The requirement for all women to wear head-scarves, the hijab, or
a veil, is suggested by Sura 33:59:
"O Prophet! speak to thy wives and to thy daughters, and to the wives of the Faithful, that they let their veils fall low. Thus will they more easily be known, and they will not be affronted. God is Indulgent, Merciful!"
In the Hadith, caliph Omar seems to claim credit
for this development:
"Volume 1, Book 8, Number 395:
"My Lord agreed with me in three things:.
. .And as regards the (verse of) the veiling of the women, I said,
'O Allah's Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover
themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.' So
the verse of the veiling of the women was revealed." (Sahih al-Bukhari,
Volume 1, Book 8, 395).
This affords interesting insight into the authorial process: if
indeed there is a heavenly exemplar of the Koran, is there also a
heavenly exemplar of Omar, making helpful suggestions for improvements?
It is unclear whether the 'veil' of Sura 33:53 is worn, or pertains to
the furnishings, as in a veiled alcove. Veils are mentioned also in Sura 24:31:
"And speak to the believing women that they refrain
their eyes, and observe continence; and that they display not their
ornaments, except those which are external; and that they throw
their veils over their bosoms, and display not their ornaments,
except to their husbands or their fathers, or their husbands’
fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers,
or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or
their slaves, or male domestics who have no natural force, or to
children who note not women’s nakedness." (Sura 24:31).
It would appear that, whatever form of the veil was introduced by
Mohammed, it was sufficiently robust to prevent identification of the
wearer. Aisha is the speaker: "'He saw my form and came and stood over
me. He used to see me before the veil was prescribed for us, so when he
saw me he exclaimed in astonishment 'The apostle's wife' while I was
wrapped in my garments.'" (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah,
A. Guillaume, p. 494). Aisha's words suggest that if this individual had
joined the believing community only after the veil was prescribed, he
would not have had any basis for recognizing her as the prophet's wife.
Evidently some Arab women were veiled, from the time of the Talmud,
which is pre-Islamic: "Arabians may go out in their long veils and
Medians in their mantillas; so may even all women go out, but the sages
spoke of existing customs." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L.
Rodkinson, Volume I, Tract Sabbath, Chapter VI, Mishna VI, Kindle
If head-veiling was not native to Mecca, from whom might it have been
borrowed? Several of the neighboring peoples practiced some form of it,
for instance the Parthians: "Tiridates arrived at Neapolis with his
wife, who all through their journey had worn a golden helmet with a
visor that covered her face in place of a veil, 'so as not to defy the
traditions of her country by letting her face be seen,' said Dio." (The
Great Fire of Rome, Stephen Dando-Collins, p. 178). Perhaps there is
even some Byzantine influence, because a similar expectation appears in
1 Corinthians 11, though it is unclear if there is any legacy. Since the
major influence on Mohammed seems to have been the Jewish tribes of
Medina, any influence from neighboring civilizations was probably
mediated through this channel.
Even beyond head-veiling, some of the practices which prevent
women in Islamic societies from leading full and fulfilled lives
have a heritage in neighboring civilizations. Pagan historian Cornelius Nepos mentions sequestration of women
as a Greek, versus a Roman, custom:
"On the other hand, many things in our habits are decorous, which are by them considered unbecoming; for what Roman is ashamed to bring his wife to a feast, or whose consort does not occupy the best room in the house, and live in the midst of company? But in Greece the case is far otherwise; for a wife is neither admitted to a feast, except among relations, nor does she sit anywhere but in the innermost apartment of the house, which is called the gynaeconitis, and into which nobody goes who is not connected with her by near relationship."
(Nepos, Cornelius (2017-02-12). Delphi Complete Works of
Cornelius Nepos (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 76)
(Kindle Locations 93-97).)
What Mohammed added to this existing cultural inheritance was the
purported voice of God, commanding it for all time. Any correction of
borrowed cultural norms which had the unintended consequence of
constraining and limiting the lives of one half of humanity became
Nowadays in the West some women are 'liberated' from the
requirement of wearing a head-scarf. . .by being compelled not to wear head-scarves, even if
they wish to do so! For example, the violently secular socialist
government of Turkey sought to stamp out the veil for women, alongside
the fez for men: