By now, almost everyone has heard of the recent incident involving the Shaykh al-Azhar, the esteemed Dr. Sayyid Muhammad Tantawi, with the veiled high-school student. The office of the Shaykh al-Azhar is symbolically the most senior office in the entire Sunni world, outranking even that of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, since it purportedly places in the highest office the most scholarly personality of the oldest and more revered Islamic University in the Sunni world, al-Azhar University. In fact, Dr. Tantawi had previously held the position of the Grand Mufti of Egypt for almost a decade, after which the great leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, impressed with his services to Islam, promoted him to the office of Shaykh al-Azhar. Hosni Mubarak should be thanked for promoting Dr. Tantawi to his office, and this promotion shows not only the credentials of the learned Doctor, but also the care and concern that this three-decade veteran leader of Egypt has for the cause of Islam.
Dr. Sayyid Tantawi hardly needs an introduction, for he has already established a reputable career, and his resume boasts of such fatwas as the one which encourages Muslim women in France to abandon the headscarf so that they may be in conformity with French law. It appears, however, that the venerable Shaykh understands that his role cannot stop at merely removing the headscarf from our sisters. In his concern for the welfare of the Ummah, he has now taken an even bolder step.
In case some are still unfamiliar with the details of the event which occurred two days ago, here are the details which have been reported by a number of reliable eye-witnesses and the media. When the Grand Shaykh was invited to address a group of young female high-school students, he noticed one of them wearing a face-veil (niqab). This seemed to irritate his Excellency rather mightily, and, his conscience so roused, he proceeded to ask the supercilious girl to remove her veil (of course, he is not the first person to do so, having been preceded by the likes of Jack Straw and Tony Blair, amongst other honorable mentions). The girl refused, and said rather innocently that it was her habit to wear it, and she did not show her face to strangers. The Shaykhâ€™s sense of right became even more miffed, so he proceeded to pontificate rather starkly, â€œThe niqab is nothing but culture â€“ it has absolutely no relationship whatsoever with the religion of Islam.â€ Thus buttressed, he then boldly asked her once again to take off the intimidating cloth. Rather surprisingly, the young girl rejected the demands of the senior-most religious authority in Egypt, stood her ground, and once again reiterated that she was uncomfortable with any man seeing her. The esteemed scholar could not take such an insult to his honorable demand so lightly, nor could he allow a sixteen-year old girl to get the better of him! The temerity of such a girl deserved that the Grand Shaykh put her in her place. Gathering all the might and courage that he needed â€“ for 16 year old girls are known for their tempers and bad moods â€“ he charged on, blasting, â€œI have already told you that the niqab has absolutely nothing to do with the religion, and it is something that is from custom!â€ To drive the point home, he added, in a crude Egyptian vernacular, â€œâ€¦and I know the religion better than you, and those who gave birth to you (i.e., your parents).â€ Of course, such langues was completely justified, as how else was the coarse and ill-mannered young lady going to be taught the refined manners of Islam? Petrified and terrified, intimidated and bullied by a man four times her age, embarrassed in front of her peers and teachers and media by the highest-ranking religious authority in the land, the young lady felt she had no choice but to take off the blameworthy fabric. The Shaykh of al-Azhar, satisfied and vindicated, threw in his final blow, to really put the girl in her place, and teach her a well-deserved lesson that she would never forget. Outdoing his crude expression of a few moments ago by a number of exponential notches, he said, â€œAma law kunti hilwa shuwaya la-amilti eh?â€
Alas! English simply cannot do justice to the coarseness and incivility of the Shaykhâ€™s street-manner talk (which, of course, the impudent young girl fully deserved). While the vulgarity and tone of the language might fool some people, in fact what the Shaykh really did was to skillfully and subtly demonstrate that, despite his high office and erudite mastery of the religion, he was completely in tune with the riff-raffs and hooligans of the alleyways of Cairo. A rough translation â€“ albeit without the vulgar connotations of the Arabic (and my apologies to our English readers for the loss of the coarseness) â€“ would be, â€œSo if you were even a little beautiful, what would you have done then?â€ The implication, of course, was that the egotistical girl was presuming herself to be worthy of participating in a beauty pageant, hence covering her face out of fear of tempting others. Little did she realize that she was not even qualified to use the adjective â€˜beautifulâ€™ in the same sentence as her name! The wise and nurturing religious father-figure of the nation made sure that the self-esteem of this young sixteen year old girl would forever be shattered â€“ so let all teachers pay heed to the lessons that the Shaykh imparts through his astounding pedagogical skills.
It is comforting to know that the ex-Grand Mufti is more knowledgeable than we are (of course, in his humbleness and humility, he only restricted his greater knowledge to â€˜the girl and those who gave birth to herâ€™, but we all understand that it was only his modesty that precluded more epithets, and allowed the self-praise to be so restrained). Thank God for that, for indeed us simpletons are in need of his seemingly unrestrained knowledge (not to mention his perfect mannerisms and gentle nature).
For indeed, a cursory reading of the hadith literature to people of lesser knowledge such as ourselves shows that the face veil (niqab) was quite common amongst the wives and female Companions of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam.
