Hijab: Culture, Custom, and Chaos


Yeah, I dreaded it. The word came up in my Qur’an reading of Surat Al-Ahzab. I knew it would. I had so much trouble trying to write about the Surat Al-Nur verses I did that procrastination thing again: you know the deal: volunteered to drive my daughter to an appointment. Mercifully, there was further delay as I was stopped by a slow moving train. I posted on Twitter: “almost like the 20th century.” Then I came back and looked for other things to do first. It’s nice that I’m rather a stickler about time because my own commitment to get these submitted before noon only hangs over me if I don’t get to it first thing and save all the fun stuff, like further Tweeting and changing my photo on Facebook, again

Here’s the deal, I have written and spoken about (how) women’s dress matters. In fact, in my second book, I call it the sixth pillar. That being said I must also admit I don’t want dress to matter so damn much. There I said it. Hope I wont be censored…

These days we are hot and heavy over the recent burqa debates. It’s always a crazy thing to discuss—and remember, I am at the age where laying back is like the greatest thing. I used to run around in a tizzy over these matters, but mercifully no one asked me during the most recent debates and I got to keep those overpressed heartbeats for other things. But let me NOT then get into it here. I can simply say I err on the side of choice both ways: choice to wear and choice to not wear.

This is mostly because of the way I read the related Qur’anic passages. I pretty much stick to the Qur’anic ones because it was clearly such a non-subject from the perspective of the Prophet that we can scarcely find ahadith related to the topic. Unlike menstruation, that has a whole bab, book/chapter, in the hadith volumes, hijab or any of the other words have very obscure (then overused, or overrated) mostly a single hadith not found in the two major sahih volumes, Bukhari and Muslim. So how we get from little or no emphasis to a whole tariqah or madh-hab, well that is where we are.

Dress matters.

And anything that matters that much is surely the thing we do not want to have other people’s opinions or control over. It’s gotta be choice all the way. That small contribution to these big debates being said, let me just share a few of the Qur’anic details so I can at least represent some of the other rationale for my perspective.

In Surat Al-Ahzab, the wives of the Prophet are asked to speak min wara’a hijab, literally “from behind a curtain.” Fast forward more than 14 hundred years and lo and behold the hijab has moved from a curtain to the primary name for the widely recognizable Muslim women’s head covering. So recognizable, President Obama used that word in his famous speech to the Muslim world about Islam in Cairo. It was the only word he said wrong. Did you see that speech? He said “hajeeb.” I almost peed my pants; but then decided I could be more lenient with the president. He meant well. But why or why does a woman’s dress have to be a part of such a speech? It’s that sixth pillar thing.

Surat-Al Ahzab is an important place for me to demonstrate to people the balance we must keep between Qur’anic passages that are ‘aam, general, in application and intent, and passages that are khass, specific and hence limited in application. There is so much conversation directed exclusively at the Prophet or about the Prophet’s household that we cannot make a general ruling out of it. In fact, there is a part of a verse that says explicitly this if only for the Prophet and not for the believers in general (v.50). This is the surah where the Prophet’s wives are promised double the reward and double the punishment for their actions, good and bad. Again, specific. This is where the Qur’an says to them, “You are NOT like other women,” at least in respect to their reward and punishment and hence responsibility. Specific.

Keeping this in mind then, suggests that parts of the Qur’an have no possible moral implications, and therefore no legal impact, for believers in general, or for humanity at large. It verifies the interpretive principle that every Qur’anic passage must be understood for its potential application before it can be applied outside of the context in which it was revealed: seventh century Arabia, with all its peculiar good and bad.

On the broader scale then, all passages have to be understood in the context of their revelation first. What does this mean at that time? Then, once those implications are clear, and the ways they were applied at the time are verified, then we must look at our current realties and figure out how can we, or even, if we can, achieve that same goal in our present circumstance. This means a particular rule is only binding in as much at it achieves the goal that was achieved in the original circumstance.

Without this, we have a dead religion. It’s not too far from there that we get a dead God and well, you know the rest: people start killing other people over small things because it is death that seems to be the strongest motivator. I already said; I believe in a living God. I am a part of a living Islamic tradition. If that which is good is only behind us, either God was very stupid to keep us on the planet, living, or God was just short-sighted. I don’t believe in that God either.

I am aware that if I said this in certain settings then I would be marked for death, but: been there, done that; and am moving on to discuss dress.

I follow this simple procedure. The universal statement from the Qur’an about dress (which is NOT limited to women, and NOT focused on head coverings) is this: libas al-taqwa dhalika al-khayr, “the dress of taqwa that is best” (7:26). We talked about taqwa already, right: God consciousness which results in certain and actions. You cannot have taqwa without the right to exercise choice. You cannot be said to be a conscientious human being without excising agency. You cannot do what is best about dress unless you are doing it by choice.

This is NOT just anything goes though, so long as you choose it. That is because taqwa is about our orientation towards the Sacred, towards the Divine. Something about God in our choices. I juxtapose this to the places in the Qur’an like here in Surat Al-Ahzab and previously in Surat-Al-Nur, when specific items of dress, jilbab, thiyab, khimar, are mentioned as examples of pious dress from that specific context. We are not supposed to take the specifics over the general onto to infinity and beyond. That’s a dead religion, full of worshipping a dead God.

Now having been said about the relationship between ‘aam and khass in terms of the Qur’an and applying it to matters of dress, it is also obvious there is a lot more to the debates than Qur’an, sunnah, Prophet Muhammad, or even Islam. There is culture, custom and chaos. There are cultural norms and these are part of what the people in the specific cultural context are surrounded by to learn how to exercise their choice. So I am not for dictating a single uniform style of dress, ever. There are also customs, held to honor the situation, many specifically with regard to ritual. When I was in Bali, although I cover my hair and my body, with the occasional shorter sleeve shirt as the exception, I had to cover all of that with a cloth over my lower half to enter into the temples. That the woman in a bathing suit only had to use the same cloth was funny to me; but then, that was custom and I could only respect it, uniformity not withstanding.

As for the chaos that characterizes the debates, as if everybody should have equal right to say something about, and in many cases more than, the ones whose dress is up for debate in the first place, that is the politics of hijab. These have nothing to do with taqwa, with the Qur’an, with Allah, the Prophet or even Islam. However the politics of all of these take on their own life and should be entertained in full in order to make sense out of the chaos.

In my life, first as a young woman who had not yet chosen Islam, I have dressed with a dress so short, I had to keep standing if I wanted to keep my underwear covered. Then I chose to cover only in long dresses or slacks and to wear some kind of scarf or wrap over my hair. This was long before I first began reading about Islam and before I entered into a mosque. My ancestors, including my Muslim ancestors, came to America as slaves. The women were stripped at the auction block with no choice about how to cover themselves. I just decided that the right to exercise some control over who saw my legs was just as empowering as the other way around in some other context.

By the time I did go into a mosque to make inquiries, the men-only present must have thought I had made the greater sacrifice; so saying shahadah or declaring my faith in Allah and the Prophet was the lesser sacrifice. I can actually say: I became Muslim because of the way I dressed. I also chose to cover my face: way back in the 70s, in the U.S. city of Philadelphia. But I was in retreat from the world as I knew it. I observed the niqab for four years before moving on to the next stage of my living faith. I am still moving, because at this age, I go out for regular errands with no scarf, after more than 35 years of covering by choice.

In the public settings, I tend to cover my hair with the exception of the length of my dreadlocks down my back. I stick to this, especially when I travel; although I am always asked if I can take my scarf off when at the airport. Either that or I’m given the pat over. I guess to see if I have a bomb with those locks! I think to myself, yes, I can take this off, but I say “No.” Not here, and not now.

I exercise choice that some are denied, and that is as important as what choice I exercise. The freedom to make both choices is a privilege I do not take lightly given the politics of hijab these days.