Substance over form, intent over law by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf - The STAR (Part 2)
Upholding the intent of God’s law should be the common ground of a modern and diverse Muslim ummah, says Imam Feisal in Part 2 of his reply to a father whose daughter decided to uncover her head just before her university graduation.
In the Quran, God says, “…let them draw their head-coverings over their cleavages” (24:31). These head-coverings, or khumur (the plural of khimar), refer to the head-coverings customarily used by Arab women before and after the advent of Islam. Even men wore them for protection in the hot desert sun. Women also typically wore tunics with a wide opening in the front that left the breasts exposed.
With this understanding, the injunction to cover the cleavage with a khimar does not refer to the compulsory use of a khimar as a head-covering, but rather is only meant to specify that a woman’s cleavage is not included in the definition of “what may (decently) be apparent.”
The word for “cleavage” is juyub, the plural of jayb, often translated as “cleavage.”Jayb literally means “pocket.” Women traditionally “pocketed” money and other small items in their cleavage, which prosperous Meccan women, like their Western 18th and 19th century counterparts, used to accentuate. This injunction therefore cautions against exposure that might put them at risk of harm.
From the hadith and other historic sources, we learn that it was normative at the Prophet’s time for upper-class women not to breastfeed their own children. They hired Bedouin wet nurses or called upon their slave women for this task. It was normative for these working women to expose their head and neck, their arms below the elbows, their legs below the knees while performing their work, and their breasts while breastfeeding, which was done in public as well.
There are several hadith where the Prophet sees a woman breastfeeding, and his silence (sunna taqririyya, or tacit consent) indicates that he deemed public breastfeeding acceptable.
Furthermore, because slave women frequently went bareheaded in public, scholars held that they could pray bareheaded as well. In fact, all the madhhabsunanimously agreed that a slave woman’s prayer with her head uncovered was valid. Because the requirements of salah are not different for free believers and for slaves, some Muslim scholars conclude that covering the head cannot be a requirement for any woman of any class in order for her prayer to be valid.
These reasons form the basis of the third and fourth juridical positions. They are also the basis for why a woman is not required to cover her head, either in public or in prayer.