In recent years, a Muslim's outward appearance has drawn much public scrutiny. This trend is most readily apparent in the banning of ḥijābs/niqābs to varying degrees across Western Europe. More insidiously, it is evident in the not-infrequent hate crimes against Sikhs and Hindus who vaguely resemble Orientalist depictions of what Muslims “should” look like. Similarly stereotypical notions no doubt buoyed Juan Williams' now infamous comment on “Muslim garb” and continue to hold sway among many Americans and Europeans.

As my time in Egypt has taught me, however, Muslims themselves aren't immune to pigeonholing others – ESPECIALLY other Muslims – based on looks.

A Complex Complex

The cultural baggage that comes with having a beard in Egypt, recent headlines notwithstanding, is not a contemporary phenomenon but one many decades in the making.

For one thing, no high ranking public figure in Egypt for more than a century has had anything beyond a neatly trimmed mustache (until, of course, this past week). Over the years, this grooming trait came to represent masculinity itself; one need only watch a random selection of films from Egypt's golden age of cinema for confirmation. To this day the proportion of mustachioed Egyptian men (particularly over the age of 40) is likely far above the global mean.

There have also been far more nefarious obstacles to the spread of sunnah beards on Egyptian soil. Indeed, it was common practice in many of the country's top private companies to dismiss bearded job applicants off hand. This “unofficial” policy spanned beyond the industries that immediately come to mind, such as hospitality and tourism, and created a glass ceiling – if not a fully opaque barrier – across much of the for-profit sphere. Since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, there has been some push back against this discriminatory behavior, but by and large the status quo remains intact.

While private enterprises at least made an effort to conceal their discrimination, public sector institutions openly flaunted their anti-stubble statutes. What's more, these restrictions applied not only to employees and enlisted men, but many government offices during the Mubarak era even forbade civilians with long beards from entering their premises. Granted, when compared to other countries' law enforcement and military practices, the internal portion of these policies are pretty much par for the course. Even then, how many of those countries have a contingent within their public service ranks actively flouting such regulations?

All these factors have collectively created a fertile atmosphere for irrational reactions to male facial hair.

Situational Comedy

Beards tend to solicit highly illogical, sometimes visceral responses on the streets of Egypt. If you're a young and bearded Cairene, the following scenarios are all too familiar:

1) Shaykh yourself before you wreck yourself

You walk into a smaller size masjid/mussallah and the muezzin gives the iqāmah. You stand in line like normal, but then notice everyone's eyes looking toward you. There's a gentle nudge on your back…then another. “Yalla ya shaykh, itfaddal,” a brother next to you insists, giving voice to the collective sentiment in the room. You politely decline – not out of humility, but out of sincere belief that you are surely not the most qualified to lead the prayer. It matters not, for your brothers are starting to get annoyed by your “modesty.” To move past the mounting fitnah – and the increasingly aggressive “gentle” nudges – you play the role of imām.

With great facial hair comes great responsibility.

2) Sartorial Superfaciality

The summers in North Africa are not for the faint of heart. You have to do what you can to stay cool, which includes wearing weather-appropriate clothing. On a particularly scorching afternoon, I ventured out in my shorts (below the knee), a polo shirt, sandals, a baseball cap and, because I had a lot of errands to run, a backpack. This combination was apparently too much for one observant brother (OB) to bear. He caught up to me on the streets of Cairo and offered some unsolicited advice:

“Akhi, a respectable person shouldn't dress this way,” the OB said, motioning to my beard and then to my clothes.

“Pardon me?” I replied, perplexed.

The OB went on to quote me the hadith of not resembling the kuffar. I proceeded to discuss the nuances of that hadith. He wasn't having it.

“You look like an American,” he asserted.

Irony is not dead.

3) Does this beard make my head look big?

