There are certain directives about women which have been erroneously derived from some verses of Sūrah Ahzāb. These can be enumerated as follows:
i. Women must cover their faces and wear large cloaks (jilbābs) when they go out of their houses.
ii. Women must not speak in a polite tone with strangers.
iii. Women should primarily be confined to their homes.
iv. Women should be kept secluded except from their immediate relatives.
It needs to be appreciated that all the above directives have a specific background and cannot be taken as general directives regarding women. It is imperative that this background be understood: When the Islamic message gained acclaim in Madīnah, the Hypocrites started to tease Muslim women and attribute scandal to the Prophet’s wives. They would try as much as they could to disparage the Prophet’s personal life and those of his wives. It was in this period when the incident of ifk took place. ‘Ā’ishah (rta), the illustrious wife of the Prophet (sws), was dragged into a scandal by these mischief-mongers. While referring to this general attitude of the Hypocrites, the Qur’ān says:
وَالَّذِينَ يُؤْذُونَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ بِغَيْرِ مَا اكْتَسَبُوا فَقَدِ احْتَمَلُوا بُهْتَانًا وَإِثْمًا مُبِينًايَاأَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُلْ لِأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِنْ جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَنْ يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًالَئِنْ لَمْ يَنْتَهِ الْمُنَافِقُونَ وَالَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ مَرَضٌ وَالْمُرْجِفُونَ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ لَنُغْرِيَنَّكَ بِهِمْ ثُمَّ لَا يُجَاوِرُونَكَ فِيهَا إِلَّا قَلِيلًامَلْعُونِينَ أَيْنَمَا ثُقِفُوا أُخِذُوا وَقُتِّلُوا تَقْتِيلًا (33: 58-61)
And those who harass believing men and believing women unjustifiably shall bear the guilt of slander and a grievous sin. O Prophet! Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw over them a shawl [they may have when they go out]. It will become possible from this that they be distinguished [from slave-women] and not be harassed. God is Ever-Forgiving and Merciful. If [after these measures also] these Hypocrites and those who have the ailment [of jealousy] in their hearts and the scandal mongers of Madīnah do not desist, We will rouse you against them, and their days in that city will be numbered. Cursed be they; wherever found, they would be seized and put to exemplary death. (33:58-61)
The above verses also shed light on one of their subversive activities: They would tease and torment believing women and when they would be called to account, they would say that they did not know that these were believing women. While explaining the background of this verse Ibn Kathīr, the celebrated commentator of the Qur’ān, records the opinion of Suddī in the following words:
كان ناس من فساق أهل المدينة يخرجون بالليل حين يختلط الظلام إلى طرق المدينة فيعرضون للنساء وكانت مساكن أهل المدينة ضيقة فإذا كان الليل خرج النساء إلى الطرق يقضين حاجتهن فكان أولئك الفساق يبتغون ذلك منهن فإذا رأوا المرأة عليها جلباب قالوا هذه حرة فكفوا عنها وإذا رأو المرأة ليس عليها جلباب قالوا هذه أمة فوثبوا عليها
The mischief-mongers among the people of Madīnah would come out on the streets at dusk and get after the women of the Ansār. The houses of the people of Madīnah [in those days] were very small in size and at nightfall the women would go out on these streets [making their way to the fields] to relieve themselves. These evil people would tease these women. If they saw a woman who would be wearing a cloak, they would say she is a free woman [and not a slave] and would abstain [from any evil activity] and if they saw a woman who would not be wearing a cloak [in the way prescribed by the Qur’ān],they would pounce on her by saying that she is a slave woman.
He then records the opinion of Mujāhid in the following words:
يتجلببن فيعلم أنهم حرائر فلا يتعرض لهن فاسق بأذى ولا ريبة
These women would wear cloaks [in the way prescribed by the Qur’ān] so that it be known that they are free women and the mischief-mongers would not then harm or tease them.
Evidently, in order to curb this harassment of theirs, the Almighty directed believing women to make themselves distinct in appearance from other women so that these people could have no excuse to tease them. This distinction in appearance was to be made by drawing a part of their cloaks in front of them so that it protruded over their bodies.
