Imaan, deen, adaab and the niqaab

I have been thinking about the difference between deen and imaan. Broadly speaking, imaan in Arabic means faith or belief while deen means practice of faith or religion. The two words are used interchangeably but recently I have wondered if they are really interchangeable. In my opinion now, they are two distinct words with two distinct meanings. Deen is the structure around and in which imaan is practiced. While imaan is spirituality, deen is its organization. The more emphasis on deen the more a religion is organized.

I was also thinking how there are many of us in the same deen with exactly the same imaan but different interpretations of what the deen requires. Hence the practice is different for each one of us. For example, all Muslims believe that there is one God and that this one God appointed Muhammad as His Messenger and Prophet. That is the basic Muslim imaan or belief. We differ in how we practice that imaan. Some believe we can’t be Muslim unless we submit completely to the will of God as interpreted by a fiqh (scholarly sect of Islam). In three out of four schools of fiqh of Sunni Islam, for instance, dogs are declared haraam but in the Maliki sect Muslims are allowed to keep dogs as pets inside their homes. None of the schools of fiqh is completely wrong or completely right – theoretically. Similarly many Muslims believe that women have to dress in a certain way in Islam. This dress code may include a headcovering or a face veil depending on the understanding and interpretations of the individual Muslim or school of thought.

To be honest it has taken me years to reach this level of tolerance for fellow Muslims! I was deadly against the niqaab and I still find it very hard to accept it … but I have learned that acceptance is a little different from tolerance. I can’t expect people to be tolerant of my views if I’m not tolerant of theirs.

I never thought that there would come a day when I would write something in defense of niqaabis. Certainly I am still not defending the niqaab but I think it is really unfair that we think that all women in niqaab are faceless fools. About six years ago when I was almost at the rabid stage of my feelings against niqaab and polygamy equally I met a woman online who was both a fan of niqaab and into a polygamous marriage. I attacked her instantly and incessantly. It took me only a few weeks to understand just how wonderful she is as a woman, mother, artist and wife. I am certain there are many, many Muslim women like her – women who are smart, intelligent and choose to veil their faces. I don’t agree with their understanding of the deen but I can tolerate their choices because we share an imaan.

Here is the connection – while imaan and deen are distinct imaan affects deen. These women who choose to veil their faces, some of them believe that niqaab is a religious requirement. I would like to ask, in the absence of a pope in Islam, who decides that I, who thinks niqaab is not a religious requirement, am right and all others are wrong?

Why do we believe that a woman who calls niqaab “unappealing, hot, isolationist fabric” used as “testaments of theology” is right and a woman who says that niqaab “frees” her is wrong? This is what I have been thinking about recently. Is it impossible for both women to be correct? After all it is a matter of interpretation of deen.

So why am I writing all this? I am writing this because although I don’t cover my head I know that it doesn’t make me smarter than this online friend of mine who covers everything but her eyes. I am also writing this because anyone who really wants equality and respect for women should know that  we can write against the niqaab without resorting to insults by calling women in niqaab faceless “domesticated pups.”

I am also writing this to inform those who don’t know that the Khaleeji burga (see a photo here) is a traditional article of clothing which is deeply respected and honoured. First, it is not made of metal. It is fabric that is dyed indigo and polished by rolling glass over it (hence the shine and metal appearance). Second, it is only worn by older women who are matriarchs of their families. If these women are seen with their “male chaperones going about the business of taking care of the women’s business” it is not necessarily because such women live in a “patriarchal world of their own myopic delusions” but mostly because these women are too proud, important and powerful to go about their own business.

As I type this I recall the story of my student’s 80 year old grandmother who walks outside her house everyday for an hour in the night and carries a pistol in her jalibiya’s pocket. She says she fired her first pistol when she was a young woman and enjoyed it so much that she always kept one with her for a day when a rival tribe should attack! She owns three taxis that form her personal income and a large house where all her children and grandchildren live with her. I have never seen Umm abdulRehman without her burga. But she is neither faceless nor a muzzled pup!

