On the Niqaab Controversy
After the death of the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam), Muslims witnessed much controversy and disagreement on matters related to the religion. With the appearance of heretical groups came the need to refute foreign ideas from the religion and preserve the creed held by the Prophet (may Allah exalt His mention) and his Companions, which resulted in much disputing, and even bloodshed, among Muslims.
However, religious disputes were not solely characteristic of those between heretical groups and Muslims upon the Sunnah, but they were also present among Muslims who held fast to the Sunnah.
Nevertheless, these disagreements between the people of the Sunnah were, as described by early scholars, those that did not harm them in the least. In other words, even in matters of serious disagreement, the scholars of the Sunnah remained respectful toward one another and continued to love one another for the sake of Allah.
In recent times, by the mercy of Allah, the scholars of this ummah have continued on this path of mutual respect even in disagreement, but, unfortunately, the laypeople have witnessed something entirely different. Since the common person does not have the knowledge, wisdom, and good manners of a scholar, she is likely to approach an issue of difference of opinion quite differently than would a person of knowledge. As a result, an issue that results in respectful disagreement among the scholars more often than not results in bitter disputation and animosity among laypeople. Of course, one of the most obvious examples of this is the disagreement on Islam’s view of the niqaab, the face veil.
Although the issue of whether or not the niqaab is obligatory (fard) or recommended (mustahabb) is the central dispute among Muslims, this essay will address another aspect of the niqaab dispute that is often left out of scholarly discourse on the issue but is the source of great harm and animosity among Muslims: the absence of respect for one another’s view on the niqaab.
It goes without saying that the answer to whether or not the niqaab is obligatory or recommended will never be solved in circles of laypeople, for it has not even be solved in circles of scholars. In fact, the arguments are so detailed and specific on each side that it quite likely will not be solved until the Day of Judgment. With such a reality, arguments among laypeople on this issue should be rare to nonexistent except in the context of a friendly exchange of information. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and bitter arguments characterize many Muslim discussions. Internet chat rooms, message boards, and sisters’ gatherings are just a few examples of this. However, what is more unfortunate is that beyond the argument itself is an underlying intolerance, if not disrespect, among Muslims for a person having another point of view than them.
On one of the most popular Muslim websites on the internet, a message board was titled “Yes to Hijaab, No to Niqaab,” and, as the title suggests, the board was filled with a host of insults—from Muslims—against Muslim women who wear niqaab, ranging from labeling them extremist to referring to the niqaab as “repulsive”. On the flip side, it is not uncommon to hear sisters who wear niqaab discussing, quite vehemently, the senselessness of a woman displaying her face in public. However, Muslims should avoid such harmful discourse that does nothing more than create animosity in our hearts (which prevents us from loving each other for the sake of Allah) and removes faith from our hearts and replaces it with diseases that corrupt our souls. In addition to such harmful discussions and despite Islam being very clear that Muslims are one brotherhood, many Muslims have an “us versus them” mode of thinking on the issue of the veil, in which sisters who wear niqaab comprise one group and those who do not wear niqaab comprise another group. Sometimes this “us versus them” phenomenon manifests itself in conversations, and, more seriously, it sometimes manifests itself in people’s choosing of friends. In other words, the “us versus them” mode of thinking has affected us so much that many Muslims choose—and lose—friends based on whether or not someone does or does not wear niqaab, even if this choice or loss is not done intentionally. There are even Muslim internet groups and clubs that base membership on whether or not a sister wears niqaab, which further complicates the phenomenon of categorizing, and thus dividing, ourselves by our dress.
Another phenomenon regarding the niqaab is the further dividing of Muslims based on how frequent a person wears or does not wear niqaab. What happens here is an offshoot of the “us versus them” phenomenon in that a sister who wears niqaab sometimes finds herself at odds with a sister who wears it all the time. This phenomenon further manifests itself when a sister who wants to wear niqaab is given an ultimatum: all or nothing. In other words, she must either wear the niqaab all of the time or not all, leaving her to feel as if she has to choose “us” or “them”. This position, which does not recognize an Islamic position in between, has been defended by the belief, “If you don’t wear it all of the time, then it’s not for the sake of Allah.” This ultimatum is actually given quite frequently as advice to sisters thinking of covering their faces. In fact, many sisters thinking of wearing the niqaab have been warned against being like the “them” group, who “wear it and then take it off,” whether they stop wearing it altogether or wear it only sometimes.
