Habbibi Consulting Blog
While speaking at a YPFP gathering at SAIS last night, the unthinkable happened. No, not the return of any apocalyptic figure from an Abrahamic religion.
While preparing to present a class on Islamic law and Islamic finance last night at Georgetown Law for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, I was faced with a question that seems so obvious, yet demands explanation.
In acknowledgement of the proceedings in the UK currently regarding a Muslim woman's lack of desire to shed her veil in front of a judge, jury, and lawyers, I thought I'd share these thoughts from a few years ago regarding veils.
One of the most fervent discussions in the relationship between modern European states and their Muslim residents revolves around the role that the veil, or khimar, plays in their Western lives. On one side of the debate, some Muslim scholars insist that this display of modesty on behalf of women is essential, as it is mandated in both the Quran and the Sunnah. By overtly trying to be modest, women send a clear message that they wish to be left alone. However, opposing those in favor of hijab are Western officials who ask that while Muslims should be encouraged to keep their own customs, they must also be accepting of public safety laws that would prohibit such veils. Three major points are made by officials in these states. First, by covering up, Muslim women present a problem for officials who may require knowledge of their identity, such as police officers. Complementary to this, identification cards require a picture of the individual without a veil, obviously leading to problems if a woman’s face is not to be seen by all but a select few. Finally, especially with hate crimes against Muslims becoming more common, some make the point that by wearing the veil, Muslim women identify themselves as members of a misrepresented and wrongfully despised group, and therefore targets of retribution. Both sides claim to hold these beliefs in order to protect the woman wearing the khimar, and denounce the other as wanting to threaten her safety.
Crucial to any understanding of the debate on the role khimar should play in a modern secular society must include an understanding of the importance the concept of modesty played in the early history of Islam, and by extension the context of the veil in Pre-Islamic society. Islam originated during a tribal period of Arabian history. Indeed, the Arabic word harb is often used to describe the general state of inter-tribal warfare before the Prophet Muhammad united the Arabs. Women especially were at risk for being enslaved, raped, and otherwise wronged. To this end, it was advantageous to block, hajaba in Arabic, the glances of the outside world from one’s self. The now-covered woman would only lower this barrier in front of those she could trust – fellow females, but also male family members.
It is important to note, however, that this does not necessarily dictate a veil. Three Quranic verses used to justify the veil make no reference to a complete covering of the face. Al-Ahzab 59 states that women should “draw their cloaks close round them. That will be better, so that when they may be recognized and not annoyed” stresses the aforementioned importance that the Muslim woman be left alone, but fails to mention the face. Further, Al-Nur 31 stresses that “the believing women [should] lower their gaze and be modest…and to draw their veils over their bosoms.” Here the Qur’an states that not only should women dress modestly, but they should also act modestly. Combined with Al-Ahzab 33 (“make not a dazzling display”) these ayat command that Muslim women should epitomize modesty. However, usul al-fiqh takes into account that the ijma of a people may be considered; the pre-Islamic and early Islamic sunnah of the khimar permits the veil to be worn if the woman desires. As the Qur’an does not prohibit the veil, it is permissible if the woman in question sees it as a way to further her modesty.
Clearly, one of the major practices that Islam demands of its female adherents is modesty. In today’s secular West, this is often difficult to achieve: To this end, women in countries such as France and Italy have taken to wearing the veil daily. Islam provides instruction to women who wish to do so in these non-Islamic countries. When the Prophet sent his believers to live under the Emperor of Ethiopia, he commanded that while the government may not be Islamic, the laws of the empire were just, and therefore had to be followed. More recently, one of the most revered modern Islamic scholars, Shaykh al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, stated that “when Muslim women conform to the laws of a non-Muslim state, in terms of Islamic Shari’ah, they are under the conditions of he who obligates them (fi hukm al-mudtarr) and they do not, therefore, bear the responsibility” of the veil. In the same declaration, the Shaykh also said that it “is their [The European state’s] right [to impose laws opposing the veil]. I repeat, it is their right, and I cannot oppose them.” However, it is important to note again that Shaykh al-Azhar is referring to the veil specifically: the broader ideal of modesty is still required.
Still, the catalyst for much of the possible legislation banning the veil is based largely on the security issues put forth by civil authorities. In the two states most engaged in the debate on the place of the veil in society, legal statutes protect religious diversity insofar as it does not interfere with the functions of the state. In France, the Declarations of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (still legally admissible) mandate that “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” In Italian Law, the Constitution provides that “religious confessions other than Catholic have the right to organize…in so far as they are not in conflict with Italian laws.” For both states, religious freedom is only guaranteed as long as it does not disrupt the operations of the state.