The niqab appears to have been so common, in fact, that before the only Hajj the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam ever performed, as he was instructing people regarding the rites of this Sacred Journey, he had to give a general command to all women that they should not wear the niqab during the state of ihram (al-Bukhari in his Saheeh). To an untrained mind, this would indicate that the custom of wearing a niqab had at least some prevalence, or else there would have been no need to caution against it (after all, itâ€™s not as if there is a specific hadith prohibiting women from wearing mink fur coats during ihram). One wonders whether perhaps these noble ladies from amongst the Companions had managed to import this un-Islamic practice from Persia (for the learned Shaykh did not tell us which culture it was imported from?) even before Persian customs reached Arabia â€“ an amazing feat indeed!
To further confound us simpletons, we read in the Sunan of Abu Dawud and other sources, that Aishah (r) would lower her loose scarf over her face even during the state of ihram (thus effectively veiling it) when male riders passed them by. Apparently, Aisha understood that the prohibition for wearing niqab only applied to using that cloth, and not to the actual covering of the face (similar to the fact that men cannot wear trousers during ihram but must still cover that portion of the body with other materials). Lest some misguided individual, infatuated with the Roman (?) custom of veiling, inform us that this veiling was specific for the wives of the Prophet, perhaps our very knowledgeable Mufti can better educate us as to how to understand the narration in the Muwatta of Imam Malik, which states that Fatima b. al-Mundhir used to cover her face in the state of ihram in a similar manner that Aisha did?
And while we are on the subject, perhaps the erudite scholar can also explain how Umm Khallad, another female Companion, was seen wearing a face veil by the Prophet and other Companions? In one tradition (recorded in Sunan Abu Dawud), we learn that after a certain battle, she was seen hurrying to and fro, searching for her son to see if he were still alive. The companions were amazed that even in such a frantic state of mind, she had covered herself with a veil. One of them commented at her veiled state, at which she replied, â€œEven if I have lost my son, I shall not suffer the loss of my modesty!â€ A pity that our ex-Grand Mufti and Shaykh al-Azhar were not present there, for if he were, he would have told her that he was more knowledgeable of the rules of modesty that she was!
It is indeed confounding to simpletons who lack the grace and mastery of books that the Shaykh does to find narration upon narration that seems to assume that wearing a face veil was common practice amongst the earliest of generations. In one, we find that Aishah (r) was recognized by Safwan b. Mu`attal in the â€˜Incident of the Slanderâ€™ only because he had seen her before the revelation of the verses of hijab (thus clearly showing that Aishah, at the very least, understood from these verses that she must cover her face). In another narration, we find that `Umar b. al-Khattab recognized Safiyya after the revelation of the verses of hijab by her gait, thus again indicating that he could not see her face (both narrations in the Sahih of al-Bukhari).
What perturbs the lesser-educated minds of the Ummah is that this pernicious custom of obscuring the face seems to have crept into this nation rather early. Regarding the interpretation of Surah Ahzab, verse 33, which commands women to â€˜â€¦not display your beauty like the women of Jahiliyya did,â€™ al-Tabariâ€™s Tafsir tells us that even the Companions differed amongst themselves regarding whether the face was a part of that beauty which should be covered or not. It appears that the Shaykh al-Azhar was able to detect something which even the Companions missed: that the face covering had nothing to do with Islam! The pervasive insidiousness of this imported fabric was not limited to the Companions, however. We find each and every classical work of legal jurisprudence â€“ from al-Nawawiâ€™s Majmu to Ibn Qudamahâ€™s Mughni to Ibn Abideenâ€™s Radd al-Muhtar to Ibn Abd al-Barrâ€™s al-Tamhid â€“ have sections dedicated to this issue. Peculiarly, we find all four classical Sunni schools of law discussing the legal status of the niqab, in numerous major work of fiqh, written throughout the centuries of Islam. In fact, we even find schools of law outside of the four, such as Ibn Hazmâ€™s al-Muhalla, that discuss this issue. It is indeed great Providence that we have been blessed with the pedantic wisdom of the Shaykh of the Azhar for being able to cut through and expose such a large conspiracy, which spanned the entire geographic regions of the Ummah, and reached back to the earliest of our times. Without his insight, it would be quite easy for someone to believe that the niqab has been a part of the Islamic tradition from its very inception.
One cannot help but sympathize with someone as supposedly learned as Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is not exactly known for conservative views, yet still says,
â€œThose who believe that niqab is an innovation or forbidden are ignorant, and by this they lie about the Law of God. The least that can be said about the issue of niqab is that it is merely permissible.â€
That is why we need government appointed Shaykhs of al-Azhar, to correct such misunderstandings in the wisest and most fatherly of fashions, and to make sure that rash, impetuous young girls are taught the mercy of our religion and the beauty of our mannerisms.
All I can say is: with scholars like theseâ€¦.who needs the French?!
1- The purpose of this article is not to discuss the legal ruling of the niqab, but rather to prove that it existed in our tradition and is a part of Islamic culture; whether it is mubah, or mustahab, or wajib is beyond the scope of our discussion.
2- On a personal note, while I do not unconditionally encourage sisters living in America to wear the niqab, I most certainly do not discourage them from doing so, and believe it is their legal and Islamic right to do if they choose to do so.
3- Sarcasm is allowed in our religion when the situation calls for it â€“ and this one most certainly did