Purdah more a matter of choice: US Islamic scholar

Seeking to dispel misconceptions about “purdah” (veil to conceal women from public view), noted Islamic scholar and researcher in comparative religions from the US, Prof Bruce B Lawrence, on Tuesday said this practice among Muslim women was more “a matter of choice.”

The “first interpretation most people give to purdah is that it means modesty,” Prof Lawrence, Emeritus Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University, USA, and currently adjunct professor at Istanbul’s Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakif University, told a big gathering at the Madras University, where students asked him several questions on Islam’s approach to social and other issues in a modern world.

While the Quran did outline the roles of men and women in the public domain, there was no implication in the holy book “that forever” men were superior to women, Prof Lawrence explained at the interaction set up by the US Consulate in Chennai in conjunction with the South Indian Educational Trust (SIET), now headed by Moosa Raaza, the former chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Quran also details how “men also have to be modest,” said Prof Lawrence, who had earlier spent two years at the Aligarh Muslim University in India, to study the finer aspects of Islam. Referring to how women were “projected in the Quran”, the scholar said, “there is no single way of interpreting this issue; Purdah is a matter of choice and this is one answer,” he emphasised, thus indicating that there was no necessity to give it an ultra-conservative hue.

Significantly, Shanna Dietz Surendra, Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Consulate in Chennai, introducing Prof Lawrence as one of the “deep” Islamic scholars of our times having earned a PhD from the Yale University in the History of Religions: Islam and Hinduism, said the views he would be sharing at this meeting “are his own and he does not speak on behalf of the US government.” Prof Lawrence, who broadly dwelt with the difficulties in the several translations, particularly English translations of the original Quran in Arabic, was all praise for India’s freedom fighter, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who not only spoke of the “spiritual notion of Islam”, but also was more modern than many others by demonstrating that “Islam is compatible with democracy”.

As a “model in politics” though, Islam has been “more misused”, Prof Lawrence said to related queries from the audience.

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