By Inas Younis, New Age Islam
14 August 2013
Fifteen years ago I attended a Muslim youth conference where I was persuaded to yield to the anguish of an entire Ummah (nation) by submitting in full blind faith to a strain of Islam according to and championed by the Afghani rebels (pre- Taliban) , who had been invited to motivate us into religious compliance. They appealed to our sentiments by way of an original anthem, exhorting us to hear the weeping of Afghanistan’s most innocent victims – the orphans. But words and songs were not required when their paralyzed and amputated bodies served as the most powerful testament to the sacrifice they had made in the name of Islam.
A seed of guilt was planted by the suggestion that our Islamic Ummah was reaping punishment because of our religious apathy. And as a condition to our collective survival, we were beckoned to atone for our shortcomings by submitting ourselves to the “cause.” The nature of that cause was masked with a generic plea to vindicate the suffering of Muslims by volunteering to amputate something less valuable to a teenager then bodily limbs- our infantile minds. We were called to commit practically, to that which we had been taught to embrace ideologically. It was hardly a sacrifice considering that at fifteen my mind was practically and ideologically constrained by only one thought- the boys on the other side of our segregated lecture hall.
But before I could surrender my moral autonomy, I had to extinguish a few reservations. And so in a public forum I asked the visiting scholar to explain the significance of polygamy. And he replied that “it is a social solution, for a social problem”. And then I questioned him about Hijab, the Islamic head covering, he pronounced that it is a Fard, a religious obligation on all women.
And so although I had come in wearing jeans and a sweat shirt, I left in full modest regalia, head scarf and all. I knew almost nothing of religion, but it did not matter, because knowledge was a minor technicality in light of the precedence that crying orphans commanded. I knew that I must act before I think, because as even the ancient Christians proclaimed - “Lex orandi, lex credendi” - action precedes faith.
Fifteen years have since passed and my commitment to faith has not dissipated the cries of the orphans in Afghanistan. In fact, It has only become aggravated by the cries of a routinely overlooked victim of persecution- the Muslim woman. Women whose voices we have not heard or seen, but who, with or without their consent, are being used to wage a resistance movement designed to use them as props in counteracting western colonialism.
Observe the concrete example of this onslaught on women as embodied by the person who I shall dub- the heart surgeon. I cannot name her, or describe her, because the person who related his recent interaction with this gifted female surgeon, who had saved his life after he suffered a heart attack, has never “seen” her voice. She was clad in black from head to toe, and had but two slits in her face veil to allow her a restricted view of the world. A world that was prepared to capitalize on the brilliance that is her mind, as if it were a public commodity, without acknowledging her person. A world where she is told to allow her talents to be plundered for the benefit of her intellectual inferiors without the incentive of recognition and respect. A world which insists that her orthodoxy is a testament of her elevated status instead of what it has really become- a visual manifestation of her subjugation.
But what the world of the female surgeon has imposed through physical coercion, ours has sanctioned through the psychological coercion inherent in the decree made by the consensus of those scholars who insist that the peripheral custom of veiling is mandated in Islam. A claim which, I come to discover, is grounded less on theological evidence then on the religious vulnerability which seeks to use the visual imagery of women as an antidote to the helplessness we are experiencing in the hands of western dominance.
And so in frustration by all these visual and intellectual contradictions in my faith I sought out that very scholar who had satisfied my questions some fifteen years ago.
Although he did not remember me, one peek into his lowered gaze and I was satisfied with the purity of his heart.
This time however, I had no mercy on him and started at the very beginning, by concerning him with the question of God. He replied that there are some things you cannot understand or explain. And after I felt hammered by that realization a few more times, I elected to dispose of the esoteric questions and get down to concretes. And so I asked him concerning the modern value of enforcing the hijab? He said, it is his opinion that it is obligatory, but of course a woman can choose.
But where is the choice when her salvation and love for God is contingent on her willingness to comply with those opinions you deem compulsory to circumventing a grievous penalty? And so he wisely resorted to the same answers I received from the many other people whose counsel I sought and finally said “there are some things you just have to accept, and Allah has commanded it so.” And so I asked him what he thinks I ought to do with my inconsolable mind. He declared that “where your mind ends, revelation begins.”
Hence I was left without answers, But was content nonetheless by the reassurance that answers are not always possible and I should finally take consolation in faith – thus god, thus divine law, thus salvation .
I was prepared to accept matters as they are decreed even if they did not appeal to my intellect. But before I could take one day’s comfort in that realization, another irksome question demanded representation . What of those matters which contradict human intellect? For even if I succumb to intellectual apathy and blind faith I could not ignore the visual contradiction embodied in that female surgeon. If I drive myself to accept that my common sense, my intellect, is extraneous in matters of faith, then I must not only accept the corollary of that assertion, but also its remedy—dogma and literalism.
