Hargey attacks Islam along with the “burqa”

I don’t watch al-Jazeera English (although I can get it, part-time, on Freeview) but saw this clip of David Frost interviewing Taj Hargey and Salma Yaqoob over the recently-introduced ban on the niqaab in France on YouTube. The debate in this clip goes for the first 11-and-a-half minutes of the YouTube clip; I can’t guarantee that it’ll be kept up. Salma Yaqoob is a RESPECT party councillor from Birmingham (David Frost introduced her as the party’s leader, but there isn’t much left of the party nowadays), while Taj Hargey is a wannabe Muslim community leader whose ideas largely seem lifted from the anti-Islamic “Qur’an alone” school of thought.

Although he did not explicitly advocate banning the niqaab, he alleged that it was “un-Islamic” because it was based on pre-Islamic (Byzantine and Persian) customs in which men kept their “possessions” under wraps, and is “un-Qur’anic” because the terms burqa and niqaab do not appear in the Qur’an itself. This is, of course, a totally spurious argument, because even if the terms do not appear in the Qur’an, it does not mean that they were not present among the Muslims in the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), but narrations from that time demonstrate that face-covering was in fact common among the female Companions, and that some of them in fact remained in their homes most or all of the time.

He also persistently alleged that the custom as practised in the West is only due to Saudi, Wahhabi and Taliban influence, yet face-covering is common in many other parts of the Muslim world where Saudi influence is minimal, such as parts of Kenya, Zanzibar, Morocco, Hadramaut and eastern Indonesia (particularly Sumbawa). Hadramaut is a well-known centre of traditional Sunni scholarship which has always resisted Wahhabism. The Wahhabis or “salafis” are well-known for their opinion that there is no such thing as good innovation in religion, yet their women are to be found wearing the modern three-layer niqaab, rather than a cloth tied round their head and across their face as was the custom in the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and which is still to be found in some of the places I mentioned earlier; Hargey is thus applying a parody of their position by saying that the niqaab or burqa is un-Islamic because the female Companions did not wear it. As for the Taliban, they enforced a type of veiling that is not known anywhere else except Pakistan, i.e. places were Pashtuns are dominant.

He insisted that Muslim women who wear it in the West should “be honest” about the reason they wear it, and stop claiming that it is about religion when it is in fact a “tribal rag”. This disrespectful language echoes his friend Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s comparison of the rising popularity of hijab to swine flu, but it is also inaccurate. The niqaab is in no sense tribal to a woman of Jamaican heritage, is it? While the Arabian peninsula is indeed tribal, this simply means (in an Arabian context) that people know their ancestors going back generations; it’s not another word for a small national or ethnic group as it is sometimes used in Africa or the Americas. Much of the Arab world is tribal in the same sense as the Arabian peninsula is (Libya was recently described as such by the Gaddafi faction), but niqaab is not seen there. Calling it “tribal” also contradicts the claim of Byzantine or Persian origin, since those empires were not tribal.

He dismisses the religious argument by claiming that it is all made up by male scholars, based on hadeeth which were themselves, he said, written 300 years ago (also by male scholars) and contain an awful lot of hear-say and fabrication. The argument about male scholars is false, because a large proportion of the scholars and those who transmitted the hadeeth in the early generations of Islam were in fact female, including A’isha (radhi Allahu ‘anhaa), the wife of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and one of the major teachers of Imam Shafi’i named Nafisa. The Qur’an itself is not, as Hargey would know if he bothered to read it, a modern feminist text in any case, but Muslims never have based their religion solely off it — it clearly states “obey Allah and His Messenger”, and without the hadeeth, that command becomes something of a dead letter. A further point against Hargey’s rejection of the hadeeth-based parts of Islamic law is that the major scholars of law were much closer to the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) than the major collectors of hadeeth, and took narrations from those they regarded as trustworthy, and they knew of the problem of people who fabricated hadeeth (they were mainly sectarians). It is not a case of modern scholars starting from scratch based on the Bukhari and Muslim collections.

The fact is that women who choose to wear the niqaab, regardless of any consideration of whether it is a socially wise choice, are do what Muslim women, particularly in cities, did for generations, from the first generation until colonial times, and are doing what is held to be compulsory by strong opinions in all four mainstream schools of Islamic thought — indeed, it is only not regarded as mandatory today because the majority of women do not wear it; that was not true in the great cities of the Islamic world until very recently. They are also not mostly “Wahhabis”, contrary to what some might imagine (and what some repeatedly claim). Anyone posing as an imam should be defending them, not slandering them to the media. Salma Yaqoob did defend the women who wear niqaab on the basis of free choice, but did not even begin to tackle his baseless claims about hadeeth, although it might have been too complicated an issue to get into.

The fact is that Hargey has no claim to be an imam, and Yaqoob should have said so — he’s the leader of a small group which conducts anti-Islamic publicity stunts for the media, some of which contradict things which are necessarily known of Islam. His status is not dissimilar to that of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown — someone with no claim to Islam due to the extremity of his beliefs, but who uses a Muslim name and a similar cultural background to pretend to be one in front of non-Muslims, peddling an “Islam” which bears no resemblance to the real thing, to the detriment of people who practise the real thing. One can understand the BBC making this mistake (at least once — even John Ware did not wheel him out a second time), but there is no excuse for al-Jazeera.

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