Friday, May 17, 2013

What is awra?

In mainstream Islam, aurat/awrah is taken to mean 'private parts' of women and men. This word comes from fiqh or jurisprudence; it does not appear in the Quran. This word is then used as a guideline for how women should dress, in addition to indications from hadith (and you all know how I feel about them by now: guidance, not law).

The verses from the Quran often used to explain awra actually contains words like zeena, furuj, and sawaAwra as it is used today conflates these three concepts in the Quran. Awra does appear in the Quran (33:31) but! let's analyse how it are used.


The root 'a-w-r (ain-waw-ra) appears only 4 times in the Quran in the same form of a noun, each time referring to different things.

The al-Ahzab verse (33:13) talks about a situation of war and unrest, known as the Battle of the Trench/Clans (Ahzab). Some believers were scared and wanted to flee from Yathrib (Madinah), by claiming that their houses were awra. However, such an argument made them bi'awratin. According to this interpretation, this group claimed that their houses were vulnerable. But by not showing solidarity with everyone else in Yathrib, they exposed their own cowardice and hypocrisy. (How you can use this verse to explain hijab is beyond me.)


But! The other verse in al-Ahzab (33:59) is even more interesting. This verse is in the context of war, and the Prophet was told to tell women to wear jalbab in public, so that they would be recognised and not harassed. The verses before had been talking about hypocrites and other people in society who were out to make trouble. Wearing an outercoat/loose-fitting garment was supposed to help identify these women as believers, and therefore not to be harmed.

(A little bit like how more Afghan women started wearing the full burqa in times of political instability under the Taliban and occupation. Not so much that women are responsible for not being harassed or raped -- more on that in another post.)

It's important to note that awrat in al-Ahzab (33) was used to refer to houses and people's character, not to women being exposed or not.

Another verse in an-Noor (24) talks about 3 times of the day -- before dawn, at noon, and after isha' -- that are times of awra for anyone. At noon especially, it mentions that it is a time when we 'put away our garments', perhaps to rest or take a nap. The period before dawn and after the night prayer is also commonly the time we sleep, have sex, or rest. So what does it mean that these moments are awra? It can be translated as 'moments of privacy', since children below puberty should ask permission before meeting someone at these moments (24:58).

The last verse is giving guidelines on the different levels of undress that women are allowed in front of different groups of men (24:31). There is no harm for a woman to reveal her zeena in front of helpers, attendants, and children who do not yet know awra-t-al-nisa, translated as the 'private aspects of women'. To understand this verse better, we must look at zeena (seriously, click and read this before reading on.) furuj and sawa.


The root s-w-a (sin-waw-hamza) appears 167 times in the Quran. The most common verses used to explain awra is the disgrace of the first two humans in Paradise. When Adam and his wife ate from the forbidden tree, their sawa was revealed to them when it was previously hidden (7:20). Saa  is something evil/harmful that causes distress (4:22, 4:38, 4:97, 4:115, 5:66, 6:31...). Sayyia  are bad deeds that are despicable because they cause harm to others (2:271, 3:193, 4:18, 5:12...) Sawata refers to a dead body (5:31).

Taking the meanings as a whole, I think that the sawa revealed to Adam and his wife go beyond simply their nakedness. I think it refers to their ability to do evil, when in Paradise they were only able to do good; and also to be mortal, since they were tempted into being immortal (7:20, 20:120). An alternative interpretation: when Adam and his wife (metaphor for humanity) ate from the Tree of discord, they tried to covered themselves with righteous behaviour, but it was too late -- humanity had already split themselves into factions and started committing harmful deeds towards each other.

Sawa refers to the ability of human beings to have free will and do good and evil. It could mean nakedness, but it's still in the context of a specific story, possibly full of deeper meanings.


The root f-r-j (fa-ra-jim) appears 9 times, referring to a rift or breaking open of the sky (77:9, 50:6) and chastity. Maryam is taken as an example of one who guarded her chastity (21:91, 66:12). Chastity and related modesty (as opposed to openly promiscuity) is part of virtuous behavior for men and women (23:5, 24:30-1, 33:35, 70:29).

Clearly, chastity is not something to be covered physically. When we are told to 'guard our chastity', it doesn't mean we literally wear a chastity belt. It means we control our actions. Whether what we wear helps us to control our own carnal desires or not, it's in our minds, not in our genitalia.


As a summary, awra in the Quran has only been used to refer to 'moments of privacy' (24:58) and 'private aspects of women' (24:31). What is often meant by awra in the conventional sense is actually zeena, furuj and/or sawa. Zeena talks about a women's beauty in an abstract sense, furuj is about chastity, and sawa is about our humanly characteristic to do good and evil.

Taking awra to mean a conflation of these concepts does not only mean that we currently have a weak understanding of the Quran (because no one can even point out the error of citing 33:59!), it also means that we confuse ourselves with the dominant, orthopraxic teachings, when the Quran has made these three concepts so rich and so useful for our daily living and spiritual sustenance.

Why reduce it to whether you are supposed to cover this or that, in front of whoever?

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