"Nowhere in the Islamic world have the scholars achieved a consensus that Islam mandates covering the face. While there seems to be consensus among orthodoxy on modest attire, no orthodox scholar, with the exception of the Wahhabi sheiks, believe that the covering of the face is mandated by the Qur’an

Farzana Hassan
The Calgary Herald

A phone debate on a Montreal-based radio station prompted me to investigate the theology of the burka. My opponent, a woman who admitted to wearing a burka, angrily instructed me to hold any judgment on whether the Qur’an mandates the burka until I found out more about Islam. She urged me to conduct a thorough and dispassionate research of the issue.

Her response was familiar. Traditional Muslims often accuse more liberal Muslims of ignorance; if such contemptible liberals understood Islam properly, they would be more conservative. They believe the opinions of liberal Muslims are woeful, have no merit or are perhaps inspired by a nefarious anti-Islam agenda.

In any case, I accepted her challenge and my research confirmed what I already knew — that neither the Qur’an nor Islam in general mandates covering the face. In fact, the Qur’an does not urge any woman even to cover her hair. 

I therefore regard the hijab as a biddah: something that is alien to Islam. 

The Qur’an contains no express injunction for women to cover their hair or their faces. What the Qur’an enjoins is modesty in dress and demeanour — nothing more, nothing less — and leaves this to mere mortals to interpret.

I am therefore aghast at the proliferation of the hijab and burka among women of all ages. The conservatives glibly call up dubious quotes from the Qur’an to dismiss the cogent arguments against veiling. Is it general social pressure within their communities that makes them do this, or fearmongering from hellfire preaching? They defend their position vehemently, as if to ensure they are not violating any religious tenets and therefore destined to broil in the afterlife.

While I am not overly concerned about the hijab, a garment that does not conceal a woman’s identity or hinder her movements, the burka disturbs me. 

Not only is it arguably a security risk, but it also symbolizes the worst kind of oppression of women. Rooted in Wahhabi culture, it is a political tool to subjugate women, ensuring that they remain subservient to the demands and whims of the kind of men who stipulate such rules for them.

We can also employ Islamic jurisprudence to attack the practice of wearing the burka. The recognized schools of Islamic jurisprudence prescribe four methods of arriving at religious understanding. These comprise the Qur’an itself, the sunnah (the oral traditions of the prophet, called Hadith), ijma (the consensus of the Muslim community on religious issue) and qiyas (analogy). The most relevant to our current debate is the third principle of Islamic jurisprudence, called ijma or consensus. 

There are two types. 

Yet nowhere in the Islamic world have the scholars achieved a consensus that Islam mandates covering the face. While there seems to be consensus among orthodoxy on modest attire, no orthodox scholar, with the exception of the Wahhabi sheiks, believe that the covering of the face is mandated by the Qur’an.

Muslims across the world are urged to follow the consensus of the community, particularly of the scholars. If only a small number of extremist sheiks demand that women’s faces be covered, why do some Muslims forsake a recognized aspect of Islamic jurisprudence by obeying them?

An assortment of Canadian Islamic organizations released a statement Friday condemning the ban on face veils, which has just been enacted in Egypt. Predictably, the reasoning they offer is designed to appeal to Western notions of freedom, saying that the state “has no business in the wardrobes of the nation.” 

Yet all Canadians, and most certainly all Muslims, know that veiling is more than a matter of wardrobe; it concerns identity and status. The Muslim Canadian Congress has rightly asked for a ban. Face covering is rooted in patriarchy and has no religious basis whatsoever. In fact, it directly violates recognized ways of arriving at religious accord.

[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]