Last month I participated in a Channel 4 News debate on the niqab. The debate itself was quite nondescript. It was the behaviour of the niqabi ladies who mobbed me afterwards that told the real story.
Yasmin Alibhai Brown mentioned that she had received violent and abusive messages from niqabi ladies during the week, and the panellists were quick to tutt tutt at such awful behaviour. Within half an hour the hooliganism of the niqabi women who harangued me showed the gulf between actions and words. One lady hissed that I needed to repent and that she did not want to stand in front of Allah because she did not advise me. My crime? I ventured. First, you sat next to a kafir man. Yes, I remember sitting on a chair, which was next to a chair on which Douglas Murray sat. I don’t ever remember sitting on his lap. Do these women travel on the tube or walk down Oxford Street? Or are they chaperoned everywhere by their unemployed mahrams? My second crime was to speak against my sisters. Actually, I did not see any signs of sisterhood in the room that evening.
As I tried to leave, after the debate, a small group of niqabi women surrounded me. The niqab is mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an and yet you deny its validity, was their argument. Having been a teacher of the Qur’an for over twenty years, I am well aware of the lie of this claim. The verse in question is in Surah An Nur: “And do not reveal your beauty except that which ordinarily appears”. The precise meaning of this phrase has been disputed by the greatest scholars of the Muslim world. The Companion Abdullah Ibn Masud was of the opinion that the face and hands have to be covered. The Prophet’s (S) cousin, Abdullah ibn Abbas said that the face and hands need not be covered. Ibn Kathir quotes Aisha who mentioned that the Prophet (S) saw her sister Asmaa wearing revealing clothes and told her that once a girl reached puberty, she could show only this and that. He then pointed to the face and hands. Clearly the Companions themselves disputed regarding the issue of the niqab.
There is no denying the niqab and khimar were features of pagan life, and were Islamicised. Given there is Ikhtilaf on whether or not the niqab is obligatory, neither side can claim to have jumhur on the issue. The great salafi scholar, Sheikh Nasiruddin Al Albani, professor at Madina University, was adamant that the niqab is not wajib. In his book “Jilbab Al Mar’atul Muslimah” he argued this point forcefully. He quotes ibn Rushd from Al Bidaayah that most scholars, including Abu Hanifah, Malik, Ash Shafi’i and Ahmad, are all of the opinion that the face is not awrah.
Sheikh Albani’s colleague, the late Sheikh Ibn Baz, disagreed vehemently and the two men often argued the point. That is the beauty of legitimate Ikhtilaf. The problem with many salafis today is they are incapable of acknowledging the existence of Ikhtilaf. When I told the woman in question that the niqab is not mentioned in the Qur’an, her response was to allude to the Qur’anic verse that “whatever the Prophet gives to you, take it, and whatever he forbids you from, refrain from it.” Her next comment was that I do not follow the Sunnah.
This is the takfiri mentality for which the salafis are famous, not their adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah. She was implying that I deny the authority of hadith, and this made me see red. My late grandfather was Sheikh Abdul Ghaffar Hasan, professor of Hadith at Madina university. My late maternal great grandfather was Maulana Yunus Qureishi, another scholar of hadith. My father is Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, a graduate of Madina university and teacher of Quran and hadith for over fifty years (may the Almighty give him health and a long life). I have been brought up in the lap of hadith while these women probably grew up in the lap of heresy and pagan ritual. To accuse me of denying hadith when I am simply pointing out a difference of opinion among the scholars is frankly ludicrous.
Therein lies my dilemma. Salafi blood runs in my veins and is embedded in my psyche. I see the wisdom of its insistence on a close contact with the Qur’an and Sunnah. I know the importance of avoiding innovations and heresy in worship in order to keep the faith pure. I acknowledge the necessity of showing respect to 1,400 years of scholarship and intellectual thought. We cannot isolate the Qur’an from its historical context nor from the audience who were the first to hear it. It is precisely this Sunnah that tells us to separate the cultural context of Arabia from the mandatory rules on an Islamic life. Our faith has survived and prospered because generations of Muslims had the confidence and ability to interpret and adapt the framework of Scripture into their particular context. They looked beyond the superficial outward trappings of rules to the inner core of Islam, and they transmitted this beauty through the ages.
But today I feel ashamed to call myself a salafi because of the arrogance, judgementalism and lack of tolerance of these people. The Prophet (S) taught adab, manners, courtesy, gentleness and good character before he taught ritual worship. During the debate Douglas was told by one woman that she had no interest in hearing the opinion of a man. The crowd had booed and heckled him when he spoke. Another woman pronounced she did not care what other people thought of her dress. Interestingly, the niqabis clapped when someone on the panel was speaking. I was under the impression that according to salafi thought, clapping is not permitted. As I tried to walk away from one woman, she grabbed my sleeve and tried to rip it off. I am embarrassed to admit it but I actually lost my temper. I shouted and walked off in anger. This was a mistake and I apologise for it. I should have stayed calm in the face of such provocation.
Women kept coming up to me to pronounce they were students of ‘Alimah courses and would be scholars soon. Is this how our real scholars behaved? Did they get a certificate and pronounce arrogantly that they were scholars? Or did they study in order to learn and to be close to their Creator, and were then pronounced to be scholars by their students because of their characters as well as their knowledge?
If these are tomorrow’s scholars, then let us pray janazah (funeral prayer) for our community.
Khola Hasan is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, law consultant and Muslim Institute Fellow. Her first short book entitled “The crumbling minarets of Spain” was written at the age of 17, later published in England, and then translated into Arabic and Urdu abroad. She holds a Masters degree in “International and Comparative Legal Studies” from SOAS.
She is currently Director of Albatross Consultancy Limited. She is an executive member of the East London Three Faiths Forum, and involved in Scriptural Reasoning with St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.