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Yes to Hijab, No to Niqaab. The sinister and the smiling faces of Islam


Tuesday, May 6, 2008 

The face veil - not originally Islamic and the kiss of death for Da'wah in the West, argues concerned Muslim convert Michael Young, with reference to the works of Dr Hassan Al-Turabi, Quran translator Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall and other Islamic scholars.


"First impressions always last... An unappealing image is a cause for aversion... Too often we find Muslims attired in a fashion that fosters derision or suspicion." So states London-based, Syrian-born Islamic scholar Shaykh Muhammad al-Abdah in his book, On Contemporary Dawah (Calling to Islam) Which of these is making the better impression on behalf of Islam?

Could there possibly be anything that engenders more derision or suspicion about Islam in western eyes than the face veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women? In my experience, whereas a growing number of westerners are coming to accept and even respect the simple hijab (headscarf/hair-covering) as a symbol of modesty and good character in Muslim women, almost universally westerners find niqaab (the face veil) and the head to toe black garb that usually accompanies it sinister, frightening and repulsive. It makes them recoil from Islam.

As a western convert to Islam, I see first hand only too well among my family, western colleagues and old circle of friends the extreme harm face veiling does to the image of Islam and to the efforts to spread Islam in the west. The tragedy is that this phenomenon is so unrepresentative of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims do not consider this form of attire compulsory. Most contend that face veiling was, in fact, exclusively the preserve of the wives of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) who, we are told in the Quran 33:33, "are not like other women" in order to give them privacy and protection in Madinah where they lived at the main mosque, not in private compounds. This is certainly the view of the noted Sudanese scholar, Dr Hassan al-Turabi, who is so often characterized in the media as an Islamic fundamentalist. In his tract On the Position of Women in Islam and in Islamic Society Dr Turabi states:

"So far as the familiar Hijab is concerned, it refers to the special regulation pertaining to the Prophet's wives due to their status and situations. They occupied a position different from all other women, their responsibility is thereby stiffened. God has ordained that their reward as well as punishment be double that for any other woman. "O wives of the Prophet whoever of you commits a vile deed will have her punishment doubled. And that, for God, is quite easy. And whosoever of you serves God and his Prophet devoutly and acts righteously, we shall give her double reward. And we have prepared for her honourable sustenance in the hereafter". (Al-Ahzab, 30-31).

The verses of the same Sura ordained that the wives of the Prophet (peace upon him) draw a curtain (to ensure privacy in the Prophet's room which naturally attracted many visitors of all sorts), and that they dress up completely without showing any part of their bodies including face and hands to any man; though all other Muslim women were exempted from these restrictions."

Canadian writers Syed Mumtaz Ali and Rabia Mills concur. In their essay Social Degradation of Women - A Crime and a Libel on Islam, they explain:

"One must realize and appreciate the fact that the commandment in the Qur'an in Chapter 33, verse 53, with respect to the Hijab, applies only to the "Mothers of the Believers" (the wives of the Holy Prophet, p.b.u.h.) whereas the wording of the Qur'an in Chapter 33 verse 55, applies to all Muslim women in general. No screen or Hijab (Purdah) is mentioned in this verse -- it prescribes only a veil to cover the bosom and modesty in dress. Hence the unlawfulness of the practice of the Indian-style system of Purdah [full face veiling]. Under this system, the Hijab is not only imposed upon all Muslim women, but it is also quite often forced upon them in an obligatory and mandatory fashion. Even the literal reading/translation of this Quranic verse does not support the assertion that the Hijab is recommended for all Muslim women. The Hijab/screen was a special feature of honour for the Prophet's p.b.u.h. wives and it was introduced only about five or six years before his death."

[Note: These writers are using the term hijab interchangeably with niqaab/purdah, i.e. face veiling. Hijab is more usually understood to mean simply a covering encompassing the hair and neck, but not the face itself.]

Dr Turabi is by no means the only scholar of world repute arguing against the face veil. The famed Quran translator, Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, condemned it as non-Islamic in his 1925 lecture The Relation of the Sexes. Commenting on what he described as the "pitiful condition of Muslim womanhood in India" at that time, he began his remarks by stating emphatically:

"Please do not think that I am judging by any foreign standard nor wishing to recommend foreign ways. I am judging only by the Shari'ah and I wish to recommend only the way of the Shari'ah."

Pickthall then deals with the issue of full face veiling (known in Urdu and Hindi as Purdah) in depth, an extract of which is reproduced here.

"There is no text in the Qur'an, no saying of our Prophet, which can possibly be held to justify the practice of depriving women of the natural benefits which Allah has decreed for all mankind (i.e. sunshine and fresh air and healthy movement)....The true Islamic tradition enjoins the veiling of the hair and neck, and modest conduct - that is all."

This is borne out by the following hadith:

"Ayesha (R) reported that Asmaa the daughter of Abu Bakr (R) came to the Messenger of Allah (S) while wearing thin clothing. He approached her and said: 'O Asmaa! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to the face and hands." (Abu Dawood)

Pickthall continues:

"The veiling of the face by women was not originally an Islamic custom. It was prevalent in many cities of the East before the coming of Islam, but not in the cities of Arabia. The purdah system, as it now exists in India, was quite undreamt of by the Muslims in the early centuries, who had adopted the face-veil and some other fashions for their women when they entered the cities of Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. It was once a concession to the prevailing custom and was a protection to their women from misunderstanding by peoples accustomed to associate unveiled faces with loose character. Later on it was adopted even in the cities of Arabia as a mark of [tamaddun] a word generally translated as 'civilization', but which in Arabic still retains a stronger flavour of its root meaning 'townsmanship' that is carried by the English word. It has never been a universal custom for Muslim women, the great majority of whom have never used it, since the majority of the Muslim women in the world are peasants who work with their husbands and brothers in the fields. For them the face-veil would be an absurd encumbrance. The head-veil, on the other hand, is universal.

Thus the Purdah system is neither of Islamic nor Arabian origin. It is of Zoroastrian Persian, and Christian Byzantine origin. It has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, and, for practical reasons, it has never been adopted by the great majority of Muslim women....The Purdah system is not a part of the Islamic law. It is a custom of the court introduced after the Khilafat had degenerated from the true Islamic standard and, under Persian and Byzantine influences, had become mere Oriental despotism. It comes from the source of weakness to Islam not from the source of strength."

Da'wah, or the propagation of Islam, is the duty of every Muslim, female as well as male. My personal view is that face veiling overwhelmingly reinforces every conceivable western prejudice about Muslims and Islam and therefore constitutes a serious impediment to Da'wah in the west, probably the single greatest visible impediment, in fact. I am quite sure that women who veil are decent, sincere Muslimahs who genuinely believe that they have legitimate, Islamicly mandated reasons for doing so, even though most other Muslims and some leading scholars disagree with them. Though to quote Dr Turabi again:

"Muslims who advance conservative views on female affairs...are normally very literal in their understanding of texts; but they tendentiously opt for an understanding that suits their prejudice."

Be that as it may, I would respectfully ask Muslim women in the west, whether Muslim born or convert, who wear the face veil instead of simple hijab to spend time in reflection and prayer about this issue. I sincerely entreat women who face veil to think of the big picture and seriously consider the dreadful impression they create of Islam by the way they choose to dress and how this can be the kiss of death for the widespread propagation of Islam in the west.

Allahu a`lam. God knows best.

Posted by Priyo at 2:36 AM 

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