Ahzab—The Combined Forces (Verse 53)
O you who have believed, do not enter the houses ofthe Prophet except when you are permitted for a meal, without awaiting its readiness. But when you are invited, then enter; and when you have eaten, disperse without seeking to remain for conversation. Indeed, that [behavior] was troubling the Prophet, and he is shy of [dismissing] you. But God is not shy of the truth. And when you ask them [i.e. his wives] for something, ask them from behind a [hijab] partition. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts. And it is not [conceivable or lawful] for you to harm the Messenger of God or to marry his wives after him, ever. Indeed, that would be in the sight of God an enormity. (The Qur’an: Al-Ahzab, 33:53)23
This is the famous hijab verse. The word hijab appears in the context of organizing the physical boundaries between the wives of the Prophet and his male companions. The verse asks that male Muslims only interact with the wives of the Prophet from behind a hijab, meaning partition, curtain, or screen.24 Again here, two conflicting perspectives have emerged as to the generalized implications of this verse. Is this verse specifically directed at the wives of the Prophet and the male companions? Or, alternatively, does this ruling apply to all interactions between men and women?
Interestingly the word hijab mentioned in this verse (partition, curtain, or screen) has ended up being the preferred term to mean the veil (headscarf). What was supposed to mean a physical barrier between two individuals came to be used to mean a form of dress. Currently, when Muslims—including scholars—use the term hijab, they usually mean the veil or headscarf. This has led to confusions as sometimes when somebody would be really referring to the hijab as a partition, curtain, or screen as mentioned in this verse, many people would understand that he or she is referring to a dress code applicable to all Muslim women.
Some scholars argue that the above verse (33:53) has a general application that includes all Muslim men and women. One scholar, for example, noted in interpreting this part of the verse; “And when you ask them for something, ask them from behind a [hijab] partition”:
Although “them” refers to the wives of the Prophet, yet this is general to all Muslim women because God then says “That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.” Purity of the heart is required from everybody.25
Thus the argument goes that if a screen is needed between the most pious of people, the wives of the Prophet and the male companions, then it would naturally and logically apply to all Muslims.
Some contend that this verse refers to a specific ruling that is bound by time and space. In this verse, the word hijab means a screen or a curtain, a physical barrier that separates the wives of the Prophet from other men. According to scholars who adopt this view, the word hijab in this context does not refer to a dress code nor does it apply to a screen that needs to be established in every male-female interaction. Referring to the incident on which this verse was revealed would shed some light on its real implication.
The story behind this verse refers to a group of people who came to the Prophet’s house after being invited for a wedding meal. They then stayed in his house (which was actually one room), started to talk, and they did not leave. The Prophet’s wife was in that room, but those guests were unmindful as to what they needed to do. The verse effectively teaches the Muslims of that time the proper code of conduct after having a meal at the Prophet’s house. The second part of the verse talks specifically as to how to address his wives from behind a curtain. This was particular to the wives of the Prophet and was not a universal ruling that applies to all Muslim women and men.
Again, under the first understanding, male-female interactions would only be possible under strict conditions. The second understanding provides a flexible way of dealing with the issue by emphasizing the specificity of that incident and the implications thereof.