HIJAB- A SYMBOL OF MODESTY OR SECLUSION?

 

 

 

HIJAB: A SYMBOL OF MODESTY OR SECLUSION?

 

 

The concept of Hijab exists clearly in the Quran, but not with this name. In the sacred text, Hijab refers to a curtain or a screen to separate individuals from each other, or to separate individuals from God.

 

Hijab as the Muslim woman’s public dress is referred to twice in the Quran, but as khimar (head scarf) and jilbab (shawl or cloak). I see these particular verses as normative commandments, instructing women how to dress in public. But I also see these verses as providing implicit permission for women to enter the public sphere freely and confidently, and in the context of modest clothing, decency and prudent conduct in public. For traditional societies have usually placed huge emphasis on the personal reputation of individuals in general, and of women in particular. Reputations of chastity, decency, honour and veracity were prized, and losing such a reputation would easily ruin a person. This would be hard for a man to endure in a close-knit society, but even harder for a woman to endure. And it is within this context that the Quran ordains public lashing for a person who brings a charge of unchastity against a woman but is then unable to substantiate it in a court of law with four witnesses. Such a person is not only to be punished publicly but his testimony may never be accepted again in court. A person’s honour and reputation are thus considered sacrosanct in Islam.

 

There has existed within traditional Islamic scholarship from its very infancy a tension between those who were happy to see women enjoy the freedom that the Hijab gave them, and those who understood it to be a tool for the confinement of women. The Hijab was often used to control and oppress women in many Islamic societies, but I believe this flew in the face of the Quranic Weltenschauung, its general world-view. For there is no doubt the Quran sees women as equal members of the human race, with an equal spiritual presence, equal accountability before their Lord for their actions, equal free will and freedom of conscience, equal liability for their dealings with other human beings, and an equal responsibility to obey divine commandments. Tragically, not just for women but for Muslim society generally, this vision of women who stand tall with men had to jostle for position with a vision of women as temptresses, morally and spiritually weak, and incapable of contributing much to society except as mothers locked up within the four walls of their homes. Various Quranic verses were often interpreted narrowly to exclude women from the public sphere, to deny them any role in society except a very limited one, and to subject them to strict control by the men in their lives.

 

LOWERING THE GAZE

 

The Quran begins the discussion on the Hijab with a command to lower the gaze and to protect one’s chastity. It is interesting to note that this command is first addressed to men, and then repeated for women. Public morality and decency are therefore not just the concern of women (as is often the case in many Muslim societies) but men as well.

 

  1. Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
  2. And say to the believing women that they should 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 except to their husbands, their

fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or

their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of

physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike

their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together

towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.

(Surah An Nur 24:30-31. Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

 

This verse clearly implies that there will be some temptation for men from some women in public, regardless of whether or not they are suitably attired, but the remedy given is to strengthen their own resolve, to look away from temptation, and to protect their own actions. A woman alone cannot be blamed if a man sins; he too must take the blame. Interestingly, the Quranic attitude towards temptation is not to lock women away and throw away the key, but to put the onus on men to protect themselves. And even more importantly, verse 31 shows that women too are subject to the same temptations as men, so they too are given the same advice as men.

 

The great scholar and ethical thinker of Islam, Imam al Ghazali (d.1111) commented that,

“The ‘fornication of the eye’ is one of the major venial faults, and soon leads on to a mortal and obscene sin, which is the fornication of the flesh. The man who is unable to turn away his eyes will not be able to safeguard himself against unchastity.

Jesus (upon whom be peace) said, ‘Beware of glances, for they sow desire in the heart, which is temptation enough.’” [1]

 

The Andalusian theologian, scholar and poet Ibn Hazm (d.1064) wrote one of his enduring masterpieces on the theme of courtly love. However, he cautions against ‘love at first sight’ as he explains that the gaze is fickle.

“When a man falls in love at first sight, and forms a sudden attachment as the result of a fleeting glance, that proves him to be little steadfast, and proclaims that he will as suddenly forget his romantic adventure; it testifies to his fickleness and inconstancy. So it is with all things; the quicker they grow, the quicker they decay; while on the other hand slow produced is slow consumed.”[2]

 

“You should realise that the eye takes the place of a messenger, and that with its aid all the beloved’s intention can be apprehended. The four senses besides are also gateways of the heart, and passages giving admission to the soul; the eye is however the most eloquent, the most expressive, and the most efficient of them all.”[3]

 

THE HEADSCARF

 

After the command to women to lower the gaze comes the injunction to extend the headscarf to cover the chest, and not to reveal their adornments except to females and to close male relatives. Al Qurtubi explains that verse 31was revealed because of a custom among Arab women in that time to cover their heads with a scarf, but to leave their chests and necks uncovered.

 

The lesson from this verse is that a woman’s beauty, both natural and artificial, is not for general, public consumption. It implicitly accepts that women enjoy adorning their natural beauty, such as with make-up, jewellery and fine clothes. This finery is acceptably feminine, but needs to stay within closed, trusted circles. If it is not controlled, it can lead to terrible consequences for society. In our modern age, where magazines and television constantly carry images of beautiful but scantily dressed female celebrities, we see many problems emerging as a result. An obsession with pornography, anorexia nervosa among young girls, obscenely provocative fashions sold to and worn by the masses, and rising rates of adultery are just a few of the issues that can be attributed directly to a deterioration of standards of public decency. Despite the growing number of women who use their intelligence and education to pursue rewarding careers, the female body is still ogled in magazines, displayed for public consumption, and used to enhance the appeal and market of other commodities.

 

The head scarf is thus not just about covering a woman’s hair and upper body but about standards of public decency, modesty and propriety. That this verse was interpreted as a clear normative injunction is shown by the following narration in Fath al Bari from Safiyyah bint Shaybah.

