Editor's note: In the April - May 1998 issue of the Voice of Islam, an article was published titled "Muslim Women and Tradition," a theme which generated much discussion among the readership of the newsletter, both near and far. Most of the comments received supported the article's principal thesis, that is, the primary criterion Islam requires in a woman's dress code relates to modesty, and not the head covering, as demanded by many people.

A few other comments on this article were emotional and highly charged. In fact, one believing Muslim brother from New York (whose name will not be mentioned), went so far as to accuse the Editor of blasphemy, and threatened him with capital punishment as penalty for the publication of the article. Though this believing brother later penitently withdrew his legal verdict of death by beheading, such irrational conduct clearly illustrates the depth of bovine lunacy and emotional paranoia that many Muslims will display on the subject of the woman's dress code.

The fact is that today, there is a major theological divide on this issue, one that will not be resolved soon. The reformists (those who subscribe to the notion that "veiling" is voluntary), believe that their difference with the medievalists (those who demand mandatory veiling), is purely interpretational and philosophical. They further maintain that the medievalists' position is heavily burdened by cultural baggage and ethnic tradition, which are at variance with Islam's sacred texts.

Mohamad K. Yusuff

Webmaster's note: Those who propose a chauvinistic rigidity when it comes to women's dresss should consider some additional commentary by Muhammad Asad on this subject (emphasis added):

My interpolation 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 custom (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" 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 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 - i.e., in consonance with the Quranic principles of social morality - be considered "decent" or "indecent" in a person’s outward appearance.(Qur'an Reference-24:31).

As stated above in the Editor's note, while most of the feedback has been positive, there were a few objections, two of which were in written format. Below are these two dissenting views, along with rebuttals at the end of each.

Response #1: Explicating the Qur’an through the exercise of personal opinion is forbidden, as related by Ibn Jarir on the authority of Ibn Abbas (r.a), who reported that The Messenger of Allah (s.w.t) said:

"He who speaks about the Qur’an of his own opinion, or of what he knows not, should find his abode in the Hell Fire." Ahmad 1/269 at Tirimidhi 2951

It is for this reason many learned and righteous predecessors abstained from explicating the Qur’an of what they had no knowledge. Shibah narrated that Abu Bakr (the first caliph) said:

"Which land will give me refuge and what sky will shelter me if I were to speak of what I know not, of the Book of Allah (s.w.t)." (The Glorious Qur'an)

It is only the people with Iman who fear Allah (s.w.t).

Mr. Manraj said: "Hijab is a traditional wear that used to be worn in the pre-Islamic days of ignorance." He needs to study Islamic History."

"In the pre-Islamic days of ignorance, women used to wear a sort of head band, which was tied in a knot at the rear of their head. The slit of the shirt remained partly opened, exposing the front of the neck and the upper part of the bosom. There was nothing except the shirt to cover the breasts, and the hair was worn in two braids hanging behind like tails. (Al-Kashshaf, Vol. 2, pg. 90 and Ibn Khatir Vol. 3 pg. 283-284). At the revelation of Ayat 31 of Sura An Nur, the head wrapper was introduced among Muslim women, which was meant to cover the head, the breasts, and the back completely.

Aisha (r.a) has described the way in which Muslim women responded to this command. She stated that: "When Ayat 31 of Aura An Nur was revealed and the men learnt of its contents from The Messenger of Allah (s.w.t), they immediately went back to their houses and recited the Ayat before their wives, daughters and sisters. There was an instantaneous response. The women one and all immediately got up and made wrappers from whatever piece of cloth that was handy. The next morning all the women who came for the prayers were dressed in wrappers."

In another tradition Aisha (r.a) says: "Thin cloth was discarded and the women selected only coarse cloth for this purpose (covering the head and neck)." (Ibn Kathir Tafseer, Vol. 3, pg. 284 Abu Dawud).

Mr. Manraj in his article discarded the Hadith in Abu Dawud.

