What is the Burqa and is it mandatory for all Muslim women to wear it? By – Tohsin Hussain

Recently, a far right Member of Parliament of Australia, Ms. Pauline Hanson wore a burqa in the parliament as a mark of protest against Muslim immigration. This eccentric behaviour by her was admonished by all other MPs and she was asked to remove the burqa. But, the question persists “is the burqa a mandatory clothing for female muslims”?

The first thing one should understand is that in Islam the primary source of guidance is the Qur’an. The Qur’an is considered to be the infallible, unchanging word of God. It is full of ways in which Muslims should live their lives. It is however not always specific. The Qur’an tells us to follow Mohammed and that he is an example for us as to how to practice our religion. Thus, the sayings (hadith) and the actions (sunnah) of the Prophet (SAW) are extremely important to our beliefs. The sayings and actions of the Prophet becomes the secondary source of guidance in practicing our religion. Let us take an example from the Qur’an which tells us to pray, but it doesn’t tell us how and when to pray. The thing which we understand from the Qur’an is that we must pray and we have to pray more than once a day as well as the direction we have to face while praying, but it doesn’t tell us the exact steps of praying. It is then we look at the example that Muhammad left for prayer. The way he prayed was recorded by the early Muslims and so the hadith and the sunnah detail the exact procedure for prayer. Likewise when the Qur’an tells women (and men) to be modest it mentions some basic specifications such as to cover the bosom and other parts of the body, but it leaves the specification as ambiguous. For that some Muslim women look at how the wives of the prophet used to dress. Others use the more socially acceptable clothing in their state of domicile. Let us take an example here, an Arab women would wear a burqa whereas an Indian women would wear a salwar kameez. Ultimately, the goal is to dress modestly without showing skin according to religious beliefs.

Now, a perpetual debate comes into play that since hadith are not infallible and there are different opinions based on different hadith there is no clear and finite ruling on covering. Some people use hadith to support that everything should be covered save the hands and the face, maintaining that covering the face is not necessary but gives extra reward. While others maintain that covering the face is absolutely mandatory. Either way these rulings and opinions don’t come from the Qur’an but rather from the hadith. The issue highlighted by Ms. Hanson as the burqa being an Islamic dress is completely baseless as there is no such thing as an “Islamic dress”. Muslims are diversified and abide by local customs and traditions. The choice ultimately comes down to the woman as to how she would like to cover herself, be it with a hijab, niqab or burqa.

What is the origin of the burqa?

As we know that the Qur’an enjoins all Muslims whether male or female to dress modestly and refrain from revealing any part of their bodies unnecessarily. Beyond this instruction the holy book offers no guidance on female clothing. Its pages contain no mention of the burqa or other variety of dresses now associated with Islam such as the hijab and the veil.

The burqa appears to have originated from Persia in the 10th century, before slowly spreading to the Arabian Peninsula and present day Afghanistan and Pakistan. In present day Saudi Arabia a variant known as the ‘niqab’ was promoted by the ultra-conservative Wahabbi school of Islam. In southeast Asia the burqa was adopted by the Deobandis, the local strand of fundamentalist school of thought. Elsewhere, in the Muslim world, he garment remained relatively unknown until recently. Muslim countries like Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan to name a few does not encourage the use of burqa, which is an alien dress for them. The rise of Wahabism and Deobandis is helping the spread of the burqa but more and more Muslims aren’t letting this dress into their society, the recent bans in west Africa is a proof of that. The burqa is a reflection of culture rather than the interpretation of Islam and it remains an alien imposition in large areas of the Muslim world. In conclusion politicians or any stakeholder of a community or country should first try to understand the complexities of dress, habits and religion before trying to raise an issue. It generally leads to humiliation of a certain sect of society and this is used to brainwash societies against each other. As, for Ms. Pauline Hanson she is famous for opposing multiculturalism and fighting against the rights of the aboriginal people of Australia. Acts and words of such politicians should not be taken too seriously because this world is filled with such people. We must try to understand different cultures and traditions and try to
bring out the better in each other.

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