When the Taliban took the reigns of power in Kabul in 1995, the media had a ball sensationalizing their ridiculous restrictions on growing beards ‘Islamically.’ The publication of this article was shelved by the editors of The Minaret so that the politicized agenda of yellow journalism would not get further millage out of the topic at the expense of this article’s accuracy and the serious nature of its content. The historical analysis of the article, however, remains relevant. We are un-shelving the article after the long hiatus.
The government therefore considers it its own responsibility to implement the policy, even if by force, so that compliance with the Prophet's sunnah may be upheld. Unaware of the fact the government action in this case constitutes compulsion which itself is in violation of the command of the Qur’an that proscribes no compulsion in matters of religion (Qur’an II: 259).
This is one of the 7563 traditions of the Prophet reported in the most authentic and voluminous work of Sahih Al-Bukhari which is so condense detailed that the whole work has taken up nine volumes or more than 5000 pages of collections of the sayings of Prophet Mohammad. Out of those millions of lexicons the word 'beard' is mentioned only once amounting to an insignificant quantitative percentage of perhaps 0.0001%.
Because of the guarantee of religious freedom proscribed by the Compact of Medina, Dastur al-Madina the Prophet could not demand of the Jews who by virtue of their religious rites sported long beards and mustache. However, he was in a position to recommend to his Muslim followers about their attire. It was in this situation that Prophet Mohammad is reported to have said: "Trim the mustache and let the beard grow."
Orders and commendation applies to situations where people are asked to do something, which they do not do. One cannot give an order for things that people already do. People were growing beards because it was a tradition by necessity, a tradition not exclusive to any particular faith, but it does not seemed to be recommended as the choice of the word a?fu implies.
Until the latter parts of 19th century, in the ‘Kafaristan’ province of Afghanistan the local kafars, 'unbelievers' wore a rimmed cap in contrast to the turbaned Muslims. Their caps were called kafar kulah or 'the cap of the non-believer.' A century later,... the 'kafar kulah' became the sign of ‘Islamic’ identity as it now donned the head of every Mujahid fighting Russians for Islam, yet totally unaware of its historical significance.
Symbolic and superficial changes do not serve a real purpose in a society, fundamental and substantial ones do. Real growth occurs in the intellect, in knowledge, in the brain, in the head, not in the beard.... Trivializing the grandeur of Islam's message with the triviality of personal attire is wrong. As long as it is not in clear violation of the code of decency that Islam prescribes it should not be imposed on the people--the majority or minorities--as it does not serve the purpose of Islam.
By Zaman S. Stanizai, Ph.D.
(Note: This article was written in 1995 and is still relevant in terms of the subject at hand. zs)
Islam is a religion of moderation as testified by both Qur’anic revelations and Prophetic traditions: The best of things are done in moderation. If so, then why are individuals and governments in Muslim societies resorting to extremes in their words and deeds? Worse yet they label their actions in the name of Islam thereby violating the very principles of moderation and truth that the Prophet advocated.
A case in point is the government-ordained compulsory beard growing in Afghanistan where it was reported that the government expelled several (75 on one account) civil servants from their jobs for trimming their beards. According to the authorities, the shaving or trimming of beards is a violation of the Sunnah, the tradition of the Prophet. The government, therefore, considers it its own responsibility to implement the policy, even if by force, so that compliance with the Prophet's Sunnah may be upheld. Unaware of the fact that the government action in this case constitutes compulsion which itself is in violation of the command of the Qur’an that proscribes no compulsion in matters of religion (Qur’an II: 259). A paradox that on theological grounds questions, ought we to violate the word of God to uphold the Sunnah of the Prophet? Conversely, and practically speaking, one must ask, is it Islamic to deny a man to earn an honest living, a responsibility which God has put on his shoulders, in order to comply with a government policy which is claimed to be Sunnah? This paradox can be explained through a multi-dimensional argument, as follows:
1- A Theological Argument
Religions are stereotyped, positively or negatively, based on particular traits, attire, or ideological and theological precepts. One of Islam's positive characterizations is its close association with cleanliness. Muslims attach so much significance to cleanliness that "cleanliness is equated with faith: "Cleanliness is Godliness." Islam's emphasis on cleanliness is so significant that in the draught-prone dry climate of Arabia adherents of the faith were asked to wash for the five daily prayers as well as the Friday and special occasion prayers.
In view of the abundance of water and 14 centuries of progress, consider the irony between 7th century Arabia and 21st century America where according to a recent survey 26% of women and 35% of men in the U.S. do not wash (their hands) after using public restrooms.
The Prophet's insistence on personal hygiene was so strict that he is considered the inventor of toothbrush as he asked Muslims to brush their teeth with a properly shaped and gently pounded root of a tree. Out of compliance with that tradition, many Muslims still use siwak or maswak instead of a modern toothbrush even though the latter may serve the purpose better.
Every Muslim traditions from prayer to pilgrimage incorporates some rituals of cleanliness both in the physical sense such as the removal of hair, cutting of nails, washing off of dust and dirt to the symbolic cleaning of the self from ‘sin’ and mischief that mystic Islam recommends.
The Prophet strongly recommended the cutting and trimming of bodily hair, a part of religious rites, as a form of hygiene that contributes to cleanliness. There are clear commendations from jurists on cutting the hair short as this allows for a better performance of ablution as water can reach the base of the hair follicle for effective cleanliness. Along the same line, Muslims were encouraged to have short haircuts as the Prophet is reported to have commented disapprovingly on a hairy youth’s untidy appearance as the young lad entered the mosque.
Based on this evidence, and in view of the availability of electric and regular shaving equipment in today's world, one can safely assume that if the Prophet lived among us today, he would most probably recommend the shaving of beards. Yet in the eyes of many Muslims this would seem an outrageously anti-religious act. Why the paradox? Because of a certain tradition of the Prophet, according to Ibn 'Umar, it is reported that the Prophet has said: "Trim the mustache and let the beard grow." This is one of the 7563 traditions of the Prophet reported in the most authentic and voluminous work of Sahih Al-Bukhari (Hadith No. 5892, Book of Dress, Vol. 7) which is so condense and detailed that the whole work has taken up nine volumes or more than 5000 pages of collections of sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammad. Out of those millions of lexicons the word 'beard' is mentioned only once, amounting to an insignificant quantitative percentage of perhaps 0.0001%. But why has beard shaving raised such a controversy? The answer lies somewhere else.
2. Islamic Jurisprudence
The best of the Muslim jurists would argue that for a better understanding of the Qur’an one must refer to the prevalent social context at the time of the revelation also known as the bab an-nuzul. The best of the muhaditheen or scholars of the Prophet's traditions would also explain the sayings of the Prophet within the social context in which they had occurred. Yet in the case of this particular tradition that context is completely ignored. Which is why the controversy is so great. That historical context as “a missing link” is as follows:
When the Prophet was invited along with his few Muslim followers to Yathrib (Medina) in 622 A.D. (Year zero Islamic calendar), the Muslims came in close contact with large numbers of Jews and Christians who were different from the idol worshippers of Mecca. The Prophet told the Muslims that the Jews and Christians were ahl al-kitab, or the people of the book (more appropriately translated as people of the earlier revelations), and therefore many of their traditions including their food was acceptable to Muslims and that Muslims could marry Jews and Christians without the prerequisite of conversion to Islam as the Prophet himself married the Coptic Christian, Maria.
This atmosphere was conducive to the creation of a state guaranteeing the freedom of religion to all its citizens. And the republic of Medina did just that.
