Today is the Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) birthday. Most Muslim celebrate this day to acknowledge that God sent us a message, a messenger, and a role-model. The day is used to remind us of God's blessings and our struggle to live up to the highest ideals of the faith. Eid Mubarak.
You wanted a debate Jack. You’ve sure got one. Abu Eesa Niamatullah
Calls for a public ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’ about anything remotely Islamic these days in the West are becoming as predictable as a DFS sofa not being offered at full price – by the way, that means very predictable for anyone living outside the UK.
Jack Straw has asked for a debate about the veil, after eventually declaring he would rather have it abolished. Well, a debate he has certainly found.
At the onset should be a note of caution to Muslims: one cannot expect to practise ones religion so publicly and yet become overly offended when people want to question certain aspects. Jack Straw, insincere intentions aside, has not attacked the Muslims directly and has only addressed an issue which the greater British public at large have been wanting clarification on for a while now – indeed, this is an excellent opportunity for qualified Muslims to debunk the mysteries behind such a visually obvious, mysterious and perhaps even shocking statement of a Muslim woman’s identity.
Islamically speaking, the majority of scholars consider the covering of the face for an adult Muslim female with the face-veil or niqāb in the presence of non-related adult males as a religiously praiseworthy action, whereas a minority considered it an obligatory act. Thus, for a Muslim woman to remove her veil in the presence of ‘foreign’ men would be considered abominable at the very least and at its most serious, totally prohibited.
Islamic Law recognizes that the niqāb can be removed for various civil needs such as that maybe suggested by Mr Straw, particularly the Hanbali school of legal thought as confirmed by the eminent Jurist Ibn Qudamah in his masterpiece al-Mughni. Muslim women have the choice in various scenarios to remove the veil for a certain need as detailed in the legal texts yet her desire to not become too friendly or involved with ‘foreign’ males shouldn’t leave at least other female members of the community in despair. Indeed, maybe one should debate the great problem that non-related men exactly have if certain Muslim women don’t wish to develop relationships with them, even in the most insignificant sense. Does one sense male insecurity here? Hurt male pride? Now that’s a thought.
Many people enquire on the exact wisdom behind such a piece of clothing which is so at odds to what they would normally wear. From the benefits of this ensuing debate is that finally the public at large have realised that Muslim men are not sitting at home with a whip, forcing their women to cover their selves up but rather it is a decision based upon ones deep spiritual convictions to the concept of modesty and respect and above all, a sign of ones complete devotion to the Law of God. This, significantly, therefore takes the matter to the theological frame of reference and hence outside the rationale of human beings, something which is often forgotten in debates surrounding religion.
Of course, the Muslims are not alone in acting upon such a concept. The fascinating and deeply spiritual Jewish concept of Tzniut expresses the same sentiment; an attempt to refocus people from concentrating on the external appearance of a person but rather make sincere necessary contact with the inner self by encouraging modest dress and the covering of the hair and face even, exhibited most vividly in the Bedeken during marriage ceremonies; here, the groom brings down the veil over his bride's face, reminiscent of Rebekka's covering her face with her veil upon seeing Isaac before marriage as per Jewish Scripture. The veiling symbolizes her duty to live up to Jewish ideals of modesty and reminds others that in her status as a married woman she will be absolutely unapproachable by other men. According to Rabbinical teaching, “The covering of the face symbolises the modesty, dignity and chastity which characterises the virtue of Jewish womanhood.”
Indeed one might possibly excuse Jack Straw for his rather ignorant assertion that not being able to make full use of a woman’s cheeks and lips during conversation could inhibit better and deeper understanding. One social commentator has suggested that Mr. Straw would do well to take a few lessons from his blind constituents in how they are able to move forward with their inter-human interaction. May I also suggest that Mr. Straw, as a follower of the Jewish faith himself, try and gain a better understanding of Tzniut first before asking Muslims to change their own religious convictions.
Let us not forget the other great religion that used to proudly control much of the Western and Eastern World: Christianity. The Christian directive towards men and women dressing decently and modestly is something well documented and indeed most visibly demonstrated by Christian nuns. More relevantly to the issue of covering the hair, neck and face, followers of the more orthodox Eastern Churches will be most accustomed to Epanokamelavkion and other forms of covering for nuns and monks. Indeed, the female emphasis on maintaining such an external appearance draws it’s strength from King David in the book of Psalms, who states, "the dignity of the daughter of a king is her inwardness" – something remarkably similar to the Islamic concept of modesty or hayā’ and the Jewish practice of Tzniut.
Of course, living in the UK today, the Secularist lobby are rather indifferent to the justifications of religious groups if they go against their personal viewpoints and likewise react furiously to any suggestions by Muslims (or indeed others) that a female’s state of undress as one witnesses so often in society could be contributing to the moral and spiritual breakdown in law and order; they refuse to accept that a radical change in society’s approach to sexuality and male-female interaction such as that offered by the hijāb and niqāb is anything but an oppression and an insult to females. Fair enough, that’s their opinion - Muslims criticise it but that’s about as far they go in the debate.
Maybe British Muslims should leave said debate to their Christian friends to continue with as they quietly protect their values and beliefs, watching and waiting in the sidelines as others espouse a defence without the normal Islamophobic connotations attached. As the popular Christian author John Piper writes, “Many women (and men) today … judge [freedom] on the basis of immediate sensations or unrestrained license or independence. But true freedom takes God’s reality and God’s purpose for creation into account and seeks to fit smoothly into God’s good design. Freedom does include doing what we want to do. But the mature and wise woman does not seek this freedom by bending reality to fit her desires. She seeks it by being transformed in the renewal of her desires to fit in with God’s perfect will (Romans 12:2). The greatest freedom is found in being so changed by God’s spirit that you can do what you love to do and know that it conforms to the design of God and leads to life and glory.”
