I was walking down 6th Avenue last week and noticed something not altogether uncommon: a Muslim man walking alongside what appeared to be his wife; the man was clean-shaven and dressed in slim-fitting Western trousers while the woman was wearing a nikab under her coat, fully covered from head-to-toe, exposing only her eyes. I see this bizarre contrast all the time. Indeed, nothing incenses me more than seeing Muslim men prance about in shorts and sandals, while their wives take the idea of modest dress to an entire different level.
I used to enjoy listening to Hamza Yusuf when I was an undergraduate in college. I haven’t followed his work closely for several years but I’ve always regarded him as a sincere and intelligent scholar. I still remember something he said in one of his lectures about women in Medina walking around “bare-breasted”–yes, that’s right, bare-breasted. I happened to find the quote on-line. Here’s what he said, addressing a largely male-audience and speaking in his characteristically emphatic style:
“In Medina there were women walking around bare breasted! This is a historical fact. There were uncovered women in Medina because the slaves were not allowed to cover! So Muslims should get out of this obsession with women! It’s a sickness in our own hearts. Just lower your gaze! We’re living in a society where people are walking around naked and we’re worried about a girl not wearing a scarf on her head…Not all of you are acting like Sahaba! Why do we want our women to be like Sahabeyat?! I challenge you to put on a robe or a turban for one day! The reason why a lot of women are leaving Islam is because we’re chasing them out of Islam! We should know the time we’re living in!”
Bear in mind that Hamza Yusuf is very traditional and even conservative Islamic scholar. Note that he says it’s a “historical fact.” Perhaps this would be a good tradition for Muslim women to cite if they find themselves cornered in a discussion. I’m not suggesting they should adopt the “Girls Gone Wild” lifestyle, but Muslim women have every right to point out these double-standards and what amounts to yet another example of deplorable hypocrisy. Many respected Islamic scholars believe that having a beard, wearing a turban, and covering oneself in a robe-type garment is obligatory on men. I don’t subscribe to that view, but I respect it as a valid legal opinion. The simple truth is that far, far more Muslim women wear hijab than Muslim men follow the example of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in their manner and dress. Take a casual stroll at the annual ISNA convention and you’ll find almost every Muslim girl covered, even if it’s just for that weekend, while the men (including me) are walking around in form-fitting clothes and creating a dense fog of designer cologne and hair spray. No one cares if men do it. The same holds true in Muslim countries like Pakistan–women are frequently seen covered head-to-toe, especially in NWFP, while young men have their hair neatly combed and faces cleanly shaven in what amounts to an obvious expression of vanity. In fact, if one looks closely, even the Taliban and their kind appear to be highly conscious of their physical appearance and not as “modest” as they would have you believe–the army jackets, trendy hats, combat boots, and carefully manicured beards have a distinct Che Guevara veneer to them. It seems that “westernized Muslims” do not have a monopoly on narcissism.
My mother wears a basic hijab and my father strongly supported her decision, so I have the highest respect for Muslim women who choose to wear it, especially those living in the West. It takes immense courage and discipline to make a conscious decision to conceal one’s beauty. To me, that represents the highest form of humility, which, in turn, is the most rare and noble of virtues. Indeed, the hijab is a beautiful ornament worn even by many religious Christian women. Catholic nuns wear what amounts to a hijab and any standard European depiction of Mary, peace be upon her, shows her with a head veil. Few Christians today are aware that, according to St. Paul in the New Testament, head covering is incumbent on Christian women:
“Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head….For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.” 1 Corinthians 11: 5-10.
The important point, however, is that in light of the Muslim world’s current problems turning the hijab into an issue of immense importance is the equivalent of debating whether to tie one’s shoe before running out of a burning house. Hamza Yusuf is quite right: if one is so concerned about casting a lustful glance on an “uncovered woman”, they ought to just avert their eyes. Thousands of young Muslims are developing a profound aversion to Islam because of sanctimonious Muslims projecting their own insecurities and “chasing them out” by insisting upon such an unyielding interpretation of the faith. I feel that it is an utter waste of time to sit around rehashing medieval debates about the formalities of religious devotion. One does not have to be a “sellout Muslim” to recognize that human societies have transformed drastically since the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and that “we should know the time we are living in.” If hard-liners genuinely cared about fellow Muslims, they would not be so judgmental towards their brothers and sisters. Some ulema (a minority, to be sure) have taken comedy to a whole new level by suggesting that eating with one’s left hand, or not placing one’s hands on the upper chest during prayer, is why God is sending so many calamities upon the Muslim world. It’s downright laughable. Torture, murder, racism, mendacity, hypocrisy, misogyny, child abuse, corruption, and treating fellow human beings worse than animals sound like more convincing reasons to me.
I received the following e-mail from a Muslim friend. After saying that he/she is excited about becoming more well-versed in Islam, they write, in reference to Salmaan Taseer’s recent murder:
In light of what’s happened I feel like I’m developing an aversion to Islam, and its tragic because I have never felt that way. It’s like this assassination has divided the nation into right or wrong. Those who believe what happened was right and then us, the minority, who believe it was wrong. What good can possibly come out of this? Why this test? What makes me cringe is that it was done in the name of our Prophet (sws). Recently a young boy in Pakistan was arrested and may be sentenced to death because he gave his Islamiyat exam and wrote the wrong answer. What Islam are we fighting for?
I’m afraid that sums up things rather well. In the last several weeks I’ve exchanged many e-mails with close friends, and all of us seem to agree that while we desperately want to practice our faith, love the Prophet (pbuh), worship God, and embrace our identity as Muslims with pride and dignity, we feel intellectually and spiritually isolated. That if we express our honest views about Islam it will only invite ridicule, insult, and ostracism. Muslims are indeed chasing one another out of Islam, and if things don’t change, our ranks will shrink more and more.