Sheik of Al Azhar bans face veil

In Egypt, the senior cleric at one of the Muslim world's pre-eminent centers of Sunni Islamic teaching has banned female students and teachers from wearing the niqab - the full-face veil - in classrooms and dormitories. 

The Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, says the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and is a sign of radicalism. Other Egyptian universities have taken similar positions, prompting civil rights activists to complain that the ban violates students' rights.

Many Islamic scholars believe that full-face coverings are not a religious requirement, but the modern expression of tribal customs and traditions that predate Islam. Such coverings are common in conservative states such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, though not in Egypt. 

But the sheik's pronouncement is seen as a reminder of the country's difficult position as it tries to push back against the growth of conservative Islam across the region.

Student Hela Omar, 19, is petite, slender, dark-eyed and otherwise indescribable because of her loose robes and the cloth covering her face from the bridge of her nose down below her jaw. She understands that the niqab is not an Egyptian tradition, but she doesn't understand why Tantawi and some government ministers seem to see it as a sign of allegiance to radical Islam.

"Anything that covers the body is something that people should respect. I've lived in other countries like Yemen, and the niqab is normal there. So I don't understand why people here think it's extremist, or think it's too Islamist to wear. I just think it's a matter of modesty," Omar says. 

Tantawi's announcement of the ban was clouded by reports that he spoke harshly to a young niqab-wearing student, embarrassing her in front of her middle-school class. 

He denied speaking abusively to the girl and later clarified that he doesn't object to the niqab in public settings where men and women mix. He said the ban applies only to Al-Azhar's classrooms and dorms, which are already segregated.

Dia Rashwan, an analyst with the government-run Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says this is part of an ongoing struggle to define Egypt's cultural references. In the early 20th century, he says, the debate was over the hijab, the headscarf that is now quite common in Egypt, but was controversial at the time.

Rashwan says for Al-Azhar as an institution, it's a matter of defending its interpretation of Islam as the correct one. But for the health of the society, he sees it as a question of accommodating Egypt's various cultures without letting any one culture dominate.

"Egypt has many cultures. Some of them come from the Islamic era, others from the Mediterranean, others from the pharaohs. We have to respect them," he says. 

The niqab debate has produced strange bedfellows, with civil rights advocates standing with the Islamists in defense of a woman's right to cover her face.

Hossam Bahgat at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said the ban further discriminates against women who are already struggling to succeed in a heavily patriarchal society.

Editor Rania al-Malky wrote in the English-language Daily News Egypt that rejecting the ban on the grounds that it deprives women of opportunity would only perpetuate what she calls "this cycle of psychological and social violence in the name of religion."

On the streets of Cairo, a number of niqab wearers hoped that solutions might yet be found. They said they would be happy to lift their veils so a guard could identify them at the gate, and also during exam time so that their teachers could be sure who was taking the test.

But if history is any guide, this debate is about much larger issues - such as where the Middle East's most populous country is heading, socially and culturally. It's a debate not likely to end anytime soon.

Peter Kenyon is a NPR foreign correspondent currently based in Cairo, covering Middle Eastern and North African countries from Syria to Morocco.

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Older Comments:
Being a sheik does not mean one is knowledgeable, we have a lot of muslims who does not want to follow the doctrines of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, such is this so called "sheik", he believes is a muslim but not a mumeen (beliver)in Allah and the Sunnah of the Prophet(s.a.w) we have been told in the Holy Quran about such people, We can't follow the Quran and neglect the Sunnah, if we realy claim to be Muslims, MUSLIMS BEWARE.

If the "against" option defines the major puport of the article "the ban of the niqab" I am AGAINST THE BAN.

Sayed Tantawi actually overrode the reasons for his ban in his own word, "Egypt has many cultures. Some of them come from the Islamic era, others from the Mediterranean, others from the pharaohs. We have to respect them," he says.

It's quite quizzical he doesn't include a woman's right to wear the niqab, a form of respect.

Double Talk.

We all must understand and realize the fact that Niqab is not an edict in Islam - it's a cultural tradition in many ME countries.

IMHO, it's a matter of personal freedom that women should have as long as the practice does not impact a particular society in an adverse manner...

Ya Allah! Grant us modesty! Ya Allah ! Grant us iman! Ya Allah! Give respect to the Mosthers of the Belivers as they are as our mothers and Raulullah is closer to us than all of mankind! Ya Allah ! give us understanding of deen! Ya Allah! Guide us to the deen of beuty and treasure! Ameen!

