by Imam Zaid Shakir

Increasingly in the western world, nothing symbolizes the “otherness” of Islam like the veiled Muslim woman. If she chooses to remain quietly home undertaking domestic duties with patient dignity she is rendered invisible and mysterious, veiled by the walls of her home. If she emerges into the public square the perceptions and stereotypes surrounding her veil her in ways the cloth covering her face never could. In many instances, those perceptions serve to negate her humanity, rendering her invisible despite her conspicuousness. To some, she is seen as the antithesis of the freedom, liberty and equality that is said to define the modern world.

The “otherness” she represents cannot be separated from the perceptions that negate her. Thus negated she can have no agency. Her veiling her face cannot be the result of her choice, nor can it be a result of her religious consciousness –a vital aspect of her devotional life. She only veils herself, according to many critics, because she is oppressed by a man; a cruel and insensitive father, an insecure or jealous husband, or a manipulative teacher.

In this view, her oppression is caused by men. Hence, men must intervene in her life as her liberator. The philosopher must intervene on her behalf to explain to her how she is participating in her very oppression; the journalist must intervene to announce her plight to the world; and ultimately, the legislator must intervene to outlaw the practice that he views as the symbol of her oppression and the oppressiveness of her religion.

That this is the plight of many Muslim women in the western world is sadly understandable in light of the paternalistic hypocrisy that has defined many facets of the encounter between Europeans and various non-European “others.”The monoculture emerging from Europe, and by extension America, allows no social, cultural or political expressions that do not conform to its imposed universals. It would be naïve to expect that it would have room for a religious expression like the face veil (Niqab), which is so antithetical to its self-declared norms.

However, when Muslim men feel it their duty to “liberate” their sisters from Niqab, in the name of Islam, something has gone terribly wrong. What gives a “Shaykh” the right to assail, insult, demean and traumatize a schoolgirl in public, demanding that she removes her “un-Islamic” Niqab, as happened last October in Egypt? Such an order is shameless.

The scholar involved in that pathetic episode claimed that Niqab has no basis in Muslim teachings. Apparently, the Syrian government was motivated by the same sentiments when it recently ordered a ban on Niqab for female university students and teachers at all levels. By so doing, many intelligent, dynamic and charismatic women are being denied livelihoods or chances to further their educations –a development that is probably cheered by some as an act of liberation.

Contrary to the spirit implicit in declarations such as that of the Egyptian Shaykh and the action of the Syrian government, Niqab is a firmly established Muslim practice that is supported by the Qur’an, the Sunnah or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, and scholarly opinion dating from the earliest period of Muslim legal history. The balance of this essay will present evidence to support this claim.

Before beginning, I stress that I am not arguing that Niqab is the most appropriate form of dress for Muslim women in the West. Nor am I criticizing Muslim women who do not wear Niqab. That is not my right, nor is it the purpose of this essay. The way that any Muslim woman chooses to dress is strictly her choice and hers alone. I am arguing that those Muslim women who choose to wear Niqab are engaging in a valid Muslim practice and that no one, whoever he or she may be, has the right to deny them that choice.

As for the Qur’an’s affirmation of Niqab, we read in Sura al-Ahzab, O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters and the believing women that they should draw their outer garments over their full persons. That is more fitting in order that they are recognized and therefore not harassed. And God is forgiving, merciful. (Q. 33:59) This phrase in the verse, …that they should draw their outer garments over their full persons, is explained as meaning the believing women should cover their faces.

That understanding has been related by the overwhelming majority of Sunni commentators. For example, Imam Tabari relates in his expansive commentary on the Qur’an:

God, may His remembrance be exalted, is saying to His Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, ‘O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters and the believing women they should not resemble the female servants in their dress when they emerge from their houses for various needs. [Those servants] expose their hair and their faces. Rather, [the believing women] should draw their outer garments over their full person. [1]

He proceeds to relate numerous narrations demonstrating the various ways the outer garment may be drawn over the face. For example, he narrates that Ibn Sirrin asked ‘Ubaydah about the verse in question (Q. 33:59). The latter grabbed his garment and covered his head and face [2]. In addition to Imam Tabari, many other Qur’anic exegetes mention this verse as meaning a woman should cover her face in public. [3]

The Tradition (Sunna) of Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, includes actions done in his presence that he did not disapprove of. If we consider the many narrations concerning the believing women covering their faces after the revelation of the verse we have been discussing (Q. 33:59) it is obvious that this was a widespread if not universal practice among the believing women during the prophetic epoch. The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, was never known to discourage that practice outside of prayer and pilgrimage [4].

