Islam: Hijab of the East

Islam is the veil that covers the Middle East.  Similar to the now-stereotypical inky black hijab that has come to dominate media coverage of the region, the Islamic faith serves as a curtain[1] that hides the diversity of an amalgam of states tied together by a history of empires and imperialism. Attempting to define the region by the prevalence of Islam gives rise to a number of misconceptions and generalizations, and ultimately hides the diversity present in the area. To demonstrate this, I shall first discuss the region’s misleading moniker ‘the Middle East’ and how its utilization can be both useful and harmful in contemporary political discussions. From there I shall examine the traditional Islamic concept of umma that has contributed to a self-imposed distinction among many in the region as ‘Muslims above all else’ that has obscured political movement’s like Sayyid Qutb’s based on delineating Muslim identity through the use of jahilyya. Lastly, I shall discuss the wide and often hidden variations in faith , veiling, and genital mutilation among areas of the Middle East.

The ‘Middle East’ – A Useful Fiction


            Using the Eurocentric term ‘The Middle East’ instantly invokes the imperialist-influenced past of the region. It denotes a Western perspective that places the states in question between Europe and the Asian countries furthest east. As Ellen Lust writes, the term “demonstrates both the extent to which a common identity has been established over the centuries and the indelible influence that outside forces, and particularly the West, have had on the region.”[2] Much of the area was once ruled by either the Ottoman Empire or the Safavid Empire, each with distinct Islamic roots. However, with the collapse of the Safavid Empire just before the beginning of the 18th century, pressure on the Ottoman Empire increased from European powers such France, Britain, and the Russian Empire. Military clashes, such as Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, as well as failed financial and administrative reforms slowly weakened the Ottoman Empire until it was completely defeated in World War I and promptly dismantled. The prevailing European powers agreed to divide the remnants of the Ottoman Empire among themselves in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, redrawing the map and creating artificial boundaries that in many cases have endured to this day.[3]

            The fates of various states have differed based on a number of factors, with some faring better than others in terms of governance and border issues. For example, though Turkey was divided up initially, a successful rebellion led by nationalist forces in 1922 resulted in the formation of a secular and eventually democratic state.[4] Sudan, dominated in 1898 by the British, was effectively divided socially and culturally through the development of Sudanese elites in the north and a Christian-educated English-speaking south.[5] In the case of Sudan, an on-going separatist movement has all but succeeded in establishing a distinct Republic of South Sudan.[6] Other states did not gain independence until much later, like Algeria which remained a French colony until a bloody, seven and a half year war for independence that ended in1962. French colonization left remnants of culture and language behind, and Algeria still struggles to create strong political culture and institutions.[7] The ramifications of European colonization and exploitation efforts have left deep social and political scars that persist to this day. These efforts have also contributed to the view of the Middle East as a uniform area united by Islam, anti-Israeli sentiment, and oil.[8] 

            Such a view obscures and denigrates the vast differences between the countries composing the region. As Ellen Lust writes:

In reality, the Middle East, spanning from Morocco in the west, through the countries of north Africa, to Turkey in the north and to Iran and the Arabian Peninsula in the east, is a region of great diversity, with a range of historical, political, and social factors that both unite it and make each country distinct and complex.[9]

Though imperialism and colonization have played a significant role in the creation of the concept of the Middle East and the grouping of states to which it refers, there is a sense in which some of these uniting factors are misleading in appearance. The example treated in this essay is that of Islam; many of the states composing the Middle East are predominantly, if not overwhelmingly, Muslim in population. For example, Algeria is 99% Muslim, Egypt is 90%, Iran 98%, Iraq 97%, Jordan 92%, etc.[10] And yet behind these statistics lies startling diversity in belief, custom, and heritage, as well as sectarian splits between Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis, and Wahhabists. But before discussing this diversity, it is important to acknowledge how Islam has functions as a self-imposed distinction, and how this distinction has been used for political purposes.

Muslim Identity and Umma: A Self-Imposed Distinction


            For many people in the Middle East, religious ties are stronger than any state-sanctioned institution or identity. Anthony Shadid explains a telling interaction with two Egyptian men regarding identity. He writes:

But beyond that I wondered, how did they see themselves? Who were they? First, they were Muslims, they said, hardly pausing to think, then they were Egyptians. After that, perhaps, they were Arabs. ‘Faith is the first thing,’ Hamdan said, his eyes narrowing. ‘It comes before community. It comes before everything.’[11]

Muslim identity is first and foremost for many. It defines their everyday lives and offers a larger sense of brotherhood than the state can offer, and sometimes more than tribal or ethnic associations.

            This sentiment is reflected in the Muslim concept of umma,or the community of Islam  that surpasses both clan and tribe in favor of a universal Muslim identity. Represented by the beginning of the Muslim calendar, “umma, or the Muslim community, a [is] symbolic moment when Mohammed’s followers began to look beyond their tribal and clan affiliations and see themselves foremost as Muslims, believers in God, the god of Abraham.”[12] Originally conceived of to mark the people of Medina’s acceptance of Mohammad as their prophet in 662, umma has come to dominate the minds of many Muslims concerned with the spread of Westernization as well as with the perceived crumbling of Islamic-based society. Umma has become one of the most prevalent Islamic concepts, and “today, as with many traditional Islamic concepts but to a greater degree, umma still resonates among the faithful. To many, it suggests the brotherhood of Muslims that transcends borders, sect, nationality and ethnicity.”[13] Belief in this concept transcends classes and socioeconomic status, manifesting in soldiers and scholars alike.[14]Though umma remains a religious concept, for some the same faith that serves as a call for brotherhood can also be used to justify specific political movements and agendas.

             Discussing Osama Bin Laden’s political ideology, Shadid quotes Olivier Roy as saying, “[Political Islam], which is shared by Iran, might appropriately be described as Islamic Nationalism. It is a far cry from the imaginary umma which Bin Ladin and his associates invoke.”[15] Here we see that umma can be used to manipulate Muslims or reinforce a tenuously-related political goal. The best example of this, however, occurs with Sayyid Qutb’s revival of the older concept of jahilyya and its application in political Islam. A brief but prominent member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb became an outspoken critic of the West upon his visit to America and became entrenched in a fundamentalist perspective of Islam. To push the Muslin Brotherhood’s political goals, Sayyid rejuvenated the age-old concept of jahilyya, which originally referred to the Arabian Peninsula prior to Islam.[16]

            Qutb adopted the idea of a society without Islam and took it a step further, arguing that:

If jahiliyya is a state in which Islam is not applied, a society that fails to adhere to its laws, ethics, morals or values…then those people who live under its sway cannot themselves be Muslims. Even if they pray, fast and make the pilgrimage – sacred duties of every follower- they do not obey God’s law and therefore must be considered unbelievers.[17]

In this way, Qutb drew an ideological line in the sand that delineated what activity constituted being a Muslim and what activity did not. Conservative and fundamentalist, Qutb’s reformulation of jahiliyya excluded secular groups and states like Turkey, because “a society that recognizes God, but tries to secularize him or confine him to a certain sphere of life, is jahiliyya.”[18] To be considered Muslim in Qutb’s eyes, the Muslim umma must implement sharia law, since all else is an insidious attempt by man to remove God from different facets of life.[19]

            Qutb and others utilize the deep-seated Islamic affiliations and history of the region and the people to manipulate political situations. In Qutb’s case, his attempt to effect top-down changes and further ‘Islamacise’  Egyptian society ended in his hanging. His is but one example of the manner in which self-imposed Muslim identity has been used as a tool to not only obscure political machinations, but to motivate individuals at a fundamental level. Islam, however, is not only used as a veil to obscure political movements, but itself presents simultaneously a community without borders yet encompasses widely varying customs, mores, and  beliefs.

The Veil of Islam

As noted earlier sectarian splits, common in any religion, are just as present in Islam as in any other faith. However, particular to Islam is the concept of umma, or of a Muslim community that extends past state boundaries, tribal affiliations, or ethnic differences. I argue that such a concept contributes to a whitewashing of Islam as a whole and a failure to see the vast differences present throughout the region deemed the Middle East. Discussing the divergence in customs between the Sufis of Sudan and Afghanistan, Shadid writes:

In Sudan, for instance, on the desert plain outside Omdurman…I met Sufi dervishes dressed in red and green, the colors of the sect, swaying in a circle to the escalating beat of a drum that sounded African to Western ears…A continent away in Afghanistan, I met another mystic who almost lost consciousness as he listened to the slow, melodic recitation of Persian poetry…Both considered themselves Muslims and Sufis, but they shared little other than their belief in God.[20]

Such reflections demonstrate that despite concepts such as umma and jahilyya, the Muslim faith is so diverse that one would hardly draw a parallel between members of the same sect in different areas of the world, yet both are included under the banner of Islam. Similar, and more prominent, is the debate surrounding the proper attire of Muslim women, which highlights the vast diversity in the region as well as the religion.

