By Dr M. Ghitreef Shahbaz Nadwi, New Age Islam
A group of Arab Muslim women was denied entry at a French airport two weeks ago. This may seem as an obvious example of Islamophobia, but that was hardly the case. The women refused to uncover their faces. As the authorities had no way of matching their identities with their travel documents, they had little choice but to ask the women to return to their country.
Although bizarre, such incidents are no longer rare. Many Muslim women are willing to compromise on everything from vacations in Europe to education and occupation rather than give up the face veil, or hijab. No doubt they consider wearing the hijab a religious duty, and a supreme one at that.
The significance accorded to the hijab fits into the larger context of a woman’s position in conservative Muslim society today. It is argued that as the word for woman, عورة, means a thing worthy of being hidden, she must cover herself from head to toe at all times. Further, she is not supposed to travel outside her home except in the company of her husband or another very close relative, such as a father or a brother. This pretty much means s woman can’t go to college to study, can’t go to office to work, can’t run a business and, effectively, can’t play any meaningful role in society other than being a housewife.
While touted as “Islamic” by our modern-day ulema and the followers of so-called scholars such as Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, such an attitude is a far cry from the times of the Prophet. That was a time when women were equal partners to men in the political, economic, religious and intellectual life of their society. And that is precisely the role of women envisaged in various sources of the Shariah, including the Quran, Hadith and Fiqh, as well as in the writings of a number of modern-day Islamic scholars.
Hijab in the Quran
The Quran has two kinds of verses vis-à-vis hijab: those explicitly addressing the wives of the Prophet امهات المومنين (which start with the words يانساء النبي), and those which address common Muslim women. There is no verse explicitly prescribing common women to wear the face veil or cover their body from head to toe, while there is a prescription to this effect exclusively for the wives of the Prophet, revered as the mothers of all Muslims (أمهات المومنين).
The wives of the Prophet are held to a stricter code of conduct نوتهااجرهامرتين while also being promised greater reward. Allah says: “Wives of the Prophet, you are not like any other women. If you fear God, do not be too soft spoken in case the ill-intentioned should feel tempted. Speak in an appropriate manner.” (Chapter 33, Verse 32)
Another verse, this time addressed to common women, goes like this: “Say to believing women that they should lower their gaze and remain chaste and not to reveal their adornments ―save what is normally apparent thereof, and they should fold their shawl over their bosoms.” (Chapter 24, Verse 31)
In another instance, Allah says: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and wives of the believers that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (when in public) so as to be recognized and not harmed. God is most forgiving and most merciful.” (Chapter 33, Verse 59)
A Muslim woman does have to observe some more restrictions than a man. Inside her home, she should use a khimar, which is like a small muffler, to cover her bosom and her head. When outside, she should cover herself with a jilbab, a loose garment. But the verses clearly show that the Quran’s stress is not on a particular dress code, but rather on moral values such as chastity, decency of behaviour, modesty, simplicity of lifestyle and propriety in all dealings. This is the essence of Quran’s teachings for common Muslim women, and it is very much in keeping with generally accepted standards of behaviour in all religions.
Also, there are no clear-cut directions on when she can go out of her house, where she may work and so forth in the Quran or Sunnah, clearly leaving these issues at her own discretion.
Hijab in the Hadith
If women in the time of the Prophet wore the hijab and led the sort of lives they are asked to today, there won’t be so many records of women occupying prominent positions in society, complete with descriptions of their facial features and body language.
Hafiz ibn Hajar reported in his book Al-Tahzib that a companion, Imran bin Hussain, said: “I was sitting with the Prophet, when Fatima, his beloved daughter, came in. We saw that her face was pale, then the Prophet blessed her and her face was live and spirited.”
A woman who criticized Umer Farooq while he was delivering a Friday sermon on the issue of dowry was reported to have a flat nose. It is also reported by Tabri that Qais bin Hazim had seen Asma, daughter of Amis with Abu Bakar, and she was a white complexioned woman with both her hands tattooed. Ibn Saad reported that the daughter of Abuzar Ghifari came to meet her father while he was meeting some men, and she was wearing woolen cloths and her cheeks were sunken.
Qabais ibn Jabir reported: “We three people, one of us was an old lady from Bani Asad (a clan), went to see ibn Masud, the famous companion. On the forehead of the lady there were some marks, whom Ibn Masud disliked. Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and also Ibn Saad reported that Abu Asma Al-raji went to Abuzar Ghifari, where he saw that one of Ghifari’s wives was a black woman. Ibn Saad reported Urwah son of Abdullah saying that one day he called on to Fatima, daughter of Ali, son of Abu Talib, and had seen a ring in her hand.”
There a number of such examples which clearly show that there was no fashion of hiding faces and palms among women from the early period of Islam. This is supported by Ibn Abbas, Ibn Umar and Ikrima among the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) and by Said son of Jubair, Zahhak, Ibrahim Nakhai and Imam Abu Hanifah among the Tabieen (followers of companions)(see Ibn Kathir,Tabri and Ibn Ashor). Ibn Hazm also agreed with this viewpoint and gave incontrovertible arguments to support it (see Almuhalla (ألمحلى ) Ibn Hazm volume 3 page 218).
