and reveal not their adornment except such as is outward and let them cast their veils (khumar) over their bosoms and reveal not their adornment except to …"

Obviously, this verse seeks to expand the concept of covering and hijab, because in the past the women used to wear the long garments which were customary in those times. However, their necks and chests remained uncovered. [7]

What is to be noted here is the sentence "ولیضربن بخمرهن علی جیوبهن"  [let them cast their veils (khumar) over their bosoms]. Raghib Isfahani says in his Mufradat that the word Khumr means to cover something. Anything with which something is covered is called "Khumar". However, in the present time the word "khumar" is used to refer to the scarf with which a woman covers her head.[8]

In the occasion of revelation of this verse, they have said that Arabs during that time wore head-garbs and covering, and they would throw the ends over their shoulders or on their backs, in such a way that the head-garb would be set behind their ears, and they would only cover their heads and the back of their necks. However, below the throat and some of the chest would be visible.[9]

Therefore, the verse means that women should cast their veils over their bosoms and around their necks so that their necks and chests are not visible.

Ibn Abbas interprets this part of the verse as such: "That is to say, a woman should cover her hair, neck, bosom and the part below his neck.[10]

Aisha has been reported to have said, "I did not see any women better than the Ansar women. When the verse "That they should cast their outer garments over their persons" was revealed, the women of Ansar came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing outer garments."[11]


[1] - Ibn Mandur, Lisan al-Arab, the root word "Hujb".

[2] - Tafsir Namumah, vol.17, pg. 402; Mutahhari, Murteza, The Islamic Modest Dress,  pg. 78.

[3] - Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol.12, pg. 30, pg. 553.

[4] - Mutahhari, Murteza, Works Collections, vol.19, pg. 484 – 485.

[5] - Faiz Kashani, Tafsir Saafi, vol.5, pg. 230; Collection of Works by Murteza Mutahhari, vol.19, pg. 485.

[6] -  "وَ قُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِناتِ یَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصارِهِنَّ وَ یَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَ لا یُبْدینَ زینَتَهُنَّ إِلاَّ ما ظَهَرَ مِنْها وَ لْیَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلى‏ جُیُوبِهِنَّ وَ لا یُبْدینَ زینَتَهُنَّ ...". Al-Noor: 31

[7] - For further information, see Index: The Limits of Women's Hijab, question 495, (site: 536).

[8] - Raghib Isfahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur'an, the term "Khumr"

[9] - See: Qurashi, Sayyid Ali Akbar, Qamus-e Quran, vol.2, the term "Hujb".

[10] -  [10]«تغطی شعرها، و صدرها، و ترائبها و سوالفها» Tabarsi, Majma'ul Bayan, Vol.4, pg. 138.

[11] - ما رأیت نساءاً خیراً من نساء الأنصار، لما نزلت هذه الآیة قامت کل واحدة منهن إلى مرطها المرحل فصدعت منه صدعة، فاختمرن، فأصبحن کأن على رؤوسهنّ الغربان. Tafsir al-Kashaf, vol.3, under 31 of Sura Al-Noor.

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