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By : KH. Husein Muhammad

Jilbab and Hijab—often used interchangeably—are two classical vocabularies which continue to be discussed occasionally. This issue was written in thousands of books, yellow books (refer to the books used in traditional pesantren) and in any scientific journals for many centuries. Briefly, jilbab was originally conceived as a cloth used to cover women’s head and hijab means bulkhead / barrier between two spaces.

Along the history, the meaning and perception of the term was changed. Today both are perceived as women’s clothes. Even nowadays more specifically they are regarded as Muslim women’s clothes which gives the impression of piety and religious observance. This perception socially will bring the opposite effect that is any women who do not wear jilbab / hijab will not be regarded as Muslim women and not obedient woman. In another word and may be emotional, they are the women who are less or not good in morality. How the standard of piety, virtue, and obedience of religion is merely viewed and measured from the aspect of clothes they wear. This view surely simplifies the problem. 

In the recent years, in Indonesia, jilbab and hijab as Muslim women’s clothes become the hottest political issue and have entered the state’s policy. Komnas Perempuan (the Indonesian National Commission on Anti Violence Against Women) noted the development of this public policy from year to year, since 2008. In the note on its annual monitoring of public policies in the districts, Komnas Perempuan found tens of policies that governed the fashion of Indonesian people, especially women. (See, Catahu, Komnas Perempuan, March 8, 2013). In its analysis, the existence of the rules on Muslim women’s clothes was urged by the desire to win the battle for acquiring political power. Jilbab / hijab was captured as interesting issue for politicians from all political parties. They used the identity of Muslim women’s clothes above, for the purpose of politics of self-image. They argued that such clothes regulation was the demand of public majority. The inclusion of this issue into public policy or state will be a serious social problem, because it contains elements of discrimination against women and the citizens and potentially causes criminalization against them.

Back to Original Meaning

I’ve ever written this topic in Swara Rahima several years ago. It was mentioned therein that these two words: Jilbab and hijab actually had different original meanings. Both are mentioned in the Holy Qur’an in the same chapter (surah), Surah Al-Ahzab.

Hijab is mentioned in the verse 53 : 

ذَلِكُمْ اَطْهَرُ لِقُلُوْبِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِهِنَّ. وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِنْ وَرَآءِ حِجَابٍ . 

“And when you ask [his wives] for something, ask them from behind a partition. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts”. (Q.S. al-Ahzab, [33]:53).

` Hijab in the verse 53 above shows the meaning of cover / curtain / partition / barrier which was in the house of the Prophet as a mean for separating men from women so that they did not look at each other. This meaning referred to the asbab nuzul (occasion of revelation) of this verse. In this regard, Al-Tabari, a great commentator, referred to a number of occasions when this verse was revealed, among others, it was revealed related to the events in the house of the Prophet. At that time, the companions gathered in the Prophet’s house attending walimah (marriage ceremony) of Zainab bint Jahsh. Then they talked one another there. The Prophet felt uncomfortable when he needed Zainab, his wife. Most of the Mufassir (the Qur’an commentators) stated that the verse was revealed related to Umar’s suggestion. To the Prophet Umar said, “O Prophet, they gather in your house and see your wives. There are good people and some others are not (al-fajir). You are supposed to set the “hijab”.” Then this verse came down.

The jurists then extended the meaning of “hijab” above, so that it became a cover of the women’s body, not just for the wives of the Prophet, but also for other Muslim women. The reason was to avoid sexual disruption, and for the purpose of “purifying the heart”.

So the “hijab” or bulkhead was basically intended as a mean or manner of “prevention” the act of sexual disruption. Our question is whether the purpose of prevention and “purification of the heart”, or in order to be virtuous, can only be conducted by this mean and in this manner? If so, it is a kind of formal legal perspective and simplifies the problem. The heart’s purity or piety, in many verses of the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet, is emphasized and bases on perspective, mind and heart of the human. “And the best clothes is piety”.


Furthermore, the issue of Jilbab is mentioned in the same chapter, verse 59:

Means : 

“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.” (al-Ahzab, [33]:59) 

Jilbab is derived from the verb “jalaba” which means covering something on something else so that it can’t be seen. The Mufassir described the clothes of jilbab in different ways. Ibn Abbas and Abidah al Salmani formulated jilbab as women’s clothes which covers her face subsequently her entire body except one eye. Qatadah and Ibn Abbas in his other opinion said that the meaning of stretching jilbab is to cover cloth over woman’s forehead and part of her face except her both hands. Citing the opinion of Muhammad bin Sirin, Ibn Jarir said: “I ask Abidah al-Salmani what the meaning of the sentence: ‘yudnina’ alaihinna min jalabibihina ‘(to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments) is. Then she covered her face and head while revealing her left eye “. Ibn al Arabi, in Tafsir Ahkam al-Qur’an, mentioned two opinions, the first covering woman’s head with the cloth (jilbab) over her veil, and the second covering her face with the cloth so it does not appear except her left eye. “(III / 1586).

“Jilbab is a shawl over the veil (al-Rida fauqa al-khimar). It was said by Ibn Mas’ud, Ubaidah, Qatada, Hasan Basri, Sa’id bin Jubayr, Ibrahim al Nakha’i, Atha al Khurasani and the others. It is like or similar to “izar” (sarong) today. (Ibn Kathir, III / 518). Al-Qurtubi, in his book of commentary, said: “Jalabib is the plural form of Jilbab. It is a cloth which is wider than the veil”. It was narrated from Ibn Abbas and Ibn Mas’ud: “it is a shawl. Some say it is “qina” (mask / face cover). Some scholars say that it is the cloth which covers woman’s entire body. “(Al-Qurtubi, Tafsir Jami ‘Ahkam al-Qur’an, vol. 14/220).

In this case, the important question is why do women need to wear jilbab?. The aforementioned verse has mentioned explicitly that is “in order to be recognized”, and thus “you will not be harassed or humiliated”. Then the further question is that to be recognized by what or whom? The answer for this question can be traced from the explanation of the occasion of revelation of this verse. 

There are a number of narrations conveyed by the Mufassir regarding the occasion of revelation of this verse. One of them was conveyed by Ibn Sa’d in his book al-Thabaqat from Abu Malik. He said: “the Prophet’s wives, on one night, go out of their house to meet their needs. At that time, the hypocrites tease and disturb them. They then complain about the incident to the Prophet. After the Prophet rebuked them, the hypocrites said: “we think they are slave women. Then this verse 59 of  al-Ahzab was revealed. (Ibn Kathir, p. part III / 518).

Ibn Jarir at-Tabari concluded this verse as a prohibition resembling the way how slave women dress. Umar ever beat a slave woman who wore jilbab while scolding: “do you want to resemble a free woman, O slave woman?” (Ibn al Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, III / 1587). 

From the information of Asbab al-nuzul (reason of the text revelation) above, it is clear that jilbab is required only as a distinguishing feature between free women from slave women, not distinguishing between Muslim women from non-Muslim women. The feature is put on their head cover or veil. If not, then the important question is that before the revelation of this verse, were the Arabian women bare head, did not wear a head cover (veil)?. Anthropologically, Arabian women—Muslims and non-Muslims—before the advent of Islam up to the present, they wore head cover. In fact, it was not only women, but also men. It was their traditional clothes. Wearing veil for Arabian women and men was very reasonable and in accordance with their geographical conditions which were generally hot and dusty sand.

Human Piety

Apart from such extensive debates and diverse views on the interpretation of verse of jilbab above, the crucial question arises regarding the intention and purpose of wearing Jilbab. As already stated, in many views, wearing jilbab is intended as the identity of good woman, pious or virtuous. Indeed, religion has mission to create such human being. But is it the only way to achieve that goal? Is there any definite guarantee that a woman who wears jilbab / hijab is definitely good, pious, and virtuous? Likewise, on the other hand, is a woman who does not wears jilbab / hijab surely licentious, outrageous, and immoral? Social reality shows us that many women who do not wear jilbab / hijab even more pious than that of who do. Even in the past, for the centuries, in this country, mothers and wives of Ulama (the great Muslim scholars) simply wore headscarf while ignoring part of their hairs and neck remained uncovered. Their husbands, who were Ulama, did not question it. But without denying that many women who wear jilbab / hijab are pious and virtuous. This is something relative. I think the view of Muhammad al-Habasy, Director of the Research Center Islam, Damascus, Syria, is very interesting. He says: “A woman can choose her own clothes for various needs and circumstances. However, she is responsible for that choice before people and God. She has social right to keep maintaining her politeness and honor. But commanding all women in any circumstances in the name of religion, as it evolves in some Islamic countries today, is unrealistic and violates the guidance of the Prophet and the flexibility of Islamic law “. (Muhammad al-Habasy, Al-mar’ah Baina al-Shariah wa al-hayah “, Dar al-Ahbab, Damascus, edition V, 2001, p. 67-68) 

What is the most substantial for the piety of women and men? In many religious texts: the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet, one’s piety precisely lies on the control of heart and behavior. The Qur’an states: “Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you”. The Prophet also said: “Allah does not look at your body and face but at your heart and behavior”. The words of the Prophet showed that one’s virtuous is not viewed from the aspect of legal-formal, rather from his/her substance. 

Al-Quran, in another verse, affirms: “And the best clothes is piety”. The Ulama interpreted “the clothes of piety” in various ways. Ibn Jurayj, it is “Faith”. Ibn Abbas said: “it is the righteous deed (work / good deed) and a friendly face. Urwah bin Zubai: “Khasyyatullah” (fear of Allah), guard self-honor and cover the ornament (aurat). (See: Tafsir al-Tabari). In a Sahih Hadith stated that the piety (taqwa) is in the heart. The Prophet said: “Al-Taqwa Ha Huna (the piety is here)”, as he put his hand on his chest.

Quran also states: “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous”.(Q.S. al-Baqarah, [2:177). 

Therefore, piety truly relates to love and universal virtue and cannot be viewed merely from the way we are dressing. Wallahu a’lam {}

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