Friday 19 February 2010

The Hijaab - a matter of choice or religious compulsion

In response to an article on this blog by Aisha Alvi "The Hijaab: 20 years on" a reader posted a comment attempting an intellectual discourse on whether the Hijaab is a matter of personal choice or religious compulsion on Muslim women - a view promoted by western media and traditional religious establishment across the Islamic world alike. I personally could not let their views hide among the comments section and have decided to post them here.

I would like to apologise in advance if any of my arguments below seem to challenge some of the convictions that have been so profoundly inculcated in the subconscience of a majority of the Muslims including almost all my family - my mother wore a burqa all her life. I’m no expert in Islamic law and my knowledge is only superficial. Generally I agree to the point that Aisha has raised, however, I’m not comfortable with one point that I would like to highlight here.

Historically, the term Islamic Law has not been as crystal clear as we might like to think it is. Generally Muslim scholars of later centuries have considered that there are 3 sources of Islamic Law, in the following order of precedence:

1. Qur’an
2. Sayings and traditions of the prophet (Hadith); and
3. Codification of Islamic Law as evolved from the works of jurisconsults (Fiqh)

Starting with the first source, the Qur’an is essentially a book of theology. Its main objective is to establish beyond any doubt the oneness of God; He alone is sustainer of this universe and from time to time He has sent his messengers to guide human beings of whom Muhammad (saw) is the last one. However, it has given some clear injunctions regarding personal law, e.g. marriage, divorce etc.

Without going into any further details, I will come to the issue of hijab. The Quran refers to the issue of hijab at three places: 33:53, 33:59 and 24:31. These are often referred to as ayat al hijab. The first of these is generally regarded as exclusively concerned with the household of the Prophet (saw):

“And whenever you ask them (i.e. his wives) for anything, ask them from behind a curtain (hijab) ...” (33:53)

In Medina, when the Prophet became a head of the state, it was deemed necessary to protect his household from direct and easy access by everyone. It is not regarded as a clear ruling to make hijab mandatory for Muslim women.

The second verse is:

“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters as well as all believing women that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (min jalabibihinna); this will help to assure that they will be recognised and not be annoyed.” (33:59)

It is significant that this regulation does not require that the women should first wear a headscarf and then pull it down to cover her body. They should wear an article of clothing that should cover their bosoms. In olden times, this article of clothing would generally consist of a large head covering that could be used for this purpose.

The last of the ayat al hijab discusses the reason and is often cited as conclusive evidence:

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their charms (zinatahunna) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof (illa ma zahara minha). So let them draw their head coverings (khumar) over their bosoms.” (24:31)

A casual reading would inform us that the focus is on covering the bosoms and hiding those parts which one may class as having physical charms. The Qur'an does not clearly define what these physical charms precisely consist of. It is very sensible regulation because it takes into account that from period to period and culture to culture what constitutes physical charms varies greatly. A teacher of mine in Pakistan used to say that if a red shawl is wrapped around a thorny bush, the college students will circumambulate it indefinitely. On the other hand a women's face and hair might not be as seductive in certain cultures.

A clear injunction is not available and the interpreters have never failed to play their favourite game. Saudi version favours imposing far more stringent measures than some other interpretations.

Sahih Bukhari describes in some detail the historic occasion of ayat al hijab (hadith 6315). A tradition related by Aisha (ra) in Sunan Abu Dawud is often cited by pro-hijab scholars but some others have not considered it sufficient enough evidence. Seeking to follow or emulate the wives of the Prophet (saw) is of course good practice but I have issues accepting it as an obligation. Some scholars think that the rationale of the clothing regulations can be served without covering the hair.

A vast amount of what is considered Islamic Law comes from Fiqh. Scholars when they did not find clear rules in either the Qur'an or the Hadith literature, set out to compile Fiqh using Usool Fiqh (jurisprudence). Now it is very important to consider that Usool Fiqh varied considerably and hence there are different schools of thought in Fiqh.

A few elements of Usool Fiqh were 'ilm al qayas (deductive reasoning), ijma' (consensus) and ijtihad (analogy). The scope and acceptability of these principles varied greatly, e.g. Hanafi School was relatively liberal. It allowed the scholar to use 'ilm al qayas but the Maliki and Shaf’i schools were very strict. They allowed ijtehad in a restrictive framework. So did Hanbali school. Shi'ia scholars believed in the concept of imamate and no consensus is acceptable unless it is endorsed by the imam. Some of the sayings of imam were given the weight equivalent to that of Hadith. Mind you imam is infallible interpreter of Islam in Shi'ism. Due to the differences in Usool fqh, the codification carried out by the different schools had considerable differences. The issue of hijab is not an exception.

The problem if that an ordinary Muslim faces a large body of Fiqh and considers it as infallible interpretation of Islam.

With this detailed background, I come straight to the issue that caused me discomfort - to say that hijab is indispensible for a Muslim woman is actually imposing the opinion of one group (albeit a large one) upon all Muslims. It would be more accurate to say that ‘according to the interpretation of a large number of Muslim scholars, hijab is an essential part of a Muslim women’s dress but many scholars have differed with this from the beginning’.

This approach does not consider Mu’tazila view point at all. There was only one human being whose understanding of the Qur’an was infallible. Unfortunately he died in 632 A.D. and now there is no way to decide which interpretation is correct or otherwise. There may be different shades of truth. Of course those interpretations that violate the clear injunctions of the Qur'an and Hadith are easier to make judgements on but unfortunately we face a situation where things are rather complicated.

Having said that if you believe that hijab is mandatory for Muslim women, you have the right to maintain that and should be allowed to wear one. For me, it is not an essential part of a Muslim woman's dress code but everyone should be free to choose what they want to wear. I do respect those women who wear hijab for the simple reason that they are going an extra step to remain compatible with Islam. I will fight for their right to wear hijab but would not be able to accept that this is mandatory.

Actually Islam does not conform to the zeitgeist. That’s fine Islam is not a fashion, it can wait, as stated by Dr Murad Hofmann. Why all this to Islam? Europe’s first encounter to Islam was one of enemy and that has not completely disappeared from the collective memory of Europeans. A few good readings on the topic are Albert Hourani’s Islam in European Thought; Professor Edward Said’s Orientalism; and Covering Islam. Even those publications that first appeared in the early part of the 20th century or before and highlighted favourably the Muslims’ literary contributions have been gradually replaced with those which look down upon Muslims as barbarians. Jack Goody’s The Theft of History is another good read.

It is ironical that women showing their body are only exercising the personal freedom that the great civilisation has conferred upon them but those who want to cover their hair violate the very value. Why does personal freedom is cherished in one case and frowned upon in the other?

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