Many Muslims in Singapore still view working as nurses in this country is impermissible for Muslim women. This view arises because in Singapore, under current practice, the uniform which must be worn by a nurse may not include the hijab (normal tudung without face cover). Thus, a Muslimah may not wear her hijab in the course of her work, making the profession sinful for Muslim women.
This view has caused some parents to object to their daughters’ ambitions to enrol in nursing courses and become professional nurses. Some may eventually proceed but only with a heavy heart. Even without parental objection, some young Muslim women think that it would be more righteous to avoid the predicament and to choose other available job options.
This article seeks to offer an opposite view and argues that the above view does not represent the true application of shari`ah principles in Singapore’s context.
Islam regards nursing as a noble profession. The salary earned from it is halal.
It is my view that the situation of a Muslim woman in Singapore as a nurse is similar to that of female Muslim children at national schools, as both have to wear uniforms which disallow the donning of hijab.
In the case of the female Muslim students’ uniforms, in 2002 the honourable Mufti of Singapore then, Syed Isa Semait, had issued a ruling that such conditions (the exclusion of hijab from school uniforms) do not make the enrolment of female Muslim children haram or sinful, and it is permissible for them not to put on hijab while in school. The honourable Mufti opined that, if a choice has to be made, the obligation in seeking knowledge through a good education outweighed the obligation of putting on hijab. This is because the former brings about more benefits to individuals, the Muslim community and Islam itself as compared to the harm of not putting on one’s hijab at school. In addition, the harm caused by not attending school is more detrimental for female Muslim children than the harm of not putting on the hijab.
The honourable Mufti issued this ruling during the controversy sparked by a parent that insisted on his daughter’s right to put on the hijab in addition to the school uniform in 2002.
In the case of the nursing profession, it is true that there are many other jobs that would allow Muslim women in Singapore to earn a living and fulfilling her hijab obligation. However, this by itself does not make the nursing profession impermissible and sinful in Islam on the grounds that Muslim women are not allowed to put on their hijab along with their uniforms while on duty.
Even if there were a consensus that working as a nurse does not fall under al-darurat al-shar`iyah (religious essentials), it could be argued that there is a dire need for female Muslim nurses in Singapore’s context. As such, I would consider this as al-hajat al-shar`iyah (religious necessities) a status just below al-darurat al-shar`iyah in the hierarchy of needs in the shari`ah. Thus, the established fiqh maxim, al-hajah tanzil manzilah al-dharurah (religious necessity could take the ruling of religious essential), can be applied to this situation.
Among the considerations that could be regarded as al-hajat al-shar`iyah in this situation are:
1. Female Muslim nurses could ensure the needs of Muslim patients are fulfilled and their rights protected.
2. Competent female Muslim nurses could contribute in portraying a positive image of Islam and Muslims – an important aspect of da`wah bi hal (manifesting Islam values through excellent deeds).
Islam recognises the role of context in formulating Islamic rulings, in addition to scriptural considerations.
Thus, the formulation of rulings for a Muslim minority community living in a secular state and under non-Muslim governments such as Singapore cannot be based on the standards of darurat and hajat in Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Egypt. This thinking is not unfamiliar in Islamic jurisprudential traditions.
Imam Abu Hanifah, the founder of the Hanafite school of thought, had issued many rulings that allowed different standards of ruling for Muslims living in Dar Al-Harb (famously known as Land of War, but applicable to contemporary non-Muslim countries), compared to Muslims living in Dar Al-Islam (Land of Islam).
In addition, if Muslim women were forbidden from working as nurses in Singapore, to ensure theological consistency and coherence, the principle underlying this injunction should also be applicable to many other professions that do not allow for the hijab or any other Islamic obligation to be part of an established uniform.
This would then put tremendous limits on job options for Muslims, resulting in serious ramifications to the well-being of Muslims in Singapore. This certainly does not fit into the spirit of the shari`ah, that seeks to make practising Islam easy and to eliminate harm from Muslims.
It is true that a Muslim may not turn a ruling for what seems to be a clearly forbidden profession and make it permissible, such as a bartender serving alcoholic drinks in entertainment clubs. However, a profession that is originally and intrinsically noble and halal cannot also be made haram simply due to the presence of haram elements in it.
A balanced approach would require one to look at such professions in a holistic manner, at both individual and societal level, and deducing whether the goods and benefits outweigh the harms or vice versa. If it is the former, a profession may be ruled halal, whether for individuals or the society at large.
A Muslim is entitled to choose other professions on the basis of wara` (prudence) if that is more comfortable to him or herself. However, such individual choice cannot be made a general ruling to all because Muslim scholars agree that wara`should not be a basis for formulating a fatwa for the general public or for a matter that is of public interest.
Finally, Muslims should take comfort from the saying of the Prophet,
الْمُؤْمِنُ الَّذِي يُخَالِطُ النَّاسَ وَيَصْبِرُ عَلَى أَذَاهُمْ أَعْظَمُ أَجْرًا مِنْ الَّذِي لَا يُخَالِطُ النَّاسَ وَلَا يَصْبِرُ عَلَى أَذَاهُمْ
“The believer who mixes with people and endures their injury is better than the person who does not mix with people nor endure their injury.”
I must add here that ruling on the permissibility of nursing for Muslim women in Singapore despite the constraints to wear hijab is separate and different from the duty of Muslims to strive consistently and constructively for the change of policy.
The former should not stop Muslims from striving constructively for a change of policy (regarding the hijab). Such efforts are noble and should be part of a Muslim’s da`wah agenda. However, the former should be the general stand, until eventual change takes place.
I will reiterate that it is true that, at the moment, in certain professions, conditions are less than ideal for Muslim women. However, such conditions should not necessarily be a reason for avoidance if there is a greater good to be achieved and those who choose to engage in it should not feel that they are lesser Muslims in the eyes of Allah s.w.t. In fact, they may be highly regarded by Allah s.w.t. if they are patient and strive to perform their professional responsibilities diligently and with sincerity for Allah s.w.t, because they also contribute to the fulfilment of fard kifayah (communal obligations) on behalf of the Muslim community.
If Allah s.w.t. could forgive a seasoned prostitute for serving water from a well to a thirsty dog, an act which only takes less than an hour of work, one should take comfort that Allah s.w.t. would surely not look away from female nurses who treat the sick and the weak for nine to twelve hours daily just because they are not allowed to wear hijab.