Answered by Shaykh `Isam Eydoo
The Hijab between Human Thought and Sacred Law
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate.
May Allah’s blessings and peace be on His Messenger Muhammad, and his folk, companions, and followers.
The issue of hijab has met with many problems and challenges in contemporary times. At first glance, these problems with the hijab seem warranted. However, upon closer inspection of the law of hijab and further study of the concept of hijab, which relates to the social sphere of Sacred Law, the challenges posed to the hijab collapse.
And studying an issue such as this requires us to break it down in a way that will facilitate our method for completing this discussion.
And without too long an introduction to the philosophy of hijab and its relationship to the spiritual aspects of the Muslim woman’s life, it is possible for us to delineate the central themes of this issue, and they are:
1. The position of this ruling in the fiqh structure
2. The relationship of the hijab ruling to its theological underpinnings, and that [this ruling] is a subsidiary to a fundamental
3. The underlying relationship of hijab to modesty
4. The hijab ruling falling under the principle of changing laws for changing times
5. Is the hijab a phenomenon or is it a fundamental, rooted in human thought and nature?
First, if we look closely at hijab and where this ruling originates, and what sphere it belongs to, I have no doubt that there is some debate about placing this ruling exclusively in the social sphere of Islamic jurisprudence. And isn’t the motive behind the philosophy of the hijab nothing except the demarcation of social relationships, in which the human being has lost his way, such that the Sacred Law came to show the importance of cover and take a moderate course in framing this ruling and that is the principle of no excessiveness and no remissness.’ Thus there is no excessiveness in hijab, no contrived exaggeration that is outside of human nature, the nature that Allah wants us to live by in all times, with the exclusion of none. And there is no remissness in hijab, so that there won’t be any reason to deviate from our primordial nature, fitrah, in whose beautiful shade Allah wants us to take repose.
And the ordainment of hijab in Sacred Law is nothing but an illustration of the ambiguous social relationship between men and women. And if, at first glance, it appears that there is some harshness in the way this relationship is drawn, we should take a second glance at the constant tendency of human beings to deviate from the right course, and then we will comprehend that this ruling is a divine wisdom that requires stopping at these limits. Because, if the bonds of modesty are torn from the heart and intellect, there will be devastation and turmoil, which will make the Ummah [Muslim community] leave the right course in the name of the very modesty that Islam invites to. And what is stranger than to have the very evidence of what is right become the very evidence of what is wrong? (I will explain this further when I discuss the relationship of hijab to modesty.)
Let’s leave this quick sketch to say that hijab is a law that relates to the social life of the human, and if this is agreed upon, then [let’s go on to say that] there are societies that change and societies that stay the same. And if we ask the following question: What is the societal definition of hijab? Is it an issue that is subject to changes in society and intellectual currents? Or is it one of those constants that the Sacred Law describes as being part of primordial human nature, a nature that expresses the social front of human life.
Let’s explain more: let’s initially suppose that hijab is one of those issues that change, that follow social thought and cognitive patterns. Building on this, the form the hijab should take is not a problem as long as there is modesty. And does modesty differ from person to person? Or is it a personal value that shows how a person feels and reacts, and, consequently, there is no problem with any type of clothing, what’s important is modesty. So wear what you want, but be modest, and if you want, don’t wear anything, as long as you’re modest. And what is the problem with this if your actions involve modesty!
I know that no one will agree with what I’ve said, and that I’ve strayed quite a bit from the intended goal and that this is not what we’re looking for. What we’re looking for is that there is no objection to a woman’s going out with modest clothing but without covering the head, as long as she has the intended modesty. But I am entitled to ask here: who defines this modest clothing? And is there a clear law about it? And who has the authority of governing this? And has anything been conceded by me and everyone else in agreement to this?
The answer: Of course not. [If it were the case that everyone was in agreement], then let us listen to words that are considered the standard (of course, for those who believe in this religion that we take as our way of life). For, the law of Allah says that is necessary to cover the head because this beautiful creation is the focal point of arousal. And who amongst us wouldn’t agree to this? But what has made us see this [uncovering the head] as something ordinary is that we have become accustomed to it, and [even] relish it. And this may even lead us to say that what is the problem with uncovering the breasts, as long as there’s modesty? Aren’t the breasts a normal part of the body, and so on and so forth until we allow ourselves to tolerate a law of nakedness in the name of modesty.
Second, when we discuss this important branch of Sacred Law, we mention it as a branch, stemming from the root of faith embedded in the heart. This means that observation of these subsidiary laws [that branch out of the usul’ or fundamentals] is unavoidable if this basis is present. And how is it that this intelligent person can accept a law with all of its fundamentals and then debate with himself and say, “This is unacceptable and this is acceptable,” so that we become like those that believe in a portion [of the religion or book] and reject another portion. And those are the people of special interests, to whom the rules don’t appeal, except to the extent that they fit their special interests.
