Despite decades of explanations and refutations, the hijab remains the most widespread and contentious issue surrounding Muslim women. From narratives of oppression to empowerment, the entire spectrum of feeling has been expressed over this simple piece of cloth covering a Muslim woman. In the age of modest fashion, the hijab has taken on another dimension altogether, and has in most mainstream discourse been validated under the liberal choice framework.
However, arguments against the need for the hijab persist, and, in some spheres, the niche idea that centuries of Muslims have misunderstood this obligation has become increasingly popular. This is best articulated in a TEDx Talk delivered by American author Samina Ali at the University of Nevada in 2017.
Popular by the standards of other TED Talks with nearly six million views, the video makes the case that hijab was used to differentiate between free women and slaves, and prevent free women from being abused at the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. She concludes from this that the Muslim woman’s dress is based on custom, and given that such customs no longer exist in the Western world, it is recommended for women to remove their hijabs.
The first four minutes of the video, in which Ali outlines her argument, can be watched here:
Before addressing the substantive content of her talk, there are several limitations to Ali’s argument, given that she claims to have derived it from within the Islamic tradition.
1. References to scholarly consensus
Despite Ali claiming that her position has the support of ‘early Islamic scholars”, she fails to name a single one in the entire 17 minute video. For a talk taking place at a university, her lack of referencing is surprising. Islam has a rich historical tradition of rigorous scholarship, which she acknowledges, but otherwise fails to cite adequately.
Whilst Islam does not have a determined category of the clergy that are on a different religious plane, as other faiths do, the respect and acknowledgement of the knowledge of scholars is integral to our deen. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
The scholars are the heirs to the Prophets.
In addition to this, the ijmaa‘ (consensus) of the scholars is taken by several scholars as determined source of Islamic rulings within the discipline of Usul ul-Fiqh (principles of jurisprudence). Consequently, to invent a supposed consensus is to introduce an abberation to the Islamic tradition.
2. Historical inaccuracy
Ali starts the video with a vivid telling of women in Madina making a dangerous journey to relieve themselves in the desert in the middle of the night. But in the rest of her 17 minute talk, she never actually ends the story. She says that then the women went to Rasulullah ﷺ and he allegedly gave them the verse from Surah Ahzaab regarding the jilbab, but then says that people were not happy with the ayah. So what did they do? Did they disobey the Prophet ﷺ and continue to dress as they had before?
Ali also makes the claim that “scholars” then decided that Muslim women must dress as custom dictates – but there were no scholars engaging in ijtihad at the time of the Prophet; he was the central authority. They were not needed when the Messenger of God ﷺ was receiving direct revelation. So who decided this, and when? All of these details have been conveniently left out.
3. Inventing circumstances
This is a similar point to the previous, but its differentiation is important. The story Ali mentions in the beginning as the reason for the revelation of the verses pertaining to the jilbab is inaccurate. Her invention of this elaborate tale is problematic because the reasons for revelation, or asbaab un-nuzool, are a delineated feature of Qur’anic textual analysis. They hold implications for how a ruling is understood when analysed by the mufasireen. To create a story and say this was probably the reason for the revelation of this verse shows, again, not just a disregard for Islamic scholarship, but a desire to replace it.
4. Taking the Qur’an in isolation
Ali’s analysis of the hijab looks solely at the Qur’anic verses pertaining to the topic, leaving out the crucial statements of the Prophet ﷺ and his companions. This has become an increasingly common feature of certain discussions about Islam, particularly with regards to women. Such perspectives undermines the very existence of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
Allah sent a messenger to humanity as a mercy. He sent a perfect individual described as the walking Qur’an to show mankind how Islam should be lived – meaning that, if we disregard his statements about the issue of hijab and his interactions with his wives, daughters, and the other Muslim women of his community, we are missing a crucial part of the story.
Read more: Rejecting Hadith in the Face of Feminism
5. Devising reasons
Another issue with Ali’s argument is her claim that the hijab was actually a way to distinguish women of high status so they would not be bothered in public. In doing so, she makes this the reason for hijab. Within Islamic legal discourse, the reason for certain acts being made obligatory, forbidden, or otherwise is called the ‘illa. Her attributing differentiation as the ‘illa for hijab – as the very reason Allah commanded it – is again inaccurate.
In fact, there is no known reason for the hijab other than it being an act of worship for God alone. Whilst it may reveal certain wisdoms or benefits, such as deflecting unwanted attention or identifying one as a Muslim, the reason for wearing hijab cannot be attributed to one of these goals, which could be fulfilled by other means. Again, what we are seeing from Ali is a distortion of Islamic scholarship and invention of scholarly narratives to an audience of laymen.
6. Logical fallacies
Finally, there are certain logical fallacies in Ali’s line of argument. The first is that if, according to her reasoning, the hijab is to differentiate between free women and slaved women, she is actually arguing that Islam legitimised or at the least turned a blind eye to the abuse of slaves. This is wholly untrue; Islam, revealed in a society where slavery was the norm, was a source of great reform in this regard, with constant encouragement for people to free slaves and treat them well and the promise of divine punishment for those who abused them.
