Archive for October 2006
My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.
Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.
The Arabs of the Levant and Iraq love talking politics. This is one of the more rewarding things about spending time with them. In Syria, for instance, instead of enduring conversations about cars, house prices or football, you can immerse yourself in big issues: God and death, revolution and gender, secularism and resistance.
But because normal political life in Syria – organising parties, holding meetings and rallies, writing articles critical of the government – is criminalised, most people have no defined political affiliation. And it is of course impossible to accurately research political opinion, so any pronouncements on the views of Syrians are inevitably based on anecdotal evidence.
With that reservation, here are some pronouncements on the political views of Syrians. I base them on conversations with my Syrian relatives, my wife’s family, and many friends and colleagues from three years residence in the country and several long visits.