If I am not permitted to exercise my uniquely human capacity to integrate and conceptualize reality as I experience it then I too would be bound to the same prescriptions which compel that female surgeon to apply religious mandates across every situation no matter what the connotations of her circumstances dictate. Notice that some environments are innately devoid of any sexual context, where notions of modesty or vanity, female vs. male are completely immaterial , as would be the case in an operating room. Hijab in the context of some environments, much less extreme then hospitals, does the exact opposite of its intended purpose, it injects the notion of sexuality where none exists.
Intellect vs. Islamic Law
If the things we cannot explain, and do not understand are the means by which we seek to reinforce our belief in God’s presence, if accepting religious law submissively without question, laws and Fatwas which are not grounded in intellect but on vague interpretations of revelation, are the greatest reinforcement we have of the validity of any religious claim, then the measure of faith in God becomes contingent on the degree to which one is willing to forgo logic.
What happens when one is able to intellectualise the rigidity of dogma out of existence, is that then tantamount to intellectualizing god out of existence? Is the God who demands adherence in defiance of logic and reason, not the God of superstition? If we accept what we are told, that static laws are moral truths, and then allow others to attach our adherence to them as a testament of our commitment to God, then ask yourself if you are willing to act on it, without just applying it to others and then using repentance as a scapegoat to exempt yourself. Ask yourself if you are willing to live according to the dictates of the -faith minus logic- world of that female surgeon. Or will you continue to rely on the luxury that a free society permits you by evading the very real and more pertinent question here. Which is, do you believe that you have a right not to believe, and still be a believer??
Are you prepared in the name of the God who granted you free will to renounce the attitude towards faith that relies on the your ability to not justify things , to not understand, and worse- to resist the temptation to know them, making renunciation of the mind a qualification of faith in God.
If you can’t bring yourself to do it, then you are not alone. Observe doctors, scientists, and professional at the height of their academic fields who are paralyzed when it comes to matters of religion. Observe the man , who needs confirmation on whether or not he should divorce the woman he loves, should it please his mother, or if he can be alone in an exam room with his female patients? Here is a man who is trained to make life and death judgment calls, but cannot make the simplest decisions when it comes to his personal life or work. Or notice the woman who asks if dancing is permitted.
But what is even more absurd then the questions are the answers they were given, which were- yes, divorce her; no you can’t be alone with your patient; and yes you can dance, but only for your husband and only as long as you do not imitate that infidel Brittany Spears. For more comical examples of the intellectual liquidation of our Ummah I refer you to www.sunnipath.com, a site I was referred to by an even more mainstream organization, the Zaytoona Institute.
What is not so comical is the sense of urgency which is driving Muslims to abdicate their commitment to a rational faith in the interest of the anti rational dogma of legalism according to and championed by our leadership, the abstraction of which, can be embodied by a scattered collection of voices who have been eulogizing the merits of an Islamic state, all the while ignoring the reality and corruption, which is our Islamic “state.”
But here is the secret fear of our leadership, of our mullahs, from which all their irrational decrees are designed to hold back and deflect. It is the deep down realization that the literal materialization of everything they have been preaching has already been actualised in one of the most loyal, literal and failed experiments in Islamic history -Saudi Arabia, The land that is the logical conclusion of our illogical approach to religion.
They will of course go into a diatribe about how that sham of a kingdom is not an Islamic ideal but rather its corruption, but they will not be able to tell you why. Not because they do not know why, but because to answer the question why, you have to be prepared to follow through with the answer and its subsequent implication-- making public, that which you have already painfully conceded to in private, and proclaiming your independence from every authority that up and tell now has held us all emotionally detained and united under a philosophically flimsy banner of blind compliance to Islamic laws which are intellectually indefensible.
Proclaim your independence from laws which have kept women physically or psychologically gagged and men spiritually impotent. Say your farewell to edicts which are supposed to reinforce revelation, but have in essence denied its most fundamental premise. The premise where your mind ends and revelation does indeed begin. And where your mind ends is at the very beginning, with the most fundamental question and answer from which every other question and answer should stem. Is an inherently good or evil? And it is with this question that Revelation kicks in with undeniable force and tells me what my intellect cannot, which is that man is inherently good. A premise which not only makes my faith unique, but which is also one of the firmest of my religious beliefs.
And since our revelation stresses our inherent goodness, our Fitrah, then it stands to reason that the letter of the law is a superfluous mechanism in harnessing man’s nature, who revelation says, is predisposed to goodness. No legalism or holy spirits required for guidance, if and when our natural proclivity is allowed to serve as our most qualified guide. But our natural inclination is not a given, it is a product of a soul that is under no compulsion, a soul which is completely free. Natural inclinations can only find representation in a world that is free of every variety of coercion and intimidation, Making a free society the organic expression and incarnation of an Islamic state, and the more free the society, the more Islamic it becomes.
