Bedouin chief of Palmyra

Ashraf Khalil wrote for the BBC: “A couple of years ago, I was with my parents in a mosque...They introduced me to an old family friend - a lady who'd known me since I was a kid but hadn't seen me for years. She embraced my mother and shook hands with my father, but when she turned to me she stood about a foot away from me, didn't offer to shake my hand and instead sort of awkwardly waved. [Source: Ashraf Khalil, BBC, February 2, 2013 /]

“My father asked her why she had been so distant and she said it was because of my beard. She assumed that my facial hair was symbolic of a deep Islamic religiousness and was afraid that if she offered her hand to shake, I wouldn't take it. My father, who knows exactly how non-religious I am, still LOVES to tell this story. /

“In the Arab and Muslim world, facial hair means far more than just style and grooming. It's a sociological signifier, a shorthand that often tells you who you're dealing with and what they're all about before they can even speak. There are a couple of different styles in play, and as a journalist you learn to develop a sort of internal chart.” /

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Arab Cultural Awareness ; Arab Cultural Center ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA ; Arab American Institute ; Introduction to the Arabic Language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia ;

Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia;

Beards and Islam

A beard is regarded as a sign of strong Islamic belief. In many Muslim regions, men are required to have a beard and the longer the beard the better. The Taliban believes that a man's beard must be as long as a mans fist while Iranians argue that stubby growth is fine. In many places a clean shaven face is okay. Muslim males in some places lack the facial hair to grow a full, manly beard. Radical Sunnis believe that the trimming and removal of beards is forbidden by Islam.

Beards have long been in fashion among Muslim men, Many men with beards like to stroke their beards when the talk. In some places — notably Afghanistan and Pakistan — it is fashionable to dye beards orange with henna. Amanullah De Sondy wrote in The Guardian: “The association between beards and Islam goes right back to Muhammad himself, who is said to have sported a beard, although the Qur’an says nothing about facial hair specifically. From the beginning, faith was intertwined with rigid notions of masculinity: Muhammad’s disciple Ibn Abbas reported that the prophet “cursed those men who assume the manners of women and those women who assume those of men”. For men, the beard was said to be a part of the “fitrah” – the natural order.” [Source: Amanullah De Sondy, The Guardian, 28 January 2016]

bearded Hajj pilgrim

Is wearing a beard obligatory according to Islam. According to the BBC: “Many Muslim scholars now do not see the beard as an obligation and do shave their beards. Muslims learn about the Prophet's views on facial hair not from the Qur’an, but through hadith - or sayings - attributed to Muhammad. One such hadith, in a collection by Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari centuries ago, stipulates: "Cut the moustaches short and leave the beard." The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have had a beard and those who insist that devout Muslims grow beards argue that they are doing no more than asking the faithful to emulate the Prophet's actions. [Source: BBC, 27 June 2010 |::|]

“The question that arises is one of enforcement. Mr Abdel Haleem, along with many other Muslim scholars, says the wearing of beards should be considered a recommendation rather than an obligation. The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted in 2001, and the Islamists of Somalia, are among a small minority in the Muslim world who demand unconditional observance and threaten penalties for non-compliance. |::|

“Mr Abdel Haleem argues that all practising Muslims - of which he is one - should be free to exercise their choice over a matter about which there is no overall consensus of opinion, without fear of retribution. Imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid - an Islamic scholar and one of the founders of the Muslim Council of Britain - based at the Brighton Islamic Mission in the UK, concurs. "In my opinion, this is a bit like the issue of women wearing headscarves. It is not one of the compulsory pillars of Islam, like prayer or fasting." |::|

“There are, however, schools of Islamic law - Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali and Shafi - which, among many other things, hold strong positions on beard length and the act of shaving. Followers of Shia Islam generally prefer closely cropped beards, which are mostly "like two, or three days' growth". |::|

“Most Islamic scholars or other figures of religious authority, whether Shia or Sunni, sport beards in emulation of the Prophet. However Egypt, Jordan and Turkey are an exception, says Imam Abduljalil. In these countries you would find some scholars without beards. "Going without a beard became a sign of modernity," the imam explains. "In the 1960s and 1970s, you saw more Muslims shaving off their beards." But for those who want to follow the sayings of the Prophet to the letter, the hadith, Imam Abduljalil says, offers guidelines on "how to trim your beard and keep it looking beautiful." |::|

Basis of the Muslim View on Beards

On why Muslim men wear beards, Abuh Alam wrote in “In Islam, keeping a beard is part of the sunnah (prophetic tradition). The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) kept a beard as well as his male companions. All other prophets such as Jesus and Moses (peace be upon them) also had beards. Here are two hadiths regarding the beard. 1) Ibn Umar narrates that prophet (pbuh) has said: "Oppose the Mushrikeen (idolaters) and lengthen the beard and shorten the moustache." [Bukhari Vol 2 pg 875] 2) "The Prophet said, 'There will emerge from the East some people who will recite the Qur'an but it will not exceed their throats and who will go out of (renounce) the religion (Islam) as an arrow passes through the game, and they will never come back to it unless the arrow, comes back to the middle of the bow (by itself) (i.e., impossible). The people asked, 'What will their signs be?' He said, 'Their sign will be the habit of shaving (of their beards). (Fateh Al-Bari, Page 322, Vol. 17th).' [Source: Abuh Alam., November 19, 2012]

painting of baby Muhammad surrounded by bearded men

Aziz Gilani, a Muslim, wrote in “The Muslim affinity for beards has many sources. Although it is not mentioned in the Quran, the majority of scholars believe that beards are an optional way to show obedience to the Prophet and a component of Sunnah. This is based on a story from the Prophetic biography (aka Sira) in which the Prophet ordered his companions to grow beards to contrast Muslims from Zoroastrian/Persians. Beard growing has also been inconsistently mentioned as a preferential component of Fitra (ideal bodily hygiene) in the hadith. A minority of Muslim scholars believe that beard growing is mandatory for all Muslims based on the proclamations of the 14th scholar Ibn Taymiyyah and their re-affirmation by the modern Salafi movement. [Source:, March 29, 2013 /=]

“Allah is completely silent on beards in the Quran, which explains why the majority of scholars are reluctant to declare beard growing as mandatory despite the Prophet's documented affinity for them. The original guidance on beards can be traced back to a story found in Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari's History of the Prophet. Per Tabari, The Prophet sent letters asking the rulers of major kingdoms to embrace Islam and worship Allah. Khosrau II, the King of Persia, read the letter and ordered his sub-ordinate Bayon, the governor of Yemen, to send two emissaries. Bayon accordingly sent two emissaries who were clean shaven with long mustaches, which was the Persian style at the time. When they appeared, the Prophet disliked their appearance and asked "Who ordered you to adopt such appearances?" They said, "Our Lord Khosrau." The Prophet angrily retorted "My Lord orders me to grow my beard and clip my mustache." /=\

“One can speculate on why the Prophet was angry at the Persians. My best guess is that he had just invited them to worship Allah, and they still referred to their King as their Lord (Lord/rab in Arabic is a title for Allah) causing the Prophet's anger. The Prophet's reply is also the exact opposite of the Persian style (long beard + short mustache versus no beard and long mustache). Permutations of this story appear throughout the Hadith, with the strongest narrated by the Prophet's companions Abu Hurairah and Abdullah ibn Umar. Abu Huraira reported: “The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Trim closely the moustache, and grow beard, and thus act against the fire-worshippers (Zoroastrians/Persians).” — Sahih Muslim, Book 2 - Purification, Hadith Number 501. Narrated By Nafi' : Ibn Umar said, “The Prophet said, 'Do the opposite of what the pagans do. Keep the beards and cut the moustaches short...” — Sahih Bukhari Volume 007, Book 072, Hadith Number 780.

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet I

“It's also worth noting that the hadith on Fitra (the natural form/ideal) consistently refer to trimming mustaches, but are very inconsistent in their call for growing beards. For example Bukhari lists 5 characteristics which doesn't mention beards while Muslim has a list of 10 that do: “Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Apostle said, "Five practices are characteristics of the Fitra: circumcision, shaving the pubic region, clipping the nails and cutting the mustaches short." — Sahih Bukhari Volume 007, Book 072, Hadith Number 777.

