When does a beard become a ‘Muslim beard’? Wrong answer: when someone sports it without a moustache a la Amar Chitra Katha depictions of Alauddin Khilji or, for that matter, the kind that Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab wears in the film version of Moby Dick. Correct answer: whenever the wearer of a beard decides as a Muslim that his facial growth is inimical to his religious identity.
Last week, I skirted this dense beard issue and instead wrote about beards in general for my HT blog. But I haven’t been able to shake off the notion that there is something larger, something more entangled that I was dealing with here.
Not too long after 9/11, in a lecture I had delivered at the Commonwealth Institute somewhere near London, I had cracked a joke about beards, pointing to the fact that even though I was wearing a heavy stubble and had a surname that echoes the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, these should not make me a suspicious guest of a nervous Britain. No one even cracked open a smile. This was partly because, well, the ‘joke’ wasn’t funny, and partly because no one in the audience was daft enough to think that having a Mohammad Omar kind of beard would make me the next Mohammad Atta (who, by the way, was as clean-shaven as Mohammad Azharuddin).
But my intentions were noble. The point I was trying to make was that lifestyle choices like keeping beards in South Asia, even ‘Muslim beards’, did not necessarily make up the physio-profile of a Muslim gent, let alone a fundoo Muslim gent. But yes, as an identity marker, the beard does form an element of Muslimness for some Muslims — and, by extension, for non-Muslims too.
It might not be the mandatory accessory that the beard is for Sikhs (although I’ve just heard the existence of ‘mona Sardars’ among us), or that swimsuits are for swimmers, but the beard is a community tag of choice for many Muslims, the way the white sari is an identity marker for many Hindu widows who choose to use it.
I don’t much care whether the Koran, the Muslim hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, insists, encourages or is quiet about the beard. I’m sure if one looks hard enough, one can find a directive. The fact is that for me it doesn’t matter. Personally, I’m glad that Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t have a beard, not because I’m against beards (on Muslims or non-Muslims) but because Shah Rukh will look stupid in it. So beard, no beard...hey, it’s not my business or chin.
But when the supremely secular Supreme Court bench last week accused Mohammad Salim, a student of Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School, of spreading “Talibanisation” by insisting on keeping a beard despite school regulations barring it, I nicked myself while shaving and swore, “Jesus!”
Now I know where the court was coming from when it threw Salim’s petition that challenged his school rules about beards out of the window. Here we go again, the judges must have thought. Another instance of a rule being lifted for a Muslim because he’s just said that his faith insists, or else...
But the leap from keeping a beard against school rules and that of, say, divorcing your wife in a flash and then refusing to pay alimony because that’s the way the Muslim personal law prefers it, is a rather big one. If the drinking Muslim isn’t tearing down the fabric of Islam, I would think the bearded Muslim schoolboy isn’t the cub scout of Baitullah Mehsud. I don’t know whether Justice Markandeya Katju who made the Supreme Court observation was halfway into reading Ahmed Rashid’s fine book, Taliban, or was just keenly following Barack Obama’s new Af-Pak policy on TV the previous night. But his comments — “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa. Can we allow it?” — were daft, not to mention on the crazy side of crazy.
Well, as long as two things don’t happen, I certainly think the judges can allow burqas in schools. One, any Sardar schoolboy with facial hair growth being told to go and get a shave. And two, if like France, India starts practising the original form of ‘secularism’: not allowing faith and faith-based practises to cohabit with the laws (and school regulations) of the land. (Something that I, personally, would be quite happy to endorse so long buzz cuts are allowed.)
The real judgement should have been about whether perceived religious customs should be allowed to overwhelm school regulations. Should a boy be allowed to wear his Sai Baba locket to school? If yes, then is it simply because no kohl-eyed Talib (literally ‘student’, remember?) has ventured yet to Shirdi?
God help the school that insists that young Harjinder, with a scraggle developing on his chin, shave. But will Allah help the honourable court for throwing out young Salim’s petition? Common sense (praise be upon it) makes me hope He will.