By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
Feb. 19, 2015
(Muhammad Yunus, co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.)
The timing of this article has nothing to do with the recent unfortunate event in the University of North Carolina campus as any ‘interpretive essay’ as this must stand on its own merit, regardless of any event.
This essay draws on a 12 Point Agenda dated Feb. 2012  to diffusing Islamophbia and to facilitate the integration of the minority Muslim community with the mainstream society in predominantly non-Muslim and specially Western countries.
Through the Medieval Ages, female Jewish students in European Universities were required to attach a distinctive necklace pendant or badge on the front of their frocks prominently displaying the sign of David to reveal their religious identity. This was not a mark of honor but a shear institutionalization of anti-Semitism. But this is a thing of the past and there is no way to distinguish the religious identity of a female Jewish student in any obvious manner. However, there remains one exception which divides the University students into religious groups in highly visible manner. This is the head-ear-chain wrap around, normally called ‘hijab’ that many (but not all) female Muslim students voluntarily wear as a mark of religiosity or Muslim identity, taking them as a mandatory religious requirement. The truth is, as expounded in a recently published duly approved exegetic work, the Qur’an does not prescribe “any covering of head or gender-based segregation”  as advocates of the ‘formal hijab’ insist. Such practice, however, is based on Islam’s Secondary Source.
The objective of this essay is twofold. First to tell female Muslim students as well those exposed to the public arena what the Qur’an really says about hijab or dressing norms for them; secondly, to lay down a set of arguments in favor of relaxing the ‘formal hijab’ in predominantly non-Muslim societies. With this we delve into the Qur’an – the primary, uncorrupted, undisputed, and universal fount of guidance that sets out broad outlines of the allowable and forbidden and also admits the use of reason, discretion, and flexibility.
As a first premise, nowhere does the Qur’an connect the dressing fashion with divine blessing. It spells out the role of clothing for humans as follows:
“Children of Adam! We have sent you clothing to cover your nakedness, and for (your) beautification (like the plumage of birds), but the cloak of heedfulness (taqwa) is the best. This is among the signs of God, that they may be mindful”(7:26).
The verse, however, assigns a secondary or fringe role to dressing mode and stresses the significance of taqwa – an umbrella notion that embraces man’s social moral and ethical responsibilities and his control of lower instincts.
Since man’s lower instincts are provoked by open or seductive display of private (sexual) parts, the Qur’an lays down the principles of sexual morality in the verses 24:30/31, addressed separately to men and women, but leaves the details, design of clothes to cover body parts, especially the seductive parts for humans to design, develop and implement in a given society.
The verse 24:30 commands men not to cast any lustful glances (towards the opposite sex) and to guard their private parts (24:30).
“Tell (O Muhammad) the believing men to avert their glances and guard their private parts (furujah). This is (conducive) to their purity. Indeed God is Informed of whatever they contrive (in their minds) (24:30).
24:31 repeats the above instruction for womenfolk. However, as their private parts (personal charms) may be revealed during breastfeeding and community life and readily arouse male sexuality, it prescribes some concessions and limitations for them:
“And tell the believing women to avert their glances and guard their private parts (furujah), and not to expose their (personal) charms (zinat) except what is (normally) apparent of it, and to draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms, and not to expose their charms (zinat) except (in the presence of) their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those under their lawful trust, or the male attendants not having any (sexual) desire, or children not yet conscious of women’s sexuality; nor let them strike their feet so as to make known what they hide of their charms (zinat). And turn to God together, you believers, that you may succeed” (24:31).
This is a highly cryptic verse that can be broken down into the following elements:
i. It forbids any exposure of the ‘charms’ (private parts) but permits the display of ‘what is (normally) apparent,’ (underlined above) allowing a woman dress herself in accordance with the dressing norm of her place. This highly condensed statement needs elaboration:
Climatic condition of human habitat ranges from hot and dry to rainy, windy, stormy; and its terrain could be hilly, muddy swampy, bushy or woody – apart from normal plain land. People also live in house boats in lakes and in the coastal regions and marooned lands where they must know swimming to commute and survive. The availability of clothes is yet another variable. The dressing pattern of any place at any historical point is, thus, informed by all these factors. Accordingly, the Qur’an does not bind women across space, time, climatic, geographical belts and terrains to a rigid dressing code and allows them to dress up and reveal of their body ‘what is (normally) apparent’ in their given situation.
ii. To ‘draw their shawls (khimar) over their bosoms:’ This re-emphasizes the need to ‘guard their private parts’ (24:30).
iii. It forbids any exposure of the personal ‘charms’ (zinat)’ to any outsider (such as during breast feeding or community washing/ bathing) except in the presence of the immediate members of their household, that are expressly identified to avoid any ambiguity on who all can be accepted as part of the inner family.
iv. It forbids them from walking about in a sexually and provocative manner (as per second underlined above).
