Muslim Ritual Prayer, Social Submission, and Embodied Dissonance by Laury Silvers

Silvers, Bio Pic FRBlogWebsites run by Muslim scholars typically offer advice columns for those seeking legal rulings and religious guidance on personal concerns. One young Muslim woman wrote to a site about her doubts that wearing hijab was connected to being a good person. The gist of the opinion was that wearing a head scarf, whether she feels right about it or not, will internalize good behavior thus transforming her faith. The acting scholar, Shazia Ahmed writes,

“…performing good deeds, even if one may not be ‘feeling it’, can affect us and change us.  The limbs are inroads, and performing good deeds with them can soften a hardened heart, bring enlightenment to a closed mind, and give a person a feeling of rejuvenation and desire to come closer to Allah and do more positive things.”

If she wears a head scarf, her faith, ritual and ethical observance, and peace of mind will increase. This approach is supported by studies undertaken in the field of social and behavioral psychology. It’s been shown that standing or sitting in an open-bodied “power pose” increases testosterone and reduces cortisol, just as forcing a smile increases serotonin. That’s all well and good, and I’ve certainly got nothing against hijab. As we should all be aware by now, hijab has multivalent meanings for Muslim women that do not typically accord with non-Muslim assumptions of its oppressiveness. So hijab is not the point here. My point is that the use of repetitive behaviors and rituals, which are capable of transforming a person’s the inner life, may also act as methods of social control that may not result in the desired peace of mind.

In any case, the peace of mind of an individual may not be the primary concern of such scholars and religious leaders. They may choose to advise an individual in accordance with what they believe are society’s needs. In some instances, the need to enforce social order trumps the needs of an individual. That said, it is hard to unravel these choices when an individual’s health is perceived in terms of fitting into the social order. Thus an individual’s role in maintaining a “wholesome” society may be a scholar or religious leader’s primary concern. Because such enforced behavioral norms have the power to transform one’s inward state, submitting to the needs of the whole may be experienced as faith, and rejecting the needs of the whole as rejecting God. This can have disturbing outcomes because submitting to society’s needs may also be bound up with maintaining hierarchies of empowerment and disempowerment. Thus rejecting one’s privilege or marginalization may be experienced as rejecting God.

There is evidence of such social control at work in scholars’ rulings on the form the body takes in ritual prayer. In a recent article on gendering the body in prayer, Aisha Geissinger writes that a debate arose in the early Muslim community about the bodily movements of free and enslaved men and women. Some early authorities evidently considered rulings about bodily movements and attire in prayer as a way to distinguish men from women, and free from slave. It had little to do with modesty. “Modesty” was reserved as a social marker for free women; the “private parts” of enslaved women were only from navel to knee. The second Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women. True or not, early authorities repeated these reports to support rulings forbidding enslaved women from wearing an outer wrap during the ritual prayer. Further distinctions are marked in the prayer by encouraging men to spread out their limbs to take up as much space as possible (ironically, men take a power pose in a ritual meant to articulate submission to God). Women were commanded to restrict their bodily movements and lower their voices. Closing one’s body in on itself is a behaviorally submissive pose which has been shown to reduce testosterone levels and raise cortisol. Consider how much more disempowering these gendered distinctions are for gender-queer Muslims who must adopt either “male” or “female” postures in order to pray; in effect, such postures require them to lie about themselves in order to be in God’s presence or part of a worshipping community.

If the limbs are inroads, then free men are internalizing power and women and the gender-queer are internalizing disempowerment. Too often I have heard men remark that women have the advantage in submitting to God because of the social and personal disempowerment they experience at the hands of men. A disempowering form of the prayer follows the same logic. The conundrum is that it works. In a disempowered state, it is easier to accept the divine command because one is used to giving up one’s autonomy. One may not experience it negatively given the results. The effects of ritualized behavior result in diverse self-understandings in accordance with diverse relationships to authority and power. Nevertheless, that form of the prayer is rooted in efforts to mark social hierarchies, not bring women or the gender-queer closer to God. Or put in another way, just because one is able to transform injustice into personal growth does not mean the injustice is a “good” thing.

For those of us who do not find spiritual health in these formations of faith and practice, one’s relationship with God becomes rooted in cognitive and embodied dissonance. It is safe to say that such dissonance affects straight men too, but women and the gender-queer are most at risk. Because we do not fit as others do, we may experience ourselves, our minds, and our bodies as unhealthy, sinful, even perhaps unacceptable to God. We may experience the voice of our conscience as the whispering of our lower souls or even satan. We learn that the pain of accepting dissonance is the mark of our struggle to transform ourselves into true servants of God.  So what is the resolution for us?  Is there a way to break the dissonance?  How do we submit to God directly without submitting to a social order that has harmed us? I hope to explore these questions in my next blog where I will share the social, theological, and ritual strategies we use at our Gender-Equal/LGBTQ-affirming mosque in order to create a safe space for those who need it to be vulnerable before God.

 Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim novelist, retired academic and activist. She is a visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. Her historical mystery, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, is available on Amazon (and Ingram for bookstores). Her non-fiction work centres on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for more on her fiction and non-fiction work. 

With El-Farouk Khaki and Troy Jackson, she founded Toronto Unity Mosque (ETJC) to serve all who desire to worship in full equality with others.  Find us on Facebook.  ETJC prayer communities are located in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, London (Ontario), and Vancouver.  Other prayer spaces committed to human equality are run by Muslims for Progressive Values, USA, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative in London, UK, and individuals.  Maybe you too?  We help people start their own communities.

Categories: Body, Embodiment, Gender and Power, Identity Construction, Islam, LGBTQ, Patriarchy, Ritual, Spiritual Journey

54 replies

  1. It will be interesting to learn how prostrating oneself and covering oneself up, either only the head or the whole body, signify the expression of freedom before a god. Maybe they work and make people feel better.


    • Thank you for this. It’s a very serious question. The women and gender-queer folks that I interact with tend to think of it in terms of the nobility of the soul. What kinds of covering (or uncovering) allows one to recapture the inborn nobility of the soul (fitra)? Dr. Wadud spoke once about her ancestors being stripped of their clothing on auction blocks. The hyper-sexualization of women these days in the media and on the street, especially the expectations of “youthful” beauty for older women, makes me want to cover more in some circumstances. While the hyper-sexualization of women in the mosque (we must be hidden so men might control themselves) makes me want to cover less. So individually, given our own histories, women and the gender-queer may find different manners of covering or uncovering to be an act of self-dignity. I hope to address this in the next blog.


    • Sounds like the best they can do is feel safe in their submission. That doesn’t sound like freedom to me.


    • In addition to how I interpret the texts is the fact that I appreciate the social barrier created by more modest attire.


  2. Thanks for this Laury …

    I looked at this exact issue for my masters thesis … specifically at hanafi texts (living in a community which articulates predominantly hanafi positions), delineating how womens salat became more and more ’embodied’ from early to late hanafi texts …

    other gendered salat issues included:
    what to wear,
    where to pray (deep dark corners)

    women rendering mens salat void by standing in line or infront of them, but their own salay remaining intact (so hence men have no effect women, only women ‘break men’s salat)
    One very ‘interesting’ scenario – if a group of people are praying naked because no clothes are available, the imam should stand in the middle … which is the exact same prescription for women praying in a women only group …

    womens bodies are eqauted with sexuality and the potential to arouse men … i did love coming across Aishas report ‘you claim animals and women passing infront break the prayer, you equate us women to animals! but know that nothing breaks the prayer’

    Old womens bodies were deemed safer than young bodies & some lenience is given for them attending mosque at night.

    What came out strongly was that male prayer was viewed as normative, female prayer had small subsections away from the main text or in footnotes … in itself marginilizing.

