Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has faced severe criticism over his remarks about women in burqas. Although his comments resulted in predictable controversy, they unfortunately failed to foster a healthy public debate about the burqa and the propriety of a state ban on wearing the garment in public. Instead, the discussion focused on the issues of offence and the appropriateness of an apology. This was a missed opportunity.
Offence is subjective. Whether or not a person finds the comparison of the niqab with a letterbox or a bank robber offensive is entirely dependent upon the recipient’s political or religious position. For example, I respect a woman’s right to choose to wear the niqab but I find the logic justifying it completely offensive. Abu Ishaq al-Huwaini, a popular Salafi sheikh, made the following comparison:
“A women’s face is like her Vagina”.
This is the most offensive statement ever made on the subject of the Burqa. That it came, not from a politician or public figure, but by a Muslim scholar compounds the outrage. To my surprise, except certain liberal voices in Egypt, Al-Huawini’s remarks passed without any objection from across Egypt’s wide religious divide.
“Offence” is a poor yardstick by which to judge the appropriateness of a statement. The better question is: what are the proper boundaries between religion and politics when considering the issue of public veiling?
So what does Islamic law (fiqh) says about face covering and whether it can be banned?
In addition to the general ethics of modesty that are to be found across the Qur’an and hadith, there are two verses in the Qur’an that directly discuss dress codes, and a number of references in the hadith literature. They can be summarised as follows:
1- The Qur’an (24: 30-31) and Qur’an (33: 58-59) are unclear texts and they both do not provide clear instruction about what exactly needs to be covered.
2- The relevant hadith reports of the prophet Muhammad are not reliable and are classified as ‘weak’ reports.
3- This uncertainty has left the door open for diverse jurists in the past and present to speculate as to the exact meaning of the verses. Their conclusion reflects the perspective of the time and place in which they were produced and their methodology of reasoning.
4- The vast majority of medieval jurists argued that the whole body including the head (hair) except face and hands should be covered, whereas the marginal minority also required the veiling of the head (face and hair) and hands. The dress code favoured by the former is commonly known as Hijab and the latter, as niqab. A minority of the minority argued that a woman’s eyes should be covered by a net known as Burqa or in Arabic transliteration (Burq’).
5- This position has been challenged by many Muslim reformers from the 19th century onwards who believed that the classical interpretation is not immune from error and can be questioned. Key voices include Sheikh Muhammad Abdu, the First Grand Mufti of Egypt, who concluded that the medieval debate was now irrelevant, and did not regard hijab, niqab or burqa as a religious duty. A similar position is taken by the contemporary jurist S’ad al-Din al-Hilali, who concluded that the religious reasoning supporting the uncovering of the head (face and hair) as a possible valid interpretation. This position is further supported by Sheikh Zakai Badawi the former Imam of London Central Mosque and the founder of the Muslim College, and Sheikh Usama Hassan in his well-researched article Islam and the veil. The American/Egyptian scholar Dr Khaled Abou Elfadl in his masterpiece fatwa agreed significantly with the famous Syrian scholar, Muhammad Shahrur that the requirements of modesty can vary between cultures, and is not required in today’s society. The liberal Muslim thinker, Jamal al-Bana, the brother of Hassan al-Bana went even further when he concluded that the hijab, niqab or Burqa were heretical innovations that must be discarded.
6- The official position of Al-Azhar, the largest Sunni authority, is that the Niqab is a cultural matter, within the scope of Ibahah (permissibility). As such, it does not constitute a religious duty, and can therefore be decided by the individual, communities, society, or government. In his recent television interview, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar confirmed this position.
7- As a result of falling within the scope of permissible matters (mubah), even traditional jurisprudence would accept regulation on forms of veiling by the government, if they deemed a need for such a restriction.
It is worth noting that since 2011, a ban has been implemented in countries like France, Belgium, Netherland, Italy, Spain, Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Turkey and Switzerland. Have these countries infringed the rights of their citizens to practice their conservative reading of their religion?
From a political perspective, the question is far from simple. However, theologically speaking, the answer is categorically in the negative.