OCTOBER 31 — Following the recent move by the State Government of Kelantan to launch a special operation called "Operasi Gempur Aurat" to ensure Muslim women wear hijab and cover up their “aurat” and modesty, mixed responses have been expressed by the public.

Some have lauded such move and regarded it as a noble effort and a good reminder for Muslims to comply with Islamic principles. This is, however, not without polemic when some quarters took opposite views by saying that it is a form of compulsion in practising the religion. A Muslim feminists rights group — Sisters in Islam (SIS), for example, in responding to such move was quoted in a news portal as saying that Muslim women should be given freedom to make own decision on whether to or not to wear hijab. Citing various Quranic versions such as al-Baqarah: 2:256, Yunus: 10: 99-100 and al-Ghashiyah: 88:22 to support its arguments, the group stated that there should be no compulsion in religion.

The motivation of this article is not to comment on the special operation undertaken but rather lies in the author’s belief that it is crucial for everyone, especially for Muslims, to have a true and complete understanding of hijab and its real meaning to know whether it is considered a religious duty in Islam or merely a religiously-motivated cultural practice. Secondly, it is also important to know whether a Muslim woman is given freedom to choose whether or not to wear hijab in tandem with the notion of ‘no compulsion in religion.’ Indeed, the issues and polemics underlying the obligatory nature of hijab are not new. Regrettably, such polemics are raised every now and then, not only in non-Muslim countries but also in some Muslim countries including in our country Malaysia. In the West, wearing hijab was seen as a symbol of oppression and a mark of separation which is against the democratic value of the Western community.

Generally, those who reject the hijab as being obligatory on Muslim women, consider it part of the culture that has nothing to do with religion, though it is part and parcel of the religion and constitutes the dress code ordained by Islam on Muslim women.


To address this hijab polemic, it is noteworthy to initially understand the correct definition and context of hijab. Literally speaking, the word hijab comes from the Arabic word for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. In Malaysia, it is famous with the term “tudung” whereas in Indonesia, it is widely called ‘jilbab’. Hijab is a form of veiling and it can be much more extensive, not only covering the head and neck, but also the face and some or most parts of the body. The full-face version of hijab is commonly referred to the niqab or “purdah” in Malay. It consists of covering up completely, including gloves and a veil for the face — leaving just a slit for the eyes, or covering them too with transparent material.

Apart from the above two, there are other terms that reflect the different forms of veiling. For instance, the bandanna, which left the hair partly visible, was worn by modern women at funerals or by women in rural areas. The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through. It is worn by Afghan women and was an obligation imposed by the Taliban when in power and on the basis of their interpretation of Islam. The chador (worn in Iran) or abaya (worn in Arabic countries) is a black veil which covered the entire body from head to ankles. The khimar, on the other hand, is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.

It is understandable that the above-mentioned different forms of hijab may have been influenced by and originated from the Islamic teaching. The different pattern and types of hijab, including the extent of body parts covered by such hijab have been mixed with cultural practices which are varied according to country and regime thus making it difficult to identify which types of hijab that better reflects the actual Islamic requirement. As such, it is important to refer to some Islamic rulings as well as the views of Muslim scholars. The Holy Quran tells Muslims, men and women to dress modestly. Male modesty, according to Hanafiy and Shafi’iy Jurists, has been interpreted to be covering the area from the navel to the knee whereas for women it is generally seen as covering everything except their face, hands and feet when in the presence of men they are not married or related to.


There are some verses in the Holy Quran which mentioned about hijab. Among others, in Surah Al-Ahzab, Allah SWT said; “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known (as a free respectable Muslim women) so as not to be molested.” (Al-Ahzab: 59). In the other verse, Allah SWT has said: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their beauty and ornaments [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.” (An-Nur: 31).

The Arabic word of “khumur” in the above verse which means “veil” refers to anything that is used to cover the head. Meanwhile the Arabic term of “juyub” (the plural form of jaibun) used in the above verse refers to the curvature of the breast that is not covered with cloth. Therefore every woman must cover not only their head but also their chest including their neck and ears and all other parts that may lure a male. As such, it was clear from the above verses that the wearing of hijab by Muslim women is a religious obligation, simply like observing other obligations such as performing five-time daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan and so on. Observing the hijab is therefore part of the religious rights for Muslims women and any act to force them to remove their hijabs is tantamount to a violation of their freedom of religion.

In a hadith, Saidatina Aisyah RA narrated that her sister Asma' binti Abu Bakar entered the house of the Prophet s.a.w wearing attire made of transparent material that showed her skin. The Prophet S.A.W turned away from her and said: “O Asma'! Verily when a woman has achieved puberty, she should not reveal her body except for this and this — showing the face and the palms (hands).” (Narrated by Abu Daud). This hadith emphasises the fact that women’s head and hair are aurah and must be covered in accordance with Islamic principles. Only the face and palm or hand can be seen by the public. Also, all qualified Muslim scholars throughout Islamic history agree on the obligation of hijab and that it is not a religious symbol to differentiate between Muslim and non-Muslim women, rather it is a dress code ordained by Islam on Muslim women.

The command in the verse is considered as an obligation, and not a recommendation.

