Recently, there have been reports that a PhD student at Al-Azhar University (probably the most well-respected Sunni Muslim religious institution), Sheikh Mustafa Mohammad Raashed, had published an accepted thesis that ultimately declared that the hijab (headscarf) was not obligatory for Muslim women. There are skeptics about this report as the full text of thesis is not available. However, the news does bring up some interesting questions. First and foremost, even if the doctoral thesis was accepted, does that mean that Al-Azhar endorses the point of view? Just because a student publishes something, does that mean that the head jurists also accept the view and will adopt it? Keep in mind that this debate can only be had if the dissertation does, in fact, exist. There have been reports that the dissertation, and even the student, do not exist. The well-known American-Muslim scholar (who spent some time at Al-Azhar), Imam Suhaib Webb posted this on his facebook page condemning the validity of the story:
If the story turns about to be valid, I am curious to see what this means for the relationship between the student’s work and the institution. Can a PhD thesis from Al-Azhar be equated to a fatwa? If the board okays the thesis, does that mean they support the conclusion or are they merely applauding the efforts of the researcher? Let’s see how this thing plays out.
For those who are interested, here are links to some more in-depth looks at the hijab “debate”
http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2012/06/45564/hijab-is-not-an-islamic-duty-scholar/ (previous arguments used to justify that hijab is not obligatory)
http://www.onislam.net/english/ask-the-scholar/fiqh/449534-hijab.html (position of Shaykh from Al-Azhar)