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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in English.
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In a Nutshell:
Differences exist between the classical jurists among the various schools of thought. Some jurists argue growing a beard is obligatory for Muslim males, with other jurists differing, arguing it is a sunnah and recommended acts (mandoub). A small number of contemporary jurists argue it is permissible to grow or not grow a beard (mubah). The strongest view appears to be that of a recommendation (mandoub).
The beard was a social phenomenon - not an individual one as it is contemporaneously discussed. A civilisation created traditions to distinguish itself from others in a number of ways... the beard was part of that effort.

Evidences

The following ahadith are often cited on the issue:

خالِفُوا الْمُشْرِكِينَ، وَفِّرُوا اللِّحَى، وَأَحْفُوا الشَّوَارِبَ
"Act different from the polytheists. Trim closely the moustache and grow the beard." (Muslim 259c, Bukhari 5892)

اُعْفُوا اللِّحَى ، وَجُزُوا الشَّوَارِبَ ، وَلَا تُشَبَّهُوا بِالْيَهُودِ وَالنَّصَارَى
"Let the beard grow and trim the moustache and do not imitate the Jews and Christians and dye your grey hair." (Musnad Ahmed, Vol. 2, p. 356)

لَكِنْْ فِي دِينِنَا أَنْ نَحْفِيَ الشَّوَارِبِ وَأَنْ نُعْفِيَ اللِّحْيَةَ
"In our deen, we trim the moustache and let the beard grow." (Musanaf abi Shaybah)

مَنْ تَشَبَّهَ بِقَوْمٍ فَهُوَ مِنْهُمْ
"Whoever imitated some people he became one of them." (Sunan Abu Dawud 4031)

لَكِنَّ رَبِّي أَمَرَنِي أَنْ أُحْفِيَ شَارِبِي وَأُعْفِيَ لِحْيَتِي
"My Lord has asked me to let my beard grow" (al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, Vol. 1, p. 347; Tarikh atTabari, Vol. 2, p. 654)


Juristic Opinions

The classical scholars argued a beard was a natural and physical characteristic of a man, part of his fitra which Allah (swt) ordained. Fitra in this context refers to an inner sense of cleanliness evidencing his moral and mental state. This is one of many characteristics of fitra which the Prophet (saw) mentioned:

عَشَرَةٌ مِنَ الْفِطْرَةِ قَصُّ الشَّارِبِ وَقَصُّ الأَظْفَارِ وَغَسْلُ الْبَرَاجِمِ وَإِعْفَاءُ اللِّحْيَةِ وَالسِّوَاكُ وَالاِسْتِنْشَاقُ وَنَتْفُ الإِبْطِ وَحَلْقُ الْعَانَةِ وَانْتِقَاصُ الْمَاءِ
"Ten are the acts of fitra: trimming the moustache, letting the beard grow, siwak (using the tooth stick), snuffing the water in the nose, cutting the nails, washing the finger joints, plucking the hair under the armpits, shaving pubic hair, cleaning one's private parts with water and rinsing the mouth." (Sunan an-Nasa'i 5040)

Imam Shawkani opined:

"What he (saw) meant by fitra is if these characteristics are followed by a man, he would be described as a man of fitra, which Allah (swt) has gifted his servants with and encouraged them to follow so that they attain a high degree of respectability and dignity." (Nayl Al-Awtar)

There are three verdicts on growing of the beard:

  • Growing the beard is an obligation and shaving it is forbidden, argued by Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taimiya,
  • Growing the beard is mandoub (recommended) and shaving it is makruh (disrecommended), argued by Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Qudamah, Imam Shirazi, Imam Shawkhani, Imam Nawawi and Qadi Iyad,
  • Growing the beard is permitted and trimming it is permitted argued by contemporary scholars like Mahmud Shaltut and Muhammad Abu Zahra (Mahmut Shaltut, al-Fatawa; Muhammad Abu Zahra, Islam Hukuku Metedolojisi)

For the first opinion scholars have referred to the above evidences to back their claim.

