To beard or not to beard

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.

  1. My wife has been mistaken for a nun on several occasions — white skin, you see.
  2. Although I have glanced in the mirror half-way through a working day and realised that I still have punk tufts all over my scalp too many times to count.

13 thoughts on “To beard or not to beard”

  1. Salamu ‘Alaykum Bro Tim,

    I do not think you meant to, but you certainly made me laugh! Just take the shafi’i verdict that the beard is what is on the chin, and no problems!

    Hang in there! May Allah allow your beard – and more so your eemaan – to grow!

  2. Excellent article, though it may surprise you to hear that in fact a great deal of women Do ‘iron’ their hair in the morning!

  3. Assalamu alykum wa rahmatullah,

    The beard in arabic is the hair that grows on the jaw bones. The hair on the cheek and the neck is not a beard so it can be removed.

    In the sunna the man is encouraged to look handsome not only in front of God but also in front of people. Hence in the maliki school you can trim and cut the beard’s hair that’s beyond a fist lenght and there is no minimum to its lenght as long as it is not removed completely.

    A muslim is discouraged from looking unclean, scruffy, untidy etc. Yes at times one can’t help it but it shouldn’t be their way of life.

    wassalam

  4. Tim: Thanks.

    The Qur’an also says that the best garment is that of righteousness.

    I think the Shakespeare beard qualifies as a Muslim beard.

    Mohammad: “The beard in Arabic is the hair that grows on the jaw bones. The hair on the cheek and the neck is not a beard so it can be removed.”

    Interesting fact.

  5. As salaamu alaikum, Tim,

    That was a great read. It may interest you to know that there are many men of all backgrounds who can’t grow a beard. I care much more about what is on my brothers mind, than what is on his chin.

    Great read.

  6. Salaam Brother, I was linked here by our dear sister Sabah, but I must say I can sympathize with both men and women, my husband and I are both converts and I was a hijabi at first, and then not, and then sometimes and back and forth I go, and he has been the same with his beard because it doesnt grow in nicely and thick and it looks more like he forgot to shave than any attempt at a beard, but he can grow a goatee nicely so he has accepted his lot and keeps his goatee and prays that Allah will reward him for that. I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone…oh and tell your wife that I have been mistaken for a nun on several occasions myself…LOL!!

  7. I have seen many blogs and have don research on many but most of them lack of good substance but I would say that you are doing a great job and keep the good work on

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