Finding the Middle Ground©
The Niqaab Club
When my husband and I moved to a new city in America, I had been wearing the niqaab (face veil) for about a year. In our new community, I met Muslims from various backgrounds, and I loved the diversity. It was one of the first times I felt part of an “ummah”—part of a spiritual camaraderie with Muslims all over the world…
“What’s wrong with these sisters?” a woman asked during my first visit to a monthly study circle. “How can they walk around with their faces exposed?”
It took me several seconds to register the question because it made no sense to me. Before this moment, I’d never met someone who thought uncovering the face was sinful. I’d read books and websites about the “niqaab controversy”, but I had only a philosophical understanding of it. I had naively imagined that the differing opinions were inspired only by Muslims’ sincere desire to do what was best for their own souls. It never occurred to me that anyone thought they could make that decision for someone else.
I suddenly felt like an intruder. I looked around me and noticed that the only sisters sitting with us were those who wore the veil, and these sisters’ expressions of scorn made it clear they agreed with the condescending remark.
Oh my God, I thought. What did I get myself into?
Where Do I Belong?
When I moved to Saudi Arabia, I thought I could get away from the ridiculous extremism I’d encountered amongst some Muslims in America. I was tired of the “anti-niqaab” club, which viewed wearing the veil as religious fanaticism, and I was tired of the “niqaab club”, which viewed not wearing the veil as a sign of moral corruption. I just couldn’t understand why these Muslims couldn’t see how stupid both extremes were.
I felt like an outcast.
Fortunately, many American Muslims didn’t fit into either extremist group, but the vast majority of them did “choose a side”. Some believed the face veil had no religious significance and was purely cultural. Some viewed it as optional. And some viewed it as obligatory.
Though I understood the religious significance to the veil, I held no firm opinion on whether or not the veil was optional or obligatory. And before meeting extremists on both sides, it had never occurred to me that I had to choose.
After years of du’aa (supplication) and study, the only conclusion I could come to was that only Allah knew who was right. So I focused on other things and accepted that no one would know for sure until the Day of Judgment.
‘Have Pity on Men, for Goodness Sake!’
“There was a man who went to Makkah and saw a woman at the Ka’bah,” the teacher told the class of non-Arabs at a da’wah center in Saudi Arabia. “She was fully covered except that she wasn’t wearing gloves.” The Arab teacher looked out at the class of women whom she was trying to convince to wear the plain, all-black, over-the-head abaya. “And the man was so attracted to the woman that he was distracted from his ‘Umrah. So the man grew upset and supplicated to Allah against her.” The teacher shook her head, apparently moved by what she was sharing. “Not for her,” the teacher told the class, her voice rising to emphasize her point. “Against her.”
The teacher said, “Imagine that. If a man could get so distracted by a woman’s hands, what about what you all are wearing?”
The women, who were all covered in hijab (though not “Saudi style”), stared at the teacher with jaws agape and widened eyes—as I did too. We were shocked that a man would go to the Ka’bah to worship Allah and then find time to curse a fellow Muslim who was there to do the same.
What was wrong with this man? I wondered. Didn’t he fear the angels saying “Ameen” for him? I simply could not fathom what sort of religious corruption led this Muslim man to such a heinous act—while imagining that Allah would support him!
Needless to say, the teacher’s point was lost on us…
Except for our utter disbelief that she actually saw Islamic benefit in what she’d shared.
‘You’re Not in Kansas Anymore’
It was in Saudi Arabia that I first encountered the prevailing idea that women’s covering was legislated by Allah to make matters easy for men. Yes, I heard this opinion in America, but never on a large scale—and never from a person of knowledge. Before I moved overseas, I’d dismissed this point of view as insignificant and symptomatic of Muslims’ widespread ignorance about Islam. But in Saudi Arabia, the “hijab is for men” point of view is quite the norm in religious circles and is even taught in Islamic classes—despite the fact that many scholars have clarified that this view is wrong.
I felt like I was suddenly thrust into a world so disconnected from intelligent reality that I wondered if calling it home was even possible.
It was then that I understood—on a practical level—the importance of differentiating Islam from culture.
I was so moved by this realization that I wrote an article about it: “The Danger of Covering for Men.”
‘I’m Taking Off This Veil!’
It was an outburst I’d hear over and over again—first in America, then in Saudi Arabia. “I’m taking off this veil!” I myself had the same outburst following my first encounter with “the niqaab club.”
But no matter how hard I tried to “choose a side,” I’d always come back to the same conclusion: Outside matters of clear right and wrong, Muslims should do what they felt was best for them. Personally, if I felt the greater good would be achieved by wearing the face veil, I’d wear it. If I felt the greater good would be achieved by not wearing the face veil, I wouldn’t wear it.
In my travels, speeches, and da’wah, I found that the wisest option often changed. Sometimes it was best to wear the veil. Sometimes it wasn’t.
And this is how I approach the face veil till today.
But unfortunately, many Muslim women feel suffocated by intolerance on both sides. Fed up with anti- and pro-niqaab extremism, some women have decided to distance themselves from the “debate” completely—by removing themselves from those who hold extreme views on either side.
But some Muslim women are removing the veil itself—the niqaab and head covering—in an effort to have “some peace” in their private struggles in worshiping Allah.
The Middle Ground
As we know from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, Islam is a religion that does not permit extremes. Inherent in its teachings is “the middle ground.” However, this middle path is not only an exhortation for Muslims to be flexible in matters of permissible disagreement, but it is also an exhortation to be firm in matters wherein Allah does not permit disagreement.
“And remember the favor of Allah upon you and His covenant with which He bound you when you said,
‘We hear and we obey’, and fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is Knowing of that within the breasts.”
Though verses on obeying Allah are often used to call Muslim women to wear hijab, Muslims should understand that obeying Allah is not only a matter of clothing ourselves in Islamic garb. It is also clothing ourselves in Islamic behavior—in having good character and avoiding extremes.
“So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah.
Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him].”
— Ali ‘Imraan, 3:159
Muslims the world over have zillions of campaigns to encourage women to cover “properly,” but too many turn a blind eye to our obligation to behave properly—to practice and teach Islam with balance, understanding, and patience.
Saudi Arabia, like so many Muslim countries, is becoming more diverse by the day. And with diversity comes varying schools of thoughts and approaches to Islam. This is not time to become rigid in our personal views and create private “clubs” that exclude those who do not look or dress like us. It’s not time to teach classes that ask one group to “fear Allah” while leaving another to openly sin.
It’s time to embrace the opportunity for a true ummah—a community of Muslims worldwide striving for Paradise as they unite for the sake of Allah…
And in that, with the help of Allah, we will find the true “middle ground.”
Copyright © 2013 and 2014 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
Previously published via saudilife.net