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Hair and Beards

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Hair and Beards

    Islamic teachings about hair and beards emphasize not only cleanliness and good hygiene, but also modesty and Islamic values. Women's hair is held to be powerful and thus dangerous; its beauty, texture, and fragrance can attract and arouse men's interest. Observant Muslim women therefore wear a hijab to cover their hair when they leave their homes. Many Islamic teachings also recommend the removal of a woman's bodily hair, particularly her pubic and underarm hair.

    Islam shares its views of hair with the two other major faiths that emerged in the Middle East, Christianity and Judaism. All three religions focus on the power of hair and its potential danger to the established social order. In Judaism and early Christianity, women hid their hair from all but their husbands. The three religions emphasize men's authority over women and the need to control women's sexual lives, often symbolized by the restraint of a women's free and flowing hair. The “hair dances” of the Arabian Peninsula—in which women swing their long, flowing manes of hair before an all-female audience—provide an acknowledgement of the equation of women's hair with sexuality, freedom, and power.

    Pre-Islamic folk traditions about the power and significance of hair persist throughout parts of the Middle East and Asia in the practice of burying or hiding shorn hair clippings. Islam does not frown upon the dyeing of hair, and many Muslim men as well as women use henna to color their hair and beards. The Islamic legal scholar Ibn Taymiyah ( 1263 – 1328 ) noted the practical functions of this use of henna, stating that the Qu'ran and the sunnah teach Muslims to be visibly distinct from nonbelievers and that one way to accomplish this is to dye the hair and beard.

    Islam condemns the selling and buying of hair and the production of wigs made from human hair. A part of the human body, hair should not be used as an item for trade. In the past, women seeking to thicken or lengthen their hair were advised to use animal wool for this purpose. Wig makers received scornful words from Muhammad.

    Muslim men are encouraged not to cut their beards to a length of less than one fist-width. Numerous traditions indicate that the Prophet urged devout Muslim men not to imitate the kuffar (unbelievers) by cutting their beards or trimming them too short. Instructions on personal hygiene call for Muslim men to keep their mustaches neatly trimmed but not to remove their beards, which distinguish men from women and Muslims from nonbelievers. Hadith teachings state that men without beards cannot head the ummah (Muslim community) or lead prayers. Beards have traditionally served as symbols of authority in the Middle East, even in pre-Islamic times. In ancient Egypt, for example, it is said that Queen Hatshepsut wore an artificial, gilded beard to assert her status as a ruler. See also Body Decoration; Clothing; Hijab; Ibn Taymiyah ; Women.

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