Unveiling the Islamic Dress Code - Part 1

Covering (Satar) of `Owrah

Index of Articles

By Ayub A. Hamid



Islam as a way of life abhors any sexual act or any behaviour having sexual overtones that is not between duly wedded spouses -- forbidding absolutely any kind of sexual act, overtures or flirtation. It is extremely sensitive about this issue and greatly emphasizes maintenance of purity by Muslims in their character, behaviour, gaze, words and thoughts. 

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To help Muslims in this regard, Islam provides rules and regulations; the observation of which will ensure an environment that facilitates the desired level of purity as well as protects believers from sinful activities. Segregation of males and females and use of hijaab, jilbaab and khimaar are part of those provisions.

This is a topic that is frequently debated, about which opinions differ significantly and on which much confusion seems to exist. The confusions mostly arise when the teachings of the Qur-aan and Sunnah are not taken in their proper context; when differences in categories of people and venues of their interaction are not appropriately considered; or, when people try to make Islam conform to non-Islamic lifestyles. The booklet attempts to describe those rules and regulations in a clear, concise manner to facilitate formulation of a balanced opinion on the subject and encourage appropriate practice. 

Segregation and Reduced Interaction

In the pre-Islamic Arab society, "era of ignorance", although some women of noble families wore jilbaab[1] over their dress in public, the average citizens were similar to today's Western society in terms of the free mixing of the sexes and lack of modesty in dress. Nudity, though not commonly appreciated, was not a matter of major concern. In fact, performing rites of worship in the Holy Ka'bah naked was considered better for all non-Quraish people than performing them clothed in their "worldly" clothes. A person who wanted to inform his tribe of an impending danger would remove his clothes to wave them while calling for his people's attention. Obviously that kind of environment neither was, nor is it now, helpful in maintaining the purity of thoughts and behaviour that Islam requires from its adherents.

Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala is so merciful to believers that to save them from falling into a major sin for which He has warned of severe punishments, He has provided rules and regulations closing those channels that may provide opportunity to sin or tempt towards it. To save people from the dire consequences of zinaa[2] in any shape or form, He has decreed a dress code to cover defined parts of the body that cannot be exposed, and has decreed Muslims' social practices such that non-mahram[3] males and females are segregated and their interaction is reduced to a minimum. However, the decreed rules about dress, segregation and interaction are not uniform for all males and females. They vary according to gender, the closeness of relationship of the people involved, the venue and their needs for interaction in the normal course of day-to-day life.

It should be remembered that Islamic civilization took its ideal shape through a process of evolution, though in a very short time frame. In a mere 23 years, the ignorant culture, traditions and lifestyle of Arabs were completely revolutionized and replaced with Islamic civilization through this evolutionary process. The rules and regulations concerning the topic under discussion were also implemented through this evolutionary process.

The Initial Basic Requirement - Covering (Satar) of 'Owrah[4]

At first, the Holy Qur-aan built upon the natural human urge to cover one's private parts. It reminded people of this aspect of human nature with the example of Adam and Hawwa and how they rushed to cover themselves with leaves of the Garden once their private parts were exposed as a result of their disobedience to Allaah Subhaanahu wa Ta`aala at the incitement of Shaytaan. It explained that although this shyness from nakedness (hayaa) is part of human nature, it is the first target of Shaytaan's machinations against human beings. Hence, people are inclined to expose themselves only due to the relentless incitement of Shaytaan. After making these points, it commanded that:

"O children of Adam! We have indeed sent down to you clothing to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment and protection. But the raiment of Taqwa - that is the best. This is of the revelations of Allaah that they may be mindful. O children of Adam! Let not the Shaytaan seduce you as he got your (first) parents out of the Jannah (Garden), stripping them of their clothing to expose their shame. He surely sees you, he as well as his gang, from whence you cannot see them; surely We have made the Shayaateen to be the companions of those who do not believe." (Al-A'raaf 7:26-27)

Through this admonition, people were told that the purpose of dress is twofold: 

a.. Modesty and decency; and, 
b.. Adornment and protection from weather 

People should not let Shaytaan misguide them into losing sight of the first objective while concentrating on the adornment aspect. To help achieve the first objective despite the incitement of Shaytaan, satar guidelines were provided for believers to cover their 'owrah.

