1,001 Sayings and Deeds of the Prophet

The Veil

How Veils Came To Be and Why

Sayings and Deeds of the Prophet

In Revelation 24:31, Allah invites women to “guard their private parts” and to “drape their bosom with their veils,” not their face or their hair.

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 Muhammad'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

Veils in Revelation 24:31 are meant to conceal a woman’s breasts and their tendency to jiggle when the owner is in motion and perhaps cause males, other than her husband, to be sexually aroused. Corsets, a 14th century invention, and the modern bra that 500 years later replaced that means of support for a woman’s upper body’s jiggly parts have, more or less, alleviated this danger.

Allah might have had another use in mind for veils as revealed by Muhammad's child bride, Aisha, in a hadith where she refers to Verse 24:31 as that of Al-Hijab.

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

Umar, the instigator, offered a more self-serving version that did not make him out to be a voyeur.

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

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 and the hair-covering veil, the hijab, with the widespread availability of women-only public restrooms?

In any event, the veils ordained by the Koran were obviously insufficient to conceal the imposing Sauda's identity. For Muhammad this was not that big of a deal. The fact that the suggestion came from an impertinent friend reduces its religious significance, if any. In the following hadith where Umar is again accused of making fun of Sauda, God’s spokesman receives another of those spur-of-the-moment communications from Paradise, that somehow did not make it into the Koran, confirming the right of women to answer the call of nature in 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 revelation about veils is contained in the same surah where Allah is incensed that people would think His spokesperson a cuckold after his child bride got lost in the desert, and was found by a young man who brought her back the next day (see Chapter, The Necklace).

The demand that husbands make of their wives to conceal their identity when venturing outside the home, with or without them, has nothing to do with modesty and everything to do with their own insecurities, or should I say Muhammad’s.

Al-Hijab is often confused with the Verse of the Curtain which was “revealed on the night of the wedding of Muhammad and Zaynab b. Jahsh” when uninvited guests kept showing up at his home after the wedding feast, overstaying their welcome. 

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

The niqab is considered a woman's portable personal curtain.

Revelation 33:53 is also famous for Allah's ensuring that His ultimate spokesman’s eventual widows stay celibate by threatening any man who would marry them.

Why would Allah, in a book meant to guide humanity till the end of time, include a prohibition which disappeared with the passing of Muhammad’s last wife. It only served to make His spokesperson out to be a jealous obsessive man, a man who would seek to control the lives of his widows from beyond the grave.

For Muslim women, having sex with a man other than their husband is flirting with a gruesome death and risking spending an eternity on fire in the depth of Allah’s Hell. The interdiction against taking “his wives in marriage after him” is equivalent to condemning Muhammad’s young wives to never enjoying being intimate with a man again after his passing.


The Assyrian empire was the first to require women to veil themselves; in this instance, prostitutes so that they could be distinguished from respectable women and also to conceal their identity. That the veil, and its add-on the hijab, went from a requirement for women who traded sex for money, to concealing a woman's identity when having to share a public latrine with men to a sign of piety is quite extraordinary.