It is reported that Mark Twain said “The clothes make the man, naked people have little or no influence on society.”
(More Maxims of Mark, 1927)
Mr. Twain was correct in the first part of what he said. Societies place a great deal of importance on clothing, and anybody wishing to be someone who takes an important and active role in society must pay great attention to the ways in which they dress. To ignore these social norms would cause one to possibly be shunned or looked down upon within our societies.
Politicians hire people known as ‘Wardrobe Consultants’ to advise them in their choices of clothing, celebrities may make or break their careers based upon what clothes they are seen in, those considered famous will have fashion designers queuing up waiting to dress them in their finest new clothing. What we wear and how we treat others based upon what they wear is a constant throughout all peoples and societies.
So we ask.. What place does clothing have amongst the Muslim ummah? Are we different in the way we dress and regard our clothing to other peoples? To what degrees does what we wear influence others and what importance do we attach to the way we dress?
First, let us look at what the primary Islamic texts (ie. Qur’ān and the Sunnah) say regarding our clothing.
It was narrated from ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas’ood that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “No one will enter Paradise in whose heart is a mustard-seed of arrogance.” A man said: “What if a man likes his clothes to look nice and his shoes to look nice?” He said: “Allāh is Beautiful and loves beauty; arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people.”
Based upon this Hadīth, we see that paying attention to what we wear is important. A Muslim should strive to make himself look beautiful in what he wears. As such, it is a good thing for a Muslim to want to look nice, not just for his wife or family, but also for those that he lives amongst, he should not wear clothes that are considered to be ugly or that will make him look downtrodden or unrespectable.
At the same time however, another Hadīth warns of over-dressing, or wearing clothes that attract attention in order to show off –
It was narrated from ‘Adullāh ibn Umar (may Allāh be pleased with them both) that Allāh’s messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “He who wears libaas ash-shuhrah in this world will be dressed in humiliating clothes on the day of judgment.”
(narrated by Ahmed & Abu Dawood, confirmed sahih by Al Albāni in Sahih Al-Jāmi’ 6526)
The term used here in the hadith لباس الشهرة libās ash-shuhrah’ can be translated as ‘clothing of fame’, meaning that the one who wears it, does so as to draw attention to himself and to show off, doing so is an act of Riyā” (pride) which is not suitable for a Muslim to do.
Between these 2 statements of the Prophet we have an understanding of the way in which a Muslim regards his clothing. The Muslim does not go to the extreme of wearing clothing which shows himself off and purposefully tries make others see him and regard him highly because of his clothing, nor does the Muslim forget about his appearance and become lax in his clothing. The Muslim should be honourable in his appearance and never cause himself to be looked down upon or become a cause for mockery. Indeed the clothing of the Muslim helps to convey many of the ideals and understandings of Islam when we apply what has been commanded of us.
The Language of Clothing
Clothes, like words convey messages. Just as what we say is loaded with information about ourselves and carries meanings which will be recieved and understood by the recipient, our clothing also says much about ourselves and communicates with others.
Picture for example, somebody dressed in shabby clothing that looks like it has not been washed and is torn all over. We would naturally tend to assume that this person must be poor. Similarly we see often people wearing uniforms, in certain places a person wearing dark blue clothing emblazoned with a badge will be recognised instantly as a police officer, or a woman in white will be recognised as a nurse. This is because society has become accustomed to these uniforms, and their role in identifying the person is well known and as such fulfills what it aims to acheive.
Our clothing may tell others about ourselves, it may allow others to know where we come from, our socio-economic position, our religion, our interests and even such things as our marital status. Clothing can convey much about ourselves, it may be a window into ourselves or it may also be a way to paint a picture about ourselves.
Muslim Clothing and Islamic Clothing
Amongst Muslims, there exist many peoples living in different nations and societies. They share much in common in terms of customs and tradition and they also have much that us unique to themselves.
Just as we speak many different languages and live in different places, we also dress differently to each other.
What we do have however, are unifying and common factors. Whilst we all speak different languages, we all perform our 5 daily prayers in Arabic, whilst we live apart from each other in different cities, we all pray towards and make pilgrimage to the one city – Makkah. Similarly in our clothing we share common trends, be they items of clothing, styles of clothing or regulations on dress. There is no doubt that there exist certain things in regards to our clothing that are not only specific to ourselves, but have also become symbols of our ummah. Our clothing helps to identify ourselves and at times begins to shape and define us in our societies.
It happens often that we encounter other Muslims in the street and we use our clothing as a means to discern as to whether they are Muslim or not. Think for example, if we were to see a person with a long beard, we would not instantly assume that he must be a Muslim as many other people also share long beards, be they Sikhs, Hindus, Orthodox Christians or even bikies. What we usually then do is look for identifying markers that would give us a hint that the person is a Muslim. Such things we may look for may be headwear – Is he wearing a Kufi, an ‘Imāmah (turban) or any headwear associated with Muslims? Is he weaing a thawb, is he wearing a shalwar kameez, is his garment above or below his ankles? Is he wearing any gold or silk?
