It is important to recognize that Islam is a faith and not a single monolithic culture. A diverse community of over 1.2 billion believers spans the globe. These Muslims live in all parts of the world, speak hundreds of languages, and come from a multitude of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Although Islam is commonly associated with the Middle East and the Arab World, fewer than 15% of Muslims are Arab. Over 50 countries have Muslim majority populations whereas minority Muslim groups are present in nearly every country on the globe. Therefore there is no single form of clothing that can be referred to as Islamic clothing.
Islamic Clothing Guidelines
The Islamic faith provides general dress guideline for both men and women based on the principles of modesty. These guidelines are interpreted in the light of the individual Muslim's national or group identity, social status, cultural traditions, local materials, and climate. All these factors cast an influence on what the individual wears. When asked to visualize Islamic clothing, one may think of loose robes and turbans. The fact is that a long T-shirt & pair of jeans or a Western style business suit can also be Islamic clothing. In reality, any form of clothing can be Islamic clothing as long as it follows the guidelines of modesty.
The Qur'an instructs both women and men to be modest. Clothing should not be sheer or form fitting and should cover the entire body, with the exception of the hands and face. For Hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) regarding clothing, please visit www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/abudawud/032.sat.html.
For some, an integral part of Islamic clothing for women is a head covering called a hijab. But, this was not worn in all medieval Muslim societies. Whenever a woman entered a mosque, however, she would always have her head covered. This was also true of medieval Christian women entering a church. In some societies even the woman's face was covered.
These traditions continue to be observed in many Muslim societies today. Islamic clothing, especially wearing the hijab, is an issue representative of their Muslim Identity for many Muslim women. On the other hand, wearing of the hijab (which means "head covering" or "veil") is debated in some Muslim societies. In Turkey the hijab or head scarf is banned on some university campuses; this government policy has angered many conservative students.
Fabrics and Embellishments on Women's Clothing
The most common fabrics available were cotton, wool, linen, camel hair, and silk. Cotton was a cool fabric. In winter or in cold environments, clothing was commonly made of wool. Camel hair was also woven into clothing for cold weather. Some clothing was made from plant fibers called linen. Silk was imported from China or Persia and was very expensive; only the rich could afford it.
Depending on their cultural background and socio-economic status, it was common for women's clothing to be embellished with exquisite embroidery using gold & silver thread and precious & semi precious stones. Depiction of the human form was contradictory to religious beliefs. Therefore, much of Islamic art, including textiles, utilized floral and geometric patterns of great beauty and complexity. Quranic verses valued for their spiritual meaning and protective properties were often embroidered or painted onto clothing.
While the results from culture to culture varied, different fabrics and embellishments contributed to a rich history of Islamic clothing that was based on the principles of modesty.
Part II - Specific Examples of Islamic Clothing
Part 2 of this article deals with specific examples of Islamic clothing in different parts of the world at different times.