Hijab: Quran is to be Understood in the Context of Time – Every One Knows It But Does Not Say It

Burqa – This could be my paternal grandmother in her younger years

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

The picture above could be of my paternal grandmother in her younger years, she was born in 1910 and passed away in 1982, except that there were no color cameras in Pakistan, when she was in her twenties and thirties.

I do not remember her ever wearing such a Burqa, but I remember clearly from my early childhood that she had one, I believe her’s was white in color.

I loved my grandmother, however, I do not remember having any positive or negative emotions or associations about this article of clothing until 2001.  Since, September 11, 2001, I have come to abhor this article of clothing, given its association with the Taliban and it becoming a symbol of lack of human rights in the Muslim societies, compared to the Western world.

Another form of Burqa – My mother could be in this picture but obviously I cannot tell

My mother in her twenties through forties dressed like what is shown in the above picture. It was an overcoat of a thin soft black clothing and a separate headgear with two relatively transparent face veils. Individually the veils were some what see through, but together these became almost opaque. Many of the ladies of her generation would use both of the face veils in public.  During that time it was not uncommon to hear from devout Muslims that only hands and feet of women can be uncovered in public.

In her fifties through seventies, she would be in what we call Hijab these days, but without any make up.  The picture below would represent that:

This is what is conventionally called Hijab these days

The above is what is called Hijab these days. The above lady could be my sister, cousin, niece or daughter-in-law, except that she is not. Many of the ladies in my family now will dress like her.

The Holy Quran has a couple of verses about modest dressing. In the most often quoted verse on the subject, it says:

And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, or to their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands or their sons or the sons of their husbands or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their women, or what their right hands possess, or such of male attendants as have no sexual appetite, or young children who have no knowledge of the hidden parts of women. And they strike not their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may become known. And turn ye to Allah all together, O believers, that you may succeed. (Al Quran 24:31/32)

This verse defines immediate family and modest dressing.

How do the Muslims understand the above verse and what has it meant over the decades in the last century, as far as modest dressing is concerned?

The apologists for Islam, from all sects, would have debated tooth and nail for the exclusive validity and approval in the eyes of Allah, for only one of the three above examples, in the relevant era.

Today some of them will deny that such a progression has happened in the last century and would like to find comfort in their emotionally and strongly held belief that the Quran does not change over time and need not be understood and interpreted in the light of demands and needs of the time.

These could be my nieces on a Western beach. I do not have any daughters, but for my generation or my parents’ generation even this small degree of freedom would have been inconceivable

Omar Naseef; Muslim, Writer, Traveler, Author, Foodie and Adventurer, in a recent article, titled, God Is Living, So Why Does Religion Treat God As Dead? wrote in the Huffington Post, what is meant by a ‘living’ or a ‘dead’ document:

There’s a vigorous debate in the United States about the nature of our constitution. Liberals tend to argue that the constitution is a living document, while conservatives, like the late Justice Scalia, claim our constitution is ‘dead, dead, dead’.

If the authors of the constitution were alive today – having lived through 239+ years of U.S. history – do we really think they would ask their 1787 selves how to interpret the constitution?

This same ‘living’ versus dead argument often happens in religion. Those who argue for ‘dead’ are often conservatives, and they are hurting their own cause. It is proper for all of us to deliberate before breaking with long-held tradition. However, insisting that the understanding of sacred text is frozen puts the most fundamental belief of religion at risk.

When any religious person claims that a sacred text is ‘dead’ – in that the understanding of its meaning is fixed forever – they are directly at odds with their own idea of a living, active God.

Each one of the Muslims, whether conservative or liberal, young or old, man or woman, actually has seen many examples in their lives that the Holy Quran is to be interpreted in the context of time, whether he or she fully realizes it or acknowledges it or not.

In this article I have talked about only Hijab, but, a series of articles will follow.

Zafrulla and JFK
Sir Zafarulla Khan in a meeting with President John F Kennedy

Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, the first foreign minister of Pakistan and one time President of the United Nations General Assembly,  highlighted in his book, Islam – Its Meaning for Modern Man, in the chapter about the Holy Quran that it is a dynamic and a living document. He writes:

It is this comprehensiveness of the Quran, the need to make provision for guidance in every respect for all peoples for all time, that made it necessary that the guidance should be conveyed in verbal revelation. The Quran is literally the Word of God and possesses the quality of being alive, as the universe is alive. It is not possible to set forth at any time the whole meaning and interpretation of the Quran or, indeed, of any portion of it with finality. It yields new truths and fresh guidance in every age and at every level. It is a standing and perpetual miracle (18:110).

The world is dynamic and so is the Quran. Indeed, so dynamic is the Quran that it has always been found to keep ahead of the world and never to lag behind it. However fast the pace at which the pattern of human life may change and progress, the Quran always yields, and will go on yielding, the needed guidance in advance. This has now been demonstrated through more than thirteen centuries, and that is a guarantee that it will continue to be demonstrated through the ages.

The Quran has proclaimed that falsehood will never overtake it. All research into the past and every discovery and invention in the future will affirm its truth (41:43). The Quran speaks at every level; it seeks to reach every type of understanding, through parables, similitudes, arguments, reasoning, the observation and study of the phenomena of nature, and the natural, moral, and spiritual laws (18:55; 39:28; 59:22).

The Quranic principles are profound and everlasting, but, the details are negotiable. We will always be able to demonstrate the benefits of modest dressing and modesty in general, in any society or at any time. For example, read: Modesty–A universal Value and Wearing Hijab for Modesty in All Things. But, modest dressing will look some what different in different times and places.

This is an age of information and younger generations are very proficient in quickly finding out relevant details on any issue. So, the apologists of Islam need to do due diligence if they want to remain relevant.

I do love the Quran and study it every day. But, I am also a pragmatist and do not want to hold any positions that a little Google search or listening to a few videos in YouTube exposes.

Welcome to the new world and a more rational understanding of the scriptures. Stay tuned for future examples to show in the words of Sir Zafrulla: “The world is dynamic and so is the Quran. Indeed, so dynamic is the Quran that it has always been found to keep ahead of the world and never to lag behind it. However fast the pace at which the pattern of human life may change and progress.”

Suggested Reading about the Quran

Reading the Quran and the Bible Literally Means Demons and Jinns Will Rule Humans

The Holy Quran Does Not Exhaust Any Subject in Any One Chapter

God Is Living, So Why Does Religion Treat God As Dead?

Explaining Misinterpretations of the Holy Text to a Christian Audience

Meeting the Quranic Adam with Charles Darwin


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