The Islamic Dress Code and why it Exists

Man is the only creature on earth who wears clothes. Why, because he needs them. Animals have coats and fur to clothe them, but man alone has bare skin all over.

This is because God created man as such – weak and vulnerable in his natural state. He clothed him only with a veneer of skin while he clothed the rest of creation with hardier stuff, coats of fur for the creatures of the land, plumage for those of the sky and scales for those of the sea. How is it that if indeed man evolved on this earth as atheists hold, he did not evolve a thicker skin like a dino, rhino or hippo or a coat of fur like our domestic pets? Even evolution theory cannot explain why man has no fur when even the apes of Africa from whom he is supposed to be descended have furry bodies.

The answer is simple. Man did not evolve here. He was created by God and given the earth as his abode to live and die. This is why man needs clothes, to protect himself from the ways of the world, its heat and its cold. This in itself shows that man is not of this world. His destiny is elsewhere, on a higher spiritual plane far from the animal nature atheism attributes to him.

Man doesn’t stop at that. He takes great pains to dress properly because a well dressed man is looked upon as a cultured man, a gentleman. The female of the species is still more conscious of how they dress, going to great and sometimes absurd lengths to be chic. It’s as if it were something inborn in man, this desire to dress well. But there’s another reason why humans need clothes besides protection – and that’s a feeling of shame.

Sense of Shame

Humans are the only creatures who feel a sense of shame in front of their own kind. Even the most noblest of them possess this trait. After all who can forget Lady Godiva whose husband told her that if she wanted to have the taxes of the people reduced, she would have to ride through the town of Coventry naked. She accepted the challenge and told the townsfolk to shut their doors while she rode though. Folk legend has it that the only one who broke the trust, Peeping Tom was struck blind by God. This feeling of shame is something that even evolutionary theory cannot explain, it’s that elusive!

This sense is something inborn in humans and has been there since the dawn of mankind. Adam and Eve felt it when they ate of the forbidden fruit and it has remained with their offspring ever since. So next time somebody asks you why people wear clothes, you know the answer!

So it was God who gave clothes to man, who bestowed nature with wool and cotton and other raw material to fashion clothes out of, and gave men the knowledge to put it to good use, to cover themselves for protection from the environment and to dispel their sense of shame. As God says in the Qur’an:

“O Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, and as an adornment for you. But the raiment of righteousness – That is the best

(The Heights: 26)

Yes, clothing not only covers up your sense of shame, but also gives humanity beauty so that we are more beautiful to look at. It gives grace to people. It covers our ages, bulges and contours so that we look more dignified, certainly better than the types you find in your typical nudist camp. Clothing makes us more cultured which is why much of human culture over the ages has to do with clothing. In fact historians or seasoned arts connoisseurs are able to determine the era of a person portrayed in a picture or statue just by having a look at his or her attire. Such has been man’s obsession with clothes over the ages. It’s as if man has been continually changing his clothes for better or worse. Man has not evolved, clothing has!

It’s in man’s nature to love good clothes. That’s quite natural and even God explicitly allows this in the Qur’an:

O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer. Eat and drink, but be not prodigal. He (God) loves not the prodigals

(The Heights:31)

The Prophet once said: “No one will enter Paradise in whose heart is (as much as) a mustard-seed of pride.” A companion asked: “What if a man likes his clothes to look nice and his shoes to look nice?” . The Prophet replied: “Verily, God is Beautiful and loves beauty; pride is rejecting the truth and looking down on people.”(Saheeh Muslim).

A Dress Code for All Time

However Islam does not stop at that. It lays down a code of dress code for both men and women specifying the minimum amount of clothing that has to be worn when in front of a stranger of the opposite sex.

The beauty of such a code is that it cannot change over time like we saw in Britain over the last few centuries when the modest dress of women that prevailed in the mediaeval age was dumped in favour of fashions that almost exposed their bosoms as in the Elizabethan Age, only to be revived with added vigour to cover almost every part of the body except the face and hands during the Victorian Era. By prescribing such a code Islam ensured that pristine human culture with its focus on modesty will be preserved for all time.

