Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spiritual Significance and Symbolism of the Hijab

... I have previously given little thought to the subject of the hijab for the mere fact that, as a man, it has not been made incumbent upon me and so I have not been in the situation of giving necessary consideration toward adopting it. Nevertheless, it is an important subject and one which may have a significance beyond that which has been addressed above. Thus far, the discussion of the hijab has centered around its association with the attitude of modesty. While this is certainly true, and constitutes an inward attitude both independent of and reflected within the outer garment, I do not believe that it exhausts the significance of the symbolic reality of the veil within the context of Islam. As an element of the sharia which derives from the Islamic revelation, the veil undoubtedly possesses a dimension of significance extending beyond the outward social domain.

Considered as a symbol, the veil (hijab) is an image of the metaphysical phenomenon of "Relativity", both divine and cosmic, the same phenomenon that is expressed in Vedantic terms as "Maya" or cosmic and metacosmic "illusion". Of the primary hypostases of the Divine Principle which qualify it as Absolute, Infinite Perfection, Maya results from the quality of Infinitude. This implies the tendency toward radiation of the Principle in the actualization of its possibilities including that of its own negation. Maya is the field of illusion within which these possibilities are realized and through which the Principle unfolds in the direction of its negation thereby giving rise to the ontological hierarchy of manifestation.

Maya possesses a dual nature and function owing to the complimentary qualities of transcendence and immanence of the Divine Reality. Maya both veils the Principle through its diminutive capacity and unveils it through its theophanic quality. According to Frithjof Schuon,

"The Hindu notion of 'Illusion', Maya, coincides in fact with the Islamic symbolism of the 'Veil', Hijab: the universal Illusion is a power which on the one hand hides and on the other hand reveals; it is the Veil before the Face of Allah or, according to a multiplying extension of the symbolism, the series of sixty-six thousand veils of light and darkness which either through clemency or rigour screen the fulgurating radiance of the Divinity."

The principial duality prefigured in the Divine Hypostases is reflected on all levels of reality giving rise also to the complementarity of the sexes which serve as their symbol on the human plane. According to Islam, God is both al-Jalal (the Majestic) in his quality of Absoluteness and al-Jamal (the Beautiful) in his quality of Infinitude. The beauty of woman is the summit of perfection of God's beauty within the terrestrial realm. Embodying the expression of His Infinitude, her beauty takes upon itself the dual qualities of the cosmic veil of illusion, or hijab, which in its physical form serves as her outward distinction and ensign, and of which she constitutes, in a manner of speaking, an incarnation. According to Schuon, "Woman, incarnating Maya, is dynamic in a double sense: either in the sense of an exteriorizing and alienating radiation, or in that of an interiorizing and reintegrating attraction." Concerning her feminine beauty we may say that, woman contains an element of physical seductiveness as well as contemplative interiority. Like music, she possesses the capacity to bestow either sensual inebriation or spiritual intoxication.

According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad - may peace be upon him - declared that "Three things in your world were made for me worthy of love, women, perfume, and prayer" a statement that in itself testifies to the great spiritual significance of women in Islam. Ibn Arabi elaborated upon this hadith in his Bezels of Wisdom, wherein, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr has stated, he "goes to the point of describing the contemplation of God in Woman as the highest form of contemplation possible." In the chapter on the Wisdom of the Singularity in the Word of Muhammad, Ibn Arabi wrote,

"When man contemplates God in woman, his contemplation rests on that which is passive; if he contemplates Him in himself, seeing that woman comes from man, he contemplates Him in that which is active; and when he contemplates Him alone, without the presence of any form whatsoever issued from him, his contemplation corresponds to a state of passivity with regard to God, without intermediary. Consequently his contemplation of God in woman is the most perfect, for it is then God, in so far as He is at once active and passive that he contemplates, whereas in the purely interior contemplation, he contemplates Him only in a passive way. So the Prophet - Benediction and Peace be upon him - was to love women because of the perfect contemplation of God in them. One would never be able to contemplate God directly in absence of all (sensible or spiritual) support, for God, in His Absolute Essence, is independent of the worlds. But, as the (Divine) Reality is inaccessible in respect (of the Essence), and there is contemplation (shahadah) only in a substance, the contemplation of God in women is the most intense and the most perfect; and the union which is the most intense (in the sensible order, which serves as a support for this contemplation) is the conjugal act."

Frithjof Schuon stated that "the veil is a notion which evokes the idea of mystery, because it hides from view something that is either too sacred or too intimate." Within the spiritual economy of Islam, it appears that the incumbency of the veil upon women is intended not only as a means of expressing modesty and guarding society against a tendency toward sensual inebriation, but also a means of preserving the sanctity and inviolability of the outward manifestation of God's interiorizing beauty prior to the proper moment of its unveiling following the rite of marriage and prior to its consummation. Such a circumstance bestows upon the act the potential to realize the full value of its sacramental quality and contemplative depth. In Schuon's words,

"Woman is veiled as in Islam wine is forbidden, and she is unveiled ... with the aim of operating a kind of magic by analogy, the unveiling of beauty with an erotic vibration evoking, in the manner of a catalyst, the revelation of the liberating and beatific Essence; of the Haqiqah, the "Truth-Reality" as the Sufis would say."

Ultimately, it appears that in Islam woman has been given the veil as a symbolic reflection of her identity, as an expression of her inherent dignity, and as a responsibility owing to her providential birth as the ultimate theophany of God's beauty and bearer of the divine graces that such beauty may bestow upon those who see her unveiled.

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