The Hijab

In 1988, the Irish chose to celebrate the millennium of the foundation of Dublin during Viking times, a completely arbitrary date, but never mind.

One of the ways of celebrating it was to recreate a Viking village in a city centre location and people it with actors who had been well drilled in their roles. It was located in the basement of a spacious building and one entered the ‘village’ itself through a lift which, instead of floors, showed the years 1988 all the way back to 988 at which point the doors opened and we emerged into the ‘village’. My group included some Canadian tourists, women who were rather modestly dressed with skirts and their hair rather neatly trimmed.

When we emerged from the lift, there were some buildings in a kind of mock-Viking style and here and there various ‘Viking’ figures standing around absolutely still. They were models, clothes dummies dressed in costume. One had its back to us. We were startled when it turned suddenly to face us, because we had assumed it to be inanimate. The man also evinced astonishment at seeing us, and burst out, speaking to the two Canadian women, “What kind of women are you that you don’t cover your hair and your dresses don’t reach to the ground?” Then he added, “Of course, you must be slave women, for no free woman would dress like that.”

Here the actors had been prepared with a piece of information that few modern people know, least of all those who most need it: Muslims, and specifically, Muslim women. The hijab, the head scarf and its associated modest clothing that drapes over the entire body are not the distinction between Muslim women and non-Muslim women, but rather have always been, in all sorts of societies even  Viking society, the distinction between free women and slave women. Few people know today that slave women do not need to cover their hair even if they are Muslims, and indeed, according to some views were not allowed to, even in the prayer.

This is from the Kitab al-Athar of Imam Abu Hanifah, may Allah be merciful to him, as narrated by Imam Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ash-Shaybani:

219. Muhammad said, “Abu Hanifah informed us from Hammad that Ibrahim said concerning slave women, ‘They pray without head-covering or veil, even if they reach a hundred years and have children by their owner.’”

220. Muhammad said, “Abu Hanifah informed us from Hammad from Ibrahim that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab  used to beat slave women if they covered their heads, saying, ‘Do not try to emulate free women.’”

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Abdassamad Clarke is from Ulster and was formally educated at Edinburgh University in Mathematics and Physics. He accepted Islam at the hands of Shaykh Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi in 1973, and, at his suggestion, studied Arabic and tajwid and other Islamic sciences in Cairo for a period. In the 80s he was secretary to the imam of the Dublin Mosque, and in the early 90s one of the imams khatib of the Norwich Mosque, and again from 2002-2016. He has translated, edited and typeset a number of classical texts. He currently resides with his wife in Denmark and occasionally teaches there. 14 May, 2023 0:03

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  1. Salaam

    If the rational behind the donning of the hijab is to distinguish between the free and the slave woman, shouldn’t it be abandoned in a society which associates it’s wearing with servility?

  2. Wa alaikum as-salam,

    I didn’t say the rationale behind it was that, but that it is confined to free women. The rationales of aspects of the shariah – the maqasid – is a tricky subject. The society that associates it with servility is upside-down and it is well that we remember that and don’t get seduced by it.


  3. Salaam

    I agree. The society which associates the donning of the hijab with servility is fairly lopsided. That said, if the rational behind the donning of the hijab is not to distinguish between the free and the slave woman then what exactly is the rationale behind it?

    Was the hijab proscribed to safeguard society from the evils of the female form? If so then why are slave women prohibited from wearing it? Were slave women in the Muslim world prohibited from leaving their homes prior to the advent of the modern era?

  4. Let us dare to speculate a little (and no, I have never heard that slave women were prohibited from going out of the house before the modern era).

    So, our first speculation might be that free women are not ordered to cover themselves only to protect men’s eyes, because, after all, men and women are ordered to lower their eyes. We could hazard the guess that since it is for free women that there is something in not being covered that is not agreeable with freedom. It appears to have something to do with eyes too.

    Can we say that women who are not covered become to some degree the property of men’s eyes, of their gaze, and that the free woman covering herself becomes free of the gaze of men?


  5. al-salam `alaykum

    Dear Abassamad,

    I would like to ask for some context which can help us in the modern era understand a reality which is seemingly no more.

    Why was it of particular importance that the distinction between free women and slaves be maintained (even if by the use of force) ? What did it “mean” for someone to be free vs. being a slave and why was it so abhorrent for a slave to emulate a free woman ?

    Are there any observations which can be offered here to help understand how an individual could legitimately own another human being ?

    thank you and salam

  6. Wa alaikum as-salam,

    First, we ought to be aware that according to world bodies that are engaged in such matters, there is more actual slavery today than at any point in history. So, basically the declared goal of eliminating slavery has failed entirely. We cannot defer its abolition into some remote future. It has not been abolished and it will never be abolished. Islam did not institute slavery, but given the Divine knowledge that it would never be abolished, then He, exalted is He, legislated limits and, more importantly, Sunnahs for it.

    What we have seen in societies whose declared aim is the abolition of slavery and thus the abolition of any distinction between free and slave, is that, paradoxically, it has not resulted in the elevation of the former slaves but in the degradation of the formerly free peoples.