            Though rooted in the Quran, the basis for mandates regarding the way women ought to dress is vaguely worded and often disputed. The Quran makes a distinction between the Prophet’s wives and other Muslim women, stating that the former must be addressed from behind a ‘curtain’, while the latter must simply cover their chests and only their “apparent adornments.”[21] On some accounts, Muslim women are only required to dress modestly according to societal standards, and by others accounts, they are required to cover their entire bodies, faces included, along with their hands in some extreme cases.[22] Describing the various circumstances and scenes she has witnessed, Geraldine Brooks writes:

Women from Pakistan, on their way to jobs in the Gulf, floated by in their deliciously comfortable salwa kameez – silky tunics drifting low over billowing pants with long shawls…Saudi women trod carefully behind their husbands, peering from behind gauzy face veils and 360-degree black cloaks…Afghani women also wore 360-degree coverings, called chadris – colorful crinkly shrouds with an oblong of embroidered latticework over the eyes.[23]

Though the meaning of the text is not universally agreed upon, Muslims across the region interpret it in various ways. Perhaps the most distinct reading is that of the Tuareg tribe, who believe men should veil themselves instead of women, earning them their namesake which translates roughly to “The Abandoned of God.”[24] Examples like the Tuareg demonstrate that Islam can flourish and adapt to multiple cultural and ethnic situations.

            More troublesome adaptations, however, are instances where Islam hides more violent and damaging cultural traditions. For example, in parts of Africa like Eritrea, the practice of clitoridectomy and infibulation existed prior to the spread of Islam, which has tolerated and reinforced the cultural practice for hundreds of years. Women in these areas, many of whom are illiterate, are told the Quran commands this practice, which it does not.  Though some Muslim do not like genital mutilation to be associated with their religion, few Islamic leaders are willing to publicly denounce it and there are several Islamic texts outside of the Quran that mention it as a viable practice. In fact, as Brooks says, “one in five Muslim girls lives today in a community that sanctions some sort of interference with her genitals.”[25] So, while not inextricably tied to the original Holy Text of Islam, in many ways the religion has obscured an antiquated and barbaric cultural ritual. Brooks argues that the central question that must be asked in the modern world is why Islam is so quick to adopt those cultural relics that are most harmful to women, from Persian veils to African genital mutilation.[26]  



            Whether it is the difference in practices and beliefs within a sect, differing standards of veiling women, or genital mutilation, there is great diversity found in Islam. Nevertheless, such divergence is often cloaked behind over-simplified constructs, such as the name ‘The Middle East’ itself, or behind redefined Islamic ideals such as umma and jahilyya. Writing about Iran’s Women’s Society, Brooks illustrates the perfect parallel: “The Society liked to promote its prominent women – its members of Parliament, artists, and authors. But in photographs everyone came out looking exactly the same: a little white triangle, apex down, inside a big black triangle, apex up.”[27] The Islamic faith itself, expecting the maintenance of a Muslim community without distinction, contributes to the veiling of social and political issues behind ancient language and concepts. In the contemporary landscape, this has resulted in an overestimation of the similarities between Mid East states and an under-appreciation of the stark differences, including distinctions between genuinely Islamic traditions and cultural practices that have merely been absorbed over time. Like the varied and notable women in Iran’s Women’s Society, the unique features of the Middle East’s constituent states are hidden behind the self-imposed hijab of Islam.

[1] Hijab literally translates to “curtain.” Brooks, 20.

[2] Ellen Lust, ed. The Middle East (Washington: CQ Press, 2011), xxiii-xxiv

[3] Michael Gasper “The Making of the Modern Middle East,” in The Middle East, ed. Ellen Lust (Washington: CQ Press, 2011), 1-25.

[4] Lust, 730-735.

[5] Anthony Shadid, Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, and the New Politics of Islam Boulder: Westview Press, 2002), 159.

[6] Joshn Kron, “Southern Sudan Nears a Decision on One Matter: Its New Name,” New York Times, January 23, 2011,

[7] Lust, 371-377.

[8] Lust, xxii.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lust, 372, 388, 412, 438, 487 respectively.

[11] Shadid, 31.

[12] Shadid, 24.

[13] Shadid, 24, 252.

[14] Shadid, 290.

[15] Shadid, 90.

[16] Lust, 387 and Shadid, 57-59.

[17] Shadid, 59.

[18] Shadid, 58.

[19] Shadid, 59.

[20] Shadid, 157.

[21] Brooks, 20.

[22] Brooks, 20-21.

[23] Brooks, 21-22.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Brooks, 33-37.

[26] Brooks, 231-232.

[27] Brooks, 27.

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