Every time I board an international flight from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, I see the very same spectacle that amazes me just about as much as it intrigues me. Muslim women, clad in the abaya taken as models of piety and chastity, continue to act as reminders of the fact that Allah (swt) loves the people of Haya. This display of piety with God is a familiar and bemusing sight for anyone travelling abroad from a heartland of Islam but it continues to disturb much of our modernized Muslims and the secular west. It begs much larger questions, such as, the role the state should play in enforcing and dictating religious law and whether ‘secularism’ championed by the West is really the best way to move forward in the modern world.
The need to spatially situate ourselves back in time before analyzing religious literature is necessary to be able to answer these questions. However, the modernists and reformists of today feel that the customs of the Hejaz of 600 CE are nothing comparable to anything in our present world. However, what they fail to realize is that although history does play a part in shaping any religion, the message of Allah (swt) is eternal and the teachings are to be followed by the entire humanity irrespective of time and place.
Arabia, before Islam, was going through what is generally agreed upon as Jahiliyah, a time of social and moral ignorance and despondence. Tribal customs prevailed and law of force was the primary law of the land. In a place where the strong dominated the weak, it should hardly be surprising that the societal setup was extremely patriarchal in nature and women were oppressed. Not only did women enjoy few or no basic rights such as those of inheritance and freedom, they could even be inherited from one generation to another, like any other commodity. Concubines, wife-lending and marriage by exchange, all practices prevalent at that time, point to the same fact that women clearly experienced a markedly inferior status in pre-Islamic Arabia. The contention here is not whether Islam came at a time when such order prevailed but rather that it was through the teachings of Islam that the society was reformed.
Many reformists feel that the problem for any male messiah or prophet born in such a society becomes easy to visualize. Despite any divine orders to ensure equality of rights between the two genders, the Prophet (sa) would constantly be surrounded by elements, his male companions, who would resist any move that would change this status quo but there is no evidence to support the claim. The Sahabah were the truest of Muslims and they totally submitted their lives for the sake of Islam. For them the message of Allah (swt) was final and they could not even think about deviating from the commandments of the Quran and Hadeeth. The effect of Muhammad’s revelations was gradual, as the society was slowly being prepared for the new teachings of Islam. Despite all the odds, the Arab society was completely revolutionalized in two to three decades.
No matter how much advancement we make in terms of science and technology, none of it excuses us from the teachings of Allah (swt). The teachings of Taqwa and Haya do not change across time
The Quran requires women to cover their entire bodies from head to toe in decent clothing. The bosoms should be covered and the women should not show themselves off. In the modern world where people feel that there is a need for identification, I fail to see why we cannot have women in Hijab who perform all the core duties that they deem they are fit for. The Hijab is in no way a hindrance to their freedom; rather, it gives them a sense of security and dignity. However, reformists refuse to budge on the Hijab question, and demand for it to be removed from the teachings of Islam and merely be declared as optional. They use the classical line, “Islam is a personal affair between God and the believer, and nobody should have the right to enforce his or her own interpretations of religious literature upon anyone.” They feel that Hijab must remain an open and viable choice for anyone who wants to wear it. It would certainly be naïve to suggest that the stagnation of views on just the Hijab question stems in part from the sexist bigotry which seems to have permeated most Muslim societies and has become deep rooted in the vast majority of Islamic literature.
Having said all that, when I look at my surroundings and consider myself as an educated, young man belonging to a time where the youth has been caught up in the delusion of enlightened moderation and a reformed and liberal Islam, I feel proud to admit that I would like to marry a woman who not only is a practicing Muslim in terms of her actions but also in terms of her outer Sunnah i.e. wears Hijab and covers herself modestly. No matter how much advancement we make in terms of science and technology, none of it excuses us from the teachings of Allah (swt). The teachings of Taqwa and Haya do not change across time and there is no way of reforming the word of Allah (swt). Historians have known throughout time that whenever mankind has chosen to leave the word of God, they have shifted from being Ashraf al Makhlooqat to worse than animals. The choice for the Muslim woman of today might be: veil or no veil; but the Quranic stance on it remains the same. Thus what most of us might consider as conservative, is essentially not only protecting a women’s modesty, it is also a symbol of dignity and a notion of why we are the most superior form of creation. The implications of the teachings of Quran and Sunnah are beyond just the apparent aspects. They are the word of God and His Messenger (sa), and carry in them benefit for us that is beyond our intellectual capacity.