Hence this cardinal passage on modesty does not impose any condition of covering the hair, ear or chin, or any other part of the body except their natural charms (private parts). This allows a Muslim women to dress up like others in a pluralistic society and also to take part in all kind of outdoor activities and sports side by side with men – as long as they do not compromise on the fundamental requirement of covering of their private parts.
There are two more verses on women’s dressing but none prescribe any veiling or wearing of the traditional hijab for Muslims women.
The verse 24:60 makes concessions for elderly women, obviously on account of their declining sex appeal:
“(As for) the elderly women who sit around and do not look forward to marriage, there is no blame on them in taking off their garments (thiyab) (provided they do so) without showing off their charms (zinat), but modesty is better for them. (Remember,) God is All-Knowing and Aware” (24:60).
The verse 33:59 asks the Prophet to tell the womenfolk in his household and other believing women to pull their cloaks around themselves for others to recognize them without causing them any annoyance:
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the womenfolk of believers that they should draw their cloaks (jalab) over themselves: this may be more appropriate as they may be recognized (in public), but not annoyed. (Remember,) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (33:59).
The specific time bound reference to the Prophet’s wives and daughters, and bearing in mind the acute scarcity of the clothing material during the Prophet’s era, it is conceivable that the verse re-emphasized the need to cover the bosom rather than the head, and therefore it will be mere speculation to regard this verse as an instruction to cover head, ear and chin and even all part of body as the advocates of formal hijab insist.
Arguments in favor of relaxing the ‘formal hijab’ in predominantly non-Muslim societies.
Just the other day (Feb 16, 2015), a well-meaning Western lady commentator, Mariam, posted a small comment under a thread on this website that reads as follows: “Yesterday evening I was helped by a young lady who was wearing a head covering and very kind and I could not sense any duplicity in her.” The comment betrays the suspicion against the formal hijab and warrants an honest assessment of its usefulness or otherwise in the Western or non-Muslim world today. Harsh and unfortunate as it may be – as truth can be bitter, the formal hijab causes concern among many Western/ non-Muslim people on the following grounds:
• Its association with Islam and Islam’s association with terror and misogyny (none of which can be denied) brushstrokes it with a vague notion of ‘duplicity’ – an euphemism for conspiracy in the words of the well-meaning commentator mentioned above.
• Its distinctiveness gives a false signal of an exaggerated presence of the Muslims that may be threatening to some.
• Its association with medieval papal attire creates a social barrier in that a non-Muslim woman (or even a Muslim woman) going about casually with her head and ear exposed may feel alienated from a woman wearing a uniform type headdress that is reminiscent of de-feminized medieval nuns.
• It gives a false notion of regimentation as Muslim women from different cultures are as unconnected with each other as their non-Muslim counterparts from different cultures, but wearing a uniform type head-ear wraparound, they collectively look like a team or troop (as a prelude to a cultural invasion).
• It can be physically inconvenient to some working women as well as to those participating in outdoor games, sports, swimming and athletics by blocking natural ventilation around their heads and ears.
• It has lost its original role of providing security in an exclusively male occupied public arena. Today, a Muslim woman in any backstreet of America or Europe is probably far safer without the head-ear-chin wrap around than with it.
The truth is, the head-gear covering the ear and chin and all parts of body from head to toe entered Islam from Christianity some “three to four generations after the Prophet’s death when Muslims were copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium.” . As this antiquated Christian custom is distorting the image of Islam and giving a false picture of gender bias, oppression and conspiracy to the non-Muslim onlooker; apart from creating a suspicion of cultural invasion, Muslim women may do better by retracting from this purely symbolic custom in their new Western abode.
Summing Up. In the 21st century when science, technology and universal knowledge have attained a new hitherto unimaginable height and women from the non-Muslim world are making enormous contributions in all fields of knowledge, professions and art forms, the Muslim women must expand the horizon of their religious thoughts beyond their Medieval theological horizon and interact and compete with the women of other faith communities in the spirit of the following verses of the Qur’an dating from its concluding phase.
“…For each of you We have made a (different) code, and an open way (of action). If God so pleased, He would have made you (all) into one community. Therefore vie (with each other) in excellence (so that) He may test you by what He has given you. (Remember, you) all will (eventually) return to God, and He will tell you in what you differed” (5:48)
“O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and communities for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most heedful (observant of taqwa) . Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (49:13).
All said, given the ‘freedom to wear revealing dress, there must not be any objection from either any Muslim quarter or the Western world against a woman wearing a hijab. However, as a Western female visitor to a predominantly Muslim country (where hijab is normative) may avoid wearing the light dress she would have worn at home to avoid undue and even unsympathetic attention, a female Muslim visiting or living in the Western world may not insist on wearing a formal hijab to avoid any undue and unsympathetic attention.
2. Muhammad Yunus and Ashafque Ullah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana publications, Maryland, USA 2009, p. 194.
3. Karen Armstrong, Islam, Islam, A short history, New York 2002, p. 16.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.