It is perfectly legitimate for a believer woman to cut her hair short. Abu Salamah b. Abd al-Rahman narrates: “The wives of the Prophet used to cut their hair until it came just below their ears.” (Muslim) However, the Prophet forbade women from shaving their heads (al-Tirmidhi). Where the shar’i maxim goes that a thing is permitted unless there’s a prohibition that states otherwise, cutting one’s hair to varying lengths is fine as long as it is not shaved off.
The rest of this article summarily discusses some important points for consideration:
I am frequently asked about the permissibility of a believing woman cutting her hair. From my own (albeit limited) experience, I’ve found that some of the reservations stem from ethno-cultural norms that dictate women shouldn’t cut their hair, or alternatively, that long hair is virtuous or laudable. From a shar’i point of view, there’s confusion around the notion of ‘imitating disbelievers’ which for some has meant avoiding any cultural norm shared with non-Muslims. This is a complex topic with many tangential issues worthy of consideration, so I’ll stick to addressing the two reservations very briefly after positing a shar’i position.
It is perfectly legitimate for a believing woman to cut her hair according to God’s law. It was narrated by Abu Salamah b. Abd al-Rahman: “The wives of the Prophet used to cut their hair until it came just below their ears.” (Muslim)
1. The reference to the wives of the Prophet was meant to intimate its permissibility with the understanding that if it were impermissible the Prophet would have instructed them otherwise.
2. The hadith explicitly informs us that they cut it short (I acknowledge that the nature of what we deem to be ‘short’ is relative) which is why al-Nawawi made the obvious deduction in his commentary of the hadith in Sahih Muslim, ‘this indicates that it is permissible for women to cut their hair short.’ And if a woman cutting her hair short is permitted, merely trimming the hair or cutting it moderately holds an even stronger permissibility.
3. It might be asserted that a woman cutting her hair is commendable (mustahab), that is if she so desires, if it helps her to take care of her hair or prevent hair damage. Some women face difficulties in washing their hair after menstruation or sexual intimacy, or find the activity extremely time consuming (due to the length and strength of the hair) so find shorter hair far more conducive to their situation. The hadith above was related in this context.
4. It may be argued that it is obligatory (wajib) if the damage to the hair is so extensive that it might eventually lead to hairlessness or a damaged scalp. This is because it is obligatory to prevent harm as the Prophet said “there should be no harm nor the reciprocation of harm.” (al-Bukhari)
5. How short may a woman cut her hair? I address this in the second reservation below (point three and four) but make the point that the Prophet forbade women from shaving their heads (al-Tirmidhi).
Now in addressing two reservations:
Reservation 1: In some ethnic cultures it is highly disagreeable for women to cut their hair; there is an expectation for the hair to grow the length of a woman’s back. Whilst the shari’a permits growing a woman’s hair long, there is no moral obligation on a woman to do so, and Allah will not judge a believing woman on the length of her hair – this is purely to do with cultural proclivities. Whilst it may be argued that cultural customs have shar’i value, it is only in specific circumstances. Additionally, living in a multicultural society raises questions around the notion of a homogenous custom that dictates shar’i values – one cannot argue the primacy of a custom when there are various customs in a single society. Neither can they tenably argue a culture specific to Muslims, that there is a nebulous ‘Muslim culture’ in Britain that is muhakkam (authoritative).
If it is asserted that a woman should maintain that which is specific to her ethnic community in Britain, this assumes a sense of belonging to a particular culture that is held at the expense of others. Yet cultural association in a multicultural society is far more complex than such a simplistic assertion, and to argue primacy of any one culture, especially as a moral value with God, is very much indefensible.