Linked to deen is the concept of adaab (good manners). Adaab are very important in Muslim-Muslim relationship. I like to extend them to non-Muslims and even those who may dislike me personally. Adaab require that we don’t use abusive words to address other people.

I don’t think that niqaab has a place in non-traditional or Western societies in the 21st century. But that is because I don’t believe that niqaab is a religious requirement. Yes, I think it is prescribed in the Quran but I see it as a social requirement dependent on the time and context of revelation (and in that context women who veiled were free and privileged and proud of the fact that they were too good to be seen by non-related men!).  I think it is still valid in societies that are tribal, traditional and patriarchal just like 7th Century Arabia was and still is to this day. However, some women believe that niqaab is a religious requirement and frankly I don’t think these women owe me an explanation. I can try to make them see my point of view but I certainly cannot ridicule them for their choices. I will, nevertheless, definitely oppose anyone who forces such women to cover their faces.

And I oppose advertising and romanticizing the niqaab even though sometimes it isn’t bad at all.

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13 thoughts on “Imaan, deen, adaab and the niqaab

  1. Tom Earl says:

    Mashallah sister! Well written. “Adaab require that we don’t use abusive words to address other people.” Amazing point. I feel especially as feminists we must adhere to this rule when engaging in dialogue about the burqa and niqaab and hijab too. I feel that dignity, respect, and equal rights are a few of the main points of feminism. Therefore, will we seem like allies to women if when they engage in our discourse and we are calling them faceless dogs. I bet they would say that we sound like the men we are accusing of being oppressors.

    I feel you brought about a great point when you used personal examples. For this dialogue to be truly meaningful the voice of those who wear the burqa and etc. must be heard and counted as a valued opinion.

    That said, as a body of writing I have a few comments. I felt the piece flowed wonderfully, the introduction was framed the topic wonderfully. However, I felt the last sentence of the blog felt out of place. It sort of seemed a p.s. if you will. I felt it need more explanation. In addition for the last sentence you said, “I will, nevertheless, definitely oppose anyone who forces such women to cover their faces.” I would love for it to read, “I will, nevertheless, definitely oppose anyone who forces such women to cover their faces or forces them to uncover.” especially with the political climate we live in.

    • Metis says:

      Thank you Tom for your kind words.

      The last sentence is an agreement with the original writer – advertising and romaticising the niqaab may make it alluring for women who may not understand the history of the garment or the repercussions of it on women who *don’t* wear it and hence are looked down upon by others. It will require a whole new post to address but I wanted to be fair that there is not everything with which I disagree in the essay that I referred to in my post.

      “I would love for it to read, “I will, nevertheless, definitely oppose anyone who forces such women to cover their faces or forces them to uncover.” especially with the political climate we live in.”

      Yes, I can see what you mean. Most Muslim feminists would like to read it like that although personally I am not against the ban on niqaab (not saying that I am in favour of it either!).

      “For this dialogue to be truly meaningful the voice of those who wear the burqa and etc. must be heard and counted as a valued opinion.”

      Exactly! Well said.

  2. susanne430 says:

    The lady in the burga photo doesn’t look old enough to be a matriarch! I love the story of the grandmother who carries a pistol in case another tribe attacks her. Haha..how likely is that anyway? :D

    Thanks for this informative post! I enjoyed learning how imaan and deen differed.

    Is it OK to admit that I don’t like the idea of 7th c. veiling because you are free, privileged and too good to be seen by unrelated men? And I’m under the impression this wasn’t unique to Islam and perhaps was borrowed from Jewish and Christian women of the time. It just seems like certain people nowadays wearing designer-label clothes in order to project a certain image of wealth while the people who cannot afford such things (or refuse to buy them!) are somehow less important. Eh, I guess I prefer down-to-earth people rather than “privileged” people. Not that all privileged people are bad. I’m speaking of the ones who look down on others. Hopefully 7th c. veiled women didn’t think like that …

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Susie.

