When in the fifth Islamic century, Imam Al-Ghazzali was writing his magnum opus Revivification of the Religious Sciences (ihyâ ūlūm al-dïn), he did not feel it was necessary to write a separate chapter on the issue of hijab or the Islamic modest dress. As a matter of fact, hijab was not an issue in Ghazzali’s time: everyone knew what the modest dress was. Everyone dressed modestly and all human societies considered modesty to be a virtue.
When Saint John of Damascus was writing extensively against Islam, he criticized everything he could think of: yet, he never thought of criticizing the Islamic modest dress: he knew that the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed in a similar fashion and many of the Christian women of his time also covered their hair in public and wore long dresses. The miniskirt had not yet been invented!
Even before the Quranic verse on khimâr (head-covering) was revealed, the women of Arabia covered their hair with their khimâr. The Quranic verse says: ‘and to draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.’ The verse takes for granted that women cover their hair: Allah commands women to wear their head-coverings correctly, and to also cover their necks and bosoms with it.
Even when Islam met non-Abrahamic cultures, the hijab was not an issue: When Islam came to Persia, the Persian women (who were, before their conversion to Islam, Zoroastrians and fire-worshippers) did not wear miniskirts; they wore the chador, which was later adopted as a form of Islamic modest dress. Similarly, when Islam arrived at India, the women of Hindustan were wearing the sari which was still relatively modest and covered much of the body. The Muslim women of India sometimes wore the sari, albeit in a manner that made them distinct from Hindu women.
So let us ask ourselves: Why has the hijab suddenly become an issue in our times? Why was it not an issue throughout fourteen centuries of Islamic history? What has changed in modern times? The hijâb is not an invention. It is not something new that needs to be explained. Miniskirts, low-cut blouses, tight skirts, tight jeans, and the bikini are modern inventions. It is the Western immodest dress which is a departure from the pre-established norm. People are complaining about how Muslims have become obsessed with the hijab in modern times; but they do not realise that Westerners have become obsessed with the naked female body. The first Playboy magazine was published neither in Saudi Arabia, nor in India, nor in China, nor in Japan: it was published in the United States of America.
Why is it that the Islamic world must constantly explain the hijab, but the Western world does not have to explain its immodesty? Why is it that when a woman wears a niqab or a burqa, she is considered to be an extremist; but if she wears revealing clothes, that is not called extremism? Does the word ‘extremist’ apply only to extreme modesty and not to extreme immodesty? Is modesty in dress and behaviour a sign of backwardness, and immodesty a sign of progress? Is modesty something new that has to be explained, while immodesty is the ‘default’ norm of the Western society?
The Western world is extreme in more than one aspect. Let me give you concrete examples:
The pre-Islamic Arabia was one of the most primitive cultures in human history. The pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, used to eat the corpses of animals and they even made necklaces out of the livers of dead people. Yet, even in such a culture, fornication and adultery were thought of as crimes. The same is true about Hindu India, Confucian China, Zoroastrian Persia, Shinto Japan and all of the other great civilisations. In all of these cultures, people married one another. They did not just cohabit. Now, if the West thinks it is perfectly lawful for two unmarried people to have sexual relations – and this is not called fornication – this is a new concept to the rest of the world. This is a departure from the pre-established norm; and I believe it contravenes even the basic laws of Christianity. It is not the norm that needs to be explained. It is the ‘invention’ that needs to be explained.
To the eyes of many Muslims, the modern West is a strange civilisation. Westerners criticize the Islamic law for allowing a man to have four wives; while the Western law allows men to have sex with an unlimited number of women, without supporting those women financially and without accepting any life-time responsibility whatsoever. If a fourteen year old Muslim girl marries, this is considered to be a sign of backwardness, a violation of human rights. However, when a fourteen year old Western girl has illicit sex with her schoolmate, becomes pregnant, is left with a child to raise on her own with no financial or emotional support, this is viewed as a sign of freedom and modernity! Muslims cannot understand these contradictions.
Furthermore, in the West, when a line is crooked, instead of straightening the line, they make the ruler crooked also: when someone departs from the norm, instead of correcting the person, they change the norm. If too many people commit fornication, they legalise fornication. If the majority of the people think it is correct to commit adultery, they legalise adultery. Where there is no eternal code of ethics, there is no red line: it is not going to stop somewhere. Allah knows! Maybe in a few years, they will also legalise all kinds of incest and bestiality, all that in the name of modernity and freedom.
The battle between Islam and the West is not only a battle between the burqa and the bikini. It is a clash between two world-views:
A worldview that is God-centred and a world-view which is based on disbelief and atheism;
A worldview that says laws must be based on the eternal will of God; and a world-view that says laws must be based upon the wills and whims of a particular people in a particular society at a particular time;
A worldview that says humans must be free from the world and slaves only to Allah, and a worldview that teaches humans must be free from religion and slaves to worldly gains;
A worldview that praises modesty in dress and behaviour, and a worldview which is based on immodesty, uncontrolled sexual behaviour, and lust.
Can we reconcile these two contradictory worldviews? I will conclude with the following verses from the Holy Quran:
Not equal are the blind and the seeing; nor is darkness equal with the Light ; nor is the shadow equal with the Sun’s full heat ; nor are the living equal with the dead ; Lo! Allah makes whom He will to hear ; you cannot reach those who are in the graves. (35:19-22)