Thursday, 15 October 2015

Unveiling the Veil

Looking at the practice of Hijab in the light of modern alternative interpretations.
Regarding the issue of veil I have been puzzled by a few questions. Here it goes:
  • Why it evokes strong responses for and against, to the extent that Muslim society is polarized on this
  • Shouldn’t a woman ask herself why a man arrogates to himself the right to advocate for veil, speak in the name of God, and use persuasion or coercion to keep a woman in line with his conception of her body?
  • Why there have hardly been any influential women exegetes, or women fuqaha in our tradition? Have women chosen silence or been silenced?
  • Is the right question today whether women should be veiled or not, or it is of identifying and fighting every symbol of gender injustice imposed in the name of religion?
  • Why particular form of dress becomes an issue impacting sometime sacred relationships like marriage or choice of mate?
Today I propose to look at certain influential modernist Muslim interpretations to state the point that there are alternative perceptions (though they need to be scrutinized, as we need to scrutinize so-called traditional view that is assumed to be closer to the scripture) and ask why this is largely unknown in popular discourse but in practice widely adopted. If practice of veil or hijab has waned due to forces of modernity that impact us all, guilt that kills remains there for many. The question is therefore does God care or it is only certain men and fewer women who care, and why? I will not review Marnia Lazreg’s passionate and eloquent text Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women (that needs to be read alongside such works as Syed Moududi’s Purdah to appreciate how polarized the sensibilities are, deconstructing almost all the key arguments of the latter but how both leave ultimately to conscience the final verdict on choosing hijab and face veil respectively) this time but only revisit arguments of some well known modern Muslim scholars.
      Muhammad Asad, noted modern Quran commentator, has argued that woman is not required to observe the veil. Murad Hoffman, another celebrated name, has eloquently put the case for so-called Westernized image of women in Islam in the 21st century. Asghar Ali Engineer quotes Asad’s interpretation “What may be apparent thereof” in detail and is reproduced below, along with his translation of verse 24:31:
  • And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence let them draw their head coverings over their bosoms….” 
My interpretation of the word ‘decently’ reflects the interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi) as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing customs (al-‘adah al-jariyah)’ Although the traditional exponents of Islamic law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of ‘what may [decently] be apparent thereof’ to a woman’s face, hands and feet—and sometimes even less than that—we may safely assume that the meaning of illa ma zahara minha is much wider and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for all the time bound changes that are necessary for a man’s moral and social growth. The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand, addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to ‘lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity’ and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately—in consonance with the Quranic principles of social morality—be considered ‘decent’ or ‘indecent’ in a person’s outward appearance.
      Although Asad’s translation/interpretation has not gone uncensored from other scholars, a large number of influential scholars from Albani to Fazlur Rahman and Ghamdi have forcefully questioned usual practice in favour of face veil (in theory face veil as such is not mandatory according to traditional schools as well but the clause “in the age of fitna face veil is called for” is added by many Ulama) though Ghamidi extends the argument against absolute warrant for veiling hair. Ghamdhi’s point, however, is contested by even “moderates” amongst traditional scholars such as Qardawi who think that the debate is closed on this issue. But for the modernists the question is not closed in theory. But note the irony that, most educated Muslim women have, in practice and often with some load of guilt, adopted it! One wonders what the moving spirit of time does to one’s dearly held convictions. Thus we see some women activists and scholars have even sought to explain away traditional emphasis on head covering of women! This might look unorthodox or shocking but I wonder why the practice of abandoning hijab by otherwise religiously oriented Muslim women doesn’t raise eyebrows as it once used to. Once burqa was uncontested and now even hijab raises questions! Is it the fact that social pressure or modernity’s onslaught is too forceful to let the voice of orthodoxy prevail? The pressure of seeking a job or mate or working in modern institutions might make one deaf to all sermons. But the question of guilt must be dealt with as it is killing. If no guilt is experienced it might be because one is either consciously adopting a modernist interpretation that is not totally unwarranted or one is indifferent to religion and both the possibilities are rare.
      For Asad the Quran is primarily particular about not uncovering the breasts. This conception of veil that allows prevailing custom (and fashion) to determine limits of modesty will hardly be incompatible with highly “Westernized” Muslim women’s outlook. Traditional veil is almost liquidated out. Burqa or scarf or full sleeved dress is what is often in question but here it appears that these questions will not arise.
      Mohammed Ali discussing the issue of veil concludes: “This settles conclusively that Islam never enjoined the veil or covering of face.” Asghar Ali Engineer takes the point to logical conclusion in the following words:

  • However, it is also obvious that any scriptural text is read within one’s socio-cultural context. An almost unanimous opinion of all classical commentators indicates that in their socio-cultural context, keeping the face and hands open was considered permissible. The Prophet also advised accordingly. Keeping the hair exposed was perhaps considered sexually inviting and hence prohibited. But the Quranic verse doesn’t expressly state this. It has been deliberately left unspecified.
       All this needs to be read along with Schuon’s eloquent defense of symbolism (not necessarily form in practice) of veil that helps understand traditional position defended by mainstream Ulama better without implying warrant for taking their strong pronouncements on face value. Without passing judgment over the debate for or against veil (Let us recall Jesus saying “Judge not”) I conclude that in our tradition there is a scope for divergent views and none can claim to be the final truth or most authoritative. Let us ask how strict we are in guarding our own gaze rather than seek to impose a particular definition where things are left ambiguous by the Revelation. I conclude with a quote:
  • The politicization of the veil—its forced removal or its legal enforcement (as in Iran and Saudi Arabia)—hampers women’s capacity to make a decision freely, just as it also compels them to abide by an intrusive law at the expense of their own conscience and judgment. More important, it contributes to confounding the veil question by defining it unambiguously as religious, even when the religious texts lack clarity and determinacy in the matter.
      Isn’t it a height of indecency that decency and conscience have become political questions? Isn’t it both ignorance and arrogance that makes one claim finality for one’s interpretations of Law? Let us debate rather than call names to those who differ on issues God has chosen not to unambiguously clarify.

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