The Word 'Jilbab' in Surah al-Ahzab

Posted on: 07 June 2015

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the Qur'an, Allah the Exalted commands women to cover. In Surah al-Ahzab : 59, He says,

يا أيها النبي قل لأزواجك وبناتك ونساء المؤمنين يدنين عليهن من جلابيبهن ذلك أدنى أن يعرفن فلا تؤذين وكان الله غفورا رحيما

"O Prophet! Say to your wives, daughters, and the women of the believers, put on your 'jalabib'"

In this verse, the word 'jalabib' is used. It is the plural form of the word 'jilbab.' This word has been commonly translated into English in various ways, such as, 'outer garments,' or 'cloaks.'

Understanding the revelation by meanings established in the classical Arabic language is incumbent on any interpreter. The above two translations are common; appearing in the translations of Yusuf Ali, Asad, Pickthall, and others. However, the meaning suggested through such a translation does not fully convey what is being said in Arabic. Furthermore, some of those relying on the English translation have, perhaps even unwittingly, subverted this verse establishing the obligation of women covering their heads.

In Arabic, the word 'jilbab' is a garment by which a women covers her body, including her head. The face being included as well. Arabic lexicologists attest to this fact in many places. For instance:

(1) In his Tahdhib al-Lughah 11/64, Abu Mansur al-Azhari related from Layth that the word 'jilbab' is a garment with which a woman covers her body, including her head.

(2) Defining it to include the head is also stated by Zamakhshari in his Fa'iq 2/430 and Kashshaf 3/559.

(3) It is defined thus by Ibn Manzur in Lisan al-'Arab 1/272.

(4) And likewise by Khalil in Kitab al-'Ayn 6/132.

(5) In various works of Qur'anic exegesis, it is related from Ibn 'Abbas that this is a command for women to cover their heads. One reference for this is Tafsir al-Baghawi 6/376.

(6) In Anwar al-Tanzil 4/238, Qadi Baydawi says it includes the heads.

(7) In al-Bahr al-Muhit 8/504, Abu Hayyan says this too. He says that 'alayhinna' means 'ala wujuhihinna' i.e. that the 'jilbab' covers their faces.

(8) This is stated in Tafsir al-Jalalayn p. 560.

(9) Ilkiya al-Harrasi stated this in his Ahkam al-Qur'an 4/350.

(10) In a well-authenticated hadith related in Sunan Abi Dawud, it is mentioned that when this verse was revealed, the women of the Ansar came out completely covered.

All of these places show that lexically the word denotes a garment with which a woman covers her head. Additionally, points 5-10 show that this is how the Sahabah and foremost scholars of Qur'anic exegeses understood it.

Translating the word as 'cloaks,' for example, does not take into account the word's lexical meaning nor the details surrounding how it was understood and acted upon in the time of the Prophet (upon him be peace).

Considering what is related in the reference works dealing with Arabic lexicon and also the authoritative works in the subject of Qur'anic exegeses, perhaps a more suitable translation for this word would be 'veils.'

Allah knows best.