sistershelpThe sources in Islamic law are primarily the Qur’aan and Sunnah[1]. The Qur’an, the book held sacred by Muslims, contains approximately 500 verses dealing with diverse topics which are of a legal relevance. The Sunnah represents the repository of reports of sayings, acts and consent of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam). The role of the Sunnah is seen as an elaboration of the Quranic injunctions. There are other sources which derive from the two primary sources and they are the Ijmaa’ (legal consensus), Qiyaas (analogical deduction) and other disputed sources but they are not relevant to the discussion at hand.

The Notion of an Islamic Dress Code

Islamic law is comprehensive in its enunciation of a code of conduct with respect to an individual’s life and dealings with others. Part of this are the rules pertaining to dress and attire. The dress code includes rules for men and women. So for example, a man is obliged to cover a certain part of his body whilst in front of others and he is not allowed to wear gold and silk which women are allowed to do. On the other hand women are also obliged to cover a certain part of their person when going out of the family home wearing a headscarf (Khimaar) and an outer garment (Jilbaab) which men are not required to do. Thus, the Jilbaab is not a new innovation but part of the well known attire of the dress code for Muslim women.

Explicit Mention of Jilbaab in Primary Muslim Religious Sources

The authority of the requirement for women to wear the Jilbaab is the Qur’an itself. In the chapter of al-Ahzaab (The Confederates) the following verse instructs Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam),

{O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their jalaabeeb (pl. of jilbaab) close around them; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle.}[2]

The divine wisdom for instructing women to wear the Jilbaab mentioned in the above verse is so that women be modestly attired and not be subject to the irreverent insults of the unscrupulous.

The obligation of Jilbaab is also derived from the Sunnah of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) which is the second primary source of law for Muslims.

Umm Atiyyah narrated: We were ordered to bring out our menstruating women and screened women to the religious gatherings and invocation of the Muslims on the two Eid festivals. These menstruating women were to keep away from the musallah (place of prayer). A woman asked,

"O Messenger of Allah! What about one who does not have a Jilbaab?”

He said, "Let her borrow the Jilbaab of her companion."[3]

The above understanding was practised by women at the time of the revelation of the above verse as the following reports indicate,

Umm Salamah (a wife of the Prophet) narrated,

“When the verse, {That they should draw their Jalabeeb close around them} was revealed, the women of Ansaar (inhabitants of Madinah) came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing Jalaabeeb.[4]

'Aa'ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) also reported,

“The wife of Rifa'a al-Qurazi came to Allah's Messenger while I was sitting...and she was showing the fringe of her Jilbaab.”[5]

The Opinion of Reputable Experts in Quranic Exegeses

The classical experts of Quranic exegesis all support the legitimacy of the Jilbaab with only difference being whether it extends to covering that face. Here are some quotes from the most widely recognised Islamic sources.

Ibn Jarir At-Tabari (d.310[6]):

‘God Almighty said to His Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam[7]): Tell your wives, daughters and the wives of the believers…that they should draw over themselves their Jilbabs.’

Al-Qurtubi (d.671):

‘Jalabeeb is the plural of Jilbaab, and it is a garment larger than a Khimaar (headscarf). It has been narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas and Ibn Mas'ood that it is a ridhaa (large sheet of cloth). It is said that it is a qina’ (veil) but the correct view is that it is a garment which covers the whole body. It has been reported in Sahih Muslim on the authority of Umm ‘Atiyyah who asked; "O Messenger of Allah! What about one who does not have a Jilbaab?". He said, "Let her borrow the Jilbaab of her companion."

Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (d. 606):

‘In the days of Jaahiliyyah (pre-Islamic times) the free and women in bondage would go out uncovered and they would be followed by those intent on fornication and consequently allegations would be levelled against them. So that is why God ordered the free women to wear the Jilbaab.'[8]

Ibn Kathir (d.774):

‘God Almighty commands His Messenger (Muhammad) to command the believing women – especially his wives and daughters – to draw the Jilbaab over their persons’[9]

In Safwat at-tafaaseer, a modern work by Muhammad Ali as-Sabuni, which compiled the exegeses from most of the reputable works of Quranic exegesis, said that verse 59 of chapter Ahzab is saying to the Prophet to,

‘Tell the women that they should wear a wide outer garment.’ [10]

This view is not confined only to Sunnis but is the view of the Imami Shia as well. Al-Janabizi said,

‘The women did not cover their faces and chests with their Jilbaabs, hence God Almighty ordered them to cover their faces and chest with Jilbaabs so that they can be distinguished from other women. The woman’s Jilbaab is a wide garment worn over the normal clothes…’ [11]

Views of Contemporary Scholars

jilbaab657The classical position that that the Jilbaab is obligatory is the view generally held by contemporary scholars as well. Like the classical scholars, their difference was over whether the Jilbaab should cover the face or not, and not on the conditions of the Jilbaab. As an example of the contemporary position the following are words of the deobandi Mufti Ibn Adam al-Kawthari which is representative of the general view,

‘The above and other interpretations of jilbaab are clear that a Jilbaab is the outer garment that women must wear when emerging in front of strangers. This garment must be wide, loose, and modest and covers the body completely.’

