I frequently highlight the prevalence of shar’i ignorance, and that it’s usually those who believe they’re the vanguards of the shari’ah that cause the most religious problems amongst committed Muslims. Pointing out something is fine depending on how you do it, but unless it’s on a qat’i matter, laymen ought to keep their advice to themselves. The culture of misinformed zealotry causes dissonance amongst believers plus it’s emotionally taxing; micro-aggressions compound to the extent that it causes Muslims to dislike one another and lead many to doubt the edifice of the shari’ah because it’s consequently portrayed as ridiculously petty and dull. One of the purposes of this article is to show how shar’i ignorance, cultural imposition, and fiqh intolerance often turn mundane issues into being perceived as colossal religious ones, when in reality a little common sense goes a long way and tends to put matters into perspective.
Believers frequently tell me how they’re badgered by religious zealots about the length of their moustaches, so I saw it apt to provide a summary on the issue of the moustache to clarify misunderstadnings and inform those who might be interested about the matter for what it is, and how we should learn to live and let live (which is the case for most fiqh issues).
1. The shārib (moustache) in fiqh terminology is considered the hair that grows in the space between the top lip and the nose, with the hair around the edges/sides referred to as the sabālān, although sabālān can also be used as a synonym for shārib.
2. In regards to doing anything to the shārib, a few hadith relate the words انهكوا, احفوا, جزوا which suggest complete removal (usually by shaving), or قص which means to cut/trim. The majority of hadith use the latter term (trim).
3. Taking all the hadiths into consideration, there are two positions a person can reasonably come to, which is reflected in the two variant positions of the fuqaha and the Sunni schools of law, (a) complete removal, and (b) trimming the moustache.
4. The Hanafis adopted the position of complete removal, evidencing the practice of a number of prophetic companions. Al-Bukhari narrates that Ibn Umar would remove his moustache to the point that the skin underneath it would become visible. Ubaidullah b. Abi Rafi states that he saw Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri, Jabir b. Abdullah, Ibn Umar, Rafi’ b. Khudaij, Abu Usaid al-Ansari, Ibn al-Akwa’, and his own father remove their moustaches completely (al-Baihaqi).
5. The Shafi’is and Malikis, due to the vast majority of narrations using the word “trim”, viewed the injunction to be related to shortening the moustache, and not complete removal (see: al-Nawawi’s al-Majmu’, and Malik’s Muwatta’). Ahmad’s student Hanbal relates that Ahmad was asked whether it should be shaved or trimmed to which he replied it wasn’t an issue either way, intimating that it simply shouldn’t be overgrown. (See Ibn Qudamah’s al-Mughni, and Ibn Hajr’s Fat’h al-Bari)
So how do we define ‘overgrown’ and what is meant by ‘shortening’?
The subjective nature of ‘shortening’ necessitates clarification. What are we shortening from, and thus to what extent?
The narrations suggest that what is an acceptable length to God is that which can remain above the lips. Al-Baihaqi narrates from Sharhbil b. Muslim that he saw five Companions: Abu Umamah, Abdullah b. Busr, Utbah b. Abd al-Sulami, Hajjaj b. Amir, and Miqdam b. Ma’diyakrib, all of whom trimmed their moustaches to the ends of their lips. An instructive hadith in Sunan al-Baihaqi is related by Mughirah b. Shu’bah, that that Prophet saw a man with an overgrown moustache so he asked for a siwak which he placed under it and cut along it. (Think about how long it still must have been afterwards.)
For a number of reasons, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Companions weren’t surgical about it, they simply trimmed the moustache to keep it out of the mouth’s way. Thus it’s not about length per se, but keeping it to the extent at which it doesn’t cover the mouth. Now of course, both sides have a way to explain the differences in the hadiths between complete removal and trimming. Here I’ll relate a couple of reasons that I believe swing the issue in favour of trimming the moustache but with a substantial amount remaining:
1. The action of the Prophet (in the narration of Mughirah) where he trimmed a moustache that was covering the man’s mouth practically depicts what the Prophet meant in the other hadiths. The purpose was hygiene, and possibly aesthetic reasons. Accordingly, Malik relates that when Umar b. Khattab would get angry he would twist his moustache, so reasonably there was something substantial there to twist, and I doubt Umar had broken from acceptable norms to simply do his own thing.
2. There are ways to make sense of the wordings of hadiths that suggest complete removal to the Hanafis (and Ahmad according to one of his views): the hadiths merely employ exaggerated descriptions of removal that speak strongly to removing that which covers the lips, not that the entire moustache was intended. In the aforementioned narration where Ibn Umar trimmed it until the skin could be seen, it was the skin of the lip that was being referred to.
3. There is a pertinent point of usul here, that the term “removal” which could mean partial or complete (and thus somewhat ambiguous) is qualified by the term “trimming”. As Ibn Abdil Barr put it concerning this issue, “the explained (text) is prioritised over the general.”
An important point to note: My own cultural view is that shaving off the moustache but keeping a beard looks really strange. However, unlike zealots it’s not a judgement I make on others because I recognise it as a cultural proclivity and not a moral one. Like zealots, if I wanted to be opportunistic I’d highlight that Imam Malik would forbid its complete removal, and that he referred to it as self-mutilation (as related by Ibn Qasim). But I’m aware that this was also Malik’s cultural outlook – as much as I empathise with his perception of self-mutilation I think it’s clear Malik was simply emphasising his cultural dislike. Or, I could disingenuously advocate it as a moral issue citing that Malik said “it is a bid’ah that appeared amongst the people” (related by Ash’hab). My point is that we can all play citation games and fallacious appeals to authority for our own interests, but this is not the way of the learned nor the approach of those with faith.
Once again, it’s really not that big of a deal. Those believers who have moustaches do not have them covering their mouths so the advice is inane and getting caught up over a strand of hair here or there is profoundly rabbinical. To the point, it’s simply that it doesn’t sit well with the cultural norms of the critics who feel the need to impose their culture on others. What’s clear and reasonable is that God wants believers to be clean and presentable – it’s not ritualistic and the Prophet’s advice on this matter simply reflects that.
My hope here is to briefly highlight that shar’i knowledge is no light work by any measure, so where laymen act overzealously it’s very misplaced and demonstrates a sense of deep arrogance. The thing about lay zealots is that their views tend to be subjective, but they wrap their own personal feelings up as shar’i evidence and unquestionable facts. You can usually tell the level of a person from the way they comment on things, and as a community of believers it ought to be offensive to our sensibilities that ignorant or misinfomed folk be allowed to so confidently propound their illiteracy in our midst.