Salafis, Kalam, complexity, and hijab

Salafis, Kalam, complexity, and hijab March 31, 2007

Mere Islam (The Salafis and Their Kalam, Kalam, Kalam) provides links to intriguing critiques of what seem to be ironic theological inconsistencies among some contemporary Salafi thinkers given their declared hostility to speculative theology.

Mere Islam: The Salafis and Their Kalam, Kalam, Kalam….

Of special interest in this article is the inclusion of some statements by a couple of noted “Salafi” scholars in which they speculate about Kalam Allah and it’s relationship to His essence, attributes, and actions—thus ironically engaging in the kalam (a.k.a. speculative theology) that they so often condemn in rather absolute terms.

Mere Islam concludes:

In my mind, all of this just confirms what Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad asserts in Contentions 8, which is that Salafism is “an unsuccessful flight from complexity”. Ouch!

That’s precisely how I’d sum it up, as well.  A fearful refusal to engage with the inherent (and beautiful) ambiguity and multiplicity that exists by design within Islamic tradition.  I do not believe a Muslim is allowed, much less expected, to treat questions of faith or practice mechanically, without any reflection and struggle to discern right from wrong in light of one’s knowledge and capabilities. (Otherwise, how can one be responsible for one’s decisions?  How can one even do good if one is not engaged to some degree in the process of determining what the good is?)

An additional dimension to this problem, I think, is what Khaled Abou El Fadl calls the flight to the “refuge of the text”.  The instinctive resort to rigid literalism and intense hostility to interpretation–not that it is cognitively speaking even possible to refrain from interpretation, of course–are also symptoms of this modern malaise, this fear of complexity in religious matters.

I only wish this problem were only limited to Salafis, or to vexing theological conundra.

To give an example that cuts across denominational lines, how often does one hear of the “complexity” of evidence for hijab acknowledged?

There’s a reason why Fadwa El Guindi defines the hijab as a “complex notion that has gradually developed a set of related meanings” in her excellent sociological study, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance.  I have absolutely no interest in debating the merits of or evidence for hijab being required.  Hijab is a tradition for which I have the utmost respect and sentimental attachment so long as it is uncoerced.  But whatever one’s fiqhi position is, the conventional stand is the result of a fairly complex, non-self-evident interpretative process, and one that depends on a number of apriori assumptions, some of which are arguably open to debate.  That fact doesn’t in itself invalidate the traditional conclusion by any means, but it does show that this isn’t simply a case of blind obeidience to scripture, free of any interpretation, assumptions or preferences by scholars.

For example, the word hijab appears, if memory serves, 7 times in the Quran, and none of those ayats refer clearly to a head covering.  Think about that.  Most, to the contrary, of these verses refer undeniably to spatial obstacles such as curtains, or the barrier between life and death, etc.  Yet one would never guess this given how the term is used both popularly and among scholars today.

As a result of this creative interpretive process, a complex, ambiguous metaphor in the Quran has been limited, in the name of Islamic tradition, to one, specific legalistic application.  There is rich irony to how so many Muslim scholars today demand that Muslims accept literally and without question what is at bottom a metaphorical reading by them of scripture–i.e., that a word with so many possible meanings denotes primarily the headscarf–and a theological construct arising out of their free interpretation of a set of passages that interact in a complex manner and which are open to a number of readings.

The other irony is that this process actually reduces the scope of a Divine commandment, by whittling a broad, universal Quranic ideal–a holistic ethos of modesty and self-restraint in all walks of life applicable to both men and women–down to a single practice affecting only women.

Now, perhaps the conclusion of this process of reasoning–i.e., that, whatever the linguistic details may be, hijab should be understood to primarily refer to a woman’s head covering–is justified, but why this aversion to admitting that there is a process at work and making explicit all one’s assumptions about said process?

And why on earth leave the discussion of these important details, nuances and shades of meaning in the hands of sociologists, academics of religion, feminists, secularists, and so on?    I ask this because if you want this type of in-depth insight that is, ironically, were you have to turn in my experience, at least in English.  When doing research on this recently for an article on the headscarf–fear not, my focus was sociological, as opposed to theological–I was struck by how the one place one seemed almost guaranteed not to find a nuanced discussion of complex usage of the term in the Quran was in “traditional” religious literature, even by contemporary Western Muslim scholars.

It needn’t be thus.  But it is.

Anyway, as much as I disagree with Salafis, lament their influence, and agree that they have a deep-seated aversion to nuance in matters of aqida, I have to confess that I don’t think them the only Muslims who are afraid of complexity.  It’s a handicap that we all struggle with, albeit in different ways and to different degrees.   I suspect that it’s part of being “modern”, at least at the moment.

But back to our sheep, as the French say.

It’s a different topic, but Shaykh Murad’s quip reminds me of the failed schemes of Muslim-baiters today who resort to simplistic theories of Muslim Exceptionalism (i.e,. the idea that Muslims, being a species wholly unto themselves, cannot be understood or dealt with like other human beings) as an explanation for everything that’s wrong in the world.  This explanatory framework, beloved of Islamophobes and innocent of half a century of sociological advances, only obfuscates the origins of today’s conflicts and makes it harder for everyone to make sense of the world.


As I said, I don’t have a problem with hijab. My problem is with how the profound notion–which I consider to be a deeply spiritual worldview, as opposed to simply a legalistic point, that is no less encumbent on men than women–far too often gets mangled and/or selectively invoked in contemporary Islamic thought, including by otherwise reliable scholars.

When I originally wrote this post, I didn’t have some of my books handy.  Just dug out two I was thinking of, so to bring this to conclusion I am going to quote two recent studies on the topic.

The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates, edited by Sajida Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, & Sheila McDonough

From Soraya Hajjaji-Jarrah’s brilliant and engrossing  “Women’s Modesty in Qur’anic Commentaries:  The Founding Discourse” in the invaluable The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates (eds. Alvi, Hoodfar, and McDonough)”

Verse 53 of Chapter 33 reads as follows: “And when you ask them [the Prophet’s wives] for something, ask them from behind a veil (hijab); that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.”

This represents the Qur’an’s sole use of the term hijab in relation to women.  Its isolated context is further confined within certain boundaries.  Hijab here refers exclusively to the Qur’anic prescriptive mode of communication between believing mena nd the wives of the Prophet. […]

Everywhere else in the Qur’an, the term hijab–which, in its various derivatives, occurs seven times in all–retains the connotations of either a physical or a metaphorical barrier without reference to women or their clothing.  […]

Thus, the Qur’anic usage of the term hijab seems somewhat removed from the notion of dress or clothing of any kind.  For this reason, we maintain that the early Muslims, Muhammad’s contemporaries, did not understand the Qur’anic term hijab to mean what many people today think it means, namely, the near-total concealment of a Muslim woman’s physical features.

Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (Dress, Body, Culture) by Fadwa El Guindi

Similarly, Fadwa El Guidi carefully examines the meaning of hijab in light of Quran, Hadith, Arabic grammar, and history and culture in Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (Dress, Body, Culture) and concludes that

The European term “veil” (with its correlate “seclusion”), therefore, fails to capture these nuances, and oversimplifies a complex phenmonenon. […] Furthermore, “veil” as commonly used gives the illusion of having a single referent, whereas it ambiguously refers at various times to a face cover for a women, a transparent head cover, or an elaborate headdress […]

Evidence from its usage in the Qur’an and from early Islamic feminist discourse, as well as anthropological analysis, supports the notion that hijab in Islam as referring to a sacred divide or separation between two worlds or spaces: deity and mortals, good and evil, light and dark, believers and nonbelievers, or aristocracy and commoners.  The phrase min wara’ al-hijab (from behind the hijab) emphasizes the element of separation/partition, not, as is commonly proposed and frequently assumed, women’s seclusion.  […]  When the reference is to women’s dress, the pertinent meaning combines sanctity, reserve, and privacy. [Not just, or even primarily, clothing.  These values apply equally to men.  There’s infinitely more to hijab than clothing. –Svend]

Compare this to the painfully superficial discussions one gets from most modern “traditional” sources.  (I put that in quotes not to call into question the concept but highlight how on this matter I think many contemporary treatments unworthy of a tradition that produced dazzlingly nuanced and scrupulous scholars like  Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Taymiyya, Abu  Hanifa, Qurtubi, Ibn Arabi, …).

What is a conscientious believer who both cares  about gender justice and is committed living up to God’s message to do?  Who do you turn to for guidance in such a situation–an inherently secular and sometimes poorly informed academic system that is at least willing to grapple with complexity, or a male-dominated religious establishment that while pious and deeply informed generally seems allergic to (or unwilling to publicly demonstrate) nuance and evenhandedness on questions of gender?  I don’t say that to be polemical.  It’s a rhetorical (and I think very legitimate) question for which I don’t have an answer.

Whatever the answer is, I think there is a serious problem about which, for all our talk about reform and renewal, many of us prefer to bury our head in the sand.  (Sometimes because we’re more interested in being seen by others as “traditional” than actually living up to– or doing justice to–our tradition.)

Update (March 31, 2007): Added the postscript.

Update (June 23, 2007): I’m promoting my responses to 2 comments to the body of the post since I think they clarify a few important points.

Response #1:

Salaams, UZ, and thanks for the comment.

I don’t disagree all that much with you.

