A powerful man humiliates a young girl

Yesterday it was reported that Muhammad Tantawi, the dean of al-Azhar University in Egypt, announced that he was going to issue an “edict” banning the niqab or female facial veil. This happened after he visited a girls’ school, and found one student wearing niqab and demanded that she remove it:

“Why are you wearing the niqab while sitting in the class with your female colleagues?” Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi asked the 8th grader.

The young girl was shocked with the question coming from the country’s top scholar.

A teacher intervened to explain.

“She takes off her niqab inside the class, but she only put it on when you and your entourage came in.”

But Sheikh Tantawi was not satisfied and insisted that the young girl takes off the face cover.

“The niqab is a tradition and has nothing to do with Islam.”

After the girl complied he insisted she should not wear it any more.

“I tell you again that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and it is only a mere custom. I understand the religion better than you and your parents.”

It is quite shocking that this man can speak to a religious Muslimah this way in front of her teachers and classmates. I’m sure he does have more knowledge than her; if he did not study books which mention the rulings on female dress, he would not have become a scholar (then again, to do the job he seems to be doing now, you would not need to study for decades to become a proper Islamic scholar). He surely knows that many major imams said that the niqab was compulsory, and that the rest said that it was an act with great merit and that the ‘standard’ hijab we know of today is only the minimum. He has thus lied publically in order to humiliate a young woman. (More: Seeking Ilm, Yasir Qadhi @ MuslimMatters, Ginny, Yursil, The Chaplain.)

It’s not the first time he has behaved dishonourably in this way towards Muslim women. Whatever we think of Yvonne Ridley, we can agree that she was right not to shake Tantawi’s hand, even if she might have refused more politely, and that Tantawi was wrong — and knew he was wrong — to insist on it and find fault with her:

This is the problem with Muslim converts of the west. You follow the extreme interpretation. Yvonne, you are just like my daughter, and there is nothing wrong in a hand-shake.

This is not even a case of a Muslim shaking the hand of a non-Muslim woman who does not know that Muslims are not allowed to shake hands with those of the oppsite sex outside their close families. He is a ‘scholar’ and attacked a Muslim woman for doing the right thing in Islam. He has now done this twice, at least as has been reported. Does he get a perverse pleasure from doing this? He told Muslims not to resist the ban on the hijab in schools in France because France is a non-Muslim country and it’s their affair, but how does this translate to opposing an accepted Islamic form of dress in a Muslim country?

While any moderately knowledgeable Muslim knows that al-Azhar is not the Vatican and Tantawi isn’t the Pope, that no such position exists in Islam anyway and that not all scholars at al-Azhar accepts his views on niqab in Egypt or hijab in French schools or the legitimacy, or otherwise, of interest-based finance, these facts are not so well-known in the western media, such that the ‘edicts’ of Tantawi or anyone else in his position will be repeated in the western media and thrown in the face of Muslims. In this case and in Ridley’s, he attacks two positions Muslims might follow that are difficult and which face resistance by both outright non-Muslims and secularists in the Muslim world, and in which they need the support of those in power, not their contempt. This isn’t about a scholar advancing a controversial minority position; it’s about a powerful scholar abusing his own position.

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