You step into one of the innumerable cabs that plug Cairo's roadways. If, like me, you're allergic to cigarette smoke, you politely ask the cab driver to put out his Marlboro. He begrudgingly complies. Upon further investigation of your appearance, he decides to abruptly shift discursive gears: “So do you think growing a beard is mandatory?” A perplexed look is all you can muster. “Do you think I'm doing something haram by not having a beard like you?” Before you can answer that you are simply trying to do your best to follow a sunnah and in no way feel it makes you a better Muslim than someone who is clean shaven, the driver starts rattling off names: “Amr Khaled, Moaz Massud, that guy who does tajwīd on Dream 2…are they all sinning?!?”

It's gonna be a long cab ride…

Fuel to the Fire

On top of the socio-religious connotations that permeate beard perception in Egypt, recent historic events have added a new layer of politically motivated prejudices.

Fist length beard? Must be Brotherhood. Oh, you shaved off the mustache? You're totally Salafi. Neatly trimmed all around? Guess you're one of those Abol Futooh moderate types.

With Egypt in such a dynamic state – both politically and culturally – it's entirely likely that these facile stereotypes will fall by the wayside or get imbued with more constructive meaning. If, for example, Muhammad Morsi, Egypt's newly elected and fabulously bearded president, exceeds expectations, male facial hair could become a broadly accepted sign of national pride – something akin to the out-of-nowhere trend across the NBA this past year, or the de facto grooming style on the streets of South Philly.

At any rate, and in the meantime, it's best to prepare yourself for the inevitable follies that come with flaunting the fruits of your facial follicles on the streets of Cairo.

 

21 Responses

  1. alienanthropologist

    I thnk you make a good point. People tend to have a gut reaction when faced with a long beard in front of them. The same when they see the niqab.
    But how do these beards and veils react when they see a woman in a short skirt? Or even a short sleeved dress?
    I think the reason many of us react the way we do has to do with the overall attitude of these supposedly pious people.
    Take this for an example. You are buying a flat, and the realtor enters the room in a summer suit, prayer mark on his forehead, full beard and rosary in his hand. How do you feel? SCAM ALERT!
    For me – recently – the question has become if all these people are so pious, why does this country make New Dheli look like Geneva?

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    • siraaj

      I tend to have less trust in business dealings with Muslims overall because my experiences have not been great, bearded or not. It’s difficult to find principled Muslims who uphold good character, honor, and professionalism.

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  2. WAJiD

    Salaam brother Youssef,

    Funny, insightful and making a serious point without using the subtlety of a hammer to do so – Excellent article mashaAllah.

    I personally would love to hear more about the situation of Islam and the Muslims in Egypt.

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  3. snizami

    I once had a a kid who couldn’t have been more than 10 pull me up on the streets of Alexandria asking “Sheikh! is it fornication for me to look at a woman?” as he urgently argued the point with his equally young friend. My beardless friend was the one to answer.

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    • Youssef Chouhoud

      I remember Sh. Waleed Basyouni once told us that one time a local came up to him and some colleagues in Medina with a question…but first examined their beard length and belly size (bigger is better, apparently?) to gauge who is the most knowledgeable among them.

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  4. AnonyMouse Al-Majnoonah

    Hah! Flashbacks to Egypt, for sure – my poor husband has probably experienced every scenario you mentioned (including when he was once put on the spot to give Khutbah al-Jumu’ah in a village because he was the only one to have a beard!).

    Funny yet sad but true..

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  5. aeyd

    Amazing article
    But I am surprised by the West to have that are not Muslim and wear the abaya to wear such Aymanonha Ahakrunha not like to touch upon the Muslim sense of nakedness under cover

    Your site is beautiful and I am My name is aeyd of Saudi Arabia

    This is my websitehttp://w0rld-b.com/

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  6. Amad

    Love it…
    Long break Youssef but you are bak with a bang mashallah!

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  7. iT

    LOL this was an epic read. Some of the comments are very similar to that of the Pakistani nation. May ALLAH guide the ummah and help those who have forsaken islam for their whims and desires. ameen.

    Deconstruction of the social construct is the most difficult task that muslims around the world face. I feel its very important for each and every muslim to under stand behaviour psychology and sociology (of course leaning with the islamic teachings in place); having the knowledge of the deen and understanding behaviour and communal behaviour can go a long way in terms of dawah.

