And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof;37
hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.38
And let them not display [more of] their charms to any but their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands' fathers, or their sons, or their husbands' sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire,39
or children that are as yet unaware of women's nakedness; and let them not swing their legs [in walking] so as to draw attention to their hidden charms.40
And [always], O you believers-all of you-turn unto God in repentance, so that you might attainto a happy state!41
My interpolation of the word "decently" reflects the interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi), as "that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-'adah al-jariyah)". Although the traditional exponents of Islamic Law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of "what may [decently] be apparent" to a woman's face, hands and feet- and sometimes even less than that - we may safely assume that the meaning of illa ma zahara minha is much wider, and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for all the time-bound changes that are necessary for man's moral and social growth. The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand, addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to "lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity": and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately - i.e., in consonance with the Qur'anic principles of social morality - be considered "decent" or "indecent" in a person's outward appearance.
The noun khimar (of which khumur is the plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer's back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term so familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet) does not necessarily relate to the use of khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman's breasts are not included in the concept of "what may decently be apparent" of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed.
I.e., very old men. The preceding phrase "those whom they rightfully possess" (lit., "whom their right hands possess") denotes slaves; but see also note .
Lit., "so that those of their charms which they keep hidden may become known". The phrase yadribna bi-arfulihinna is idiomatically similar to the phrase daraba bi-yadayhi mishyatihi, "he swung his arms in walking" (quoted in this context in Taj al-'Arus). and alludes to a deliberately provocative gait.
The implication of this general call to repentance is that since "man has been created weak" ( 4:28 ), no one is ever free of faults and temptations - so much so that even the Prophet used to say, "Verily, I turn unto Him in repentance a hundred times every day" (Ibn Hanbal, Bukhari and Bayhaqi, all of them on the authority of 'Abd Allah ibn'Umar).