However, Muslims in these countries are not permitted to live under secular law alone; Islamic law must also be used to govern their actions. As was demonstrated earlier, modesty must be practiced. But the arguments put forth by the secular government do not desire violate this principle of modesty; it addresses safety concerns of the entire population. Yet the identification cards issued by many European states, a photograph is almost universally required that portrays the individual without the khimar. While those in favor of the states’ solution could simply point to the fatwa of Shaykh Tantawi or the Hadith in which Muhammad tells his followers to abide by the rulings of the just, but non-Muslim, ruler of Ethiopia, the greater meaning of the sunnah of the Arabian people who originally mandated the khimar to be worn should not be ignored. Again, the sunnah came into being for the protection of women: by dressing and behaving modestly, they drew less attention to themselves in an unruly society. While dressing modestly is still important as it is mandated by the Qur’an, the emphasis of the sunnah concerning the veil is not only about modesty, but equally importantly it is about safety. A Muslim woman whose photograph is taken without the veil is safer, as it allows the entire society to be safer with a more adequate identification system.
A related problem concerns the use of khimar when prompted by officials, especially police officers, to temporarily remove the veil for identification purposes. Again, the sunnah seems to mandate that only family should see the woman without her veil. However, one must examine the circumstances of the sunnah to realize the true meaning of the law behind it. As was stated before, pre-Islamic Arabia was a largely lawless area, dangerous for all, but most especially for women. By removing the hijab, whether a veil or other form of modesty, only around family members, the believer was revealing herself to those who would protect her from harm. In modern secular societies, it is more often the police or other civil authorities who protect individuals, not their families. Therefore, removing the veil when prompted by an official, as with the permission of having an identification photograph taken, is not an abandonment of modesty, but is a step taken to insure the safety of the woman and the society as a larger whole.
Yet the resolution of whether khimar can be worn during an identification photograph or can be temporarily removed for an official does not solve a looming question facing many Muslim women throughout the non-Muslim world: As Muslims who wear khimar, they are extremely easily identifiable as Muslims. In a period of growing hatred towards Islam due to the work of a few extremists, these believers may through their modesty and desire to not attract attention, become the targets of hate crimes. Therefore, in periods of civil unrest directed against the Muslim umma, it becomes not a question of should a woman be allowed to wear khimar for secular law (whose concerns were abrogated above), but whether it is legal under Islamic law.
Again, the original reason for hajaba was for the protection of the believer. As the Qur’an says, “draw their cloaks close round…so that they may be recognized and not annoyed.” A major reason for the entire practice of modest dress among women in Islam is to avoid persecution and aggravation. Further, actions that would bring pain and suffering to the Muslim umma are strictly forbidden. Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamic activist, reasoned that the reason that Muhammad made peace with the pagan Arab tribes after the migration from Mecca was largely to be sure that the Islamic Movement would survive. While other parts of the Qur’an would denounce making peace with pagans, the maslaha of the umma required that survival of the community was vital such that said pagans could one day be given the opportunity to become Muslims. Transferred to the modern era, the survival of the umma as a worldwide whole is not in eminent danger; Muslims number well over one billion. However, the one-third of Muslims who live as religious minorities act much like the original Muslims of Medina. If the question is between adherence or survival, the longevity of the umma, whether worldwide or in a nation, must always be of the utmost priority.
The original purpose of the khimar and the larger doctrine of modesty, to prevent harassment by those who would do one harm, still works well for Muslim women both inside and outside of the historical Islamic world; Muslim women, and for that point more modestly dressed women, are traditionally less likely to face a range of injustices inflicted on females by society. However, this reason of protection should not be forgotten as the main reason for the implementation of hajaba and the khimar in particular. Pre-Islamic Arabia was simply too dangerous of a place for a woman to draw unwanted attention to herself, lest she be abducted, or worse. Yet the spirit of the law, not the word, is what is important in the modern context. This spirit of modesty still resonates, as it reduces the amount of pestering a woman receives on account of her sex. But it is also important to transfer the spirit of those who are allowed to see a woman without hajaba, those who would protect her. In the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods, it was her family members. Today, it is not only those family members, but also government officials whose duty is to insure civility throughout society, whether they are immigration officials, identification office workers, or the police. However, one must always remember that a primary goal was to prevent harassment. In situations where more harassment, and possible bodily harm, may be incurred by donning the khimar than by being slightly less modest without it, the veil should be abandoned in order to keep with the Islamic ideal of preservation of the umma and the believer.