Question: I was told that Muslim women must cover their hair but I could not find where it says that anywhere in the Qur’an or Hadith. Is it okay if I just wear modest clothing but without covering my hair?
It is an obligation for Muslim women to cover their hair in public. This is very clearly mentioned in the Qur’an where it says: “Tell the believing women to…draw their headscarves over their chests…” [Qur’an 24:31]. The verse makes it clear that women are not only required to wear a headscarf, which primarily serves the purpose of covering the head, but to wear it in a specific way.
Background of the Issue
It is a mercy from Allah that He taught us what etiquette would be best for society. Within those teachings He has mandated a dress code for both men and women. However, with the increasing pressure of the modern fashion industry the Islamic dress code for women in particular is being questioned by many Muslims. I have observed many people arguing that it is not an obligation for a woman to cover her head [this is known today as wearing ḥijāb]. In fact, I myself used to argue the same position prior to embarking on a more detailed study of Islam.
One of the arguments commonly used for such a position is that the verse does not specifically say to cover the hair but rather speaks of only covering the chest. Another argument used is that the word ḥijāb, which is commonly used for headscarf nowadays, doesn’t mean headscarf in the Qur’an. A third argument is the assumption that the issue of women covering their hair is open to different interpretations and it is therefore a matter of valid scholarly disagreement whether it is an obligation or merely a recommendation.
None of the aforementioned arguments are strong. Covering the hair for a woman is a clear obligation in Islam and she will be sinful for abandoning the practice, unless there are extreme circumstances which warrant an exception to the general rule. It is very important for every Muslim to know the dress code that is required of them so they will be accurately practicing the teachings of Islam.
The Qur’anic verse obligating women to cover their hair is as follows: “Tell the believing women to…draw their headscarves over their chests…” [Qur’an 24:31] Different translations of the Qur’an have rendered the Arabic word khumur [singular: khimār] as ‘veils’ [Yusuf Ali], ‘scarves’ [Abdul Majid Daryabadi] and ‘shawls’ [Taqi Usmani]. Even though it is common to use the word ḥijāb nowadays to refer to the headscarf, the word used in the Qur’an was khimār. It is important to understand that the word used only has the meaning of a headscarf, and not any other article of clothing. It cannot refer to a scarf that is draped around the neck nor to a shawl that is used to cover other parts of the body.
The word khimār [meaning headscarf] is similar to the word ‘hat’. Both of them are used to cover the head. Therefore, if someone were to say, “make sure your hat covers your ears,” the covering of the head would automatically be implied in the sentence because that is what the function of a hat is. Were someone to argue that since the head was not explicitly mentioned, they could dangle a hat off each ear and this would fulfill what the speaker said, it would be dismissed as ridiculous. Likewise is the case of someone who assumes the verse is telling women to use a headscarf to only cover their chest area and not their head. This should serve as a sufficient answer to people who ask, “Where does Allah tell women to cover the hair in the Qur’an?”
One might ask why Allah used this manner of speaking. Why didn’t He just mention that women must cover their hair, in plain and clear wording, so that there would be no confusion among people today? In order to answer such a question, the historical context in which the Qur’an was revealed must be understood. Women in many parts of the world used to cover their hair. In Arabia, they used a headscarf which would cover their hair and then they would drape the ends of that scarf behind their shoulders. The verse clarified to women that this is not sufficient for modesty because the neck and upper-chest areas are exposed, so they must drape their headscarves over their chest areas to make sure that part is covered as well. Since women were already covering their head there was no need to tell them to cover it again. The case is similar to a corporation that tells their employees the dress code at work requires everyone to ensure that their shirt is buttoned up to the top so that the upper-chest area is not exposed. It is common culture for people to already wear shirts to work so there is no need to explain to these employees that the shirt must cover their entire back, stomach and chest areas: that would be redundant and unnecessary.
Another angle to look at this issue from is to consider what the implications of the contrary argument would be. I have personally heard several people arguing that the ‘chest’ referred to in the verse is speaking about the breasts of a woman. The argument goes that Arab women used to not cover their breasts in public and the verse is ordering them to cover up. If this was the case, and if the verse required only covering the chest, as is claimed, then the rest of the verse would appear very problematic: “Tell the believing women to…draw their headscarves over their chests…except in front of their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons…” This reading would imply that a woman does not need to cover her chest [i.e. breasts] in front of all the male relatives mentioned. It is doubtful that people who make such an argument would be comfortable with such a conclusion.
The final point worth mentioning is that, as far as I know, no recognized Muslim scholar for at least a thousand years after the revelation of the Qur’an has ever made an argument to the contrary about women being required to cover their hair in public. Furthermore, no Arabic linguist, as far as I know, has ever argued that a khimār is anything but a head cover. This is significant because it would mean that people who do make such an argument, namely, that a headscarf is not a requirement, have discovered something which eluded Muslims for centuries. It has not been a matter of legitimate scholarly debate in the past and it is highly unlikely that something so significant, and public, would have been completely misunderstood for such a long time. It is more probable that people who do make such an argument are, intentionally or otherwise, using intellectual gymnastics to ‘reinterpret’ the Qur’an to mean something that it doesn’t.
Following the tenets of Islam is a choice. Choices should be grounded in accurate information. It is hoped that this explanation clarifies what the Qur’an really says on this issue.
 Az-Zamakhshari, al-Kashshaf.