Repercussions of the relationship between President Bill Clinton and a young woman named Monica Lewinsky in 1998 occupied the media and paralyzed America's political system for an entire year. Some commentators noted that if an European Head of State had done what President Clinton did, it would hardly have raised a yawn. Less noted was that if it had happened in an Arab or Muslim country, it would not have even seen the light of day. This is not just because Arab rulers control the media, which they do, but because of an important Muslim principle little understood in the West in which Muslims are commanded to conceal - not reveal - shameful or embarrassing deeds committed by themselves or other Muslims.
Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi explained the doctrine of Sitr in this recent Al Jazeera TV interview. The word itself is related to the Arabic word for a curtain or a veil, and carries the meaning of drawing a blind over something that is not to be revealed. I would like to summarize what Dr. Qaradawi said, and then add a few comments.
Moderator Uthman opened the interview with a quote from sura Nur. After Muhammad ruled that a woman could not be convicted of sexual immorality without four witnesses, the Prophet chastised the men who had raised the accusations against her. "Why did you speak about something when you should have kept quiet?" he asked. "Allah forbids you from doing this, and warns you not to do it again. Those who spread allegations of sexual misconduct among the Muslims will suffer a painful torment both in this world and in the Hereafter." (Quran 24:16-19).
What is the importance of Muslims practicing Sitr to protect other Muslims, asked Uthman. And how is this related to Aurah, or shame?
Dr. Qaradawi noted that Aurah is the common Arabic word for both the male and female genital organs. Just as these genital organs are covered, there are actions and deeds that also need to remain protected and covered. The Aurah are not limited to our physical bodies, but there are also social Aurah. People often do things of which they are embarrassed and ashamed, things they want to conceal from others. Each individual has his or her own weaknesses, things they do not want others to know. These are all Aurat (the plural of Aurah) that are to be protected. A man might hit someone in rage, for example, or engage in a sexual digression, or get drunk. He would be ashamed if others found out about his action. For this reason the Prophet said in an authentic Hadith, "The Muslim who protects another Muslim will himself be protected by Allah." The Hadith says that Allah is both a Protector and a Lover of Modesty. That means that Allah not only protects the Believers, but also wants them to protect each other. If a man falls into a transgression, he is not to be publicly exposed. Exposure only comes if he blatantly and flagrantly continues in the wrongdoing; then he must be punished.
This is true for all Muslim relationships. A Muslim is not to broadcast the sins of his neighbor, and a Muslim wife is not to make known the faults of her husband. They are instead to give the transgressor time to repent and seek forgiveness from Allah.
But what if the relationship has gone bad? asked the moderator. Can ex spouses badmouth each other after divorce, or neighbors criticize each other publicly after their friendship has come to an end?
Dr. Qaradawi replied that the principle of Sitr still applied. The neighbor should remember the good times they had together, and the divorced spouse should do the same. The Quran reminds Muslims in sura Baqarah to be generous to the wives they divorce (Quran 2:237).
Children should be taught from their youth that some things are to be kept private and not disclosed to others, continued Dr. Qaradawi. When the young Joseph dreamed that even the moon and the stars bowed down to him, his father Jacob warned him not to tell the dream to his brothers because they might plot against him in jealousy (Quran 12:5). (comment: the Biblical rendition of this same story in Genesis 37 does not contain this warning).
In a seeming reference to a parable of Jesus in Matthew 7, Dr. Qaradawi noted that some people were quick to notice a small speck of dust in their neighbor's eye, but oblivious to the log in their own eye. Similarly, he added, some people were more than willing to spread the word if a friend or neighbor committed sexual immorality, got drunk, or did something else shameful. The principle of Sitr requires that such behavior, whether committed by you or someone else, remains forever hidden behind the veil.
1. At first blush, the principle of Sitr seems admirable. We in America live in a society that has perhaps gone overboard in the other direction. Just walk through the supermarket checkout line and see the tabloids, or listen to the TV political talk shows. Every real or imagined faux pas of politicians, athletes, and celebrities is broadcast for the world to see.
2. But I'm not so sure. Keeping secrets and shame locked behind closed doors is not always healthy. Many visitors to Muslim countries have noted that one striking difference is that here in America we do not keep children with mental or physical disabilities locked up at home. Walk through a mall in the Gulf and see how few families bring these children out with them. I still remember my conversation with a blind young man from Jordan who came to America as a teenager, learned English, and when I met him was about to graduate from an American University. Had he stayed in Jordan, he told me, he would probably still be a beggar on the street.
3. Law enforcement officers in the United States have noted that sometimes - not always, but sometimes - Muslims are reluctant to inform them about friends, family members, and neighbors who express radical tendencies and sentiments. I doubt if many of these officers have taken the time to inquire whether the principle of Sitr might have anything to do with the silence.