    Other issues inc : holding babies whilst praying is mentioned for women (whereas in hadith we know the Prophet pbuh held his grandchildren)
    Womens voices – women should clap their hands rather than use their voices to correct the Imam.


  3. I followed your gendered dichotomy up to a point but was not quite clear how it applied to the physical movement of prayer/salat. Since there are really quite subtle differences in the performance of salat between women and men, I’m not sure how it would be restrictive for women and empowering for men. In most group prayer situations, the mosque is so crowded as hardly to allow men to spread out their limbs. Of course, women almost never perform congregational prayer anymore, and are therefore marginalized and sequestered in this manner. And it’s true, when I see women in my family praying, they tend to vocalize less.


    • Thanks for these comments. I think I see your point. Please let me know if I am missing something (I’ll be offline for Eid tomorrow, so I may not reply right away if you have other comments or questions).

      The differences are not as subtle as you think. Mosque-going Muslim men do not pray at the mosque for every prayer. And mosques are not always full. Men only have to pull in tightly in circumstances such as Hajj, Eids, and Friday prayers, so for them it is just making space for others. It’s quite another matter for women and for the gender-queer.

      The prayer is part of a larger complex of modes of social control some of which you mention, like encouraging women not to go to the mosque either through architecture, command, or cultural norms. Or your fine point about women keeping their voices low.

      It’s also important to keep in mind that it really does look like these different forms were created as a way to distinguish between the different classes of people (See Geissinger’s article or Saffiyah’s detailed observations in her comment). They seem to have been intended to disempower some and empower others.

      But I want to make the point that other factors, like Saba Mahmoud mentions (link above), can mediate this disempowering experience. Moreover, not all women are taught to pray in a gendered form. Gender norms are inculcated in other ways, like not having access to the main prayer hall, the imam, or the means to express oneself to the larger community. You seem to be pointing this out yourself.

      Again, not all women experience this negatively because it works to create a sense of intimacy with God. But my point is that just because it works doesn’t mean it’s right. There is a big difference between humility and humiliation. The form of the salat is one part of a larger complex of factors that many of us experience as humiliating to some degree.


  4. Laury, thanks so much for this wonderfully written, thoughtful piece. You made me reflect on the ways in which I had been taught to pray, especially in prostration, women were to keep their elbows close and their bodies as close to a fetal position as possible, but men could be higher, spread out their elbows. Putting this ritual back into its social context reminds me once again of how religious rituals are social acts that reflect hierarchies. Thanks!


    • Thank you so much, yes! It really does look like a fetal position! That adds another layer to the discussion. And the conundrum is that the fetal position is a perfect bodily formation for returning to the One through the sancity of ritual prayer. What if it were to work for men too? It wouldn’t solve everything–given so much else is involved in creating these social hierarchies–but an ungendered form in an ungendered space, like in Mecca, would be a step. Maybe?


  5. I love this piece, Laury. Thank you for writing it. It’s funny that I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately. Especially how so often, in religious spaces, I feel my body is seen as offensive. I always thought it was being seen as offensive by people, but this piece has made me realize that those people also view my body as offensive to God!! This hinders me from participating in religious spaces of course, and I’ve just recently started viewing that as a form of religiously “sanctioned” oppression and marginalization. I use quotes because the Islam that I choose to follow does not sanction such oppression, but the one so common in so many mosques appears to be doing so. And that’s a sad reality I wish we Muslims would address in more depth. Pieces like this get the conversation going so thank you once again for writing this. Look forward to more blog entries!


    • Sobia, your words are so moving. You have captured the layered experience of ritualized social hierarchies. The frustration, the disgust, the offense. But also you captured how many of us continue on knowing–not hoping–knowing that the “Islam” we choose to follow has a place for all of us as full human beings.


  6. Thanks so much for opening up the discussion of ritual and embodiment. I will be thinking about your points tomorrow at Eid prayers.