These ahadith do not mean acting differently from the Jews and Christians is the reason for having the beard. If this was the case, then we would be ordered to shave since the Jews grow beards. Furthermore, both pray with their shoes on with narration addressing this, "Be different from the Jews because they do not pray in their shoes (sandals) or slippers" (Abu Dawud) but we don't oblige wearing of shoes during prayers.

These ahadith contain different requests, each differing on their subject matter, ranging from growing the beard, trimming the moustache, acting differently from the disbelievers through to dying the hair.

If we consider the request of differentiating oneself from the disbelievers, requested by the first three narrations, whilst it may appear on the face of it to be obligatory, a closer scrutiny would suggest otherwise. Dying one's hair to be different from disbelievers, as mentioned in the third narration, finds jurists agreed this was not an obligation but mandoub (recommended) as it was not a widespread practice amongst the companions, and none censured the others for not dyeing their hair:

  • Qadi Iyad said, "The sahabah and those who followed them had their differences over the issue of khidab (dyeing) and its origin, some said that it best to leave it."
  • Imam At-Tabari said, "The ordering and forbidding related to this issue (dyeing) was not meant as an obligation, that is why people did not blame or criticize one another."
  • Ibn al-Jawzi said, "A group of the sahabah and some of those who followed them did not dye their hair."
  • Imam Nawawi said, "Our opinion is the desirability of dyeing grey hair for men and women." (Al-Majmou)
  • Imam Ibn Qudamah said, "It is desirable to dye the grey hair with a color other than black." (Al-Mughni)

As for the fourth hadith, it does not convey the obligation or desirability, it only carries an observation of what we do in our deen. For an obligation there has to be some indication of reward or punishment. To illustrate, verses state:

  • وَإِذَا حَلَلْتُمْ فَاصْطَادُوا
    "But when you have left the sacred territory, go hunting." (Qur'an 5:2),
  • فَإِذَا قُضِيَتِ الصَّلَاةُفَانتَشِرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ
    "And when the prayer is ended, then disperse." (Qur'an 62:10),
  • وَكُلُوا مِمَّا رَزَقَكُمُ اللَّهُ حَلَالًا طَيِّبًا
    "Eat of the things which Allah has provided for you." (Qur'an 5:88) and,
  • يا بَنِي آدَمَ خُذُوا زِينَتَكُمْ عِندَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ
    "Wear your beautiful garments at every time and place of prayer." (Qur'an 7:31)

However, none of these verses and no jurist suggests it is obligatory to go hunting, dispersing, eating or wearing beautiful garments.

Likewise, when the Prophet(saw) said,

  • أُمِرْنَا أَنْ نُسَبِّحَ دُبُرَ كُلِّ صَلاَةٍ
    "We have been ordered to make tasbeeh after prayers" (Tirmidhi 3413)
  • تَنَاكَحُوا تَنَاسَلُوا فَإِنَِّي مُبَاهٍ بِكُمْ الْأُمَمَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ
    "Marry and have children, I shall be proud of you before other nations on the day of judgment" (Bayhaqi)

whilst appearing in the imperative tenses (command/request grammatical form), they are not obligations as there are no indications (qara'in) to suggest that.

Thus, when the Prophet(saw) says, "My Lord has asked me to let my beard grow" is not stating an obligation but requesting - it needs further scrutiny to determine if the request is obligatory or recommended.

To complicate matters further, when the Prophet (saw) says Allah ordered him to do something, this may be specific to him. The actions of the Prophet (saw) are either natural, style of blinking, walking or speaking; or particular to him which no one else is allowed to perform like marrying more than four wives simultaneously, fasting continuously or prohibited to perform poetry or leave an inheritance. There are also other actions which Allah (swt) obliged on the Prophet(saw) but are mandoub for his ummah, like staying up in the night, witr and duha prayers.

As for the Prophet's (saw) remaining actions, Muslims are to abide by them whether they are wajib or mandoub, and to keep away from the makruh and the haram, and to perform or leave the mubah (permitted).

