The Niqab, the Burqa and Levinas

The niqab and burqa are face covering clothing whereby the niqab leaves the eyes uncovered and the burqa does cover the eyes. The niqab and burqa are mostly worn by Muslim women who base their choice of clothing on strict interpreted verses from the Quran.1 There are also more mild interpretations of those verses that don't prescribe the wearing of face and eye covering clothing.2 The thought however which these verses propagate is that the covering of the body withholds men from a lustful disposition towards the regarded wearers. And this goes with the women that are more strict in the Islamic doctrine thus also for the face and the eyes (with the burqa). In the end these women wear their niqab and their burqa to carry with them (the approval of) Allah and also to propagate (their belief in) Allah.

That niqab and burqa wearers wear their covering clothings for the above mentioned reasons is a remarkable given when seen from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). Levinas was a Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher who connected metaphysics, ethics and man. The metaphysical given is according to Levinas the absolute transcendent given. It is something which man can never make his own because it always transcends what man can make his own. Therefor it also is infinity. It is always more than the finite appropriation. Now man can, even if only in theory, appropriate almost everything. Even the being of beings can become man's own, according to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).3 However what man can never make his own according to Levinas is the other. The other is always in such a manner different that he always resists the appropriation. Another's alterity is always outside the reach of appropriation. Here the infinity is placed within (another) man. From that consideration of infinity then an appeal is being made on caretaking. It is the not to appropriate infinite alterity of the other that motivates to the caretaking of that other. And this is where ethics is connected to the infinity and man. The other is the infinite that is the appeal for caretaking. Now it is, according to Levinas, the case that the ethics appealing infinity is carried by the other in his face,4 and especially in his eyes5. In the face and in the eyes of the other alterity roams as ethics appealing infinity.

The above philosophy places the wearing of a niqab or burqa then in an interesting light. For the specific of these clothings is that these cover the face (and the eyes in case of the burqa). With this the possibility is withheld from the other to discover the infinity in the niqab and burqa wearers, because of which the latter possibly also stay deprived of an ethical approach. Without being eye to eye with another, without being face to face with another, that other is not the other other, but rather an objectlike someone who can be appropriated. This may bring the niqab and burqa wearer in paradoxical situations. Allah for them is the metaphysical, the transcendent and the infinite.6 This infinite they want, with the wearing of their niqab and burqa, carry with them and propagate. However according to the philosophy of Levinas it is exactly the wearing of this face covering that withholds them from the true propagation of the infinite. And where they, with the wearing of their face covering, attempt to protect themselves from an appropriation by lustful men it is also especially the face covering that according to the philosophy of Levinas makes them vulnerable for attitudes of appropriation.

Now Islamism and Levinasism are not movements of thought that shall evidently be brought together. So who embraces Islam and rejects Levinas shall not find himself / herself placed in the above described paradox. However who wants to unite both movements of thought will need to propagate Allah as the alterity in his / her face and eyes.

  • 'Academische Filosofie, Een Heideggeriaanse mystiek', Index: 200908281.
  • Emmanual Levinas, Totality and Infinity, An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague / Boston / London, 1979.
  • The Quran, translated by Talal Itani, ClearQuran, Dallas / Beirut, 2009.
  • Translation of the meanings of the Noble Qur'an, In the English Language, translated by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din AI-Hilali and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qurán, Madinah, undated.