  7. Thanks so much for such an insightful piece, Laury! Several friends and I have been talking recently about the invisibility of women in prayer spaces, whether directly (in terms of separate prayer spaces) or indirectly (where women are physically present but must remain silent and invisible by being placed at the peripheries of the prayer space and silenced in not being able to give sermons or lead prayer). To think about the gender politics of prayer postures takes the conversation to a whole another level! Definitely plan on using your blog post as a conversation starter in future conversations!


    • Thank you! This is a very important point about prayer spaces and the need for a larger discussion. The gendered form of the prayer and how spaces are organized is just part of the complex of factors at work here. On spaces, I love the Tumblr page “Side Entrances.” Taking pictures and posting them publicly makes the effects of different kinds of arrangements tangible. For those of us who are uncomfortable with the arrangements, it gives us a sense of community. Others are calling it out. We are not alone. And we know that together things can change to create, at least, equitable prayer spaces if not equal ones. It’s a very powerful tool.


  8. Thanks for writing this. I have been working out another angle of ritual embodiment, which I had to table while traveling but I look forward to your next installment to keep the ideas alive. It is a challenge, isn’t it, not to read into our own bodies as women, what men have claimed is in (i.e.temptation and seduction). But if we do not address our own embodiment we will replicate those (patriarchal) ideas read in sometimes unconsciously. So, I’m especially happy to read the way you problematized it while embracing it. Eid Mubarak…


    • Eid Mubarak, Dr. Wadud! I would love nothing more in the world than to hear your take on this. It *is* hard to unread. Your voice would be invaluable. Perhaps you can write it up for Feminism and Religion? (nudge, nudge). Also, I think it is Geissinger who problematizes the prayer, I’m working off her insights and the insights of others in the context of what we see in our community and what I hear from women and gender-queer folk as part of my outreach work for the mosque.


  9. Thanks Dr. Silvers for your words of wisdom and truth. A dissection of how our rituals effect us is of utmost importance in helping to determine both their authenticity, timelessness and value. Hope to read the sequel soon. Inshallah.


  10. A beautiful and wellwritten article. Thank you very muchf or dispeling some of the historically unsound myths (“hijab is about modesty” etc.) that Muslims have turned into rigid dogma. “For those of us who do not find spiritual health in these formations of faith and practice, one’s relationship with God becomes rooted in cognitive and embodied dissonance.” Yes, that’s how it is! Absolutely!


  11. It was a very interesting article, MashAllah. I’ve been taught how to pray by my husband – i simply copied him and repeated the words of prayer after him and the only difference he pointed out to me was that i should hold my hands on the level of my chest while he held his hands on the level of his navel. It was only few years later that some cousin of his told me that women’s prayer movements should be different to those of men’s: more close together, not bending too low and keeping feet close together. i remember being told that this is more appropriate and modest and i remember getting upset about being told that… i also had a feeling that this is too much: not only are we told to cover more, but our movements are restricted, too. but then i discovered that not everyone agreed with the cousin’s opinion and so i assumed that it was something to do with culture more than religion.


    • Interesting! Thank you so much for sharing that. You point out one of the most important points, it doesn’t have to be this way. Even though this practice goes back to the early community, it is not inevitable. This and other gendered norms that do not work for us are not inevitable, immovable, impossible to let go of.


  12. I think you should also consider what a hijab does communicate to people who don’t perceive in the self-deluding ways religious people do. I live in NYC. I see berkas in my neighborhood regularly, I see hijabs. I understand the idea that this makes these women feel safe or “faithful” or whatever, but i fail to see (1) how this is not a total and utter lie (2) how it does NOT affect other women and the way other women are perceived.

    I get angry. I feel it’s disgusting and shameful for women to have to suffering under tarps. I have seen little girls in long dresses on a hot summer day, tugging at their dresses. I wanted to cry.

    I think people like you with clear personal investments in such an obviously oppressive institution need to start taking the lives of real people into consideration. It does not seem you are. It’s obvious that covering oneself or allowing that to be okay is harmful to women, to ideas about the body, to everyone. It is obvious that this is not freedom.

