Veiling in Christianity and Islam: A comparative analysis

Sofia Qureshi, USA
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Pawel Czerwinski | Unsplash

The layers covering the head and body of a Muslim woman often evoke a visceral response in a Western audience. Something seen as a positive virtue central to the Islamic faith is, from an outside perspective, considered a symbol of subjection. To understand on a deeper level this aversion, it is important to look to a place that most, ironically, might not at first think to turn to – scripture itself. In the Western conscience, the conceptualisation of what the veil means has been heavily influenced by Christian theology.

The veil as a symbol of subjugation in New Testament

In his First Epistle to the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul addresses concerns that women are prophesying in public and teaching men with their heads uncovered. He advises: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”

He continues in his Epistle:

“For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” (1 Corinthians 11:3-10)

In these verses, Paul assigns a very particular meaning to the veil – a symbol of a woman’s subjection to man.

Paul uses various angles and approaches to explain this. We turn to a sample of classical Biblical commentary for further insight.

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges’ (1882)exegesis on these verses states:

“The narrative in the book of Genesis establishes two facts, (1) that woman had her being originally through man, and not, as man, directly from God; and (2) that she was created for man’s advantage, and not man for hers. Not that we are to suppose, with some, that woman is in no sense to be regarded as the image and glory of God, but that man is so immediately, she mediately, through man.” (

To understand this further, we turn to Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (1834):

“If he [man] wore a veil or turban, it would be a mark of servitude or inferiority. It was therefore improper that he should appear in this manner, but he should so clad as not to obscure or hide the great truth that he was the direct representative of God on the earth, and had a superiority to all other creatures […] Man was created first; he had dominion given him; by him, therefore, the divine authority and wisdom first shone forth; and this fact should be recognized in the due subordination of rank, and even in the apparel and attire which shall be worn.” (

It continues: “She [woman] was made for him [man]; she was made after he was; she was taken from him, and was ‘bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh’ […]. This, therefore, ought to be acknowledged by a suitable manner of attire; and in his presence this sense of her inferiority of rank and subordination should be acknowledged by the customary use of the veil. (Ibid.)

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible (1810) states that man “should appear with open face and head uncovered, as a token of freedom and boldness; otherwise he dishonours his head as if his [Christ’s] blood and sacrifice were not effectual, and his intercession not prevalent […]by covering it [the head] it looks as if he was guilty and ashamed, and in subjection; whereas to appear uncovered expresses freedom, boldness, and superiority, like himself, who is the head of the woman […]” (

Benson’s Commentary (1857) explains:

“Hence Philo [Hellestic Jewish philosopher] calls the το επικρανον, cover of the woman’s head, the symbol of her shame; and this shame, say they, is due to her, because she first brought sin into the world. It is with her as when one transgresseth and is ashamed; and therefore she comes forth with her head covered. She ought, saith Tertullian [known as father of Latin Christian theology], by her habit to resemble Eve, a mourner and a penitent; ob ignominiam primi delicti, for the shame of the first sin.” (

The early Church fathers and influential theologians that followed shaped not only Christian thought but the post-Christian conscience. To the Western mind, the veil almost invariably is a symbol of oppression. Those who seek to “liberate” the Muslim woman from the veil are in the end, seeking to liberate her from a largely Pauline understanding of it. The Apostle’s writings in the New Testament – notably his Epistles to Timothy and Titus, along with those to the Corinthians – form the touchstone for dialectics within and without the Church on these issues. They remain relevant and alive today in the debates we see on male headship and complementarianism in Evangelical circles and gender roles in various American church denominations. (“On the heels of her split with Southern Baptists, Beth Moore apologizes for supporting a theology that restricts women”,

Islamic perspective

Islam differs wholly from the presuppositions underlying the veil in the New Testament and Pauline writings – including the a priori existence of man, the attribution of original sin to women, and the fallen state of humans. By way of example, we will examine a few verses of the Holy Quran.

 يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ ٱتَّقُوا۟ رَبَّكُمُ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍۢ وَٰحِدَةٍۢ وَخَلَقَ  مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالًۭا كَثِيرًۭا وَنِسَآءًۭ

“O ye people! Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and created therefrom its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women.” (Surah an-Nisa’, Ch.4: V.2)

The Holy Quran uses the terms soul (nafs) and mate (zowj), which are both gender-neutral in application. Islam “lends no support whatever to the view that Eve was actually created from the rib of Adam, as is clear from the following verses: We have created you in pairs (78:9); And of everything have We created pairs (51:50)” (Five Volume Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 611). This verse expresses that men and women, having been created from one soul, have the “same nature and same propensities.” (Ibid.)

