In verse 24:31, we read that it says to draw the khimar over the bosom. Modern dictionaries and scholars will define the word Khimar to mean a head cover. Yet was this the meaning at the time of revelation? The root word is khamr, which means to cover and is also the same root word used for intoxicants in the Qurâ€™an because intoxicants cover a person's intellect. So it is clear that the word khimar means a cover for the body because of the meaning of the root word, but there are no ancient Arabic writings from the time of the Prophet or as even as early as within the first century after the time of the Prophet in which the word khimar is used only to refer to covering the head or hair. The understanding that the word khimar means a head cover is stated much later by scholars and dictionaries written centuries after the revelation, with no ancient Arabic writings to support this view. Ibn Kathir himself in his commentary of the Qur'an says that the word means something that covers, and it is what is used to cover the head. Not that its meaning is a head cover.
We also have the following statements from the 4 Imams whose works are the foundation of the 4 different schools of thought in Sunni Islam. Abu Hanifah said: â€œThis is my opinion, but if there comes someone whose opinion is better than mine, then accept that.â€� Maalik said: â€œI am only human, I may be right or I may be wrong, so measure my words by the Qurâ€™aan and Sunnah.â€� Al-Shafiâ€™i said: â€œIf the hadeeth is saheeh, then ignore my words. If you see well established evidence, then this is my view.â€� Imam Ahmad said: â€œDo not follow me blindly, and do not follow Maalik or al-Shafiâ€™i or al-Thawri blindly. Learn as we have learned.â€� And he said, â€œDo not follow men blindly with regard to your religion, for they can never be safe from error.â€�
So above we see that the 4 Imams themselves do not say to follow them, that they are only giving their opinion, and to reject their opinions if the evidence shows differently and can be supported by the Qurâ€™an and Sunnah. In short, we are to go where the evidence lies and thus far, there is no evidence that the head cover is mandatory as they themselves never show evidence that doing so is a teaching they learned directly from companions of the Prophet, who learned it from the Prophet.
However, scholars have used a few primary arguments to justify that the word khimar refers to a cover only for the head and hair. One argument is based on the hadith that states that when the verse was revealed, the women cut the bottom of their waist sheets and covered their head and faces. (Bukhari vol 6 book 60 num 282). For starters, Ibn Hajar in his commentary of Bukhari says it should be translated as covered themselves ( transliteration of the words in Bukhari ikhtamarna bi ha). However, he does continue to say that although it should be translated as covered themselves, it means to cover their faces. Yet clearly, the covering of the face is his own opinion since the Arabic word for face is not there, as he admits by saying it should be translated as to cover themselves.
Furthermore, this does not necessitate that the word khimar means a cover only for the head and hair because a head cover was always a form of modesty according to the CULTURE. We see that Mother Mary wore a head cover according to Christianity and it is mentioned in their Bible to pray with the head covered (cor, 11:5,6,13). All of which is prior to the Prophet coming, thus showing that covering the head existed within the culture, especially when we consider the fact that there were Arab Christians living during the time of the prophet. We also know that the Prophet and Early Muslims reached into Abyssinia, which is North Africa and conquered Egypt during the time of Umar (ra), and at no time in history did the African Muslims commonly practice covering their head and hair completely. In fact, it was not a common practice anywhere in the Muslim world in the first few centuries after the Prophet until the 10th century and more common after the Ottomans took control in the early 14th century. However, even Ibn Battuta states that in the 14th century the women in Turkey did not wear a head cover. At the same time, there is no reliable chain of narrators going back to the first 4 Caliphs of Islam that ever document or report any dispute or issue they had with the Muslims regarding the fact that they did not commonly wear the head cover all this time, which only supports the history that it was not mandatory. This shows that covering the head was a cultural practice only by some people before, during, and after the time of the Prophet and when the verse was revealed to cover, they covered their selves as they saw fit within their culture. Not because the verse says so because no one forced the early Muslim women to do so and there was no dispute or issue when they did not do so.
Another hadith that is used to say the word khimar means a head and hair cover only is the hadith in Abu Dawud that says nothing should show except this and this, and the Prophet pointed to his face and hands. (Abu Dawud num 4104). This is supposed to be proof that all of a woman's body is to be covered except the face and hands. Yet no one seems to want to finish the hadith. It actually says in the hadith that the hadith is mursal because the narrator is not known to have met Aisha (ra). This makes the hadith of a lesser degree in authenticity rather than the highest degree.
Another claim, which is known from Imam Abu Abdullah Qurtubi, says women would wear the khimar to cover their heads but the ends of the khimar would hang down their back, exposing the chest. The claim continues to say that when the part of the verse that says to cover the chest was revealed, the women took the ends of their head cover and covered their chest instead of leaving it hanging down their back. This is to show that since they chose to use their head covers to cover their chest in response to the word khimar in the verse, this means khimar refers to a head cover.
Still, this does not show that khimar means head cover just because some women reached for their head covers because by that logic, it should mean a waist sheet since the hadith in Bukhari (Bukhari vol 6 book 60 num 282) also says they reached for their waist sheets to cover as well. Also, and as stated by ibn Hajar, the translation says to cover themselves. So it does not specify covering the head and since there is no documentation showing that there was an issue between the Prophet or early Caliphs with the Africans who did not wear a head cover shows that it was not mandatory to wear one.
Thus the evidence is clear that the Khimar does not mean a head and hair cover, but that it means a cover for the body, and wearing it is not mandatory. It is a choice based on cultural practice.
And Allah knows best.
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