Part 4: Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on hijabs and headscarves

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 the four-part interview can be read here, the second part of the interview can be read here, and the third part of the interview can be read here. The fourth and final part of the interview follows:


I take from this that you are emphasizing that Islamic Law is alive, dynamic, and constantly responding to social realities.

Yes, everything in the law has got to be finely tuned so that it works in the social reality. To be a jurist you have to understand reality and you’ve got to direct people to live and behave in a way that enables them to practice Islam in its fullest and to negotiate reality in the most effective way.

The living tradition always leaves you in the present tense.

It’s almost difficult for me to accept that Islam does acknowledge and respond to personal capacity. I feel comfortable struggling because somewhere inside me a little voice is saying that if it’s not difficult then I’m not doing enough. That’s really what I have understood a good Muslim and a good person to be – someone who is constantly struggling.

Islam is a constant spiritual and moral struggle for sincere obedience to God and self-perfection. Misunderstanding the nature of the moral and spiritual struggle of Islam is probably one of the core problems with Muslims today. We often make Islam rigid, and it is not meant to be that way.

When you study hadith with a traditional scholar, often the first hadith you study is called the opening hadith. It says,

“Those who show mercy [to others], the Most Merciful shows mercy to them. Be merciful to [all] who are on the earth, and He who is in the heaven will be merciful to you.”

We always started the study of hadith here because this is a religion of mercy, and mercy comes out of love.

For example, the Mawlid (the observation of the birth of the Prophet, peace be upon him) is meant to instill in us love and mercy by cultivating a deeper love for the Prophet. We should make the Mawlid one of the cornerstones of all our communities. It belongs to the central tradition of Sunni Islam and is completely consonant with the Qur’an and Prophetic Sunna. The great scholars of the four Sunni schools have consensus on its validity. The Prophet, peace be upon him, fasted on Thursdays because he was born on a Thursday, his wife ‘A’isha used to recite to him the verses of poetry which his contemporaries had composed in his honor. The Mawlid has traditionally been regarded as one of the greatest of all acts of worship that draw us closer to God.

Additionally, according to the renowned Qur’anic commentator Ibn ‘Aashuur, the closing lines of Surat al-Tawba, the last chapter of the Qur’an to be revealed to the Prophet, accentuate the love and mercy that the Prophet felt for all humanity. They verses read:

“Truly, a Messenger has come to you from among yourselves, one upon whom it weighs heavily that you should suffer in this life and the life to come, who is solicitous about you and your welfare, whose nature toward the believers is sheer kindness and mercy. So, if they turn away, say, ‘God is all I need. There is no god but He. It is He upon Whom I have placed my reliance, and He is the Lord of the Magnificent Throne.’”

According to Ibn ‘Aashuur, the first part of the verse was revealed about the disbelievers who had rejected the Prophet, and the end of the verse refers to the believers. It is as if the beginning of the verse is saying, “You who saw this beautiful Prophet in your midst and disbelieved in him, know that this pained him deeply because he desired for you all that is good in this world and the next.”

This is really important because sometimes we ask questions like, “Can we pray for non-Muslims?” The Prophet had a huge heart and his heart took in all humanity. He suffered with the suffering of the disbelievers. Who are we then, as Muslims, to be pompous and to be arrogant in this society?

We have got to begin to cultivate in this community men and women who are truly rooted in this religion and who can represent it to us and to others in a way that’s pleasing to God and his Prophet and doesn’t break the psyche. You will then see then that traditional scholars are those who won’t give you a guilt complex or make moral judgments against you. Islam is a religion of outward rules that are not arbitrary or rigid, and inward spiritual and moral guidelines. This Islam of rigid arbitrary rules is destroying us; hollow rules with no understanding or wisdom, no theology, no love of the Prophet, peace be upon him.

We are currently suffering from a blight of religious extremism. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned us against extremism and taught us that it has nothing to do with Islam. Religious extremism belongs to the “Party of Satan” (hizb al-Shaytan). Satan is himself an extremist and the greatest fanatic of history. The Sufis say that when you do an act of disobedience it requires one tawba, one act of forgiveness. When you do an act of obedience, it requires a thousand acts of forgiveness so that you do not become arrogant and proud and you do not look at yourself as better than others. Arrogance is the greatest sin of all, greater even than disobedience.

