In 2010, altM interviewed Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, then-Chairman of the Board & Scholar-in-Residence at the Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation based in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Abd-Allah offered his insights into the growing phenomenon of Muslim women taking off their headscarves. The first part of the four-part interview can be read here and the second part of the four-part interview can be read here. The third part of the interview follows:
And if Muslim woman does find it too difficult to wear a scarf in public, can she still be modest? Can she be spiritual?
Yes, absolutely a woman can be modest without the scarf. Many American women – Jews, Christians, Muslims – are very proper and very modest. So, to label a sister who does not cover her hair as immodest, it’s like why? To say that you should wear the scarf because it’s an obligation and to say that it would be very dignified if you wore it, that’s another thing.
But to make a moral judgment against her because she does not wear the scarf, that’s not right. The only judgment you can make against her is a legal judgment and that is that it is an obligation to wear the scarf and you didn’t fulfill that obligation.
From the standpoint of the law, you cannot judge her interior. You cannot judge her heart. All you can say is that outwardly she has failed to fulfill her obligation. Then we have to ask legally, “Why didn’t you fulfill that obligation?”
Maybe she has a justification for that, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she has the strength to do that, maybe she doesn’t. God says in the Qur’an “Obey God to the degree that you’re able.” So if she’s not able to fulfill that obligation because it is too much of a burden for her, the psychological burden for her is too great, then she’s justified in not fulfilling that obligation. She may still be a perfectly modest women who has the highest moral integrity and we cannot pass judgment on her. This is just as we cannot say that a woman who is covering her hair is a woman of integrity, because she may not be. That’s another question all together.
We can only say that [a woman wearing a scarf in public has] fulfilled an obligation. Is she an honest woman? Is she a chaste woman? We can’t tell that from her wearing a scarf. We can’t make that judgment. And many women who don’t wear scarves are very, very good Muslims and a number of Muslim scholars in the Muslim world have noted that, and they’ve even said, “Don’t make judgments against women who don’t cover their hair.” And it may be that they pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan and fulfill all of their obligations, but it may be too difficult for them to fulfill the obligation to cover.
The scarf must be nothing but an item of clothing. We cannot blow it up and conflate into the scarf issue all these other things. For instance, if we go back and talk about the way it was when there was slavery in the Muslim world, Muslim slave women were not required to wear scarves. Now, this is a difficult issue to talk about because slavery has been universally condemned in the modern age, but if we look just at the question of slave women not wearing scarves and covering their hair, this was in all the schools of law to my knowledge and yet these women were Muslims and they were extremely pious Muslims in many cases.
The whole issue of what it means to cover your hair, it should not involve any kind of moral judgment. In Islam we measure outward conformities in terms of whether or not you have fulfilled an obligation, whether or not you have fulfilled something that is recommended, or neutral, or if you have done something that is disliked or forbidden. Islamic law cannot go beyond that and this is one of its redeeming features – that the law is not making moral judgments on people. It is not saying who’s going to Heaven and who’s going to Hell. It is only saying that if you want to obey God, you should do such and such. And all of us ask the forgiveness of God because there is no one among us who fulfills all the obligations.
After all, we are all human beings and legal judgments in Islam are never moral judgments. To think that they are, this is misinformation. And this is what the people of the cognitive frame of hijab as identity have done. They have mixed the whole thing up. This cognitive frame that a woman who doesn’t cover her hair is immodest is an ideological weapon that has been used to give a woman no choice: if you don’t wear this you’re bad. But in Islamic law we can’t make that judgment.
This is what Dr. Sherman Jackson has talked about very eloquently when he talks about the misuse of the terms “Islamic” and “un-Islamic” because in Islamic law there is no such thing as “Islamic” and “un-Islamic”. There is obligatory, recommended, neutral, disliked, and forbidden. These are the legal categories and that’s all we can say about an act. When we use the word “Islamic” to describe someone’s actions, that becomes a very loaded term and that person is seen as a really good person and someone acting in a way that is “un-Islamic” is seen as a bad person. These terms are strategies to manipulate people’s behavior. [This] is why we need to set the cognitive frames and we need to deconstruct these false cognitive frames and we need to be very careful about making these moral judgments about other people. We say [an act] is obligatory, recommended, neutral, disliked or forbidden. That’s the way we speak.
Again we are people who are dignified and who are people of integrity.
And the rules of the law to me and to you and to us are blessed and sacred. I don’t take Islamic law lightly at all. But for me to break an obligation may be obligatory sometimes. There are some times when you have to draw exceptions because of circumstances. And even if that’s not the case, and I violate something I should not have violated, and all of us ask forgiveness thousands of times every year, then in that case in the end it is much better to break a rule than to break your psyche. A broken rule is easily repaired. We just say, “I ask your forgiveness God, what did I do? I am sorry, I am on my hands and knees crying. Forgive me!” God will forgive you a broken rule with such ease and such beauty.
But a broken psyche, how can you ever mend that? And I have seen that and no doubt you have seen that more than I. I have seen women who really their psyches are broken or almost broken because of the rigidity of a community that has no understanding of how it practices Islam. And it requires her to bear this sociological and cultural burden that the man never carries or rarely carries. So here she is under siege in society. She’s got enough problems as it is and she’s under siege and he’s happy go lucky. He can go where he wants to go, he can mix with whom he wants to mix with. That’s not right, that’s not fair.