No amount of rationalizations or explanations can convince any thinking person that a stricter adherence to the codification of our traditions will cure our current crisis. We must stop insisting that ideological unity is measured by uniformity in practice and recognize that ideals are abstract and timeless and there implementation will have different expressions depending on time, culture, place and circumstance. If uniformity in practice continues to become the standard by which we derive and uphold religious law , instead of reality and intellect then we will forever be compelled to yield to the lowest common unifying denominator, where the exceptions become the rules, the hypotheticals become the standard, and the what ifs become the what should be. And in order to insure uniformity in practice, scholars will be forced to spend their lives making concessions for every single legal contingency. Islamic scholarship, philosophy and art have been sacrificed in order to relieve the constipation which results from questions like:
What if it rains in the morning can I join my prayers?
What if my shorts are one eighth of an inch above my knee?
What if my wife kisses me before I had the chance to stop her, should I repeat my Wudhu?
Questions which are completely legitimate when reason is isolated from religion.
You have only to look at the reality which is our present state to recognize that where there is impotence of the mind and spirit there is subjugation of the body; specifically women’s bodies. That if man is the metaphor for the material world, the world of progress and development, then woman is his spiritual counterpart. Observe that man’s spirit is bound by his capacity to produce, and whenever man feels he has no power to effect change or to produce material goods, woman becomes the mirror of his castrated spirit. And in an effort to alleviate his paralysis in the physical world he will seek to bind and gag the spirit which demands he fight for it, the spirit which is woman, the spirit whose movements he seeks to control to compensate himself for the tyrannical politics of bigger men who seek to control him. One way to liberate the male spirit is by liberating women from the impositions of religious mandates that are no longer relevant or sanctioned either in letter or spirit.
Deconstructing the Veil as Obligation Myth
For the purposes of this forum, I would like to examine only one Islamic law, which is the command made, through the consensus of the scholars, that women must cover their hair. Let us examine the legitimacy of this directive based upon our Islamic sources of guidance minus their entirely male interpretations.
Historically, the custom of veiling and secluding women was not common in the Islamic world until about three generations after the prophet’s death. This form of dress was adopted from earlier pre Islamic near Eastern Societies. Jews and Christians also covered their hair. And even then, the veil was not worn by all women. It was a mark of status worn by women of the upper classes, not by peasants or slaves. It was never a unique or essential practice in Islam, and the Quran did not command all women to cover their heads. The primary source of evidence for its implementation is obtained from
Surah An-Nur Which Translates:
“And say to the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their Beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty….” (24:verse 31, Abdullah Yusef Ali).
The noun Khimar, which is translated here as veil was worn in pre-Islamic times either as an ornament let down loosely over the wearer's back, and or as a protection from the dessert climate. Not covering your head was considered a bad practice, as was shaving the beard. Your reliability was questioned when either custom was not followed, in the same way that our current culture questions the reliability of those who don body piercings or tatoos. In accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time of the prophet, the upper part of a woman's dress had a wide opening in the front, leaving her breasts exposed. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a Khimar is intended 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 be covered.
The significance of the verse is concerned with covering the breast area ("juyubihinna"), as the verse and its commentary also reinforced. There is also no sanction or punishment for failing to observe Islamic dress, as there are for other Islamic injunctions.
The interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars is obviously what a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom. Although the traditional interpreters of Islamic law have been disposed to restrict the definition of "what may (decently) be apparent" to a woman's face, hands and feet, the meaning of illa ma zahara minha is really much wider. The intentional ambiguity of this phrase is to allow for variability in practice according to customs and personal interpretations of modesty.
However there are also other Ayah which can be taken into consideration when deciding on appropriate dress. Including the specific commands about seclusion (al-Ahzab 33:32-33) which apply only to the Prophet's wives who as the Qur'an asserts, are unlike any other women. Keep in mind that in traditional Arabian society a sexual scandal was a very serious matter that could have been used to discredit the prophet’s mission. The Hijab or curtain that was imposed on the prophet’s wives was a measure used to curtail the possibility of false accusations against the prophet’s family. There is a reference to the generality of Muslim women in other ayah which state:
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all (other) believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (when in public): this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not annoyed. But (withal,) God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace! (al-Ahzab 33:59, Asad transl.).
