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.

How dare you?!

Wikipedia informs a lay person that “Islamic feminists advocate women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded within an Islamic framework.” That is most basic. But most Muslim feminists that I have had the good fortune to know stand up for rights of every human being regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. That was my first surprise – acceptance of homosexuality and support of gays by many Muslim feminists.

Most if not all Muslim feminists actually do the same – they stand up in support for all just causes for all people. Now here is my problem and question – if someone wants to be Muslim and fight for the rights of women why do we deny them this right by putting them down saying “Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive”? I have had Muslims tell me they don’t need feminism! I have had Muslim women claim they know their place and feminism is not required. What is their place? And if it isn’t equal to that of a man’s then are they practicing a version of Islam that is just? Why or how could a woman not want justice and equality?

I feel that those who tell Muslim feminists that Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive are the ones who are denying Muslim women their rights. And I feel a certain hatred and fear in their stance. If you are telling a woman that she can’t be a feminist as long as she is Muslim you should be the first victim of her feminist wrath! I haven’t heard any Muslim feminist say that but if someone told me that I couldn’t be Muslim and a feminist I would question their integrity and motive in making that observation. And I would ask them how dare they think they can tell a feminist how to think.

I have always been a woman who never allowed anyone to think in her place and no thank you, you can’t tell me that Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive.