It is very interesting to note the judgement regarding the Muslim IAF officer who claimed that keeping a beard is his religious obligation. The Indian Express reported that the ruling given was, Emphasising the need to “maintain discipline” in the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Muslim personnel cannot keep beards by citing religious grounds.


Being a SadharanManush (not AamAadmi), I am overawed by the logic. In my understanding the above statement can be interpreted in four ways:

  1. A Muslim in the IAF can’t keep a beard citing ‘religious grounds’.
  2. A Muslim in the IAF can keep a beard as long as it is not on religious grounds.
  3. If a Muslim in the IAF keeps a beard citing religious grounds it will negatively impact the discipline of the Air Force.
  4. But if a Muslim keeps a beard on any other grounds, as long as they are not religious, then it will not negatively impact the discipline of the Air Force.

The fact that Sikhs keep beards clearly citing religious grounds and that it doesn’t negatively impact discipline is not something that the judgement seems to have considered.

My own question therefore is, is the judgment about discipline and how it allegedly gets compromised only if a Muslim keeps a beard citing religious grounds, or is it about the rights of Muslims to exercise their freedom of religion while serving their country which they love enough to put their lives on the line in its defence?

I will not mention the fact that the Constitution of India guarantees (not just gives) every citizen the right and freedom to practice his religion in safety, dignity and without harassment from anyone on that basis.

What I must and will do is to put the record straight about whetherthe Muslim man is obligated (not a typo), obligated to keep his beard. I am thrilled that the judgment seems to be adjudicating according to the Shari’ah. I never thought I would see that day when a judgment would state the importance of obeying Divine Commands according to Islam. But life is full of surprises.

The statement as reported in the article above is:

“The touchstone for being allowed to grow one’s hair or to retain a beard is where there is a religious command which prohibits either the hair being cut or a beard being shaved,” noted the bench.

I must applaud the statement stating that the touchstone for doing something or not doing it must be a clear religious command. The statement of the judge is a clear indication of his and (by inference) the respect that judicial thinking has for the commands of Allahﷻ and His Prophet Muhammadﷺ. As a Muslim citizen of India, what more can one ask? I wish our Muslim brothers would pay heed to this.

So,what is the religious command with respect to the beard for the Muslim man?

A word in explanation first. The Shari’ah of Islam (Islamic Law) has four bases, in order of priority.

  1. Kitabullah: The Book of Allahﷻ (Qur’an)
  2. Sunnatun Nabi: The commands and teachings of His Prophet Muhammadﷺ (Hadith)
  3. Ijma: Consensus opinion of jurists subject to the Qur’an and Sunnah
  4. Qiyas: Personal judgment of the jurist subject to the Qur’an and Sunnah

In this order, the first two not only have priority but supercede the other two. The other two are required and allowed because there may be (and are) matters that emerge as the world changes and new situations arise for which a direct command may not exist in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Islamic Law gives jurists of all time, the freedom to interpret the law and make it applicable to the times but with the caveat that it doesn’t violate the basic principles as laid down in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This is what makes Islamic Law (Shari’ah) the most dynamic of all religious laws.

To illustrate with an example of how it works in practice, let us take the case of the use of IVF for a woman who is unable to bear a child. Is this permissible in Islam? Obviously, there is no mention of IVF in the Qur’an or Sunnah. So, how can jurists decide whether it is permissible or not? The ruling is that it is permissible but the sperm used must be of her husband and not of anyone else or from a sperm bank. This is because using someone else’s sperm would amount to adultery. This is the way a modern ruling can still be in line with the orders mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah which have overriding authority in the Shari’ah and are not changeable.

In the case of the beard, here is what the religious command’states.

Narrated Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar: that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “Trim the mustache and leave the beard to grow.”