A'isha reported: The Messenger of Allah (may peace be npon him) said: Ten are the acts according to fitra: clipping the mustache, letting the beard grow, using the tooth-stick, snuffing water in the nose, cutting the nails, washing the finger joints, plucking the hair under the armpits, shaving the pubes and cleaning one's private parts with water. The narrator said: I have forgotten the tenth, but it may have been rinsing the mouth.” — | Hadith | Muslim | Book 2 | No. 502

“For the reasons above, although many Muslims view the growing of a beard as a preferential sign of obedience to the Prophet, it is seldom considered an obligatory act. An exception to the majority of Muslim scholars who find beard growing optional is the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah who felt that growing a beard was mandatory for Muslim men. He lived during the Mongol invasions of Muslim lands and became obsessed with distinguishing between Muslims from non-Muslims. Ibn Taymiyyah's most famous fatwa/opinion called for a mandatory jihad for all Muslims against the Mongols based on their non-Muslim status. In this environment he declare many 'non-Muslim' traits to be haram which is why he proclaimed that "shaving the beard is haram." It is worth noting that his novel theology stood against consensus, landing him in prison for heresy where he eventually died.His call has been repeated by the Salafi movement within Sunni Islam as part of their quest to recreate the lifestyle of the 1st generation of Muslims. The Salafi movement has grown increasingly popular in the 20th century because of sponsorship by the government of Saudi Arabia.” /=\

Beards in Egypt

Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood

Ashraf Khalil wrote for the BBC: “In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood members generally tend to go with the full but well-groomed beard and moustache. However Salafists - the ultraconservative fundamentalist Muslims - like to let their beards grow long and wild, often leaving their upper lip clean-shaven as a nod to how the Prophet Muhammad wore his own beard 1,400 years ago. Some within the Salafist camp take things an extra step and dye their beards with henna, producing a range of colours from maroon to bright pumpkin orange. [Source: Ashraf Khalil, BBC, February 2, 2013 /]

“In a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, beards have made a big comeback. For years, beards were frowned upon as symbolic of the Islamist movements that Mubarak considered a threat to his reign. Government employees, ranging from police officers to EgyptAir pilots, were forbidden from growing a beard. But now, civil servants across the country are are calling for the ban to be lifted. Suddenly wearing a beard in Egypt has become an issue of civil rights and freedom of expression./

“The beard has even become a political reference point as well. The last few months have seen mounting protests against President Muhammad Morsi - a long-time Muslim Brotherhood official. One of the common protest chants translates as, "Shave off Morsi's beard/and you'll find Mubarak underneath!" It's not just a Muslim thing either. Most Coptic Christian priests and monks wear long beards as well. In fact when the new Coptic Pope Tawadros ll was chosen this year, it spawned a beard-related internet joke. Tawadros' beard looks EXACTLY like the beard of Emad Abdel-Ghafour - former head of the largest Salafist party.” /

Mustaches in the Middle East

Many Arab and Middle Eastern men have thick mustaches. They have been popular at least since Ottoman times. They are regarded as sign of masculinity. In some countries to say “an eagle could land on your mustache” is compliment. “Men with mustaches” is reference to honor in some Arab countries. In Iraq, people who made the Saddam regime unhappy were sometimes imprisoned, tortured and had their mustaches shaved off. Once an Iraqi official insulted a Kuwaiti diplomat by saying, “Curse upon your mustache.”

Egyptian leaders Nasser and Sadat, here together in 1960, both sported mustaches

Thick, carefully-groomed mustaches have long been prized by men throughout the Middle East as symbols of masculine virility, wisdom and maturity. Andrew Hammond, a Saudi Arabia-based journalist and author on Arab popular culture, told CNN the mustache has a long history in the region. "Having a mustache was always a big thing, ever since the Ottoman time," he said. "Most Arab leaders have mustaches, or some form of facial hair. I think culturally it suggests masculinity, wisdom and experience. “ [Source: Tim Hume, for CNN, November 29, 2012]

Christa Salamandra, an associate professor of anthropology at City University of New York, told CNN that "traditionally, a luxurious mustache was a symbol of high social status," and had figured heavily in matters of personal honor in the Arab world. Men swore on their mustaches in sayings and folk tales, used them as collateral for loans and guarantees for promises, and sometimes even shaved their opponents' lips as a punishment.