The fifth hadith, stating "In our deen...", in and of itself does not imply an obligation because in our deen, there are six ahkam: fard, wajib, mandub, makruh, haram and mubah. This hadith can refer to fardh, haram, mandoub or mubah.

As for the sixth hadith, to imitate disbelievers requires an intent to imitate them. This is prohibited as we are obliged to follow revelation to determine our way of life and not other sources or ways of life. However, if he does not grow his beard for some other reason, then he is not considered sinful. This is further evidenced in the contemporary era where we see many disbelievers growing their beards. It would seem to be perverse if we claimed we have to stop growing our beards otherwise we are imitating them.

It may be claimed the Prophet and the Sahabah never shaved their beards so this would suggest it is prohibited. However, this violates a basic well-known principle: "absence of evidence is not an evidence". Where the Prophet(saw) or his companions did not do something, this can imply many ahkam as the reasons for it are potentially many - unless they explained why they did not do something. As for the companions not shaving their beards, growing of beards was the norm at the time, so people never felt the need to shave. The same applies to wearing of the amamah (head dress); we have no narrations any companion was seen walking the streets without it. It is hardly arguable that amamahs are obligatory for this reason.

Is growing the beard then recommended (mandoub)?

However, the strongest opinion appears to be with the jurists who advocate the hukm of mandoub who rely on the prophetic sayings:

  • عَشَرَةٌ مِنَ الْفِطْرَةِ قَصُّ الشَّارِبِ وَقَصُّ الأَظْفَارِ وَغَسْلُ الْبَرَاجِمِ وَإِعْفَاءُ اللِّحْيَةِ وَالسِّوَاكُ وَالاِسْتِنْشَاقُ وَنَتْفُ الإِبْطِ وَحَلْقُ الْعَانَةِ وَانْتِقَاصُ الْمَاءِ
    "Ten acts are of fitra... siwak... cleaning the nose with water... trimming the moustache... letting the beard grow..." (Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nisai'i, Ibn Majah)
  • Ibn Abbas reported: "These ten acts of fitra had been obligatory in the sharia'h of Ibrahim (as) and sunnah in our shariah" then narrated "Ten are acts of the Sunnah..." (Nisai'i)

Whilst fitra has a number of meanings, one of them is Islam or the millah (nation). The Prophet (saw) said:

مَا مِنْ مَوْلُودٍ إِلاَّ يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ
"The new-born is born on the fitra..." (Muslim 2658)

Some said that it is the physique or the shape which Allah (swt) ordained for people. Some said that the fitra is the beginning. Nawawi said that the fitra means the Sunnah, and that is the right meaning. Imam Khitabi said that the fitra means the sunnah according to many scholars.

Finally, some claim the Abu Hanifah and Ahmad, argued growing the beard is wajib (obligatory) - this view is mistaken as this claim does not appear in their books. Their students and successive jurists in their schools act as evidence against such a claim. Nawawi, Ibn Qudamah, Ibn Hammam, Shawkhani, Qadi Iyad and Zarqani for instance stated growing the beard was recommended.

Conclusion

The issue is contested by the jurists and a Muslim can adopt the opinion from scholars he trusts or believes hold the strongest evidence.

The strongest argument appears to be growing of the beard is mandoub. A Muslim is rewarded for growing a beard and not punished if he did not.

All of these legal discussions appear to ignore the context in which they were held - that of an Islamic civilisation. The beard was a social phenomenon - not an individual one as it is contemporaneously discussed. A civilisation created traditions to distinguish itself from others in a number of ways... the beard was part of that effort.

Ibn Khaldun on the defeated mentality summarised this well:

“The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive characteristics, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs. The reason for this is that the soul always sees perfection in the person who is superior to it and to whom it is subservient. It considers him perfect, either because it is impressed by the respect it has for him, or because it erroneously assumes that its own subservience to him is not due to the nature of defeat but to the perfection of the victor.” (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, quoted in S. Sayyid, Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order, p. 1)


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