The Church, like all great religious establishments, not only identifies the problem but suggests the solution according to scripture. Their call for “discreet behaviour” and “modest modes of clothing” is a fair response, based upon Proverbs 11:22, "As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion."
There is no need for a Muslim voice to reply back to Jack Straw, fueling all the puppets straining at the leash to scream at the Muslims, “Why is it that whenever we question something you do in your religion, you’re always complaining!?” The Muslim community is wasting its time trying to suggest that possibly, just possibly, the irresponsible indecent exposure in society today by women exacerbates the sexually aggravated crimes and behaviour we witness today spiraling out of control. Why should the Muslims be so ‘predictable’ when Christian authorities put forward a response to the age-old “to lust or not to lust” argument. As one Catholic commentator replies:
"Girls, when you pull on that tight sweater that amplifies your bosom and reveals your bare midriff, are you putting your Christian brothers before yourself? When you sit down and let your skirt ride up to reveal your thighs and underclothing, are you helping your Christian brothers "keep a covenant with [their] eyes" (Job 31:1)? The man who "looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart," according to our Lord in Matthew 5:28. Are you laying a trap for this lust and adultery by the way you dress? You may respond, "Well, I am not responsible for the way boys think. That is their fault if they can’t keep their minds off my body." Dear sister, you are grievously mistaken. "Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness" (Proverbs 30:20)."
Interesting isn’t it when it comes from the mouth of someone other than a Muslim?
But placing these arguments aside, one must also try to understand where secular humanist/feminist opposition to the veil stems from. ‘Defenders of social justice’ might be excused for their opposition due to the use of the veil in ancient times of the Assyrian and Greek nations where only the noble women would be allowed to wear such dress as a distinguishing feature. One could quite fairly, although utterly incorrectly perceive the Muslims playing a class game with their veils in light of this historical context
Also, it is quite possible that some might have confused the Islamic basis for the face-veil with the basis offered by the Bible for the covering of a Christian woman’s hair, which as mentioned in Corinthians 11: 3-10, “…A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head". One doesn’t believe that this is the case any more with modern day Christian women who dress modestly and it certainly isn’t the case with Muslim women who neither look to attain noble status out of arrogance to those in a state of undress neither cover their faces as a sign of a male’s authority over them; rather it is in order to conceal their beauty from anyone who may possibly have mischief in his heart, and to enable her to maintain her modesty and honour; the Qur’an states in 33:59, “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed (by others).”
In fairness then, it is largely the irreligious Secularist section of modern society that has a real problem with all religious directives whether Christian, Judaic or Islamic, and naturally the niqāb provides a perfectly convenient concept to attack, sorry “question” – for indeed the best form of defence of ones ideology (and thus for example, the right to publicly wear as little as possible) is to attack the opposition. Muslim female adults, Christian nuns and Jewish married women are that opposition.
But here lies the conundrum. As British citizens living in Secular Britain today, we have signed up to a new standard of human rights – a set of guidelines that protects peoples’ freedom of speech and freedom of belief as per classic secular humanist ideology, different only from religiously driven human rights in that every person’s idea, opinion and belief is protected irrespective of the opinion of “God” or the “Religious directive.”
If that is the case, then surely the Muslim woman just as any other British citizen has her full right to wear exactly what she wishes to wear. It can be questioned and even criticized by others from society but that’s as far as it should go. Muslims cannot expect any less especially when they also, alongside their Christian, Judaic and other religious colleagues, criticise the huge rise in indecent and immoral clothing practiced in our societies today - Muslims in particular feel totally aggrieved at this state of affairs yet tolerate it patiently. This is what we have all signed up for living in Britain in the 20th Century and we either accept it or look for the exit door. This should be a debate about civil liberties but it is in danger of becoming nothing but sheer bigotry and possibly even racism through the back door.
If Muslims as well as Jews and Christians wish to preserve their honour in their own ways, the law of the land insists they be allowed to do so. Be critical, but respect their right. Muslims will also be critical no doubt of the converse, but have accepted their right as citizens of this country.
What this debate should teach us at the very least is that community relations and their success are not based upon “chance meetings in the street” as suggested by Straw or men wanting to improve better relations with their community by befriending all other women. Rather, people must recognize that if they wish for better community relations, people have to make an effort and get to know people properly, personally and sincerely. For anyone to use the other party’s niqāb as an excuse for their inability to develop a relationship with someone is not only ignorant, but rather pitiful at the same time. To then incite the community to react against innocent women, creating in the very least a tense atmosphere for a woman in niqāb and at the very worst physical abuse and attack as has been witnessed in recent times, only goes to prove the hypocrisy our ‘tolerant’ and ‘multi-cultural’ country is drowning in.
Maybe Muslims should ‘get out’ and ‘go back to where they came from’, back to their own houses in their own country - Great Britain - rather unfortunately for the bigots. It seems that the only people who are forcing Muslim women into their homes under a real oppressive veil, a veil of hostility and fear, are those wanting to discriminate against them according to their personal prejudices under the false pretence of trying to promote interaction, integration and community relations. How much are these social ‘experts’ actually helping to solve this very real problem?
Below the fold are the detailed notes of comments I gave at St. Bart's yesterday in an inter-faith commemoration of 9/11. I began with the Fatihah. The first prayer is from Abdullah Ansari of Herat. (cross-posted from islamicate.)