The context of this verse is that some of the hypocrites were molesting women in the street. Accordingly, Muslim women were ordered to dress in a manner that would distinguish them as modest and chaste and not to be assaulted. One could argue that this command is bound by context and time, and as such, dress is used to indicate a Muslim’s identity and not necessarily as an measure of the moral status of the woman herself. It would of course also be socially preferable to raise men to respect women and not think that a woman's dress can serve as an invitation or license to assault her.
When the objective of a decree is stated in the Quran, then it is the objective not the decree which takes precedence in ones interpretation. One can claim that in light of the current situation we are facing, wearing the Hijab has rendered women more of a target for the ill intentioned, and as a precautionary measure, one should not wear the Hijab (head covering). I would never suggest that this is a good argument, but it certainly will quiet those who imply that the aim of Hijab is to protect women.
The final Ayah with respect to veiling says:
As for your women past the age of bearing children, who have no hope of marriage, there is no harm if they take off their outer garments, but in such a way that they do not display their charms; yet if they avoid this it would be better for them. God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (an-Nur 24:60)
Not one of these Ayah commands a woman to cover her hair explicitly. Even implicitly the emphasis is not on suppressing a woman’s natural inclination to be feminine but rather to emphasize that a woman should not dress in a manner that is sexually suggestive.
The other source of guidance we have on the matter of veiling are two Hadith, reported sayings of the prophet. The first of which is narrated below where Aisha said:
.. Asthma', daughter of Abu Bakr, entered upon the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) wearing thin clothes. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) turned his attention from her. He said: O Asthma', when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of the body except this and this, and he pointed to her face and hands.
Very few Muslims know that this is in Sunan Abu Dawud. The English translation of Sunan Abu Dawud is in three volumes. This hadith is in Volume 3, Book XXVII, Chapter 1535, and Hadith number 4092, titled: "How Much Beauty Can A Woman Display?"
Abu Dawud has said, that this is a Mursal tradition (i.e. the narrator who transmitted it from 'Aisha is missing), making this Hadith a weak one. No one has ever pointed out that this is a Mursal (weak) hadith and therefore cannot be used to obtain Islamic injunctions.
The other Hadith which is Sahih states:
My Lord agreed with me ('Umar) in three things... (2) And as regards the veiling of women, I said 'O Allah's Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.' So the verse of the veiling of the women was revealed (Bukhari, v1, bk 8, Sunnah 395).
But again this was a in reference to the prophets wives who were the target of insults and accusations by the hypocrites.
The majority of those who have attempted to interpret the Qur'an to mandate the Hijab argue that the vernacular ‘beauty’ includes hair and its exposure is therefore forbidden. But the term 'ordinary', means ordinary to the prevailing social customs? How is hair not 'ordinary?
The word "Hijab" itself is derived from Hajaba, that is, to hide or conceal. Hijab/Hajaba is mentioned eight times in the Quran. But Hijab is not never used in the context of a woman's head covering. Even the word Khimar really signifies any covering, such as a blanket, dress, or shawl.
What is clear, even after an analysis of various translations and even if one uses the word veil in translation is an order that the woman's bosom be covered, not that the woman's head be covered. This is not to say that covering the hair does not carry noble connotations. My objective is not to destroy what I believe would be a beautiful custom if it were not marred by the decree that it is obligatory, depriving a woman from the sense of joy that she would derive from choosing it as a genuine expression of her interior state of purity and transcendent beauty.
My objective is to liberate every woman, myself included, who has only adopted the Islamic dress because she was misled into believing that it is an obligation, and even more importantly to liberate all the women who do not wear it from the unearned guilt they harbour, for what they have been told is spiritual weakness on their part.
I got the impression from the many people I spoke to that they would secretly agree with me but would rather not rock the boat over what they have, without our permission, deemed a minor issue. I pray that they will evolve the courage to forgo political correctness and stop hiding behind the preteens that it’s the woman who is making the choice. When it is clear, that fear, of eternal damnation no less, nullifies the impression that it is a choice.
When my friend was lying at the operating table, vulnerable and exposed, he was asked by the thoughtless man who was there to assist in the surgery to furnish some proof that he can pay for the superior quality heart tube which he demanded. The female surgeon terminated his coarseness by giving him her assurance that she would pay for it if my friend could not, proving that she is not only his superior in intellect but also in empathy.
My friend not knowing in what manner he would thank this angel of mercy, in what way he can make her feel singled out, without being rebuked for transgressing any social bounds, elected to do it by means of a poetic note of thanks. Which she took from him as if it were charge slip, only to rush back to plead with him to sign it. And in that act she expressed the true nature of her personality, for while she remains nameless and faceless and claims no credit for her efforts, she insists that he be given credit for his.
Inas Younis is a freelance writer residing in Kansas. She has written for Muslim Girl Magazine and her work was featured in the anthology Living Islam Out Loud. She contributed this article to New Age Islam.