Arrogance is the mark of the Khawarij, the outsiders, the rebels who destroy Islam in the name of Islam and who, according to our Prophet, peace be upon him, are the worst of all God’s creation. The numerous hadith about the Khawarij are among the most authentic and the most multiply-transmitted (mutawaatir) of Islam. Imam Muslim’s “Sahih” has an extensive treatment of them towards the end of his Chapter on Zakah. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned us: “There will come out of this religious community [of Islam] a people who will make you despise your prayer when compared to their prayer.” He adds that we “will despise our fasting compared to their fasting.” He also says, peace be upon him: “They recite the Qur’an [continuously] but it does not go deeper than their shoulder blades.” That is, it does not enter their hearts and fill them with light, mercy, and understanding. “They will shoot out of [this religion of] Islam like an arrow shoots out of the bow.” Their fanaticism has no spiritual foundation or religious depth. Because Islam is a religion of mercy and moderation, it ultimately rejects them and they ultimately reject it, and Islam returns to its normative beauty.

We’ve got to create a community in which it’s possible to breath. We must begin to set its own distinctive cognitive frames on the foundational principles of the Qur’an and Sunna and in a manner consistent with the four great Imams and the rich traditions of normative Islamic civilization. And then our Islam becomes human, beautiful, rational; it becomes common sense and most of the problems that we have they disappear.

*In light of questions asked about his initial answers to Part IV of the interview, Dr. Umar has clarified his responses and added citations to the hadith he quoted.


Rabea Chaudhry is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.


Photo Credit: Seekers Hub


  • zulu2 says:

    This issue is still alive. I read the comments and I can say that there are many views on this topic. I guess it comes down to personal choice.Wow!!

  • edabdalghafur says:

    Why would you assume it comes down to personal choice?  When you say that it means essentially whatever position you take, well, its arbitrary, just personal preference. I’m not sure many of those commenting would agree with you there.

  • Abbas Jaffer says:

    I commend Dr. Umar on speaking out against the hollowness of legal fetishism that characterize certain ideological and physical spaces amongst Muslims in the last thirty years. Although I strongly differ with him on points of fiqh, and the exclusion of non-Sunni jurisprudence from this or any other major treatment of hijab online, I can appreciate his sentiments toward love and tolerance as a priori any legal enterprise. I am glad that he attempts to maintain a modest line given the clear tyranny of a frequently condescending religious hierarchy in our community, a hugely interrelated and under-examined issue.

  • asifsheikh says:

    Dear Rabea:

    Is there a way that the references and citations of the hadith and statements he attributes to the Prophet can be posted here too? I’d be interested in those, especially the statement the Prophet said about fanatics. Thanks.

  • zulu2 says:

    @edabdalghafur…then I guess those women out there will have to comply with your demand or your single interpretation! NOT!!!

    It’s choice. After all, why are there two sides?

  • SofiaM. says:

    “[These] rigid rules … hallow rules [of] no understanding, no theology, no love of the Prophet, this is destroying us.” Cannot agree more with this. As a community ( and I am not only talking about the US) we have became insecure in our intelligence, increasingly outwardly and superficially obsessed with political identities we have created for ourselves throughout the past century or so, and we are losing the spirituality, which is the only thing that matters in the end of the day.

  • OmarG says:

    Also, make dua for Umar, since publicly saying anything about hijab outside of the party line can be near political suicide in our Muslim-American community, to say nothing of what it does to people overseas who say similar things.

  • Revertive says:

    as salam alaikum zulu2.  First of all, why so much anger?  No one is asking you to leave Islam.  There’s no need to convert out if you disagree with another Muslim.  If everyone did this, there’d be no Muslims left!

    Dress in Islam is both personal preference AND religious obligation.  If you agree with hijab in its most common interpretation (only showing the face and hands and [depending on the scholar] the feet) that still leaves a lot of room for women.  For example, I wear long, broomstick skirts with a kurti and a shayla hijab.  I wear white, black, brown, blue, orange, and many other colors.  This is both my religious obligation (as I believe it to be) and my personal preference.

    I know sisters who wear modest jeans and long-sleeve t-shirts with an al amira.  I know sisters who wear salwar kameez with a huge dupatta (and they cover their hair but not their necks/ears).  I know sisters who are from Africa and they wear kaftans (or something that looks like a kaftan to me) and a head covering that doesn’t cover the neck or the ears or the bosom.

