By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies
Sally Neighbour in her article "Secret Unveiled" (feature article in "The Australian”) tells us a story of a young Muslim convert, Umm Zainab (her adopted name), who is wearing a Niqab (head and face veil) and why for Umm Zainab wearing a Niqab is a "liberating experience". She describes some of the daily life experiences, often in a form of verbal abuse, and the tensions that arise from, when women like Umm Zainab, (a resident in the Sydney’s suburb of Lakemba with a large Muslim community presence) decide to go out in the public.
Both the author and the interviewer make several controversial statements based on a number of interpretational assumptions, about the meaning, function and the status of the (face) veil in the Islamic tradition that they are probably not even aware of. As someone who studies these issues academically and with great interest I would like to address some of these statements in light of the broader Islamic tradition. Before I do so I would like to contextualise the recent increased incidence and presence of hijab (head covering excluding the face) and Niqab wearing western Muslim women , especially young Muslim women, converts or not.
As part of my research I have come across mounting evidence indicating that young western-born Muslim women are increasingly adopting a more explicitly Islamic dress including the hijab and Niqab. This also holds true for Muslim women living in Australia. Studies also suggest that for western-born young Muslim women, wearing a veil seems to play a decisive role in construction of new Western Muslim identities. These trends could be traced back to Western Muslims' new immigrant religious minority status and the broader geo-political context which facilitate their identity construction along predominantly religious lines. Empirical research on western Muslim women tells us that there are a number of reasons as to why Muslim women adopt the wearing of hijab and/or Niqab. These range from those of opposition to inherited ethnic culture to racialised discourses of exclusion, from wearing it as a symbol of political protest/resistance (usually in the form of political Islam) to it being sign of moral purity, from that of indicating strong commitment to religious identity to that of being a tool of security in unfamiliar, potentially threatening environments as well as many others.
Sally Neighbour in her article relates to us several incidents in which tensions between Umm Zainab and the non- Muslim people on the streets of Lakemba flared up. This comes to the author of this article as no surprise as it merely confirms existing research findings conducted in many Western countries ( such as USA, Canada, and Western Europe) identifying several religiously justified practices among some western Muslims that responsible for creating a sense of separateness between some members of Muslim and non-Muslim communities that provide obstacles towards meaningful participation of some Muslims, especially some Muslim women, in the broader western society and a healthy interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities ( And I am not suggesting that it there are no western practices that do the same but my focus here is no Muslim practices). Apart from the practice of veiling (hijab and or Niqab), practices existing among some Muslim communities such as mushrooming of Muslim private schools as parallel educational systems, sexual regulation of Muslim women through early marriage and pressures to discourage Muslim women from working in gender mixed employment settings (resulting in their complete dependence on the male members of their family such as fathers, husbands or brothers) are also mentioned. Umm Zainab claims that the reason why she wears a hijab is based upon the practice of the salaf (or the first three generations of Muslims) and that Prophet Muhammad's wives adopted this practice and as such she wishes to emulate them as her role models. Sally Neighbour adds to this by saying that these women "subscribe to a pure and literal meaning of the Koran that declares 'tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their veils all over juyubihinna', a term that refers to the body, face neck and bosom."
Let us examine the validity of these claims. The phrase of being followers of the salaf or as-salaf as –salih ("the righteous predecessors") has throughout the Muslim history up until the present been used by a number of different Muslim political and theological groups in order to delegitimise the claims of the Muslim "other" and imbibe own views with an aura of legitimacy based upon their assertions of being the sole custodians of "pure" and unadulterated teachings of the primary sources of the Islamic teachings, namely Qur'an and Sunnah. Foremost amongst these are so called, self-labelled Salafis or ahl-Hadith Muslims. Their approach to interpretation of Qur'an and Sunnah as I have shown in one of my publications, among other methodological flaws and epistemologically weak arguments, is based upon a completely literal and decontextualised understanding of these two sources. Furthermore, as I demonstrated in my honours thesis, the ahl-Hadith or "Salafi' claims to be the followers of the as-salaf as-salih in relation to how they understand the nature and the scope of the concept of Sunnah (or the prophet's commentary and the embodiment of the Qur'anic teachings) , such as Umm Zainab and those whose classes she attends, amount to, nothing more than wishful thinking as they adhere to a distorted and incorrect understanding of the concept of Sunnah as it was (most likely) understood by the first three generations of Muslims. The Qur'anic text (not mentioned in the article) that is used to argue that Prophet's wives used to wear a Niqab, is found in the 33 chapter, verse 53. It instructs men to, when wishing to talk to Prophet's wives do so from behind a curtain (hijab) as it is purer for their hearts and that of the Prophet's women. Firstly, this verse does not use the word Niqab but hijab which in this context means a curtain.
