A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Beards and Religion

To start the day on a somewhat lighter note, here's a post from Slate addressing the question of why so many religions require, or at least recommend, that men wear beards. It spins off a recent wave of violence in the Amish community in the US in which an Amish sect are shaving the beards of other Amish, but in our part of the world, where Islamists tend to believe men should grow beards, though often divided between the with-a-mustache and no-mustache subsects (usually based on what they think the Prophet wore), haredi and other Orthodox Jews, including the hasidim, Eastern Christian priests of all varieties, etc., the question of religion and beards is an interesting one. And, as the article notes, the Sikhs as well. With the likely successes Islamists are likely to achieve in forthcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt, it's reasonable to address the question.

The Slate article is not presented as serious scholarship, so I won't comment on it as such. (I do like the fact that the very American-holy-card portrait of an Aryan Jesus is captioned as "Photograph by ...")

Now, I'm not neutral on this matter, as  the picture at left will demonstrate. My own beard, which has been there for decades, has nothing to do with religion, other than my refusal to bow down to the graven idol Gillette. I have never fully understood the question, "why did you grow a beard?"  I didn't grow a beard: like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, it "just growed." All I did was stop shaving. "Why do you shave your beard?" would seem to me to be the more logical question.

The article leans toward "masculinity" as a reason for beards. Well, yeah, outside of circuses a Y chromosome is probably necessary, but a beard still seems the natural state of things, not some macho declaration. Or course I'm biased, but what's so natural about scraping your face with a sharp blade?

But religion does relate to beards. While the Qur'an doesn't mandate them, many Islamists feel they must emulate the Prophet. Orthodox Jews (haredim and hasidim and others) also grow beards or, as I've noted, don't shave.

One disagreement with the article: it says, after including the praises of beards by the early Christian Fathers:

The beard soon fell out of favor among clerics, though, and Christian holy men were forbidden to sport facial hair for several centuries before the ban was relaxed during the Renaissance.

This is, unsurprisingly, the usual Western tendency to equate "Christianity" with "Catholic and Protestant Christianity," (the link is to the Catholic Encyclopedia), though later they note that the Orthodox expect their clergy to be bearded.
Indeed they do. Coptic Pope Shenouda III is an example (above left), though the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew (below left), probably has him beat hands down. If you'll look at almost any Orthodox icons, or Coptic or other Eastern Christian saints, you'll see the modern prelates are only hoping to reach the glories of the patristic beards.

No huge moral here. I don't plan to shave, but I don't expect I'll let it grow to patriarchal lengths, either. This post is — as I assume the Slate post also is — a lighthearted reflection, not some ideological or theological declaration.

No comments: