Judging a (Holy) Book by Its Cover: Personal Appearance and Faith

While the Quran does not directly link piety with having a beard, many Muslim communities have developed a vague expectation that pious or devout Muslim men ought to have beards.
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There are a number of Latin phrases that have survived millennia, because they contain immortal pearls of wisdom. In a world that is increasingly using Twitter and short SMS text messages to communicate, these Latin phrases may experience a renaissance, because they are often concise and profound. One of my favorite Latin phrases is "barba non facit philosophum", which roughly translates to "a beard does not make a philosopher". It means that it takes much more than a beard to become a philosopher and thus highlights how important it is to distinguish between the outward appearance of a person and their actual knowledge, intellect or other abilities. This tweetable phrase is not just applicable to philosophers and beards, but can be broadly applied to people of all ages, backgrounds, professions, cultures and gender. It reminds us of how we often overemphasize the outward appearance and this adage rings just as true today as it did when it was first used. It also lends itself to be adapted to contemporary issues.

The adaptation that I like to use is "barba non facit muslimum", which is supposed to mean "a beard does not make a Muslim", even though I realize that "muslimum" is not a Latin word. Many Muslim scholars feel that the Islamic tradition encourages Muslim men to have beards. While the Quran itself does not directly link piety with having a beard, over time, many Muslim communities have developed a vague expectation that pious or devout Muslim men ought to have beards. I have also on occasion heard comments about Muslim politicians or public figures who are involved in corruption or fraudulent activities that they behaved dishonestly, "in spite of having a long beard". Even though these comments are said jokingly, they do underscore the implicit link between the character of a person and their outward appearance. When asked specifically about the importance of a beard relative to other aspects of the Muslim faith, most Muslims will likely answer that the compassion and charitable behavior of the individual are far more important than whether or not he has a beard. However, such "inward" characteristics are difficult to ascertain during passing encounters, while the presence or absence of a beard is much easier to determine.

The "barba non facit muslimum" phrase can also be interpreted in an expanded manner, and refer to the outward appearance of Muslims in general. The wearing of a head-scarf (hijab) by Muslim women is encouraged by a number of Muslim scholars. As with the beards of Muslim men, members of the Muslim community sometimes consciously or subconsciously perceive the presence of a head-scarf as a sign of piety of the individual. On the flip-side, there may be an implicit assumption that the absence of a hijab may indicate less piety. Most religions including Islam discourage humans from judging each other's piety. Piety is a diffuse and not definable concept and if there is any judgment to be passed, it is generally thought to fall in God's domain. However, we humans seem to indulge in passing judgments on each other. The outward appearance is much easier to evaluate than "inward" characteristics such as compassion or humility, which lie at the core of most faiths. Therefore, the combination of our desire to judge each other with our intellectual laziness may have resulted in an over-emphasis of the outward appearance.

The over-emphasis of the outward appearance in matters of faith comes at a certain cost, because it diverts time and resources from more pressing issues. One such example is the question of universal healthcare in the USA. Caring for the sick and elderly is a central tenet not only of Islam, but also of most faiths and humanist belief systems. As a strong supporter of universal healthcare and as a Muslim, I would have wished a much stronger involvement of American Muslims in the discussion about universal healthcare proposed by the Obama administration. I participated in two events organized by Muslim organizations in the Chicago area to discuss the issue of universal healthcare. Unfortunately, the interest in this topic was rather limited and the turnout quite low. On the other hand, lectures or discussions about "modest Islamic dress" are often packed with members of the community. Another example is the recent ban of face veils (niqab) in France. This enforcement of the ban by the French government has resulted in a barrage of Op-Eds, articles, talks and blogs by Muslims in America. Some see the ban in France as an infringement of civil rights, while others argue that the ban will help the integration of Muslims in France. All in all, it is surprising that this ban that affects perhaps only 2000 women in France has evoked such passionate responses here in the USA, while the activism for issues such as healthcare and education, which affect millions of Americans, has been comparatively muted.

Choosing an outward appearance that is compatible with one's faith is a personal decision. However, we have to constantly re-evaluate our priorities and make sure that the time, efforts and resources devoted to the outward appearance should be in some measure of proportion to its actual importance within the faith.

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