      “The lady in the burga photo doesn’t look old enough to be a matriarch! ”

      Haha! That older matriarch wouldn’t blog either :D The burga is much respected in the Gulf and I think this young woman really likes it – I noticed she has quite a few posts on it. But I would seriously doubt that she wears it. It is usually older, married women who wear it. In all the years I have been in the Gulf I have never seen a young woman with a burga on.

      “Is it OK to admit that I don’t like the idea of 7th c. veiling because you are free, privileged and too good to be seen by unrelated men?”

      Yes! I don’t like class differentiation either.

  3. Khadeeja says:

    I struggle with the niqaab. I am opposed to the idea of separation of identity or erasure of public interaction of women, which is what I view the niqaab as. But simultaneously, I am a believer in free choice. So I really struggle with this.

    Thank you for the great article and contributing to the simmering cauldron in my head ;)

  4. Womble says:

    ‘Yes, I think [the niqaab] is prescribed in the Quran but I see it as a social requirement dependent on the time and context of revelation (and in that context women who veiled were free and privileged and proud of the fact that they were too good to be seen by non-related men!). I think it is still valid in societies that are tribal, traditional and patriarchal just like 7th Century Arabia was and still is to this day.’

    Metis your posts always make me think and puts my brain into overdrive (I think that’s a good thing). In the above two instances either way a woman doesn’t have a choice in the matter and she is compelled to veil.

    So far the books I’ve read/reading have said that Islam was meant to create an egalitarian society. I feel quite conflicted that free believing women veiled and were ‘proud of the fact that they were too good to be seen by non-related men’, but non-free believers could not veil because they were chattel.

    • Metis says:

      Womble, I get how you feel because I wondered about the same things some years ago. This continued until I realised I was imposing my 21st Century Western influenced thoughts on a time I can never ever fully understand.

      Sadly most books we read on Islam today do the same – we imagine 7th Century Arabia through our modern eyes. Reading books written closer to the time when Islam was established in Arabia or the works of classical scholars show that more than creating an egalitarian society (a very modern concept), there was the emphasis on adl (justice) within a society that existed already.

      There were wars and wars continued to be waged but now there was the realisation that all Muslims were responsible for looking after orphans and widows. Slavery wasn’t abolished but Muslims were told to treat their slaves with kindness. Non-Muslims were not equal to Muslims but they were offered protection and relative freedom. Egalitarianism is theoretical and isn’t practical. This doesn’t mean I don’t support it but I think it is hard to achieve. I mean in Islamic tradition even Paradise has levels!

  5. Sumera says:

    I’ve always thought of deen as referring to the construct and concept of religion – this would be Islam, and to say your deen is Islam is quite self-explanatory IMO. But imaan, that is personal and more about the depth of your relationship with Allah and other fellow humans. Thats my own personal understanding of it.

  6. Lat says:

    “None of the schools of fiqh is completely wrong or completely right –.. ”

    The dog issue is a great example.When I first learned of this,I was really shocked.I had no idea that some Muslims keep dogs as pets.And when I told my friends about this,they were simply clueless.Now we know that they are four schools of fiqh but we were never told how they dealt with certain issues and their differences were never explained as completely right or wrong or neutral.We are just kept,so to speak,in darkness so that one’s interpretation will stay paramount in that particular region.If Muslims here knew more about dogs,I believe their perceptions of the animal will change and not consider it dirty or one that makes you dirty.

    I think it’s the same with the niqab,burka.What’s important is that people know,as quoted above.How one school interprets issues should not be the only way to accepting the issue as law.None is completely right nor wrong.It’s just an interpretation.so why make it divine for all?

  7. Maliha says:

    I really enjoy your blog and find it both informative & thought provoking. In 2013 I share your early feelings of being “almost at the rabid stage of my feelings against niqaab and polygamy”.
    I agree that it is a valid choice for some women to make but its just a choice I find so hard to empathize with. I am working on it but irritation flares when I hear from some that it is a religious requirement.
    One minor nit pick in the article: the Maliki’s are not a sect but one of the four schools of jurisprudence.

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