The idea of the Hijab

The covering of the head is not a religious obligation in Islam and no such moral value should be assigned to it, writes M Aamer Sarfraz

The idea of the Hijab
Muslims around the world are battling against everything and everyone at the moment.  This is because they are paranoid, albeit with some compelling reasons, that the world is out to get them. Everywhere they go they are perceived as troublesome and everyone you ask considers them a problem.  Under these circumstances, they are obviously “discriminated” against on the basis of colour, name and nationality.  Since they have no insight into how their own “behaviour” contributes to it, they are surprised when it happens and their resentment and anger against the real or perceived perpetrators grows.  Unless there is a miracle, this vicious cycle is likely to continue in the foreseeable future!

Talking of miracles, we often hear that someone has converted to Islam or that more people are converting to Islam than any other religion, especially in the West.  One can only entertain such rumours with a pinch of salt because conversion to any religion takes place through a few routes. For a start, missionary activities backed up by free education, health and financial benefits trump other modus operandi. Individual conversion takes place through marriage, reading or role modelling. I am not sure we have many good role models among the general Muslim population at the moment.  Therefore, it is not surprising that approximately 30% of the prison population in the U.K. consists of Muslims (only 2% of the U.K. population) locked up for violence, fraud and drug & alcohol related offences. There is some evidence to suggest that Islam may be spreading in the prison population.

I have read Islam for three decades but if a non-Muslim asks me for a book on Islam I am unprepared. This is because Muslims have not bothered to write a decent, compact book on Islam in English. Almost all the published books written in English about Islam are either bad translations, Muslim-orientated, sect-based, ritual-orientated or just badly written.  Therefore, one is left with no option but to recommend books written by Karen Armstrong, Leopold Weiss and Guy Eaton. It is also a pity that born-Muslims cannot even claim a good quality modern translation of the Quran into English – Marmaduke Pickthal and Leopold Weiss still reign supreme.

I believe there is much more to Islam than Halal, Hijab and Polygamy. I also believe that Islam is a universal religion, which is divinely designed not to come into conflict with any culture or society for all times. If there is ever a conflict, it is due to a flawed fiqqh usually perpetrated by an ignorant & mostly crooked Muslim clergy.  Thankfully, polygamy and halal are not popular issues at the moment, so we can side-step those.  The current fashion of hijab prescribed largely by some born-again Muslim preachers and blindly adopted by their naïve followers needs examination.

Hijab is an Arabic word which means to cover or to shut out. The great Arab linguist, Raaghib, describes Al-Hijab as a kind of obstruction that prevents reaching of one thing to another.  Hijab is currently observed by women wearing a headdress, a veil with or without headdress, a headdress with veil and cloak, etc.  It is worth noting that the term hijab is never used in the Quran to describe an article of clothing. The Quran advises both men and women modesty concerning their gaze, gait, garments, and genitalia and women (of 7th century!) to draw their khim?r (shawl) over their bosoms when going outdoors and not to display their beauty (zeenat) except in the presence of their husbands or close relatives.  Only the wives of the Prophet were asked to converse from behind a curtain and draw a jilbab (cloak) over them, to distinguish themselves, when going out. During Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) lifetime no other women in the Muslim community observed the hijab and the term for donning the veil, darabat al-hijab, was actually used interchangeably with “becoming Muhammad’s wife”.

Hijab is not a religious obligation in Islam and no religious significance or moral value should be assigned to it.  It was first referred to in an Assyrian legal text in the 13th century B.C. where it was a criminal offence for hijab to be worn by slaves and prostitutes.  History records that the elite and the priests of the Greeks, the Romans, Zoroastrians, Jews and pagan Arabs imposed the cloak and veil on their womenfolk as a sign of respectability and high status.  Females in some Hindu castes in India also practiced a form of hijab called ghoonghat that might pre-date Islam. In Jewish tradition, cursed was the husband whose wife’s hair was seen, as it was believed to invite poverty into the house.  Similarly in Christian tradition, a woman without head-cover dishonoured her head and it equated to her hair being shaved off.  As late as the Middle Ages, European Royalty and the elite wore the veil with or without headgear.  Some Christian sects in the West, Africa and in the Middle East still do. Nuns of most denominations still wear the ‘hijab’.