    Michael Moore published statistics showing that the lot of black people in the US has not changed substantially since the ‘abolition’ of slavery in the 19th century. But in the same period great numbers of white people in the US have descended into debt-slavery (and remember that in the ancient world if people were bankrupt they were enslaved). But we have explored that theme already, the fact that much of modern life is covert slavery.

    So preserving the distinction is important in order to preserve freedom itself. And we have seen and are seeing actual freedom vanish before our very eyes.

    As to how someone can own another human being, as I said, slavery is the case today as never before in history, but today it is happening without the merciful parameters of the Divine shariah, and is truly a bestial affair.

    So, to reiterate: Islam does not legislate slavery, but since it is, has been and probably always will be an immutable part of the human condition, then Allah revealed limits and sunnahs and courtesies for it.

    Finally, our perspective is different, since the height of human freedom is slavehood (‘ubudiyyah) to Allah, and one of the highest and proudest names is to be ‘Abd of Allah, by whichever of His beautiful names. Thus our perspective on what freedom is, is fundamentally different from the trivial and superficial ideas current in our age of liberty.

    And Allah knows best.


  7. Since ‘corporeal’ slavery has been outlawed universally; there are theoretically no ‘physical’ slaves in this world, and all women are free women, and hence, they ought to represent themselves as such; dress as free women in full modest clothing.

  8. But I reiterate: “…according to world bodies that are engaged in such matters, there is more actual slavery today than at any point in history,” i.e. actual corporeal slavery is rampant as never before.

    However, my point in posting it is that I consider the abandonment of the hijab not as the issue but as a symptom of a much more serious matter: the loss of freedom. The truth is that we are not free. What we ‘ought’ to do is take back our freedom.

  9. “What we ‘ought’ to do is take back our freedom.”

    The first step to doing that is convincing the masses that we are enslaved. For some apparent reason the overwhelming majority of people appear to be under the illusion that they are in possession of this thing called freedom.

    Perhaps when the bread runs out and the circuses shut down they will awaken from their slumber.

  10. Well, we can establish institutions of higher learning in hopes of cultivating a generation
    of future leaders who will be able to establish an organic socio-political and economic order on the ruins of the one currently in existence.

  11. “Since ‘corporeal’ slavery has been outlawed universally; there are theoretically no ‘physical’ slaves in this world, and all women are free women, and hence, they ought to represent themselves as such; dress as free women in full modest clothing.”

    On the contrary, some might say that the fact that the four madhabs uphold the awrah of the slave woman as being the same as a man, that the hijab served a social purpose. Obviously slaves were Muslims, but slave women could walk around with their breasts showing. To some this would not signal the fact that we are all free now, let’s dress like free women, but that modesty is not connected to faith. Slave women still believed and had the chance to strive to perform good deeds, but they were legally forbidden to dress in the same way free women were. This means to some that hijab was something social, and that modesty was not connected to dress. What if someone were to argue that modesty and faith aren’t connected based on such a precedent?

    Author care to shed some light on this contention?

  12. What is interesting is that the hijab is the dress of ‘free’ women and therefore it is not imposed. A free woman must freely choose. It is the lack of hijab that is imposed, as in old-fashioned slavery and in the modern sort that is laughingly called democracy.

    The parameters for a slave woman are that she is ‘not allowed’ to imitate free women by covering her hair, and it is ‘permissible’ for her to be as exposed as the man. This latter should not lead to a voluptuous orientalist fantasy, but we should recognise that if she is breast-feeding her own or other people’s children then the need for her to be covered is less stringent than for free women.

    Of course, it is permitted for her to be modest. Modesty is an essential part of Iman for men and women.

    I must admit, I need further amplification of your question from you.

  13. admin says

    “What is interesting is that the hijab is the dress of ‘free’ women and therefore it is not imposed.”

    This is really an amazing piece of information. Many thanks to the author. I do not seem to have noticed his name.

    “What kind of women are you that you don’t cover your hair and your dresses don’t reach to the ground?”

    And the West is trying to teach Muslims (Islam) about “modernity” and decency!


  14. Asalamu A’laykum wa RahmatuAllahi wa Barakatuhu
    I’ve been curious for some time, I’ve read that the Muslims used to sell stark naked slave women in the market. Does anyone know what the shariah stance on this is? Or could anyone refer me to the ahadith the four madahib used to support their opinion that the awrah of slave women is the same as men?
    By the way brother, I think it’s an interesting point but I do not feel your supported your argument that slavery is more rampant then ever, could you elaborate?
    JazakAllah Khair

  15. wa alaikum as-salamu wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

    Dear Aisha,

    As to selling naked slave women in the market, I have never heard of that and it is clearly not halal.

    I will defer the issue of ahadith on awrah of slave women to another time, if you will permit.