 

“We were once with Aisha when we mentioned the women of Quraysh and their virtues. Aisha said, ‘The women of Quraysh are good but, by Allah, I have never seen any better or more strict in their adherence to the Book of Allah than the women of the Ansar. When the verses of Sura Al Nur were revealed, their men went to them and recited to them the words Allah had revealed. Each man recited to his wife, his daughter, his sister and other female relatives. Each woman among them got up, took her decorated wrapper and wrapped herself up in it out of faith and belief in what Allah had revealed. They appeared behind the Messenger of Allah wrapped up, as if there were crows on their heads.’”[4]

 

What I find interesting is the use of Safiyyah’s words ‘decorated wrapper’, as this implies that the scarves were not plain black but coloured and patterned. One wonders from whence emerged the modern obsession with wearing only black or very dull-coloured scarves and gowns.

 

 

 

 

 

JILBAB – THE OUTER CLOAK

 

  1. O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.
  2. Truly, if the Hypocrites

(Surah Al Ahzab 33:59)

 

This verse commands all Muslim women, not just the family of the Prophet, to cover their ordinary clothes with a shawl or cloak when they are in public in order that they may be recognised and not molested. Ibn Kathir explains in his commentary that this concerned recognition of the women as free women and not slaves. He further explains that some evil young men in Madina would roam the streets at night looking for women to tease and annoy. If a woman was not covered with a cloak, she would be recognised as a slave-girl and so considered lawful game. The question then arises whether the jilbab is still mandatory now that slavery has been abolished in most societies. Those who consider the jilbab to be a necessary requirement in the modern age explain that the Quran does not specify that the women should be recognised as free women; perhaps the recognition referred to is that they are believing women. In this case the injunction of this verse remains normative.

 

MODESTY

 

My understanding is that the issue of hijab is less about head-scarves and more about public modesty and propriety. A scarf that covers the hair but leaves the neck and chest exposed, or that is worn with figure-hugging outfits, or is accompanied with flirtatious behaviour, does nothing to promote modesty. My contention is that the verses on the hijab were instituted to protect women from the un-warranted attentions of some men when in public. This is in no way a negative observance on the male gender in general; it does not imply, as one feminist once said to me, that Islam considers all men to be potential rapists. It does not seek to segregate women from men, to lock women behind closed doors, or to deny them public space. Fatima Mernissi complains bitterly that the initial hijab was a curtain, a “veil that descended from heaven was going to cover up women, separate them from men, from the Prophet, and so from God.” [5]

 

In fact, I see the hijab as implicit permission for women to be in the public sphere. If their presence in the public arena was not a normal occurrence, there would be no need for the hijab. What the Quran ordains is that women cover their bodies when in public. It does not suggest that all men are potential rapists or that all women are temptresses. But it does suggest that the free mixing of the sexes in an atmosphere where women are not modestly or becomingly attired can be a source of temptation, improper thoughts and improper conduct. The Islamic etiquettes of the interaction between the sexes are based on good manners, formal behaviour, decent and temperate language, and modest clothing. Men and women not closely related to each other may not hug each other or even shake hands. This may seem strange in our modern world where there are few boundaries between the sexes, but was something that was clearly understood in traditional English society for centuries. High class society, for example, would never have countenanced the fashion of women revealing their bodies apart from their faces and hands. Dresses were worn long, bonnets covered the head in public, a cape covered the clothes, and the sexes interacted with propriety. The English writer Emily Thornwell explained to her Victorian readers,

 

“…to suppose that the great heat of the weather will authorise the disorder of the toilet, and permit us to go in slippers, or with our arms and legs bare, or to take nonchalant and improper attitudes, is an error of persons of low class, or destitute of education.” [6]

 

On the issue of the interaction between men and women, she advised young women, “Always seek to converse with gentlemen into whose society you may be introduced, with a dignified modesty and simplicity, which will effectually check on their part any attempt at familiarity…” [7]

 

In the 1850’s women in the United States had begun to complain loudly about the tight corsets they wore which affected their health and posture, and about the long dresses that were impossible to keep clean. Interestingly, the solution they found to this problem was not in revealing their legs but in introducing the fashion of the Bloomers. These were baggy trousers copied from the Turks and worn with knee-length dresses. In fact the fashion was very reminiscent of traditional Turkish costume. In Britain it was considered unacceptable for women to show their legs in public as late as the 1920’s. The slow change began when rationing during the Second World War was applied to fabric as well, so ladies were forced to make their dresses shorter and more practical. Dresses and skirts were however still worn below the knee. It was not until 1965, when Mary Quant invented the mini skirt, that women’s fashion in Britain became so revealing that soon, nothing was left uncovered.

 

The effect of changing women’s fashion in Britain to Muslim communities cannot be over-emphasised. Many Muslim countries emerged after the Second World War in the neck of colonialism, and so much of the discussion was focused on political weakness. The new, very revealing fashions in women’s dress were anathema to Muslims and were a cause of serious worry. If Muslim women were to emulate European women in increasing rates of literacy, careers and political rights, would they also emulate them in standards of public modesty? This was a worrying issue indeed and led to many strict epistles being written on the importance of keeping women in the home.

 

THE CONCEPT OF SECLUSION AND PURDAH.

 

The verses on the hijab quoted earlier led to a tension during the earliest stages in the development of the Islamic understanding of the role of women in society. One strand of theological thought insisted that the hijab included the covering of the woman’s face and hands, and that the verses on seclusion for the Prophet’s wives applied to all Muslim women. Although the Quran does not mention the niqab (covering the face), some interpreters included the covering of the face under the rule of the head scarf. A second strand insisted that the hijab did not include the covering of the face and hands, and that women moved freely in public during the time of the Prophet. Maulana Mawdudi is a classic example of the first school of thought. His book entitled “Purdah” [8] gives dozens of examples of women attending congregational prayer during the era of the Prophet, coming out for Eid celebrations, travelling for Hajj and visiting graveyards. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the public role of women in the Prophetic era, his conclusion severely limits the role of women:

 

“Though he (the Prophet) allowed women to go out of the houses in view of the solemnity of the occasions, purity of the purpose and their delicate feelings, sometimes even took them along with him, imposed such restrictions of Purdah as would guard against the least probabilities of mischief. Then he ruled that except for Hajj, it was better for women not to attend the other religious obligations.”