But there is another similar Hadith narrated by Ibn Jarir from Aisha (r.a) who said that: "Once the daughter of Abdullah bin Tufail came to her house on a visit. The Prophet (s.a.a.w) was out. When he came home, he saw Abdullah’s daughter but turned his face to the other side." Aisha (r.a) remarked "O Messenger of Allah she is my niece." Thereupon the Prophet (s.a.a.w) remarked "When a woman reaches the age of puberty, it is not lawful for her to display her body except the hands and the face."

Ashraf Ghani, London, Ontario, Canada

Rebuttal #1: In the first place, the opinion was not personal. Mr. Manraj had consulted jurists who have classical Islamic and modern academic backgrounds. In the second place, the view that the Qur’an is not to be explicated by opinion is in itself an opinion, since the Qur’an uses terms that call for personal reflection: tadabbur, tafakkur, taqilun...

Now as far as explaining the Qur’an by hadith, the controversy is well known. Mr. Manraj chooses to follow, after consultation with a jurist, the position of Fazlur Rahman, the great Islamic scholar who was Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, until his death in 1988. Namely, that a lot of the hadith are fabricated. It does not mean that Mr. Manraj is against hadith. However, he does not consider hadith the criterion for final judgment, since the law among the classical jurists is that: "al hadith yufid al alm al zanni, al Qur’an yufid al ilm al qati -- the hadith suffices for probability, the Qur’an grants indubitability" -- to render a functional translation of the foregoing chrea.

As far as studying history, Mr. Manraj resorted to sources who are authorities on the socio-historical setting of the verses of the Qur’an. Those sources, using the other historical pieces of evidence, which are the only reliable sources known to us, namely the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds (550 and 450 C.E. respectively), show that the women of the Arabian peninsula did observe the hijab. If one reads the compendium of fiqh of Umar (r.a), one would see too that he did not allow the slave women to cover their hair. In this case, does one say that the Muslim slave women were of less spirituality that they were forbidden to cover their hair?

The sources used by Mr. Ghani are late Zamakhshari and Ibn Kathir. As Cantwell Smith has observed, what they report may or may not be history, but merely the perceived image of the past. Muhammad Asad, who is a scholar, gives a different view. As far as hadith on the subject is concerned, apart from the position expressed earlier, Mr. Manraj did consult experts on hadith. The mere fact that there is a difference of opinion on the hadith shows why they cannot be accepted, for they do not constitute proof.

You will note that not once does Mr. Ghani use the text of the Qur’an to explain itself, and relies totally on hadith. This in spite of a book that says in the second verse of the second chapter: "This is the book wherein there is no doubt." It means everything else is subject to doubt -- including the hadith, this being the genre of literature akin to the agrapha and aggadah of the People of the Book. This is why Umar (r.a) by all reports, wanted to rely totally on the Qur’an. If for the sake of argument, one were to say that we cannot rely on this report of Umar (r.a), then it at least shows the mindset of those who reported this khabr; they wanted to show to the early generations that the Qur’an can subsist on its own.


Response #2: A writer has to be extremely careful in presenting his/her personal opinion in a newsletter that claims to be "The Voice of Islam". I feel extremely disturbed, to say the least, after having read the article "Muslim Women and Tradition" written by Abdul Hafeez Manraj, in the April/May 1998 issue of the newsletter. It would help the reader to know the qualifications of Mr. Manraj because certainly, not just any self-proclaimed intellectual may confront such a serious issue as the Islamic Dress Code. This code was established by Allah Himself (s.w.t), and no human being has the right to use his "common sense approach, based on his interpretation of the Islamic message" to change or twist any such code. Mr. Manraj’s analysis of the hijab is lacking in neutrality, and it seems that he is only prepared to quote certain ayat or ahadith by taking them out of their proper context. For example, when he quotes Aya 31 of Surat An-Noor (#24), he stops half way, because if he continues the aya, his interpretation of the hijab would be invalidated. A possible translation of the complete aya could be as follows:

"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 and not reveal their charms, save to their husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or sons or husbands’ sons, or brothers, or brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of sexual differences of women, and they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden charms. And O you believers; turn all toward Allah that you may attain bliss."

