Epistemological Hijab

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

April 20, 2005

If Muslim women wish to regain their humanity and an equal moral status with men, which is not denied to them in principle, they must tear down the partition that separates them from their right to understand and interpret Islamic sources

Hijab, with its various implications and the politics surrounding it, has become a globally polarising issue. In France and in Turkey, between Muslims and Others and between liberal and traditional Muslims, it has become the most contentious cultural issue. Different people see in it the conflict between modernity and Islam and between contemporary and traditional interpretations of the faith.

While, for some, hijab is a symbol of Islam’s ascendance in the world, for others, it is a reminder of the intransigent Muslim resistance to whatever emerged first in the West—modernity, secularism, feminism, liberalism and globalism. For some Muslims in France it is the symbol of their resistance to French cultural dominance over Arabs and Muslims. For Islamists in Turkey it is the question of preserving their Islamic heritage from secular fundamentalism. For many non-Muslim observers it is often an introduction to an Islam that has misogynistic proclivities

Irrespective of one’s perspective, the fact remains that the hijab is an instrument of segregation and containment. It marks the Muslim woman for separation and for ‘different’ treatment. Muslims who claim that hijab forces society to treat women in a special way (in terms of security and respect) do not work to ensure that the society has affirmative laws in place to guarantee equal outcomes for women. So, hijab ultimately undermines equal opportunity.

But the sartorial hijab—with its attendant social practices of segregation, disenfranchisement and marginalisation of women—is only a symptom of a more profound and civilisationally debilitating form of hijab practised by the contemporary Muslim society. What is more significant and needs vigorous confrontation is the epistemological hijab that ‘good’ Muslims insist on imposing on ‘good’ Muslim women. It is the traditional barrier between women and fundamental sources of Islamic jurisprudence. Women have had only a marginal role to play in interpreting Islam and articulating the laws and rules governing them. It is this epistemological hijab—the barrier between women and these sources—that has rendered the articulation and enforcement of Islamic laws fundamentally undemocratic. This undemocratic tradition privileges men and exploits women. Its reconstitution is important—more so now than ever before.

A strange paradox has captivated the global Muslim community in the post-colonial era. The nearly hundred-year-old Islamic revivalist movement—singularly responsible for the global significance of Islam today—has been driven by lay intellectuals. Key figures of Islamic revivalism—Jamaluddin Afghani, Hassan Al Banna, Syed Qutb, Ali Shariati, Muhammad Iqbal, Abul A’la Maududi, Khurshid Ahmed, Malik bin Nabi, Rashid Ghannouchi—were all lay intellectuals, many educated in the West. Many of them were, of course, exposed to traditional Islamic sciences, but none of them was an Islamic jurist.

But for some inexplicable reason the ascendant Islam today is highly legalistic and shariah-obsessed.

For many Muslims today Islam is nothing but shariah. In operational terms this means that the beauty, the virtues and the meaning of Islam are confined to the rather mundane domain of medieval Islamic legalist discourse—fiqh—which lacks the intellectual depth of philosophy, the aesthetics and the mystery of kalam theology and the spirituality and charisma of tasawwuf mysticism.

We live in the era of Islamic banking—shariah-compliant transactions—and halal hamburgers; we ponder over the legality of eating marshmallows, and deliberate the propriety of women shaking hands with men. Serious legal matters, for example, state-military relations and international transactions, meanwhile, receive very little input from Muslim jurists so that in these matters the Muslim world conveniently follows the Western/international laws and conventions. Islamic legalism is confined primarily to personal matters.

This peculiar legalism, which has colonised Islam and the Muslim conscience, is a product of the vulnerabilities of the Muslim man trying to cope with his insecurities in a world dominated by other men. Muslim men today are not sovereign beings. Other men dominate their world.

The only area where they exercise absolute sovereignty is the tiny domain called Islamic law. Here, they realise their manhood. They glorify themselves, grant themselves exotic privileges and assure themselves of their power by exercising it over their women. This exercise of power completely excludes women from participating in the process of deriving rulings from original sources or interpreting them.

There is perhaps no other legal tradition extant today where one has no say in the articulation of laws that govern one’s entire life. Muslim women have very little role in the process of developing Islamic fiqh. Even historically, men alone have developed all the madhahib—jurisprudence schools, and legal principles, including those dealing with the most private aspects of female existence. Islamic legalism has thus descended on the Muslim woman like a shroud, covering her very essence, disconnecting her from her own reality, depriving her of the right to understand and interpret her own being and disabling her from navigating her own life. The fundamentality of Islamic legalism veils the Muslim woman’s consciousness. Frankly, it dehumanises her.

Muslims scholars and philosophers maintain that the essence of humanity is either our moral compass or our reason or both. By preventing Muslim women from exercising their reason to derive the moral laws by which they live, Islamic legalism denies them the most human of all exercises: using our reason to make moral judgments. In a way, Islamic legalism steals from women their God-given humanity.

Islamists are fond of repeating that in Islam God is sovereign since He alone has the right to make laws. Unfortunately this is a very superficial understanding of Islam and fails to recognise the distinction between revealed principles (wahy) and human product (fiqh). They obfuscate the distinctions between the two and call it law (shariah). By insisting that the opinions and arguments of long-dead jurists are actually divine law, Islamists make jurists the God. In some cultures the divine status of men over women is recognised and men are sometimes referred to as the “majazi khuda” (virtual God) to women.

If Muslim women wish to regain their humanity and an equal moral status with men, which is not denied to them in principle but only in practice (in Islamic societies), they must tear down the partition that separates them from their right to understand and interpret Islamic sources and act upon their own understanding.

They must tear asunder this epistemological hijab imposed by Islamic legalism that stands between them and their God. Until then all discussions about the cultural and physical will remain superficial and contained in the context of the masculine logic that currently exercises such supreme sovereignty over Islamic principles and their derivative laws.