Secondly, as prominent Muslim sociologist and academic Fatima Mernissi has lucidly and masterfully demonstrated in her book "The Veil and the Male Elite (Perseus Books, 1991) the Qur'anic verse "descended" to put a barrier between two men not a man and a woman! Namely, the context behind this revelation, according to traditional texts, is the bedroom of the wedded pair (i.e. Prophet Muhammad 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 traditional accounts ( in form of Hadith with several 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 the wedding supper while the he wanted to be alone with Zainab on the first wedding night. After several attempts to indirectly let the men know that it was time they left by walking out of his house into his courtyard, according to the witness Anas ibn Malik, the Prophet recited the verse in question. Upon pronouncing the verse, the Prophet drew the stir (Hadith uses this synonym of the word hijab also meaning curtain) between himself (and his wife) and Anas! How this verse can be understood to require women to wear a Niqab remains unclear.
The reader is also left with the impression that the Qur'anic verse used to argue for adoption of Niqab/and hijab quoted above requires believing Muslim women not only to wear a hijab (head cover) but also that of Niqab (face veil). This is based upon the premise that a "pure and literal reading of the Koran" and the operative word "juyubihinna" as Neighbour puts it ( undoubtedly based upon her and probably Umm Zainab's profound ignorance not only of the Qur'anic Arabic and the complexity and the plurivocality of the juristic debates and voices that have been generated by previous communities of interpretation in relation to this verse and the word in question) ,means nothing less than a complete covering not only of woman's hair but also of the body, face, neck and bosom. Those who are well grounded in the Islamic tradition , such as Professor Khalid Abou El Fadl , a contemporary leading Islamic jurist , have exposed the intellectual dishonesty in the translations appearing in many Qur'anic translation of the Qur'an coming from S. Arabia or those which were funded by their petrodollars such as the one co-authored by professors at the University of Medina with a certificate of authentification and approval by the late 'Abd al-'Aziz Bin Bazz ,the head of the Ministry for Islamic Research ,Legal Opinions, Preaching and Guidance (Idarat al-Buhuth al-'Ilmiyya wa al-Ifta' wa al-da'wa wa al-Irshad ) who did not know a word of English yet authenticated the text nonetheless.
This what Prof El-Fadl refers to as the 'Trojan Horse" translation. It is found in many Muslim bookstores and in many English speaking Islamic centres. The title of the translation is: "Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur'an in the English Language: A Summarised Version of At-Tabari, al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir With Comments from Sahih al-Bukhari (famous collection of narratives that are traced back to the Prophet and which according to traditional Muslim scholarship form the backbone of Sunnah) in One Volume. Many Muslims , especially but not only converts due to their unfamiliarity with the actual Qur'anic Arabic exclusively rely and depend on these and similar translations for their understanding of meaning of the Qur'an.
In his book "The Conference of the Books" The Search for Beauty in Islam"(University of America Press, 2001) professor El-Fadl exposes the meddling with the meaning of the Qur'anic Arabic text in the above quoted Qur'anic text translation by the use of parenthetical interjections which purport to 'clarify ' the meaning of the translated text as an natural elaboration on the intended meaning of the Qur'anic text /verses. The verse quoted in the article is found in a chapter called Al-Ahzab (33) verse 59. The translation of the text in the above S. Arabian produced version is as follows: O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better; that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed/And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. EL Fadl's commentary of this translation is as follows; "The authors assert that God's command is that women should cloak themselves in a large veil, and cover everything except one or two eyes. The authors deliberately equate a cloak to a veil and, according to them; God explicitly mandates that the cloaks or veil be drawn over a woman's entire body. "Professor El-Fadl further maintains that a literal and conservative meaning of the verses would read O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to Lower (or possible, draw upon themselves) their garments. That is better so that they will not be known or molested. And God is forgiving and merciful. The operative word in this verse is yudnina 'alayhinna min jalabibihinna. It could mean, according to professor El-Fadl as either 'lower their garments" or "draw their garments closer to their bodies". Jalabibihinna literally means "their garments" and not a veil. A jilbab (a singular for jalabib) is a garment like a dress or Arab robe which has stitches and threads. Chador (worn by many women in Iran and Iraq) or 'abaya (worn in S. Arabia) is a single piece of cloth and, according to El-Fadl, would not qualify as a jilbab.
