Whose Islam is it anyway?
By Javed Anand
April 6, 2009
In November 2005, the then chief justice of the Peshawar high court, Justice Tariq Pervaiz Khan, ordered women lawyers not to wear veils (burqas) in courtrooms. “You are professionals and should be dressed as required of lawyers,” the chief justice told the veiled lawyer Raees Anjum. Today, that verdict seems to belong to another era. Now that girls’ schools have been bombed out of existence, women forcibly barred from working and barbers’ shops forcibly shut down in the Swat Valley and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud is within striking distance of Wagah, the only relevant question is whether in the coming period women from Peshawar and elsewhere will be allowed to pursue any profession, with or without a burqa.
Meanwhile, a brother judge from our side of the Wagah has spoken, also on the subject of a dress code, and Muslim organisations across the country are up in arms. Mohammed Salim, a student of Bhopal’s Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School, petitioned the Supreme Court for an endorsement of his “constitutional right” to sport a beard in school, in violation of the institution’s dress code. The plea was rejected outright. What has really sent the sparks flying are the remarks of Justice Markandeya Katju: “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa, can we allow it?”
At long last, “T” has become a dirty word for many Indian Muslims and the apex court’s apparent equation of the right to keep a beard with the Talibani agenda is what is hurting. Justice Katju’s remarks have been variously described as “shocking” and “unfortunate”. It is feared, and rightly so, that his remarks will feed into Hindutva’s incessant demonising of Muslims and Islam. Several Muslim bodies, including the Jamiat, have declared their intention to petition the Supreme Court for a review of the division bench’s order.
If the Muslim anguish over the use of the T-word is understandable, what is not so understandable is the failure, or refusal, of the protesting organisations to read the text (court order) in the context (dress code of a school) in which it was delivered. The verdict says nothing about a Muslim’s, or anyone else’s right for that matter, to sport a beard or wear a burqa per se. While we may nonetheless ponder over the wisdom of Justice Katju’s reference to the Taliban, should we not simultaneously be asking some other questions too: Who is drilling into the heads of Muslim teenagers that their Islam is in deficit without a beard for the male and a head-to-toe burqa for the female? What is one to make of the ethical and intellectual integrity of the clean shaven retired judge, B.A. Khan, who appeared for Salim to argue that sporting a beard was an “indispensable part of Islam”?
It’s not just the case of Salim. A Muslim inspector in Maharashtra wants permission to keep a beard as part of his “religious duty” and a Muslim army man’s petition to the same effect is pending in the Supreme Court. Within Muslim circles there is also frequent talk of the problem a burqa-clad woman faces in getting a job or at work. The argument doing the rounds is that Muslims are being discriminated against: if a Sikh can wear his turban and the rest in keeping with his faith, why should anyone deny Muslims a similar right to the beard or the burqa? It is certain, therefore, that the proposed review petition will not just protest at the Taliban remark but invoke a Muslim’s “constitutional right” to live by his or her “Islamic duty”. The only catch is that the argument is bogus: the beard and the burqa are mandatory only under the “Mullah’s Islam”. Ironically, even the mullah will readily admit that there’s no provision for a clergy in Islam.
A dress code for Muslims
Listen to the Sudanese religious and political leader, Hassan ‘Abd Allah al-Turabi, a “hardliner”, said to have inspired Islamist movements across the globe. On the question of a dress code for Muslims, the Quran’s message is very clear, says Turabi. “The wives of Prophet Mohammed are directed to dress up completely without showing any part of their bodies including face and hands to any man; though all other Muslim women were exempted from these restrictions... When greeting a lady, shaking hands in a spontaneous manner may be permissible, especially if it is a customary practice in a chaste setting... Indeed, segregation and isolation may well protect a woman from temptation, but it essentially denies her the benefits of the communal life of Muslims. It denies and abrogates her legitimate role in the social process of cooperation in the promotion of knowledge and good work, in the mutual counselling of Muslims....”
Turabi is not the only one to say so. In his book, The Truth on the Hijab and the Authoritativeness of the Hadith, the great Egyptian jurist, Justice Muhammad Sa’id Al-’Ashmawi, also expressed the view that the hijab was obligatory only for the Prophet’s wives. Egypt’s famous Sheikh Gamal Al-Banna (now 86 years old), the brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna, says: “Islam did not impose the hijab on women; the jurisprudents imposed the hijab on Islam.”
What is true of the burqa obligation is true, more so, of the beard. A half-hour Google search on mainstream Islamic websites is enough to show there are very divergent views on the beard being an “indispensable part of Islam”.
The next time you run into a Muslim obsessed about the burqa or the beard, ask what happened to the essential teachings of the Prophet: “To seek knowledge (in Islam all knowledge is sacred) is the religious duty of every Muslim man and woman”; “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr”; “To obtain knowledge travel to China if necessary”.
Had the self-appointed custodians of Islam honestly spread this simple message of the Prophet instead of peddling a bygone culture and patriarchy as Islam, Muslim women would today have been pushing the frontiers of knowledge and teenager Salim would have concentrated on sharpening his intellect instead of frittering his and the community’s time, money and emotion in search of shallow piety.
Javed Anand is co-editor, Communalism Combat and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy