by Rashad Carre
It’s shocking that a woman was arrested in Iran for not covering her hair properly. And abhorrent, that the woman was allegedly beaten to death for it by ‘religious’ police. It’s not the only country where this happens, and in my opinion the protests are more than justified. I grew up in Indonesia, the largest Moslem country in terms of population, and I never saw women covering their hair, until a few years ago. People like to say that it’s a woman’s choice, but I’ve personally witnessed the cultural pressure people feel to submit to it. The problem is that once a zealous idea has been given physical power, it’s difficult to take it away. Especially when that idea is adopted by those who have a dominant influence over others.
I decided to look up the history of the practice of the Arab head-covering hijab on Wikipedia. It gave me a clearer insight into the whole controversy surrounding the veil, which includes the head-covering that’s been adopted by a large majority of Moslem groups. One of the interesting things Wikipedia pointed out was that, the practice of veiling was borrowed from the elites of the Byzantine and Persian empires, where it was a symbol of respectability and high social status, during the Arab conquests of those empires. Reza Aslan, (an Iranian American scholar of the sociology of religion) argues that “The veil was neither compulsory nor widely adopted until generations after Muhammad’s death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet’s egalitarian reforms”.
A lot of political debating still goes on regarding the interpretation of the veil. The word that was used to express a veil, actually translates as ‘curtain’. This curtain was also more specifically used in association with Muhammad’s wives. At the time, when Muhammad referred to a curtain, his residences were connected to the Mosque, and a lot of people who had come to see him would set up their tents in the courtyard. So the curtain acted as a door to give Muhammad’s wives privacy. And when dress sense is requested, it is a simple requirement he makes that people, women as well as men, dress with modesty.
Fast forward in time and we have the immense oil wealth of Saudi Arabia. And closely linked to the rulers of Saudi Arabia is a Moslem movement known as Wahhabism, founded by Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb in the 18th century in Najd, central Arabia, and adopted in 1744 by the Saud family. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Wahhabism is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
This link started in 1774 when the founder of Wahhabism made a politico-religious alliance with a local leader, Muhammad bin Saud, a tribal desert leader who conquered the Arabian Peninsula. Today, the descendants of Ibn Saud are now the rulers of the land he conquered which is now titled as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism which is still practised in Saudi Arabia can be seen as a fundamentalist movement, which sees itself as an orthodox reform movement.
With the protection of the Saud family and the money they have, Wahhabi Islam has expanded worldwide. As an example, 80% of American mosques are Wahhabi influenced, although not all who worship in these mosques are Wahhabis. Their spread came with a revolutionary pan-Arabism in the 19th century when there was a push for an Arab state to include North Africa. Although the state didn’t hold, Wahhabi influence did largely through the filtering of funds, it is said, in the building of new mosques. And this sphere of influence is still expanding as I’ve witnessed in Indonesia.
According to a report on the Human Rights Watch website, Wahhabism advocates a purification of Islam, rejects Islamic theology and philosophy developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and calls for strict adherence to the letter of the Koran and hadith (the recorded sayings and practices of the Prophet).
Wahhabism is extremely fervent in its dress code, as witnessed most in Saudi Arabia. The hypocrisy is that, as mentioned earlier, the veil was neither compulsory nor widely adopted until generations after Muhammad’s death. On a popular question platform, Quora, somebody asked the question if there are any Wahhabis in Iran, and one reply was, “No, it is not Islam. Wahhabism is extremism and extremism is not permitted in Islam.” So why are there ‘religious’ police, something which denotes extremism through the need to enforce control? At the height of their power, the Saudi religious police were allowed to carry small whips to caution those who were considered to contravene the dress code.
But according to Wikipedia: “Reforms made by Saudi rulers in 2016 sharply curtailed the authority of the Saudi religious police. Former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has criticized Iran’s religious police, but the president does not have control over it under the Iranian constitution.”
I’m not a religious scholar, and this article is a very brief analysis of the Dress Sense of certain Islamic societies. There are, of course, many other points of view, the proof being the number of theologists and religious sects in disagreement with each other. But, as with most, if not all extremism, it comes with a lot of discrepancies. I suppose it’s in the make-up of what human beings have to try and overcome, the desire for power, greed and dominance. If we really felt true love for each other, we wouldn’t feel the need to impose a difference between ourselves. It is so sad to see ‘difference’ used in the name of God.