The Niqab is cultural?

It is often the claim of 'moderate' Muslims that the niqab is cultural.  This is some remnant of Arab culture, but 'real' Islam doesn't require women to hide behind the Niqab.  The 'Hijab on the other hand is considered the sign of a good Islamic woman.

I plan to investigate this here from the Islamic texts to show this is simply untrue.

'Real Islam'
'Cultural Relic'

For example, here's an article from the Toronto Star about the Niqab.

THE MCC'S call comes on the heels of an incident this month in which the head of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, whom many consider to be Sunni Islam's foremost spiritual authority, asked a young woman to remove her niqab in her all-girls classroom when she stood up to ask him a question. According to media reports, he then told her the niqab was a cultural practice not founded in Islam.

But Tantawi's comments especially strengthened the stance of progressive Muslim groups who say the niqab is a cultural practice and a symbol of more conservative Islam.

Or there's everyone's favorite Islamist reformer, Irshad Manji
The niqab is rooted in Arab tribal culture, not in Islam and certainly not in Qu’ranic Islam. How do you reconcile being a walking billboard for one of the more chauvinstic aspects of Arab tribal culture and calling yourself free?”
Once again, let's have a look at the real Islamic sources to see which one is more Islamic.

The verse in the Koran that brings about the idea of a woman covering her head is:

[24.31] And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful.

Now of course being Arabic, words are always up for interpretation.  So what has always been the debate is people wondering what is meant by the various words.

So why don't we look at the Hadith to see what is meant by the versus.

The Origin of the verse

First, let us see how the verse came into being.

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 (Book #4, Hadith #148)

This is rather clear actually.  More importantly, one can read more into the verse from the fact that Umar recognized the prophet's wife and this brought about the covering verse.  I don't see how a Hijab would stop you from recognizing someone.  Yet, the niqaab would definitely stop someone from recognizing someone.

Other Hadith

There are loads of Hadith in support of the Niqab and others supporting the Hijab. I won't dwell on them too much, but here is one of the major ones in support of Hijab.

Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin: Asma, daughter of AbuBakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) turned his attention from her. He said: O Asma', when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.  
AbuDawud (Book #32, Hadith #4092)

 Here is one emphasizing the Niqab
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 (Book #60, Hadith #282)

I chose the above two as examples as they don't really use vague words like veil and instead actually demonstrate what is meant to be covered.  But we see again, that the versus explaining what is meant by the Koranic verse... it is once again stated that the Niqab should be worn.

There's a lot of complexity to analyzing such things especially due to abrogation.  That is versus and commands are often overrided by newer versus.  Not to mention each hadith must be taken in context. There's also the possibility that the versus of Hijab only apply to the wives of the prophet.


I think if you take any of the Islamic sources seriously (Koran or Hadith), then the Niqab is a very likely requirement on Muslim women.  The purpose of the verse is to HIDE women from public view so they are not recognized.  This is done by the niqab and not by the hijab. So this idea that the niqab is somehow merely cultural is simply bogus.

Now you can certainly adopt the position that the hiding of women was due to historic safety concerns or other such specific situations. Or you can say the verse only applies to wives of the prophet. In which case the entire Hijab versus becomes not relevant to modern society and neither the Niqab or Hijab have anything applicable today.

My main point is not that the Niqab is mandatory, but that it has just as much rooting in Islam as the Hijab. It is not 'cultural'.  The idea of Muslim women wearing the Hijab as Islamic, and then dismissing the Niqab as 'cultural' is simply ignorance or deceit.

Once again, if you believe the Koran/Hadith are for specific times long gone, this is not an issue.


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