 

I find this conclusion very strange as the Prophet specifically made a pledge with women that they would attend the Eid prayers, even if they were in a state of ritual impurity and so could not pray.

 

Maulana Mawdudi was not unique in wishing to keep women locked up in the home. In fact, the move to keep women secluded began very soon after the death of the Prophet when many interpreters merged verses of hijab with verses that specifically addressed the wives of the Prophet to create the tenet of seclusion.

  1. O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear ((Allah)), be not too

complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a

speech (that is) just.

  1. And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of

Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Messenger. And

Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and

spotless.

(Surah Al Ahzab, 33: 32-33)

 

These verses clearly address the wives of the Prophet and advise them not to enter the public arena too freely. After the death of the Prophet, his wives were also not permitted to re-marry as they had the exalted reputation of being among the best women on earth. But some interpreters extended these verses to apply to all Muslim women and combined with the theory that the hijab included the covering of the face, devised the theory of veiling and seclusion. This tenet was used for centuries by male interpreters to control women and deny them access to the public sphere. Not only was a woman’s body awrah (private) but so was her face, and hands, and feet, and even voice. For many scholars, the mere hint of a woman’s voice in public was anathema: cursed, tempting and forbidden. Although these verses are clearly addressed to the female relatives of the Prophet, scholars  of the seclusion-theory believed that the niqab and seclusion were not simply for the wives of the Prophet but mandatory for all Muslim women. Their reasoning was that the family of the Prophet were role models for women, just as the Prophet was a role model for the whole community. If these women, the best women of the prophetic generation, were instructed to cover their faces and stay in their homes, so too should all women. They often saw women only as a gender, never as intelligent, creative beings who could contribute to society just as men did.

 

Other scholars were deeply affected by the political situation of their day. Maulana Mawdudi, for example, was writing during the bloody struggle to rid India of its British colonial masters, at a time when the entire Muslim world felt itself besieged physically and ideologically. A return to puritan Islam seemed the only escape from the terrible humiliation the Muslim world was enduring at the hands of European colonialists, and controlling women became one of the rallying cries of the puritan movement. It was in this context that Mawdudi wrote,

“The Muslim woman cannot be compared with the European woman who came out of the house in view of the emergency created by the war, but even after the war was over, refused to return to her natural sphere,”[9]

 

Maulana Mawdudi’s worry that if women freely entered the public sphere, it would cause chaos in society was not a new worry and echoes of it can be heard in the writings of scholars throughout Islamic history. This is why he says during his discussion on Hijab,

“It is obvious that the law which has such trends cannot be expected to allow that the two sexes should freely mix in schools and colleges, offices and factories, parks and places of entertainment, theatres and cinemas, and cafes and ballrooms as and when they please.”[10]

 

The late Sheikh Nasiruddin al Albani of Saudi Arabia would have fully agreed with Maulana Mawdudi that the free mixing of men and women in public, when there is no modest clothing or decent conduct, when music is raunchy and obscene, and when alcohol helps people push the boundaries of what is forbidden further and further away, is an evil to be avoided at all costs. But despite this agreement, Sheikh Albani does not accept that the niqab and seclusion of women were the norm during the Prophetic era. The sub-heading of his book ‘Jilbab Mar’atul Muslimah’ [11] is ‘Evidence that the face of the woman is not awrah’. He thus dedicates his study to narrations from the time of the Prophet in which women were in the mosque, in battle, on the streets, and so forth with their faces uncovered. The fact that the Prophet did not reprimand them is proof enough that the niqab was not considered mandatory. He gives the example of Fadl bin Abbas, a handsome young man who was with the Prophet when a beautiful young woman came to ask the Prophet a religious question. Fadl turned round to stare at her face, so the Prophet took Fadl’s chin and gently steered his face to a different direction. Fadl was thus encouraged to avert his gaze from a beauty that was obviously attractive to him. Similarly, Sheikh Albani gives the example of a beautiful woman who used to pray behind the Prophet regularly. Some of the men would deliberately pray in the last row of men so that they could turn round to stare at her. Although the Quran reprimanded them for staying in the back rows to look at her, there was no rule introduced to stop beautiful women from attending the Mosque.

 

Another example he gives is that during the pledge of allegiance taken with women by Umar on behalf of the Prophet, which came soon after the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, he ordered them to go out to the two Eid prayers and to take with them women who were elderly or in a state of ritual impurity. He explains that this pledge was concluded after the revelation of the verses on Jilbab, and so shows that seclusion was not the norm. Sheikh Albani finally concludes that the opinion that the face need not be covered was the opinion of the majority of the scholars, including Ibn Rushd, Abu Hanifah, Malik, Shafi’i, Ahmad and At Tahawi.

 

WOMEN IN BLACK

 

One of the issues one encounters is the modern obsession among women who wear the hijab of wearing black from head to toe. This may be part of inherited culture in the Gulf States, but makes no sense in modern Britain. Sheikh Albani is also critical of the fashion for white or black hijabs only, giving the example of the wives of the Prophet who wore jilbabs dyed with red or yellow colour. [12]

 

The style of Hijab seen in many Gulf countries today shows a preference for long black gowns. This may be practical for women who do not have careers outside the home, do not have to run for a bus or train, do not walk on snow or icy paths, and do not have to carry heavy shopping. In western countries, the climate, life-style and general dress are very different to those in the Gulf States and do not lend themselves easily to this Hijab. So should Muslim women in Western countries confine themselves to Arabian styles, or can they adapt the style to suit their lifestyles?