It is very clear that Allah (s.w.t) does not leave it up to the discretion of believing women to decide on who could see their charms, but instead, the divine injunction is very specific, leaving no room for personal opinion in that regard. As to the extent of the charms that are permissible to be displayed in public, the majority of jurists (who are the ONLY people permitted to make interpretations of Qur’an and Sunnah) including Malik, Ash-Shafi and Abu-Hanifa, agree that a Muslim woman is allowed, in public, to uncover only her face and hands, while the rest of her body should be covered. Such an interpretation is clearly supported by the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w): "... If the woman reaches the age of puberty, no (part of her body) should be seen but this; (and he pointed to his face and hands)." Incidentally, Mr. Manraj says that: "It is generally agreed that this is a weak hadith." Researching this hadith, one finds that long commentaries have been written about it in many of the voluminous references of hadith. Indeed, many scholars disagree regarding the grading of this particular hadith. Therefore, it is not fair to base one’s argument on a judgment that does not enjoy consensus among Muslim scholars.

Qur’anic injunctions and Prophetic traditions are never meant to be subject to our choice and discretion, but rather a true believer knows quite well that:

"It is not befitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Apostle, to have any option about their decision; and if anyone disobeys Allah and His Apostle, he/she is clearly on the wrong path." Surat Al-Ahzab (Q33:36)

This aya refutes Mr. Manraj's claim that "any Muslim woman should have the right to decide what is appropriate for her, based on the environment in which she was raised, and the society in which she now lives." If such a claim would be put to practice, the Qur’an and Sunnah would be rendered irrelevant. It is distressing to find out through Mr. Manraj’s arguments that he does not think that the Qur’an and Sunnah are good enough to be followed at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances.

Murad Hofmann is quoted as saying that: "Today it is no longer necessary to impose the hijab on women as a means of protection." Mr. Manraj goes on to say that: "In many Western societies, a woman wearing the hijab is sometimes singled out for ridicule, contempt, and even pity as an oppressed person, thus achieving the opposite of its intended purpose." No human being has any right to reverse the rules of Allah (s.w.t), and I have already established the fact that the Aya of Surat An-Noor is very specific regarding the issue of hijab. Moreover, if ridicule and contempt will be enough reasons to change one’s practices, then the Prophet (s.a.a.w) and his Companions should have abandoned Islam all together, because the volume of ridicule that they were subjected to cannot be matched.

The example of the Muslim woman covered from head to toe in the summer implies that the hijab is a burden and as such, women should have the freedom to take it off during hot weather. If the weather becomes a factor in wearing the hijab, then the Prophet should have given this allowance during his time, because the weather was not any cooler than what it is today. It is a fact expressed by believing women who wear the proper Islamic dress that the hijab is a joy to wear even in the hottest of days.

Stating that "the Muslim world has been in a state of stagnation and intellectual sterility for centuries," Mr.Manraj quotes Jeffrey Lang without mentioning his qualifications or religious affiliation. No true Muslim can "advise that every generation of Muslims is obliged to reinvestigate the foundation of its faith." Had he said practices instead of foundation, it would have been easier to swallow, because the foundation of Islamic faith can never be subjected to investigation. To forward that argument is clear blasphemy. Who is more worthy of quoting, Lang who says that: "Knowledge grows with time" or Allah (s.w.t), who says in the Holy Qur’an: "Today have I completed your religion and perfected my favor unto you and chosen for you Islam as a way of life." Without past judgments, one cannot safely plan for the future, because failure to accept those judgments will slowly lead to total transformation of the religion of Al-Islam, and establishment of a totally new system that we continue to call Islam when in fact, it is not what Allah (s.w.t) has chosen for us.

Even though Mr. Manraj’s analysis of the reliability of the documented Prophetic tradition (Sunnah) does not bring any new information, it is clear that he’s using his analysis to end up forwarding his argument that: "There is no equality between Allah’s (s.w.t) revelation and the Prophetic tradition." Many people have tried to undercut the Sunnah by forwarding similar arguments. However, it is clear that by following the guidelines of the scholars of hadith, whose efforts and research abilities have been completely ignored by Mr. Manraj, a true believer will find that both the Qur’an and the Sunnah are equally important to establish our Deen. Allah (s.w.t) says in Surat Al-Hashr, Aya 7: "You should follow all that is given to you by the Messenger, and you should abstain from all that he asks you to abstain from." Granted that many hypocrites (Munafiqoon) and non-believers (Kafiroon) have deliberately fabricated many ahadith, but that is not an excuse to ignore hadith altogether.

