THE religious issue causing the biggest stir among American Muslims is about a piece of cloth.
Called the hijab, it is the shawl or scarf many Muslim women wear over their heads. A hijab may be as tightfitting as a nun's habit, or loose as the fashionable scarfs worn in the 1950s. For traditional Muslims, the scarf fulfills a Koranic rule to preserve women's modesty. But many Muslims today say the hijab is a cultural artifact, not a divine mandate.
Nothing better captures the turmoil over Islamic interpretation in the United States than the hijab debate - which makes heated family disputes in the 1960s about long hair for men seem genial by comparison.
In the US, most women do not cover their heads: some because they are not that devout and some because they don't want to appear "alien" in a culture not used to the hijab. Still, the hijab becomes a major issue when a girl over age 12 in a traditional Muslim family rejects the head scarf or if a woman who doesn't cover her head wants to enter more fully into the mosque community. Then Muslims embark on what is called, often with eyes rolled, "the discourse of the veil."
The question is: Must women literally cover their heads or does the Koran simply ask that they dress modestly? Strict Muslims don't even acknowledge a "discourse." For many, their attitude is: The Koran says it, I believe it, and that ends it. Even progressives like Shareef Alkateef of the North American Muslim Women's Council say: "That God has asked you to cover is something we accept. It isn't in dispute."
Others strongly disagree. "Establishment Muslims have made the hijab a pillar, a litmus test for a woman's credentials," says a California Muslim leader. "The issue is out of control."
"Muslims here either embrace the hijab, or abandon it," says Nabeela Khatak, a student of Islamic law at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Khatak says she would wear the hijab were it not that she feels so much pressure to do so: "I want it to be my decision."
The discourse of the veil is more than symbolic or religious. It has economic, social, and family consequences as well. Employers often balk at hiring Muslim women who insist on wearing traditional dress. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, a third of the hate crime incidents in one study were directed toward women who wore the hijab. Families are torn apart, daughters turn against parents, and wives against husbands, over the issue. Among the devout, covering the head may fix a woman's status in the community since the hijab demonstrates a woman's correct reading of the Koran.
The Koran, considered a divine revelation by Muslims, is at the heart of the debate. In one passage, the Prophet says women must dress modestly. In another, he can be read as saying only a woman's hands and face can be exposed in public. "The verse says a woman must cover her body," says a traditional New York Muslim leader. "How else can I read this?"
Many Muslims say centuries of Islamic law affirm the hijab, and attempts to reform are bowing down to US culture. Even some Muslim progressives are conservative on the hijab. At a recent Islamic conference, women who did not cover were booed when they tried to speak. Yet some traditionalists think covering is the woman's choice. They point to Koranic verses showing that when traveling abroad, Muslims should not impose their religious practices. For modernizers, the debate is about interpreting the Koran in a practical manner. They say the Prophet is unclear on the hijab, and that if it were a major issue he would have left it crystal clear. The issue is an example, they say, of Muslim cultural tradition posing as divine revelation.
"Women were asked to cover in the 9th century because they were often subject to attack and molestation," argues T.B. Irving, a Canadian Muslim and Islamic scholar in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who has recently translated the Koran into English. "The meaning of the passage is to dress modestly, that's all."
Muslim feminists say the hijab requirement is a patriarchal reading of the Koran that reflects male-centered Middle East culture. That Muslim men make so much of the hijab, rather than the human rights and moral codes at the heart of Islam, is itself a statement about a male desire to control women, they say.
"A universal religion that binds women in every fashion detail to one part of the world is a contradiction in terms," writes feminist Rabia'a Kiegler in a recent Muslim newsletter. "[Men] should stop bothering women about what they put on their heads - as if that were more important that what is in their heads."