Adam Baron wrote in “Brandished by men ranging from Gulf royals and Baathist autocrats to civil servants and cab drivers, the mustache is hard to avoid in the region. Yemen is no exception: indeed, one prominent tribal family literally bears the name Abu Shawarib – the father of the mustache – apparently in honor of the mammoth facial hair of one of their ancestors. Once a Yemeni hits his late teens, it seems, some form mustache is almost culturally mandated. Despite my status as a foreigner and less than impressive facial hair potential, it seems, I’m no exception: my neighbors, in particular, have shown little hesitation in criticizing my appearance after I shave. A thin mustache, it seems, is vastly better than no mustache. As in the rest of the region, the facial hair thing can be rather politicized here. Some of the prophet Mohamed’s hadith – roughly, traditions and sayings – give the impression that he was pro-beard and, consequently, anti-mustache, and in the Arab World, beards have become irrevocably associated with political Islam. [Source: Adam Baron,, April 30, 2013]

Mustaches and Politics in the Middle East

Tim Hume wrote for CNN: “Saddam Hussein's bushy whiskers were among the world's most recognizable, but all of Iraq's presidents before and since have also sported mustaches, as did Nasser and Sadat of Egypt (and the kings and sultans before them), Turkey's Erdogan (and the two prime ministers before him), Syria's Assad (and his father before him). [Source: Tim Hume, for CNN, November 29, 2012 +]

“The notion of a man's personal honor being bound up with his mustache appears to have survived into more recent times in some areas. In 2008, militants in Gaza abducted a Fatah opponent and shaved off his mustache to dishonor him, while in 2003, in the lead up to the Second Gulf War, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri -- a senior aide to Hussein and, like the rest of the former Iraqi leader's inner circle, himself mustachioed -- created headlines when he yelled "Curse be upon your mustache!" at a Kuwaiti counterpart at an emergency summit of Islamic states. +\

“Visitors to the region, too, have long seen a value in growing a mustache to help earn respect. The American diplomat Joel Barlow, who in 1795 was posted as U.S. consul to Algiers, wrote to his wife that he had grown a thick black mustache, which gave him "the air of a tiger," and had proved useful in his work in the region. More than 200 years later, a unit of American Marines in Iraq's Sunni stronghold of Fallujah attempted to follow his example in 2004, growing mustaches in an attempt to help them win local sympathies.” +\

Saddam Hussein

Ashraf Khalil wrote for the BBC: “ Iraqis are a big moustache people - back to that whole manhood thing - and so for a couple of months, I abandoned my usual beard and attempted to grow an Iraqi-style moustache. It was a disaster - I could never get it to achieve that classic Saddam-level of bushiness...I spent two years reporting for the Los Angeles Times in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's overthrow, and my visual appearance was a key element in my ability to move around safely. As an Egyptian-American, I couldn't convincingly mimic the Iraqi accent, but I COULD pass a casual visual inspection. I put hours of thought into how Iraqi men my age dressed, the kinds of shoes they wore and how they wore their facial hair. [Source: Ashraf Khalil, BBC, February 2, 2013 /]

On the mustache of Bashar al Assad, the President of Syria, Dr. Allan D. Peterkin told “In the Middle East the mustache is quite ubiquitous. In places like Turkey, the way you wear your mustache, its thickness, its tips, actually indicates your political leanings. It is a cultural norm. In Assad’s case it’s a military 'stache. A lot of Syrian men have mustaches. His is unusual, though. Most are big, bushy mustaches. They wouldn’t be this manicured look. I’d coin the phrase “stubble 'stache” to describe it, like clipped very closely. He dresses in a very western way, with fine tailored English suits. And I just wonder: Is the thin mustache him kind of bridging these worlds again? The worlds of politics and military, the worlds of East and West. Is that the symbolism of it? It’s not fully committed to a full Arab mustache nor is he cleanshaven as you would find in England, where he went to school. [Source: Noreen Malone,, September 12, 2013. Dr. Allan D. Peterkin is the author of “1000 Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mustache.”]

“It seems to morph a bit over time, doesn’t it? There was one stage where it was quite thick in the middle, almost like a Hitler mustache. There are pictures where it’s fuller. As a dark-haired man he’s capable of growing a very full one. But in at least some pictures of him it is indeed kept to a stubble except above his philtrum. That is a curiosity. I don’t know if that was just bad shaving that day. But that is sort of Hitler-ish.”

Turkish Mustaches

Turks are sometimes called Mustaches by Arabs because so many have thick mustaches. I once asked a Turkish friend why this was so and he said that it was a symbol of manliness that dated back to Ottoman times when the sight of a Turkish mustache was said to strike fear in the hearts of their European enemies.