    Please wake up and stop apologizing for what is obviously anti-women and anti-human.


    • Thank you for being so honest with your concerns. I do understand that Muslim women’s dress can seem highly problematic for non-Muslims. It is highly problematic for some Muslim women too, especially in those countries that enforce the most conservative dress codes on women. But I cannot address those issues. I’m a North American Muslim, originally from the States and now I live in Canada. I only feel comfortable addressing my own experience and speaking to the women’s voices I know.

      In that case, I know Muslim women who think all Muslim women are oppressed except for them. Those women may be niqabi women who believe women dressed more liberally are oppressed and women who dress liberally who believe that niqabi or even hijabi women are oppressed. But the vast majority of Muslim women whose experiences I am aware of (from reading their own accounts and from listening to them) wear whatever they wear for a myriad of reasons that are as multi-layered as any of the choices you may make about your own clothing when considering how you want to present yourself in public. I don’t know if this is your own feeling, but I tend to run into non-Muslims who think their own choices are nuanced but the choices of Muslim women on their dress are forced or naive. Wherever you are coming from, even if you are Muslim (although it does not sound like you are), would be to read Muslim women’s own accounts of their own lives. The book _Love Insh’Allah_ is a terrific place to start.

      In the end, though, while it would be wonderful for you hear Muslim women’s voices and take them seriously, ultimately what you think of us matters very little. We will live on our own terms whether or not it pleases others. I don’t mean to sound harsh, I just mean to tell the truth. We are autonomous beings. That means we do not wait for non-Muslim’s approbation of our choices. We live on our own terms as best we can whether others approve or not. I sincerely hope the strength with which I have expressed myself will make some impression on you. But if not, that is good too.


      • phew! thanks for responding to this so truthfully, and yet graciously. I fear I would have just flipped. I STILL cannot understand how any ONE woman can propose that HER perception of our complicated universe is the ONLY perception, which should then be enforced on those who are NOT like her and do not wish to be like her?! Then pretend to have questions about this same methodology when used by the taliban…because, well, as she said, it’s OBVIOUS?!


    • annamarie, I completely agree with you. I get so frustrated when women objectify themselves to the point that they are nothing more than a walking sex symbol, with sky high heels (stripper shoes, they themselves call them), extremely short skirts, and other patriarchal fetishes.

      Don’t they realise they are setting all women backwards? They are basically making the political and social statement that women are only needed as accessories and for sex, that women depend upon men to define who they are.

      It’s obvious that excessively uncovering oneself or allowing that to be okay is harmful to women, to ideas about the body, to everyone. It is obvious that this is not freedom.


  13. I find your questions of men using more space and women being restricted as quite a revealing question. This goes against the grain of all other spiritual systems, which prescribe methods of attaining balance and thus wholeness.

    In general, I find that religions come from the experiences of the progenitor. Mohamed was a receiver of the Word or anima-based personality. Only 1/3 of men are anima-based personalities. The ancients considered this gift/skill to be of womankind. The prophet or receiver of the message from the Gods at Delphi was a woman.

    Mohamed’s first wife was a powerful merchant or animus-based personality. Only 1/3 of women are animus-based personalities. Could it be that he based his teachings on the archetypes that he and his first wife embodied? We must remember that it is very rare for a man to embody the ways of woman to be married to wife who fully embody the ways of man.

    It seems to me that Islam ascribes the ways of Mohamed (Way of Grace, Path of the Virgin, or empowerment of the soul) on men and the ways of using power (Way of Passion, Path of the King/Warrior, killing the ego) on women.


  14. Taqbir! This article is like the best Eid present ever! Well done you.

    I think you have hit the nail on the head with the ‘cognitive dissonance’ created from suppression of the individual’s needs for the ‘good’ of society. I think this is a huge factor in why there is such a big increase in “spiritual but not religious” people in North America and Europe. People just don’t want to have to deal with the cognitive dissonance that traditional and conservative practice places on individuals.