By setting these standards, Islam ensured that people would behave decently in society and closed the door to vice and immorality. Why because lewd men and women find that unnecessarily exposing themselves or attracting unnecessary attraction to themselves with scanty, tight or see-through clothing is the easiest way to tell people who they really are and what they want.

The dress code is this. For men, it is to cover all that is between the navel and the knees when in the presence of others except for their wives. As a saying of the Prophet puts it “Whatever is above the knee should be covered and whatever is below the navel should be covered” (Daraqutni). The wearing of clothes below the ankles is also strictly prohibited for men, for the Prophet said that “The part of a lower garment which hangs below the ankles is in the fire” (Bukhari). This is the minimum requirement for men to cover in the presence of anybody, the only exception being in the presence of one’s wife.

The Prophet himself used to dress very modestly. His attire often consisted of a qamees, a long shirt with an izaar or waist sheet for the lower garment. He also wore a red cloak, a black turban with its two ends that dangled between his shoulders and footwear with two straps on them rather like a sandal. White clothes he especially mentioned: “Wear white clothes, for they are the best of your clothes, and shroud your dead in them.”(Tirmidhi).

Thus you will find Arabs and other Muslim peoples attiring themselves in very beautiful garments, from the long flowing white robe known as dishdasha so common in the Arab world to the coats, vests and trousers common in the Indian subcontinent. You place an Arab in his white dishdasha and headdress held firmly with a black ring alongside a Westerner dressed in shirt and trousers and you’ll notice the difference. The Arab will stand out not because of his looks, but because the way he’s dressed in the almost angelic raiment that even Jesus is shown to wear.

Dress for Women

The Islamic dress code for women is a bit more strict than for men. It requires that every part of a woman should be covered when in the presence of a non-related male except for her face and hands. Ayisha, the Prophet’s wife related that when her sister Asma once came to see him, she was wearing a thin, flimsy, perhaps almost see through dress. The Prophet immediately turned away from her and said to her: “O Asma, once a woman reaches the age of puberty no part of her body should be uncovered except this and this” and he pointed to the face and hands (Abu Dawood).

Needless to say, this includes her hair. This rule of course applies only in the presence of non-related men, not before one’s husband or father or brother or sons. In fact, a woman can dress as she likes in front of her husband in the most sexiest, scintillating lingerie or harem pants if needs be with a pierced belly button to add to her allure – for her husband and him alone.

The need for women especially to be properly clad is also stressed in the Qur’an.

And tell the believing women to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers,  their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment

(The Light: 31)

It however makes an exception in the case of elderly women who are past childbearing age:

Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage – there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer garments), provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest, and God is the One who sees and Knows all things

(The Light:60)

In another verse, God instructs His Prophet:

Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks over their persons. That will be better, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed

(The Confederates: 59)

The word jilbaab mentioned here means an outer garment though whether it covered the face is uncertain. We however know that the Prophet’s wives veiled themselves when in the presence of strangers or going outdoors, based on which some jurists regard it as strongly recommended for Muslim women.

The Prophet’s wife Ayisha says that when they were with the Prophet in pilgrim’s garb, some riders appeared before them. They drew their overgarments from the head in front of the face and that when they rode past them, they uncovered their faces (Abu Dawood). However it seems that covering the face was required of the wives of the Prophet on account of their special status as the Ummul Moomineen or Mothers of the Believers and  this does not apply to Muslim women in general.

That a higher standard of propriety should be expected of the Prophet’s wives is only natural, considering their exalted position as the Mothers of the Faithful:

O Consorts of the Prophet! You are not like other women. If you fear (God) be not too complaisant of speech, lest in one’s heart is a disease be moved with desire, but speak  a speech that is just. And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display like that of the former times of ignorance, and establish regular prayer and give regular charity

(The Confederates: 32-33)

The veil was the outcome of what is known as the verses of the curtain which was meant to allocate private space to the Prophet’s household. The Prophet, needless to say, was a public figure and the assumption was that his followers could have easy and ready access to him, notwithstanding the fact that he had a right to lead a private life as well.

O ye who believe, enter not the houses of the Prophet for a meal until leave is given you, and at the proper time. But when you are invited enter; and when you have eaten, disperse. Do not engage in familiar talk, for this would annoy the Prophet and he would be ashamed to bid you go; but of the truth God is not ashamed. If you ask his wives anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. That is more chaste for your hearts and theirs

(The Confederates:53)

This was a piece of protocol that applied to the Prophet’s wives only on account of their distinct status as Ummul Moomineen or Mothers of the Believers. In other words, it was symbolic of their slightly different status. Other women soon followed their example and it became fashionable for women especially of the upper classes to wear he veil. You must also bear in mind that Arabian culture at that time was very egalitarian and it would not have been possible nor practical to prevent other Muslim women from taking to the veil.

The Mothers of the Believers were looked upon as the ideal women and so a good many women of those days adopted the veil, which in some conservative Muslim societies continues to this day as part of their culture. Did you know that in the middle ages, the wives of the crusaders also took to wearing the veil, not that they were compelled to, but only because they themselves felt it gave them more respect. Indeed some say that these crusader wives adopted the veil after seeing how well their Muslim sisters were treated by their menfolk and so wished to be treated likewise by their men.

The Hijab of Ordinary Muslim Women

That all that was required of women other than the Prophet’s wives was to cover all except the face and hands is seen from the Prophet’s statement to his sister-in-law Asma that: Once a woman reaches the age of puberty no part of her body should be uncovered except this and this” and he pointed to the face and hands (Abu Dawood).

The Qur’an certainly presupposes a society where women are not necessarily veiled, as in the verse:

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity. This will be most conducive to their purity. Verily, God is aware of all that they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may be apparent thereof”

(The Light: 30-31).

That the Holy Book should instruct men to lower their gaze when in the presence of strange women suggests that it was permissible for women to go about unveiled. Otherwise there would have been no reason for the Qur’an to command so. When a well known companion of the Prophet, Ibn Abbas was asked about the verse regarding women not displaying their charms except that which is apparent – la yubdeena zeenatahunna illa ma Zahara -, he said: “it refers to the face and hands” (Al-Musannaf, Ibn Abi Shaybah).

There is also the Prophet’s statement “The woman in pilgrim’s garb should not cover her face or wear gloves” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). Now, anything that is prohibited in the normal course of life can never be made obligatory. Thus if exposing the face was in fact prohibited for women, then how could it be made obligatory as part of the pilgrims’ garb? This suggests that veiling the face is not obligatory in Islam.

Other incidents from the lifetime of the Prophet and the early caliphs also support this view. Once Al-Fadl Bin Abbas was riding behind the Prophet on his camel, a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khatham arrived, seeking an opinion from the Apostle. Al-Fadl then began looking at her as she was a beautiful woman. The Prophet noticing his companion’s gaze, held out his hand backwards, catching the chin of Al-Fadl  and turning his face (to the other side) so that he would not gaze at her (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). This shows that the woman concerned was not veiled and the Prophet did not admonish her for being so. On another occasion when the Prophet was preaching to a group of women on a festival day, a woman with a dark spot on her cheek stood up to seek his view on something (Saheeh Muslim). That she should have been so described shows that she too was unveiled, even in the presence of the Prophet. This was so even in the days of the early caliphs.

When Umar attempted to prohibit people from paying excessive dowers, a flat-nosed woman from among the women of the audience stood up and successfully challenged his decision (Ibn Al Jawzi). This again shows that the woman concerned was unveiled since there was no other way for the others to know that she was flat-nosed.

Why Hijab differs in the case of Men and Women

Now it may be asked, why are women told to cover their entire person save for face and hands while all that is required of men to cover is the region from navel to knee. Let’s look at it this way. Even in Western countries there are laws defining what is decent and what is not. Breach them and you can be charged for indecent exposure. What this means is to cover one’s private parts, in the case of a male his genitals and in the case of a female her genitals as well as her breasts. Thus even in the West you will find that due to anatomical differences between men and women, men are treated differently from women. No country has ever charged a man for exposing his chest while even in countries like the US women could even be charged for breastfeeding their children in public.

