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Al-Azhar’s Intolerance: Some Thoughts on The Niqab Ban

October 5, 2009

Early this morning I received a link in my email to an article whose title implies that an Egyptian cleric is “banning niqaab”.  The article goes on to state that the cleric will issue an edict regarding niqaab.  A few issues presented themselves in this article.  Is niqaab being banned in Egypt?  What is meant by “edict”?  Whether or not the niqaab has been banned in Egypt, a struggle between conservatives and moderates is manifesting itself through the trampling of Muslim women’s rights.

After seeking out answers, it is my understanding from several articles, here, here, here and here, that Egyptian cleric Sheikh Tantawi has issued a fatwa stating that the niqaab is un-Islamic.  I admit my understanding of Egyptian law is limited (so please feel free to address this in the comments section), but a fatwa is generally only supposed to be an opinion.  There can be several different and conflicting fatwas regarding an issue within the different schools of thought, within institutions (ie. Al-Azhar), within communities and countries.  Most often, a fatwa can be respected and followed by community members or it can be discarded.  Fatwas form the basis for discourse on any given topic.

While other predominantly Muslim countries have also banned the wearing of niqaab, burqa or any form of head covering, this has always been done in the name of secular democracy. Sheikh Tantawi’s fatwa, on the other hand, is historically, religiously and politically important because as I write this it is reported that he  is taking steps to implement a ban that would prevent women from wearing the veils in Al-Azhar institutions.  In this particular case, a woman’s Islamic right to gain knowledge is being discarded at an Islamic university, unless she complies to policies that circumvent traditional Islamic jurisprudence that Al-Azhar has once prided itself on.  In this manner, this is not just a step backward for Muslim women’s rights, it seriously questions the credibility of the institute which already faces criticism for getting into bed with state politicians.

It is discouraging enough to watch countries impose laws that promote “secular democracy” while flippantly grinding out religious freedom with a steel boot as though it were only a cigarette, but to now witness Islamic religious intolerance within an acclaimed Islamic university is frightening.  For years now, all discourse about what is and what is not considered hijab has been overcast by freedom of religion infringements.  We’ve watched France, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Tunisia etc. all take on the issue of hijab through religious symbol laws.  While it can be argued that these laws apply to all citizens, these laws have discriminatorilly placed the heaviest burden on Muslim women.  A woman should be allowed to choose her form of dress in a public setting; she should not be chided for the moral value judgements that help her make that decision.

The fact is, it’s our hair, it’s our face and we should have the right to make our own decision on whether we would like to show it to people or not.  We should neither be forced to cover them, forced to uncover them, or forced to make a decision between an education or our perceived duty to our religion.

This forced covering and uncovering doesn’t make us Muslim or not-Muslim – we are who we are.  However, this whole pursuit to force us to submit to governmental and institutional standards of conformity are dehumanizing by forcing submission to an abusive authority.

Sadly, until these forced uncoverings stop taking place, we will be slaves to the debate of religious freedom and tolerance.  For Muslim women, contemporary thought regarding the hijab, niqaab, and burqa expressed through texts with formal logical expression of these opinions will be on the back-burner.  As long as this contemporary thought is left there, we’ll remain subjects of outdated rulings, peer-pressure, and forced coverings in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

Perhaps the sheiks could offer us the varying opinions (through translations) about head covering being sunnah or fard.  Perhaps they could explain the basis for their opinion that covering the face is not Islamic.  Perhaps they could educate us rather than contribute in oppressing us.  As for the “secular and democracy” loving authorities, perhaps they could learn to stay out of our hair and contribute to freedom and tolerance.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2009 12:34 am

    it’s good to see you back blogging!

  2. October 8, 2009 5:02 pm

    Thanks Haleem, but I’m not really back. I’ll post every once in a while but I’m back in school these days and just don’t have as much time to blog.

