Is Enforcing Hijab Crucial to Islam?

The 18th session of the Tajikistan’s upper chamber of Parliament (Majlisi Mili) has finally approved the bill banning the hijab after years of unofficial law.

The 18th session of the Tajikistan’s upper chamber of Parliament (Majlisi Mili) has finally approved the bill banning the hijab after years of unofficial law. The law primarily targets hijab among other traditional items of Islamic clothing calling them “alien clothing.” The new law in Tajikistan has sparked a debate in the global community where the supporters laud it for freedom of women and opponents criticise it for curbing religious expression

In stark contrast to Tajikistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Morality Police (Gasht-e Irshad) has sparked nationwide protest, recently enforced even stricter laws to enforce hijab on women.’ Months into the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests that erupted following the Mahsa Amini’s death in September 2022, the Iranian regime silently withdrew the Morality Police from the streets to settle the dust that rose from nationwide upheaval. During their absence, mass surveillance technologies have been used to issue warnings and fines to women doing ‘improper hijabi.’ The Iranian public’s dissatisfaction with the enforcement of hijab even reflected two years later in the March 1 elections where the voter turnout has been at a historical low of 41 percent.       

While the constitutionality of the Morality Police’s strict hijab enforcement has been discussed from the lens of freedom of choice and freedom of religious expression, not much has been said about its place in Islam. Is the practice of enforcing hijab crucial to Islam? In order to understand Tajikistan’s recent ban on hijab and Iran’s insistence on its strict enforcement, it is pertinent to go back to its origins. Through a critical analysis of the authoritative sources, the article attempts to explore whether the hijab law is crucial to Islam by delving into the religio-political origins of the hijab law and of the Morality Police.

What does the Holy Quran Say?

The ultimate authoritative source in Islam is the Holy Quran. As is the case with many holy scriptures, one can find in the Holy Quran contradictory answers to the same question. For instance, if one were to look in the Holy Quran- Are women free to not wear a hijab or can it be enforced on them? The Quranic verse “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) clearly indicates that women are free to choose whatever they want to wear, and any kind of enforcement would be a deviation from the core values of Islam.

However, there is another phrase in the Holy Quran which the religious enforcers quote to justify hijab enforcement. The phrase “Commanding the right and forbidding the wrong” (“al-amr bi-l-maaruf wa-n-nahy ani-l-munkar”) appears in different forms in eight separate verses (3:104, 3:110, 3:114, 7:157, 9:71, 9:112, 22:41, 31:17) in the holy Quran. In the verse 3:104, it is arguably the most definitive as it calls out to create a group from among the believers to carry out the religious duty- “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: they are the ones to attain felicity.” This is the basis for the formation of the Morality Police.

Islamic Scholars’ Take on Mandatory Hijab

Michael Cook’s 700-page book, “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought,” is considered to be the most comprehensive study on the topic. According to him, the earlier commentators did not look at this religious duty as religious policing. (Cook, 2001)  It was closer to what we now refer to as directive principle rather than a law to be obeyed. In his own words, this religious duty was understood to be “as simply one of enjoining belief in God and His Prophet (Cook, 2001).”

Abu al-Aliya, who was among the direct companions of Prophet Muhammad, has described the duty of ‘Commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ as “calling people practicing polytheism to the righteous fold of Islam.” The religious duty was limited to engaging with people to stop idol worship. Similarly, Muqatil ibn Sulayman, whose three-volume book is believed to be one of the oldest commentaries on the holy Quran, also looked at the religious duty as “enjoining belief in God and forbidding polytheism (Cook, 2001).”

During the initial phase of Islam, the religious duty was not applicable to enforcing hijab on women. It was limited to calling people to believe in the core teachings of Islam such as praying to one God, Allah, and do away with polytheistic practices.

Historic Roots of Morality Police

In Iran, morality police have been tasked with enforcing hijab law along with inspecting other religious misdeeds. They patrol the nooks and corners of every city and village to catch people drinking alcohol or anything that, in their view, is un-Islamic. However, the institution tasked with inspection did not start with religious policing.

The charge of inspecting is based on the institution of ‘hisbah.’ Hisbah is a kind of set up by Prophet Muhammad to monitor and limit the fraudulent practices in the marketplace (Salim, 2015). The market inspectors were called ‘aamil al-suq,’ or ‘overseer of the market’ in the initial centuries post the advent of Islam. The 9th century CE Islamic scholar named Yahya ibn Umar has described the role of the overseer of the market as “overseeing the orderly functioning of the market particularly with regard to weighs, measures and scales.”  

As the Islamic society progressed into the 9th century, Yassine Essid observes, two categories emerge among the people who are tasked with hisbah, one that of market overseers and other of religious police known as muhtasib (Essid, 1995). The religious policing was being done on the basis of ‘maaruf’ (the known good) and ‘al hadud’ (boundaries) (Farooq, 2018). The concept of maaruf predates Islam and covers the things that enriches a person morally and spiritually. On the contrary, ‘al hadud’ are the things that corrupts the soul and conscience of a human being.

In an 11th century influential book ‘Ihya Ulum al-Din’ (The Revival of Religious Sciences) by Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, he describes hisbah as preventing somebody from committing sin and evil for the sake of God (Hakim, 2020). And unlike in the past centuries, he dictated direct punishments to lawbreakers. Therefore, it was only with time that religious policing became the principal task of the market inspectors while market overseeing took a backstage.


While ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ remained a politically modest practice in the initial centuries from the advent of Islam and had nothing to do with hijab, radicalism started creeping in as centuries passed. The institution of ‘hisbah’ and ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ is the basis for the formation of the Morality Police to enforce mandatory hijab. Even though this verse and institution came into existence during the time of the prophet but the duty of the people to enforce the laws were limited to oppose polytheism and market supervision. Therefore, it would not be correct to look at the practice of mandatory hijab as one the core teachings of Islam.

Harshit Sharma
Harshit Sharma
Harshit Sharma is a Research Assistant at NatStrat. He research interests include West Asia and the larger Islamic world. He did his Masters in Diplomacy, Law, and Business from the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He has completed his undergraduate degree in History (Hons.) from the University of Delhi. He is currently learning Persian from Iran Culture House.