Sheikh Muhammad Al-Hanooti:

‘The verse 59 of Surah Al-Ahzab urges a woman to wear a Jilbab. A Jilbab means the outer garment over her inner clothes to guarantee that everything of her body is covered and doesn’t show or shape any of her figures. That is the objective of Sharee’ah.’

What is a Jilbaab?

The jilbaab is an outer garment which covers the whole body. This definition is discerned from a lexical and textual basis:

Lexical description of Jilbaab as an Outer Garment:

The nature and description of the Jilbaab can be understood from the lexical definition of the word Jilbaab as explained in classical Arabic dictionaries. These sources also explain the function of the Jilbaab as an outer garment:

Ibn Manzur,

"The Jilbaab is the outer garment, mantle, or cloak. It is derived from the verb tajallbaba, which means to clothe. Jilbaab is the outer sheet or covering which a woman wraps around her on top of her garments to cover herself from head to toe. It hides her body completely."[12]

Al-Fayruz Abadi,

"The that which conceals the clothes like a cover."[13]

As for modern dictionaries it is worth citing from the monumental work of the 19th-century British scholar and lexicographer Edward William Lane (1801-76),

‘Jilbaab: …one that envelopes the whole body: (TA) and a wide garment for a woman, less than the milhafah (sheet): or one with which a woman covers over her other garments…’[14]

This description has also been given in the Oxford Dictionary of Islam edited by John L. Esposito where it states,

‘Jilbab: Generic term for women’s outer garment (shawl, cloak, wrap) in Arabian sedentary communities before and after the rise of Islam. The Qur’an (333:59) instructs Muslim women to cloak themselves as a mark of status and as a defensive measure against sexual harassment in public places.’[15]

The textual definition as enunciated by the law giver is of Jilbaab as an outer garment.

The reasons for concluding that the Jilbaab is an outer garment are textual as well as linguistic. What is meant by textual in this context is the primary corpus of Islamic legal text obligated by the law giver i.e. the Qur’aan and the practise of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). So for example, in chapter 24 the following verse gives elderly women the option to set aside their outer garment,

jilbaabis566{And as for women past child-bearing who do not expect wed-lock, it is no sin on them if they discard their (outer) clothing in such a way as not to show their adornment. But to refrain (i.e. not to discard their outer clothing) is better for them. And Allâh is All-Hearer, All-Knower.} [24:60]

The garment mentioned must be an outer garment as the verse could not possibly be saying they should discard their normal everyday clothing. That is why companions of Muhammad, such as Ibn ‘Abbaas and Ibn Mas’ood, both understood the garment to refer to the Jilbaab, since that is the outer garment that is worn by women.[16] Both of whom are considered experts in Quran exegesis.

Authority for it as an outer garment is also to be found in the Sunnah. The above report of Umm ‘Atiyyah is clear in its indication that the Jilbaab is an outer garment. This is because the Prophet (peace be upon him) stipulated that before going out she needs to wear Jilbaab and if she does not have one she must "…borrow the jilbab of her companion."[17] The fact that she was not allowed to go outside without it indicates its function as an outer garment.

Also Abu Dawud records a report on the authority of Umm Salamah (a wife of the Prophet) which indicates that Jilbaab is an outer garment. It is reported that she asked the Prophet,

"Can a woman pray in a long dress and a headscarf without wearing an Izaar (a type of Jilbaab)?"

He (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) replied, "If the long dress is ample and covers the surface of her feet." (Abu Dawud[18]) The fact that Umm Salmah asked if she can wear a long dress and headscarf without the Izaar (Jilbaab), this indicates that the Izaar (Jilbaab) is normally worn on top of the regular clothes.

This is supported by the view of companions who said that the clothing of women during prayer is the above three items, which means the Izaar (jilbaab) must have been worn above the normal clothes. So, for example, it is narrated that 'Umar (radhiallahu `anhu) said,

‘The woman should pray in three items of clothing: long dress, headscarf and Izaar (Jilbaab).’