What Islam does is raise the threshold a bit more to ensure a greater sense of modesty, thus reducing the opportunity for enticing or arousing the opposite sex as far as possible. Islam does not frown upon sex, but rather encourages it, even regarding it as a charitable deed that brings reward. However it is very particular that such sexual activity be confined to wedlock. In fact a woman may appear in the most sexiest underwear in front of her husband in the privacy of their home in order to arouse him, but not in front of others which will only open the door to adultery and its attendant evils.

But there’s another reason why Islam requires women to be covered more modestly and that is to ensure that they are not looked upon as sex objects. Throughout history men have been fascinated by the female form. Artists paint it and vulgar men fantasize about it. The large number of statues of female nudes found in cultures all over the world testify to it. Whether we like it or not, worldly men look upon women as mere objects for the gratification of their lusts.

Many a vain woman also likes to exhibit herself, just for the fun of it and this has been so since ages past. This is why that ancient Indian Sage, the Buddha observed two thousand five hundred years ago : “A woman is anxious to exhibit her form and shape, whether walking, standing, sitting or sleeping. Even when represented as a picture, she desires most of all to set off the blandishments of her beauty, and thus to rob men of their steadfast heart! How then ought you to guard yourselves? By regarding her tears and her smiles as enemies, her stooping form, her hanging arms, and all her disentangle hair as toils designed to entrap man’s heart. Then how much more should you suspect her studied, amorous beauty; when she displays her dainty outline, her richly ornamented form, and chatters gaily with the foolish man!

By requiring women to cover up, Islam ensures that men do not look at women in this way. It compels men to respect women for who they are, to judge them by their character rather than by the beauty of their bodies, by their inner spirituality, rather than outer appearances. By doing so it raises their status in the eyes of men. The moral holds true of Muslim women as it does Christian nuns.

Women’s Liberation in the Truest Sense

Thus it is women’s liberation in the truest sense, liberating women from entrenched sexist notions that a woman must be judged by her looks and looks alone. It is liberating because when a woman is dressed modestly, it allows her greater freedom to perform her duties and be an active member of society, unstifled by the gaze of vulgar men. It is also a shield against sexual harassment, unwanted advances and suggestive remarks which are only too common in the West.Why, because a woman who dresses modestly also gives a message: No fooling around with me! Treat me as a human, not as your fantasy!  How sad it is to see western women even in these enlightened times contest in beauty pageants clad in nothing but scanty bikinis to be judged by men by their bodies and nothing else.

Could women ever achieve worth by making a wanton display of their bodies? Nay, not a bit. Little wonder such women have been reduced to the level of animals with men referring to them as a chick or hot bitch. Take the pin up poster girl which some in the West believe to be the peak of female attainment. What more is she in the minds of men than sex slave or public property! Not very far from the stone age are we?

What’s more, dirty men are attracted to women with scanty clothes like a fly that settles on a piece of exposed candy. If a woman dresses like a whore, men will treat them as such. Even American men despite their liberal attitudes are known to find fault with their wife for wearing provocative clothing, with one well known actor, Mel Gibson even going on record to comment that his wife looked like a bitch in heat, and if she got raped by a pack, it will be her fault.

If indeed, the dress code for women is oppressive as some would have us believe, why is it that young Muslim women are choosing to wear it even in the west. Why is it that they are reclaiming this heritage of theirs even in those parts of the world where their mothers and grandmothers had discarded it for the sake of ‘modernity’? That is why you will find the headscarf gaining popularity in countries like Turkey and certain parts of the Arab world that once embraced Nationalist and Socialist ideals, but have since discarded these for true Islamic values. Why, because these girls know better than their parents. They know that it gives them not only what you call self-respect, but also respect in the eyes of the beholder. A woman’s hair for some odd reason has long been called their ‘crowning glory’ as if nothing else of theirs really matters.  But I tell you, cover it and you’ll place more value on her humanity and her real worth.

Even the niqaab or face veil that only a small minority of Muslim women wear is not without its use in this day and age. Women who wear it, including Western women who have embraced Islam zealously, say it is ‘liberating’ because it gives them anonymity and frees them of any inhibitions they have when they are in the presence of strange men- and especially men who tend to stare at women- helping them to express themselves better. True, this is a subjective view, but still it is a view expressed by these women themselves and we ought to respect their choices. No one should question a woman as to how she chooses to dress. It’s her choice and hers alone.

The face veil also serves a humanistic function. Why, because there are women who are physically unattractive or who are deformed or disfigured who might find it a relief to hide their defects with a voluminous gown and face veil, especially in societies where women are often judged by their looks. Thus it is unfair as some Western countries have done, to ban it. Everything in Islam has a reason. Why, because God made it so.

Modesty in Other Faiths

It is not only Islam that requires women to dress modestly, all civilized cultures did and still do. Did you know that the Latin word for bride, nupta, from which we get the English word nuptials comes from a verb nubo, literally meaning ‘to cloud’, in other words ‘to cover or veil’. This is why you will find the Roman bride always portrayed with her head veiled as a sign of modesty before her groom. To this day traditional Hindu women in India cover their heads when they go out as a mark of modesty.

Jewish and Christian women like their Muslim sisters also covered their heads in the olden days. In fact Judaism and Christianity, have at certain times, gone even further than Islam in calling for women to be veiled from head to toe. In the Bible we read that Rebecca covered her face at Isaac’s approach while in Solomon’s Song of Songs singing the charms of the beloved we hear the expression: Your eyes are doves behind your veil (4:1).

The Father of the Christian Church as we know it today, Saint Paul said:

“Women should adorn themselves with proper conduct, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hairstyles and gold ornaments, or pearls or expensive clothes, but rather as befits women who profess reverence for God, with good deeds”

(Timothy 2:9-10)

He did not stop at that, but also wanted good Christian women to cover their hair:

If a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off

(Corinthians 11:5-6)

That is why you will find that Mother Mary is always depicted in Christian imagery with her head covered like any good Muslim woman. That’s not all, have a look at your nuns covered all in black and with hooded heads, looking even more modest than the average Muslim woman who may opt for a more colourful headscarf and may even have a nose stud or ring to adorn her face, the only ornament she could really display while sticking to Islamic norms.

In the Eastern Churches the covering of the head is taken further. In Russia for instance, it is not only nuns who cover their heads, but also ordinary women who will never go to church without a head covering. Indeed in the olden days, it was not only in church that Western women covered their heads. Have a look at the old pictures of noblewomen like Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France in 15th century or Anna Jagielon Queen of Poland or even Queen Victoria of Britain in her old age, just to name a few. In fact it was the accepted practice for Anglo-Saxon women to cover their heads when going outdoors during the Middle Ages.

To this day certain orthodox Christian groups in America like the Amish and Anabaptists require that women cover their heads at all times. Indeed Anabaptist women take it further, wearing  headcoverings to bed or when in the shower as their church holds that a woman is obliged to rebel against her husband if he as much as forbids her to wear the covering at all times, because as they say, it is better to obey God than to obey man. This means that these nice ladies cannot even take off their head coverings when having sex with their husbands. They go that far. Thank God our women never take it so far. But the point I want to stress is that covering the head is really as much a part of Christianity as much as it is of Islam.

Some Christians of old went even further, advocating the veiling of the face as well. An early Church father of the third century, Tertullian in his treatise on The Veiling of Virgins De Virginibus Velandis stressed on the necessity for the veiling of women, both virgins and married women, both inside and outside the church. The veil he advocated for Christian women was to cover the head and neck well down the back, so as to make it impossible for another to look into her face, and for her to look at others. He went on to declare: “All ages are endangered in you. Put on the armour of modesty, surround yourself with a rampart of chastity, cover your sex with a wall which neither allows your eyes beyond it nor admits others in”.

You will still find remnants of this attitude in the flimsy white veils of brides and the black veils of widows which western women still wear on special occasions. To this day it is the custom for the bride to enter the marriage ceremony with a flimsily veiled head and face until the marriage is over or her father lifts it up in presenting her to the groom or the groom himself lifts it up. As for the black veils of widows, you only have to look at the famous photo of Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funeral or of the royal women at the funeral of King George VI. So just as Islam has had its ultra orthodox strain, which thankfully has never gone beyond a certain fringe, so has Christianity.

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