Q. Did the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) ask Muslims to grow beards to be different from the Jews? They grow beards too, so can you explain this?

Also, some Muslims dress like the Muslims of 1400 years ago in order to adhere to the Prophet's sunna. This includes wearing long gowns, beards, carrying a miswak, etc. As such, Muslims adopt clothing and cultural modes that are different from their own, and impose these on their children in North America. Is this the correct understanding of the sunna?

A. The practice of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) needs to be put into categories: that which he did in his capacity as a Prophet to all humankind, and that which he did in his capacity as an Arab, to show his immediate nation the examples of propriety. No doubt, it was a sunna of the Hebrew Prophets, for the Greeks and Magians did go against it, and we know that Jewish law specified its growth to combat those who did not follow the monotheistic belief. At the Prophet's time, the beard was a symbol of manliness, especially since the Greeks had by that time insisted on shaving it, and had become famous for their homosexuality. In Judaism too, it is a cardinal rule that a man should not appear like a woman and vice versa. Since the greater part of Islamic prophecy came in a city which was a Jewish stronghold, and the norms and virtues of that city were in the Jewish image, it seems perfectly logical to assume that the Prophet exhorted his companions on the aspects of what would constitute sartorial excellence.

The thing to be considered here is that the beard is no longer a means of demarcation between those who observe the monotheist values as opposed to those who are pagan, nor is it a symbol of probity in our society. Therefore, in a time when the beard no longer has anything to do with outward signs of monotheistic practice, growing it is optional. In fact, in our environment, a beard can often be a mark that causes discrimination to be directed against us. Since the beard per se has nothing to do with piety, and since, as we note in Q33:59, the reason for wearing the jilbab was so that the Muslim women may be known and not molested, so too we can make a syllogism and state that in our society, to avoid molestation in a situation where a beard may cause problems, we may leave it aside. It is absolutely optional, and I reiterate, has nothing to do with piety or Islamic requirements of probity.

As far as clothing goes, the same rule applies. The Prophet spoke Arabic because he was Arab, not because the Arabic has any superiority over another language, although we may find that it is a wonderful language indeed. He had to wear the garments that showed he was a man who respected the virtues of his society, and as such, we find him allegedly exhorting on the turban, etc. -- items of proper Arab dress. We find too that the Amir al Mumineen, Ali bin Abi Talib (r.a), counseled that the parents should rear their children in a manner different to that in which the parents were raised, on the premise that they are born in a time different to theirs. What is the value of rearing in this perspective which respects a time difference? What is the role of past methods and experience here? The narration which Al-Sharif Al-Radi relates in Nahj Al-Balagha is thus: "Do not mold your children’s ethics according to yours, for they are of a different time than yours."

When we wish to analyze this narration, we must take note that there is a difference between principles and ethics, which form the behavioral aspects in life. If we wish to go into the matter deeper, then we must state that ethics are in two categories: ethics that are immutable, and those that change. As for the immutable ethics, they are the pure morals which are necessary in the thought and deeds of daily life, and which are necessary in every time and place, such as truth, honesty, chastity, and the like from the sterling models of ethics. These indicate the perfecting of integration between human life and being. The ethics that change are manners and methods of interaction, which reflect social interaction and ways of living in the evolution of the self, etiquette, or protocol. Etiquette regarding respect, speech, political, or social relations, change from one time to another.

Therefore, if we take clothing as an example, the value is not to wear that which the Prophet Muhammad wore, or what the companions wore. Every era has its form of dress, and it is possible for us to take the modern items that people have made, in the course of the development of forms of eating, dress, and other things. A narration has been reported from Al Imam Al Sadiq: "The best dress of the time is the dress of its people," i.e., that a person should wear what the people wear. Of course, one can wear Western clothing and still be modest by Islamic standards. Imposing outmoded forms of dress on children, whether they are male or female, is irresponsible on the part of those parents who do so, alienates the children from society, and leads to rebellion in many instances. If the Prophet lived in our society, where a three-piece suit is the symbol of the highest sartorial perfection, I doubt that he would have worn a thawb and turban. While Elijah Muhammad had a distorted understanding of Islam, it would seem that he realized the true message regarding dress, since the Nation of Islam's men can never be faulted for observing proper dress.

[Webmaster's note:] It should be noted that traditionally, the beard is highly recommended for Muslims as part of the Prophetic Sunnah, and even viewed as mandatory in some extremist intepretations (e.g., as practiced by the Taliban). What gets conveniently overlooked is that there are several Biblical verses (a few are cited below) indicating that both the beard and head-covering for females are to be viewed as Judeo / Christian traditions that were adopted by the early Muslims, then projected back to the Prophet to give them legitimacy.

You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard. (Leviticus 19:27)

When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, "Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return." (2 Samuel 10:5)

It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, running down on the edge of his garments. (Psalm 133:2)

And she put her widow's garments off from her, and covered her with a vail, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face. (Genesis 38:14-15)

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. (Corinthians 11:5-7)

Posted March 11, 1999