By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
(University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies)
A number of heated debates throughout the western liberal democracies have emerged recently over the issue of wearing of burqas and Niqabs by Muslim women. In this short piece I would like to offer a brief reflection on the religious justification behind the practice of wearing of burqas and Niqabs and the interpretational and other assumptions that underlie the arguments of those who consider it religiously binding.
There is no doubt that those who advocate the weaning of face veil as mandatory base this on a number of ‘authentic’ ( Sahih) Hadith (reports reputedly going back to the Prophet Muhammad SAS) and the Qur’anic verse ( 33:53- other verses such as 33;59 are also used as well but primarily to argue for the covering of the body, including the hair but not the face ) that , although addressing visitors to Prophet’s residence how to deal with the wives of the Prophet , is interpreted as to applying to all the Muslim women on the basis of exemplary role of ‘mothers of all believers’.
In addition, those who argue for a religiously binding character of the face veil justify it on the basis of having a particular understanding of male and female sexuality that is not Qur’anic but is present in some ‘Sahih’ or ‘authentic ‘ Hadith. They also adopt the religiously normative character of the burqa/Niqab on the basis of a juristic maxim of ‘blocking the means’ that can be found in the Islamic legal theory and its principals literature which argues that anything can potentially lead to a ‘ morally undesirable’ outcome that is forbidded is in itself also forbidded .
The question that is not often being asked in a plethora of analyses on the issue of face veil is how many women would choose to wear the face veil ( or how many men would ask/ force them to do so) if they did not think that it was religiously required/mandated or even desirable? This is especially so if an alternative and ‘authentic ‘(and in my view convincing interpretation) that remains even within the classical methodological and epistemological framework , was to be offered along the following lines.
1. The ‘Sahih’ Hadith mentioned are isolated Hadith (ahad) and according even to the classical Islamic legal theory scholarship cannot be used as sources of law.
2. The verse uses the word ‘hijab’ not niqab/burqa and is to be seen in the context of a Prophet who was very much a public figure and virtually had little or no private life-including his wives. Many people would come and go to his place of residence at will. His residence did not have anything like doors we have these days. In addition , his house and the rooms of his wives were in essence part of the larger ‘mosque’ complex. Thus, a very busy place. Perhaps an analogy would be apt here. For example, those parents who have children who have reached puberty surely would ask their kids to not open the parents’ room door when they are in the room UNLESS they were permitted to do so by the parents.
So the purport of the verse ought to be considered in this context. This is actually confirmed by the Hadith that classical Islamic tradition has customary associated with the revelation of the verse in question. Namely, the context behind the revelation is the bedroom of the newly wedded pair ( i.e. Prophet Muhammad SAS and his wife Zainab)wishing to protect their intimacy and exclude a third person (a person called Anas ibn Malik –one of the Prophet’s Companions). In short the occasion behind the revelation according to Hadith accounts on the matter ( in a number of variant versions) is that on the wedding night the Prophet was not able to rid himself of several tactless guests who remained lost in conversation during and well after the wedding supper while he wanted to be alone with Zainab on their first wedding night. After several attempts to indirectly let the men know that it was time that they left by walking out of his house into his coutyard, according to the witness of the events Anas ibn Malik, the Prophet recited the verse in question ( 33 :53 – O you who believe, do not enter the prophet’s homes unless you are given permission to eat, nor shall you force such an invitation in any manner. If you are invited, you may enter. When you finish eating, you shall leave; do not engage him in lengthy conversations. This used to hurt the prophet, and he was too shy to tell you. But GOD does not shy away from the truth. If you have to ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a barrier. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts. You are not to hurt the messenger of GOD. You shall not marry his wives after him, for this would be a gross offense in the sight of GOD.) Upon pronouncing the verse, the prophet drew a stir (Hadith uses this synonym of the qur’anic word hijab meaning curtain) between himself (and his wife zainab ) and Anas.
3. Classical understanding of male and female sexuality that are not found in the Qur’an were such that women’s body PER SE is seen as morally corrupting ( in contrast to being sexual) and that men are incapable of resisting women as sources of irresistible sexual temptation leading to social and moral chaos ( fitna). There is some evidence of this mindset in some Hadith. However, this view of male/female sexuality is EMPIRICALLY UNTRUE and any Hadith evidence that is empirically untrue, even according to classical Hadith sciences, cannot be valid even if it is deemed ‘Sahih’. I think most of us would agree that is also morally ugly to suggest that women’s bodies are morally corrupting per se.
4. The juridical maxim found in Islamic legal methodology literature of ‘blocking the means’ is also problematic since it is not only the women that have to carry the burden, this method, if extended logically, is extremely draconian and one can justify just about anything on this basis ( e.g. as they do in S. Arabia in case of women drivers, talking over the phone to an unrelated member of the opposite sex or even exchanging letters ). Finally, the classical view of male/female sexuality renders human being incapable of ethical and moral progress, in sense of training one’s moral /ethical compass and undergoing some moral discipline by suggesting that any ‘temptation’ will inevitably lead to morally bad actions. Instead, men are portrayed to always succumb to the source of moral sexual evil that women embody. By subscribing to this view one inadvertedly objectifies women sexually- something that the proponents of this view so quickly accuse the western civilisation of doing. Isn’t this just plain morally ugly ?
In a way it reminds me of what I recently heard on BBC radio in relation to the introduction of sexual education in Malaysian schools. Namely those who opposed it (conservative traditional Muslims) use the argument that the introduction of sexual education in schools will inevitably increase the sexual activity of the concerned. This is a twisted logic and at times serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.