Another unacceptable argument by Mr. Manraj is his usage of some cultural practices of certain Muslims as a reflection of what Islam is all about. In this regard, Islam should not be blamed for the cultural practices of certain Muslims. It is false to say that: "The Muslim world has managed to suppress half of its population --women-- by finding ways to oppress and prevent them from developing their full human potential." Generalizing in order to support one’s opinion is detrimental to one’s quest for truth. Using the Western example as the standard of civilization is quite deceiving. Islam puts forward rules and regulations to make sure that, if followed properly, these rules and regulations would guarantee peace both in this life as well as in the Hereafter.

The Muslim woman’s dress code is a prescription for modesty, which is an essential quality for Muslim men and women. In Surat Al-Ahzab, Aya 59, Allah (s.w.t) says:

"O Prophet: Tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when in public) so that they will be recognized (as decent women) and not hurt by others."

Therefore, the hijab serves a dual function: identity and protection. Believing men and women should not hesitate to identify themselves as such, because if they are consistent in backing their identity with proper conduct and behavior, others would be more inclined to accept the Islamic way of life. As for protection, the Qur’an is so concerned with protecting women’s bodies and reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will be severely punished. In Surat An-Noor, Aya 4, Allah (s.w.t) says:

"And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegation): flog them with eighty stripes, and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors."

Some people seem to reject the concept of modesty as a means for protection. They argue that protection is best provided by education, civilized behavior, and self-restraint. If civilization is truly enough protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not walk alone in a dark street or across an empty parking lot? If education is the answer, then why does a sample of those accused of sexual harassment, in the last few years, include Navy officers, Managers, University professors, Senators, Supreme Court justices, and even the President of the United States?

In conclusion, it is not sufficient to deal with a serious issue like the Muslim woman’s dress code using only "a common sense approach." Let us remember that true faith in Allah (s.w.t) requires that one should be willing to follow all divine injunctions without necessarily expecting them to conform with his/her common sense. No human being is good enough to challenge the divine will. In order to advance one’s "own interpretation of the Islamic message," one needs a solid foundation of Islamic knowledge and that, as every sensible person knows, takes years and years to achieve. My advice to Mr. Manraj is to be cautious not to fall into the trap of the Western mentality, which demands that everything we do should be first scrutinized by our intellect without any regard for divine supremacy. Please remember that Allah (s.w.t) tells us in the Qur’an:

"... and Allah knows, while you know not."

Dr. Munir El-Kassem, London, Ontario, Canada

Rebuttal #2: When one questions the qualifications of a writer, especially after a magazine has printed the article, one makes certain assumptions. The article does not necessarily represent the views of the organization, but it does represent that the people who are in charge feel that the qualifications and research of a writer are such, that they met acceptable criteria. In Mr. Manraj’s case, like Dr. El-Kassem, who is a dentist, he is not formally trained in Islamic law. However, he did subject the article for review to a jurist, one who like the scholars of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), feel that there is a time space factor which traditional Muslims ignore. If one follows the time space theory, the latter part of the verse in Surat An-Nur is of no additional value.

The theory adduced by Mr. El-Kassem is that the Qur’an is immutable. This is not shared by many jurists, for as Fazlur Rahman states in his book "Islam", Muslims after the 10th century confused inimitability and immutability. This is not only the position of Fazlur Rahman, but of several jurists, among them Taha Al-Alwani of the IIIT. As far as the jurists being the only people permitted to make interpretation, do know that Mr. Manraj did consult with jurists. His views may therefore be deemed as a paraphrase of their opinions. At least one jurist did not agree with all of Mr. Manraj's rhetoric, though the general views expressed did meet with his approval, and he did acknowledge the difference of opinion.