    Very much looking forward to your next posting.


    • I’m so glad it is resonating with people. I think there are a lot of Muslims for whom this kind of analysis is meaningless, but then there is the rest of us. It sounds like Dr. Wadud is going to be writing about this from a different angle. I’m looking forward to reading that! Thanks and see you at the next blog!


  15. This is tremendous, and makes me all the more disappointed that I keep missing the Juma circle. A relief to my soul to read these words. Thank you.


  16. Salaam!

    I found this article very interesting, but disagreed on various points.

    1) Anecdote about Umar; the niqab was not obligatory for slave woman, but jilbab was.

    2) Women are *not* meant to “restrict” their bodily movements in salah, there is absolutely no difference in prayer movements between men and women.

    3) The only time women don’t raise their voices in salah is if they are in public/ around non-Mahram men (and this is generally for those who consider women’s voice ‘awrah, but there are many who don’t consider it to be so). Otherwise, they are free to recite out loud.

    4) The prayer of a man is not invalidated *only* if a woman walks in front of him, but also if a man walks in front of him. And vice versa. That’s why we use a sutrah (barrier) in prayer, so that if someone crosses in front of us (but past the barrier), we don’t need to start again. Also, it’s recommended that if you see someone coming to pass in front of you, you stretch out your hand to indicate to them to stop.


  17. I was kind of rushed with my previous comment, so I’d like to add in a little bit more about me :)

    I identify as Salafi, which means that I don’t follow any particular madh’hab, but rather take the strongest fiqh opinion from every school of thought. So, while Hanafis for example may follow the opinion that a woman needs to tuck in her limbs or restrict her bodily movements during praying, I most adamantly do not believe in that as there is no Qur’anic verse, hadith, or report of a Companion to support that opinion.

    I also identify as a feminist :) so the way that I look at fiqh and emaan alike are very feminist-centric. For example, tho I may follow some opinions that appear “misogynistic” or “patriarchal” outwardly, I have a very strong feminist reason for following that opinion – e.g. niqaab. Rather than believing that my body has been sexualized by men, I am fiercely proud of my own sexuality – and thus choose to keep it for myself and those whom I choose, as opposed to everyone who believes they have a right to see my body.

    My view on the sexualization of women’s bodies, as expressed here, is also very different because I have a very different and layered view of the concept of sexualization in the first place. For one, as a woman – hell yeah, I’m a sexual being! That doesn’t mean that I consider myself to be ‘lesser’ and that’s why I have to cover it up (quite to the contrary, I’m extremely proud of my sexuality), or that I consider men to be mindless sexual monsters who can’t stop themselves from raping anything that has a vagina.

    Rather, I believe that Allah blessed us all with sexuality – a beautiful, powerful force that can be used for good or evil. And as Uncle Ben says, with great power comes great responsibility :)
    Men and women alike have the responsibility to respect and appropriately harness their sexual energies in a manner that contributes to the betterment of society. When women wear hijab, it’s not meant to control or shame their sexuality; it’s a respectful acknowledgment of their sexuality. Men are commanded to lower their gazes, to deal with women (ALL women, not just those in hijab) with respect and honour, and are punished for committing sexual sins (sexual assault, harassment, rape, etc.) while their victims are not.

    Continuing from that, I believe that women praying behind men in jama’ah is a courtesy, not a restraint – it’s a symbol of the command to “ta’aawanu ma’al birri wat-taqwa”: cooperate with each other in goodness and piety.

    In fact, there is a particularly fascinating hadith wherein it is recorded that there was a beautiful woman who was known to attend the Prophet’s Mosque for salah and used to pray in the first row of the women. The righteous men would thus pray in the first row of the men, whereas the men who were weaker in piety would pray in the last row of the men, to look at her from beneath their armpits while they were in sujood. This was publicly known, yet the woman was *never* barred from praying at the masjid, nor was she told to pray in the last row of the women, etc. Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that in the narration of the hadith, the wording is specific “the men who were weaker in piety” were those who made a point of trying to look at her – and yet no blame was placed on the woman herself!

