The Beard Question: Religious Duty or Discipline?


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 [email protected]


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