Despite this “all or nothing” position having little, if any, basis in the Qur’an or Sunnah, it is a strange one due primarily to the fact that, although wearing niqaab is, at least, mustahabb and thus an act of worship, many Muslims treat the wearing of niqaab unlike they do any other act of worship. For example, if a person is thinking of praying Tahajjud in the last third of the night, which is undoubtedly a mustahabb act, it would be strange advice for someone to assert that only if she prays it every night will it be for the sake of Allah—or only if she prays the same amount of rakaat would it be for the sake of Allah. If such were the case, none of our prayers at night could be counted as for the sake of Allah. The defense of the “all or nothing” stance often is that Allah loves acts done consistently, and although this is true, it is primarily the issue of niqaab (versus other acts of worship) that the right of the individual to determine that consistency is taken away. In other acts of worship, a person’s practice and consistency is respected, and it would be unthinkable for Muslims to frown upon a Muslim who consistently prays Tahajjud three times a week versus seven. That a person prays the supererogatory prayer at all is applauded. However, if a person wears niqaab sometimes, which too is at least mustahabb, instead of being encouraged in the good she is doing, she is instead outcast because others tend to measure her supererogatory act by what she is not doing. Consequently, even if she wears the veil sometimes, but consistently (like each time she goes to the masjid), she is ostracized and discouraged in her efforts because she does not wear at other times too. This discouraging and ostracizing of a person who does a mustahabb act “only sometimes” is a phenomenon seen almost exclusively in the act of wearing niqaab and no other act of worship, at least where animosity and harsh overtones are concerned.
This phenomenon of treating only the act of wearing niqaab in this manner further proves that it has become an act of division instead of worship for some Muslims; otherwise, it would be treated as other supererogatory acts are, wherein an individual’s practice is respected, regardless of the extent of that practice. But since the wearing of the niqaab is an “all or nothing” issue to many sisters, what has resulted is the furthering of the gap between “us” versus “them.” Furthermore, since all Muslims embarking upon a mustahabb act for the first time will naturally want to feel free (and comfortable) to do it at their own pace, many sisters who consider wearing niqaab never do, for fear of being ostracized and having their right to choose to what extent they will practice the supererogatory act taken away from them. In other words, they feel as if they actually do have to choose “all or nothing” and be a part of the “us” or “them” group. Consequently, and very unfortunately, the giving of this ultimatum has resulted in the commanding of the evil (i.e. discouraging sisters from practicing the Sunnah) and the forbidding of the good (i.e. doing a mustahabb act, even if only sometimes) instead of vice versa. However, in true Islam no such ultimatum or grouping exists.
In contrast, Islam does not frown upon any good, no matter how seemingly small it may be in our eyes, and it commands us to be merciful with one another. Muslim women are sisters to one another, and whether or not a person wears niqaab at all, let alone sometimes or all of the time, should have no bearing on this sisterhood. We are here to help one another in the affairs of the Hereafter, not to give ultimatums and divide (or befriend) based on dress. The Prophet (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam) left us on a clear path and showed us so many opportunities to earn extra reward from Allah (free is He from all imperfections) that even if we tried to take advantage of them all, we could not. Thus, each of us must choose from the seemingly countless good acts that we can do and do as much of them as we can. Naturally, each individual’s choice of good will differ from another person’s. How much a person does of a particular act and how consistent she is in that act will vary from person to person, but the right of that person to determine what she believes to be the strongest proof on an issue and how (and if) she will practice it (and to what extent) should be respected as her individual choice.
Disagreements are a fact of life and cannot be avoided, but how we deal with disagreements is an important question for one who is concerned for her soul. This is especially true since how we use our tongue, how safe a Muslim feels around us, and our character are three things that will weigh heavily on the Day of Judgment, in addition to them being central to our Islam itself. The Prophet (may Allah exalt His mention) said, “A Muslim is he from whose hand and tongue the Muslims are safe.” Furthermore, he advised us to make things easy for the people. Allah says of the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam), “To the believers, he is most kind and merciful” (9:128).
When we think of our view on the niqaab issue, can we say that the Muslims are safe from our tongue? Does our manner in approaching this issue emulate the mercy and kindness displayed in the Sunnah? Do we make things easy for the people? If we can perfect these areas in our lives and, by the mercy of Allah, truly follow the Sunnah, we would cease to find it important to make certain everyone views the wearing or not wearing of niqaab as we do. We would not find the veil repulsive or extreme. We would not create an “us” versus “them” relationship between Muslims and form friendships and groups based on our dress. And we would no longer concern ourselves with how frequently a person wears or does not wear niqaab. Furthermore, we would not discourage our sister from doing an act beloved to her Lord by giving her an ultimatum (that we have no right to give) and ostracizing those who do the beloved act “only sometimes”. Only when we respect each other’s positions and practices on issues of legitimate disagreement and remove from our discussions and judgments the acts of others, who are doing nothing less than striving to please Allah, can we truly be believers and love one another for the sake of Allah.
- Baiyinah Bint Muhammad