November 26, 2012 By Compiled by Shameer

Textuality of Hijab: Leila Ahmed and Amina Wadud

AminaThe meaning of the term ‘sexuality’ changed from “capability of sexual feelings” in 1879 to “sexual identity” in 1980. Textuality evokes the 1980 meaning. If any discourse is introduced in the Muslim world, or in all worlds for that matter, scholars inquire about its textual identity or textual authority, which means how the discourse can be justified on the premise of the Qur’an and Hadith. This notion has both positive and negative repercussions in the praxis. It’s positive because Muslims want to relate any new concept to the Ultimate Source of law and ethics. It’s negative, because the Ultimate Source has been conceived rigidly. When classical interpretations of the Quran are treated in the same respect and spirit that the Quran is to be treated, we can hardly expect people of respecting the time that goes by. And we end up bringing up the old to the new.

Here we sum up textual interpreations and socio-political analyses (that too are texts in a broader sense) on Hijab. Compilers are all editors in Islam Interactive: Shameer, Basith, Ayoob Rahman and Najiya. We have three posts beginning from this. In each post, we introduce two thinkers and citations from their books. Two of them express different views on Hijab. This does not mean that the two are mutually antogonistic. There may be views on which they converge as well as diverge. But we want to present the multilogue  or heteroglossia on Hijab. There are no hijabi monologues, only hijabi dialogues. We also recommend readers to see the In-depth feature Hijab: Bibligraphical Sources in this connection. (

In the first section, we present the views of Leila Ahmed and Amina Wadud; in the second, the views of Asma Barlas and Mohja Kahf; and in the third the views of Fathima Mernissi and Katherine Bullock. In each session, Brief biographical notes are followed by bibliography and quotes. The opinions quoted here may not be their contemporary position on veiling. Also, their descriptive statements may not be their endorsement or otherwise of an issue contested. We strongly recommend readers to read the citations in context from the books cited before they attempt to cite it as part of a claim or critique.

Textual sources cited in support or otherwise of hijab have been subjected to rigorous reading and interpretations. The classical discussion on the issue was centered on niqab (full face covering). Those argued in favour of niqab cited the verse 33:59 as having universal signification. The meaning of the verse is:O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.

Contextual scholars were of the opinion that this command was specifically addressed to the wives of the Prophet. According to them, Prophet’s wives had different behavioral code from other believers. That they should not be married by any other believer is a case in point.

Discussion on hijab went further from the classical context to the modern and post-modern contexts. Here not only the textual references (both in the Quran and in the Tradition of the Prophet) but the practices of veiling across time and space were analyzed. Post-modernism saw the proliferation of tools for the analysis of texts and social codes. While in the classical tradition it was males who interpreted the texts and tradition, in the context of modernity and of the radical rereading of modernity, women came to the fore with interpretations and analyses. What we broadly call Islamic feminism was a remarkable movement in this respect. Seeing from wide angle, women coming to fore with interpretations and diverse reading on the texts and practices of veiling is the most vibrant phenomenon in the Islamic world. In fact, it is women whom the veiling addresses and it is they who have to define it.

Leila Ahmad (1940-)

Biography and Bibliography: Born in Egypt, Leila Ahmad is the first Women’s studies professor at Harvard Divinity School. The website of Harvard Divinity School succinctly introduces her work: “Her latest book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, has been widely acclaimed. Her other publications include the books Women and Gender in Islam: The Historical Roots of a Modern Debate; A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman’s Journey; and Edward William Lane: A Study of His Life and Work and of British Ideas of the Middle East in the Nineteenth Century, as well as many articles, among them “Arab Culture and Writing Women’s Bodies” and “Between Two Worlds: The Formation of a Turn of the Century Egyptian Feminist.” Her current research and writing interests include Islam and gender in America, and issues of gender, race, and class in the Middle East in the late colonial era.”

Citation: In Women and Gender in Islam, published in 1992, Leila Ahmed said that the doctrinal development of Islam which occurred in the Abbasid era sidelined the ethical structure Prophet Muhammad underlined in a hierarchical structure of Arabia. This subverted practice went on. In A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America, Leila Ahmed ‘assume that some Muslim women wear hijab simply because they are observant Muslims. Wearing hijab, they assume, is just what devout, observantMuslims do. But for Aisha and myself, the hijab’s presence meant not just piety— for we both knew many women in our home societies who were deeply devout yet never wore hijab. Rather, to us it plainly signaled the presence of Islamism: a particular and very political form of Islam that had been gaining ground in Muslim societies since the Islamic Resurgence of the 1970s, a resurgence significantly fueled by the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood.” (Page 8, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence From the Middle East to America, Yale University Press, 2011) Link:

2. Amina Wadud (1952-)

Biography and Bibliography: Amina Wadud introduces herself in her Facebook profile in the following words:
“I am operating under the radical notion that women are human beings. I am inspired to think this way because of tawhid. Under one God no one is more important than any one else. We can only be equal before Allah, who unites all things in creation and is NOT like things in creation. Neither male nor female, but above all else. Sublime and yet merciful and loving.”

Amina Wadud was born as Mary Teasley in the US “my family descended from African slaves that means Africans-free people-who were brought to the Americas to be slaves.’ (…) At the age of 20, she accepted Islam. She received her M.A. in Near Eastern Studies and her Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Michigan in 1988. During graduate school, she studied in Egypt, including advanced Arabic at the American University in Cairo, Qur’anic studies and tafsir (exegesis or religious interpretation) at Cairo University, and philosophy at Al-Azhar University.  She worked as assistant professor at the International Islamic University, Malaysia, and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has authored two books: Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam.

Citation: Though she has subjected to close interpretation the verses on veiling in her first book, it is in Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam that she explains her choice of hijab: “If you think that the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised.” This is my hijab mantra. I have repeated it so often over the years, I am no longer certain of the time of its origin. Often, when I say it now, I also remove my own hijab from my head and drape it over my shoulders. Over the past several decades, the hijab has been given disproportionate symbolic significance both within and without Muslim communities. Like a sixth pillar,we cannot discuss Islam and gender without discussing the hijab. While overloaded with multiple meanings, it is often the single marker used to determine community approval or disapproval. Although sometimes random and coincidental, it is also burdened with different levels of volition by Muslim women.

I have recognized and lived the idea that hijab is a public declaration of identity with Islamic ideology. I do not consider it a religious obligation, nor do I ascribe to it any religious significance or moral value per se. It is certainly not the penultimate denotation of modesty, as mandated by the Qur’an, “the best dress is the dress of taqwa” (7:26). While the hijab can give some semblance of a woman’s affiliation with “Islam,” it offers no guarantee of respect or protection. Those who reduce women to their to be transformed without raising that consciousness .In reality, the hijab of coercion and the hijab of choice look the same. The hijab of oppression and the hijab of liberation look the same. The hijab of deception and the hijab of integrity look the same. You can no more tell the extent of a Muslim woman’s sense of personal bodily integrity or piety from 45 inches of cloth than you can spot a fly on the wall at two thousand feet.

Paradoxically, I consistently wore hijab for my first thirty years as a Muslim Women, including covering my face for four years when I lived in the USA and Libya. While I don’t consider it obligatory, my own devotion to wearing it appeared to conform to neo-traditionalist or conservative Muslim’s perspective. This made me look safe to some and dangerous or unworthy to others. It is double-edged aspect of my public role and representation that figures strategically in debates over Islam and gender. No matter how stringent or coincidental my own intentions throughout those three decades, or today, I cannot escape, determine, or envisage what it means to others.”

(fro the Page 220, Inside the Gender Jihad, Oneworld Publications, 2007) Link:

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