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Early Muslim society did not know face veils
11/6/2006 7:29:54 PM

- By Arif Mohammed Khan

Does Islam make "veil" compulsory for Muslim women? This question has been engaging media attention since some Muslim women in Britain preferred to be sacked from their jobs than give up the veil. Now the issue is being debated with more vigour, and selective quotations are being used not only to buttress the conservative position, but even to question the right of the common man or woman to give opinion on a subject involving religious sensitivities.

My understanding of Islam is that as a system it claims to be not just a religious order but a way of life. It espouses certain ideals and goals, and desires to achieve them through character building or internal transformation, not by using force, compulsion or imposition. In fact the Quran emphatically says, "If it had been the Lord’s Will they would all have believed all who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind against their will to believe!" (10.99)

There is no doubt that Islam expects men and women to dress decently, in a dignified manner, not to make public display of bodily charms and provoke lewdness. Now what is decent and dignified cannot be defined in absolute terms. Much will depend on the times and the environment in which we are living, a principal duly recognised by Islamic law.

Here I would like to give a few examples from early Islamic society which can help us to understand the role played by women not just as homemakers but as active participants in social and political life. Thus we can make our own assessment about the freedom they enjoyed and the environment they lived in.

To begin with, the first wife of the Holy Prophet, H. Khadija, was one of the top business leaders of Mecca. In fact, before marriage, she had engaged him as her business assistant and is also credited as the first person to have believed in his apostleship. Interestingly, the first martyr in the cause of Islam was also a woman named Sumayya bint Khayyat, who died as a result of persecution by Quraish.

In Medina, we find the mention of Umm Sharik as a "woman with numerous guests" that included companions of the Holy Prophet (Muslim). Women in Medina used to go to the market and on one occasion Umar objected to Sawdah (wife of the Holy Prophet) when he saw her on her way to the market. On her return, she reported the matter to the Prophet and he told her, "God has permitted you to go out to attend to your needs." (Bukhari)

It is worth remembering that this episode happened after the Quranic injunction asking the wives of the Prophet to remain secluded.

Apart from offering prayers in the mosque, women attended the meetings that were held there. Whenever an announcement about a gathering was made, women hurried alongside men to attend that. Here one may refer to the narration of Fatima bint Qays who responded to one such call and attended the meeting. (Muslim 1373)

During the Prophet’s lifetime, women were an integral part of the social life in Medina. According to one narration in Bukhari, the women requested the Prophet to fix a day for their education and he readily agreed and preached to them on the appointed days. In fact one chapter in Sahi Bukhari has been given the heading "Men’s greeting of women and women’s greeting of men" which shows that there was no restriction on men meeting and greeting women and vice versa. Women were allowed to run nursing centres to look after the patients and the first woman to have a nursing home near the mosque of the Prophet was Rufaydah Al-Aslamyah. At this centre she nursed and looked after those who were injured in battles. (Bukhari)

Women’s participation in business and agricultural activities in Medina is mentioned in several narrations. We have a very interesting case of a woman who owned a date palm garden. After the death of her husband, she wanted to go out to her garden to supervise the cutting of date fruit. But since she had recently become a widow and her waiting period was not yet over, her nephew Jabir ibn Abdullah objected to her plan to go out. She reported this matter to the Prophet and he said, "Yes you can cut your date fruit. You may also give something in charity or do something good." (Muslim and Abu Dawood)

One of the striking features about the women of Medina during the lifetime of the Prophet was their participation in defence services. At the time of the Battle of Uhud, Anas reported that "I saw Aisha, the daughter of Abu Bakr and Umm Sulaim both lifting their dresses up so that I was able to see the ornaments of their legs, and they were carrying the water skins on their arms to pour the water into the mouths of the thirsty people and then go back and fill them and come to pour the water into the mouths of the people again." (Bukhari 5.156)

In the same battle, an Ansari woman, Nasiba bint Ka’ab, excelled herself. The Prophet said about her, "Whenever I turned right or left, I saw her fighting to defend me." (Fathul Bari Vol.6 P.80)

Al-Waqidi in his book says that, "She had suffered twelve wounds in the battle of Uhud and she nursed one wound in her neck for one whole year until it healed." Likewise, Umm Ayman is mentioned as one of the heroines of the battle of Uhud. In addition to this, several other names like Asma bint Yazid, Umm Haram and Khawla bint Al-Azwar figure prominently as active participants in military actions.

In diplomacy, again women played a very crucial role. After the signing of the Hudaibiya treaty, when there was marked resentment in the Muslim ranks and companions were slow to carry out the orders, Umm Salamah is credited with having given very sound advice to the Holy Prophet that ensured prompt obedience and thus helped in overcoming a temporary crisis.

This trend of women’s participation in public affairs continued even after the death of the Prophet. In the battle of Ramala, the women-only Muslim force inflicted a crushing defeat on the Byzantine army. It has been reported that when the Muslim army under Amr bin Al-Aas was engaged in a fight against the Byzantine army, the Byzantine commander got information that the Muslim army had left much of its supplies and armoury at Ramala guarded by a women’s battalion. He immediately sailed for Palestine and laid siege to Ramala only to be defeated by these women fighters.

The second Caliph Umar had appointed Al-Shifa bint Abdullah as superintendent of the Medina market. She exercised judicial and executive powers. In Mecca, Umar had appointed Samra bint Nuhayk Asadi to the same post and gave her a whip to punish anyone who cheated or gave short measure. Surely veil wearing and whip lashing are impossible to go together.

It is not possible to mention all those women who played historic roles in various other public spheres. But it will be fair to mention two granddaughters of the Holy Prophet. According to Amir Ali, after "Karbala when the governor of Kufa wanted to murder the ailing son of Imam Husain to put an end to the progeny of Holy Prophet, something in the look of Zainab, her determination to die with her nephew, struck fear into (the) tyrant’s heart, and the life of Imam Zainul Abideen was saved." The other, Sukayna bint Husain was a literary critic and admirer of poetry. Her house was frequented by poets and literary figures.

Now one can imagine that these women who undoubtedly followed the Quranic injunctions to "guard their modesty" were not practising a dress code that would create obstructions in carrying out their duties. Can one conceive a woman soldier wearing a veil fighting the enemy with a weapon like sword?

It is clear from all this that for early Muslim women, hijab meant decent, dignified dress and behaviour, they did not confuse it with the veil.

Amir Ali in his book A Short History of the Saracens, says, "The custom of female seclusion which was in vogue among the Persians from very early times made its appearance among the Muslim communities in the reign of Walid II, an Umvi Caliph. The character and habits of the sovereign favoured the growth and development of a practice which pride and imitation had transplanted to the congenial soil of Syria. His utter disregard of social conventions and the daring and coolness with which he entered the privacy of families compelled the adoption of safeguards against outside intrusions, which once introduced became sanctified into a custom." In the light of these historical facts, one can safely say that the concept of veil was not even known in early Muslim society.

I hold that as far as dress is concerned, it is the sole prerogative of the individual who wears it to decide what is best for him or her, and must be allowed free choice as long as it does not offend public sensitivities. Any form of compulsion, whether by way of asking somebody to wear a particular dress or by asking someone not to wear a particular dress, is against the spirit of freedom and democracy. The sooner we learn to accept and cherish diversities, the sooner we shall start living in conformity with the laws of nature, and this alone has the capacity to bring harmony and happiness in human affairs.

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