November 26, 2012 By Compiled by Ayoob Rahman

Textuality of Hijab: Fatema Mernissi and Katherine Bullock

Farhima-merssinFatema Mernissi (1940-)

Biography and Bibliography: Mernissi was born in Morocco where she is a lecturer at Mohammed V University. Her Beyond the Veil: a Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Right in Islam is translated into many languages and is hailed as detailed exposition into Prophet traditions regarding the issue of gender. Her other works include Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Les Femmes Du Maroco, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, Scheherazade Goes West. New York: Washington Square Press.

Citation: In Beyond the Veil: a Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Right in Islam, Mernissi analyses the sabab al Nuzool (historical context which occasioned the revelation of a verse) of the hijab verse in the Quran: The hijab – literally “curtain” – “descended,” not to put a barrier between a man and a woman, but between two men. The descent of the hijab is an event dating back to verse 53 of sura 33, which was revealed during year 5 of the Hejira (AD 627):1 “o ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless permission be granted you. But if ye are invited, enter, and, when your meal is ended, then disperse. Linger not for conversation. Lo! that would cause annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of (asking) you (to go); but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when ye ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts”.

The fuqaha speak of “the descent of the hijab.” This expression in fact covers two simultaneous events that take place in completely different realms: on the one hand, God’s revelation to the Prophet, which is in the intellectual realm; and on the other hand, the descent of a cloth hijab, a material object, a curtain that the Prophet draws between himself and the man who was at the entrance of his nuptial chamber. The verse of the hijab “descended” in the bedroom of the wedded pair to protect their intimacy and exclude a third person – in this case, Anas Ibn Malik, one of the Prophet’s Companions.

Anas was excluded by the hijab as a witness and the symbol of a community that had become too invasive, and it was this witness himself who reported the event. When one realizes the repercussions that this act/event was to have on the life of Muslim women, the account given by Anas becomes important. The Prophet had just got married and was impatient to be alone with his new wife, his cousin Zaynab. He was not able to get rid of a small group of tactless guests who remained lost in conversation. The veil was to be God’s answer to a community with boorish manners whose lack of delicacy offended a Prophet whose politeness bordered on timidity. This at least is the interpretation of al-Tabari, who reports Anas Ibn Malik as saying:The Prophet had wed Zaynab Bint Jahsh. I was charged with inviting people to the wedding supper. I carried out this charge. Many people came. They arrived in groups, one after the other. They ate and then they departed. I said to the Prophet:”Messenger of God, I invited so many people that I can’t find anyone else to invite.”At a certain moment, the Prophet said: “End the meal.”

Zaynab was seated in a corner of the room. She was a woman of great beauty. All the guests departed except for three who seemed oblivious of their surroundings. They were still there in the room, chatting away. Annoyed, the Prophet left the room. He went to A’isha’s apartment. Upon seeing her, he greeted her, saying:”Peace be unto you, member of the household.” “And peace be unto you, Prophet of Allah,” responded A’isha to him. “How do you like your new Companion?”

He thus made the round of the apartments of his wives, who greeted him in the same manner as  A’isha. Finally, he retraced his steps and came again to Zaynab’s room. He saw that the three guests had still not departed. They were still there continuing to chat. The Prophet was an extremely polite and reserved man. He quickly left again and returned to A’isha’s apartment. I don’t remember any more whether it was I or someone else who went to tell him that the three individuals had finally decided to leave. In any case, he came back to the nuptial chamber. He put one foot in the room and kept the other outside. It was in this position that he let fall a sitr [curtain] between himself and me, and the verse of the hijab descended at that moment.

In this version al-Tabari uses two concepts that tend to become merged: hijab and sitr, the latter meaning literally” curtain.” Let us go back over the most salient facts in this account:

1. While drawing the curtain, Anas tells us, the Prophet pronounced what was to beconle in the Koran verse 53 of sura 33, which for the experts is “the verse of the hijab.” They are the words that Anas heard murmured by the Prophet when he drew the sitr (curtain) between them – words that were the message inspired by God in His Prophet in response to a situation in which Muhammad apparently did not know what to do nor how to act. We should remember that the Koran is a book rooted in the daily life of the Prophet and his community; it is often a response to a given situation.

2. The second fact to take note of is that the Prophet was celebrating his marriage to Zaynab Bint Jahsh.

3. He invited to this event nearly the whole Muslim community of Medina.

4. All took part in the wedding supper and departed, with the exception of three impolite men who continued to chat without concern for the Prophet’s impatience and his desire to be alone with his new wife.

5 The Prophet, irritated, went out into the courtyard, walked up and down, returned to the room, and left again to wait for the visitors to leave.

6 Upon their departure, Allah revealed the verse on the hijab to the Prophet.

7 The Prophet drew a sitr between himself and Anas, while reciting verse 53 of sura 33.

In describing the” descent of the hijab, ” al-Tabari does not try to give us the reasons for the irritation of the Prophet, who was known for his composure and infinite patience. This irritation was to precipitate the revelation of such a grave decision as the establishment of the hijab. Already we have seen, in the circumstances that led to the revelation of the hijab, the exceptional rapidity of the sequence of events: the Prophet’s irritation and the divine reaction that took place at once. We will have occasion to study various verses and their asbab al-nuzul (causes of their revelation). Often between the moment when the problem is brought to the Prophet’s attention and the moment when the solution is revealed, there is a period of gestation, as it were, a time of waiting. However, in the case of the hijab, the rather unusual rapidity of the revelation does not tally with the normal psychological rhythm of revelations, and especially with what we know of the character of the Prophet. The Prophet was renowned for his incredible capacity for self-control. He was never one for rash impulses, but used to take whole days to reflect when he was confronted with a problem, and people were accustomed to not having immediate answers. The habit of taking note of a problem and reflecting long and hard about it before making a decision, even when the answer was not expected from God in the form of a revelation, was the character trait that made it possible for him to survive and communicate with a society with very violent customs. The dominant impression that emerges from the “official” picture of him, as it is portrayed in the history books, is of a mild and timid man:

The Prophet was of medium height, neither very tall nor very short. He was fair-skinned with a ruddy complexion; his eyes were black, his hair thick, glossy, and beautiful. His beard bordered his whole face and was very bushy. His hair was long and hung to his shoulders and was black. His neck was pale. His face had such a sweet expression that one hated to leave his presence.. No one who had seen him admitted ever having seen, either before or after, a man who spoke so winningly. (4 Tabari, Mohatnmed, Sceau des prophetes, p. 337.)

Paradoxically, in a society in which, according to al-Tabari, people turned very quickly to the sword to settle problems, Muhammad was renowned for his ability to absorb tension and remain calm. The Prophet was a public man, experienced in the art of dealing with people, of charming them, of convincing individuals and groups with different opinions. He was accustomed to tolerating crude, boorish men. Without extraordinary self-control, one could not assert oneself as an authority in Arab society of that period. It was this that earned the Prophet from a very early age a reputation as a hakam, an arbiter in cases of conflict. How then can we explain that such a minor irritation so rapidly precipitated a draconian decision like that of the hijab, which split Muslim space in two?


In one of al-Bukhari’s versions, Anas tells us: “When the people were gone, the Prophet returned to the room [of the bride], entered, and let down a curtain.” And he adds an important detail:
“And I was still with him in the room when he began to recite: ‘0 ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless permission be granted you. ”’ In this description by al-Bukhari, as’ in the one by al-Tabari, the hijab is a division of the space into two areas, isolating each of the two men present, the Prophet on the one hand, and Anas, the witness who describes the event, on the other. This dimension of the hijab as a delimitation of areas is strongly affirmed in some versions, where it is said that “the Prophet banged a sitr down between himself alnd Anas, and the hijab descended, “the sitr (curtain) referring to a physical curtain, and the hijab to the Koranic verse.

(Read: The Veil And The Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation Of Women’s Rights In Islam, Basic Books, Fatema Mernissi) Link:


Katherine Bullock

Biography and Bibliography: Katharine Bullock lives in California. Her celebrated and widely translated book Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes is a critique on the western perception of veil as a symbol of segregation. In the course of submitting her Phd thesis whose extended form is the book, she accepted Islam. The fourth chapter of the book deals with the historical criticism of Fathima Mernissi discussed above. Her another title Muslim Women Activists in North America puts together Muslim women activists after the tragic events of 9/11 in an attempt to showcase the creative role of Islam in the contemporary world.

Citation: “In Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, she explores how veil as image underwent transition in her thinking of Muslim women:
The perception that the veil is a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women has different adherents who embody different assumptions and different levels of sophistication. On the one hand there is the mainstream, pop culture view: Muslim women are completely and utterly subjugated by men, and the veil is a symbol of that. This version is the most simplistic and unsophisticated view of the veil. It is underpinned by an unconscious adherence to liberalism and modernization theory, compounded by an ignorance of any actual details about Muslim women’s lives. The pop culture view is found in the mainstream media and mass market ‘women and Islam’ books.

It is the view that I encounter: when my dentist suggests that my grinding problem is caused by my scarf, and why don’t I experiment by taking it off for a while?; when bureaucrats, upon seeing my Australian passport and my husband’s Middle Eastern passport, whisper conspiratorally and worriedly to me, “You married a Muslim, didn’t you? What’s it like?;” when strangers, upon discovering that I married a Muslim, ask me worriedly, “Are you happy?;” and when I am told that I do not belong at an International Women’s Day fair because I represent the oppression of women. It is the view on which Western politicians rely and which they manipulate when they need to assert their interests in the Muslim world.

A more sophisticated view is that of one school of feminists both Muslim and non-Muslim. They argue that Islam, like any patriarchal religion, subordinates women. They are committed to women’s rights and believe that Islam does not allow women liberation. Unlike the pop culture version, these feminists are often very knowledgeable about Islamic history and practice. Though some of them do not listen attentively to the voices of covered women, others do make an attempt to understand and present the Other’s voice. However, these writers do not ultimately find Muslim women’s arguments for the meaning of covering persuasive. They remain convinced that a satisfying life in the veil is still an oppressed life. Like the mainstream view, their assumptions are also ultimately grounded in liberalism. The concepts most at play are liberal concepts of individualism, equality, liberty, and oppression. For this reason, I shall call this school of feminists ‘liberal feminists’.

There is another school of feminists, both Muslim and non- Muslim, that also listens to the voices of covered women, but reaches different conclusions about covering from those of the liberal feminists. Often anthropologists and historians, this group of feminists has been concerned to understand the meaning of a social practice from the inside. These feminists may also be grounded in liberalism to some extent, but their methodological approach leads them away from using mainstream Western liberal categories to judge the Other’s voice.

Many of these feminists raise the question as to whether Western feminists’ issues are universally applicable. Naming this group of scholars is somewhat problematic, because unlike the liberal approach described above, there is not an ‘ism’ that captures this orientation. For want of a better term, I shall call this approach the ‘contextual approach’. Writing as a practicing Muslim woman, I fall into this school of feminism.”

(Read: Rethinking Muslim Women and Veil, Katherine Bullock, Published by International Institute of Islamic Thought Link:

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