    I know this is long and rambling, but I wanted to share my thoughts, as it seems no one else here really follows the same mentality I do, lol :)


    • Thank you so much for this! Wow! Annemarie posted above about the inherent oppressiveness of covering. I suggested she listen to what Muslim women have to say about their own experiences of covering. At our mosque, we affirm women and men choosing their dress–in whatever form or extent–such that it is an expression of their experience of the divine nobility of their own soul, not something enforced on them by scholarly or social expectations. You have given such a perfectly articulated illustration of that ideal. Takbir Sister!

      Your post is a great example, too, of the different “feminisms” within Islam. We may differ on how to read the past and how to change things for the future, but we are both arguing for the full personhood of women within Islam. Thank you so much for articulating your perspective so clearly.

      To return to your comments about what I’ve been discussing in my blog:

      For some of us who identify with what I’ve been saying in this blog, the historical study of these source narratives has been liberating. We’ve been able to question the fact of these narratives and challenge their control of our lives by finding out, for instance, that men and women likely prayed in the same form initially, finding out how modesty rules served to mark women’s place in the social hierarchy, that women and men were most likely barred from praying in the Prophet’s mosque within fifty years after his death, how women were sidelined from taking part in scholarship, and that women likely led prayer. (I can link to some of this material if you are interested.)

      Looking at things from a historical perspective, some of the earliest legal literature (and other sources) claim that the awra of enslaved women was from navel to knee. Thus it is likely that at least some slave women were bare-breasted in public. Maybe that means that modesty was understood in terms of a spectrum (from bare-breasted to fully-covered [whatever that meant at the time]) and that social class determined how one dressed on that spectrum. Or maybe dress conventions had nothing to do with modesty. In any case, it seems that social class determined how women dressed and what they could or could not cover. In this sense, I feel comfortable saying that it is highly likely that early conversations about the proper dress for women did not have to do with modesty as we understand it but rather with marking social class.

      Different interpretive methods are going to turn up different results. This is where I am coming from. More power to you on your own, really!


  18. Just wanted to make a remark about Hijab often overlooked in discussion. In the Islamic tradition, there is the batini(inner) and dzaheri (outward, appearance level) expressions of faith. When someone is known as an dzaheri Muslim it is a polite way of saying that person adopts all the outer appearances of being a muslim. Kind of like conspicuous Islam. A batini Muslim is one who practices quietly and faithfully without drawing attention to oneself. Similarly there is batini Hijab and dzaheri hijab. The point of hijab is for the female to not draw lust invoking attention to herself. I live in Jordan & this is a huge issue. Large numbers of hijab wearing young girls simply cover their hair but the way they wear make – up with kohl laden exotic eyes & a “come hither” look,, the swaying provocative way they walk in tight jeans…. is traffic stopping. With the exception of red light districts I have never seen this sort of thing in the West. So while the recommendation of hijab is the letter of Islamic law spirit of Islam is inner or batini hijab. True hijab is not dependent on hijab on hair but hijab in heart(modest, non suggestive behavior & body language). This Point Is Missed by Muslims & non – Muslims alike.


    • Thank you for this, I get your point. Definitely hijab is a matter of one’s own self-expression of modesty and may not involve wearing a scarf at all. I would though argue that modesty is also a point that is open to discussion too. What does it mean to be modest? Who decides? What kind of gestures are modest? I am a rather clumsy person, I can be loud, and gesture broadly. I recall when I was in Egypt being told that my body, my hand gestures, my voice, and my laugh were immodest. I was wearing hijab at the time. To be modest meant to conform my body to a kind of femininity that was and continues to be absolutely impossible to perform. I cannot be that woman. I am, therefore, forever a Zahiri Muslim whether I have hijab on or not. I think it is really important to ask who is making up these ideas of “modesty”? Who is telling us who we are and who we should be? Why do they get to do that?


