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What does the Quran say about the hijab? Prophet said law of land foremost

Wearing a headscarf is a matter of personal freedom in Islam. But the Prophet always prioritised the law of the land.

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The Chief Justice of India and a larger Supreme Court bench will now decide on Karnataka’s hijab ban in educational institutions after a split verdict this week.

There are many views about the obligation of a Muslim woman to cover her hair and body. Unfortunately, many often find it difficult to trace the roots of this commandment. But first, we must define the term hijab. To comprehend the legal verdict on hijab, many people start their search with this phrase in mind. But such an effort is futile. Conflating the modern use of the term ‘hijab’ with the legal rule on covering is disingenuous. Hijab is a linguistic term that refers to a conspicuous barrier. This term appears in the Quran in numerous situations, indicating physical and metaphysical barriers.

It is important to highlight that the Prophet of Islam did not enforce the veil in Arabia. It was already a part of their ancient traditions— it was often considered a mark of virtue and nobility. Across the globe, people from different faiths have followed such practices or traditions. Almost all ancient cultures regarded the veil as a symbol of respectability and high social standing. Wearing a veil or scarf on the head and possibly concealing the face is a practice that precedes the emergence of Islam. To date, you can find ancient statues that show priestesses wearing head coverings similar to what we know today as the hijab.

In some orthodox Jewish communities, married women wear a scarf, hat, or wig to signify their submission to God. Many orthodox Christians still cover their heads with a scarf or veil when attending church. And the traditional Roman Catholic practice of women wearing a mantilla, or veil, to Mass is common in some faith communities. Suppose we travel around India— in Rajasthan, we can still see women respecting and following their ancient cultural tradition of the veil. With the passage of time, these historical practices and traditions got associated with the religious creed.

Also read: Quran says no one can limit others’ freedom. Udaipur killing violates Islam’s golden rule

Hijab in the Quran

Many people use the term ‘hijab’ as an equivalent to the burqa. But this is not the case. In the context of its usage in the Quran, ‘Hijab’ refers to a ‘curtain or barrier’ (42:51). It is used in the Quran multiple times but not in the sense that is prevalent among the people today; rather, in its literal sense, that is, a curtain. For example, the Quran uses ‘jilbab’ and ‘khimar’ regarding women’s purdah.

However, these terms are not applied in their present context. Although the word ‘burqa’ was in Arabic, the Quran did not use it for women’s purdah. In a nutshell, Hijab is not described in the same context in the Quran as the burqa. Burqa later became a part of the Muslim culture. As we can see from the beginning of history, Islam granted women unlimited freedom. They participated in all activities during the time of the Prophet and his companions. For instance, they offered prayers at the mosque, attended the sermons and engaged in economic and social work.

Also read: In India, hijab is less about Islam, more modern Muslims’ way to wedge ‘us vs them’ divide

Law of the land

When a person studies Islam, they will understand that the religion teaches its adherents to follow the principle of order of priority. So, let us analyse the genesis of this headscarf issue in Karnataka. Seen through the prism of Islamic teachings, we can easily arrange an order of priority in the instances that occurred.

Islam accords the foremost priority to abiding by the law of the land. This is illustrated by the event where the Prophet of Islam sent his first batch of companions to a foreign land and commanded them to follow the law of the land. In Islam, obeying the law of the land is more important than anything else because it ensures an orderly and peaceful society.

The next order of priority is given to education. The significance of learning is alluded to in the following event from the life of the Prophet of Islam. According to a Hadith, the Prophet said that one should try to gain education even if one must travel to China for it. In those times, travelling was difficult. The deeper meaning of this teaching of the Prophet is that one must persevere to obtain learning and education despite difficulties. In this way, he promoted education to a great extent. The result was that Muslim society developed an atmosphere and culture of learning and growing.

So, wearing a headscarf is acceptable in Islam and is a matter of personal freedom. However, it is also crucial to note that the practice of individual choices must be confined to individual spaces. Abiding by the set laws is a foundational baseline when living together in a multicultural society. This allows peace and order to prevail in society, which is paramount. Faith is a means to teach piety, discipline, and a spirit of well-wishing among its adherents. It must not be misused to justify conflicts. The responsibility for building a harmonious environment does not rest on the government alone; it is every citizen’s responsibility.

The author is an Islamic thinker and author of ‘The True Face of Islam’. Views are personal.

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