Within that split second we analyse all of these details in our mind, and we are so well acquainted with these things that we can usually come to a conclusion in seconds and have enogh time to greet them ‘As-Salāmu `Alaykum’.
What we are doing in such a situation is recognising the manifest symbols of Islam apparent in another person’s clothing. We are able to identify someone as a Muslim based upon what they wear.
What is considered as Muslim clothing may vary from place to place, for example a Peci in Indonesia is a very well-known item of clothing associated with Muslims and Islam, however the same item of clothing worn in Mauritania by a local would seem out of place.
(An example of this that I came across recently was when an Egyptian friend of mine told me that his father who works in Saudi Arabia was wearing an item of clothing which in Egypt is considered to be standard casual wear. The piece in question is a type of qamees, similar to a thawb except that it is short sleeved. One might find people going to the mosque or walking in the streets with this item of clothing in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia however it is considered to be a style of pyjama. His father found this out when trying to enter a building only to be refused entry by the security guard on duty who told him that he could not allow him to enter whilst he was wearing his pyjamas!)
There is no doubt that our clothing becomes somewhat of a uniform, something which displays our faith, it is like flying a flag to identify yourself amongst a crowd. Our clothing however may only be understood by those who are familiar with them to a degree.
For example, the niqab of a Muslim woman is well-known to be clothing item associated with Islam and Muslims due to prominence in media and the fact that it is easily recognisable and stands out means that almost anybody will know that its wearer is a Muslim.
What may cause an item of Islamic clothing to not be recognised would be if the person observing it were not familiar with the clothing as being ‘Islamic’. An example of this may be when a Muslim male is wearing silver rather than gold, I as a Muslim would know that a Muslim man should not wear gold, however many non-Muslims would not be familar with this so would not recognise this.
Amongst Muslims, due to the fact that we are familiar with the clothing considered to be symbols of Islam within our societies, we are able to not only recognise them, but lso add extra meaning to them. For example, a headscarf/jilbaab worn by a woman can convery further information about her. Not only her fashion in wearing it, but also things that may be picked up by those observant. A common example is of a headscarf/jilbaab which covers one’s chin is common amongst the Shi’a. When one is in a country such as Lebanon which is split in terms of Sunni/Shi’a population, covering the bottom of one’s chin is a symbol of their Shi’ism, and not covering the chin becomes a symbol of being from Ahlus-Sunnah.
The problem with such things is that whilst they may generally be true, the wearer themselves may not be aware of what they are doing and may simply be following what they percieve as fashion. This is why its always good to not take the language of clothing as a hard and fast rule, as just as we may misunderstand each other in conversation, we may also misinterpret what we see as signs in clothing.
Social Norms in Regards to Certain Clothing
Some time ago, I was present at a masjid awaiting the Jumu’ah khutbah (Friday sermon) to begin. There seemed to be a great deal of activity amongst some of the people towards the rear of the masjid, so I went to see what the matter was.
It appeared that the Imam of the mosque was running very late and was not answering his phone, so they were deciding whether or not to have somebody else take the role of Khateeb. The problem was not who to find, as they had already agreed on who should give the Khutbah, but rather the problem was the way that the chosen person was dressed. Some argued that the clothing was innapropriate for a Khateeb, that it was too casual to wear. The others disagreed saying that the people should listen to his words, and not pay attention to his clothing.
Whilst the latter opinion would be ideal, the fact of the matter stands that had the Khateeb stood to give the khutbah wearing the casual clothing that he was wearing, the people in the jamaa’ah (congregation) would identify the clothing as being different from what is usual and some might even find it unsuitable for a Khateeb. Due to this, the fact that certain clothing becomes associated with certain roles, one wishing to fulfill such a role must be cognizant of these social norms for surely no person would wish to be seen as standing out unnecessarily when fulfilling such a major role. Could you imagine the Imam of the Haram on Makkah giving a Khutbah wearing a tracksuit outfit?!
Indeed a Muslim should be proud of what they wear and they should be cautious as to avoid clothing that is Haraam (forbidden) and they should avoid clothing that will cause them to be looked down upon amongst their people.
Especially for Muslims living in majority non-Muslim societies, the value of wearing clothing which identifies ourselves as Muslims becames very important. To recognise one another and to see symbols of our perfect religion prevalent where we are is a source of great joy for all Muslims. Whether it be a Kufi or a Jilbaab, a Thawb or an Abaayah, these things help us to identify each other and to increase brotherhood and to bring us closer to one another.