Is Wearing a Hijab Mandatory in Islam?

Hijab can specifically refer to a veil that does not cover the face.
... Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images

In recent years the practice of wearing a hijab has experienced a resurgence as a means of expressing religious faith, communal identity and even personal style. However, the extent to which the Islamic faith requires women to wear head coverings has been the subject of considerable debate. Some see the hijab as purely a matter of culture or choice, but for others the hijab is a sacred obligation with clearly defined rules.

1 Hijab Defined

As the Encyclopedia of Islam notes, a hijab is typically a veil that covers a woman's head without covering her face. The word is also used more generally in reference to the Islamic institution of wearing a veil. Other types of clothing often included within the general category of hijab include the niqab, a veil that covers all of the face except for the eyes, and the burqa, a veil that covers part or all of the woman's face as well as her body. However, these are only a few of the styles associated with hijab. Others include the chador, jilbab, shaylah, al-amirah and khimar.

2 Quran and Hijab

Opinions differ on whether wearing the hijab is required by the Quran or the recorded sayings of Muhammad in the Hadith. In the Quran hijab refers not to an item of clothing but to separation or a barrier, such as the partition that separates the Prophet's wives from open view in Surah 33, verse 53. The Quran does, however, call for modesty: Surah 24, verse 31 states that believing (meaning faithful Muslim) women should guard their private areas, cover themselves with their veils and not show off their beauty in public except for what necessarily appears. Another verse sometimes cited in support of requiring hijab is Surah 33, verse 59, in which the Prophet tells women to draw their cloaks close around them when they go outside.

3 Hijab as Sacred Obligation

Many Islamic religious authorities have concluded that hijab is mandatory under Islamic law, although interpreters differ on the scope of veiling that is required. For example, as Shaykh Gibril F. Haddad notes on, a ninth-century record of an incident from the life of the Prophet states that a woman must cover all parts of her body except her face and hands, though the validity of this account has been challenged by some Islamic scholars. A more conservative interpretation of the Quran concludes that all of a woman's body, including her face and hands, constitutes a private area and thus is in need of covering with a niqab or burqa.

4 Culture or Choice

Not all interpreters have concluded that the Prophet mandated the hijab. For example, the founder of the fundamentalist Muslim Women's Association, Zaynab al-Ghazali, states that while veiling and separation was obligatory for Muhammad's wives, whether a believing woman follows their example of piety is a matter of personal choice. Western scholars and more liberal Islamic scholars have also argued that the legal requirement of hijab is a later development that grew out of styles and social norms in the Arab world, not a core Islamic doctrine.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.