    Are these women right or wrong?  The answer is:  it depends.  It depends on the intention of the woman.  If she is covering just because of societal/family demands, she’s missing the point.  If she’s covering inadequately (by my definition) but her heart and her intention are well placed, then any issue with her dress is between her and Allah, not with me.  All I can do is be a good example inshallah.

    The only time I become upset about sisters who refuse hijab are the ones who wear super tight and/or revealing clothing.  You don’t have to reject all aspects of modesty simply because you disagree with hijab, and I think all of us can agree that dressing modestly is an absolute requirement of Islam.  How can you be modest when you have cleavage or (worse) butt cleavage showing (and yes I’ve seen this in the masjid)?  How can you be modest when everyone knows the exact outline of your hips, including cellulite?

    I also become upset with sisters who wear hijab and cover all the “required” areas, but they may as well be uncovered because their clothing is super tight.

    However, my being upset is MY problem, not their problem.  And it’s certainly not the problem of some random guy in the community who has become the haram police.  Especially when he goes swimming in short-shorts in front of women, or he refuses to grow any sort of a beard, not because he disagrees with the sunnah of growing a beard but because it’s “inconvenient” or makes him “less attractive”.

    There’s room in Islam for a liberal interpretation, as long as the fard is not ignored.  If you honestly believe hijab is not fard that is between you and Allah.  I am not part of that transaction, whether you are right or wrong.  But please respect my right to believe hijab is fard, and don’t insult me because I made a “personal choice”.  If I believe that hijab is not a choice but a command, how can it be a personal choice?  To me, it is an obligation.

  • edabdalghafur says:


    You’ve obviously been indoctrinated into conventional liberal dogma. Mere disagreement over a given issue does not logically imply that things are a matter of choice, or up to me.  To assume that is to demand others comply with your particular liberal interpretation. 

    It seems that people on this website basically want to privatize dress (excluding Dr. Faruq), make it a matter of personal preference and arbitrary choice, and thus insulate women from any criticism.  Thats a fine position to take.  Thats the line of the Western mainstream and increasingly the global mainstream.  But call a spade, a spade.  It’s not submitting to religious guidance, its submitting to the whims of the self.

  • zulu2 says:

    I get it. Say anything that you disagree with and it’s considered liberal!!! …conservatives are the only ones who know best. Alright….time to convert out i guess???

  • Please take a look at the article again – Dr. Umar has included hadith citations.

  • Saadia says:

    The hadith that were quoted seemed to be framed in a way that fundamentally do not contradict the principles of Islam.

    Others that I’ve read seem like they address the realities that people go through in a certain situation, and which may not be applicable to other situations.

    I liked the opening hadith that Dr. Umar stated because sometimes if women who are not married try to do “humanitarian” work, it might seem to be a problematic result of her singlehood. If someone chooses not to get married because they think there is something which is stopping them, whether it is preparedness or a societal problem, then why not work in the meantime?

    Other hadith seem very problematic. One time I was reading a book that said that this world should feel like a jail for the believer. I don’t know in what context it was said, but it didn’t make sense to me as a teenager or even later. (however much I like privacy). That is where my skepticism about where these sayings of the Prophet began – in search for truth. In that search, I also felt that ethics were often neglected from the contemporary American context, in place of discussions about painted finger nails.

    On the other hand, Yusuf Ali speaks about hadith in a way that is supposed to lift burdens in a certain environment. Even then, to lighten burdens, its acknowledged that only so many details can be addressed by the hadith – a common point with Rushdie.

  • Muhammad Sajad Ali says:

    I’ve picked up a some error, the above mentions the Birth as Thursday when it’s Monday.

    The Prophet (sallallahualayhi was-sallim) said: A man’s deeds are presented (to Allah The Most Exalted) on Mondays and Thursdays and I prefer that I should be observing fast when my deeds are presented.

    Hadrat Abu Qatadah (r.a.) reported: The Messenger of Allah (sallallahualayhi was-sallim) was asked about fasting on Mondays. He (sallallahu alayhi was-sallim) said, “That is the day on which I was born and the day on which I received Revelation.

    • asmauddin says:

      Thank you. Because it’s an interview, we prefer not to change Dr. Umar’s words, but your clarification is helpful.

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