Chastity and Hijab in the Teachings of Prophets Muhammad and Jesus
SOME WESTERN REACTIONS TO HIJAB
Hijab represents values that are affirmed in the New Testament to a much severer degree than even in Islam. Thus as in the Qur'an, so also in the Bible sex is permitted only within a publicly declared marriage relationship. The Christian Bible in fact goes further and considers complete abstinence from sex as the ideal state. Also, it permits sexual relationship only within one marriage whereas the Qur'an permits such a relationship within several marriages, either taking place successively through divorce or simultaneously through polygamous marriages, although the Qur'an enjoins considerable caution in the use of both the divorce and the polygamy.
After the formation of the New Testament the Christian church tried by and large to impose the above teachings, in some ways making them even severer. Thus in addition to the practice of celibacy among priests and almost absolute prohibition of divorce for lay people the church introduced many days in the year during which sex was not permitted even within marriage. Also, pleasure in marital sex was considered undesirable. Because of this type of sexual morality, until the 19th century it would have been unthinkable for any serious Christian to speak against hijab, should he have been exposed to Muslim culture. Indeed, during earlier centuries the Muslim values would have been viewed by Christians as not going far enough. During those earlier centuries Christians presented Islam as a religion tolerant of promiscuity. Thus the Christian literature on Islam before the second half of the nineteenth century hurls untold insults on the Prophet of Islam because he is reported to have said that he loved women, because he at some point had several wives, and because he reportedly died talking to God with his head lying in the bosom of his wife 'A'isha.
Since the modern Western morality of sex is completely opposed to the New Testament morality, especially as found in the words attributed to Jesus, one would think that people in the West would think that either the modern values or the New Testament or both are wrong. But while some do seem to have reached this necessary conclusion, a large number of people here seem to think that both are right. This latter view assumes that right and wrong are socially determined. That is, right is what is socially acceptable at a particular time while wrong is what is socially unacceptable at that time. Therefore in earlier times it was wrong to have sex outside marriage and to divorce whereas all this is now right or at least tolerable. This view of right and wrong is where Islam and the modern Western culture differ most sharply. In Islam right and wrong are defined by the nature (fitrah) of human beings, of human societies, and of the particular universe in which they exist. Although, circumstances, including social conditions, do determine whether a certain action is right or wrong, but basic moral values cannot change unless the very nature of human beings changes. In particular, both the modern morality of sex and the New Testament morality cannot be right whatever the time-frame. One of them has to be wrong. The Muslim view is that both are wrong. The sexual morality as found in the Christian Bible is wrong because it is alienated from the nature of human sexuality while the modern morality is wrong because it is alienated from the nature of human family units.
Another Western reaction to hijab seems to be based on the perception that hijab is a symbol of women's subjugation to men. Related with this perception is the assumption that it is the husbands who force their wives to wear hijab. Once a Muslim woman went with her husband to a shopping center, wearing a veil which covered her face except the eyes. Some Canadian women stopped and started to yell at the husband saying that he should be ashamed of himself doing such a thing and that he should go back to his country. The husband in fact believes that women need to cover only the head and not the face. It is the wife who interprets the Qur=an to mean that everything should be covered except the eyes. Another married Muslim woman visited by herself a Christian family wearing the head-cover. The lady of the house told the Muslim woman: You can take off your head cover because your husband is not present. It is this perception that somehow Muslim women wear hijab because they are under the authority of men that had made an issue interesting for the feminists for whom therefore hijab has become something to be combatted for the liberation of women.
How did this perception of hijab develop in the West? For an answer we must turn to the Bible and the church tradition outlined above. As we have seen the Biblical and church tradition by and large connects the head-cover with the inferiority of women and their subjugation to men. In 1 Cor 11:4-10 and 1 Tim 2:8-15 which we have quoted earlier it is said that women should wear the head-cover because they are under the authority of men. From this many Westerners have concluded that Islamic hijab must have similar meaning. But of course in Islam hijab has no such meaning. The Qur'an, when it mentions hijab, does not in any way relate it to the question of authority and when it does say elsewhere that man is the head of the family it does not mention hijab. Also, man's position as the head of the family is not justified in the Qur=an by man's moral superiority, but is considered simply a biological and functional matter. In fact, the moral superiority of men over women is nowhere suggested in the Qur'an, which rejects the story that Eve was alone or first deceived by the devil and states explicitly that both were deceived.. Also, in the Qur'an birth pangs are a natural phenomenon and not a punishment for Eve's sin (unlike Gen 3:16). In the Qur'an hijab is mentioned only in connection with chastity. Its purpose is simply to stress and promote sexual purity in the society. And Muslim women should wear hijab only because God had commanded and they should do so even if their husbands do not want it. For in Islam no one has the authority to prohibit what God has permitted or to allow what God has prohibited.
