I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Chairman of the Board & Scholar-in-Residence at the Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation based in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Abd-Allah offered me his insights into the growing phenomenon of Muslim women taking off their headscarves. The first part of a four part interview is published here:
The hijab is a highly charged symbol. How can we talk about a Muslim woman’s obligation to cover without the discussion implicating the other things that hijab has come to symbolize, such as identity and cultural resistance?
Well, to begin with I think that we need to get rid of the word hijab because it is a cognitive frame and it carries with it lots of implications. It is not precise. What you are really talking about is the scarf and the Muslim woman’s obligation to cover her hair with a headscarf.
The use of the word hijab to describe a Muslim woman’s obligation to cover has made it possible for this obligation to become a touchstone by which a woman is judged as acceptable or unacceptable. Many prefer to use the word hijab in describing this obligation because it is in the Qur’an and because of the fact that it is enforced by the Qu’ran.
But the question is what is the hijab? The hijab is a way of living in which our families live in privacy and there is separation between private and public space. And now to take that reality which is very good and very helpful and which almost all of us follow and to attach that to the scarf, that’s not fair, that’s not right because then a woman’s covering becomes an issue of identity and an issue of highly politicized agenda.
And I think that all of this needs to be set aside so that we can speak very honestly about the way that Muslim women should dress. We have to set our own cognitive frames. In setting our own cognitive frames we have to do so very honestly and very fairly. Islam is a religion of definition and everything that we believe in we define and it is so important to do that.
So because we are talking about the scarf, we must remember that we are talking about an item of clothing. And this item of clothing and a woman’s obligation to cover her hair in public space is obligatory according to the four Imams. If she doesn’t do that then she’s failed to meet that obligation. In some cases she may be justified in failing to meet this obligation. In others she may not. Now we’re talking about something very concrete.
To clarify, hijab is something very different from the question of whether or not a Muslim woman wears a scarf to cover her hair. Hijab is essentially a mode of living in which those members of your family who are women and who are children and who are maharim – who are forbidden from marriage to you because of their close kinship – live privately in your home. In most of our homes and in our traditional architecture we have public areas in our house like a guest room and then we have a private area. That’s the hijab.
During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the hijab was a veil, a curtain that was put in the room of the Prophet because …it was a simple one-roomed house and so when people would come to visit him they would be sitting with him and his wives would be sitting in the corner. And people obviously wanted to look at his wives to see what they looked like, to see if they were beautiful. And that’s not proper, so God put down the veil, the curtain, so that the Prophet’s wives would be put behind the curtain. So hijab in the sense that we have privacy in our lives cannot be challenged.
Another aspect of hijab is that Islam requires us to live very upright lives. In order for us to live this kind of life of dignity, we endorse covering – because we all cover, men and women. Shyness and a desire to be covered, these are essential psychological and moral values of Islam.
Now that we’re speaking specifically about the question of a Muslim woman wearing a scarf to cover her hair in public, what is the nature of this obligation?
A woman’s covering and the scarf are highly regarded in Islam and it is obligatory for a woman to cover her hair and wear the scarf according to the four Imams.
But, it is not an act of worship. It is one of those aspects of law that is essentially rational and that pertains to social and private behavior. It has rulings that pertain to it, but it is something to which exceptions can be made and must be made in certain situations.
And to say that a woman’s wearing of the scarf is just an issue of women’s sexuality and so forth, that’s not what this is about at all. …[Yes,] the four imams do say that a woman should cover her hair and wear a scarf, but a woman can also go out into public [and] engage in society.
How, if at all, is the obligation to cover affected by the mounting pressures that women face when they do publically identify as Muslim by wearing the headscarf?
Again, the four imams say that it’s obligatory. But even if it is obligatory that does not mean that there cannot be licenses in which a woman doesn’t wear a scarf. So, for example, after 9/11, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayah and other prominent scholars were asked about women wearing scarves in public, which could expose them to danger and even to physical attack. And, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayah as I recall, and I heard this from him and from others directly, said that if wearing the scarf in public threatens the woman’s life or brings her into danger, she should not wear it. And if she cannot take it off, then she should stay at home.
And any jurist, any legist, who takes rulings right out of the book without looking at the social reality, the psychological reality, the personal reality of our society and just says, “This is the rule,” they turn this religion into a procrustean bed. …They make Islam completely unworkable.
Again, I stress that the fact that women should wear scarves if they can and they should be respected for wearing them. But men also, especially those who stress the scarf, have to change their dress too. Don’t expect women to go out dressed a certain way if you are not going to do something that publically identifies you as Muslim as well. Our modesty and shyness is one of our badges of honor. But to invert this and to make the woman exposed in public by the very act of her wearing a scarf, this is not right.
Rabea Chaudhry was an Associate Editor of Altmuslimah. This article was originally published on June 30, 2010.
Photo Credit: Lamp Post Productions.