حَدَّثَنَا الْحَسَنُ بْنُ عَلِيٍّ الْخَلاَّلُ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ نُمَيْرٍ، عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ عُمَرَ، عَنْ نَافِعٍ، عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ أَحْفُوا الشَّوَارِبَ وَأَعْفُوا اللِّحَى ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ أَبُو عِيسَى هَذَا حَدِيثٌ صَحِيحٌ ‏.‏

Grade: Sahih (Darussalam) English reference : Vol. 5, Book 41, Hadith 2763Arabic reference : Book 43, Hadith 2990

Allahﷻ says about obeying whatever is commanded by His Prophet Muhammadﷺ:

Qur’an, SuraAl-Hashr: 59: 7And whatsoever the Messenger (Muhammad) gives you, take it, and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain (from it), and fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Severe in punishment.

And Allahﷻ also said:

Qur’an, SuraAn-Nisa: 4:80    He who obeys the Messenger (Muhammad), has indeed obeyed Allah, but he who turns away, then we have not sent you (O Muhammad) as a watcher over them.

What becomes abundantly clear from the above is:

  1. It is a clear religious command and requirement for every Muslim man to grow his beard and trim his mustache as a mark of his religious identity; just like every Sikh is required to grow his beard and for the same reason.
  2. This command was given clearly in so many words, by the Prophet Muhammadﷺ so it comes as a command from the Sunnah and is supported by these two Ayaat (verses) of the Qur’an where Allahﷻ commanded people to obey every order of His Messengerﷺ and stated that to do so would be considered as obeying Allahﷻ
  3. All the Imams of all the Madhhabs (Jurists of all Schools of Jurisprudence) are united on the opinion that for a Muslim man to shave his beard is a major sin and makes him liable for punishment ranging from corporal punishment to being declared unfit to bear witness in a court of law and unfit to lead prayer on account of his deliberate disobedience of the command of Allahﷻ and His Messengerﷺ.

I don’t think anything can be clearer than this. Which proves that to have a beard is obligatory on the Muslim man as it is a Divine Command. The requirement of the basis of judgment therefore is satisfied.

In Islamic Law, as in any law (including Indian Law) the law stands on its own. Whether people like it, agree with it or follow it or not doesn’t change the law. Citing that many Muslims don’t keep a beard, and therefore ruling on that basis that it is not a clear religious obligation is incorrect. Just as it would be incorrect torule that since many Sikhs shave their beards and cut their hair and don’t wear turbans, growing beards and wearing turbans is not obligatory for Sikhs. Even if every Sikh shaved his beard and cut his hair, the law about beards and hair would still be valid and have sanctity because the law doesn’t depend on people following it for its validity.Same logic; i.e. people’s following a law or not, doesn’t change the law.

The one who disobeys the law is at fault and is liable to be held accountable for it and to be punished. But his or her action of disobedience doesn’t detract from the sanctity, applicability or validity of the law itself. What anyone who wishes to investigate must do, is to go to the source of the law to see if it exists and to seek its validity. Not look at what people in their ignorance do. I believe I have clarified the law to the best of my ability. It is for the Court to do whatever it considers just. After all that is why the title of the judge is ‘Justice’.

The matter is very clear and it is not a matter of facial hair. The question is: Is a Muslim allowed to follow his religion freely with dignity, which the Constitution of India allows him to do; while serving his nation as a soldier?

Or is the law different for Muslims?

Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at yawar@yawarbaig.com

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  1. Mohamed Ali Essa says:

    JazakAllahu Khairan ya Sheikh. This is a sunna which many are not much concerned. Also some are now scared
    It is a religious duty and a strong sunna. It is the only sunna which comes with us after death

  2. K SHESHU BABUo says:

    This is one of the weird verdict.
    Supposing a Hindu sports a beard for ‘religious purposes’ ( some Hindus offer their hair and ‘ beard’ to the gods – especially temples like Tirupati in AP ). Are they exempt? In what way does a ‘ Muslim beard’ comes in the way of IAF officer discipline and why does not a Hindu or a Sikh beard is not a hindrance? What is the relationship between beard, discipline and IAF officers???
    May be, another PIL could elucidate the facts …!!