In regard to the two New Testament passages quoted above, it should be noted that from the Muslim perspective these do not define true, divinely revealed, Christianity. First Corinthian, from which the first passage comes was very probably written by Paul who never met Jesus, while 1 Timothy, the source of the second passage, is widely believed to be the work of an unknown person in the churches founded by Paul. Nothing similar to these passages is found in the words attributed to Jesus or to his eyewitness disciples. Likewise in the Old Testament we do not have any injunction about head cover much less an injunction with the interpretation given in the Pauline letters.
We also need to dispel any suggestion whatsoever that hijab is in any way a suppression or denial of female sexuality. In many cultures including some AMuslim@ cultures there has been a tendency to deny or suppress female sexuality, one of the most cruel form of which is the female circumcision which is neither enjoined nor encouraged by Islam. It seems that some Westerners see in hijab a milder attempt to suppress female sexuality. No statement in the Qur'an or authentic ahadith supports such a view. In Islam female sexuality is as fully recognized and given as complete a freedom of expression within marriage as male sexuality. This is even shown by the very verse where the head-covering is mentioned. As noted earlier, when the Qur'an tells both men and women to lower their gaze it is giving the same recognition to female sexuality as to male sexuality.
It is sometimes suggested that Islam unfairly puts on women more restrictions than on men. This objection comes from the modern abhorrence of any differences between men and women. Male sexuality and female sexuality work differently. It is true that men and women are both attracted to each other physically and the Qur'an also recognizes this. But men are generally attracted by female physical charms to much greater degree than women are attracted by the male body. Similarly, both men and women react to how they feel for each other but women respond to man's feelings to a far greater degree than do men to women's feelings. This difference is clearly shown by the amount of time and money men and women spend on grooming themselves, by the fact that more women undergo plastic surgery than do men, by the fact that men visit female striptease shows much more frequently than women visit male striptease shows, by the fact that men are much more interested in looking at pictures in the playboy magazine than women looking at playgirl magazines, and by the fact that women are much more interested in reading romance novels where male feelings of deep love and commitment for the heroine are depicted although it does no harm if the hero is also handsome. Thus display of physical charms is much more a part of female sexuality while being attracted to those charms is much more a part of male sexuality. The difference in the degree to which men and women are required in Islam to cover themselves reflects this difference in men and women.
A related objection is that hijab is a male imposition on women so that it may become easy for men to control their sexual urges. Once again this objection shows poor understanding of human sexuality. Women in the process of displaying their charms can get as much aroused as men in watching those charms. Consequently, hijab by preventing public display of female charms helps women to check their sexual urges as much as it helps men to check theirs. Ultimately, hijab helps the whole society by creating an atmosphere of modesty and sexual self-control. In 33:53 after laying down the regulation for hijab the Qur`an says that it is purer for both men and women. Hijab is meant to purify both men and women.
One appealing argument against hijab in the West is that since most women here dress with their hair, legs, and parts of their bosoms bare, men have gotten used to it and hence it is not necessary to cover these parts of the body. But every move to greater bareness in the West culminating in the modern standards must have been started by some immodest women, possibly under the encouragement of some even more immodest men. But should our standards of modesty be determined by the immodest? I think not.
Moreover, it is doubtful that men get completely used to greater nudity. It is only that the stimuli generated by contact with greater nudity are not felt at a conscious level but are driven to a subconscious level where they either create a drive for infidelity or they contribute to impotence or homosexuality. At the very least they reduce the pleasure in marital sex, since some of the sexual energy is dissipated simply in dealing with the stimuli generated by increased bareness.
Finally, like parables, actions can have several meanings. Even if in societies like that of the West hijab is not necessary for helping individual men and women to guard their chastity, it serves a meaningful purpose. As recent sex scandals involving the Whitehorse and the public reaction to it show, universally held values of modesty and marital control over sex are fast corroding here. Muslim women with hijab are silently giving the message to the West and to the world at large that these values are important.