Days before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden appeared in a new video message urging Americans to embrace Islam. Bin Laden sported a trimmed, dark beard instead of his bushy, gray trademark. Some analysts suggest that he has dyed the beard as a sign of war; others think he now shaves to avoid detection and is just donning a wig. Can a Muslim dye his beard?
Yes, although many imams believe it should be discouraged. Islam emphasizes modesty and simplicity, but some of Mohammed’s sayings (or hadith) recommend covering up gray hair with henna or a dye called katam. According to the hadith of Sahih Bukhari, this would set Muslims apart from Jews and Christians, who (according to Mohammed) didn’t dye their hair. The prophet said to avoid black hair coloring, however, probably because you weren’t supposed to try to mimic a natural hue.
The Quran says nothing on the subject of keeping beards, but believers are urged to follow the example of the prophets, who all had them. Mohammed in particular maintained a neat, groomed appearance, and scholars believe he trimmed his facial hair. The general guideline from Sahih Bukhari boils down to “Trim the mustache, keep the beard.” Followers should cut their mustaches short enough that the skin above the upper lip is visible, and grow beards to at least a fistful in length. A longer beard isn’t automatically better, though. According to one account in the hadith of Malik’s Muwatta, the prophet sent a man with disheveled hair out of the mosque to groom his beard. Muslims must also refrain from trimming their hair during the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca—at least until they’ve walked seven times around the Kaaba.
In the view of modern, mainstream Islam, growing a beard is recommended but not always required. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a respected Sunni scholar in Egypt, says beards are optional. Taha Jabir al-Alwani, who helped found the International Institute of Islamic Thought in the United States, believes Muslims don’t need to wear beards if it interferes with daily functioning—like if facial hair is prohibited at your place of work or if beards are uncommon in the country where you live. Relatively few Muslims wear big beards in places like Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco, where such an outward display of being Islamic might invite scrutiny from government authorities. Imams in Northern Africa also don’t tend to have much facial hair.
On the other hand, you won’t find too many sheiks or imams without impressive beards in the Sufi tradition. The reasoning here is that the worshippers are concerned only with their inward selves and not with outward appearances—thus the careless beards and mops of hair. Religious men in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh also prefer to signal their religious devotion with their beards. Muslims from Salafism, the literalist tradition to which Bin Laden is believed to subscribe, have also adopted the big beard.
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Explainer thanks Imam Johari Abdul Malik of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid of the Council of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and Vernon Schubel of Kenyon College.