  19. Dear Laury, That was a good article. I have often grappled with the same concerns and have always felt that while Islam says that women are celebrated, the real practice seems to say otherwise.

    I also felt that Islam is a religion that places a lot of emphasis on details. Correct postures, hand positions, foot positions when interacting with God or even when entering the bathroom! I found it so oppressive. Why is there a need to repeat verses over and over? Didn’t God hear us the first time? And why the need to be so ritualistic? Isn’t prayer about complete submission to God and communicating with Him? Less on rules and more on content of what you want to say to Him? We praise Him in prayer but must we repeat it 4 times every raka’at? The very same wording of praise?

    I am struggling to understand and to try and figure out how much is set by man and what is it that God truly wants from us. I am a Muslim, in that I submit totally to God but do not whole-heartedly submit to the organized religion of Islam as practised today. I do not know enough, obviously.


    • Dear Rina, I want to suggest two books that can help with this coming from two perspectives.

      1. Michael Muhammad Knight’s _Why I am a Salafi_. Don’t freak out at the title. He’s talking about his struggle with origins and the “tradition.” I love where he goes with the book, I particularly love his chapter on Hadith. The book is in answer to your question. He isn’t asking anyone to follow him but to think through these issues with him. He has produced a brilliant and mind and heart provoking book.

      2. Shaykh Muzaffer Ozak’s _Love is the Wine_. When you get down to it (and MMK’s book ends with this as well), our journeys should be through love. Developing a relationship of love with God is the most important thing. It will become that which drives your questions and helps you recognize the most beautiful answers.


  20. Coming to the convo late but thank you for this great piece examining so many aspects of rituals.

    I’m particularly interested in learning more about dress codes and other behaviour norms for slave vs free women and what that means for us today. It’s a topic rarely discussed so I’m glad you included it here. What do these differences in dress codes and other norms tell us about their purpose and how does that relate to modern conceptions of the reasoning behind these.


    • OMG yes me too! #survivor


      • There’s been a bit written on this. Interesting are some videos online from people like Hamza Yusuf. Their followers found these hadith about Umar and started asking questions, they needed to answer. They have a way of dealing with it that is not my own, but it makes the point that enslaved women were not dressed as free women were. I linked to an article by Aisha Geissinger above. Maybe I’ll load it up on my website so you can download a copy of it.

        I am going to suggest a book to someone above, so I will suggest it here, Michael Muhammad Knight’s _Why I am a Salafi_. Don’t freak out at the title. He’s talking about his struggle with origins and the “tradition.” I love where he goes with the book, I particularly love his chapter on Hadith. All to say your question is not just about clothes but about who we are now in relationship to our past as Muslims. He has produced a brilliant and mind and heart provoking book.


  21. Salaam Laury
    If you have free time، please attempt to translate the Quran verses yourself using any of reputable standard Arabic to English dictionary (not the so called Quran dictionary you can find plenty over the internet which mostly corrupted with meanings taken from Persian words instead of standard Arabic). You’ll find in there no God’s instructions/commands whatsoever to ask us to perform any sort of (pagan) rituals, as God is against those practices which He describes as filth etc. Islam potrayed by the Quran isn’t about ritualistic religion, islam isnt a religion but code of conducts on how to live in peace, harmony, be nice with fellow human & nature on this planet, in quest to attain perpetual blissful life after our death.



  1. Laury Silvers, New Contributor at Feminism and Religion Blog | El-Tawhid Juma Circle
  2. Laury Silvers
  3. Size Islam: Where do I fit in? by Jameelah X. Medina | Feminism and Religion
  4. Why I Changed My Mind About That Stupid, Brilliant #Mipsterz Video | Rethinking Islam
  5. Creating Space: Mosques Affirming All Bodies, Minds, and Hearts by Laury Silvers «
  6. Queerness, Embodied Shame, and Saying “no” to Marriage | Ra/umblings of a Queer Muslim

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: