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Salafism and the religious significance of physical appearances

There are probably few trends within Islam that are associated as much with “extremism” as Salafism, among the general public. One reason for this is that groups such as al-Qa‘ida and the Islamic State (IS) have used a radical form of Salafism to justify their acts of terrorism. Despite the fact that most Salafis not only refrain from engaging in such acts themselves but also actively condemn them, politicians from various Western countries have called for banning Salafi organisations or even Salafism altogether, such as in the case of France and the Netherlands.

A second reason why many people seem to fear Salafis is their physical appearances, particularly the physical appearances of Salafi women wearing the facial veil (niqab or jilbab). The latter is not just perceived as a potential security threat – because it allows one to hide one’s features – but also as something that hampers everyday conversation and, perhaps most importantly, challenges Western cultural norms. Because of a combination of these reasons, several European countries have adopted laws to partially ban facial veils in public. However, very little has been said about what the niqab or other forms of physical appearances among Salafis actually mean and what their religious origins are.

Salafism can be defined as the trend within Sunni Islam whose adherents claim to emulate the first three generations of Muslims as strictly and in as many spheres of life as possible. (These first three generations are known as al-salaf al-salih (the pious predecessors), hence the name “Salafism.”) For Salafis, the emulation of early Muslims – and particularly the Prophet – is of the utmost importance. This is why they spend much time ‘cleansing’ (tasfiya) Islamic tradition from supposedly false reports (hadiths) about Muhammad and other man-made ‘religious innovations’ (bida‘, sing. bid‘a). The end result of this process is meant to be a form of Islam that is exactly like what the Prophet and his companions themselves did and, as such, a blueprint for modern-day Salafis’ lives.

Emulating the salaf in every detail is only one side of the Salafi coin, however. Strictly following the predecessors also involves distinguishing oneself from others; this shows that one does not belong to other groups, but only to Islam. Two concepts are of great importance in this respect. The first of these is ghuraba’ (strangers), a term used in a hadith ascribed to the Prophet in which he calls on his followers to be strangers in the world. Salafis interpret this as meaning that while they may have many attachments in life, Islam is ultimately their one and only home. The second concept is al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal), which Salafis use to stress their complete loyalty to God, Islam, and fellow-Muslims and their utter rejection of everything else.

“Bui Bui” by Michał Huniewicz. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The facial veil or other forms of physical appearances among Salafis should be situated in the ideological context given above. For women, the wearing of a niqab or jilbab is closely related to passages from the Qur’an that mention the need to cover parts of the body (especially Q. 24: 31; 53: 53-55, 59). What parts of the body should be covered, however, is less clear. The Qur’an mentions words like zina (adornment) and scholars label the area that should be covered ‘awra. Although this word can be translated as “genitals”, Salafi scholars often believe – based on hadiths about the wives of the Prophet – that women should cover their entire body. The famous Syrian Salafi scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999), however, argued on the basis of both the Qur’an and hadiths that the face and hands are excluded from the ‘awra and that women may therefore uncover these.

For men, a white tunic (thawb or dishdasha) is often seen as preferable, based on a hadith that states that the best clothing for both the mosque and the grave is white. The length of the tunic is also significant. Salafi men often make a point of wearing garments above their ankles, following Prophetic precedent. With regard to their headdress, Salafi men can often be seen wearing a large white skullcap (qulunsuwa), again based on hadiths mentioning that the Prophet wore this, which is frequently covered by a piece of cloth (shimagh) that is usually not held in place by the circlet of rope (‘iqal) that many other Muslims do wear.

Physical appearances among Salafi men, precisely because they do not cover their faces, involve more than just clothes. This can be seen first and foremost in the beard. According to hadiths, the beards of several prominent early Muslims – including the Prophet himself – were thick and/or long and Salafis therefore often allow their beards to grow in abundance although, again in emulation of the Prophet, they do make sure to keep it clean and looking good. Based on another hadith, Salafi men also often trim or even shave off their moustaches, although the latter is not very common.

The physical appearances of Salafi women and men are thus strongly linked to their general norms and go to the very core of what Salafism is all about: living in full accordance with the example set by the Prophet and his companions, but also distinguishing oneself from others, including non-Salafi Muslims. Particularly the latter aspect of emulating the salaf often causes one to stand out and attract unwanted attention, making it difficult sometimes. Still, distinguishing oneself from others by clinging to one’s beliefs is precisely what the concepts of ghuraba’ and al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ are all about. As such, the appearances of Salafis form a significant part of what being an adherent to Salafism means in daily life and physical features such as a niqab or a long beard are therefore of great religious significance to them. Recognizing Salafis’ beliefs may not help take away fears about their views and practices in general, but it can lead to understanding why Salafis look the way they do at the very least.

Featured image credit: “Group of Women Wearing Burkas” by Nitin Madhav. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Umm Abdullah

    Most of these things apply to many Muslims who are not Salafi. For example, many men who have beards are not Salafi. The dishdasha is the national dress in the Gulf, for men who are religious and those who are secualr, although religious men (not only Salafis) often wear them short, and some – not all – don’t wear an iqal with their headdress. The ‘skullcap’ is worn not only as the national dress in the Gulf, but by men in many other Muslim countries.

    As for the niqab, Al-Albani did not classify the niqab as required, but he did consider it recommended, and the women in his family wore it. Many scholars who are not Salafi have also concluded that it is required. But many of the women worldwide who wear niqab are not Salafi; many are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, many are Sufis, many are none of the above.

    All in all, this information is misleading if it will lead people to label as ‘Salafi’ any Muslim who wears a niqab, has a long beard, wears a dishdasha and ‘skullcap’, accepts the hadith about being a stranger in this world, etc.

  2. Salman

    There is a hadeeth ” إمن البيان لسحرا”

    Verily in the eloqunet (evasive) speech is a (type) of sorcery.

    This is exactly what some journalists do twisting the facts, mixing the truth & falsehood, confusing the masses.

    Just forget the term “SALAFI” & conclude with your point that these TRUE strange (ghuraba) Muslims are the actual followers of the Final prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم and therefore (as per your article) these are the dangerous Terrorists !!!

    As for the adulterated versions of islam like sufism, tableeghis, tareeqat etc. they are PEACEFUL muslims !!!
    because they dont follow the correct islam !!!!

    Your conclusion is evident for the clear reader :

    But wait & see what will happen !
    Verily the Truth will conquer !!

  3. Amatullah Blue

    I think the point of the article was to clarify some myths related to Salafism. Which he did. Also, he did not say that Shaykh Al-Albani considered the niqab wajib.His words were “…that the face and hands were excluded from the awra.”

  4. Sheikh Mariam

    I’m a bit disappointed in this write up to be frank. It didn’t actually explore the title, the ‘religious significance’ part that much as it merely scratched the surface. Thanks for explaining where the dress choices come from but let’s delve into the significance of this choice more… E.g. The psychology behind these choices… Does it make these followers feel morally superior to other Muslims? Does it embolden certain attitudes?

    Who knows because the article didn’t go into it.

    Just a side note a Jilab is commonly known as a loose Overall dress/outer garment, not a face veil. This makes me question what else is factually incorrect in the piece. Best wishes, M

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