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In August 2009, Sri Venkataramana Swamy College, Mangalore, banned the wearing of the burqah on the college campus. The particular subject of this ban, Ayesha Amin, is a seventeen-year old First Year B.Com student from Bantwal, a nearby village. Seetharama Mayya, the Principal of SVS College, said that Asmin can continue with her studies in the college but she has to abide by the rules of the college. “She can remain in the college. She can continue her education, provided she abides our rules and regulations. Except classes…They can come with their dress, with their burqa in the college and they can keep it in the ladies’ room and while going back they can wear it again. That’s our tradition. That has been happening for several years,” said Mayya. Addressing a press conference, Professor Mayya declared that this (SVS) “was a college and not a religious shrine that we accept all sorts of religious dresses.” Meanwhile, the Girls Islamic Organization (GIO) and Students Islamic Organization (SIO) have been actively demonstrating against the Principal’s decision.

Now, I am not an Islamic scholar but the Islamic scholarly community itself is divided over the issue of the veil (part of the issue here is that Islam is not centralised as Christianity is). Therefore, my observations on the state of the debate will only be perfunctory. Traditionalists claim that a Muslim woman ought to cover herself from head to toe, leaving no part of her body exposed, while moderates argue that the Qur’an only commands that a woman be dressed modestly. However, I am not interested in convoluted interpretations of the Qur’an – I am happy to accept the opinion of any renowned imam. More important to me is how the rest of the world should react to it. Clearly, there are two outcomes: the Qur’an demands women to be covered completely, and the Qur’an does not require women to cover their faces and hands. Let us consider them both.

Proposition One: The Qur’an demands that women be covered completely, including face and hands.

If this is the case, then the argument of Asmin is on sound theological ground. However, the consideration then becomes what her duties are in what the Qur’an calls the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War), or in plain English, the non-Islamic world. Can a Muslim be expected to follow Islamic law when living in a non-Islamic country? This debate has raged on since the fall of Islamic Sicily (the Emirate fell in 1072 but the final deportations of the conquered Muslims by the Christians was completed by the late 1240s). The Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence added a third category, Dar al-Sulh or Dar al-Ahd (Abode of Truce), to solve the problem of Muslims living in non-Muslim lands. The Hanafi school, however, stipulated that Dar al-Islam becomes Dar al-Harb if, after conquest by the infidels, Muslims are forced to live by the law of the conquerors. This implies that a region held by a non-Muslim political entity can remain Dar al-Islam as long as the conquerors appoint a qadi (judge) to administer Islamic law and the distinction between Muslims and dhimmis is secure as it was under Muslim rule.

Imam Abdallah Muhammad al-Shaybani, an early Hanafi jurist, has argued that the duty of Muslims to migrate to Dar al-Islam was abrogated in the time of Muhammad himself. Although Imam Abu Hanifa disapproved of Muslims even travelling to non-Muslim lands for purposes of trade (as did the Maliki jurist Abd al-Salam Sahnun), Imam al-Shafii argued that the Prophet allowed nomadic tribes to remain in Mecca and remain outside Medina despite their conversion to Islam. Therefore, as long as there is no fear of enticement away from Islam, Muslims can live in the Dar al-Harb. The Hanafi jurist Abu Bakr al-Sarakhsi discouraged Muslims from living in non-Muslim lands permanently because the lack of Islamic ambience might cause them to eventually stray. So much for theory. India, however, is an interesting case. According to the famous Egyptian jurist Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti of the Shafii school (he was one of the Ashabun-Nazzar), Muslims escaping from the persecution of the Ummayad Caliphate (!!) arrived on the Konkan coast of India around 699. If this is true, Muslims voluntarily chose to live in non-Muslim lands for centuries in direct violation of their own laws. However, the Hindu kings of India allowed them the freedom to believe, practice, and propagate their faith freely. They even allowed the Muslim refugees to live under their own law as long as the criminal laws did not violate the laws of the land. Of course, that was many centuries ago. In 1919, during the Khilafat Movement, many ulama declared India as Dar al-Harb, and by Islamic edicts, the only choice for a Muslim then is hijrah or jihad. Indeed, the Jamiat al-Ulama-i Hind, an ally of the Congress Party during the struggle for independence, never conceived of a nation-state in India but a sort of muahadah (two communities living their own lives rather than interacting to create a common life). In recent years, the demand for a uniform civil code (Muslims in India are allowed to live by the Shariah as far as Personal Law is concerned) has unnerved the Muslim community in the country. Another problem is that, on the one hand, Muslims do not want the Indian state, a non-Muslim entity, interfering in their religious matters. On the other, since Islam does not make a distinction between religion and politics, how can they participate in the public sphere of a non-Muslim state? Thus, when a Muslim acts politically, he acts religiously as well.

