Must the Muslima Wear a Headscarf?

Hijab Identity Politics

Identity politics are dangerous. Unfortunately Muslims have long been swept up into the fray. Sometimes willingly.

In many traditional and conservative societies, women have covered their heads. This is not exclusive to Islam, whatever the Quran says about it.

But a time came also when Muslims were mobilizing on the basis of faith, using it as a rallying cry. It roughly corresponded with an ascendant European colonialism that weakened the political power Muslims once possessed. It revived in the 1970s, with the surge in popularity of political Islamism.

And one symbol of resistance was the woman. The headscarf became a statement.

It is far more than that, of course. It is a symbol of piety, of faith. It is an act of modesty in an immodest world. Perhaps it is an act of acquiescence to culture, or obedience to husband.

In the end it is a piece of cloth, and from an American perspective we believe a woman should be (mostly) free to wear what she wants.

But to be a good Muslima, must the woman wear a scarf?

I will not delve into the perspectives that say yes, or the traditional interpretations that seem to govern much of the Muslim world. They may well be right.

But in a recent article, the Huffington Post highlighted five scholars who say no. I know some of the names. One is famous and generally well celebrated. Another was marginal and called an apostate.

Here are their arguments.

Khaled Abou el-Fadl

El-Fadl mentions that the illa (operative cause) for the injunction to cover was to protect women from harm and to avoid undue attention from mischief mongers.

He also states that the ma’ruf (generally accepted as good) and the munkar (socially recognized as unacceptable) are based on pragmatic and practical experience.

Therefore, he argues that if the headscarf itself causes women to stand out and put them in the way of harm, and if uncovering the head is not considered socially immodest or licentious, then it would be permissible for Muslim women to not wear the headscarf.

One would hope a well functioning society would not harass women who cover their heads. Does his reasoning then suggest that the headscarf is otherwise an obligation? Should the power of decision be yielded to the mischief mongers?

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi

Like El-Fadl, Ghamidi opines there were injunctions exclusive for the wives of the Prophet. He argues that there are only four instructions that pertain to Muslim women.

These include lowering the gaze, wearing modest clothing, covering the bosom with a piece of cloth, and not displaying ornamental embellishments before unrelated men.

No other injunction other than these has been imposed on Muslim women.

This seems straightforward enough. A general command for modesty may require a headscarf in some cultures, but not in others. But who is to decide? The individual woman? Islam teaches that God judges the individual, so she alone bears the consequences. But who protects society?

Abdullah bin Bayyah

Bin Bayyah adopts an approach based on necessity.

He argues that hardships allow for uncovering of body parts and mentioned how the shins of two of the Prophet’s wives, Aishah and Umm Salamah, were uncovered when they were giving water to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. He also mentions the minority position of Ibn Ashur that women may uncover their hair in public.

Bin Bayyah’s student Hamza Yusuf even asserts that:

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. …

The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

If uncovering hair is admitted to be a minority position, bin Bayyah’s does not seem a very strong argument. A pillar of sharia law is the consensus of community.

His student Yusuf pulls a principle of Jesus, but the Huffington Post excerpt does not go far enough to demonstrate the validity of the principle in Islam. For now it must be enough that some scholars argue so.

Ahmad Ghabel

The late Shia cleric, who had the prominent title of Hojjat el-Islam (authority on Islam), offered ten arguments in support of the viewpoint that covering the head was not obligatory but recommended.

He opined that there was no consensus amongst jurists as to whether hair constituted the awrah (intimate parts) that must be covered.

For the reader desiring demonstrations of validity, the link will offer an academic treatise. But even if something is only recommended, should it not be done? Perhaps it cannot be enforced, but does the woman risk her standing with little recourse?

But as above, the second claim is more powerful. If there is no consensus on what must be covered, then again we come back to modesty, not compulsion.

Nasr Abu Zayd

According to the late Abu Zayd, both the awrah (intimate parts) and the hijab (veil) are subject to socio-cultural norms and therefore are changeable and not fixed. He opined that both are not legislated by Islam but are rather specific to the Arab culture.

Fair enough, but again, on what basis? Not enough here to tell.

For what it is worth, this is the scholar labeled an infidel by an Egyptian court, and forcibly divorced from his wife. I don’t know his story well enough to say which of his opinions most offended the judge.

All religions impose obligations; all societies have their norms. The former is of individual faith; however related, the latter is not wise to transgress.

But some always will, and society needs their creativity. Just not too much of it. It is difficult to know where the line must be drawn.

If this was the only matter, we would probably work it out. Not to justify any particular outcome, but traditional societies seemed to do so, with diverse application.

Some highlight the hijab as a symbol of oppression. Others compel it as a means of control. Some thrust it in your face demanding respect. Others find ways to seduce men all the same.

Too much of this issue is wrapped in identity politics. Let’s just leave each other alone.

Mostly. Unfortunately, the headscarf at this time hits at a collective world conscience on how to balance rights with freedoms, the individual with society.

Maybe we can’t just leave each other alone, but we can be charitable. How wonderful if this was our collective identity.

