Q. As you may know, barber shops in the west typically accommodate both male and female clients. The barbers may also be male or female. I once asked a "scholar" if it was permissible for a Muslim woman to work in a Haircuttery. He declared that it was not allowed, but did not elaborate. Based on his "fatwa," one must conclude that barbershops should be segregated. What is the Islamic position on "haircutters" (either male or female) cutting the hair of customers of either sex?

A. Before answering the question, we must point out that both the question and the answer follow a certain erroneous presupposition: that there is such a thing as "Islamic law" that can be applied everywhere regardless of custom and culture. This is patently wrong, as can be seen by the fact that one of the sources of fiqh is "custom." It therefore follows that in many cases, what may be allowable for one Muslim community may not be good for another. Many Muslims seem to forget that the Messenger of Allah (s.a.a.w) was an Arab, spoke the Arab tongue, and had to act as the most exemplary of Arabs. It would have been unthinkable for him to try to introduce things that were foreign to these people, except in matters of tawhid, which was the most important part of his mission.

Let us explain a case that is relevant to the issue you raised. On the matter of the hair covering, which one adduces from the Qur’anic verse 24:31, you will, by carefully reading the verse, see that Allah orders them to throw their head-coverings over their necklines. This means that the head-coverings were not something new, it is the covering of the breasts that is being ordered. This therefore tells us that the hair has nothing to do with piety. We also see from the fiqh and history books that the female slaves were not allowed to cover their heads, and that if Umar (r.a) caught them doing so, he would throw rocks at them. So this business about hair covering was something to distinguish between free and slave women, something which had come down from Assyrian law and incorporated into Jewish and Christian practice, under which the concept of headship was followed (see 1 Corinthians 11:5-6). There is no such concept of "headship" in Islam. It would appear nonetheless that quite early in Islam, this Jewish/Christian idea of the covering of the head being a sign of piety was followed, as is evidenced by the matter of Umar already mentioned above (since the slave women wanted to cover their heads), and can also be evidenced to a certain extent by Q33:59.

The hair as such, however, is not something evil. The uncovered head, however, denoted one as a slave or a prostitute in the early and medieval society of the Middle East. Certainly the story of the prostitute washing Jesus' feet with her hair is evidence too that the hair is not "evil." Having said that, let us hasten to point out that in the Muslim Middle East, an uncovered head is still in many places not indicative of piety, although interaction among the sexes to the point of barbering, etc., would be considered improper. Given the repercussions that would result from breaking these taboos, we would hold that in regions where there is a distinctive conservative trend, the interaction should be minimal. For example, this would mean that in Beirut, we would see no problem, but in Riyadh there certainly would be. Or in parts of rural Egypt, there may be a problem while in Cairo, there would not be. Let us also not forget that barbering is considered quite different to hairstyling, and a barber in some Muslim areas is considered the equivalent of a mohel (one who performs circumcisions).

In a western country, the norms are quite different. We have never had a free woman differentiated from a slave woman by the covered head. And in the Western society too, piety is dictated by deportment and behavior rather than by dress. Muslims, it would seem, follow the Qur’anic verse that states: "and the clothing of piety -- that is better (wa libaas al-taqwa--dhalika khairun)." Hairdressers in the west are not known to be promoters of improper conduct. Given this fact, we would rule that in the western countries, where Middle Eastern customs are not the norm, it is perfectly allowable for anyone to go to any professional in the hair-care industry, without any consideration being given to the gender of either the provider or the client. And as already stated above, we would discourage this freedom in the "Muslim" countries that have a separate set of customs and culture. And Allah knows best.

Posted June 13, 2000