The famous Bayan Lin-Nas issued by one of the centre of Islamic jurisprudence for the last thousand years, al-Azhar, Cairo, clearly states that it is up to the individual to differentiate between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb since there is no mention of this in the Qur’an or the Sunnah. Summarising the opinion of various imams, the treatise finally agrees with Abu Hanifa’s view that if a Muslim is safe and secure in the place he lives and can practice Islam properly, then the place is Dar al-Islam, and if not, then it is Dar al-Harb. In a hadith narrated by Abu Dawood and At-Tirmidhi, the Prophet said: “I have nothing to do with any Muslim living with the polytheists.” This hadith is supported by Qur’anic verses which called for the Hijrah from Mecca to Medina, and warns those who are able to immigrate and do not: Lo! as for those whom the angels take (in death) while they wrong themselves, (the angels) will ask: In what were ye engaged? They will say: We were oppressed in the land. (The angels) will say: Was not Allah’s earth spacious that ye could have migrated therein? As for such, their habitation will be hell, an evil journey’s end. (An-Nisa’: 97)

So what are we make of all this? Simply put, Asmin and her family must make a decision – if they feel that their way of life is threatened in India, it is their holy duty to migrate to a place where there will be no such obstructions placed in the conduct of their affairs. Now, what is the responsibility of the state, that too a secular one as India claims to be? Again, things are murky here – if India were truly secular, there would be a uniform civil code which would mean that all Muslims are bound by their religious beliefs to leave even if the state does not wish it so. Given that India allows religious personal law to an extent, the question is where that line is where Muslims can appeal to civil authority over their religious courts. In the Shah Bano case, that line was deliberately moved against the interests of the woman by a pseudo-secular and vote-bank pandering Prime Minister. Returning to the Asmin case, it seems that she cannot force her wishes upon a private institution for private institutions have the liberty to impose dress codes and such, school uniforms, for example. If she were to try to push this on a government institution, the most basic question is of security – how does one verify the identity of a student if she is covered by a veil? In the interests of security (the worry is not just terror attacks but also vandals such as the Ram Sene which struck in Mangalore only a few months ago), safety of others (in a laboratory for instance), and just common sense, the veil cannot be allowed. Asmin should be free to wear a veil in her home, at the mosque, and even on the street as long as these conditions are not violated. If these conditions are unsatisfactory for Asmin and her family, Qur’anic injunction says that they MUST migrate.

Proposition Two: The Qur’an only commands modesty and does not insist on covering the hands and face.

If we are to accept this proposition, then the veil becomes a fashion statement, or at best, a symbol of devoutness. Since it is not a religious edict, Asmin can choose to display her faith in any other way, for instance, a short chain around the neck with the name of the Prophet or God inscribed on it or as a pendant. Whatever her choice, it need not be something that causes disruption in the normal functioning of a class or an ID check at the entry to campus. The face plays an important part in human communication, and to cover it up is an inconvenience to others that is simply unnecessary. Furthermore, veils are not peculiar to Islam – they have been common at least as far back as the Assyrians in the 13th century BCE, and are not uncommon even among Hindu women, especially of the Marwari community. The difference is the extent to which it covers the face (many women prefer sheer fabric) and their willingness to take it off if necessary. In any case, fashion has been routinely circumscribed by institutions and this can be no exception.

 As for the Qur’an itself, let me quickly point to relevant parts without making too many claims, for any book is only as good as its interpretation. The Qur’an commands, “Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…” (24:30-31) As further clarification, scholars provide the following hadith: “Ayesha reported that Asma’ the daughter of Abu Bakr came to the Messenger of Allah while wearing thin clothing. He approached her and said: ‘O Asma’! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to the face and hands.”

 Thus, for the average reader, the following are apparent from the Qur’an: there is no fixed standard as to the style of dress or type of clothing that Muslims must wear. However, some requirements must be met. The first of these requirements is that the body must be covered. The second requirement is looseness. The clothing must be loose enough so as not to describe the shape of the woman’s body. Thickness is the third requirement. The clothing must be thick enough so as not to show the color of the skin it covers or the shape of the body. Another requirement is an over-all dignified appearance. The clothing should not attract men’s attention to the woman. Also, women must not dress so as to appear as men.

 In conclusion, I can only say that Ms. Asmin seems to be making a political issue out of the entire veiling incident. Perhaps because Islam has been on the defensive since the Age of Imperialism, and perhaps since Muslims feel persecuted world over in the post-September 11 (2001) era. It must be stated here that Islam can know no peace until the Wahhabist elements are completely repudiated. The Golden Age of Islam that one hears of so often was not the result of reactionary zealotry as we see in many parts of the Islamic world today but it was the product of scholarship and openness in which philosophers like al-Farabi, ibn Sina, and ibn Rushd incorporated or rejected non-Islamic thought after intellectual query and debate – Salah al-Din even had a Jewish physician (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon). Some good news to end with, is that the Turkish government has recently announced a project in which Islamic scholars from all over the world will be invited to Turkey and the Qur’an, Sunnah, and Hadith reinterpreted with a methodological rigour it has not known before to make it relevant to Muslims today. This is a most welcome step for all communities.