  3. This is a very small thing. Surprised that we have to go to court for such trifle things. They should have seen at the larger picture. The motive of the person in question was to serve the nation but that landed on his beard. May Allah open up other doors of rizk for him. He should take it a an opportunity to explore other options of rizk. In clear words, if you are religious and would like to keep beard , you better leave off one profession from the list of options available. We should become more and more tolerable to such things.
    Secondly, countries like Canada has started accepting people wearing hijab in police force and we Indians are in a entirely route of development.

  4. Timely and precise essay on the position of the beard in ‘Muslim’ compliance with Islam.

    That said, to consider Islam to be what most ‘Muslims’ live by nowadays is – to put it very lightly – to miss the forest for the trees by a very long stretch. Unfortunately, it is the world of humanity itself that is all the poorer for such a myopic attitude, deliberate or otherwise.

    Of the ‘Muslim’ predicament today, it might suffice here to say: Pity the beggar blind, or indifferent, to the treasure atop which he sits, and still goes a-begging from all and sundry.

  5. Very clear and objective article

  6. This statement: “What anyone who wishes to investigate must do, is to go to the source of the law to see if it exists and to seek its validity.” is the basis on which any judgement or investigation should be made. The house of justice (The Court) should have enough resources who know the law of the issue at hand and must investigate thoroughly before passing the judgement. Similar conclusions are drawn by the media today as well. They would pick actions of some Muslims and then state that Islam is the source of that incident. Whereas, the incident would be less Islamic and more personal.

  7. mahajir says:

    one small aspect that merits attention : given the SC delivered a judgement on a matter it was hearing, it held whatever it held, justified or not, inclusive or disruptive. however, could not the court have said no religious group that does not have a specific matter as not mandatory but either only directive or optional, shall be entitled to demand the right to observe or follow it, instead of saying a muslim officer… yes, we know this was a muslim officer’s case but see the contrast when the court hears matters where neither party is a muslim yet the opportunity is not lost to come out against something unconnected with that case but peculiarly “muslim” or “islamic” : be it the perversion of a triple talaaq or polygyny or even a separate personal law or an allegedly uniform civil code ! its not a new phenomenon : there is this trend right from the 1950s : before independence we had a statute that specifically restricted playing of music in front of any masjid; the Nizam was sovereign : then operation polarize, sorry, operation polo polarized society for the first time : thereafter that law (that specifically restricted playing of music in front of mosques) was repealed by a specific repealing law. that law said that that restrictive law was repealed. now, old fool that i am, i cannot help thinking : would it not have been better for a new law to have said no music other than as required under any specific religious belief shall be played before any religious institution of any other denomination, thus extending the benefit of peace and quiet in the vicinity of religious worship places to all religious groups ? yes it would, but that was not to be for such was not the thought then, and it is not the thought now. deny a specific group all such rights as can be scuttled using the cloak of …well, sometimes the cloak is discipline, sometimes it is armed forces’ morale, sometimes it is constitutional rights of a few members of a group, sometimes it is uniformity of laws, sometimes it is creation of national integration, sometimes citing of possibility of differing loyalties… denial of rights to a specific group seems to be the preferred approach. not include others in beneficial legislation. forget muslims and armed force regulations. forget “sardarji” sikhs. take hindus. some hindus have beards. many have extra locks of hair as a pleated length, at the back of the head. some shave. some sport moustaches. some have twirling moustahes, some cropped ones. so now what ? legislate ? it is hereby legislated that all male armed forces personnel shall have not a single hair more in length than the general crop of hair at the top of the skull? add this legislation shall not apply to females and to LGBTs ? we have males marrying males and females marrying females in society. to pre-empt charges of discrimination, shall there be legislation or court rulings that say armed forces personnel shall be entitled to do likewise ? there is a saying. some people rush in where other people fear to tread. our powers that be are brave. they have the courage to walk in confidently where less invincible mortals would hesitate. i think the system of appointing judges should be overhauled. judges should come from among those who think clearly, think things through, uphold not ideological views or political agendas but constitutional values, and are beyond being affected by passing fancies and whimsical stands of swaying social masses. we can do without more judgements of the babri type, or ones that dispense death penalties citing allegedly outraged alleged national conscience and other imaginary bases that serve only to rock constitutional and judicial foundations. may there be light.

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