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The Face Veil...Let's Be Honest

Friday, November 10, 2006



This morning I posted the lengthy rant below to a thread on—which I consider to be the virtual hangout of choice for all respectable mainstream Muslims—entitled Lifting the Veil... While I didn't read all of the postings in this rather contentious thread, one lengthy posting did catch my eye. This was the one entitled "MCC appeals to Muslim Women: Reject the Niqab", although it's still not clear to me whether this was a re-posting of an official statement by the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) or simply a statement by an individual who merely supports the MCC's public stance on this matter. Regardless, here's what I had to say (slightly edited):


As-salamu 'alaykum,

Those who are familiar with my weblog and much-neglected website should know that I'm certainly no fan of the Wahabis (to put it rather mildly), but I feel obligated to call the MCC's bluff and say that the following statement is factually incorrect: "Tying religiosity and piety to face coverings is a twentieth-century phenomenon created by the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia." This is simply not true, since the face veil has not only been around since the beginning of Islam (it was obligatory for the wives of the Prophet—sala Allahu 'alayhi wa salam), but it has long been seen as a symbol (not to be confused with a guarantee) of piety as well. Thus trying to stigmatize it as nothing more than "tribal garb", as one author recently did, could (and should) be seen as both disrespectful to our religious heritage and contrary to the facts. Even if face veils have become, at least in the minds of some, a characteristic of certain extremist sects, well that's no justification for divorcing them from their established place in our Deen—even in an age when many Muslims do indeed suffer from an unfortunate "tribal" mentality and often don't know where culture stops and authentic religion begins.

It needs to be understood that in Islam, while some outward acts are indeed tied to "religiosity and piety," it is inward intentions that ultimately validate or invalidate the value of such acts…thus outward acts only count for so much. Realize that if a man grows a long beard or a woman wears a niqab primarily to look "religious" and "pious" in front of others, then this is quite the opposite of being "religious" and "pious" in the true Islamic sense of these words. Here, one would do well to consider that what we're often faced with today is clinging to the happy median, as the Sunnah calls us to do, between two competing extremes. On the one hand we have Muslim modernists, New Age Sufis and other religious liberals trying to convince us that "faith is in the heart"—by which they mean to say that outward actions don't really matter. On the other hand, we have sects of Islamic neo-Pharisees who place undo emphasis on outward acts and appearances...ergo the conundrum that many Muslims find themselves in.

Indeed, the outward laws of the shari'ah, when divorced from the rich and subtle spiritual tradition of Islam, can present a minefield of egotistical dangers to the unwary believer. This is because one can easily fall into the trap of not only judging others by outward appearances, but far worse than this is to start feeling that one is superior and more pious than others based on these same outward appearances…which in the absence of pure intentions really mean next to nothing. This, in a nutshell, is one of the many traps that the Wahabis have fallen into. They've made Islam into just a simplistic and spiritually shallow set of rules to be followed—in short, a "boy scout religion" complete with merit badges like the niqab, long beard, short white thawb and black 'abaya. Which is not to say that these things aren't welcomed in this Deen, but only to point out that a misplaced emphasis upon the outward and a near complete neglect of the inward—at least as traditionally understood—is the error that needs to be pointed out. If that's what the Muslim Canadian Congress, or one of their advocates, was trying to say in their statement, well it wasn't very well put.

Suffice it to say, from an Islamic point-of-view, a woman who wears the full-face veil (niqab) is not automatically and inherently more pious than a woman who doesn't, any more than a man who grows a full beard is necessarily better than all those who have shorter ones…so let's put such facile thinking aside. However, there's no doubt, like it or not, that the face veil is not only a well-known symbol of Muslim piety, but it has a well-established place within classical Islamic jurisprudence as well. To the fair-minded and informed, it should be undeniable that pious Muslim women in the past have donned the veil out of a commendable sense of God-consciousness (taqwa) and modesty (haya')...and many of those who did so were mainstream Sufis and strict adherents to the four Sunni madhhabs (i.e. not extremists or "Wahabis").

As far as what Muslim Queens did once upon a time, well the right response to that seems to be: "Who cares?"—especially if we're considering them based on something that Fatema Mernissi said. Like the mixed-bag of male Muslim rulers that Muslim history presents us with, we judge their actions by the Sunnah, not the Sunnah by their actions. Thus in the end, they deserve to be held up as examples of right action and piety only in so far as they exemplified the Sunnah in their lives.

Also, let's all recognize that no one scholar speaks for all scholars…even when he claims to. Thus when Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi states that "it is not obligatory for Muslim women to wear the niqab (full face veil)," then that only represents his scholarly opinion—meaning it should be given the weight it deserves (Now there's a question!), but it doesn't discount the views of other scholars who are equally (if not more) qualified. This is especially true of his claim that the "majority of Muslim scholars and I do not support the niqab in which women cover their faces," since many other scholars, past and present, have strongly encouraged the face veil for women and even considered it obligatory.

If you doubt this, take a quick look at Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller's Reliance of the Traveller which, far from being a "Wahabi" book, is actually an eloquent and detailed exposé of many of their errors. On page 512 (Section m2.3), this supremely traditional Islamic text states: "A majority of scholars (n: with the exception of some Hanafis, as at m2.8 below) have been recorded as holding that it is unlawful for women to leave the house with face unveiled, whether or not there is likelihood of temptation. Where there is likelihood of temptation, scholars unanimously concur that it is unlawful..." In my view this statement should prove two things: 1) The niqab, whether as a symbol or actual phenomenon, is not just a recent Wahabi practice, since here we have a non-Wahabi presenting support for it from a translation of a classical text which pre-dates the Wahabis; and 2) one should be somewhat hesitant in thoughtlessly accepting statements which claim to speak for the "majority" of Muslim scholars, since here we have a case, taking both Dr. al-Qaradawi's and Shaykh Nuh's statements into consideration, where the purported "majority" have been claimed to be on both sides of this argument. If this realization is disconcerting to some, well the good news is that there's a cure readily available: acquiring knowledge and doing some honest research. As a mere Muslim, I'll even go so far as to say that knowing which of the scholars in question has been influenced by modernist and reformist Muslim thought and which one is a strong and unflinching advocate of traditional and classical Muslim thought is conducive to determining which one is most likely telling the truth in this case…but please don't take my word for it.

Also, I think that statements like: "The Wahabbis are operating in defiance of what Muslims have known, taught and believed for hundreds of years," while no doubt true, are seemingly employed to make people think that wearing the face veil (niqab) is a "defiance of what Muslims have known, taught and believed for hundreds of years"—even though we've already demonstrated that this is hardly the case. Then there's this statement, which was supposed to serve as a meaningful piece of evidence: "Sociologist Mohammad A. Qadeer, professor emeritus at Queen's University, recently wrote in the Globe and Mail, 'Concealment of the face is neither religiously necessary nor socially desirable'"—but since when do we take our fiqh opinions from a modern sociologist? The mere fact that someone expects us to put some weight on this only serves to discredit their arguments rather than support them, at least in the mind of anyone who knows how to think straight.

And then comes the claim that "From the times of the early Arab Ummayads and Abbasides to the Persian Safavids, the Indian Moghuls and the Turkish Ottomans, never have Muslim women been forced by decree to cover their faces as an act of religiosity and piety"—but how are we supposed to believe this, now that we know that they've been a bit loose with the truth in their other claims? Even if this statement were true (and I've got a feeling that it's not), the first question to ask would be: "Well how many things that were known to be obligatory were 'forced by decree' in the Muslim lands the statement mentions?" Were the headscarf (hijab), making wudu' before praying, growing a beard and eating only halal meat also "forced by decree" during classical Islamic times? Maybe, but maybe not—the inconclusiveness of the argument only serving to demonstrate that their entire statement is just another weak assertion in a string of poorly fabricated arguments.

In conclusion, let me clarify that what I'm calling for here is not the wearing of the niqab in the West, but rather for honesty in the debate surrounding it. Personally, I think wearing full-face veils in the West is unwise for a whole host of reasons—some of which have been mentioned on the MCC website and elsewhere. However, just because one strongly disagrees with a certain view (especially one with some Islamic rationale and scholarly support), that doesn't justify arguing against it in an underhanded, if not intellectually dishonest, fashion. Even in an age when far too many Muslims seem to be ethically and morally challenged, hopefully we can all agree on that. When you get right down to it, what really disturbs me is not the differences of opinion about what's most wise and Islamically appropriate for Muslim women to do, both in the West and in Muslim lands, but rather the misleading information that's put forward by some Muslims who want to convince others that their view, and only their view, is the right one. I put such misguided efforts, like suicide bombings, into the category of actions which: "Violate Islam in order to save it"—which certainly doesn't make much sense. Additionally, the fact that some people out there are willing to misrepresent the views of our scholarly tradition in order to give weight to their own opinions should not only concern us deeply, but make us all a little more leery about what we accept as be careful out there.

Deen On...

Labels: Face Veil, Hijab, Muslim Women, Women's Issues

posted by Mere Muslim @ 1:51 PM

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