  3. Loga permalink
    October 19, 2009 3:16 am

    I hope you’ll join us and write about the efforts we are making to help support those sisters who do decide to wear it:

    BarakAllah fiikum

  4. October 27, 2009 1:10 pm

    personally, i believe that outdated and repressive cultural practices need to be abolished; a fatwa such as this is a step in the right direction. just because something is a cultural practice does not make it ok. and just because some women think they “choose” to wear it, also doesn’t make it ok. i believe that that a burqa can only ever be damaging and repressive. it can never be a positive force. so why shouldn’t it be condemned? and rather than it being condemned solely by the french and western leaders, or the leftist leaders in the middle east; the best people for the job are exactly the religious leaders

  5. October 27, 2009 11:31 pm

    Hi enchi,

    Unfortunately, there are many things that we can say are “cultural” and start condeming them. Salafi tendencies towards banning and chastising “cultural” practices are a prime example. For example, many Bosnian traditions which are deemed “cultural” like mevluds, tevhids, and even Illahije and Kaside are considered to be wrong. What often happens is that the term “shirk” (idol worship) like in the case of Ajvatovci becomes involved. I have to admit that I myself find myself saying that their is a tremendous amount of shirk pinned to the piece of cloth that Muslim women place upon their heads to prove my point but I’m just a layperson.

    Certainly, there needs to be discussion involved in the matter, but this seems to be more of a provocation than discourse. As I said in the post, Fatwas have in traditional history been something that one could follow or dismiss; there was no compulsion. In this case, the Fatwa does seem contrary to scholarly edicts regarding the issue. There is disagreement regarding the Niqab but there is no consensus that this a cultural practice.

    I’m not sure that I agree with you regarding whether or not the niqaab is a repressive force. I don’t even where a scarf, but I could see how it might be liberating to wear one, if I didn’t have a phobia about getting fresh air 🙂 In the case of women who feel that they are objectified, the niqaab might be a liberating experience. While I am sure that both you and I would argue that the niqaab itself turns a woman from one type of object into another, a woman might prefer being the latter object compared to the former. It’s just not that simple to say that the niqaab can only be repressive and damaging.

    If this was a fatwa alone, I would be thrilled. However, the issue goes beyond fatwa and becomes a policy in which women who choose the niqaab are abolished from the higher education of an Al-Azhar institution. Would we be able to agree that this is counter-productive and that the productive way to eliminate the niqaab would be through education rather than by force?

  6. November 1, 2009 2:12 pm

    hey samaha,

    argh i just wrote a whole response and accidentally clicked out of the screen!!

    so here goes again 🙂

    i definately agree with you in that the productive way to eliminate the niqaab is through education and not compulsion. and i see your point with fatwas.

    the only reason i saw the fatwa as something positive, is because i think that progressive islamic thinkers should make their views as loudly known as some regressive elements have. many westerners hold the view that all muslims are monolithic, or that salafi islam is the norm precisely because the most conservative interpretations of islam seem to be the ones that are the most heard. and these interpretations are also the ones that have gained the most ground in recent times (especially egypt), so i think challanges to salafi fundamentalism-especially within the islamic establishment-are a welcome step. this is is especially true considering the fact that femminists in the arab and muslim world condemn the niqab, and i think its about time that religious leaders gave them their support-and made a serious commitment in dismantling patriarchy and misogyny. hope that made sense 🙂

  7. Phil permalink
    January 7, 2010 9:39 am

    I feel inclined to point out that 1000 years before the Salafis came about niqab was something that was considered fard/wajib.

    Case and point is that there are sufis like Habib Ali and Habib Umar who mandate that anyone studying in their uni/islamic school needs to wear niqab. Basically everyone there wears it and you are going to look real out of place without one.

  8. lubna permalink
    February 13, 2010 11:34 am


    i actually didnt know about this fatwa to ban the niqaab in alAzher until my husband mentioned it last night, when i had mentioned to him about the guy who pushed to ban minerets in switzerland now accepting islam and becoming muslim, then he(my husband) mentioned in switzerland there are few muslims and they are making a big deal about minerets being banned but the muslim world stays quiet when they try to ban niqaab in one of the biggest and well reknowned islamic universities in a muslim country…then i googled it and came to your blog…and it was mashaAllah nicely put together!

    you are right it is our body, hair and faces, and people fear what they do not know (hence their stand on how we are oppressed when we wear them) if only they realized that oppression is being forced to do that which a person is morally or otherwise against doing….so who are the real oppressors?

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