We, the Muslims of this world would benefit a great deal from open debates over many issues that confront us today and for which medieval interpretations are the only ones presented by most of our scholars. We should no longer accept anybody's word that this is so in Islam. We can (many at least) read the Quran in any language, comparative Hadeeth and conflicting opinions are also available on many issues. We also have a right to lead a life according to our individual understanding of our moral code. But, on issues such us "observing the veil in public" as related to security and safety, identity aspects, decisions should be made on the basis of Ijmaa' of Muslims of the time. This requires open debates, votes and representations. Any scholar is welcome to give an opinion, but should not be counted for more than one vote.
Quran, when read with proper references to the context of each Ayah, leaves no doubt about the boundaries and timeliness of each of its injunctions.I do not believe the a Veil has anything to do with the religeon. Many medieval practices were OK for the times. It may also be a good idea when a society cannot protect its women folk from aggressive male conduct. But, in societies where such protection is available, and men and women are civilized,the nations should be able to vote to ban the practice.

People should be careful when making comments on Islam and fellow muslims.

Before you say anything be sure of your source of argument. What i want to point out here is that, generally it is agreed that sources of Islamic rulings are four with principal ones the Quran and the sunna, then followed by ijma' (or concensus of companions/ulema) and qiyas. Now where does the niqab falls on these catgories, obviously ijma' as the origin began with the wives of the companions vis Abdullah bn Abbas and Abdullah bn Masud and there was no single objection from other companions to these highest beloved companions, and so it became an islamic ruling. Because of the saying of the prophet that the ijma of his companions MUST be followed. But we equally know that the standard ruling is for women even at the time of the prophet to cover their bodies excluding the faces an hands. So this makes ruling of niqab OPTIONAL till the end of times.

A single sheikh cannot come out in the 21st century CE to do away with the niqab. May be when we have an ijma of all the ulemas of the known muslim world (which clearly from the comments of most of them ulema this is impossible), the ruling on niqab is here to stay.

So those muslim women incline to using niqab shoul be allowed to do so. And those who want the ordinary hijab covering should likewise be allowed to do. ...Lana 'amaluna wa lakum 'amalukum.. should be the base.

Finally Sheikh Tantawi has erred but does that give right to any muslim to call him hypocrite or kafir? No. The judgement is with Allah and clearly from his (tantawi) backpedalling we can excuse his utterances to illiteracy of the deen, and pray for Allah's guidance for him.

Wa-Allah 'lam.

the face veil ban is in class room and in front other females and this is absolutely not required by any Islamic Law. I agree with Al Azhar

The covering of face by muslim ladies/women is inline wit d tenet of Islam. In my opinion,this is purely Europe centric ideology and the effect of Westernisation that violate d right of Muslim ladies living/studing in Egypt

Muslims who says that Niqab or face veil is mandate by Islam... Could you please post the Quranic versus or a Hadith to backup your argument that Islam says that woman should wear a Niqab.

I know Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said once that only thing should be visible on woman ... He pointed towards hands and the face.

So leisha sherrell, where does it says that Niqab is mandatory in Islam for woman.

Hey Mustafa, what has been worthless over a century is the niqab, it no longer has any purpose but degradation of islam.

Sheik Tantawi did a courageous deed for islam.

What else should one expect from someone appointed by the Egyptian secular and dictatorial system of government?

The so-called scholar went back on his statement, once a lot of people started asking for his head. If you are interested, read the original account of the context of the exchange published originally.

Al-Azhar has been worthless for over a century, with worthless top "scholars" and a bogus claim of being a center of religious learning.

"niqab is a culture not a cult or devotion"
what the Sheik said should have not made all this noise, it`s just that there is some people fighting against niqab, and they they don`t dare starting the war
so once they heard the Sheik`s declaration the got an opened door...

Excellent job Sheik Al Tantawi. That niqab is nothing but a stain on our faith. We dont need it.
Who ever is obsessed in wearing it, needs to go to Yeman, Sudan, Somalia, Afganistan to anyother part of the world that is backward, runned down, behind, and trapped in the stone ages.


You should pay attention to the Quran if Allah tells us to cover let us cover. For you might be lusting and that is a sin. Do not let your own judgement of what we womans wear. Just give them the education they are seeking. There clothes should be covering them as commaned.Did you not pay attention to the Quran? Stop trying to change thing for the lust of the world.For Allah knows best ask for understanding and guidance NO LUSTING that what happens when men see to much of a woman. If she feels she needs to completely veil let her!

JAN FROM NETHERLANDS said: Very wise words from this Shyek. It may be custom in certain countries but mostly i feel sad when i see people wearing niqab as it indeed feels like a statement of radical islam. Remember the Prophet SAW said we should avoid all actions that keep other people from joining Islam

You point out that in hajj, women do not wear niqab. Thats right but why did the prophet say this. The prophet said this because the women came to hajj wearing niqab. For whatever reason, the prophet said **IN HAJJ**, do not cover your face. The logic is quite clear.

As for prophets wives - they are the models. Yes it may have been for their protection; but also Muslimah should aspire to be like them in everything. Appearance is one factor. BTW, the wives of the sahaba also wore the niqab.

