They ask you about the veil
Originally published in Arabic
On November 21 2006
Translated by Mohammad Dandan
It was told that a man living in a society that ascribes to the tradition of the veil for women, had a shady relationship with one of them. Once while coveting with her at his residence, her husband, who happened to be his friend, showed up unexpectedly for a visit. The man was beside himself not knowing how to handle the situation. The experienced wife calmed him down, donned the veil on, served tea for them both. Her husband did not recognize her, and our friend pulled through another one unscathed. In this story, the hero was the veil, pretending to be virtuous and chaste, hiding within, was depravity and hypocrisy. That was the function of the veil in Egypt during Memwas the function of the veil in Egypt during Memluk period, when adhering to superficial aspects of religion was the norm, without paying any attention to the genuine meaning of religion and its moral principles built on fear of God.
Ibn Al-Haaj, the great Moroccan jurist (d.737 Hijri), visited Egypt during the Memluk rule. While there, he wrote his best jurisprudence book (Al-Medkhel—The introduction) , in three volumes. He followed a style, I named as “The preaching Jurisprudence”. Meaning the jurist does not follow the lines of imaginative methodology or conceptualizing method, like (whoever does this, its ruling is this), but utilizes the practical approach. Where the jurist studies the case as it happened, elaborates, pointing out where it deviated away from religious law, using the language of sermonizing and guidance. This type of preaching jurisprudence, recorded plenty of the secrets of the social life, commonly ignored by specialized historians. That is why this book-Al-Medkhel, contained within its pages, valuable historical information about the social, religious and economical life during Memluk Egypt. He wrote abundantly about the conditions of women that time, pointed out host of moral deprivation that took place, under and because of the veil, the official and popular costume for women during the Memluk period, inside Egypt and outside.
For example, Ibn Al-Haaj the jurist, wrote that a Memluk Cairene woman had the privilege of leaving her home six out of the seven days, and that she used to leave her home veiled, until she was a little distance away, there goes the veil, she would keep and meet up with men, where nobody knows of her; upon her return and as she gets closer to home, the veil goes up again.
And I venture to say, due to this unique behavior, the old Egyptian phrase about loose women was coined (She is moving about with her hair unkempt), for as long as she was recognizable within a defined perimeter, she would have the veil on, and as soon as she crosses that perimeter, her veil would come off, looking for a prey, loosening her hair at the request of the first to ask. That was the case of most women that Ibn Al-Haaj and his contemporaries talked about. Women went out veiled, to festivals, to weddings and to graveyards, and to musical religious parties, where Sufi remembrance sessions are mixed with dance, joyful singing, indulging in hashish consumption and committing fornication; the regular and the deviant ones. Those were the terms of Memluk social life, its external religiosity symptoms exemplified by sponsoring religious festivals, meetings to extol and glorify Allah, visiting the living saints, the graves of the dead ones and their sacred tombs. Its hidden inner symptoms, moral degradation, throughout this frivolous performance the star, was the veil, declaring virtue and concealing depravity. The superficial appearance here is the veil. Likewise, is the exalted slogan of the Memluk period: Application of Sharee’a. Under that slogan, the worst forms of oppression, torture, injustice and corruption took place. In the shadow of all those crimes, the Memluk constructed the most magnificent of buildings to adorn Cairo, most of which still exist today. Mosques, hostels, travelers resting stops and chapels. They built it all using slave labor, tyranny, injustice, unlawful confiscated monies. Alongside this superficial external piety, moral decadence and depravity spread throughout, savored by the veil.
Abdurrahman Ibn Kheldoun, the scholar, was surprised by the manifestations of varying degrees of decadence in the streets of Cairo, without objection from learned religious figures; he described Cairo astounded “No one disavowed displaying wine paraphernalia or musical instruments or made-up harlots or similar stuff which would be frowned upon in the Maghreb (Western regions of Muslim lands). The strict Sunni Hanbali School was the prevailing one in North Africa where Ibn Kheldoun lived before moving to Egypt, and because of that extreme Sunni dominance in Maghreb and North Africa, it was abominable to openly display indulging in wine consumption, partaking in musical events and the presence of women of ill repute in the streets. When he came to the Memluk Cairo, he found all this rampant due to the Sufi dominance and its doctrine of “No Interference”. But the common factor between Egypt and North Africa was the VEIL.
The Egyptian woman in those days had the freedom to do anything as long as she wore the veil and no one could recognize her.
Al-Meqreezi in his famous book “Al-Khutat”, described the Egyptians in those times “Some of their characters, is total absorption in their desires, total immersion in their debauchery and utter carelessness. Our respected Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibn Kheldoun told me that the people of Egypt as if they were done with the Day of Reckoning” Meaning they behave as if Paradise is guaranteed for them, abandoning any and all moral or religious obligations. Obviously, Al-Meqreezi here is influenced by his mentor, Ibn Kheldoun. In his book, he told of bizarre incidents of moral disintegration, when the veil was the religiously mandated code of dress for women, when she could not possibly leave home without it, and because of social mandatory requirement for it, a woman’s open obscenity was tolerated as long as no one could recognize her. Al-Meqreezi relates in his book, Al-Khutat “We heard of some folks who would follow a man or a woman, taking a stroll between the two castles, after Isha’ prayer, copulates (have sex with the woman, or deviate sex with the man), until they reach their satisfaction while walking, with no one paying them any mind because of sever congested crowds and everyone being busy with his own pleasures.
Depravation reached places of worship, so Memluk authorities had to intervene to clean it up of those debauchees as it happened with Al-Azher mosque in 818 Hijri and with Al-Hakim mosque in 822 Hijri.
Some Sufi institutions became notorious for such behavior, to the extent that endowment documents for such institutions required appointing guards to chase away seekers of forbidden pleasures out of them.
Moral disintegration flourished during religious festivities, and it still does, until Sultan Juqmuq cancelled El-Badawi festival in 851 Hijri, because of the scandalous deeds that tooke place during its celebration. Another festival was arranged nearby at El-Mehalla El-Kubra to let the steam of debauchery escape as it was expected. It was customary for a woman to attend those religious occasions wearing the veil as usual. The Memluk state which became professional at religious piety and enforcing the Sharee’a used to tax the harlots, calling it, “Al- Meghan security”. Those prostitutes had a special costume, described by Al-Meqreezi in his book: Al-Khutat”. That profession was linked to the elderly Madam, and the donkey-driver, who the veiled prostitute, would ride his donkeys in the utmost form of decorum. Some times the Memluk authorities would ban women from going out at night, to cut down on immorality. Some of those in authority went a little extra harsh in punishing those women who ventured to go outside at night, enduring their scorn, their ridicule, their derision. Prince Dewlet Khuja, in 835 Hijri, did not escape their ridicule. They coined a phrase lamenting the time of Omer, the second caliph, who used to roam the streets of Medina at night, looking for any issues that needed remedy. The phrase went like this, “The state of Omer went away, and the state of Khuja came our way”.
In 835 Hijri, Women made fun of Prince Mengeli Bagha, Prince of Hisba, who used to administer two hundred lashes to any woman caught out at night. They wrote a ditty, fit to dance to, in it they sing:
Do not touch my behind
Mengeli is behind
His punishment is worth two hundred
Rarely does he forgive.
They used to dance to it wearing the veil.
And we say to our believing chaste sisters:
Veil is an innovation that was not known during the messenger time (PBUH), for a woman’s face was uncovered and recognizable. Almighty Allah tells the messenger in chapter AL-AHZAB (THE CLANS, THE COALITION,THE COMBINED FORCES)
YUSUFALI: It is not lawful for thee (to marry more) women after this, nor to change them for (other) wives, even though their beauty attract thee, except any thy right hand should possess (as handmaidens): and Allah doth watch over all things.
PICKTHAL: It is not allowed thee to take (other) women henceforth, nor that thou shouldst change them for other wives even though their beauty pleased thee, save those whom thy right hand possesseth. And Allah is ever Watcher over all things.
SHAKIR: It is not allowed to you to take women afterwards, nor that you should change them for other wives, though their beauty be pleasing to you, except what your right hand possesses and Allah is Watchful over all things
The expression “their beauty” is usually in the face.
Almighty Allah describes the Madeena society during the prophet’s time (PBUH), in Chapter AL-TAWBA (REPENTANCE, DISPENSATION)
YUSUFALI: The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise.
PICKTHAL: And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong, and they establish worship and they pay the poor-due, and they obey Allah and His messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise.
SHAKIR: And (as for) the believing men and the believing women, they are guardians of each other; they enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey Allah and His Messenger; (as for) these, Allah will show mercy to them; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise
Here we have social dynamics live and well, founded on belief in a doctrine, piety, enjoining what is good, and forbidding what is evil and mutual consultation. We do not believe it could happen in the society of veil and hypocrisy.
There is a connection between veil and hypocrisy, because the veil is a message addressed to people, by the one who hides behind it saying: Look here people, I am a believing, clean, pious woman. Whereas it would have been better for the human essence, soul, self, call it what you may, it would have been better for it to turn to Almighty Allah alone with piety, chastity, reverence, submissiveness in secrecy and seclusion before openly and in public.
There is also a connection between the veil and feeling superior, not only because it is a message from the veiled to the others that she is distinct, separate, special but also because she gives herself the right to invade their space through her eyes without affording the others the same, not even knowing her identity or who she is. Worse off is that the veil could be construed as superior to Almighty Allah, His laws and His religion.
In donning the veil, there is excess above and beyond what Almighty Allah has decreed. He prohibited anyone from outdoing, outpacing, exceeding his law or code that He established. In Chapter AL-HUJRAAT (THE PRIVATE APARTMENTS, THE INNER APARTMENTS)
YUSUFALI: O Ye who believe! Put not yourselves forward before Allah and His Messenger; but fear Allah: for Allah is He Who hears and knows all things.