It is also reported that his son Abdullah b. Umar said,

‘The woman should pray wearing long dress, headscarf and milhafa[19] (Jilbaab).’[20]

It is due to the above narrations that ash-Shirazi took the view that the jilbaab is the outer garment as the following excerpt shows,

‘It is recommended that when a woman prays that she wears three items of clothing: a headscarf by which to cover the head and neck. A dress to cover the body and feet and a Milhafah (jilbaab) by which to cover her clothes. This is due to the report that Umar (radhiallahu 'anhu) said, ‘The woman should pray in three items of clothing: dress, headscarf and Izaar (Jilbaab).’ It is also reported that Abdullah b. Umar who said, ‘The woman should pray wearing dress, headscarf and Milhafah (Jilbaab).’ Also, it is recommended that her Jilbaab is thick so that it does not describe parts of her body and does not move away when she assumed the bowing and prostration positions so that it does not describe her clothes.’

An-Nawawi (d.676)[21], a commentator of Al-Shirazi’s Muhazzab explained the latter’s comments and attributed it to Shaafi'ee (the founder of the Shafi’i school of thought),

‘This ruling has been stated by ash-Shaafi’ee and the scholars of the school are agreed on this.’

Then he quotes the view that the Jilbaab,

‘ a sheet worn over the clothes (i.e. that it is an outer garment)’ saying, ‘This view is correct and it is the view of ash-Shaafi’ee (i.e. that the Jilbaab is worn over ones clothes).[22]

Ibn Hazm stated in his al-Muhalla,

‘In the Arabic language of the Prophet, Jilbaab is the outer garment which covers the entire body. A piece of cloth which is too small to cover the entire body could not be called Jilbaab.’[23]

Thus, the fact that the Jilbaab is an outer garment is established by the Qur’aan and Sunnah and it is the same meaning understood by the Companions of Muhammad (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) and attested by the scholars.

Other conditions:

There are other conditions which are not specific to Jilbaab but generally applicable to all clothing when women go before men who aren’t Mahrams ('Mahrams' refers to close relations to whom marriage is impermissible or the spouse) whether inside or outside the home. They are the following:

i. It must be loose-fitting
ii. Should not be semi-transparent
iii. Should not become an attraction (Tabarruj)
iv. Should not resemble the clothing of men.

These conditions are well known and accepted and there is no need to dwell on them, for further discussion of their evidences one can consult the relevant books of Islamic jurisprudence.[24]

Is Shalwaar Kameez Sufficient?

The question that needs to be answered is that does it fulfil the key requirements of a Jilbaab i.e. is it a loose fitting outer garment which covers the entire body? The Shalwaar Kameez normally does not cover the whole body but leaves some parts exposed and nor is it always loose fitting and provided even these conditions are met, it is certainly not an outer garment. It is not worn over ones normal clothes; rather it is an every day garment worn by south Asian women. An outer garment by definition is worn over the home clothes and outside the home whereas the Shalwaar Kameez is the normal home clothes worn inside the home. Therefore, the Shalwaar Kameez fails the first basic criteria of being an outer garment before one looks at the other criteria’s that have been mentioned.

Is modest clothing enough to fulfil the requirement of Jilbaab?

The answer to the question depends whether one includes the conditions mentioned above as part of what constitutes modest clothing. It is valid that the outside garments do not all have to be uniform in their design but they nevertheless have to fulfil the criteria set down by Islamic law. Modesty is not left to the subjective interpretation of individuals but rules have been laid down governing the requirements of modesty i.e. modesty cannot transcend the conditions but must incorporate them. Hence, it is not enough that the garments cover the whole body but is tight fitting and nor is it enough that it is loose fitting but not an outer garment. In this respect, the outer garment can be of diverse forms as long as the individual conditions have been met.

Juristic Difference and the Muslim Individual

Those who aren't familiar with Islamic law wonder why certain Muslims insist on following a rule which other Muslims do not follow and consequently assume that the one insisting is extreme or unnecessarily strict. So for example, a particular Muslim scholar might see a certain dress as acceptable, but this does not mean others are bound or even allowed to follow this view. The reason for the difference is that like any other legal tradition Muslim jurists differ on the details of law and it is up to the individual to follow the verdict of the jurist s/he regards as the most trustworthy and competent. The criterion for following a particular ruling is not self interest and expediency but the competence of the jurist who derived it. Having followed a particular verdict this becomes God’s law for that individual and cannot be changed for considerations of public approval or disapproval. This is because not following the rule is an abandonment of a religious obligation which has to be accounted for in the Hereafter. Thus, in the context of the Jilbaab for a Muslim woman who follows a particular jurist’s understanding of what is required by Islamic law, she is obliged to follow that even if others hold different views simply because she believes that view to be sound. In this respect, it does not matter what contrary views exist out there as the obligation on her is to follow the jurist she trusts and not what is expedient. Particularly in this case as the view that Jilbaab is necessary, it is something that has been expressed in both the letter of the law and in harmony with the spirit of the law. In fact it is a rule that traditionally has not been a matter of dispute amongst early jurists.