My interest here isn’t in advocating a particular stand on hijab, but for sake of conversation I’ll note that our main point of disagreement probably concerns what exactly is being enjoined. I see the headscarf as one of many practices that can promote the ideal of modesty and proper comportment. It is acceptance of that broader *principle* that I consider fard, not this one particular practice.

There are all sorts of social practices against which the Quran and/or Hadith thunder in the strongest possible terms. Backbiting, lieing, elitism, indifference to the suffering of others, ad infinitum. These are *ideals* rather than concrete practices, and ideals are by definition difficult if not impossible to encourage via law, much less enforce. However, in the case of hijab (which is not a specific practice but rather an ideal) we try to do just that, and in a manner that given its coercive nature is ultimately counterproductive and infantilizing to women.

Again, as I said I have nothing but respect for the practice and choice of hijab. But just as one should not attempt to legislate ethical ideals such as total honesty one should not legislate the implementation of the ideal of modesty in people’s lives. There are always limitations on one’s freedom–that’s what law is about–but to cross the line into forcing people to be pious is a huge mistake, and I think one that partly results from the unsuccessful internalization by Muslims of Western secular political ideas and legal precepts.

But all this is a distraction from the point. I’m talking about the simplistic way so many leading scholars discuss hijab, not hijab itself. I respect the conclusion that it is fard–there certainly are many arguments there–but not unwillingness of scholars to openly discuss the arguments for a practice which is not fundamental to one’s aqida.

You note that you’ve heard such arguments before. My point is not their existence but the rarety with which they are acknolwedged–much less dealt with seriously–by traditional scholars. This issue is not black & white, but that is precisely how it is invariably discussed in major Islamic fora.

Actually, I think the emphasis on modesty is clearly and repeatedly implied by the emphasis on separation. Unless gender segregation is arbitrary or punitive, the inescapable conclusion seems that its aim is to encourage modesty, both in dress or in *behavior*.

I realize that these terminological nuances don’t invalidate the traditional stand. But they do, I think, symbolize how simplistic and hostile to complexity analyses by many contemporary scholars are.

As I said, it doesn’t have to be this way. Traditional scholars could and should be leading the debate, but few even acknowledge that a debate exists, and legitimately so. Which is why for many Muslim women they are totally irrelevant when it comes to hijab.

Ironically, by ceding the discussion to academics, feminists, etc., these scholars are encouraging the unfettered ijtihad that they fear.

Finally, one can criticize trends among contemporary traditional scholars without calling into question the tradition itself.

Response #2:

Salaams, Sophister

Well, my intention wasn’t to write a treatise on hijab (a topic about which I do not obsess) but simply to highlight a example of widespread oversimplification of a complicated topic.

While I respect the conventional interpretation and am completely comfortable with the headscarf as a voluntary social practice, I think the substantive conclusion (i.e., that the headscarf is required on all women in all circumstances) suffers from comparable internal inconsistencies. Setting aside terminological issues–which I agree do not have a direct bearing on whether it is obligatory–I do not think the evidence of the Quran and Sunnah clearly mandate the headscarf at all, at least not in the way we now understand it.

There are a lot of legitimate questions that need to be addressed before you can make that blanket claim, IMO, and I don’t see many “traditional” scholars bothering to answer them before doing so.

Also, I forgot to reply to an interesting thing UmmZaynab. She rightfully distinguished between the real but subordinate spiritual role of played by hijab and the all important first principles embodied in the Five Pillars. My concern, though, is that far too often this line is implicitly blurred by contemporary scholars as they wildy overreact and overemphasize the issue, in the process reducing women’s faith to a binary fashion choice.

Then there’s the almost universal refusal to acknolwedge the possibility that non-hijabi Muslimahs sincerely believe–and based on the *evidence* as opposed to the whisperings of Shaitan–that Islam does not require the headscarf. The implication is invariably that they are rebelious and/or wayward women who lack respect for Islamic tradition. That’s by no means always the case.

As I always say, my problem is not with hijab. It is with what people (usually men) today do with hijab. There are all sorts of modern cultural and pscychological neuroses (e.g., male anxiety over competition with women in the workplace) that are playing out beneath the surface of this debate. We liberals aren’t the only ones who struggle with our nafs (ego) in matters of religion.

P.S. I’m glad some people find this post useful, but I should note that I’m ambivalent about the Carnival of Brass picking this up. I certainly think it’s a legitimate topic for discussion, but I wasn’t looking to make a big statement, and I don’t consider this searious treatment of question. Nor do I wish to be (or be seen as) a crusader against hijab.

I was just musing on the topic for those who share my interests.

This post isn’t really about hijab. It’s about an example of the humanity and resulting fallibility of scholars.

To some, that is the most subversive topic of all, but that’s another discussion.

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