This mutual reciprocity, openness, association, and fellowship with the Christians and Jews of Medina created a block of the faithful that distinguished themselves from the ‘pagans,’ idol-worshipers, and the hypocrites—the munafiqeen. The feeling of fellowship was growing stronger to the extent that some Muslims began adopting the attire of the Christians while others began growing beards and braids like the Jews of that time. This, in some cases, blurred the identification, and perhaps association, of individuals of the different religious communities. Because of the guarantee of religious freedom proscribed by the Compact of Medina, Dastur al-Madina, the Prophet could not demand of the Jews who by virtue of their religious rites sported long beards and mustache. However, he was in a position to recommend to his Muslim followers about their attire. It was in this situation that Prophet Mohammad is reported to have said: "Trim the mustache and let the beard grow"
3. Linguistic Explanation
There is a tradition, “w’ anhaku shawarib w’ e’fu luha”, “Trim the mustache and let the beard grow." (Hadith No. 5892, Book of Dress, Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 7) The trimming of the mustache was strongly recommended as the term anhaku implies the imperative, while the terms e’fu implies permission. This is so because people were sporting mustache so they were asked, most likely for hygienic reasons, to cut them short. Orders and commendation applies to situations where people are asked to do something, which they do not do. One cannot give an order for things that people already do. People were growing beards because it was a tradition by necessity of time, a ‘urf, a tradition not exclusive to any particular faith, but it does not seem to be recommended as the choice of the word e’fu implies.
There is another hadith where the Prophet is reported to have said that growing bread along with a host of other activities is a fitrah, ‘a natural disposition.’ This further supports the assertion that growing bread for men is a natural disposition, i.e. it is neither a sign of virtue nor offense.
Furthermore, as the Qur’an says: God did not send religion as a burden, but as a convenience. The Prophet's recommendation, therefore, was in compliance with this Qur’anic precept and perhaps that's why he did not asked the Muslims to shave their mustache which would have been practically inconvenient at the time that might have caused hardship. Perhaps for the same reason, he asked the Muslims to "let the beard grow," implying practicability and not necessarily any merit. In support for this argument we can add that perhaps as a compromise, the trimming of the beard was encouraged to be not longer than a fist-length. In sum, the trimming of the beard was practical and so the Prophet recommended it, but its shaving would have been inconvenient, impractical, and difficult, so the Prophet allowed the Muslims to grow beards. Nonetheless, based on the Prophet's emphasis regarding the cutting of bodily hair, one can logically conclude that had circumstances—availability, cost of shaving equipment, etc.—allowed it, he would most likely have recommended the shaving of the beards as this would have been in concordance with all other Islamic traditions that contribute to hygienic cleanliness in one way or another.
4. Historical Argument
In the history of Muslim societies, for the most part, the issue of shaving or growing beards was irrelevant, as shaving was neither customary in those times nor very practical. Historical evidence through statues and images show that in most societies including the Babylonian, Persian, Aryan, Indian, and African men wore beards. Shaved faces are seen in relatively few cases mainly Greek notables imitating the pharos and Roman rulers imitating the Greeks, which in part reflected the luxurious life style of the ruling class. Neither the Prophet of Islam nor the righteous caliphs lived luxurious lives. They were so busy serving the people that they did not have time to indulge in such luxuries as shaving their beards. So perhaps because of this, shaving did not become a tradition, but growing beards was a norm by necessity like in all other societies at the time.
5. Political Argument
Most evidence in respect to the popularity of beard shaving points to the twentieth century. As the portraits of the U.S. presidents show most of them sported beards until pretty recently.
When in Western Europe beard shaving became popular as a fashion, the Russian Czar Ivan ‘the terrible’ did not think of it as fashion, but a sign of progress; and ordered his subjects to shave their beards. His campaign was such that special police were authorized to burn peoples’ beards in the event of non-compliance, in spite of the fact that in the face of cold and windy Russian winter climate, long beards served a protective purpose. As this fad and fashion reached China where most people did not have thick and bushy beards due to their physical/racial type, Sun Yatsin the first president of China ordered people to cut their braided hair so that they would look more like the Europeans. Similar superficial "reforms" were adopted in Muslim societies such as in Afghanistan where King Amanullah’s ordering of his courtiers to shave and wear French hats. That stirred political commotion similar to those against the prohibition of the Fez hat in the Ottoman territories and North Africa.