 فَأَزَلَّهُمَا ٱلشَّيْطَـٰنُ عَنْهَا فَأَخْرَجَهُمَا مِمَّا كَانَا فِيهِ

“But Satan caused them both [Adam and Eve] to slip by means of it and drove them out of the state in which they were.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.37)

In the Quranic narrative, Eve does not tempt Adam in the garden, as is evident in the wording “caused them both to slip [i.e., unwilfully err].” Furthermore, rather than imputing sin on the Prophet Adam and his progeny, God teaches him a prayer to seek forgiveness. In fact, God tells Adam that He will continue to send guidance in the form of Prophets to all peoples for their benefit. The verse “holds out the promise that among the descendants of Adamas there would continue to appear great souls who would invite people to truth and guidance.” People would “attain nearness to God and their hearts would be to them a paradise.” (Five Volume Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 108)

لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا ٱلْإِنسَـٰنَ فِىٓ أَحْسَنِ تَقْوِيمٍۢ

“Surely, We have created the human in the best make.” (Surah at-Tin, Ch.95: V.5)

Islam holds a positive view of human nature. We are told in this verse humans are “born with a pure and unsullied nature, with a natural tendency to do good” (Five Volume Commentary, Vol. 5, p. 3406). Furthermore, in the idiom of the Holy Quran, husband and wife are described as “garments” (libas) for each other, covering each others’ nakedness (i.e., weaknesses), and providing protection, warmth and comfort.

Nowhere in the Holy Quran is the veil used to describe women’s subjection to men.

Deeper reality and spiritual meaning underlying the veil in Islam

The term commonly used for the head covering in Islam – the hijab – is derived from the trilateral root ح-ج-ب. This root comes eight times in the Holy Quran and each time it is in the meaning of screen, barrier or partition. We will take a look at two significant verses to help us understand the deeper meaning of the veil.

كَلَّآ إِنَّهُمْ عَن رَّبِّهِمْ يَوْمَئِذٍۢ لَّمَحْجُوبُونَ

“Nay, they will surely be debarred from seeing their Lord on that day.” (Surah at-Tatfif, Ch.83: V.16).

In Surah at-Tatfif, Allah the Exalted describes those who will be deprived of witnessing the countenance of God. The verse says these people will be majūb, which according to the lexicon, means partitioned from their Lord. A hijab will be placed between them and God, if you will. Nothing is more devastating to a believer than being separated from God.

فَٱتَّخَذَتْ مِن دُونِهِمْ حِجَابًا فَأَرْسَلْنَآ إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا

“And [Mary] screened herself off from them, then We sent Our angel to her.” (Surah Maryam, Ch.19: V.18)

In Surah Maryam, we learn what happens when a pious believer withdraws from the world and puts a حِجَابًا (hijab) between herself and others. When Mary screens herself from her people, the veils between her and God are lifted. She receives divine revelation about a son to be born to her. 


The meaning of Islam is complete submission to God alone. If anything, we can think of the veil in Islam as a symbol of our love of God and seeking Him. An Islamic understanding of the veil is sublime and wholly positive. The veil envelops us in a protective layer of comfort and as it wraps gently along the neck, reminds us that God is nearer to us than our “jugular vein” (Surah Qaf, Ch.50: V.17), before it falls over our beating heart. We veil ourselves from the world and draw closer to God. We hope, in turn, that the veils between ourselves and our Lord will be lifted. The outer veil we wear is only a tangible cloth that we hope will come to mirror an inner spiritual reality or adornment with “raiment of righteousness” (libas at-taqwa).

وَلِبَاسُ ٱلتَّقْوَىٰ ذَٰلِكَ خَيْرٌۭ

“But the raiment of righteousness—that is best.” (Surah al-A‘raf, Ch.7: V.27)

Our deepest desire is for the veils to be removed between us and our Lord and that we attain His nearness. The Promised Messiahas – the “Son of Man coming in the clouds of the sky with great power and glory” in the grand idiom of the Bible – writing at nearly the same time as the aforementioned Biblical commentators, reveals to us the true meaning of the veil:

“A lover cannot remain separated from his Beloved. The fact that the meeting of the two loves necessarily leads to ‘annihilation in God’ and the body (which is only a veil) is totally consumed, and the soul becomes wholly submerged in Divine love, can be illustrated with the example of a person who is struck with lightning […]. In the same way, spiritual annihilation also requires two kinds of fires: the heavenly fire and the inner fire of a person. The meeting of both these fires creates a state of annihilation (fana) without which the spiritual journey remains incomplete.” (Fountain of Christianity, p. 40).

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