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Body Decoration

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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

    Body Decoration

    Islam provides Muslims not only with spiritual and theological guidance, but also with directives on many aspects of daily life, such as contact between men and women, dress, and body decoration. The display of the self in public and private is a matter of considerable concern to Muslims. Instructions on the care, treatment, and presentation of the human body are drawn from the Qu'ran and the hadith and are codified in the shari'ah.

    Gender Boundaries.

    Islam draws a clear distinction between public and private domains. It views the family as central to the survival of society and sets boundaries that separate the realms of domestic and public life and define the roles of men and women. Islamic tradition clearly states that a woman must not display her personal adornments or physical charms to anyone but her husband (surah 24:31 ).

    The effects of these boundaries can be seen in dress and body decoration. The hijab worn by many Muslim women ensures that women keep an appropriate distance from men and promotes respect and moral behavior among men and women in public spaces. In private, women do not veil themselves, and in public, women may wear attractive clothing and elaborate jewelry under their abayas or chadors.

    Media images of veiled women in Islamic countries have led many non-Muslims to assume that Muslim women avoid all displays of beauty and any form of body decoration. In fact, Islam places high value on the relationship between husbands and wives, and many traditions encourage women to make themselves attractive to their husbands. Some of the most elaborate practices of bodily ornamentation center on the rituals of preparing a bride for her new life and her role as a wife.

    Henna figures prominently in the body decoration of brides and married women throughout the Islamic Middle East. Elaborate, women-only parties prior to weddings involve the removal of all the bride's bodily hair, including her pubic hair. Then friends and family members use wooden or silver sticks to apply henna to the bride's hands and sometimes her feet, creating artistic and regionally distinctive designs. The designs resemble tattoos, but they are temporary. Islam does not approve of permanent tattooing, though many women in tribal areas of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have pre-Islamic designs and symbols tattooed on their chins, hands, and chests.

    Cosmetics, Charms, and Fragrances.

    Cosmetics also have an important role in many parts of the Islamic world. Indeed, in some settings, a thick layer of makeup is viewed as a protective mask for women. Traditionally, cosmetics consisted of heavy creams made from crushed flowers, herbs, powdered precious stones, and spices. In the Middle East, kohl is the most popular and ancient cosmetic. Muslims value it for the beauty it lends to the eye no less than for its health-giving properties and its ability to protect them from the sun's rays. In many communities, men and children as well as women use kohl on the inner rim of their eyelids.

    In the Islamic world, the eye is considered a very powerful part of the body. It is seen as the window to the soul and profoundly erotic and expressive. Even the veils and headscarves worn by observant Muslim women in public accentuate the eyes or the curve of the face in a manner that emphasizes, though modestly, a woman's best features. Scarves and veils are often embroidered and edged with lace designs for added effect within the bounds of Islamic propriety.

    The eye also has symbolic value as a force of evil. Malicious people are believed to be able to harm others with the “evil eye,” a malevolent glance. To protect themselves against hostility, many women and children throughout the Middle East wear blue beads in necklaces, bracelets, or amulets pinned to their clothing, in the belief that the properties of the color blue can counter evil intentions. Although not mentioned in Islamic teachings, beliefs concerning the evil eye are widespread in the Islamic world and also throughout much of Catholic southern Europe.

    Last but not least, the use of fragrances in the Islamic Middle East is an important part of bodily adornment and ornamentation. Strong fragrances, such as musk, amber, sandalwood, and rose, have been popular since ancient times. Islamic teachings do not prohibit women or men from using such fragrances. In fact, any practice that ensures bodily health and hygiene is valued and encouraged, including the use of henna leaves for underarm deodorant and the use of henna dye as a fingernail polish. Many Islamic scholars prefer henna dye to polishes made of artificial ingredients that create a barrier to water, violating requirements for proper ritual cleansing. See also Clothing; Hair and Beards; Hijab; Magic and Sorcery; Women.

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