 

I believe the Quran did not wish to mandate a uniform for men or women, any more than it mandates certain meals. For example, the Quran tells Muslims that pork and alcohol are forbidden, that the creatures of the sea are halal, and that animals must be slaughtered with the name of Allah before they can be consumed. But it does not concern itself with particular menus or styles of cooking, for that would have taken away from the universal message of Islam. In the same way, to dictate that Muslim women must wear a certain style of clothing would also limit the relevance of the Quran to a certain time and place. The Quran’s injunctions are general and universally applicable. Women throughout the ages have adapted the concept of the Hijab to their own situation. Muslim women in China wore traditional Chinese dress with wide-brimmed hats, as this was common culture in their time. Women in India wore the sari or the burqa. In Iran the chador has been the norm for generations. Women in East Africa wore traditional clothing, with a matching fabric wrapped around the head. In Morocco both men and women wore long gowns with a tassled hood on the head. In Britain today we see Muslim women wearing long skirts or trouser suits with head scarves. Their clothing is smart, practical, suited to the idiosyncracies of the British climate, and thoroughly at home in Britain.

 

I find it strange that many Muslim men are comfortable in Western-style suits and jeans, yet insist that their women must dress in a Middle-Eastern fashion. Yet other men insist on wearing Asian or Arab styles of clothing for Friday prayers, insisting that suits are not welcome in a Mosque. And woe betide an Imam who has the temerity to lead the prayer wearing a western suit! He may well be thrown out of his office. I believe that if a man wishes to wear traditional clothing for Friday and Eid prayers because it puts him in holiday mood, fair enough. But to insist that such a style is somehow more Islamic than a suit is nonsensical and contrary to the universal message of Islam. The reason often given for the insistence on foreign fashions is that they are according to the Sunnah. But we have seen that the women in the time of the Prophet wore patterned and coloured scarves and cloaks, and that they uncovered their faces. So why is this not considered Sunnah?

 

As far as emulating the Prophet (SAWS) in his dress is concerned, firstly, it is laudable but not mandatory. Secondly, the Prophet did not wear the thawb or shalwar qameez as worn by modern Arab and Asian men. He wore an Izar (waist-wrapper) and a shirt. Thirdly, he made it clear that it was the duty of Muslims to obey him in religious or Quranic matters, but that they were free to follow their own customs in temporal matters. It is reported that when the Prophet first came to Madina, he saw the farmers grafting their trees and advised them to stop the practice. As a result the date palms yielded less fruit than was usual. The Prophet then said the immortal words, “I am a human being. When I command you on an issue pertaining to religion, accept it. But when I command you on an issue concerning my personal opinion, remember that I am human. You know better the affairs of your worldly life.” (Sahih Muslim)

 

CHILDREN IN HIJAB

 

Throughout the world one is increasingly seeing little girls wearing Hijab in public. A minority will even wear the niqab. Given the importance attached to the innocence of childhood by the Prophet, I find the Hijab on little girls to be an affront to their innocence. The Hijab is enjoined for women; it concerns beauty, maturity and public sexual attraction. To dress a little girl in this style is to sexualise the innocent, and I find this just as unacceptable as dressing a little girl as a model or prom queen. Given that many Muslim girls will wear the Hijab from their teenage years until their death, why place such a heavy requirement on them when their young minds and bodies have no understanding of its significance? Why not let them enjoy their childhood as children, instead of treating them as mini-adults. To clothe a child in Hijab shows a lack of understanding about the raison d’etre behind the concept, and introduces sexual atraction to a space where it does not exist.

 

Those who dress their children in this manner argue that they are training the girl in her faith just as they would train boys and girls to pray from the age of seven or to fast. But when a child is being trained to pray or fast, the prayer or fasting is not considered obligatory. They will pray some prayers and miss others. They will fast some days, break the fast early on some days, and miss others completely. It is a slow journey of learning. The Hijab too should be introduced slowly from the age of puberty. But to force a little girl to dress in a black scarf and gown from the age of seven, to separate her from her brothers and friends in their games, to make it physically impossible for her to ride a bike or climb a tree is not training but an act of oppression.

 

Conclusion

 

The Hijab remains the most potent symbol of Islam in the world today. It is worn for a variety of reasons by Muslim women, such as a desire to fulfil literally the commands of the Quran, by young women to convince their parents that they are pious and can be trusted alone out in the world, as a fashion accessory that makes the wearer stand out from the crowd, as a sign of confidence and pride among ethnic minority members, or to make a political statement of loyalty and affiliation in a world full of war and hatred. Some women are clearly coerced into wearing it by pressure from the legal system, general society or male relatives. Others choose to wear it for a variety of personal reasons. Many communities still use the hijab to control, intimidate and subjugate women. But more and more women are wearing it simply because they can and want to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Al Ghazali, Breaking the two desires, in The Revival of the Religious Sciences, trans. T.J.Winter, The Islamic Texts Society 1995.

[2] Ibn Hazm, The Ring of the Dove, trans. Anthony Arberry, Luzac Oriental 1994.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fath al Bari, Sharh Sahih al Bukhari 8/489.

[5] Mernissi Fatima, The Veil and the Male Elite, Perseus Books Publishing 1991.

[6] Thornwell Emily, The Lady’s Guide to perfect Gentility, New York 1856.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mawdudi Abu A’la, Purdah, translated by Al Ash’ari, 1939.

[9] Ibid, p.146

[10] Ibid, p.144

[11] Al Albani Nasiruddin, Jilbab Mar’atul Muslimah, Al Maktabah Al Islamiyyah, Jordan 1413 AH.

[12] Ibid, p.122.