Moreover, people who have derived the veil from these directives have translated the relevant part as: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the wives of the believers to draw a part of their cloaks over them.” “To draw cloaks over their faces” is an erroneous translation. The directive means that Muslim women should draw a part of their cloaks on them so that these cloaks should dangle in front. Nowhere does the verse say that the face should be covered. In fact, the verse is devoid of the word “face”. If the face was required to be covered, words to this effect should have been present: يُغَطِّيْنَ وُجُوْهَهُنَّ (yughattīna wujūhahunna: they should cover their faces).
It is thus evident from this discussion that the directive given in the verse regarding cloaks and seemingly covering the face has no bearing in any way to directives in general. They only prescribe a way to deal with a particular situation that had arisen in the times of the Prophet (sws).
After dealing with the first question, the following questions which remain are answered through excerpts taken from Jāved Ahmad Ghāmidī’s Mīzān:
i. Women must not speak in a polite tone with strangers.
ii. Women should primarily be confined to their homes.
iii. Women should be kept secluded except from their immediate relatives.
A deliberation on the contents of Sūrah Ahzābreveals the fact that when the Hypocrites and miscreants mentioned above embarked upon a campaign to besmear the private lives of the wives of the Prophet (sws) to make the common man averse to them and to damage the moral repute of both Islam and the Muslims, the Almighty took certain measures to curb this evil: First, He gave the noble wives the choice to leave the Prophet (sws) and live the life of common Muslim women enjoying its luxuries and comforts, or to once again decide with full awareness to live forever as the wives of the Prophet (sws) in order to obtain the comforts and luxuries of the Hereafter. They were then informed that if they decided to stay with the Prophet (sws), then they needed to realize that their status as his wives entailed great responsibility. They were not like common women; they were like the mothers of the believers. Therefore, if they remained faithful to Allah and His Prophet (sws) and did righteous deeds with full sincerity, they would earn a two-fold reward. Likewise, they would be liable to be punished two-fold in relation to other women if they committed a sin. Their inner purity was beyond doubt; however, the Almighty also wanted to morally cleanse them in the eyes of the people so that no one was given the slightest chance to cast aspersions on their characters. This was a requisite of their status and they needed to adopt certain things in their daily lives to achieve this purity.
Firstly, if they were fearful of the Almighty they were told not be kind and affectionate in speech to every person who entered their house. Though in normal circumstances, one must be gentle and kind when one speaks to others, but, in the circumstances they were facing, such an attitude would only embolden the miscreants and the Hypocrites around them to take undue advantage of them. Such an attitude of kindness would create in them the expectation of success in their mission – the mission of whispering evil in people’s hearts. So if ever they had to talk to such people, they were to speak in clear and simple tones so that those among their addressees who intended evil realized that they could not achieve their objective. The Qur’ān says:
يَانِسَاءَ النَّبِيِّ لَسْتُنَّ كَأَحَدٍ مِنْ النِّسَاءِ إِنْ اتَّقَيْتُنَّ فَلَا تَخْضَعْنَ بِالْقَوْلِ فَيَطْمَعَ الَّذِي فِي قَلْبِهِ مَرَضٌ وَقُلْنَ قَوْلًا مَعْرُوفًا (32:33)
Wives of the Prophet! You are not like other women. So, if you fear God, do not be too complaisant in your speech, lest the lecherous-hearted should lust after you. Talk with such people in plain and simple words. (33:32)
Second, they were to remain in their homes in order to protect their rank and status. All their attitudes and mannerisms needed to be in accordance with the status that the Almighty had conferred upon them. So if they had to go out to meet some compelling need, they were told not go out displaying their ornaments and finery – something which was the way of women of the age of jahiliyyah. Both their status and responsibility entailed that they remain in their houses and diligently pray and pay zakāh and with full sincerity spend their time in obedience to the Almighty and His Prophet (sws). However, if due to some unavoidable reason they had to leave their place, then they were to do so in the most befitting of manners exemplifying the culture and tradition of the Muslims and not let any Hypocrite raise any objections against them:
وَقَرْنَ فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ وَلَا تَبَرَّجْنَ تَبَرُّجَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ الْأُولَى وَأَقِمْنَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآتِينَ الزَّكَاةَ وَأَطِعْنَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنْكُمْ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا (33:33)
And abide still in your homes and do not display your finery as women used to do in the days of jahiliyyah. Attend to your prayers, pay zakāh and obey God and His Messenger. Women of this house! The Almighty wants to cleanse you from the filth [these Hypocrites want to besmear you with] and to fully purify you. (33:33)
Thirdly, they were to try to communicate the verses of the Qur’ān as well as the beliefs and moral teachings of Islam to people who came and visited them and refrain from other general gossip. It is for this very objective that the Almighty had chosen them. Their purpose of life then was the dissemination of the message of Islam and not indulgence in the luxuries of life:
وَاذْكُرْنَ مَا يُتْلَى فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ وَالْحِكْمَةِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ لَطِيفًا خَبِيرًا (34:33)
And communicate [to your visitors] what is taught to you of the verses of God and the wisdom revealed by Him. The Almighty is very Discerning and All-Knowing. (33:34)
It seems that even after all these measures, the miscreants did not mend their ways. Consequently, the Almighty gave some more directives to Muslims which were to be strictly followed.
