By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
FOR some time now, the burqa and the beard have been the most telling pronouncements of Muslimness. You spot a woman in a burqa anywhere in the world and you know that she is a Muslim. Beards are not quite as exclusively Muslim just yet, but the luxurious untrimmed ones, particularly when accompanied by a clean upper lip, are close to becoming so.
There is nothing essentially Islamic about either of them. The Quran does not make it mandatory for women to wear the burqa: it simply asks all Muslims, men and women, to dress modestly. Nor does it insist on beards for men. The rationale often cited is that Prophet Muhammad used to sport a beard, and hence it is Sunnah to do so. But Sunnah is supposed to be what made the Prophet distinct, and his beard certainly didn’t. Even Abu Lahb and Abu Jahl, his biggest enemies, are known to have sported beards. In any case, many bearded Muslims care little about a number of other things the Prophet did, distinctive or not.
So why do the burqa and the beard cast such a long shadow on Muslim identity today? Why do so many mullahs insist that you can’t be a Muslim if you aren’t, depending on your sex, burqa’ed or bearded? Why do the Taliban in Afghanistan, their affiliated groups in Pakistan and radicals in many other parts of the world threaten kill Muslims who don’t comply?
Perhaps because the burqa and the beard are extremely potent means of enforcing group identity, to the extent of exterminating personal identity
Our identities, sociologists say, are socially constructed. We see ourselves through others’ eyes, and we “construct” ourselves accordingly. In a society where individualism matters, personal identity becomes sacrosanct, and people do all kinds of things to appear different from others. American punk culture is an extreme example.
However, when others don’t view us as individuals but rather as parts of an undifferentiated whole, that is how we start thinking about ourselves. Our identity as individuals gets diffused in a sea of group culture and group ethos. We give up personal choice, subsuming ourselves to group beliefs and group thinking.
That is the function the burqa and the beard perform. A man with a beard double the length of his face is no longer an individual for others. People around him don’t see his face, his eyes, his nose or his lips—they just see his beard, and the connotations that hang about it. For them, he simply becomes a part of the multitude of Muslims populating the world, and no more. This is truer still of a woman in a burqa.
And as they become faceless and featureless for others, so they lose their sense of individuality in their own minds, becoming appropriated into a mass of Muslimness Beliefs, feelings and thoughts become regulated to comply with those of the group. There is little left of them as individuals. Also, as they are consolidated into one group, so they disconnect from everyone else who is not a member of that group.
It is not too difficult then for mullahs to control the minds and behaviours of such people. Make any claim in the name of Islam, and the burqas and beards will agree and follow. It won’t matter whether these claims are reasonable or not, or even if they are truly in line with the teachings of Islam. Devoid of rational thinking and bereft of personal choice, the burqas and beards will think, feel and do what they are bid.
Many women who wear the burqa proudly proclaim that they are exercising their “personal right” to do so. They hardly realise that in truth, they are doing just the opposite. They are giving up their most personal of rights: their personality, their right to exist as individuals.
Muslims often complain that they are stereotyped by others. But by growing “Islamic” beards or wearing burqas, they stereotype themselves in their own minds. They define Islam by these symbols and reduce it to a group identity rather than a personal faith. It doesn’t take long before the beard and the burqa stop being seen just as symbols of Muslimness, and instead become Islam itself. There remains little more to the religion than upholding the sanctity of these totems—a “right” to die for, a “duty” to kill for.
To be sure, group identity isn’t a bad thing per se. Thinking of ourselves as part of a group—religious or otherwise—can motivate us to put personal inconvenience aside to help others, personal interests aside to work for social welfare. But we needn’t give up our ability to think as rational human beings to do that. And when Allah has given us individual consciousness, we certainly needn’t give up our individual identity at any cost.