HIJAB: A SYMBOL OF MODESTY OR SECLUSION?

 

The concept of the Hijab clearly exists in the Quran, but not with this name. In the sacred text,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Hijab actually refers to a curtain or a screen to separate individuals, or to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   separate individuals from God.

 

Hijab as the Muslim woman’s public dress is referred to twice in the Quran, but as khimar (head scarf) and jilbab (shawl or cloak). I see these particular verses as normative commandments, instructing women how to dress in public. But I also see these verses as providing implicit permission for women to enter the public sphere freely and confidently, and in the context of modest clothing, decency and prudent conduct in public. For traditional societies have usually placed huge emphasis on the personal reputation of individuals in general, and of women in particular. Reputations of chastity, decency, honour and veracity were prized, and losing such a reputation would easily ruin a person. This would be hard for a man to endure in a close-knit society, but even harder for a woman to endure. And it is within this context that the Quran ordains public lashing for a person who brings a charge of unchastity against a woman but is then unable to substantiate it in a court of law with four witnesses. Such a person is not only to be punished publicly but his testimony may never be accepted again in court. A person’s honour and reputation are thus considered sacrosanct in Islam.

 

There has existed within traditional Islamic scholarship from its very infancy a tension between those who were happy to see women enjoy the freedom that the Hijab gave them, and those who understood it to be a tool for the confinement of women. The Hijab was often used to control and oppress women in many Islamic societies, but I believe this flew in the face of the Quranic Weltenschauung, its general world-view. For there is no doubt the Quran sees women as equal members of the human race, with an equal spiritual presence, equal accountability before their Lord for their actions, equal free will and freedom of conscience, equal liability for their dealings with other human beings, and an equal responsibility to obey divine commandments. Tragically, not just for women but for Muslim society generally, this vision of women who stand tall with men had to jostle for position with a vision of women as temptresses, morally and spiritually weak, and incapable of contributing much to society except as mothers locked up within the four walls of their homes. Various Quranic verses were often interpreted narrowly to exclude women from the public sphere, to deny them any role in society except a very limited one, and to subject them to strict control by the men in their lives.

 

LOWERING THE GAZE

 

The Quran begins the discussion on the Hijab with a command to lower the gaze and to protect one’s chastity. It is interesting to note that this command is first addressed to men, and then repeated for women. Public morality and decency are therefore not just the concern of women (as is often the case in many Muslim societies) but men as well.

 

  1. Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
  2. And say to the believing women that they should 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 except to their husbands, their

fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or

their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of

physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike

their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together

towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.

(Surah An Nur 24:30-31. Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

 

This verse clearly implies that there will be some temptation for men from some women in public, regardless of whether or not they are suitably attired, but the remedy given is to strengthen their own resolve, to look away from temptation, and to protect their own actions. A woman alone cannot be blamed if a man sins; he too must take the blame. Interestingly, the Quranic attitude towards temptation is not to lock women away and throw away the key, but to put the onus on men to protect themselves. And even more importantly, verse 31 shows that women too are subject to the same temptations as men, so they too are given the same advice as men.

 

The great scholar and ethical thinker of Islam, Imam al Ghazali (d.1111) commented that,

“The ‘fornication of the eye’ is one of the major venial faults, and soon leads on to a mortal and obscene sin, which is the fornication of the flesh. The man who is unable to turn away his eyes will not be able to safeguard himself against unchastity.

Jesus (upon whom be peace) said, ‘Beware of glances, for they sow desire in the heart, which is temptation enough.’” [1]

 

The Andalusian theologian, scholar and poet Ibn Hazm (d.1064) wrote one of his enduring masterpieces on the theme of courtly love. However, he cautions against ‘love at first sight’ as he explains that the gaze is fickle.

“When a man falls in love at first sight, and forms a sudden attachment as the result of a fleeting glance, that proves him to be little steadfast, and proclaims that he will as suddenly forget his romantic adventure; it testifies to his fickleness and inconstancy. So it is with all things; the quicker they grow, the quicker they decay; while on the other hand slow produced is slow consumed.”[2]

 

“You should realise that the eye takes the place of a messenger, and that with its aid all the beloved’s intention can be apprehended. The four senses besides are also gateways of the heart, and passages giving admission to the soul; the eye is however the most eloquent, the most expressive, and the most efficient of them all.”[3]

 

THE HEADSCARF

 

After the command to women to lower the gaze comes the injunction to extend the headscarf to cover the chest, and not to reveal their adornments except to females and to close male relatives. Al Qurtubi explains that verse 31was revealed because of a custom among Arab women in that time to cover their heads with a scarf, but to leave their chests and necks uncovered.

 

The lesson from this verse is that a woman’s beauty, both natural and artificial, is not for general, public consumption. It implicitly accepts that women enjoy adorning their natural beauty, such as with make-up, jewellery and fine clothes. This finery is acceptably feminine, but needs to stay within closed, trusted circles. If it is not controlled, it can lead to terrible consequences for society. In our modern age, where magazines and television constantly carry images of beautiful but scantily dressed female celebrities, we see many problems emerging as a result. An obsession with pornography, anorexia nervosa among young girls, obscenely provocative fashions sold to and worn by the masses, and rising rates of adultery are just a few of the issues that can be attributed directly to a deterioration of standards of public decency. Despite the growing number of women who use their intelligence and education to pursue rewarding careers, the female body is still ogled in magazines, displayed for public consumption, and used to enhance the appeal and market of other commodities.

 

The head scarf is thus not just about covering a woman’s hair and upper body but about standards of public decency, modesty and propriety. That this verse was interpreted as a clear normative injunction is shown by the following narration in Fath al Bari from Safiyyah bint Shaybah.