Despite all, I say the scholars know more. Qardawi has a very practical position. He says it is not obligatory to wear the niqab. But if a woman want to imitate the wives of the prophet, then why not. After all, most people in the world do not complain of women wearing mini-skirts etc... so why do people complain if a woman is modest

Way to go Naseem....I agree with yr comments.

To brother Naseem

Am sorry US, Canada or whatever you called them do not represent islam in any form. Am sorry to tell you that your comment is ill regarding principle of islam plus you need to have adhab. It would have been much better you if dont mention Jihadist or even mentioning muslim countries and branded them as unislamic. Your statement is wrong sir. You cant brand entire muslim countries as mockers of islam. US, Canada etc mock islam than others. "Sucide Bombers" is not what they wish but the conditions they found themselves. You live in America but you dont know what it means to be oppressed by eiteh foreign nations or your own leaders. You claim Jihadist is not islamic but Jihad is mentioned in the Quran. Please review your Iman before you leave comment next time and dont be like munafiq. I also condem your attitude towards muslim men and women in developing and muslim nations that they are less educated. what's education? is education neccesarily mean western education? Your thought is comletely irrational. You've been nationalistic and you do not sound islamic. If a county should attack America, am sure you will defend America, isnt it? so muslims have the right to defend themselves from foreign occupiers

Thank you Sheik of Al Azhar. The niqab/face veil is not part of our beautiful religion. It is not a part of modesty. Our prophet was asked one day of what is allowed to be shown on a woman and he pionted to the face,hands and feet. Sunnah, Hadith or the Holy Quran doesn't tell us to do this. This veil was put upon the Prophets wives for their protection. We as Muslims must learn and study our relgion and not bring in our cultural ideas and pratices. Islam is the best religion in the world, the only religion and we must respect it and cherish it.

There should be no much debate on this issue. Just strip him of his title(sheik)that's all. He's ant-islam because a true muslim would never said that. But the west that claim they believe in human right support him bcos that's what they want. But if someone should ask American for instance to dress properly, it's considered vilation. So the game is double standard. From now on, no one should take his fatwa or orders or even respect his authority. ...

I don't think it should be banned,however, i think education of hijab and the real meaning behind it should be taught amongst modern muslims. As an American muslim I know the literacy rate in the muslim world is very dismal.Many of these mullah's, shaykh's and imam's are nothing more that frauds. It didn't used to be like that but somehow many muslims have become more "religious" and less educated and analytical! Islam isn't about forcing people to do anything. There is no compulsion in religion so who gives anyone the right to ban someone from wearing a face veil? Yes it's a tradition that many women think represents islam when it really doesn't. The Qu'ran comands women and men to dress modest. Covering your hair, face completely obligatory. If a muslim woman feels comfortable wearing a face veil then she should not be forced to expose herself.Personally i'm glad i'm an American muslim because muslim rulers in the middle east(north Africa)and North Africa in places like Iran, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, Egypt,Sudan,Somalia,Yemen,Afghanistan,Pakistan,Palestine, etc.. have made a mockery of Islam with their backwards traditions, barbaric governments,suicide bombers, jihadist, iliteracy and irrational thinking. This is not what Islam is about!They need to take a page from muslims in the West and in places like the US, Canada, Britain, Latin America. Indonesia, China, Malaysia etc...The "new" Ummah has arisen and the US is the new center forthe Ummah if you ask me cus my brothers and sisters overseas have brought upon the wrath of Allah if you ask me.Islam existed before the Prophet(pbuh), before Abraham(puh) and before mankind was created.Islam is peace,islam is science, islam is learning, islam is freedom, islam is anti-racism, islam is unity, islam is the universe, islam is the essence of life. Not a religion, not a jihad against infidels, not oppresing women, not enslaving men, not killing. Shame on the so called muslims rulers!

Why make fuss in Christian France when veil is banned in Egyptian universities? Why even bother with scarf as in Detroit when judge ordered it to be removed in his court?

The other day I was in Vncouver (Canada). I saw muslim girls coming out of school wearing scarf and tight blue jeans. Are tight jeans modest dress? strange, is it not?

I wonder if this whole thing is nothing but political hypocrisy.

I have no particular opinion for Niqab. The thing that should anger people about Tantawy how he is a hypocrite is his total silence about the oppression of Muslims everywhere including Egypt. I have my blog and I tried to get him to know about me or talk to me. However he had the orders not to do that form his masters who think I am Al Mahdi Al Muntazer. Ask him to declare in the TV that I am a crazy guy and not Al Mahdi. They will not do it since his masters do not want people to know me and explore my website. The problem is a man like him is put in his place by a tyrant and not by the Muslims. We are at the end of time and God promised us victory. They will not be able to undo a prophecy and we will prevail.
Maged Taman