Turkish men have a difficulty just keeping their faces shaved. Boys in Turkish high schools often have thicker beards than thirty year old men in other countries. As they get older their whiskers creep over their cheeks to within a few millimeters of their eyes and the sides of their nose. By middle age it is not unusual for Turkish men to shave twice a day. They also have enough hair on their backs, shoulders and neck by this time to make a bear envious.

Turk with a mustache

Margaret Hagan wrote in “In Turkey a good moustache has been popular for decades! In bigger cities you are likely to see more shaved faces, but in the country side some hair below the nose is still a must. In Turkey, men are said to wear moustaches to appear stronger and express their manliness. It seems to be a natural phenomenon, as the animal kingdom has similar practices: animals that want to appear stronger, put up their feathers or fur. [Source: Margaret Hagan,, November 26, 2015 |~|]

“Men from the Arab world, where moustaches are seen to convey wisdom and maturity, flock to Istanbul for moustache implants! There are over 250 beard implant surgeons in Istanbul and their number is still increasing. Companies are responding to the demand in clever ways. It is even possible to buy a ‘tourist package’: while dad is getting the moustache of his dreams, the rest of the family enjoys the sun in Turkey! Moustache business is truly booming business! Traditionally, a luxurious moustache was a symbol of high social status, but the moustache still didn’t lose its popularity in most of the Arab world. |~|

“In Turkey however, the moustache is getting less and less popular. During the Ottoman empire and in the first decades or the Turkish Republic, hair practices were an important mean to define your allegiances to the state. Today it is mainly Turkish middle-aged men who wear a moustache. Among young people, the amount of moustache wearers is significantly decreasing. Young Turks find the moustache old-fashioned, perhaps because it reminds them of the Ottoman period. For them, Ottoman equals old and outdated and that is not what they want to stand for. They want to show they are Western and modern, so wearing a moustache does not go with that.”

Styles of Turkish Mustaches

According to CNN: “In Turkey, different styles of mustache carry their own political nuances. According to one research paper, mustaches with drooping sides signify a conservative, nationalist bent, left-wingers favor mustaches like Stalin, while a "political religious" mustache is carefully groomed, with "cleanliness as its guiding principle."” [Source: Tim Hume, for CNN, November 29, 2012]

Margaret Hagan wrote in “There is one thing that seems to never go out of style in Turkish men fashion: facial hair. But here, the moustache is not just a fashion accessory! The symbolism of a particular moustache style is powerful to an extent that an unknowing foreigner would never guess. With a moustache, men can express their political preferences...A moustache stands for power and honor, but more importantly, it has a political significance! To a reasonable degree, the shape of a men’s moustache can show you whether you are dealing with a nationalist or a leftist. When did the shape of your moustache start to indicate your political preferences? And which styles mean what exactly? [Source: Margaret Hagan,, November 26, 2015 |~|]

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2006

“The political significance of the moustache in Turkey dates back to the nineteenth century. The Tanzimat, a period of Ottoman time intended to modernize Turkey, can be identified as the start of the tradition. Supporters and opponents of these reforms wore different styles of facial haircuts to show which side they belonged to. Supporters would grow their beard and moustache, while opponents would shave their faces. With this, a tradition was born. |~|

“Ülkücü: The MHP moustache, called “ülkücü” in Turkish, is typically worn by nationalists. The end of the moustache extend downwards, like the sides of a horseshoe. According to some, it stands for milliyetçi (nationalist), as the moustache’s shape resembles the letter M. Others claim it has the shape of a crescent moon and therefore this style specifically expresses nationalism. After all, these man are wearing a part of the Turkish flag on their faces. In the 70’s moustache shapes were even used to define targets for killings. Between 1976 and 1980 reigned a period of chaos and political violence in Turkey. Ülkücü wearers typically belonged to the nationalist organization ‘The Grey Wolves’, a fascist group with close links to the MHP. Members of this organization used to engage in street killings, murdering left-wing intellectuals and liberal activists. Their victims were recognizable by the absence of the Ülkücü moustache. |~|

“Leftist Style: Left-wingers usually prefer thick, walrus-like moustaches that solely cover the upper lip. This style is inspired by late Soviet leader Stalin, a left communist. Among Kurds, this style is particularly popular. |~|

“Almond Moustache: A conservative religious moustache is clipped, does not cover the upper lip and does not droop down the sides. In Turkish the style is called ‘badem biyik’ (almond moustache). Current president Erdogan has such a moustache, as well as former president Abdullah Gül. On the other hand, a clean shaved face used to stand for no particular political affiliation. That is also why in many public functions it used to be required to shave your face completely. With a clean face, it is impossible to show your political preferences and you will have a neutral appearance. These days, men are allowed to grow moustaches, sideburns and beards.”

Mideast Men Get Mustache Implants

Tim Hume wrote for CNN: “In recent years, increasing numbers of Middle Eastern men have been going under the knife to attain the perfect specimen. Turkish plastic surgeon Selahattin Tulunay says the number of mustache implants he performs has boomed in the last few years. He now performs 50-60 of the procedures a month, on patients who hail mostly from the Middle East and travel to Turkey as medical tourists. He said his patients generally want thick mustaches as they felt they would make them look mature and dignified."For some men who look young and junior, they think (a mustache) is a must to look senior ... more professional and wise," he said. "They think it is prestigious."[Source: Tim Hume, CNN, November 29, 2012 +]

“Pierre Bouhanna is a Paris-based surgeon who, for the past five years, has been performing increasing numbers of mustache implants. He says the majority of his patients come from the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, with men traveling to France to have the surgery performed. "My impression is more and more they want to establish their male aspect," he said. "They want a strong mustache." +\

“Both surgeons use a technique -- follicular unit extraction -- in which groups of hairs are taken from areas of dense hair growth to be implanted in the mustache area. Bouhanna said the patients were generally aged between 30 and 50, and were able to fly home the day after they had the procedure, which costs about $7,000 (€5,500) and is performed under local anesthetic. They are able to wash the next day, had to abstain from shaving for 15 days, and could expect to see full results after six months. Tulunay said some of his patients had specific looks in mind. "They have some celebrities as role models," he said -- Turkish singer and actor Ibrahim Tatlises had a look that many wished to emulate. Politicians in the region had also sought out his services to boost their appeal to voters.” +\

Turkish Barbers and Scorched Ear Hair

street barbers in Istanbul

Turkish barbers are famous for clipping the nose hairs of their customers, using a lighter or a flaming cotton swab to "singe trim" the hair in and around the ears and lathering up the face a couple of times before shaving with a blade that brings to mind images of guillotines and executioner swords.

Describing his experience with a bus station barber, Thomas Goltz wrote in the New York Times, “First, I was shorn like a sheep, my beard falling away in curls to mix with sawdust on the floor. Next came the first lather and rough shaving of the remaining stubble. Not content with this, the barber then proceeded with yet another blade, scraping away a second time, only now against the grain of the remaining stubble.”

“As amusement turned to amazement and then horror, I watched as the barber spiked a large nail through a ball of cotton, dipped it into some sort of lighter fluid, struck a match to ignite the torch and then began bouncing the burning swab on my cheek bones with one hand while flicking away the ash of incinerated hair with the other...The process did not cause any pain. Nonetheless, I tried to move my arms to defend myself, but the effort was in vain.” Only “two seconds was needed to singe away not only the little white hairs on the upper cheek, but also the little white hairs that grow, unnoticed by most, on the top and back sides of the ear.”

Next “the barber grabbed me by the nape of the neck and wrenched me forward....Before I could protest, a torrent of water was pouring over my head while the barber dug his soapy fingers into my ears and even my nose...Then, with another lurch, I was thrown back into the chair, and the world suddenly grew dark, hot—and delicious. A heated towel was wrapped around my head...while the barber was working his fingertips into my skull in rough yet gentle massage.”

After that he was given a glass of tea and an oval cigarette. “The barber was now working small drops of cream into my parched and flayed skin, and then delicately snipping away at the inner nose hairs with a scissors after having straightened what remained of my mustache...”Saatlar olsun!” he said, removing the towels and bib with a final flourish before dousing me lemon cologne.”

Long-Haired Men Threatened by Islamist Militants in Iraq

Reporting from Baghdad in 2006,Sudarsan Raghavan wrote in the Washington Post: “The cleric's young men fanned out across the neighborhood, moving from shop to shop, posting the new religious decrees. Printed neatly on white-and-green fliers, the edicts banned vices like "music-filled parties and all kinds of singing." They proscribed celebratory gunfire at weddings and "the gathering of young men" in front of markets and girls' schools. Also forbidden were the "selling of liquor and narcotic drugs" and "wearing improper Western clothes." “But at the bottom of the list of prohibitions was a single command. Scrawled in green ink, it read simply: "Cut hair." "I feel powerless," lamented Moataz Hussein, 22, a wiry, soft-voiced teacher seated in a hair salon on the main road of the Tobji neighborhood on Sunday. His long, stylish black hair was now a recent memory. "They are controlling my life." [Source: Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, October 6, 2006]