You will agree that Fazlur Rahman for example, states the rulings and illa are in the Qur’an, and if one follows this, then places the Qur’anic verses in socio-historical perspective, one sees that the khimar has no place in societies where it was not previously known. From the Palestinian Talmud, written before the birth of the Prophet (s.a.a.w), we know that the khimar existed among the People of the Book in the Arabian Peninsula, although many other Mediterranean peoples had already discarded it.

One may not agree with Mr. Manraj, but since there are as many Islams as there are Muslims, and since his research was corroborated by recourse to those who are academic and traditional experts, he has the right to have his voice heard. The verses quoted by you in Q33:36 present certain problems in interpretation. The most restricted is that we do not rely on anything but burhaan wherein there is doubt; the Qur’an is the only book wherein there is no doubt, and the hadith is nowhere near this classification for obvious reasons. The Qur’anic verses were delivered by Muhammad (s.a.a.w), and this is what is meant by the ayah.

The wider interpretation, which you probably know, is that this includes the hadith. This presents a problem -- there are differences of opinion on the hadith, so does this mean the Muslims are to be in confusion, or that they are to be forced to accept only one view? Fazlur Rahman, Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, and Azizah Al-Hibri are all experts on the subject, and they, albeit with different rhetoric, express basically the same opinion as Mr. Manraj. Again this does not make Mr. Manraj right, but you yourself stated that jurists are allowed to make rulings, and Mr. Manraj did consult with jurists.

The Qur’an’s time space factor is not to be denied, and so when the Muslims went to different places, we find that the early scholars ruled different to their predecessors. You may know that the early scholars in India even ruled on Hindus as being People of the Book! If Allah says that He wishes to make things easy and not difficult, certainly you will agree that in a society more advanced than the Arab one, one is which there is no stringency and social stratification implied by dress, that it would indeed be contrary to the Qur’an to force new laws upon them. Is this not why Zul Qarnain left the people as he found them, although the verses imply that they were without raiment?

As far as your statement that the scholars of hadith are equally important to establish deen, this is an issue of heated debate. Claiming that one is a true believer if he agrees with this is a dogmatic allegation, which cannot withstand academic debate. The verse of Al-Hashr is again to be seen as merely forcing the people to acknowledge the Qur’an. It is not logical to assume that that which is as you say, important as the laws of dress, would be decided upon that which is doubtful, wherein the scholars have decided that it should be codified into sahih, hassan, etc.

As far as culture goes, if Mr. Manraj feels that Islam allows for cultural variety, and has satisfied us as to his viewpoint, then certainly you will agree that he is entitled to this statement. Q33:59 has to be read in light of the Talmudic history, which is based on a hadith that is not accepted by many traditionalists. Other academics, however, feel that in order to establish the social setting of the verses of legislation, one has to read the Talmudic laws in vogue at that time. You will realize that the latter part of the verse you adduced, which is properly translated as "So that they may be known and not molested," carries with it a certain deduction that only an objective jurist can see: The question is "known as what?" And if khimar decided piety, then why did Umar (r.a) not allow slave women (Muslima nonetheless) to cover? By your usage of the term "Islamic dress" in your response, you seem to confuse Arab and Islam.

We certainly do not advocate wanton immodesty, but do not limit this to mean that dress is the only factor. You seem to deny the fact that in the Arab countries where Muslim women wear the hijab, there is also rape. If dress were the deterrent, would there be rape? This is why the Qur’an refers to the probable perpetrators as "those in whose hearts there is sickness."

The concept of "Western" being opposed to Islam is a polemic construct not rooted in anything verifiable. To reiterate, Mr. Manraj did consult with jurists. You question his foundation, but as your own arguments show, your own foundation is, as evidenced by the weakness of your arguments, built on a rather sandy base (to use a Biblical imagery). Certainly to discuss the matter in detail would require that you (a dentist) obtain such a level of study in history and Islam that would in itself take years.

You claim that Mr. Manraj had blasphemed, yet in the Qur’an Abraham questions Allah about his faith. Before you accuse anyone of blasphemy, you should ensure that you have studied Islam and can defend your views in front of reputable scholars, before throwing such accusations.

Posted September 15, 1998.