Reservation 2: There is also a lot of misunderstanding around the idea that it is impermissible to cut hair in a way that resembles disbelieving women, the sentiment drawn from the Prophetic statement “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” (Abu Dawud)
1. Scholars who advise the women of their societies to avoid resembling non-Muslims come from Muslim majority countries (overwhelmingly in the Middle East or Asia) and speak in a context where their society has a specific cultural norm (not necessarily due to religion). They tend to be addressing a situation where a few might opt to adopt fashion specific to another country. Recognisably, this point of view has no relevance to those who live in multicultural societies, or societies in which there are no dominant norms.
As a worthy side note that remains relevant even to those in such countries: often such sentiments are proffered by scholars from older generations who struggle to deal with modernity, globalisation and rapidly shifting cultural norms. Ultimately, it is untenable to approach an issue or assert a proviso on the basis of a fixed homogenous public culture given the rise of modern modes of communication (media, internet etc); cultures are no longer bound to specific ‘peoples’ or boundaries. And in the extraordinary situations where they are (such as the few places where communities remain insular), they tend to be far removed from the realities of the modern world. The shar’i maxim goes that a general religious verdict is made considering variables that exist in the vast majority of situations, not the minority.
2. What is meant by ‘imitating’? What does it mean, both materially and psychologically to imitate someone else? And is the issue even applicable to this situation (women cutting their hair)? These normative variables are key to the conversation but answering this here would prove far too much of a digression.
3. The notion of hairstyles (or fashion sense for that matter) that imitates ‘sinful’ people is often arbitrarily determined. What is meant by sinful people? Is it anyone who partakes in sinful activities, or a haircut particular to a sub-set of people deemed immoral by the majority in society for specific reasons? In our context, those who go for the first usually use it as a means for deprecating western culture since most westerners are non-Muslims and inevitably partake in some impermissible acts. But then they contradictorily affirm an Eastern culture shared with Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians – in the end it comes across simply as an anti-western tirade. Wanting to keep this brief I’ll leave this for elsewhere, but what seems obvious is the latter.
4. The proviso that it is permissible for a woman to cut her hair so as not to imitate men is a valid one. Ibn Abbas said: “The Messenger of God damned men who imitate women and women who imitate men.” (al-Bukhari) Yet in practice determining what is ‘imitating men’ runs into many problems. However we put it, the fact is that this determination is a cultural one, so it goes back to whether people deem it to be resembling a man since God did not stipulate what specifically goes as a man’s haircut and a woman’s haircut. In fact, during the time of the Prophet some male Companions would have long hair, and some women (such as the Prophet’s wives) would cut it short. To argue that short hair on a woman is imitating men simply because men tend to have short hair is absolutely absurd, and if we were to employ the reasoning of those who argue this, a man wearing a thobe/kurta is profoundly immoral since it resembles a plain maxi-shirt/dress that women wear.
5. An easy way by which a believing woman might determine whether a haircut might resemble a man is to consult those around her, including friends, family and colleagues. Since the determination is based on society and people, a woman might discuss it with those whom she shares her cultural outlook. However, it should be noted that if a group of people around one person deem a style to be imitating men, it does not mean that other groups of people will agree, so the cultural outlook of one cultural group cannot be imposed on others.
The purpose of this suggested exercise is simply for the believing woman in question to reach a conclusion she is comfortable with – one that will hold her conscience in good stead with God. It is not to moralise or pontificate to others on cultural matters who legitimately view their culture in a different way. It is a subjective view and its subjectivity must be acknowledged.
I believe this approach works well for all women given the various cultures, sub-cultures and hybrid-cultures western Muslims associate with, and it engenders tolerance so as to allow believers to cultivate a relationship with God without imposing their subjectivity on one another. It also forms an approach to fiqh where all believers are included in the discussion; not the typical situation where we merely consider variables specific to one ethno-culture. For example, black Muslim women may desire to cut their hair either to regrow it – such as dealing with damage or cutting off relaxed ends – or purely for aesthetic value. Again, in this context it would be for the woman to determine what resembles men and to do so with the opinions of whomever she deems suitable.
And Allah the Most High ultimately knows all.