Religious Duty or Political Statement?

Jilbaab is essentially a religious duty first and foremost. The authority for it is derived directly from Islamic sources and not the political writings of contemporary Muslims. It was advocated by the classical jurists who expounded its requirement a thousand years before the phenomenon of resurgent Islam. The Jilbaab predates the current political controversies and therefore the motivation for adhering to it is born of a feeling of religious obligation and not a political statement.

The legislative wisdom behind the Jilbaab dress code is for women to be modestly attired, as mentioned in the aforementioned verse and commentary of the Qur’aan. The motivation is religious. Had the motive been other than religious then it would not be accepted as an act of worship which requires that the act be of exclusive devotion to God. Wearing it as a political statement or even as a fashion statement and not a religious obligation will still be considered as a sinful act because the motivation was not adherence to the religious obligation, which is the only motive that is acceptable in matters of obedience to God.

Is Jilbaab a symbol of Oppression?

The Muslim woman’s attire is viewed by some non-Muslims as oppressive because, it is claimed, the Jilbaab represents the inferior status of woman, that they are compelled against their will or that it inhibits their participation in public life. This view is not born of an understanding of the divine wisdom for legislating the dress and nor from the positive effects that accrue from its adherence. Rather, the origins of such thinking are the abuse of women by some Muslim men which Islamic law itself denounces or the stereotypical perceptions of the role of women in Islaam[25]. Islamic law views men and women as the same in their worth and religiosity before their Lord. The disparity in the rules arises not from a discriminatory view of any one gender but the fact that Islamic law recognises that there is a gender difference and hence prescribes rules accordingly. The great majority of rules apply equally to men and women due to their identical nature, but differ in a few cases due to the gender dissimilarity.

Thus, Muslim women wear the Jilbaab to remain modestly attired in public life and feel that it enhances their worth rather than diminish it. Its practical effects are also appealing to women who feel they can confidently[26] participate in outside activities, such as work and study, free from the disrespectful glances of men. So far from obstructing women’s social participation the jilbaab actually facilitates it by empowering and liberating her from unwanted sexual advances and thereby promoting an atmosphere which is conducive to the social interaction of men and women.



[1] For a good over view see: Sources of Islamic Law: An Overview by Yasin Dutton.
[2] Qur’an: (33:59)
[3] Sahih Bukhari Book 8/347
[4] Sunan Abu Dawud 32/4090
[5] Sahih Bukhari Book 72/684
[6] Date of death according to Hijri calendar.
[7] pbuh is abbreviation for ‘peace be upon him.’
[8] ar-Razi, Fakhr ad-Din, at-Tafsir al-Kabir, p.231.
[9] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Azim.
[10] as-Sabuni, Muhammad Ali, safwat at-tafasir, p.538.
[11] al-Janabizi, Tafsir bayan al-sa’adah fi muqaddimat al-ibadah, see commentary of verse 59 of surah Ahzab.
[12] Ibn Man.zur, Muhammad ibn Mukarram, Lisan al-`Arab, (Bayrut : Dar .Sadir, 1955-56). Vol.7, p. 273.
[13] Al-Fayruzabadi, al-Qamus al-Muhit,
[14] Lane, Edward William, An Arabic-English lexicon, (London 1863-1893) under the relevant root verb.
[15] Esposito, John L. (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, (Oxford University Press, 2003).p.160.
[16] al-Qurtubi, Jami li-ahkam al-Qur’an, verse 60 of sura Nur.
[17] Sahih Bukhari Book 8/347
[18] This narration is mawquf and is attributed more correctly to Umm Salama, the wife of the Prophet.
[19] Milhafa is a synonym of jilbab. Notice here Abdullah b. Umar uses the word milhafa (jilbab) instead of izar, indicating that izar here is the jilbab. See al-majmu’ sharh al-muhazzab, p.259.
[20] Al-Nawawi, al-majmu’ sharh al-muhazzab, (Beirut, 2002), pp.258.
[21] A major reference for Islamic law who’s interpretation of law is canonized in the Malaysian legal code.
[22] An-Nawawi, al-majmu’ sharh al-muhazzab, (Beirut, 2002), pp.258-9.
[23] Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla, vol. 3, p.217
[24] For a contemporary source see Badawi, Jamal, The Muslim Woman’s Dress According to the Qur’an and Sunnah, (Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd,1980) or
[25] Bullock, Kathrine, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging and Historical and Modern Stereotypes, (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2002).p.73.
[26] Ali, Sayyid, ‘Why Here, Why Now? Young Muslim Women Wearing Hijab,’ The Muslim World, vol.95, (2005), pp.515-530.