Yudnina means, literary, to bring closer or to lower something in this case a garb. According to El Fadl this verse can be interpreted to require the covering of the legs, or a more vigilant covering of the torso ,or simply, modesty, but it does not support the above given translation by Medinan professors as requiring the covering of everything except one or two eyes and hands. There are a number of different views on the meaning of the verse in question as found in the opinions of early Muslim jurists. Some claimed that it mandates covering of the legs or bosom. Majority maintained that it requires the covering of the full body except the face, hands and feet. A minority view asserted that the verse requires women to cover their faces. However, the reports upon which these views were based are not consistent. Importantly, nearly all commentators agreed that this verse was revealed to protect women from verbal/physical abuse as there was a group of young and corrupt men in Medina who harassed and molested women at night. These men apparently wanted to target only slave women and not free women. A jilbab-wearing woman was considered to be a free person thus was not molested while non-jilbab wearing slave women were considered to be legitimate targets. Therefore, a minority held that the reason behind this revelation was to distinguish between free and slave women (7th century Arabia was a slave –owning society and economy). Therefore, the verse did not have a religious connotation to it and did not imply religious obligation.
The meaning of another verse, not mentioned in the article, Chapter 24 , verse 31 has been meddled with by the same authors of the translation. Using the same techniques (i.e. parenthesis interjection) as in the previous verse , the translators translate the verse in a following manner : …And tell the believing women to lower their gaze( from looking at forbidden things) ,and protect their private parts( from illegal sexual acts etc.) and not to show their adornments except only that which is apparent ( like palms of hands or one or both eyes for necessity to see the way , or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron) and to draw their veils all over juyubihhina ( their bodies , faces, necks, and bosoms etc) and not to reveal their adornments except to their husbands ,their fathers, ….. But according to El-Fadl, a literal and more honest translation of the verse would be: And say to the believing women to lower their gaze, and guard their private parts ,a and that they should not display their adornments except what ordinarily appear. And, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and that they should not display their beauty except to their husbands….
The operative words are khimar and jayb (pl. juyub). The Qur'anic arabic instructs women to wal yadribna bi khumurihinna 'ala juyubihinna which means that they should take their khimar and strike with it or place it upon their bosoms. According to the authoritative lexicon of Lisan al-'Arab a khimar is a piece of cloth worn on the head by men or women such as a turban A jayb is the bosom of a human being or also where the neck and chest meet or the beginning of the cleavage areas on a woman's chest. According to Islamic jurists khimar was worn by women in pre-Islamic times and it was customarily thrown toward the back leaving the head and chest exposed. Thus, argues El-Fadl, the verse suggests instructing that a piece of cloth normally worn on the head or neck (khimar) be made to cover the bosom or descend down to the point of touching the cloth.
Importantly Qur'anic commentators repeatedly highlighted the habit of women in Mecca and Medina to expose all or most of their chests, even if their hair was covered. Based on this one could interpret these verse to ask women to cover their chests. The word khimar can, however, never be interpreted to demand covering of face and/or hands. The Qur'anic verse does not refer to the face in any way. The translators also resort to using extra-Qur'anic evidence in form of narrations (Ahadith) reportedly going back to Prophet Muhammad (the body of knowledge that suffers from a number of methodological and epistemological weaknesses as recognised by traditional Islamic sciences) such as one found in a collection by an eminent Hadith collector (for Sunni Muslims anyway) Bukhari (volume 6. number 282) in which Prophet's wife 'Aisha is again mistakenly translated as having said that upon the revelation of the Qur'anic verse 24: 31 quoted above women took pieces torn from their garments and wore them as khimar. In another version of the same report we are told only the migrant women from Mecca (who came to Medina to seek refuge from religious prosecution) were quick to comply whilst the other version says it was the women from Medina who did so. Whatever the case might be the most one can deduce from this narration is that women covered their heads but not the face. As such not wearing a Niqab has nothing to do with what Umm Zainab refers to as “compromising our religion". Niqab has never compromised Islamic tradition as it has never been its integral part!
It is extremely important to understand, as I demonstrated elsewhere, that in order to consider something to be in accordance with Qur'an and Sunnah teaching , apart from contextualisation , a number of other interpretational considerations needs to be taken into account such as: how the interpreter views the role and the scope of reason in interpretation,; interpretational mechanisms governing the process of derivation of meaning, whether or not a distinction between socio-culturally contingent aspects and universalistic aspects of these teachings are acknowledged, what the interpreter's assumption is regarding the nature of the dynamics between morality and law and many other considerations! It is also important to note that those who advocate the practice of Niqab as being Islamic also advocate other practices such as gender segregation, women's near complete seclusion from public life (including the completely absurd rule that argues for impermissibility of hearing a woman's voice in a gender mixed setting which is considered as sexually enticing to Muslim men) or women's complete dependence on the whims of their husbands who can even prevent them from visiting their own parents even for the purposes of attending their funeral. As such, as I argued elsewhere proponents of these practices completely distort the normative construct of a female Muslim woman image that is all too often unquestioningly accepted as Islamic.
One could legitimately ask the question as to why Umm Zainab and those who subscribe to same views on the Niqab do not follow these injunctions as well. That would take us, however, too far from the main point of this article. We need to understand that all these views are based on a particular view of female sexuality, as found in some Hadith (most of which have been classified as 'weak' according to mainstream traditional Hadith criticism sciences but which nevertheless are considered probative on issues of morality, ethics and theology not only among Salafi minded Muslims like Umm Zainab but even more broadly) that consider women to be sources of moral and social chaos if they appear in public spaces as their bodies are inherently sexually corrupting. These views are not founded on Qur'an and Sunnah teachings. These are the remnants of the deeply patriarchal and misogynist culture that was prevalent at the time of the Qur'anic revelation whose most insidious elements Qur'an and the Prophet's practice partially abolished and whose misogyny they mitigated. It is ironic, in this sense, to note that Umm Zainab accuses Muslim immigrant women that the real reason why they do not wear a Niqab is based on them being "intimidated" and that unlike immigrant Muslim women, converts “do not have the cultural baggage". Little does Umm Zainab realise that she herself m, by choosing to wear a Niqab, is perpetuating cultural practices prevalent in 8th and 9th century Persia as this is the time when high social class Muslim women adopted the practice of wearing Niqabs!
Umm Zainab maintains, further, that wearing a Niqab is a "liberating experience" because "[P]eople have to take you for who you are, not for your body or your beauty." One cannot but wonder how views which advocate for women's complete anonymity, lack of women's voice (literally and metaphorically) and erasure from all public life and decision making can be seen as liberating! I am not suggesting, thought, that the consumerist culture Umm Zainab refers to is any better! Indeed, both of them are premised on the objectification of women's bodies and their over-exaggerated sexuality and sexual potency.
However, the views espoused by Umm Zainab and well meaning reporter Sally Neighbour do not come out of the blue! The provenance and propagation of these narrow views is to be found in those whose Islamic classes Umm Zainab and many others attend. Now, while the Islamic tradition has always accommodated a number of different views and opinions on a particular topic the problem is that those who instruct Muslim converts like Umm Zainab market their views as being the only truly Islamic teachings. They do not disclose the full spectrum and the full breadth of the Islamic tradition to them so that they are in a better position to make an informed judgement. This amounts to no less then bigotry! It is the responsibility of every Muslim to add their own voices to the debate on discourse surrounding Muslims in order to show the diversity and the ethico-moral beauty of the Islamic tradition that can be. A number of Western and non-western Muslim intellectuals have already done so, yet few Muslims are aware of them (See, for example, O. Safi's (ed.) Progressive Muslims, One world, 2003) It is also the responsibility of every Muslim to do their utmost best to try to alleviate the tensions that might exist between Muslim and show them the beauty of Islamic ethics by meaningfully interacting and participating in broader society without losing or compromising their religious identity. There are no religious obstacles as to why that could not be the case!
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.