New Age Islam
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The War Within Islam ( 3 May 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Soul-searching among Muslims: Is the beard really so vital a part of our faith?

By V. M. Khaleelur Rahman, Chennai


The Supreme Court judgment, delivered by Mr. Justice Markandeya Katju in March 2009 dismissing the petition of Mohammed Salim, a student of a minority Christian institution, Nirmala Higher Secondary School in Madhya Pradesh in which he had sought quashing of the school regulation requiring students to be clean-shaven has created a controversy.


It is clear to anyone who reads carefully the proceedings of the case that the Judge did not make any derogatory remarks about “beard” and “burqa” as generally believed but castigated the approach of the student as “Talibanisation” and nothing else. However he should have avoided using this clearly derogatory word which has assumed a sort of notoriety now. A serious critic of this judgment can only find fault in this expression.


Islamic scholars have said that Prophet Mohammed (Sal-am) had a beard and shortened the moustaches and hence it is “sunnah”. But it is the Taliban (in Afghanistan and in some places like Swat in Pakistan) who have turned it into a nightmare by forcing people to grow a beard and compelling barbers not to shave it. Allah does not see ones dress or shape. He sees ones character, actions and deeds based on his or her good intentions and purity of thoughts.


The position of beard being so similar in all religions, as we discuss it later in this article, one need not have any doubt about the intentions of the Judge. Let us look into the proceedings of the case as reported in the press.


The student’s counsel Mr. B.A. Khan argued before the bench that sporting a beard was an indispensable part of Islam. The Judge expressed his surprise on this clearly false statement, as although a Muslim himself, Mr. Khan did not have any beard. Anyone even a Maulana would have reacted in the same manner. The Judge actually gave importance to the views of the student by saying that if he was not interested in following the rules of the school, particularly on beard, he had the option of joining some other institution of his choice but could not ask a minority institution which has its own rights under Article 30 (1) of the Constitution to change its rules and regulations. Even his remarks on burqa were not against burqa. He only gave an example by saying that a girl student cannot say that she will wear only a burqa and not a uniform prescribed by a school. His observations were meant to emphasize that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of a minority institution should not be tampered with.


Supreme Court Judgement should have been welcomed

I feel that the Muslim community should have welcomed this judgment whole-heartedly for safeguarding the minority rights and congratulated the school for winning the case imposed on it. We should not forget that we are Muslims and constitutionally speaking ours is a minority community whether some people like me like this categorization / nomenclature or not. The great freedom fighter and commentator of the Holy Quran, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad never compromised on his idea of a single united Indian nation of all religious communities. All parties including the Congress accepted the vivisection of the country but not the Maulana.


If the Supreme Court had allowed the student to have a beard despite the norm of the institution for a clean shave, the minority rights would have been at stake. I believe that the court has protected the rights of the minority institutions guaranteed under the Constitution of India by its judgment. We should be happy about it.


If the student was very particular about his beard, he would not have gone to this institution giving an undertaking that he would abide by its rules and regulations. History is replete with instances of great Islamists having sacrificed their good positions in different units to lead a life of their choice instead of asking them to provide something for them.  A true Muslim will never be a burden to anybody. If he finds a place of his study or work not conducive for him, he will leave it. Salim should have selected the right school for him and if he had found the school rules unsuitable after getting admission there; he should have left it and got admission in some other school without going to the court. This can alone be termed as right Islamic spirit. We depend on the holy Quran and the ahadees for inspiration and guidance.