Muslims were told that no one should enter the house of the Prophet (sws) unless he was called. If people were invited to have food at the house of the Prophet (sws), they were to come right at mealtime. They were to then disperse immediately afterwards and not keep talking to one another.
The wives of the Prophet (sws) would be secluded from the Muslims and except for near relatives and women of their acquaintance no one was to come in their presence. Anyone who wanted something from their private chambers was told to ask for it from behind a screen.
The wives of the Prophet (sws) would be the mothers of the believers. Those Hypocrites who were desirous of marrying them were told that even after the death of the Prophet (sws), they could not marry them. They were absolutely prohibited from marriage after him. Consequently, every believer was to honour and respect them the way he honoured and respected his own mother. The Prophet (sws) was greatly distressed by the wrong attitudes of these miscreants. They were made aware that bothering the Prophet (sws) was not something trivial. A person could fashion an excuse for his misdemeanour in this world, but he would not be successful in justifying it before the Lord of the worlds who is aware of what is in the hearts:
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَدْخُلُوا بُيُوتَ النَّبِيِّ إِلَّا أَنْ يُؤْذَنَ لَكُمْ إِلَى طَعَامٍ غَيْرَ نَاظِرِينَ إِنَاهُ وَلَكِنْ إِذَا دُعِيتُمْ فَادْخُلُوا فَإِذَا طَعِمْتُمْ فَانْتَشِرُوا وَلَا مُسْتَأْنِسِينَ لِحَدِيثٍ إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ يُؤْذِي النَّبِيَّ فَيَسْتَحْيِ مِنْكُمْ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَسْتَحْيِ مِنْ الْحَقِّ وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِنْ وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ ذَلِكُمْ أَطْهَرُ لِقُلُوبِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِهِنَّ وَمَا كَانَ لَكُمْ أَنْ تُؤْذُوا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَلَا أَنْ تَنْكِحُوا أَزْوَاجَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِ أَبَدًا إِنَّ ذَلِكُمْ كَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ عَظِيمًاإِنْ تُبْدُوا شَيْئًا أَوْ تُخْفُوهُ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًالَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِنَّ فِي آبَائِهِنَّ وَلَا أَبْنَائِهِنَّ وَلَا إِخْوَانِهِنَّ وَلَا أَبْنَاءِ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ وَلَا أَبْنَاءِ أَخَوَاتِهِنَّ وَلَا نِسَائِهِنَّ وَلَا مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُنَّ وَاتَّقِينَ اللَّهَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدًا (33: 53-55)
Believers! Do not enter the houses of the Prophet except if you are permitted sometime to enter for a meal. In this case also, do not sit waiting for the food to be cooked. But if you are invited, enter and when you have eaten, disperse. Do not engage in familiar talk, for this would distress the Prophet and he would feel shy to bid you go; but of the truth God does not feel shy. And if you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more pure for your hearts and their hearts. And you must not harass God’s Messenger, nor shall you ever wed his wives after him; this would be a grave offence in the sight of God. Whether you reveal or conceal them, God has knowledge of all things. It shall be no offence for these women [–Prophet’s wives–] to come before their fathers, their sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women of acquaintance, or their slaves. Women [of the household of the Prophet!] Have fear of God; surely God observes all things. (33:53-55)