Thus, hijab is modesty of faith, and the best modesty is universal modesty that does not belong to you or me or to any person. This is the modesty that was described in the hadith as being part of faith, and that [the opposite] shamelessness is part of aversion [to faith].
Therefore, modesty has a spiritual definition and does not have a merely subjective definition determined by my own special intellect or your own special intellect.
Third, if hijab encompasses such a strong relationship with modesty, then I say that it is impossible for a moral value [such as modesty] to change from time to time because of intellectual trends that we live with everyday. For [example], lying, as a moral vice, will remain a vice forever and ever. And bravery, as a moral virtue, will remain a virtue forever and ever. And modesty, in its definition as a moral virtue, defined in the hadith as a branch of faith, will remain a high moral virtue in the life of every society.
But what has changed in this society of ours that we have allowed ourselves to say that modesty, as a moral virtue, can change and other people in previous times did not understand this virtue correctly? And the right way to understand this is as an internal feeling or emotion that compels a person to do different things. And, therefore, when people in previous times covered their heads, they did not know the meaning of modesty, and instead, were just being pointlessly strict in order to demonstrate an artificial modesty, not required in this religion.
Let’s think about this a little: doesn’t every moral value, whether conscious or unconscious, come from inside the human being and push him to manifest actions that reveal this inner value? And as far as modesty is concerned, its outward manifestation is an act of complete obedience to this faith that struggles inside of us, so that we may declare our complete submission to and pure association with this religion.
Fourth, there are rulings that change with the passage of time and those that don’t change. And if we want to trace the origin of this issue in the principles adhered to in this religion, [we see that] the rulings that change are those that are based on [local] tradition and custom, not those that are separate from custom.
This is because with the passage of time, the needs of people change; hence, traditions and customs change too. And with change in traditions and customs, rulings change, except for rulings based on legal proofs. And if we want to delineate the domain to which the ruling of hijab belongs: is it one of the rulings based on tradition and custom? Or is it one of the rulings that are separate from custom?
I don’t think anyone would agree that hijab was legislated in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) because custom demanded it, and that people in that time needed hijab because they saw it in their complete interest. Rather, the contrary is true: custom dictated that people remain the way they were. And how would hijab be in their interests and what would the wisdom be behind it if the women at that time were all uncovered? Wouldn’t it just be an artificial control, undesirable [interference] from the Sacred Law in people’s customs and traditions? Wouldn’t it be more befitting of the Sacred Law that seeks to preserve people’s interests, to tell people: stay the way you are and don’t change anything in your traditions?
However, there is something that is inevitable, and that is modesty. This matter is hard to get around. So, young girl, stay the way you are, but be modest, because it is inevitable. However, the Sacred Law did not go that way, and instead, clearly indicated and plainly expressed that modesty cannot exist without this ruling, and that is the hijab. And thus, matters became clear.
And it is possible to say here: what is the benefit of hijab if there is no modesty? And this is what we see with some women. The issue is not one of hijab, and that is sufficient.
And one can respond to this by saying: and what is the benefit of declaring Islam if there is hypocrisy and corruption on the person’s inside? This means that the objective of Sacred Law is the designation of laws, their regulation, and application. And beyond that there is belief in these laws and exemplary application thereof, and it is here that modesty plays a role as a moral value in our lives.
Fifth, the truth that history is witness to is that hijab, regardless of its nature and components, existed before Islam in manmade laws and divine religions, and Islam was not the sole inventor and legislator of hijab. Hijab existed in ancient cities like Babylon and Assyria. Cuneiform tablets unearthed in ancient Assyria, dating back to the 12th century B.C., indicate that Hammurabi’s Code mandated some system of hijab for freewomen, to the exclusion of slave women. And if a man wanted to identify his wife as a married woman, he would place a hijab on her in front of witnesses and say this is my wife. And hijab was known to the Hebrews, and was known after the time of Ibrahim until the emergence of Judaism and Christianity.
And there are repeated references to it [hijab] and to the burka (veil) in more than one place in the Old and New Testaments. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 24, “Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?’ He is my master,’ the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.” And in chapter 38, “When Tamar was told, Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,’ she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself.” And in chapter three of the Book of Isaiah, “The Lord says, The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, tripping along with mincing steps, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.’ Therefore the Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion.”
So the reality of the matter is that Islam was not the innovator in mandating hijab on the Muslim woman. And if hijab was a custom of old, there is no doubt that Islam used it to improve the status of woman and made it [hijab] a behavioral etiquette, its goal being the prevention of temptation and the protection of the sacrosanct.
And Allah, be He Exalted and Glorified, knows best.
Muhammad Isam Eidou
[Translated by Sr. Zaynab Ansari]