 

“We were once with Aisha when we mentioned the women of Quraysh and their virtues. Aisha said, ‘The women of Quraysh are good but, by Allah, I have never seen any better or more strict in their adherence to the Book of Allah than the women of the Ansar. When the verses of Sura Al Nur were revealed, their men went to them and recited to them the words Allah had revealed. Each man recited to his wife, his daughter, his sister and other female relatives. Each woman among them got up, took her decorated wrapper and wrapped herself up in it out of faith and belief in what Allah had revealed. They appeared behind the Messenger of Allah wrapped up, as if there were crows on their heads.’”[4]

 

What I find interesting is the use of Safiyyah’s words ‘decorated wrapper’, as this implies that the scarves were not plain black but coloured and patterned. One wonders from whence emerged the modern obsession with wearing only black or very dull-coloured scarves and gowns.

 

 

 

 

 

JILBAB – THE OUTER CLOAK

 

  1. O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.
  2. Truly, if the Hypocrites

(Surah Al Ahzab 33:59)

 

This verse commands all Muslim women, not just the family of the Prophet, to cover their ordinary clothes with a shawl or cloak when they are in public in order that they may be recognised and not molested. Ibn Kathir explains in his commentary that this concerned recognition of the women as free women and not slaves. He further explains that some evil young men in Madina would roam the streets at night looking for women to tease and annoy. If a woman was not covered with a cloak, she would be recognised as a slave-girl and so considered lawful game. The question then arises whether the jilbab is still mandatory now that slavery has been abolished in most societies. Those who consider the jilbab to be a necessary requirement in the modern age explain that the Quran does not specify that the women should be recognised as free women; perhaps the recognition referred to is that they are believing women. In this case the injunction of this verse remains normative.

 

MODESTY

 

My understanding is that the issue of hijab is less about head-scarves and more about public modesty and propriety. A scarf that covers the hair but leaves the neck and chest exposed, or that is worn with figure-hugging outfits, or is accompanied with flirtatious behaviour, does nothing to promote modesty. My contention is that the verses on the hijab were instituted to protect women from the un-warranted attentions of some men when in public. This is in no way a negative observance on the male gender in general; it does not imply, as one feminist once said to me, that Islam considers all men to be potential rapists. It does not seek to segregate women from men, to lock women behind closed doors, or to deny them public space. Fatima Mernissi complains bitterly that the initial hijab was a curtain, a “veil that descended from heaven was going to cover up women, separate them from men, from the Prophet, and so from God.” [5]

 

In fact, I see the hijab as implicit permission for women to be in the public sphere. If their presence in the public arena was not a normal occurrence, there would be no need for the hijab. What the Quran ordains is that women cover their bodies when in public. It does not suggest that all men are potential rapists or that all women are temptresses. But it does suggest that the free mixing of the sexes in an atmosphere where women are not modestly or becomingly attired can be a source of temptation, improper thoughts and improper conduct. The Islamic etiquettes of the interaction between the sexes are based on good manners, formal behaviour, decent and temperate language, and modest clothing. Men and women not closely related to each other may not hug each other or even shake hands. This may seem strange in our modern world where there are few boundaries between the sexes, but was something that was clearly understood in traditional English society for centuries. High class society, for example, would never have countenanced the fashion of women revealing their bodies apart from their faces and hands. Dresses were worn long, bonnets covered the head in public, a cape covered the clothes, and the sexes interacted with propriety. The English writer Emily Thornwell explained to her Victorian readers,

 

“…to suppose that the great heat of the weather will authorise the disorder of the toilet, and permit us to go in slippers, or with our arms and legs bare, or to take nonchalant and improper attitudes, is an error of persons of low class, or destitute of education.” [6]

 

On the issue of the interaction between men and women, she advised young women, “Always seek to converse with gentlemen into whose society you may be introduced, with a dignified modesty and simplicity, which will effectually check on their part any attempt at familiarity…” [7]

 

In the 1850’s women in the United States had begun to complain loudly about the tight corsets they wore which affected their health and posture, and about the long dresses that were impossible to keep clean. Interestingly, the solution they found to this problem was not in revealing their legs but in introducing the fashion of the Bloomers. These were baggy trousers copied from the Turks and worn with knee-length dresses. In fact the fashion was very reminiscent of traditional Turkish costume. In Britain it was considered unacceptable for women to show their legs in public as late as the 1920’s. The slow change began when rationing during the Second World War was applied to fabric as well, so ladies were forced to make their dresses shorter and more practical. Dresses and skirts were however still worn below the knee. It was not until 1965, when Mary Quant invented the mini skirt, that women’s fashion in Britain became so revealing that soon, nothing was left uncovered.

 

The effect of changing women’s fashion in Britain to Muslim communities cannot be over-emphasised. Many Muslim countries emerged after the Second World War in the neck of colonialism, and so much of the discussion was focused on political weakness. The new, very revealing fashions in women’s dress were anathema to Muslims and were a cause of serious worry. If Muslim women were to emulate European women in increasing rates of literacy, careers and political rights, would they also emulate them in standards of public modesty? This was a worrying issue indeed and led to many strict epistles being written on the importance of keeping women in the home.

 

THE CONCEPT OF SECLUSION AND PURDAH.

 

The verses on the hijab quoted earlier led to a tension during the earliest stages in the development of the Islamic understanding of the role of women in society. One strand of theological thought insisted that the hijab included the covering of the woman’s face and hands, and that the verses on seclusion for the Prophet’s wives applied to all Muslim women. Although the Quran does not mention the niqab (covering the face), some interpreters included the covering of the face under the rule of the head scarf. A second strand insisted that the hijab did not include the covering of the face and hands, and that women moved freely in public during the time of the Prophet. Maulana Mawdudi is a classic example of the first school of thought. His book entitled “Purdah” [8] gives dozens of examples of women attending congregational prayer during the era of the Prophet, coming out for Eid celebrations, travelling for Hajj and visiting graveyards. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the public role of women in the Prophetic era, his conclusion severely limits the role of women:

 

“Though he (the Prophet) allowed women to go out of the houses in view of the solemnity of the occasions, purity of the purpose and their delicate feelings, sometimes even took them along with him, imposed such restrictions of Purdah as would guard against the least probabilities of mischief. Then he ruled that except for Hajj, it was better for women not to attend the other religious obligations.”