I Love My Hijab

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Profile of a Modern Salafi

Ahmed al-Qadri
Ahmed al-Qadri

From my latest article in Arab West Report:

The popular image of Salafi Muslims in Egypt is of a lower-class, older generation, perhaps limited in educational achievement. This is not their fault, many might patronizingly sympathize, as President Mubarak is blamed for letting the school system rot to keep the population ignorant, poor, and non-threatening to his rule. It is commonly stated as well he allowed the Salafi trend to prosper at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood, because their religious orientation preached obedience to the Muslim ruler, no matter his flaws.

However useful this description may be, it does not comprise the whole of Egyptian Salafism, and a clear example is Ahmad al-Qadri.

At the time of this interview Qadri was an advisor to the Salafi Nour Party in energy affairs. He is now the official English language spokesman for the Salafi Watan Party, which recently split away. These political developments can be read here, but this article is more a profile of him and his worldview.

Here, for example, he describes how he became a Salafi:

For Qadri, his grayness was exposed by life abroad. He studied for his PhD at Strathclyde University in the UK from 2006-2009, and immediately found the local Muslim community to be either black or white, secular or religious. The psychology of minority status pushed immigrant Muslims either to seek integration with the larger culture, or else to dive deeply into their own religious heritage. Glasgow as a city was about 17% Muslim – mostly Pakistani – while the university could be as much as 30%.

From the beginning Qadri was tested. The university committee to welcome new students served wine at their reception. Women freely extended their hands to greet him. Upon polite refusal – as an ordinary Egyptian Muslim, not as a fanatic – he was politely asked why, and what relation Islam had to such social awkwardness.

These experiences pushed him to read subjects he cared little about while growing up. His personal studies led him to the books and YouTube sermons of popular Egyptian Salafi scholars like Muhammad Hassān and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Maqsūd. By 2007 he started growing out his beard. He eventually became vice-president of the Muslim Students Association at his university, which was composed primarily of Salafi students from the Persian Gulf and North Africa.

Qadri differentiates between Islamist groups, especially highlighting mainstream Salafis perspective on jihadists:

Even so, Salafis should be differentiated from other Islamist groups, though all agree on the necessity of applying sharia law. The Muslim Brotherhood has a Salafi orientation, but desires to change society from the top. For this reason they seek political power. The problem will be, however, if they do not perform well society will reject them. This may cause the loss of the whole sharia project.

There are other Islamists who have sought to live according to sharia law in other ways – ways rejected by Salafis. Some, such as Takfir wa Hijrah (Excommunication and Exodus), curse society as non-Muslim and form isolated communities to themselves. Some such groups then move further along into advocating violence to overthrow the government and seize power. Such jihadis are also ‘Salafi’ in the manner of viewing Islam through the lens of the Qur’an and Hadith, but are rejected by the mainstream Salafi movement. Salafi leaders such as ‘Imād ‘Abd al-Ghaffūr and Yūsrī Hammād have traveled to Sinai where many extremist have taken refuge to convince tribal leaders and the youth the jihadi perspective is wrong. Jihadis themselves, however, cannot be talked to at all, as Qadri finds them unwilling to accept anyone as a Muslim except themselves.

His views on religious defamation and the freedom of conversion seem to bounce back and forth between liberal and conservative notions, but where liberal they are surprising and muddle the waters:

Additionally, Salafis support a law against denigration of religions which would apply equally to Christians and Jews. This law, however, would not prevent conversion from one religion to another, or to none at all. Nor would such a law apply to the conversation, or even the printing, of one religion respectfully describing the other. A Christian can freely communicate that for them, Islam is a false religion and Muhammad was a liar. Several years ago a highly visible convert to Christianity, Muhammad Hijāzī, created a stir in the media. Salafi groups raised no case against him.

In this area Qadri was more difficult to understand, for he stated as well that there should be censorship of thoughts that harm the Islamic religion to keep sectarian strife from society. He also defended the case brought against Nasr Abu Zayd, who was sued for his academic writings on Islam. The court referred the case to the Azhar, which ruled they proved him a non-Muslim. As such, he was ordered to divorce his wife, and he fled to the Netherlands for asylum leaving his wife behind.

In explanation, Qadri stated a Muslim is free to become a non-Muslim, but if so he forfeits his rights. A family should be protected from the shame of having their daughter be married to a non-Muslim at any point in her life. Furthermore, the apostate will lose his Islamic inheritance rights. Yet he is free to join another creed, and even free to publish his reasons why.

This privilege does not extend to non-monotheistic religions, however. A Muslim may become a Buddhist in his heart, but no community of Buddhists may build a temple in Egypt. The same applies to Shi’a Islam.

Finally, from the conclusion, asking rhetorically the common doubt toward all articulate Islamsts:

Qadri presents these opinions as shared by the Egyptian Salafi community, many of which are not young, know no English, and are far more comfortable conversing over ancient texts. Is this accurate? Or has Qadri learned the art of speaking to the West, having been tested in the hallowed halls of Scotland academia?

Perhaps there are generational gaps. Perhaps there are educational gaps. Among all peoples there are frauds and charlatans, politicians and propagandists. The testimony here is only that Qadri was a very nice, pleasant individual, who appeared to speak sincerely and passionately about his faith. Judgment on the Salafi movement can only be rendered upon how they benefit – or damage – Egypt, but in his demeanor it is hoped that the Salafi community will demonstrate Qadri to be a standard representative.

Please click here to read the full article on Arab West Report.

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