    Nice piece Youseef.

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  8. Khalid Sarfaraz Mallick

    Beard is Muslim identity not representation of its personality. Unfortunately in current society situations a person is judged by the size of its beard. Specially, in Pakistan you cannot even imagine of even giving an Iqamah with out possessing a long beard.

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  9. MY

    First off, if your beard is what shows in the picture, then it is a “fashionable” beard and not a religious one (which is supposed to be a fists length). Secondly what is wrong with point 2. You were not dressed according to sunnah so why complain?

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    • abubakr

      Assalam Alaikum.So what is sunnah dressing?I remember Sheikh Assuhaily of Madinah University answered his question by saying “dress according to the way your “people” dress, emphasizing that the Prophet (saw) dressed like the Arabs of his time, except of course for certain clear prohibitions eg garments below the ankles, those exposing nakedness etc thus u should be able to, for example recognize pakistani, chinese, maghrebi, sudanese muslims without any problem and we can rightly say they are dressed according to the sunnah. As for the beard, let not the brothers despair. A friend of mine who is well blessed with a full beard once argued with a christian over it(growing a beard).His reply was simple: You christians he said paint pictures of Moses (AS) and Jesus (AS), If you can show me one picture of these personalities clean shaven, i’ll shave my beard there and then.It’s been about 8 years and he still has his beard! Wassalamu alkm warahmatullahi wabarakaatuh.

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  10. Khader Khan

    Br. Youssef,

    ” Oh, you shaved off the mustache? You’re totally Salafi” Lol, you are right on money.

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  11. UzairZubairi

    Nice article bro. Only one problem, you know where you say you were tryna say to the taxi driver its only a sunnah you are tryna follow, I got some problems about it. If you are 100% sure of the truth, then you need to get blunt and open about it, rather than shying away.
    Letting your beard grow and trimming your moustache is wajib and its haram not to do so. Everyone who does that, and I dont care who on earth he is, is a fasiq. Even if he is called a “shaikh” or “mawlana”.
    You dont determine halal and haram by looking at how many people do a particular act. Our criterion is the Quran and the Sunnah, which tell us that Rasool Allah sallallahu allayhi wassalam refused to even LOOK at Kisra’s messengers because they shaved off their beards and let their moustaches grow. Kisra, the king of the persian empire! Persian empire was supposed to be the united states of america of that time!…Rasol Allah sallallahu allayhi wasalam said to them ‘why do you do this to yourselves?’ to which they replied ‘Our Lord(Kisra) commanded us to do so!’ to which he sallallahu allayhi wassalm replied, ‘Well, my Lord (Allah) COMMANDED me to trim my moustache and let my beard grow’!

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    • Salafists are Funny

      Ah, “reborn” Muslims are so cute. It’s only a matter of time before you move past your “black and white” stage, and realize the nuances that exist amongst the tradition.

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  12. Infidelicious

    When it comes to beards, this infidel, European, middle-aged male is privileged: I sport a fist -long beard because I want to and for no other reason. And -may I inform you- “God” , by which name you give Him, doesn’t give a * about mine – or anybody’s beard. It’s a human thing. If you really believe your beard matters in the big picture, you need to look up “humility” in your dictionary.

    No disrespect, religion is about the big questions in life, not about how you look.
    Salaam, and ramdaan kareem.

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    • Youssef Chouhoud

      Thanks for the respectful, if strongly worded comment. I totally get where your coming from. It often seems that Muslims – or adherents of any faith – concentrate on the minutia of religion at the expense of the big picture. At the same time, the “little things” do still matter.

      In the case of Muslims, everything goes back to the Quran and the example set by the Prophet Muhammed (SAWS). So, when we speak of the way a Muslim should look, in effect we’re discussing what these two sources of legislation say on the matter. In most instances, it’s basically laissez-faire (within the limits of modesty, of course). Other times, there’s genuine evidence that since the Prophet Muhammed (SAWS) did something a specific way, then we should, too. After all, if he is the best example of how to practice Islam, then we should do our best to emulate him.

      Anyway, thanks again for your input.

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