 

I find this conclusion very strange as the Prophet specifically made a pledge with women that they would attend the Eid prayers, even if they were in a state of ritual impurity and so could not pray.

 

Maulana Mawdudi was not unique in wishing to keep women locked up in the home. In fact, the move to keep women secluded began very soon after the death of the Prophet when many interpreters merged verses of hijab with verses that specifically addressed the wives of the Prophet to create the tenet of seclusion.

  1. O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear ((Allah)), be not too

complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a

speech (that is) just.

  1. And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former Times of

Ignorance; and establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity; and obey Allah and His Messenger. And

Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the Family, and to make you pure and

spotless.

(Surah Al Ahzab, 33: 32-33)

 

These verses clearly address the wives of the Prophet and advise them not to enter the public arena too freely. After the death of the Prophet, his wives were also not permitted to re-marry as they had the exalted reputation of being among the best women on earth. But some interpreters extended these verses to apply to all Muslim women and combined with the theory that the hijab included the covering of the face, devised the theory of veiling and seclusion. This tenet was used for centuries by male interpreters to control women and deny them access to the public sphere. Not only was a woman’s body awrah (private) but so was her face, and hands, and feet, and even voice. For many scholars, the mere hint of a woman’s voice in public was anathema: cursed, tempting and forbidden. Although these verses are clearly addressed to the female relatives of the Prophet, scholars  of the seclusion-theory believed that the niqab and seclusion were not simply for the wives of the Prophet but mandatory for all Muslim women. Their reasoning was that the family of the Prophet were role models for women, just as the Prophet was a role model for the whole community. If these women, the best women of the prophetic generation, were instructed to cover their faces and stay in their homes, so too should all women. They often saw women only as a gender, never as intelligent, creative beings who could contribute to society just as men did.

 

Other scholars were deeply affected by the political situation of their day. Maulana Mawdudi, for example, was writing during the bloody struggle to rid India of its British colonial masters, at a time when the entire Muslim world felt itself besieged physically and ideologically. A return to puritan Islam seemed the only escape from the terrible humiliation the Muslim world was enduring at the hands of European colonialists, and controlling women became one of the rallying cries of the puritan movement. It was in this context that Mawdudi wrote,

“The Muslim woman cannot be compared with the European woman who came out of the house in view of the emergency created by the war, but even after the war was over, refused to return to her natural sphere,”[9]

 

Maulana Mawdudi’s worry that if women freely entered the public sphere, it would cause chaos in society was not a new worry and echoes of it can be heard in the writings of scholars throughout Islamic history. This is why he says during his discussion on Hijab,

“It is obvious that the law which has such trends cannot be expected to allow that the two sexes should freely mix in schools and colleges, offices and factories, parks and places of entertainment, theatres and cinemas, and cafes and ballrooms as and when they please.”[10]

 

The late Sheikh Nasiruddin al Albani of Saudi Arabia would have fully agreed with Maulana Mawdudi that the free mixing of men and women in public, when there is no modest clothing or decent conduct, when music is raunchy and obscene, and when alcohol helps people push the boundaries of what is forbidden further and further away, is an evil to be avoided at all costs. But despite this agreement, Sheikh Albani does not accept that the niqab and seclusion of women were the norm during the Prophetic era. The sub-heading of his book ‘Jilbab Mar’atul Muslimah’ [11] is ‘Evidence that the face of the woman is not awrah’. He thus dedicates his study to narrations from the time of the Prophet in which women were in the mosque, in battle, on the streets, and so forth with their faces uncovered. The fact that the Prophet did not reprimand them is proof enough that the niqab was not considered mandatory. He gives the example of Fadl bin Abbas, a handsome young man who was with the Prophet when a beautiful young woman came to ask the Prophet a religious question. Fadl turned round to stare at her face, so the Prophet took Fadl’s chin and gently steered his face to a different direction. Fadl was thus encouraged to avert his gaze from a beauty that was obviously attractive to him. Similarly, Sheikh Albani gives the example of a beautiful woman who used to pray behind the Prophet regularly. Some of the men would deliberately pray in the last row of men so that they could turn round to stare at her. Although the Quran reprimanded them for staying in the back rows to look at her, there was no rule introduced to stop beautiful women from attending the Mosque.

 

Another example he gives is that during the pledge of allegiance taken with women by Umar on behalf of the Prophet, which came soon after the signing of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, he ordered them to go out to the two Eid prayers and to take with them women who were elderly or in a state of ritual impurity. He explains that this pledge was concluded after the revelation of the verses on Jilbab, and so shows that seclusion was not the norm. Sheikh Albani finally concludes that the opinion that the face need not be covered was the opinion of the majority of the scholars, including Ibn Rushd, Abu Hanifah, Malik, Shafi’i, Ahmad and At Tahawi.

 

WOMEN IN BLACK

 

One of the issues one encounters is the modern obsession among women who wear the hijab of wearing black from head to toe. This may be part of inherited culture in the Gulf States, but makes no sense in modern Britain. Sheikh Albani is also critical of the fashion for white or black hijabs only, giving the example of the wives of the Prophet who wore jilbabs dyed with red or yellow colour. [12]

 

The style of Hijab seen in many Gulf countries today shows a preference for long black gowns. This may be practical for women who do not have careers outside the home, do not have to run for a bus or train, do not walk on snow or icy paths, and do not have to carry heavy shopping. In western countries, the climate, life-style and general dress are very different to those in the Gulf States and do not lend themselves easily to this Hijab. So should Muslim women in Western countries confine themselves to Arabian styles, or can they adapt the style to suit their lifestyles?

