Taheri’s lying on hijab

Faraz Rabbani and Umm Zaid have linked to an opinion piece in the Times, written by Amir Taheri. It contains of a number of lies and deviant opinions about hijab, among them that it is not required by Islam and - in the form we know today - was invented by one Iranian “mullah” in Lebanon in the 1970s. I’m hoping the Times will make space for an authoritative Islamic answer to Taheri’s claims. This is the best, insha Allah, that I can do in my rather fatigued state.

Frankly there are few things that make my blood boil more than “Muslims” who falsely claim that hijab is not a required part of Islam. Regimes such as those in France, Turkey and Tunisia who discriminate against religious Muslim women who wear the hijab fall back on their spurious arguments: that it’s a modern development, that the early Muslim women did not wear it, and that there’s no evidence for it. What these mendacious and/or ignorant people write and say quite simply opens the way for the harrassment of Muslim women. The experience of women numerous Muslim countries shows that the hijaab is not a barrier to education, other than when secularists decide to make it so.

The first few paragraphs are an aspersion on Muslim opposition to terrorism. I’ve not got much to say about this other than that nothing Muslims say or do is enough for some people. When people wearing common Islamic dress are accused of “use of their bodies as advertising space for al-Qaeda”, this is a whole different situation. Hijab has nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qa’ida. Some women wear it because it’s the tradition of where they come from, but many wear it out of obedience to clearly-worded Islamic injunctions on covering and modesty. You can find scholars, of various schools of thought, explaining the Qur’anic verses and hadeeths, and how they have been understood by Muslim people of religious learning through the generations. I suggest SunniPath as a good place to begin.

It’s a fact that there was an attack on religious clothing in various parts of the Muslim world in the period after the Muslim lands were colonised. It’s also true that, in some places, the common women did not wear hijab as we know it today. But Muslims have always distinguished between what common people do in their ignorance and what is correct Islamic practice. In other places, it was normal for women to wear much more than the hijab we know today - North Africa is a well-known example.

In another article, Taheri has claimed that an unstated style of hijab was invented by an Iranian “mullah” in Lebanon in the 1970s, and was consciously based on the headgear of local Catholic nuns. There are some examples of hijab that look nunnish, but the vast majority, in my observation, don’t. In any case, head covering was a fact of life in pre-modern and even earlier modern Europe, a custom continued by nuns and discarded by other women. It was common for women to wear bonnets and other headcoverings when outside in very recent times, and you can still occasionally see older women wearing them today (when I was younger, there were many more of these women around).

His observations on the colours of women’s hijabs are fatuous. He suggests that “if some women have been hoodwinked into believing that they cannot be Muslims without covering their hair, they could at least use headgears other than black (the colour of al-Qaeda) or white (the colour of the Taleban)”. Is he blind, stupid or both? I see women wearing hijab in all different colours (including different shades of green!) and even patterns. People were wearing clothes of both these colours and others well before these two organisations appeared. I have personally met Yemenis, who have nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qa’ida (despite coming from the same part of the world as Osama) who wear the white turban. The clothing is ancient, the organisations are modern.

He also suggests that we men “consider doing away with Taleban and al-Qaeda-style beards”, and that beards have nothing to do with Islam. Has he no shame? There are numerous hadeeths concerning their merit, and stating that the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and his male companions grew their beards. Three out of the four main schools of thought forbid shaving off the beard, with the fourth (the Shafi’i) regarding it as offensive. “The bushy beards you see on Oxford Street are symbols of the Salafi ideology that has produced al-Qaeda and the Taleban.” Rubbish. Do you even know where the Taliban came from? (Hint: not Saudi Arabia, or any part of the Arabian peninsula.) I know lots of men with beards large and small, most of them not being Salafis or even of the Deobandi school from which the Taliban originated.

Some Muslims also use al-Qaeda and Taleban-style clothing to advertise their Salafi sentiments. For men this consists of a long shirt and baggy trousers, known as the khaksari (down-to-earth) style and first popularised by Abu Ala al-Maudoodi, the ideological godfather of Islamist terrorism. Muslims who wear such clothes in the belief that it shows their piety, in most cases, are unwittingly giving succour to a brand of Islamist extremism.

Shalwar-kameez is, of course, clothing traditional to India, worn by people of all religious persuasions. It is actually spreading among Muslims and non-Muslims in places like Bengal and Kerala. It is simply more practical than some of the other clothing on offer - particularly the sari; you don’t have to wind a shalwar-kameez and there’s no knack to wearing it. Clothing similar to this is found in the Arabian peninsula as well (a Yemeni once told me that the traditional clothing for women in his country was a thobe and a pair of trousers underneath, that is, a shalwar-kameez with the tunic replaced by a long robe).

Taheri then suggests that “Muslim preachers [pay] a bit more attention to God, which means doing some theology, rather than making speeches about Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq which are, after all, political, and not religious issues”. A commonly-heard complaint about mosques in this country in particular is that they do not talk about politics. Shaikh Riyadh-ul-Haq of Birmingham said in one of his taped sermons (I believe it was The Importance of Change) that he was commonly asked why he did not talk about Bosnia or Chechnya, and he replied that the minbar is not a news-stand. Mosques often oppose political activity on their premises - or even outside them! The most recent political scandal involving Muslims in this country was about postal ballots being redirected in support of Labour. Just because we have a loud minority of radicals doesn’t mean that we are in general a radical community.

The article concludes with this blunt paragraph:

Islam must decide whether it wants to be a faith or a political movement. It cannot be both without being hijacked by Salafis or Khomeinists who have transformed it into a breeding ground for terror.

A quite stupid pair of statements; one can think of many breeding grounds for terror, and most of them are conflicts in which western powers have had some involvement. Islam itself is not one of them, and cannot be hijacked by either of the two sects Taheri mentions. When the community is hijacked by secularists, as in Ba’athist Iraq, the results have proven to be as bloody as some cases where the extreme “Salafis” or Shi’a are in control - as any supporter of the invasion of Iraq will confirm!

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