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1,001 Sayings and Deeds of the Prophet

The Veil

How the Veil Came To Be and Why

In the Koran, Allah invites women to cover up their private parts and to “drape their bosom with their veil”, not their face – or so it would seem.

24:31 And tell the believing women to cast down their eyes and guard their private parts and not show their finery, except the outward part of it. And let them drape their bosoms with their veils and not show their finery, except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, the sons of their husbands, their brothers, the sons of their brothers, the sons of their sisters, their women, their maid-servants, the men-followers who have no sexual desire, or infants who have no knowledge of women’s sexual parts yet. Let them, also, not stamp their feet, so that what they have concealed of their finery might be known. Repent to Allah, all of you, O believers, that perchance you may prosper.

The revelation caught the Prophet's wives unprepared:

Narrated Safiya bint Shaiba:

Aisha used to say: "When (the Verse): "They should draw their veils over their necks and bosoms," was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces."

Bukhari 60.282

The veil, and Allah’s interdiction against women dancing i.e. “not stamp their feet, so that what they have concealed of their finery might be known” is meant to conceal a woman’s breasts and their tendency to jiggle when the owner is in motion and cause males, other than her husband, to be sexually aroused.

Corsets, a 14th century invention, and the modern bra which 500 years later replaced that means of support for a woman’s upper body’s jiggly parts have, more or less, alleviated this danger. But then again, Allah might have had another use in mind for the veil – a totally appropriate use considering the time and place.

Revelation 24:31 is from An–Nûr (the Light). The 24th surah i.e. chapter, is recalled as Al-Hijab in one account of what caused Allah to send down the revelation about the veil.

Narrated Aisha:

The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al-Manasi, a vast open place (near Baqia at Medina) to answer the call of nature at night.

Umar used to say to the Prophet "Let your wives be veiled," but Allah's Apostle did not do so.

One night Sauda bint Zam'a the wife of the Prophet went out at Isha time and she was a tall lady.

Umar addressed her and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda."

He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verses of Al-Hijab may be revealed. So Allah revealed the verses of "Al-Hijab"

Bukhari 5.148

If corsets and bras have eliminated the need for bosom-covering-veils, could the same not be said for the face-covering-veil, the niqab, with the widespread availability of women-only public “restrooms”?

Perhaps, but men demanding that women be veiled may have little or nothing to do with concealing jiggling breasts and the identity of women answering the call of nature, and everything to do with their own insecurities.

The revelation about the veil is contained in the same surah where Allah is incensed that people would think His Messenger a cuckold after the Prophet's child bride Aisha got lost in the desert and was found by a young man ... who brought her back the next day (chapter The Necklace).

The al-Hijab surah was another of Allah's spur-of-the-moment interventions, in this case while His Messenger was eating. In any event, the veil ordained by the Koran would not have been sufficient to conceal Sauda's identity and for the Prophet and his Mentor this was not that big of a deal, and should not be for modern believing women who need or wish to temporally leave the home of their husbands or fathers for other than the call of nature:

Narrated Aisha:

Sauda (the wife of the Prophet) went out to answer the call of nature after it was made obligatory (for all the Muslims ladies) to observe the veil. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could recognize her. So Umar bin Al-Khattab saw her and said, "O Sauda! By Allah, you cannot hide yourself from us, so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out."

Sauda returned while Allah's Apostle was in my house taking his supper and a bone covered with meat was in his hand.

She entered and said, "O Allah's Apostle! I went out to answer the call of nature and Umar said to me so-and-so."

Then Allah inspired him (the Prophet) and when the state of inspiration was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put in down, he said (to Sauda), "You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs." 

Bukhari 60.318

The verse in which Allah tells women to "drape their bosoms with their veils" is often confused with the verse where He instructs the wives of a jealous man to serve his guests from behind a curtain; even narrators confused the two including Umar, who would succeed Bakr as leader of the believers.

Narrated Umar:

I said, "O Allah's Apostle! Good and bad persons enter upon you, so I suggest that you order the mothers of the Believers (i.e. your wives) to observe veils."

Then Allah revealed the Verses of Al-Hijab

Bukhari 60.313

The verse of about the curtain was “revealed on the night of the wedding of God's Messenger and Zaynab b. Jahsh” when uninvited guests kept showing up at the Prophet’s home after the wedding feast, or overstayed their welcome. The verse is also famous for Allah making sure that the Prophet's widows stay celibate after His Messenger's passing by threatening any man who would marry them.

33:53 O believers, do not enter the houses of the Prophet, unless you are invited to a meal, without awaiting the hour; but if you are invited, then enter; but when you have eaten, disperse, without lingering for idle talk. That is vexing to the Prophet who might be wary of you, but Allah is not wary of the truth. If you ask them (the wives of the Prophet) for an object, ask them from behind a curtain. That is purer for your hearts and theirs. You should never hurt the Messenger of Allah, nor take his wives in marriage after him. That is truly abominable in the sight of Allah.

A hadith as to the when and why of the timely revelation:

Narrated Anas bin Malik:

I, of all the people, know best this verse of Al-Hijab.

When Allah's Apostle married Zainab bint Jahsh she was with him in the house and he prepared a meal and invited the people (to it).

They sat down (after finishing their meal) and started chatting. So the Prophet went out and then returned several times while they were still sitting and talking.

So Allah revealed the Verse: "O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses until leave is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation .....ask them from behind a screen." (33:53)

So the screen was set up and the people went away.

Bukhari 60.315