“The new decrees in Tobji, came from a little-known council created by the local office of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It is called the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a title derived from a verse in the Qur’an. Inside the hair salon, the flier was posted on a cream-colored wall next to a mirror, visible to every customer. The image of Sadr's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered ayatollah, who was assassinated in 1999, is emblazoned on the flier, giving it the force of law. It was signed "The Sadr Martyrs Office" and ended with a warning: "Those who do not comply with these rules will be held accountable."

“Amjad Sabah knows what that means. In the past week, he said, he has lopped off the hair of 20 young customers at his salon, including Hussein. He fears a visit from members of the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia linked to Sadr that many Sunni Muslims say runs death squads under the cloak of Islam. "This is civilization gone backwards," said Sabah, 20, wearing an orange T-shirt, his hair short and his face cleanshaven. "You can't have, in 2006, haircuts that are similar to the 1970s. But if I don't cooperate, they will take me to their office and beat me up."

“On the streets of Tobji, they would have been, for the Sadrists consider themselves defenders of their faith. Abu Ahmed, the head of the local Sadr office, said he had placed "one or two men everywhere" -- at girls' schools, at the market, on the main streets -- to enforce the new edicts. "Personal freedom is only in your house or property," said Abu Ahmed, who asked that his full name not be used. "In the streets, it is no longer a personal freedom."

“Long hair, said Abu Ahmed, is banned because it makes men look feminine. Worse, he added, were haircuts that were long on the sides and short on top, because they were "Jewish haircuts." "It is rejected in Islam that you imitate the Jews," Abu Ahmed said. If someone is judged to have an improper hairstyle, he said, "we will take him to the barber and we'll ask the barber to cut his hair according to our regulations. If he refuses, we would send for his father or elder brother and tell them, 'Either you take this measure or we'll take the measure for you.' " In the past week, he said, his men had ordered "five or six" men to get haircuts. They didn't object, he said.

“Hussein was not one of them. He had cut his hair a few days before the Sadr office posted the fliers. He had seen people being beaten for having Western haircuts, he said. "So I accepted readily to cut my hair, so I could be far away from any trouble for me and my family," Hussein said with a pained look, as he ran his fingers through his short hair. "Perhaps, I thought, this trouble could cost me my life later."”

Iraqi Barbers Threatened and Killed by Islamists

street barber in Baghdad

Sudarsan Raghavan wrote in the Washington Post: “Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shia Muslim extremists have imposed their own sets of rules for the cutting of hair. In recent months, barbers have been killed, threatened or forced to close their shops after being accused of giving haircuts that were considered un-Islamic or too Western. In early August, a group of armed men walked into Abu Ahmed Jassim's barbershop in southeast Baghdad. They shot dead his 23-year-old brother and another barber, as well as two customers. Before they left, they set a bomb. Jassim arrived an hour later to find the charred carcass of his shop. [Source: Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, October 6, 2006]

“Jassim said he knows why they were targeted. Shia barbers like him practice khite, an ancient way of removing hair from cheeks and eyebrows with twists of a cotton thread. Radical Sunnis consider this ritual, as well as trimming or removing beards, to be prohibited under Islam. "This is because of the Takfiri interpretation," said Jassim, referring to Islamic extremists who adhere to codes of conduct dating to the earliest days of Islam. "We are targeted 100 percent because we are Shia." In the past year, he said, he knew 13 barbers and two customers who were killed in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Adil, Shaab and Mashtal. Dozens more quit the business. "Many of the barbers have closed their shops, and the ones who haven't closed keep a gun in their shops," Jassim said.

“This protection, and the new edicts, have given Ali Abdul Latif the confidence not to fear Sunni extremists. He used to keep a wooden sign on his counter next to his clippers, hair creams and blades that read: "We don't do threads." Now the sign is gone, and Abdul Latif offers the thread to customers again. But he can't carve sideburns or small goatees or gel floppy long hair. All that is considered Western, he and other barbers said. In the past week, Abdul Latif said, 15 youths have turned up at his shop, "all of them with hair down to the neck and shoulders." They wanted their hair short.”“

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); "Encyclopedia of the World Cultures" edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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