The fact that he prohibited the believing women from covering their faces during the prayer and the pilgrimage strengthens the argument that face covering was widespread at the time.  Were that not the case, there would have been no need to prohibit the practice while engaging in those acts of worship.

The exegetical understanding that believing women should cover their faces in public is reflected in the rulings of most jurists adhering to the Shafi’i and Hanbali juridical schools. They incline towards the understanding conveyed in the verse we have just discussed (Q. 33:59). The Maliki and Hanafi jurists incline towards the understanding conveyed by another verse in the Qur’an, which states, “…they (the believing women) should not display their beauty except what normally is manifested (Q. 24:31).”Most commentators on this verse explain the expression “what is normally manifested” as meaning the face and the hands. [5]

Hence, the Maliki and Hanafi jurists opine that the face and hands can usually be manifested in public, unless there is fear that a woman’s exceptional beauty will lead to her being harassed, in which case she should cover her face when outside of the home. The Ja’faris and Zaydis among the Shiites, and all of the Sunni schools, with the exception of a small group of Hanbalis, agree that the face of a believing woman is not part of her body that is sinful to display publicly (‘Awra).

They argue that were that the case, she would not be enjoined to display her face during prayer, the pilgrimage or during those human interactions that demand her identification.[6] However, as mentioned above, the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools hold that it is from the rules of normal public decorum, affirmed by Qur’anic degree, that a woman covers her face in public.

On the basis of the various proofs from the Qur’an, the Prophetic tradition and the rulings of Muslim scholars during the broad expanse of Muslim history, it has generally been the common practice of believing women in most urban settings to cover their faces in public. This has been especially true among the religiously educated elite. Women in rural settings, especially those engaged in more strenuous degrees of manual labor, such as working in fields, have generally displayed their faces in public.

Hence, historically, Muslims have had a broad array of opinions on this and many other issues. Those opinions reflect the richness and flexibility of our religion. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for one to argue that Niqab has no basis in Muslim teachings, just as it would be extremely difficult to argue that Niqab is universally held to be an obligatory practice.

The diversity of legitimate opinions to be found in most areas of Muslim teachings is a source of mercy for the community. Each and every believer has the right to find his or her comfort zone. If some of our sisters are comfortable with Niqab, there is no legal, philosophical [7] or religious basis to deny them their choice. Efforts currently being undertaken to do so in some countries, both in the east and the west are a blatant discriminatory affront to individual freedom, dignity and the basic human rights of Muslim women. Such efforts should be opposed by all people who claim to be working for justice, equality and women’s rights. [8]


[1] Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari, Jam’i al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997/1418), 10:331
[2] Ibid., 10:332
[3] See for example Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad al-Qurtubi, al-Jam’i li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1987/1407), 14:243; Abu Bakr Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah ibn al-‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar-al-Fikr, n.d.), 3: 625; Abu Fida’ Isma’il bin ‘Umar ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim (Beirut: al-Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 1996/1416), 3:483; Abu Su’ud Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Hanafi, Irshad al-‘Aqil al-Salim ila Mazaya al-Kitab al-Karim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 199/1419), 5:238-239; Abu Fadl Jalal al-Din ‘Abdul al-Rahman bin Abi Bakr al-Suyuti, al-Durr al-Manthur fi al-Tafsir bi al-Ma’thur (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2001/1421), 6:583-584; Abu Muhammad al-Husayn bin Mas’ud al-Baghawi, Ma’alim al-Tanzil (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifa, 1987/1407), 3:544; Jalal al-Din Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Mahalli and Jalal al-Din ‘Abdul al-Rahman bin Abi Bakr al-Suyuti, Tafsir Jalalayn (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifa, n.d.), 559-560 .
[4] Abu Dawud, nos. 1825-1827. Among these narrations is the following: Ibn ‘Umar relates that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said, “A woman sanctified for the Pilgrimage should not cover her face nor wear gloves.”
[5] See for example al-Tabari, 9:304-306; al-Qurtubi, 12:228-229; ibn al-‘Arabi, 3:381-382; ibn Kathir, 3:266; Abu Su’ud al-Hanafi, 4:453; al-Suyuti, 6:168; al-Baghawi, 3:338-339; and al-Mahalli, 462.
[6] For a summary of these rulings, see ‘Abdul Karim Zaydan, al-Mufassal fi Ahkam al-Mar’a (Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1994/1415), 1:190-191.
[7] Martha Nussbaum has written an insightful article that exposes the discriminatory nature of the arguments of those who argue for banning Niqab in the West. See Martha Nussbaum, “Veiled Threats,”; Referenced July 26, 2010.
[8] This controversial issue has many other facets that time does not allow a full discussion of. Hopefully, we will be able to return to it in greater scope and detail in the near future, God-willing.

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