Satar or 'Owrah represents the minimum parts of the body that must be covered from everyone with loosely fitting clothes that do not show details of the physical figure and through which neither skin and/or its tone are visible. It is also the minimum that must be covered for a person's Salaah to be valid, even if the person is praying alone at home. 

Islam's most basic step to keep minds pure and to prevent immodesty in the society is its very strict requirement for Muslims not to expose their satar or 'owrah to anyone other than a duly wedded spouse[5]. 'Owrah part of a person's body must be protected from anyone's sight or touch, male or female. It should be kept covered even if no one is around.

The Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam also said, "Protect your 'owrah except from your wife or what your right hand owns." When asked about the situation where no one is around, he said, "Allaah is most deserving to be felt shy from." (Tirmidzee, Aboo Dawood and Ibn Maajah)

In another report he, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam said, "Avoid nakedness. There are those with you (angels) who do not part company with you except when you go for a call of nature or to your spouse. So feel shy of them and respect them." (Tirmidzee)

From very early childhood, the children must be sensitized to maintaining their satar and keeping their 'owrah covered so that as they grow up, their natural discomfort with exposing satar continues to be reinforced, against the incitements from Shaytaan. 

The 'owrah for males is the part of the body from navel's height to the knees. Thus, Muslim males cannot wear shorts that expose any part of their thighs. This also means that it is forbidden for Muslims to expose their satar in common showers/change rooms or remove their clothes in the presence of others.

"The 'owrah or satar of man is what is between navel and knees." (Reported by Darqutni and Baihaqi)

The Messenger of Allaah, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam upon whom be peace, passed by Ma'mar while his thighs were uncovered. He said, to him, "O Ma'mar, cover your thighs, for they are (part of the) 'owrah." (Reported from Muhammad Jahsh by Ahmad, Haakim and Bukhaaree) 

Jarhad Aslami reported that once his thigh was exposed, the Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam said, "Do you not know that thigh is 'owrah." (Reported by Tirmidzee, Muattaa and Aboo Dawood)

'Ali reported that the Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam said, "Do not expose your thigh." (Aboo Dawood and Ibn Maajah)

A woman's 'owrah is her whole body except her head-face-neck, hands and feet. General scholarly opinion is that the minimum part of the body that has to be exposed to perform daily chores and functions of life is not included in satar. That is why even if some portions of forearms close to wrist or of calves close to ankles are exposed during performing tasks, it is considered acceptable.

'Aaishah reported that when the Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam saw her sister Asmaa wearing clothes of very thin cloth, He said, "When a woman reaches puberty, it is not proper for her to show any parts of her body except this and this (He pointed to hands and face)." (Aboo Dawood)

She also reported that the Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam said about her niece, "When a woman comes of age, it is not allowed for her to expose anything except her face and except this -- and he held his forearm in his hand such that there was a palm's width gap between the place he was holding and his wrist." (Ibn Jareer)

Although feet were not mentioned in these narrations; but in view of the rule of necessity, feet are not considered satar. This view is corroborated by the following:

Ummu Salamah asked the Prophet, Sall Allaahu`alayhi wa sallam "Can a woman pray in a long shirt (like a night shirt) and head-covering without a loincloth?" He said, "If the shirt is long and flowing and covers the top of her feet." (Reported by Aboo Dawood) 

A notable point is that although Asmaa was wearing clothes, she was advised to cover up because they were not thick enough to conceal the body properly.


[1] A big sheet of cloth used as an outer-garment.
[2] Any extra-marital sexual activity.
[3] Those people who are generally allowed to marry each other.
[4] The words satar and 'owrah are used for the same thing, the difference being only semantic: Satar connotes covering, indicating that parts of the body that should be covered; 'owrah connotes shame or shyness, indicating the parts of the body; exposure of which should cause shame. 
[5] Medical needs are excepted.

Part 2: Hijaab and Jilbaab


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