Based on the above Quranic verses, the Prophet’s tradition and historical precedence, it is clear that the obligation for Muslim women to wear hijab cannot be taken as merely an interpretation given by Muslim scholars on the above verses. It is a clear-cut commandment from Allah the Almighty. However, it is true that there has been a dispute on the requirement of covering the face or wearing the niqab. There are minority groups of scholars which consider the face is also part of women’s aurah but majority of the scholars are of the views that the face is not an aurah and therefore, covering it is not compulsory for Muslim women. Al-Imam Al-Nawawi, in his book, al-Majmu’ said; “Verily, the aurah of Muslim women is the whole of her body except face and the palms (hands).” This opinion also shared by al-Imam al-Syafi`i, al-Imam Malik, al-Imam Abu Hanifah, al-Imam al-`Auza`i, al-Imam Abu Thaur and is also similar in a narration by al-Imam Ahmad”

In Malaysia, a court judgment in the case of Hjh Halimatussaadiah bte Hj Kamaruddin v. Public Services Commission has stated that the wearing of niqab was not considered as a religious obligation. Although headscarves and hijabs are permitted in government institutions, public servants are forbidden from wearing the full-face niqab. The judgment in the above case cites that the niqab, or purdah, “has nothing to do with (a woman's) constitutional right to profess and practise her Muslim religion,” because Islam does not make it obligatory to cover the face. In the case, the Supreme Court has held that the wearing of purdah by a female Muslim was not an integral part of the religion of Islam. In this regard, the judge has considered the opinion from the Mufti of Federal Territories who said that Islam as a religion does not prohibit a Muslim woman from wearing, nor requires her to wear a purdah. As such, the prohibition of wearing purdah does not affect the woman’s constitutional right to practise her religion.

In addition, hijab should not be understood merely as covering the head and chest alone. Rather, the spirit of hijab should be extended to covering other parts of the body to meet the requirement of covering aurah. For such purpose, Islam has stipulated the required standard for Muslim dress code. Despite such code, Muslims are given the choice to determine the nature of fabric or fashion of the dress which they want to wear.

In other word, Islam has never provided any specific name of dress to reflect the Islamic one. Any kind of dress could be considered as an ‘Islamic dress’ if it complies with the prescribed standards and requirements. The attire worn by any ethnic group which is closely related to Islam cannot automatically be considered as “Islamic-compliance” attire. For instance, if Arabic or Malay traditional attire worn by an Arab or Malay woman does not comply with the standard required by Islam, then such attire cannot be considered as an Islamic dress despite the Arabs and Malays are usually referred to Muslims. In order to understand the correct dress code for Muslim women, it is worthwhile to take a look at the following requirements:

a. The extent of covering; the dress must cover the whole body except the areas specifically exempted (face and hands).

b. Looseness; the dress must be loose enough and not tight so as to conceal the shape of a woman's body. A highly desirable way of concealing the shape of the body is to wear a cloak over the garment. The Prophet SAW, however, indicated that if the women's dress meets the Islamic standards it suffices (without a cloak) even for the validity of prayers.

c. Thickness and non-transparent; the dress should be thick enough and opaque so as not to show the colour of the skin it covers, or the shape of the body which it is supposed to hide.

d. Overall appearance; the dress should not be such that it attracts men's attention to the woman's beauty. The garment which is used to screen the woman's beauty and her adornment from public view should not itself be a thing of beauty. The Qur'an clearly prescribes the requirements of the woman's dress for the purpose of concealing zeenah (adornment).

e. The clothing of Muslim women should not be ostentatious. Ibn Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah (saws) said: “He who dresses for ostentation in this world, Allah will dress him in a dress of humiliation on the Day of Judgment and set it on fire” (Abu Dawud).

f. Additional requirements: In addition to the above four main requirements, there are other requirements whose specific applications may vary with time and location. These include:

i. The dress should not be similar to what is known as a male costume. lbn 'Abbas narrated that “The Prophet cursed the men who act like women and the women who act like men.”

ii. It should not be similar to what is known as the costume of unbelievers. This requirement is derived from the general rule of Shari'ah that Muslims should have their distinct personality and should differentiate their practices and appearance from unbelievers.

Undeniably, the clearly spelled-out requirements above describe a comprehensible basis on which an Islamic dress code could be justified. The colour, fashion, style, cultural practices and so on should not be made the fundamental bases in justifying whether any dress is an Islamic one. Hence, it can be said that only the dress that meets the above requirements shall be deemed as Islamic-compliance dress obliged for every Muslim woman. Complying with it is also an act of manifesting Islam as a religion whereas any act that may hinder such manifestation could thus be considered as a violation of the rights to freedom of religion.

In short, based on the above discussion, it is crystal clear that the wearing of hijab by Muslim women is a religious obligation just like observing other worships such as fasting and performing prayers. Even though the discussion about hijab was seen by some, including Muslims, as something trivial and less important, it should be viewed as a paramount element of a religious manifestation for Muslim women. Despite the fact that there are a significant number of Muslim women out there who chose not to comply with the hijab obligation, this does not mean the wearing of hijab has no basis or not an obligation in Islam. The acts and behaviour of Muslim cannot be a basis in justifying the Islamic principles because sometime such behaviours do not reflect the true Islamic principles. Islam should instead be understood in a correct way from its sources i.e. the Quran, hadith and other credible sources.

On the notion of no compulsion in Islam as stated in the Holy Quran, in verse 256 of Surah Al-Baqarah, it has to be admitted that, to a certain extent, this verse has been mistakenly used to justify the claim that Muslims should be given freedom to have their own choice in observing their religion. This understanding falls short of the correct notion of “no compulsion in Islam” which means that Islam does not allow its adherents to force or compel non-Muslims to embrace Islam. Islam is a religion based on love and compassion, which calls for peace and fosters a life in absolute sincerity and honesty before Allah. Any attempt to make someone Muslim by means of pressure, threat or force is primarily against the essence of Islam. However, if someone voluntarily and with absolute sincerity embraces Islam, then he or she is automatically forced or obliged to observe all the obligations as a Muslim. In Islam, there is no such thing as being selective in practising the religious duties i.e. by accepting certain rules while disobeying some others. The only option available for Muslim is to follow all the rules and obligations prescribed in Islam. As mentioned in the Holy Quran, Allah says: “O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely [and perfectly] and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy.” [Al-Baqarah: 2:208].

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.