Most scholars agree that provisos of the hijab were only for Prophet Muhammad’s wives, and were proposed to maintain their inviolability. This was because he conducted his religious, public and political affairs in the mosque adjacent to his quarters where people constantly came in and out during the day and sometime during the night. His students, foreign delegates, new converts and others were present in the adjacent courtyard all the time leaving no privacy for his wives. By instituting this kind of seclusion, a distance between his wives and the swarming community on their doorstep was ordained. There is a possibility that some Muslim women might have started observing hijab to emulate Prophet Muhammad’s wives, who are revered as “Mothers of the Believers” in Islam.  However, this was certainly not the norm even a few decades after Prophet Muhammad because when his great-granddaughter, Lady Sakeynah (R), was advised to wear the hijab by someone, she refused point blank citing the above reasons.

Hijab was a Persian (Zoroastrian) practice and the Muslims were introduced to it during the expansion of their rule into modern-day Iraq in the 7th century.  It was so impractical for working women to wear hijab even in those days that “A veiled woman silently announced that her husband was now rich enough to keep her idle.”  However, the hijab slowly spread to elite Arab women, and then to urban Muslim women throughout the Middle East. It might have become more pervasive under Ottoman rule as a mark of rank and an exclusive lifestyle.  The hijab came to India in the form of “purdah” mainly through Mughal monarchs, and took root among some Hindu upper classes in northern India.  Historians argue that Prophet Muhammad had killed off the possibility of any clergy in Islam through his egalitarian and religious reforms.  By attaching religious significance to local rituals & practices like hijab, among other things, the clergy started inventing their religious & political role that was to dominate society in the years to come.

The current revival of the hijab seems to have two origins.  Firstly, it is a blowback effect of restrictions put on religious rituals & artifacts, including the hijab, in countries like Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Central Asian Republics in the last century.  The second is to do with the general public inclination to seek refuge in religious reparation during perceived or real crises.  The two intermingled because when hijab was suppressed, curiosity followed, which resulted in an increase in its observance; that was waning when 9/11 happened and Muslims clung to “religion” to seek comfort but also in the belief that it was happening because God was unhappy with them. In Iran and Pakistan, Imam Khomeini and General Zia also pushed for their Islamic ideals, including dress codes, to be adopted during their regimes.  When Hulaku Khan attacked and ransacked Bagdad (the seat of Muslim Khilafah) in 1258, Muslims closed the door on Ijtehad (using rational thinking/judgment for religious matters) for self-preservation.  Muslim influence never recovered afterwards because that door stays firmly shut to this day; causing stagnation of religious thought as witnessed in the Muslim preoccupation with non-issues like hijab nowadays.

In London, you often come across young Muslim women wearing jeans, fancy shirts, make up, branded handbags & jewellery while smoking during the lunch-hour. At the same time, they are also wearing a hijab, which not only adds to the confusion for the onlookers but also to the society around them. There are others who start off wearing a hijab from home but take it off before reaching work. Although these women have a right to wear what they please but it could be a cause of alarm for the society if their dressing signifies more of a cultural identity crisis.

I am all for the choice as long as it does not come into conflict with the law and the culture of the country where we live.  Today the hijab may mean many different things to different people. For some, the hijab may allow them to retain their modesty, morals and freedom of choice but for others hijab causes issues with gender relations and is a tool to silence and repress women both physically and metaphorically. Once a historical sign of distinction, it has now been transformed into a sign of exclusion overloaded with multiple meanings, it is sometimes the single marker used to determine community endorsement or disapproval. My views on the hijab, similar to my friend Javed Ghamidi, are that the Quran mentioned modesty to teach etiquette for male & female interactions and Khim?r in reference to the clothing of Arab women in the 7th century; there is no command to wear hijab in a specific manner and there is no directive to that effect in Sharia law.

Many nations in the West are considering restrictions on the hijab citing security issues and, perhaps, to preserve their cultural identity. This has led to a wave of defiance among certain groups of Muslim women who are turning to covering and wearing the hijab in even greater numbers. I consider that to be a wrong approach and in conflict with the philosophy and the spirit of Islam. They need to adopt a relativist approach to the hijab and the mandate to maintain modesty with regard to the surrounding society; what is considered pious or enterprising in one society (e.g. in the Middle East) might not be considered so in another.  People with hidden agenda about issues like hijab are fueling the flames resulting in deterioration of inter-community relations in some countries and extremist organizations demanding that Muslims choose to return or immigrate to the countries whose values are similar to theirs.  The Quran advises Muslims not to show off, exceed limits (even of piety!) or make life difficult for themselves (and others).  Take your pick!

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist & director of medical education in England

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and visiting professor