A custom does not a religious ordinance make

Mukhtar Aziz: Those defending the burqa/niqab often claim that this option is a duty ordained by the Islamic law, and avoid revealing the fact that this attire is basically a social traditional wear of some societies in Afghanistan and in the Gulf. 

By Mukhtar Aziz, director of Islamic World Studies Centre

In the mid-1990s I was invited to participate in an Islamic conference in Khartoum, with participants from all over the world. 

During a dinner hosted by the President of the Republic, Omar al-Bashir, it so happened that alongside me sat the famous British singer, Cat Stevens, or Yusuf Islam, as he called himself after he embraced Islam in 1977. 

In a conversation with him, I expressed my admiration and praised his artistic reputation, which had acquired universality some 20 years earlier, particularly among the youth. 

I then asked him why he had given up singing. His answer took me somewhat by surprise. Cat Stevens told me that it was no longer befitting for him to sing after embracing Islam!

I asked his permission to state a different opinion, which he readily welcomed. I said that I believed there would have been greater benefit to his global audience and himself had he continued to use his singing talents in promoting the moral and humanitarian concepts of Islam in his songs that young people liked so much, rather than by stopping to sing.

Cat Stevens received this opinion with complete neutrality as though he had never heard it before. 

At the time, I surmised that as a new convert to Islam, his attitude could be attributed to the group of people that surrounded him then. These obviously believed that Islam prohibited music and singing! This was evident even in the clothes that the famous artiste was wearing, typical traditional Pakistani attire. 

When I asked him why he was dressed in that way, he replied that it was the Islamic attire! I was amazed and wondered aloud: If that was Islamic attire, what about the characteristic gallabiyah and turban worn by our Sudanese hosts? Cat Stevens seemed too bewildered to answer. 

I was reminded of this incident when a group of Maltese Muslims, some newly converted to Islam and some others who had recently acquired Maltese citizenship, attempted to stir some noise against the possibility that the wearing of the burqa or the Saudi and Yemeni niqab in certain public places would be limited or prohibited. 

What drew my attention was this group claiming that the burqa or the face-covering niqab is Islamic and that Muslim women must wear them. Consequently, they add, any measure preventing them wearing them amounts to a breach of their religious rights.

It is well known that the number of women who wear the niqab in the Muslim community in Malta does not exceed the number of fingers on one hand. This reflects the situation with Muslim women around the world. 

Those defending the burqa/niqab often claim that this option is a duty ordained by the Islamic law, and avoid revealing the fact that this attire is basically a social traditional wear of some societies in Afghanistan and in the Gulf. 

These are typical costumes in specific geographic regions with no ties to the Islamic Shariah. 

In fact, most Muslim scholars and theologians reject the Bedouin postulation that wearing the niqab is mandatory. 

In turn one asks, as I had done with our friend Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens: If this were Islamic attire, then how would one define the saris worn by Muslim women in Sri Lanka, Mauritania and the Sudan or the wide range of traditional attire of Muslim women in different parts of the world?

The opinions that are significant in such contentious matters of a social and cultural nature, rather than Islamic, are those of the jurisprudential councils and scientific academies. These strive to deduce provisions that are inherently captive to the time and place to realise the interests of the people rather than the personal whims of a minority, even if Muslim. 

Islam is bigger and greater than any sect, faction, segment or free thinker, let alone than some extremist self-appointed “experts” in Islamic Law who want to make the wearing of the burqa a religious obligation. 

The established fact is that the majority of great Islamic Scholars (faqihs) and respected Islamic Law (fiqh) academies have always rejected the claims of some extremists who tried to pin a religious obligation on that attire known as the burqa. 

It is useful to reiterate that the Islamic fiqh is the outcome of human, worldly efforts that allow the faqihs to differ each according to his environment and time. Moreover, sometimes it is permitted or even mandated to adapt the deduced provisions as circumstances and times and places change along with the surrounding reality. This is the best established manner in which to preserve the intents of the Sharia to realise Muslim interests and to lift discomfort and hardship off them. To say anything different, will be a call to ossification and stagnation. 

Coincidentally, while writing these lines, I googled to find out the latest news regarding our friend Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens, reminded as I was of my conversation with him by those of our Maltese Muslim friends who maintain that wearing the niqab is a duty. 

In my search I came across some remarks attributed to the famous singer who, a few years after our meeting, acknowledged his mistake in giving up singing, having believed that Islam prohibited it. More fascinating was the fact that since then he has returned to singing and has released more than one album. 

On the occasion of the 2000 re-release of his Cat Stevens albums, Yusuf explained that he had stopped performing in English due to his misunderstanding of the Islamic faith. “This issue of music in Islam is not as cut-and-dried as I was led to believe... I relied on hearsay that was perhaps my mistake.”

Clearly, a new conversion is usually coupled with excessive enthusiasm and extreme impulsivity. This can produce positive energy if channelled into acquiring and deepening knowledge from valid Islamic sources and scrutinising its various religious tenets. In doing so, they would realise the truth of the axiom that Islam is bigger than to be contained by one ijtihad (independent reasoning), one doctrine, or one opinion. 

Islam can contain all of the ijtihads but it is loftier than all of them. 

Everything that is human and worldly is limited by its time and place while the heavenly revelations are preserved by the providence of God and are valid for every time and place. 

Mukhtar Aziz is director of Islamic World Studies Centre