No cultural imposition in Tamil Nadu schools

At the same time I would like to add that in almost all Muslim minority institutions like in almost all Christian minority and other institutions in Chennai nothing is imposed on the students belonging to other religions. For example a head scarf is an indispensable part of the uniform in all Muslim schools but it is not made compulsory for non-Muslim girls. We have not seen any non-Muslim girl wearing a head scarf in any school here. In the same way in non-Muslim institutions belonging to Christian, Hindu or any other community in Tamil Nadu, there is nothing which can be branded as inimical to cultural or religious feelings of the Muslim community. In other words a good camaraderie exists among them here. We are proud of it. There are many Muslim educational institutions - primary schools, higher secondary schools, arts and science colleges, engineering colleges, etc. in places like Chennai, Vaniyambadi, Ambur, Melvisharam, Keelakarai, Trichy, Kayalpattinam, etc. where students belonging to all religious communities study understanding and respecting each other's sentiments.


When the controversy arose on the Supreme Court judgment, Mr. Moosa Raza, Chairman, South India Educational Trust, issued a statement immediately which reads as follows:


“I have known Justice Katju and I believe that he is a staunch secularist and is totally averse to all forms of radicalisms both Hindu and Muslim. I agree with his views that a minority educational institution can make any disciplinary rules to maintain its character. It can prescribe a uniform; prohibit the wearing of a particular dress etc. If anyone does not like such rules he is free to go elsewhere but he cannot ask for the rules to be changed."


Prof. Tahir Mahmood, an Islamic scholar, did the right thing in interviewing Mr. Justice Katju and coming out with a statement that the impression being given by some that the court rejected the Muslims’ right to sport a beard is wrong and that the real issue before the court was if a minority community had the right to administer an institution as per its rules or not and it has done justice to it by its judgment. However some Muslim leaders like Maulana Syed Ahmed Khizar Shah have criticized severely the judgment and Professor Mahmood for his statement without giving any valid reasons and sound arguments for their protests. This attitude can only be regretted.


One feels that if the student had not joined the school or left the school without taking the beard issue to the court, it would have been better for him and our community. Our students should not be allowed to go astray. They should be taught how to live happily among different religious people in a plural country like ours where by the grace of Allah there are good opportunities awaiting them.


Beards are universally revered but are not necessary religious practice

There is no reason why the Judge or for that matter anyone else should be against anyone sporting a "beard" or insult a beard which has enjoyed a place of reverence in all religions. A beard is not the exclusive domain of any particular community. We can see all sorts of people - Maulanas, sadhus, sants, priests, philosophers and scientists sporting a beard.


In ancient India, Greece, Rome, Egypt and many other countries the beard was allowed to grow long as it was considered a symbol of dignity and wisdom. Quite a large number of people  mainly dignitaries belonging to all communities preferred beard, wanted to grow it long and paid much care and attention to it. In some of these countries including India the punishment for some crimes and sins was to have the beard of the offending persons removed in public. In other words they had a sacred regard for their beards.


In ancient Rome shaving was not known at all to the Romans during their early history. It is recorded in some historical works that according to Pliny, P. Ticinius was the first person to bring a barber to Rome at around 299 BC and Scipio Africanus was the first among the Romans to have shaved his beard. This is how the Romans started shaving their beards. 


Christians also give importance to the beard because Jesus, Moses, Abraham and others had grown beards. However at various times in the history of the Catholics, Church has permitted and prohibited facial hair. Even Jews grow beards to show their observance of the Old Testament. Hindus also value the beard. However there is much stress for having the beard among the Sikhs. They consider it an integral part of their religious doctrine and a sign of the nobility and dignity of their manhood.


I always wonder why Muslim leaders including Ulema are so sensitive to issues like Shah Bano case, Aligarh Muslim University, Urdu, beard etc. without paying enough attention to the educational and economic development of the backward Muslim community. Even the sermons given during Friday prayers are bereft of any enlightenment or encouragement for the youngsters to study well, work hard and come up in life. They send a wrong signal to the people by asking them to prepare for the Aakhira and not to worry about the present world. This approach is contrary to the Islamic thought of making good of this as well as the world hereafter.


Let us uphold the secular credentials of our motherland which are so rare in the world instead of wasting our time and energy indulging in meaningless and unproductive activities and bringing bad name to our community.


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