The insistence by Aishah Azmi to wear the niqab or ‘face veil’ while working as a bilingual school assistant in Dewsbury (reports, 14 October 2006) has to be exposed for its blatant sophistry and calculated deception. Muslims, most of all, should distinguish between what is religion and what is culture, what is Qur’anic and what is traditional, what is textual and what is customary, what is scriptural and what is superfluous to the Islam. These are not identical concepts or interchangeable elements.
When Ms Azmi (in common with all those Muslim females who don the pre-Islamic full-face mask), unthinkingly repeats the canard that the Holy Qur’an dictates that women must cover their faces in public, this has to be challenged and demolished. Neither she nor the patriarchal Muslim ulama (priests) she seems to follow can produce any concrete Qur’anic evidence or indisputable textual authority for this preposterous view.
Aside from advising all believers to dress modestly, there is not a single passage in the sacred scripture of Islam that requires Muslim women to hide their faces. In fact, there are just two verses in the Holy Qur’an that deals specifically with female dress codes and personal modesty. The first is found in Surah al-Nur, chapter 24:31:
AND SAY TO THE BELIEVING WOMEN THAT THEY RESTRAIN THEIR LOOKS AND GUARD THEIR CHASTITY, AND THAT THEY DISPLAY NOT THEIR BEAUTY OR ADORNMENTS EXCEPT THAT WHICH IS APPARENT THEREOF, AND THAT THEY DRAW THEIR CLOAKS OVER THEIR BOSOMS AND THAT THEY DISPLAY NOT THEIR BEAUTY OR THEIR EMBELLISHMENT…
From this verse it is plain that aside from requesting women to be modest by covering their bosoms with any generic over-garment (at a time when women often appeared in public with bare chests) so as not to attract undue or gratuitous attention, there is no requirement whatsoever of covering female faces.
The other verse that authoritarian preachers also tend to distort to justify the niqab is found in Surah al-Ahzab, chapter 33:59:
O PROPHET! SAY TO YOUR WIVES AND YOUR DAUGHTERS AND THE WOMEN OF THE BELIEVERS THAT THEY LET DOWN UPON THEM THEIR OVER-GARMENTS; THIS WILL BE MORE PROPER, THAT THEY MAY BE KNOWN, AND THUS THEY WILL NOT BE GIVEN TROUBLE; AND GOD IS ALL-FORGIVING, ALL-MERCIFUL
Again, any rational interpretation, solid lexical study or theological dissection of this passage makes it plain that it is neither Islamic nor incumbent for women to draw their cloaks over their whole face. This passage was revealed during a particular era when Muslim women were often molested in early Islamic society. But with social progress in places like contemporary Britain where women do not have to acquiesce meekly to indecent male advances, this verse is a general recommendation rather than a strict enduring aspect of the faith.
Such is the intellectual bankruptcy of their perspectives, that many myopic mullahs frequently alter the contextual meaning of Qur’anic verses. They claim that certain passages apply to all Muslim women when it is quite clear from the text that the Holy Qur’an addresses the Prophet’s wives exclusively. In a futile attempt to bolster their shaky position, they say that a portion of Surah al-Ahzab, chapter 33:53 provides supplementary justification for the niqab:
IF YOU (MEN) HAVE TO ASK THEM (THE PROPHET’S WIVES) FOR SOMETHING, ASK THEM FROM BEHIND A CURAIN. THIS IS PURER FOR YOUR HEARTS AND THEIR HEARTS
Any logical and lexical analysis of this verse will confirm that it only applied to the Prophet’s wives and not to all Muslim women in perpetuity. Moreover, this time and place specific verse instructs the Muslim men of Madinah to treat the Prophet’s wives with dignity and decorum by conducting essential communication from behind a screen or curtain to inhibit undesirable familiarity. Again, there is no reference whatsoever to the full face veil. From this verse, it is self-evident that the Prophet’s wives themselves did not wear the niqabat the time otherwise there would be no need for the verse to mention a physical barrier!
The bottom line therefore, is that no Muslim preacher or scholar from any school of Islamic thought can produce a single verse from the sacred text itself that unequivocally legitimises or makes the wearing of the niqab mandatory. Surely, if this was such an intrinsic Islamic injunction, God Himself will have used irrefutable and repeated phraseology in the Holy Qur’an to convey such a commandment, and not rely on a plethora of medieval and modern clerics to do so.
Unable to find any genuine Qur’anic vindication for full face concealment, misogynistic mullahs mainly from the intemperate ultra-conservative Wahhabi denomination (and their Indo-Pakistani offshoots like the Deobandi and Jabligh Jama’at sects) have dredged up inauthentic ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) which were compiled some 250 years after his death to assert that complete female body/face covering and total gender segregation are Islamic ‘obligations’. However, such anachronistic opinions are devoid of any real theological legitimacy and logic as the subordinate and secondary source (ahadith) of Islamic jurisprudence cannot override transcendent and primary Qur’anic directives on this or any other matter.
While veiled Muslim women like Ms Azmi have a right to wear what they please, they cannot claim any credible Islamic scriptural basis for their archaic Byzantine and Persian inspired dress modes. If they wish to sport such un-Islamic full face masks, they should be scrupulously honest. It has nothing to do with Islam, but is a distinct product of tribal conditioning, cultural brainwashing, ancestral chauvinism, regional peculiarities and ethnic norms.
In recent times, the pre-Islamic custom of the niqab has gained increasing popularity in the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent from where it has been imported by religious zealots into the UK. Before adopting such un-Islamic garb unthinkingly, British Muslims should reflect why all face coverings are expressly prohibited during the hajj, Islam’s holiest public gathering? They should also take stock how their silent support for extremist non-Islamic practices like the niqab and the absolutely rigid separation of the sexes in all circumstances only serves to foster greater Muslim alienation and self-imposed apartheid within this country.
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This MECO letter was sent to the editor of The Guardian newspaper on 20th July 2006