When Imam Feisal wrote on hudud in his column Peace Be Upon Us last month, a concerned father wrote for advice, saying his daughter had decided, based on her study of the Quran and the hadith, to remove the headscarf she had been brought up wearing, just before her university graduation. He shares his views here.
IT is important, first of all, to recognise that your daughter’s convictions and your concerns both come from well-intentioned, considered places. Though your opinions may be different, you and your daughter are both striving to live in accordance with God’s law and to do right by each other. This common ground is profound and sacred, and from what I read in your letter, there is no question that you and your daughter share it.
The Prophet said that differences of opinion among his ummah are a blessing to the community. In light of this hadith, traditional Muslim societies created the space for acknowledging and institutionalising such differences of legal opinion, which is why we have four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence (madhhabs of-fiqh), all considered valid. Today, however, we find that the space for these legitimate differences of opinion has collapsed, which has contributed to tensions among Muslims, including your family.
The task of our modern Muslim ummah is to remember and re-establish its legal tradition, and to recognise that differences of opinion are a manifestation of Divine and Prophetic mercy. We are advised not to rush in judging the practices of other Muslims, who are in fact often following the opinions established by the great founders of the major schools of jurisprudence.
As you and your daughter have discovered, the madhhabs have differing opinions on whether women are required to wear headscarves and other coverings. I will try to summarise the differences between them and the reasons for these differences.
Jurists have defined two kinds of `awrah: the part of the body that should be covered in the presence of a marriageable person of the opposite sex, which generally means in public, and the part of the body that should be covered in order for prayer to be valid. As we shall see below, the requirements for the first definition tend to be more conservative, and more subject to varying societal custom and fluctuating norms, than the second definition.
The above definitions refer to when the body should be covered, and there are different juridical positions on what parts of the body should be covered at these times. These positions in order, from most conservative to most liberal, are as follows:
> The niqab, where the whole body is completely covered (including the face, hands, and feet). However, Classical jurists do not consider the niqab as applying to anyone except the wives of the Prophet.
> Only the face, hands, and feet may be exposed.
> The areas above the neck, below the elbows, and below the knees may be exposed.
> The areas above the navel and below the knees may be exposed.
There is basis in Syariah for these positions, but in order to understand the relevant injunctions, and hence the different positions, we have to understand the social norms at the time of the Prophet.
In the Prophet’s time, social class dictated women’s dress codes. Therefore, the rules on `awrah for the Prophet’s wives differed from the average Muslim lady woman, which in turn differed from the rules for Bedouin women and slave women. The differences in these societal rules are the reason that the juridical positions are different.
For the Prophet’s wives, the Quran required them not to engage with other men who sought their advice except from behind a hijab (33:53). The word hijab means anything that stands between two things, or that conceals and protects one thing from the other. In this context, hijab may be interpreted as “screen,” “barrier,” “curtain,” or “veil,” or another such divide, meant to protect the Prophet’s wives. This injunction defined the `awrah for their interactions in public, but not for their prayers in the privacy of their chambers.
Verse 33:53 was prompted by specific scandals. While the Prophet was still alive, Talha ibn Ubaydallah publicly voiced his intention to marry the Prophet’s revered young wife Aisha once the Prophet died. And in a more serious scandal, Safwan bin Muattal rescued Aisha from a battlefield and carried her back home to Medina, triggering accusations of adultery, which were later dispelled by the Quran (24:11). To prevent further controversy, and to protect them from objectification and pursuit by other men, the Prophet’s wives were to interact with men only from behind a hijab, and men were forbidden to marry them after the Prophet’s death.
Muslim jurists emphasise that the term hijab is not used here to refer specifically to covering the head or any other part of the body, nor is there any commandment in the Quran for women to cover their face or head, either in public or in prayer. The term hijab is used seven times in the Quran, but never in explicit reference to the dress code for the Prophet’s wives, let alone for women in general. The word is used in the sense of a “barrier” or “screen,” for example between Heaven and Hell (7:46) or between the Prophet and unbelievers (17:45).
At the time, donning a protective veil was customary in the neighbouring region of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where ordinary folk were prohibited from looking upon the faces of royalty. Royalty were therefore completely veiled in public as a sign of their status, and slave women were even prohibited from wearing a veil. The Prophet’s wives donned a similar hijab for protection.
The Quran’s explicit directive in 33:53 explains the origin of the niqab argued by the first juridical position, but it is also the reason why classical jurists argue that the niqab was only intended for the Prophet’s wives.
In another verse (24:31, God says, “Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms beyond what may be (decently) apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms”.
This passage is the basis for the second juridical position, which argues that only the face, hands, and feet may be exposed. There are other arguments used to defend this position, but Muslim jurists consider them questionable and less convincing.
There is a hadith in which Aisha’s sister, wearing only a thin cloth that revealed her body, came to the Prophet. He told her, “When a woman reaches puberty, it is inconvenient for her to show her body except this and this part,” and he pointed at his face and hands.
Though this hadith is often quoted to support the requirement for head-coverings, it should be noted that this is an ahad hadith (reported only by one source) without a reliable isnad (chain of transmission). Islamic jurists generally do not lend as much credence to ahad hadiths as they do to mutawatir hadiths (reported by many sources). Some schools even reject ahad hadiths altogether as insufficient basis for legal judgments.
Moreover, the matn (text) of the hadith is ambiguous: the Prophet’s words don’t mention any part of the body, while the Prophet’s gestures don’t necessarily indicate the head must be covered.
Another argument is that God says, “Tell thy wives and thy daughters, and believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their jilbab; this will be more conducive to their being recognised and not harassed. God is indeed much-forgiving and merciful!” (33:59).
These women are instructed to use the jilbab as a wrap, in order to differentiate them from slave and Bedouin women so that they would be recognised and treated with respect. Muslim jurists point out this verse says nothing about covering the head, nor does it suggest that the jilbab is a requirement. What it does suggest was that there was a recognised societal difference between the cultural dress codes of free women, Bedouin women, and slaves at the Prophet's time.
It should also be noted that the two Quranic verses and the hadith cited by this position relate only to the `awrah
that applies in the presence of the opposite sex, and not to the `awrah
> Part 2 appears tomorrow
> Imam Feisal of the New York-based Cordoba Initiative welcomes readers’ feedback. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
>The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.