To be sure, one can find a number of Hadith to the contrary, which forbid women from uncovering their heads and faces. Interestingly, all of them happen to be weak Hadith in one way or another. M. Nasiruddin Albani, a great Hadith scholar of our times, has shown that the Hadith about women covering their faces using a veil or a long strip of cloth are weak in terms of chain of narrators, while those Hadith that permit uncovered faces are stronger in their chain of narrators.
In his detailed technical study of both kinds of Hadith, Albani concluded that covering the face is not an obligation, rather it amounts to a mustahab, or a desirable act that is commendable but not mandatory (see M. Nasiruddin Albani Hijabul Maratil Muslimah: volume 1p.53-55).
Additionally, books such as Professor Yasin Mazhar Siddiqi’s Women in Prophetic Period: A Social Study (Islamic Book Foundation, New Delhi, 2008) show that it is lawful for women to uncover their faces in front of men, interact with them, learn from them and teach them. The book cites a number of historical instances from the Prophetic period and examples from among the right-guided Caliphs and a number of Sahaba and Tabieen.
Several Hadith categorically forbid men from preventing women from going to mosques, and yet mosques have effectively been closed for women in Muslim society. While a Christian woman can freely visit churches, a Jewess can pray at her synagogue and a Hindu woman can go to a temple, Muslim women have been denied this right.
Hijab in Fiqh and modern Islamist thought
All schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that face is not among the body parts required to cover and conceal. The Hanafi School says it is permitted for a woman to uncover her face and hands. Malikites are divided on the matter: one group makes it compulsory to hide the face as well as hands while others allows them to be uncovered. For most Shafietes, covering the face is not mandatory, although they consider it better to do. Interestingly, the Hanbali school differentiates between a plain face and one decorated with make up, as well as between an ordinary looking and a beautiful woman.
As far as those are concerned who stress much on face covering and do not allow , in any case to uncover it also to uncover the palms of the hands, indeed they are giving much and unproportional importance to their own inclinations and personal opinions regarding Hijab, to that of actual Quranic demands and prerequisites. Yet in doing so they forget that Allah Almighty and His prophet are knowing more about the precautions and considerations than they are.
In contemporary Islamic thought as well, there are a great many scholars such as Hasan Turabi, Mohammad Al-Ghazali, Mohammad Asad, Dr Yosuf Al-Qarzawi, Mohammad Najatullah Siddiqi, Taha Jabir Ulwani and Abdul Halim abu Shuqqa who are of the same opinion.
Al-Ghazali writes: “Muslims now are very far away form Islam’s moderate way in relation to women issues. For a lot of false and weak and fabricated narrations are prevalent, that hurt a woman’s status deeply. According to these false traditions going of a woman to mosque is sinful as is her teaching and educating. It is regarded better for her not to think about a social and political issue. Mocking women, oppressing and hurting their material and spiritual rights has gained currency in Muslim society.” (see Abdul Halim abu Shuqqa تحرير المرأة في عصر الرسالة preface )
There is consensus among Muslims that a woman, while performing her prayers, must uncover her face, even though she may be seen by someone unfamiliar to her. The same is the case when she is clad in Ihram for the Hajj pilgrimage. It is therefore common sense to understand that hijab is not mandatory in Shariah and those who claim that it is are defying both the letter and the spirit of Islamic religious literature.
Introspection, however, has begun. As one aalim delineating the role of women in society avers: “A woman, if it be needed and circumstances demanded and she won the trust of Ummah, can assume any social responsibility, be it guardianship of village, chairmanship of a town area, membership of assembly or legislature. And she could be a district magistrate, a governor, or a chief minister of a state or be a judge in a court of law, even chief justice as well. Apart from these undertakings she can deliver in high echelons of power as president and prime minister of a state too.” (See Dr. M. Inayatullah Subhani Bi-Annual Uloom al-Quran, Special Number July 2007 –June 2009 Contemporary Issues and Quranic teachings, collection of papers presented in the seminar, Editor Ishtiaq Ahmad Zilli P.12 Idarah Uloom Al-Quran Shibli Bagh Dhorra Aligarh 202002 India)
If Islam is a universal faith, applicable for all times, then it stands to reason that Quranic teachings and practices of the Prophet’s age are valid today as well. Injunctions and historical evidence on the issue of hijab show that while women may choose to wear it, it is by no means mandatory. Also, rather than inhibit the intermingling of sexes and undercut a woman’s position, the hijab is only supposed to give her a feeling of protection and make it easier for her to actively participate in building her society. No Faqih can, or should be allowed to, change that.
Dr M. Ghitreef Shahbaz Nadwi is the Director of Foundation for Islamic Studies, New Delhi He writes an occasional column for New Age Islam.