In general, however, while Eastern Europe and the orient opted for the adaptation of ‘the European way,’ the Muslims societies, mostly subjugated at the time by the Europeans, resisted European fashion and attire as a political statement. To many Muslims growing beards, a ‘urf, ‘a tradition by necessity,’ now became a symbol of resistance and a tradition of the Prophet attracting endorsements of the highest authorities.
It was in this kind of political atmosphere that the one single hadith out of 7563 in Al-Bukhari's collection caught the eye of those who needed a religious justification for their action. While few of the other traditions dealing with etiquette, manners, socialization, and particularly of hygienic significance are known to Muslims of today. Thus, growing beards has become a symbol of religiosity of the highest order.
In the context of the Prophetic traditions where sometimes very extensive and detailed instructions are given through exegeses and commentaries, (like the trimming of nails) the tradition pertaining to bread growing remains rather an isolated case.
While in most societies growing beards takes perhaps a few paragraph spaces in a manicurist’s manual, in Muslim societies it has become an issue determining the fate of governments. When triviality gains over-significance and becomes the order of the day, common sense leaves the scene. In such instances progress is hindered by trivialities and people create rites and rituals either to stand apart from the rest as a sign of distinction or such signs are assign by other to stigmatize a specific group. Here are some familiar examples in the Afghan socio-political setting:
- The royal guard of Nadir Shah Afshar had adopted red hats and were thus called qizil-bash. When they decided to remain in Afghanistan instead of going back to Persia they became known as the qizil-bash.
- In northern India Hindu reformists adopted some Muslim customs and began to wear their turbans in a pointed fashion to distinguish themselves from both Hindus and Muslims and eventually became Sikhs.
- Until the latter parts of 19th century, in the ‘Kafaristan’ province of Afghanistan the local kafars, ‘unbelievers’ wore a rimmed cap in contrast to the turbaned Muslims. Their caps were called kafar kulah or 'the cap of the non-believer.' A century later, when the communists in the re-named region of Nuristan massacred the descendants of those ‘unbelievers,’ now Muslims, that very visible distinction of non-Muslim identity became the symbol of Islamic resistance against the Soviet occupation. So the 'kafar kulah' became the sign of ‘Islamic’ identity as it now donned the head of every Mujahid fighting Russians for Islam, yet totally unaware of its historical significance.
More recently, however, growing mustache was a source of identity with the Khalq pro-communist party while growing side-burns was that of the Parcham faction. Sporting long hair was associated with the sympathizers of the pro-Chinese communists. Not too coincidentally, the pro-Islam factions began growing beards. Following in the foot steps of Czar Ivan the terrible the Afghan communists persecuted people who grew beards whether they were sported for religious purposes or not. The Taliban government plays the same game in the reverse order as now clean-shaven people are being persecuted because they are assumed to be ‘un-Islamic.’ Insanity has its phases, but it is hard when it is done in the name of religion.
Symbolic and superficial changes do not serve a real purpose in a society, fundamental and substantial ones do. Real growth occurs in the intellect, in knowledge, in the brain, in the head, not in the beard. There is no doubt about the certainty of the Prophet's saying who in support of the verses in the Qur’an recommended the seeking of knowledge, even if in China. Trivializing the grandeur of Islam's message with the triviality of personal attire is wrong. As long as it is not in clear violation of the code of decency that Islam prescribes, it should not be imposed on the people—the majority or minorities—as it does not serve the purpose of Islam.
God cannot be worshipped out of compulsion. The principle of ikhtyar, ‘choice and preference of the best,’ i.e. free will, is as much an article of faith as it is a principle of reason.