 

I believe the Quran did not wish to mandate a uniform for men or women, any more than it mandates certain meals. For example, the Quran tells Muslims that pork and alcohol are forbidden, that the creatures of the sea are halal, and that animals must be slaughtered with the name of Allah before they can be consumed. But it does not concern itself with particular menus or styles of cooking, for that would have taken away from the universal message of Islam. In the same way, to dictate that Muslim women must wear a certain style of clothing would also limit the relevance of the Quran to a certain time and place. The Quran’s injunctions are general and universally applicable. Women throughout the ages have adapted the concept of the Hijab to their own situation. Muslim women in China wore traditional Chinese dress with wide-brimmed hats, as this was common culture in their time. Women in India wore the sari or the burqa. In Iran the chador has been the norm for generations. Women in East Africa wore traditional clothing, with a matching fabric wrapped around the head. In Morocco both men and women wore long gowns with a tassled hood on the head. In Britain today we see Muslim women wearing long skirts or trouser suits with head scarves. Their clothing is smart, practical, suited to the idiosyncracies of the British climate, and thoroughly at home in Britain.

 

I find it strange that many Muslim men are comfortable in Western-style suits and jeans, yet insist that their women must dress in a Middle-Eastern fashion. Yet other men insist on wearing Asian or Arab styles of clothing for Friday prayers, insisting that suits are not welcome in a Mosque. And woe betide an Imam who has the temerity to lead the prayer wearing a western suit! He may well be thrown out of his office. I believe that if a man wishes to wear traditional clothing for Friday and Eid prayers because it puts him in holiday mood, fair enough. But to insist that such a style is somehow more Islamic than a suit is nonsensical and contrary to the universal message of Islam. The reason often given for the insistence on foreign fashions is that they are according to the Sunnah. But we have seen that the women in the time of the Prophet wore patterned and coloured scarves and cloaks, and that they uncovered their faces. So why is this not considered Sunnah?

 

As far as emulating the Prophet (SAWS) in his dress is concerned, firstly, it is laudable but not mandatory. Secondly, the Prophet did not wear the thawb or shalwar qameez as worn by modern Arab and Asian men. He wore an Izar (waist-wrapper) and a shirt. Thirdly, he made it clear that it was the duty of Muslims to obey him in religious or Quranic matters, but that they were free to follow their own customs in temporal matters. It is reported that when the Prophet first came to Madina, he saw the farmers grafting their trees and advised them to stop the practice. As a result the date palms yielded less fruit than was usual. The Prophet then said the immortal words, “I am a human being. When I command you on an issue pertaining to religion, accept it. But when I command you on an issue concerning my personal opinion, remember that I am human. You know better the affairs of your worldly life.” (Sahih Muslim)

 

CHILDREN IN HIJAB

 

Throughout the world one is increasingly seeing little girls wearing Hijab in public. A minority will even wear the niqab. Given the importance attached to the innocence of childhood by the Prophet, I find the Hijab on little girls to be an affront to their innocence. The Hijab is enjoined for women; it concerns beauty, maturity and public sexual attraction. To dress a little girl in this style is to sexualise the innocent, and I find this just as unacceptable as dressing a little girl as a model or prom queen. Given that many Muslim girls will wear the Hijab from their teenage years until their death, why place such a heavy requirement on them when their young minds and bodies have no understanding of its significance? Why not let them enjoy their childhood as children, instead of treating them as mini-adults. To clothe a child in Hijab shows a lack of understanding about the raison d’etre behind the concept, and introduces sexual atraction to a space where it does not exist.

 

Those who dress their children in this manner argue that they are training the girl in her faith just as they would train boys and girls to pray from the age of seven or to fast. But when a child is being trained to pray or fast, the prayer or fasting is not considered obligatory. They will pray some prayers and miss others. They will fast some days, break the fast early on some days, and miss others completely. It is a slow journey of learning. The Hijab too should be introduced slowly from the age of puberty. But to force a little girl to dress in a black scarf and gown from the age of seven, to separate her from her brothers and friends in their games, to make it physically impossible for her to ride a bike or climb a tree is not training but an act of oppression.

 

Conclusion

 

The Hijab remains the most potent symbol of Islam in the world today. It is worn for a variety of reasons by Muslim women, such as a desire to fulfil literally the commands of the Quran, by young women to convince their parents that they are pious and can be trusted alone out in the world, as a fashion accessory that makes the wearer stand out from the crowd, as a sign of confidence and pride among ethnic minority members, or to make a political statement of loyalty and affiliation in a world full of war and hatred. Some women are clearly coerced into wearing it by pressure from the legal system, general society or male relatives. Others choose to wear it for a variety of personal reasons. Many communities still use the hijab to control, intimidate and subjugate women. But more and more women are wearing it simply because they can and want to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Al Ghazali, Breaking the two desires, in The Revival of the Religious Sciences, trans. T.J.Winter, The Islamic Texts Society 1995.

[2] Ibn Hazm, The Ring of the Dove, trans. Anthony Arberry, Luzac Oriental 1994.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fath al Bari, Sharh Sahih al Bukhari 8/489.

[5] Mernissi Fatima, The Veil and the Male Elite, Perseus Books Publishing 1991.

[6] Thornwell Emily, The Lady’s Guide to perfect Gentility, New York 1856.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mawdudi Abu A’la, Purdah, translated by Al Ash’ari, 1939.

[9] Ibid, p.146

[10] Ibid, p.144

[11] Al Albani Nasiruddin, Jilbab Mar’atul Muslimah, Al Maktabah Al Islamiyyah, Jordan 1413 AH.

[12] Ibid, p.122.

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