    As to slavery being more rampant than ever, it is not my point of view but that of the world body formed to abolish slavery. However, that only refers to overt slavery, but the key to the age is that it has reduced people covertly to slavery, and we don’t even realise it. That is because historical slavery came from two sources: warfare and debt. In the ancient world, if a man could not pay his debts he became the slave of his creditor. That is our case today.


  16. Just out of interest, were the Vikings still heathens in 988 (when describing Vikings or other Germanic peoples, I prefer the Germanic word “heathen” over the Latinate word “pagan”), or had they converted to Christianity by then? I was aware that Viking women wore full-length dresses but not that they wore headcoverings (and I was wondering if this was a post-Christianization practice).

    Also, how much of a role do you think the sunshine movement of the early 20th century played when it came to discrediting modesty in the West? Rickets was a big problem in the Western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the mainstream consensus came to be that it was lack of sun exposure (and consequent Vitamin D) that was the cause. More recently, the issue of Vitamin D has been used by some to attack the practice of hijab.

    The sunshine movement led to the development of radically more revealing clothing styles, the popularization of beach holidays, and also to the rise of suburbia as well as glass-walled International Style skyscrapers.

    However, an alternative theory is that the presence of chemicals in the diet which bind to calcium or phosphorus — making them useless to the body — was the real cause of rickets. In the case of English people at around the turn of the 20th century alum (added to bread) was the most likely culprit, while for Middle Eastern and Desi women today chapatti (which contains phytic acid, which binds to calcium) is the most likely problem.

  17. I don’t know how much Christianisation had taken place by that date. It is in the following century that Christianity begins to take root in Denmark.

    As to ‘pagan’ it is from the Latin ‘paganus’ a villager or rustic and reflects the old Roman dichotomy between ‘civilisation’, which meant cities and everything else, including the ‘barbarians’. ‘Heathen’, on the other hand, is a fine old Germanic word meaning ‘heath-dweller’. So the meanings come back basically to the same sense.

    As to rickets, most health issues are highly politicised. Read Lewontin’s “The Doctrine of DNA”:

    “We return, then, to tuberculosis and the other infectious diseases that were such killers in the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. An examination of the causes of death, first systematically recorded in the 1830s in Britain and a bit later in North America, show that most people did, indeed, die of infectious disease and in particular of respiratory diseases. They died of tuberculosis, of diptheria, of bronchitis, of pneumonia, and particularly among children they died of measles and the perennial killer smallpox.”

    He examines the obvious fact that in every case of tuberculosis the tubercle bacillus is to be found, but then he writes:

    “Suppose we note that tuberculosis was a disease extremely common in the sweatshops and miserable factories of the nineteenth century, whereas tuberculosis rates were much lower among country people and in the upper classes. Then we might be justified in claiming that the cause of tuberculosis is unregulated industrial capitalism, and if we did away with that system of social organization, we would not need to worry about the tubercle bacillus.”

    Speaking of the decline in the death-rate from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, none of which he argues can be attributed to modern scientific development, he writes:

    “As far as we can tell, the decrease in death rates from the infectious killers of the nineteenth century is a consequence of the general improvement in nutrition and is related to an increase in the real wage. In countries like Brazil today, infant mortality rises and falls with decreases and increases in the minimum wage.”

    So to penetrate these issues means to have one’s defences highly fortified against the assaults of various commercial and political interests. For example, the AIDS issue and the pharmaceutical companies. Lewontin, again, avers that “No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business.” What kind of objectivity is possible with such a scenario?

    But thank you for the alternative theory which I will read insha’Allah with interest.

    Anyway, the hijab issue is grossly inflated by most people including a lot of modern Muslims, since it is not much more than modest clothing and covering the hair.



  18. ‘corporeal’ slavery has not been outlawed in the world, only certain forms.

    Penal ‘corporeal’ slavery is still quite legal and widespread in some parts of the developed “free” world, including the USA. And, of course, China.

    Agricultural ‘corporeal’ slavery is quite common in some parts of south america and africa. It’s technically illegal but when generally tolerated by the state and government in the behest of the companies benefiting, the whole ‘legality’ point becomes moot.

    As to outright legal slavery, in the sense of bonded labor and ownership, I mentioned penal slavery. In extreme forms this happened in the lifetimes of people I know.

    I have a distant cousin who grew up with my mother in the deep American south who was legally “free” and employed, but rounded up off the street, under trumped up “vagrancy” charges while walking to the grocers (quite common for black males in the deep south in those decades) and sentenced and pressed into Chain gangs.

    This was not just in the 20th century, but only a few years before I was born. It happened in the late 60’s and in some parts of the deep south the practice went on to the early 1970’s.

    He was literally picking cotton. Draw your own conclusions.

    Now, a massively lucrative privatized prison labor complex exists today, in the USA and to some degree has started to grow in the UK (and a few excellent articles have peeked at this) – this is a matter of slavery, certainly the conditions of labor would qualify as Riqq (slavery) in the Sharia and also under the classical Greeks (one aspect of being free in Greek society was not having to take a wage, then there’s the pesky matter of forced labor…….)

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