PICKTHAL: O ye who believe! Be not forward in the presence of Allah and His messenger, and keep your duty to Allah. Lo! Allah is Hearer, Knower.
SHAKIR: O you who believe! be not forward in the presence of Allah and His Messenger, and be careful of (your duty to) Allah; surely Allah is Hearing, Knowing.
Almighty Allah did not forbid women to show their faces, so how can a human being make what is lawful a forbidden matter? Does he accuse Almighty Allah of shortsightedness in matters of legislations? Does he accuse Almighty Allah of promoting vulgarity on the premise that a woman’s face is shameful and needs to be covered? And her unveiling is promiscuity? Does he know more than Almighty Allah about religion and people? Did not Almighty Allah say: AL-MULK (THE SOVEREIGNTY, CONTROL)
YUSUFALI: Should He not know,- He that created? and He is the One that understands the finest mysteries (and) is well-acquainted (with them).
PICKTHAL: Should He not know what He created? And He is the Subtile, the Aware.
SHAKIR: Does He not know, Who created? And He is the Knower of the subtleties, the Aware.
Does he know the creation more than the Creator Glory to Him? Is he the master of religion and its code of laws or is it Almighty Allah? Did not He, Glory be to Him, say about Himself; AN-NAHL (THE BEE)
YUSUFALI: To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and on earth, and to Him is duty due always: then will ye fear other than Allah?
PICKTHAL: Unto Him belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth, and religion is His for ever. Will ye then fear any other than Allah?
SHAKIR: And whatever is in the heavens and the earth is His, and to Him should obedience be (rendered) constantly; will you then guard against other than (the punishment of) Allah?
Which means He, Glory be to Him, is the sole Owner of religion and the sole Owner of Judgment Day and the sole rightful Owner of codes of religion, and it is not up to anyone to legitimize what He had prohibited , or prohibit what He had legitimized.
Those who prohibit what He had legitimized, transgress upon His Realm in setting laws. AL-MAEDA (THE TABLE, THE TABLE SPREAD
YUSUFALI: O ye who believe! make not unlawful the good things which Allah hath made lawful for you, but commit no excess: for Allah loveth not those given to excess.
PICKTHAL: O ye who believe! Forbid not the good things which Allah hath made lawful for you, and transgress not, Lo! Allah loveth not transgressors.
SHAKIR: O you who believe! do not forbid (yourselves) the good things which Allah has made lawful for you and do not exceed the limits; surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits
And they would be included within the ranks of those whom Almighty Allah described in Chapter ASH-SHURA (COUNCIL, CONSULTATION)
YUSUFALI: What! have they partners (in godhead), who have established for them some religion without the permission of Allah? Had it not been for the Decree of Judgment, the matter would have been decided between them (at once). But verily the Wrong-doers will have a grievous Penalty.
PICKTHAL: Or have they partners (of Allah) who have made lawful for them in religion that which Allah allowed not? And but for a decisive word (gone forth already), it would have been judged between them. Lo! for wrong-doers is a painful doom.
SHAKIR: Or have they associates who have prescribed for them any religion that Allah does not sanction? And were it not for the word of judgment, decision would have certainly been given between them; and surely the unjust shall have a painful punishment.
To load the woman behind the veil does not only degrade her human dignity, wipes out her individual personality, defined by her face by which she is recognized, moreover it leads to forfeiture of establishing true genuine Islamic Sharee’a (legal code) which is founded on the concept of ; The Perpetrator, The Victim and The Witness. If the woman was any of the previous three, it would be hard to identify if she was wearing the veil.
It is the right of every individual to wear whatever pleases them within the framework of accepted legal code. It is within the woman’s right to wear a veil if she so chooses, but if she wants to associate that with Islam and portrays it as a symbol of religion of Allah Almighty, then she falls in a state of enmity with Allah Almighty, because His religion is not a political or jurisprudence maneuvering arena, it is not a place for costumes’ competition, be it gowns, veils, or whatnot.
Islamic Taqwa (God fearing, God consciousness, piety) is a private interaction between the individual and his Creator, Glory be to Him, Who knows the split-second vision and what the bosoms hide too. The one who fears Allah and minds Him without seeing Him, does not need to show it off publicly
The Memluk period was the period of religious hypocrisy, when deprivation and debauchery was rampant, sanctifying saints, worshipping them, indulging in immoral activities under the guise of the veil and in the protection of saints and their alleged ability to intercede was widespread. It remained as is until the social revival led by Qaasim Ameen, to be decimated by the Salafi onslaught which threatens to bring back the darkness of medieval ages.
It is imperative on us to enrich our knowledge of Islam and of history of Muslims…of medieval ages…and to start to remove the physical and mental veil.