Islamic Perspectives

On Women’s Rights in Islam - ii

Face veil, in all probability, came from non-Arab feudal culture of Persia and Sassanid empires. Recently in a conference in Viena of 100 imams and religious advisors from 40 countries concluded that Islam does not make it a requirement for women to wear face veils. After all, they concluded, face veil is nowhere mentioned in the Qur’an, nor is there a Qur’anic injunction to cover the face.

Even in hadith there is no unanimity about face veil having been clearly mandated. Some scholars say it is some maintain there is no such mandate. Some say only hair should be covered. But all agree that women cannot cover their faces while offering five times prayers or performing hajj. Thus both while offering prayers and performing hajj women cannot cover their faces. And hajj is performed along with thousands of men.

Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a British convert to Islam and a translator of Qur’an in English, observes in his lecture delivered in 1925, “The Relation of the Sexes”, that the veiling of face by women was “not originally an Islamic custom. It was prevalent in many cities of the East before the coming of Islam, but not in cities of Arabia. “Muslim leaders adopted the face veil for their women, he said, “when they entered the cities of Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. It was once a concession to the prevailing custom and was a safeguard for their women from misunderstanding by peoples accustomed to associate unveiled faces with loose character…it has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, and for practical reasons, it has never been adopted by great majority of Muslim women.”

However, slowly, as feudal culture became the norm, face veil struck its roots and slowly Islamic theological resources were used to make it appear Qur’anic and a part of the sunnah. There is one interesting example. Mu’awiyah was appointed governor of Syria during second Caliph Hazrat Umar’s time. Hazrat Umar was very strict in following simple way of life. When he was told that Muawiyah sits on a throne and others stand on both sides of throne with folded hands, Umar was furious and sent a letter to Muawiyah asking his explanation.

Muawiyah wrote to him if I do not do here no one will follow my orders as Syria has been governed by Roman emperors for centuries and they are used to this way of governance. Umar did not object thereafter. And then of course Caliphate was itself transformed into mulukiyyat i. e. kingdom and kingdom was also accepted as Islamic. Thus it will be seen that foreign influences work on legal system and before we understand these become our way of life and we accept them as legitimate.

Islamic jurisprudence could not remain uninfluenced by such influences and since the body of Shari’ah developed over a period of three centuries and Islamic jurists (fuqaha) worked on developing it in far off centers like Mecca-Madina, Iraq, Egypt and Cordova (Spain), how can we say that cultures in these great Islamic centres did not influence thinking of these great jurists?

It is said that during these centuries there were more than 100 different schools of law of which not more than 4 survived in Sunni Islam. It is because independent thinkers and jurists used their intellectual powers to comprehend different problems and find solution and, there being no church and priesthood in Islam, freedom to think and comprehend problem for oneself was not restricted. And if they could find some followers, their school of thought also survived.

In fact, no one shut doors of ijtihad at any point of time but once these four schools of jurisprudence found large number of followers and others did not survive, others were discouraged to develop more such schools. The Shi’ah Islam, on the other hand, retained the institution of ijtihad by independent mujtahids (those who do ijtihad) as 12th Imam went into seclusion and there was no one from the Family of the Prophet (pbuh) to guide the process of jurisprudence.

The Ismailis, on the other hand, perfected their own school under the guidance of 14th Imam Mu’iz in the form of book called Da’im al-Islam around 10th century and is followed ever since. There has been no further development in the Isma’ili school ever since. Besides that there are other minor schools like Zahiri School or Ibadi but followed by small number of people. Also, the Nizari Isma’ilis headed by Agha Khan today believed that one of their Imams Hasan ‘ala zikrihi al-Salam suspended application of Shari’ah law and there is no need to follow any formal Shari’ah law as such.

Now the need to trace this brief history of development of Shari’ah law is to show that the rigidity with which we follow it today is un-called for and, leaving apart ‘ibadat (matters of spiritual worship) we have to rethink in all other social, legal and criminal matters as far as Shari’ah law is concerned. Muslims have accepted many changes in these matters throughout the Islamic world.

Indian Muslims themselves accepted many changes when the British Government suspended application of Islamic criminal law and introduced their own criminal code which was translated into Urdu by Maulavi Nazir Ahmed and was given the title of Shamsul Ulama (Sun of the Islamic theologians) for his services. No one objected to it. But main problem arises when it comes to personal laws involving marriage, divorce, inheritance etc.

Why this resistance? Mainly because  question of women’s rights is concerned in these matters and our society in general and conservative Ulama who come from the same society in particular are not prepared to concede gender equality which is so clearly pronounced by the Qur’an and suppressed consequently by patriarchal social influences. This was realized by many Ulama who had open mind and tried to rectify situation.

During colonial period some Islamic thinkers under the influence of modernity tried to rethink and reformulate Shari’ah provisions. Muhammad Abduh of Egypt who rose to be grand Mufti of Egypt showed great courage in re- thinking. Here in India, thinkers like Sir Syed, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan and Maulavi Chiragh Ali did great work of ijtihad which again shows doors of ijtihad were never closed by any one. What is needed is courage and bold thinking, going directly to Qur’anic values and Prophet’s sunnah in conformity with the Qur’an rather than resorting to plethora of controversial ahadith.

Today, there has been complete transformation of concept of women’s rights, their empowerment and their social role. However, Islamic theologians refuse to accept changing concepts of gender and its social construction and still think women should perform domestic role and should not go out and do what men have been doing.

What they talk of Shar’i hudud (limits) there is nothing Qur’anic in it but the gender role evolved during medieval ages and sanctified as Shar’i requirement. During the Prophet’s time women played revolutionary role and liberated themselves from men’s slavery and became harbingers of Islamic revolution. They, however, lost out to feudal patriarchal values again when Islam spread to areas where Sassanid and Roman Byzantine empires had survived and feudal values were firmly rooted.

Today, though oil in the Middle East has put wealth in the hands of Arab ruling classes but it will take a while for thorough social transformation to take place. The rest of Islamic world is still grappling with the fundamental questions of poverty and illiteracy from Algeria to Egypt to South and South East Asia (except Malaysia) to Indonesia and Philippines. Add to this the anti-Islamic propaganda of western media always attacking Islam and Muslims and US-Israel aggression which gives rise to political Islam reviving itself in reaction. And revival of traditional Shari’ah becomes an important agenda of political Islam. Still many Muslim Intellectuals are engaging themselves with women’s question.


This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 October 2010 on page no. 28

We hope you liked this report/article. The Milli Gazette is a free and independent readers-supported media organisation. To support it, please contribute generously. Click here or email us at

blog comments powered by Disqus