Hijab in the Abrahamic Religions

The term Hijab literally means a cover, curtain or screen [1], and is generally associated with the Islamic rule regarding women covering certain parts of their body [i]. Considering this matter, one might face many questions and misunderstandings.


Perhaps some of the fundamental and mostly asked questions are: “Is the concept of Hijab and the law of covering certain parts of the body for women limited to Islam?” and “Did such a concept make sense in the Abrahamic religions which existed before Islam?”


One way of gaining a better understanding and a broader insight into this issue is through detailed and accurate historical investigation of the characteristics and the treatment of Hijab in two Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity.



1.Hijab & Judaism:


It seems that covering certain parts of the body and maintaining a modest demeanor for women in society was of much importance in Judaism. The manner of Shuaib [ii]’s daughters toward Moses, explicitly mentioned in Holy Quran, can best illustrate the necessity of acting modestly in the society for women:


“When he arrived at the well of Midian, he found there a throng of people watering [their flocks], and he found, besides them, two women holding back [their flock]. He said, ‘What is your business?’ They said, ‘We do not water [our flock] until the shepherds have driven out [their flocks], and our father is an aged man.’ So he watered [their flock] for them. Then he withdrew toward the shade and said, ‘My Lord! I am indeed in need of any good You may send down to me!’ Then one of the two women approached him, walking bashfully [modestly]. She said, ‘Indeed my father invites you to pay you the wages for watering [our flock] for us.’ So when he came to him and recounted the story to him, he said, ‘Do not be afraid. You have been delivered from the wrongdoing lot’” (28:23-25).


Based on this account, it can be argued that at the time of Prophet Moses, women’s modest and demure behavior was regarded praiseworthy and respectful and a sign of their high status and distinguished personality in the society.


Moreover, there are some verses in Torah that name different kinds of clothing -Burqa or a veil covering one’s face- used by women as a kind of Hijab. In the book of Genesis, for instance, as addressed to Judah’s bride we read:


“And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot; for she had covered her face” [38:14-15].


As Will Durant [iii] puts, a common tradition for women among Jewish tribes was to attend public places with head-covers. This practice had to be followed as a rule and transgression from it would bring some consequences including divorcing the woman without paying her marriage portion [2].


Appearing bare-headed and without any cover for women, in some societies -e.g., the Far East and Mesopotamia- was considered as the symbol of inferiority and the characteristics of lower social standings. Moreover, women regarded the act of uncovering their hair in front of public eyes as a huge humiliation, to the extent that this act was performed in punishing the women who were guilty of a crime. Also, according to some Rabbis, women’s attendance without a kind of Hijab in the religious ceremonies and rituals was strictly forbidden [3]. 



2. Hijab & Christianity:

From the chosen and highly respected women named in Islam, the Holy Quran directly mentions Blessed Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, the messenger of Christianity, as the embodiment of a chaste, modest, pure woman and a true believer in God. Her status is so high in Islam that one of the chapters of the Holy Quran has been given her name.


In addition, in many of the Christian paintings and portraits, the figure of Virgin Mary has been depicted with complete head-cover as well as a long loose dress. So, Christian women who follow their prophet’s mother and the laws of Christianity, have attempted to observe modesty and chastity in their social interactions. As Jurji Zaydan [iv] states: “If by Hijab we mean covering body, this practice was common before Islam and even before the emergence of Christianity and its effects still remain in the European societies.”


Furthermore, there is some textual evidence in Bible which refers to this tradition and its necessity among Christian communities. In the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, it has been said:


“For she had said unto the servant, what man is this that walketh in the field to meet us? And the servant had said, It is my master: therefore she took a veil, and covered herself” [24:65].


And the need for head-covering in religious ceremonies has been emphasized by Saint Paul in the New Testament:


“Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonors his head, but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.  For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. … Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” [Corinthians 11:2-16].


The rule of celibacy for Christian priests and nuns -approached slightly different in the three main Christian denominations including Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy [v]- though not accepted in Islam, is primarily and originally established to avoid worldly temptations and practicing self-restraint and modesty.


Also, the special kind of dress worn by nuns in churches which covers most parts of their body shows the emphasis of Christianity on the necessity of appearing with appropriate and non-provocative clothing in the society.


Moreover, considering the paintings that portray western aristocratic females, as well as the literature of pre-twentieth century, it can be realized that wearing a suitable and modest dress by women represented their higher social standing and evoked the respect of other members of the society.


Up until the end of the nineteenth century, wearing hats and using long and decent clothing was common for women. However, with the passage of time, this tradition went through changes and gradually the religious beliefs, and divine teachings of Jesus Christ faded away from their lives [5].


Nevertheless, in some eastern catholic and orthodox churches such as Russian Orthodox Church, women are required to wear a head-cover when entering the church for attending religious ceremonies [6]. In addition, in Continental Europe and North America, most women of the Christian denominations including Anglican [7], Baptist [8], Methodist [9] and Roman Catholic [10] use a kind of head-cover when participating the religious rituals inside the church.          




With a brief look at what has been said so far, it becomes evident that the religion of Islam was not the inventor of Hijab, rather this tradition had existed and practiced in different forms among the followers of the two Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity.


The parallels that one can find in the characteristics of Hijab and the philosophy behind it in these three religions reveal the fact that in a way Islam has only modified and continued this tradition.  According to Islam, also, the practice of wearing Hijab is essentially aimed to preserve the human value and dignity of women when interacting with men outside the family circle and to provide a secure environment where everyone, man or woman, can perform their tasks effectively and morally.


Moreover, the kind of Hijab that Islam defines for women is covering all parts of their body except their faces and hands [from wrists to fingers] through wearing a modest dress, similarly, as we have seen in the previous paragraphs, Jewish and Christian women covered their head and were encouraged to wear non-provocative cloths. So, Islam, the last and most perfect religion, revised the rules of the preceding religions and completed the teachings of the previous prophets through providing thorough and applicable instructions.



[i] Originally, the Quranic term used for this rule is “satr or satir—الستر، الساتر”

[ii] An ancient Midianite Prophet, sometimes identified with the Biblical Jethro. His name is mentioned in the Quran a total of 11 times.

[iii] William James Durant (November 5, 1885 – November 7, 1981) was an American writer, historian, and philosopher. He is best known for The Story of Civilization.

[iv] Jurji Zaydan was a prolific Lebanese novelist, journalist, editor, and teacher most noted for his creation of the magazine al-Hilal, which he used to serialize his 23 historical novels.

[v] In Orthodox Christianity “Priests and deacons may marry before ordination but not after. Bishops, on the other hand, must be celibate. While “the majority of Protestants do not require celibacy as a condition of election to the clergy.” Catholics, on the other hand, believe that “Priests and Bishops must be celibate, with the exception of Eastern Rite Catholics and Anglican married clergy who subsequently convert to Catholicism. These groups are allowed to have married priests” [4].


[1] Rizvi, Sayyid Muhammad. n.d. Hijab, The Muslim Women's Dress, Islamic or Cultural? Ja‘fari Islamic Centre (Tabligh Committee) Canada.

[2] Durant, Will. n.d. The History of Civilization. Vol. XII.

[3] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org

[4] http://christianityinview.com

[5] for more information about the changes in British women’s costume through ages visit: http://www.slideshare.net/astussy/fashion-through-ages-4239487

[6] Gdaniec, Cordula (1 May 2010). Cultural Diversity in Russian Cities: The Urban Landscape in the Post-Soviet Era. Berghahn Books. p. 161.

[7] Muir, Edward (18 August 2005). Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 31.

[8] Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches 2012. Abingdon Press. 2012-04-01. p. 131

[9] Morgan, Sue (2010-06-23). Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800-1940. Taylor & Francis. p. 102.

[10] Henold, Mary J. 2008. Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement. UNC Press Books. p. 126.