By Sumit Paul
Mar 25, 2017
The Hijab is again in the news for all the wrong reasons. Just like the triple Talaq, Hijab is also a contentious subject that’s open to a plethora of interpretations. The great Egyptian blind exegete (interpreter of scriptures) on Quranic verses, Taha Hussain, in a speech delivered at Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni Islam in Cairo, said ‘Hijab or Niqab predated Islam and had little to do with religious or Quranic injunctions.’ Linguistically, Hijab and Niqab belonged to Yiddish and Ladino, precursors to Hebrew and Arabic. The languages fall in the family of Saami Zubaan or Semitic languages.
In classical Semitic languages, hij and naq were the fundamental Semitic roots to words Hayaz (archaic Hebrew) and naqin (Aramaic, spoken by the putative Jesus). Both the ancient and now defunct words in Hebrew and Aramaic had the common connotation: ‘To protect’. Even in ancient Arabic spoken till fourth century, haeeb, that later became hijab, meant ‘to protect.’ Nowhere did it mean to protect the modesty (of a woman).
Jewish and Christian men and women wore hazaf — Aramaic for a face covering — till the ninth century.
There was a time when the men and women of all three Semitic faiths, namely, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were wearing Hijab not as a religious symbol or a piece of sacred apparel, but to protect their faces from the sweltering heat and sands of the desert. “Early geographical and survival factors often get subdued and subordinated by the (obscure) religious interpretations of later age,” says Professor Bernard Philip of Princeton University. Semitic faiths originated from the desert region where the blistering sun and sandy storms scorched the skin. The Bedouin men and women covered their faces with cloth and still do. Moreover, there’s nothing from the early Islamic period about what the khimar or veil, should cover, whether face, body or hair.
The Quran, Sura 24:31, reminds Muslim women of the need to ‘draw (it) over their bosoms.’ One of Prophet Muhammad’s wives is commanded to speak from behind a Hijab (modern Arabic for ‘curtain’) as a mark of high distinction (Quran, Sura 33:53).Though Aisha,one of the most eminent of the Prophet’s wives and a scholar of Islam, provided details about the khimars, no record exists as to how they were worn. Rigid interpretation of the veil as a metaphor for obscurantism is recent, thanks to Wahhabism and the Salafi movement that obfuscated the free spirit of Islam and misconstrued Quranic teachings. Even Prophet Muhammad never advocated that women must wear a Hijab. Bukhari’s Hadith (compilation of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings) mentions a specific teaching with a story attached.
A woman approached Prophet Muhammad and asked whether she should wear a veil after marriage.The Prophet answered that whether married or unmarried, she was not required to hide her face from strangers or male gazers because those determined to gaze at women would continue to gaze, anyway, whether or not one wore a veil. Prophet Muhammad added that the sacredness of an uncovered face is its hijab.
Anything forcibly hidden or concealed attracts unnecessary as well as unhealthy attention. To veil a woman is to undermine her womanhood and weaken her persona. It’s an attempt to commodify and relegate her to being an object. The Quran doesn’t approve of the objectification of women in any of its 6,000-odd verses. In one of the 60,000 verses in Firdausi’s Shahnama in Persian, there’s a verse that makes it clear that not a piece of cloth but the divinity of a woman’s face serves as a Hijab.
Sumit Paul has done extensive research on the Quran for his doctorate thesis at Oxford University