I have long been one of those admirers of the Muslim woman, who says, ‘How I wish I had faith the strength of theirs.’ For to take upon a visual marker of identity outside the norms of society and to wear it whenever one wanders into the public eye takes great courage. Observing English women wrapping their heads in fabric soon after embracing the deen, I used to wonder at their faith. Had I been born on that side of the gender divide, I would ask myself, would I have had the daring to envelop myself in that unfamiliar garb?
The mirror, however, has been speaking to me these past few days and it has reminded me of the shortcomings of my biased admiration. The act of revealing one’s beliefs through the physical is not confined to Muslim women alone. For the Muslim man, the clearest marker is his beard. It is true, of course, that a beard does not automatically identify one as a Muslim, whereas the hijab, except amongst the unenlightened,1 almost always does.
I believe it takes great courage to wear a headscarf — not to mention persistence, tolerance and fortitude. I have often heard it said that some women find wearing the hijab saves time getting ready to go out, but I can’t think how this could possibly be true, for it takes me at least ten minutes and numerous pricks to my fingertips to close a safety-pin if I can’t see it — and you don’t have to iron your hair.2 Of course it may well be true in the case of the Afghan veil or Somali khimar, but I am hugely doubtful that sartorial convenience is utmost in the minds of those who choose to cover.
You must have a certain determination and spiritual height, I am often found reflecting, to move amongst people who are commonly contemptuous of your faith, announcing by your appearance that you are a Muslim. Although only Allah knows what our hearts contain, to me it signifies a level of iman worthy of respect.
Yet the mirror speaks: at least the act of putting on a headscarf is within the woman’s control. So long as a woman has enough money to buy a metre of fabric, she can consider herself a hijabi. Her male counterpart, however, is at the mercy of his biology. While she decides whether it will be a pashmina or a khimar, and black or blue, or floral, and cotton, wool or nylon, he stands there wondering if it will become a thick Afghan mane or a straggly Malaysian outcrop, or if it will forever remain a single whisker dangling on the end of his chin.
Adopting the hijab can be a slow process, involving a readjustment of one’s mindset — and that of one’s friends — sometimes stepping from bandanna to scarf and back again. Yet once a decision to wear a headscarf has been made, the transformation is immediate. A scarf does not grow in patches. By contrast, for some of us, the road towards achieving anything even resembling a beard can be a long one, complete with the accompanying chastisement and mockery favoured by those around us.
Pious Muslims — both men and women — like to remind the fresh-faced ones of their grave shortcomings. I decided to grow a beard when I became Muslim in 1998, believing it to be obligatory, but over the years that followed others would pick up on my lack of facial hair and find my faith wanting. Attending a series of lectures, three months after I became Muslim, somebody twice asked the speaker if growing a beard was fard. Each time the respected teacher answered the question with the affirmative, he looked directly at me. My three whiskers were inadequate there, but still I persevered. My family and friends did not need to sit staring at my chin as we conversed, for I knew that I looked peculiar, but for the next few years they always would, whenever we met, without fail. I would console myself, imagining an angel swinging beneath my chin as in a hadith I had once heard.
As the years passed by, my whiskers gradually multiplied, resembling a tray of salad cress as they grew longer. With them came more mockery. ‘What’s with his chin?’ a consultant would ask a colleague, who insisted on calling me d’Artagnan. ‘He’s a Muslim,’ she would reply with raised eyebrows, sniggering something about my three musketeers. Now they call me Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare at work. Cryptically they ask me how the novel’s coming along before guffawing, ‘Shakespeare!’ yet again — I don’t have the heart to tell them that he was a playwright, not a novelist. It amuses me, somehow.
The mirror has been reminding me of all this since the end of Ramadan. For the first time in my life, something resembling a beard has begun to populate my face, sparse though it remains to the casual observer. I am fortunate to discover that medicines sometimes have beneficial side effects. Though the pious ones still turn away, dismissing my corruption of the sunnah, for me it is a start. Some are unable to comprehend that it could take eleven years to grow a beard, or that one could fail to grow one at all.
Though I have long been an admirer of the Muslim woman’s faith, the mirror proposes that the Muslim man’s faith is no less meagre. The visual marker that he takes on may not provide that instant flash of identity recognition, setting him at odds with the people around him. But somewhere in the process — whisker to goatee to garibaldi — as a mass of evidence amounts that it is not worth the trouble, it becomes self-evident that we persevere for a reason. The Muslim woman does not wear her headscarf to avoid brushing her hair in the morning. The Muslim man does not grow a beard because it saves money on razors. We persevere, in the face of criticism and mockery, because we want to please our Lord. It is only one aspect of our faith — and it is our hearts and our deeds that concern our Lord — but it is still a start.