Yet Ali’s most damning contradiction comes in final statement where she argues that, in order to not be abused, women should wear what is custom – and that could be a dress or yoga pants.
So what about people who are abused in yoga pants? What about women who wear short dresses and experience abuse? She is implying that abuse and sexual harassment are a result of what you wear, a form of victim-blaming regularly used against women. So how progressive can her argument really be considered?
Due to the fallacies in Ali’s core argument, the rest of her speech falls apart.
Her differentiation between the concepts of hijab and khimar fails to comprehensively explain either; the concept of a muhajjabah, an active participle derived of the word hajaba, means a woman who embodies the Islamic dress code, which acts as a barrier between her sexuality and society. The English euphemism “hijabi” has come to mean the same. As for the verse on khimar, it not only implicitly accepts the covering of the hair, but also specifically instructs women to cover the juyub, often translated as bosom but encompassing the chest and collarbone area.
Such an understanding of the comprehensive nature of the Islamic dress code has been reinforced by the statements of the men and women at the time of the Prophet ﷺ and by centuries of scholarship, from Imam Nawawi, Ibn Manzur, and Ibn Hazm, to contemporary scholars such as Sheikh Nuh Keller and Sheikh Faraz Rabbani.
Ali’s jump from this flimsy textual analysis to the treatment of Muslim women across the world also ignores some hard truths. In Ali’s home country of the United States, one in four women are abused by their partner in their adult life. Women in the UK face a rape epidemic on university campuses. El Salvador has the highest rates of femicide in the world, whilst India is repeatedly found to be the most unsafe country for women.
Men, regardless of their professed religion, can dehumanise and abuse women and justify it by the dominant cultural viewpoints that exist, even in self-proclaimed liberal societies.
In addition to this, the fact that allegedly Islamic countries do not adhere to the true spirit of the shari’a in many laws pertaining to women is a truth that Muslims have been trying to convey for decades. The constant portrayal of Muslim men and the Islamic world as cemented in an era of backwardness fulfils the colonial-age stereotype of the angry, dominating, and barbaric musalman.
As to the examples of the numerous achievements and exemplary character of the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ female companions, such stories are well known and serve as a continual inspiration for Muslim women around the world. One cannot but help find it ironic that, whilst Ali lauds the business and military achievements of Khadija, Umm Salama, and Aisha, may Allah be pleased with them, she spends most of her talk denigrating the tradition they dedicated their lives to spreading and preserving.
An agenda beyond hijab
Ali ends her talk in an emotive relating of alleged fataawa concerning women – but this narration is subject to many issues. Firstly, though some of what she quotes are the statements of scholars, others are weak or fabricated narrations attributed to the Prophet ﷺ. Her illustration of women as uneducated, slaves to their husbands, and defined solely by their sexuality would be immediately contradicted by knowledgeable scholars of note in the East and the West.
Whilst cultural norms compounded with ignorance have in several countries resulted in rampant abuse of women, Ali seems uninterested in this nuance or in establishing the popularity or legitimacy of such claims.
Although presenting itself as a qualified critique of hijab emanating from within the Islamic tradition, Ali’s talk reflects what is perhaps the most labored criticism of religion: that rulings revealed hundreds of years ago can have no relevance to our lives in the 21st century, and that religion has been too severly manipulated by scholars for us to trust anything in the Islamic corpus beyond our own individual reading of the Qur’anic translation. In short, religion is outdated.
Her talk reflects a consistent and coordinated effort to undermine Islamic practices from their root values, and to take advantage of widespread ignorance of Islamic legal principles to advance a certain position. Such narratives are supported by numerous parties in the West, ranging from think tanks and lobby groups to individual donors and states, as part and parcel of an agenda to reform Islam to fit the new typology of religion as defined by secularism.
For Muslims who have watched such material and are confused – do not be deceived. There is context and there are explanations for these issues. Seek them out.
As a community, Muslims have tackled the issue of Islamophobia at length. Yet this form of anti-Islam rhetoric that otherises Muslims who adhere to basic Islamic practices and equates them with fundamentalists has received comparatively little attention. If Islamophobia ultimately succeeds when Muslims start foregoing religious practices, narratives such as Ali’s are equally, if not more, dangerous.
Until Muslims start tackling these challenges head on, we can expect the popularity of Ali’s talk to remain.
 Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah
 Often referred to as Ijmaa Ummah or Ijmaa Ulemaa – Hilal, I. Studies in Usul ul fiqh
 Quran (24:31)
 An-Nawawi, al-majmu’ sharh al-muhazzab, (Beirut, 2002), pp.258-9.
 Ibn Manzur, Muhammad ibn Mukarram, Lisan al-`Arab, Vol.7, p. 273.
 Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla, vol. 3, p.217
Aisha Hasan is the founder of the Qarawiyyin Project. A researcher in international development and the political economy of the Muslim world, she is also a student of Islamic Studies and a Quran teacher. She has been active in her Muslim community for several years, appearing on television, radio shows, and delivering talks at universities around the UK.