John J. O’Neill’s latest essay examines the motivation for the total veiling of women in Islamic societies.
Hiding Your Assets: the Surprising Origin of the Burka and Niqab
by John O’Neill
It is commonly believed that Islamic dress code for women, and most especially garments like the burka and the niqab (from Afghanistan and Arabia respectively) are about female modesty and the avoidance, on the part of male observers, of lustful passions. Certainly such garments are an extremely effective means of hiding the attractions of the female form. However, it has — rightly — been pointed out that nowhere in Islamic law is the complete hiding of the face and body required. Beyond a few admonitions to “modesty,” there are in fact very few specific recommendations either in the Qu’ran or any other Islamic scriptures about how a woman should dress. For this reason, it has recently been suggested that the burka and the niqab have nothing to do with Islam, and are simply local customs that have achieved the status of religious practice. Yet this is a spurious argument. There is no reason to believe that anything like the burka or the niqab were worn in pre-Islamic Afghanistan or pre-Islamic Arabia. And so these garments can only be understood within the context of Islam and Islamic culture.
But if such dress is not necessarily sanctioned by Islamic law, where did it come from?
In order to understand this, we need to take a broad look at Islam and the culture it fostered. Immediately we do this the truth about the burka/niqab emerges from its cover; and it is a truth of the most disturbing kind.
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When early Islam emerged from the Arabian Peninsula, it emerged as a warlike and conquering creed. Most of the conquered peoples, to begin with, were Christians; though there were many Jews among the subdued. The followers of both religions were permitted to continue to practice their faiths on condition that they paid a special tax, or jizya, to the Muslim conquerors. At the beginning, when the vast majority of the population of the Middle East remained Christian and Jewish, this tax amounted to a fabulous sum for the government of the Caliphate. In such circumstances, it will be obvious that it was financially advantageous to have Christians and Jews as subjects, and to keep them as Christians and Jews. Muslims were exempt from this kind of taxation. So lucrative was the jizya that Muslim rulers did not, in most cases, actually want Christians to convert. Christian conversions meant loss of revenue. Bat Ye’or comments: “Baladhuri related that when Iraq fell to the Arab conquerors, the soldiers wanted to ‘share out’ the region of Sawad between themselves. The caliph Umar b. al-Khattab permitted them to divide the booty, but decreed that the land and the camels should be left to the local farmers so as to provide for the Muslims: ‘If you divide them among those present, there will be nothing left for those who come after them.’ And Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law said of the non-Muslim peasants of Sawad, ‘Leave them to be a source of revenue and aid for the Muslims.’“ (Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi (1985) p. 68)
This attitude, that the Muslim is entitled to live in perpetuity off the labours of infidels, goes a long way to explaining the peculiar propensity of Muslim societies for producing bandits and pirates. In my Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, I examine the part played by Muslim piracy in the destruction of Graeco-Roman civilization during the seventh century. The war begun by Islam against the rest of the world in the seventh century was a total and unending one, and a real or enduring peace with the infidel world is impossible, owing to Muhammad’s stipulation that Muslims wage war against the non-believers until all peoples accept the one god, Allah. All Muslims were therefore permitted and even required to wage active jihad against the infidel world. A private individual cannot raise armies and invade infidel countries; but he can organise small-scale raids and guerilla attacks. And this is precisely what we see Muslims doing throughout history wherever they lived in proximity to non-Muslim peoples.
It was such “low-key” warfare, in the form of countless piratical raids, that effectively closed the Mediterranean to trade during the seventh century and terminated Classical Civilization.
But away from the Mediterranean there were not always neighbouring infidels to plunder; nor did the vast Jewish and Christian populations living under the Caliphs maintain their numbers. Such was the terrible oppression of the jizya tax, as well as the daily humiliations and (all too frequently) violence suffered at the hands of their Muslim masters, that over the centuries the Christian and Jewish populations diminished often to vanishing point. With fewer and fewer Christians and Jews to plunder, where the could Caliphs and Sultans acquire the wealth they demanded? The answer was clear: There may have been very few Jews and Christians left; but there were more and more Muslims: these — almost all of whom were descendants of Christian and Jewish converts — could readily supply the shortfall in the administration’s tax revenues. And having, for centuries, become accustomed to living off the labor of others, the Muslim ruling class — the Caliphs, Emirs, and their associates — were not likely to respect the property and rights of poorer Muslims. And this, of course, is precisely what we find. Throughout Muslim history, the Caliphs and the Sultans ruthlessly plundered the wealth of their citizens wherever and whenever they required it — irrespective of religion. This was a fact noted by Bernard Lewis. In his 2001 book What went Wrong? Lewis asked the question: What went wrong with a civilization which — he believes — showed such promise at the start, only to be mired in poverty and backwardness from the 12th-13th century onwards? Lewis concludes his volume without arriving at an answer. Yet at one point he makes a telling observation: Wheeled vehicles were virtually unknown, up until modern times, throughout the Muslim lands. This was all the more strange given the fact that the wheel was invented in the Middle East (in Babylonia) and had been commonly used in earlier ages. The conclusion he comes to is startling: “A cart is large and, for a peasant, relatively costly. It is difficult to conceal and easy for requisition. At a time and place where neither law nor custom restricted the powers of even local authorities, visible and mobile assets were a poor investment. The same fear of predatory authority — or neighbors — may be seen in the structure of traditional houses and quarters: the high, windowless walls, the almost hidden entrances in narrow alleyways, the careful avoidance of any visible sign of wealth.”(Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? (New York, 2001) p. 158)
In the kleptocracy that was the Caliphate, it seems, not even Muslims — far less Christians and Jews — were free to prosper.
But the Caliphs and Sultans did not stop at plundering their subjects’ material wealth: They were able and willing to take much more. Right from the beginning, Muhammad, the first “Commander of the Faithful,” did not baulk at acquiring women from his friends and relatives. At least two of Muhammad’s wives were requisitioned: one from a close friend and one from his brother. The Caliphs, of course, were not slow to copy the example set by the Prophet, and throughout Muslim history Caliphs and Sultans regularly took wives from their subjects. Even if these women were already married, it made little or no difference. Islamic rules on divorce, which required a man simply to say three times “I divorce thee” to his wife, meant that any objecting husband could be easily compelled to pronounce the required phrase. The threat of torture and death was normally enough to persuade the recalcitrant spouse.
Given such a culture of predatory authority, it is little wonder that men in Islamic lands began to conceal their wives under shrouds. This new style could of course be excused as a pious exercise in modesty; but the real reason, in most cases, was identical to that which produced the drab, windowless exteriors of Muslim homes: Hiding your assets.
Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.