Smokers’ Corner: Beards: a trim history

By Nadeem F. Paracha
Sunday, 04 Oct, 2009 (Courtesy Dawn)—Illustration by Abro
In his biography, Mirror to the Blind, Abdul Sattar Edhi complains how he detests being called a ‘maulana’.
‘Mine was never a religious beard,’ he says. ‘It was always a revolutionary beard,’ he explains – perhaps inspired by Karl Marx, whom Edhi identifies as an inspiration during his youth. In the book he is quoted as saying that hardly any man in Pakistan used to have a beard in the 1950s.
A senior journalist, Ghulam Farooq, agrees: ‘In the 1950s and 1960s, no self-respecting Pakistani from any class would have liked to be seen with a long beard, apart from the mullahs. All this stuff about the beard having any religious significance played absolutely no role in the lives of Pakistanis. In fact, the beard was seen as a symbol of exploitation and bigotry.’
Showing me black and white photos of political rallies of the late 1960s, a former progressive student leader, Naushad Hussain, enthusiastically challenged me to point out ten men with beards among the hundreds that stood listening to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Asghar Khan in the photos. I couldn’t.
‘Look closely,’ he smiled. ‘There are only three.’
‘What about the ‘revolutionary beards’?’ I asked.

‘Revolutionary beards became famous in the West after Castro and Che Guevara’s revolution in Cuba,’ Naushad explained. ‘But long hair and revolutionary beards (in Pakistan) really became popular from 1970 onwards.’

A. Kabir, another progressive student leader (at the Karachi University in 1973-74), suggests that very few male students had beards even in the 1970s. ‘Ironically, only the most radical Marxists on campus went around with beards, looking like Che. Even the staunchest members of the right-wing Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), were clean-shaven. Being young and having a beard (and long hair) in those days meant that one was a radical leftist.’
Beards, especially heavy stubbles, also became popular as an expression of one having a creative and artistic disposition. Mahboobullah, a former graduate of the famous the NCA, Lahore, remembers that (in the 1970s), coffee houses and college canteens were full of long-haired and bearded young men sipping tea and beer, chain smoking and discussing politics, philosophy and art. ‘A young man with a neglected stubble or a beard, talking reflectively with a cigarette in his hand became a trendy pose in those days,’ Mahboobullah chuckled. ‘Women loved it!’
Karamat Hamid a former student at the Dow Medical College in Karachi in the 1970s, says that by 1976 almost all leading Pakistani TV actors had beards. ‘Talat Hussain, Rahat Kazmi, Shafi Muhammad… the creative big shots had beards. It became a global fashion. Cricketers like Dennis Lillie, Wasim Raja, Ian Chappel, rock musicians, Hollywood actors and directors, painters, college boys and even university professors all over the world had beards,’ remembers Karamat. ‘It was a fashion expressing creativity, intellect and manhood.’
So exactly when did beards stopped being a liberal/leftist aesthetic and start becoming a ‘religious symbol’?
‘I believe the trend started in the 1980s,’ says Sharib, a former member of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (who later joined the MQM).
‘I remember a lot of us were very impressed by the looks of the Afghan mujahideen. Then we started to keep beards like them,’ he explained.
In other words, one can say that the ideological symbolism of the beard had started to grow from left to the right. Fatigued by the exhaustive liberalism of the preceding decades and now under the propagandist hammer of a reactionary dictatorship, a lot of Pakistanis started rediscovering God, as it were, in the 1980s.

‘Beards started emerging on the most unlikely of men,’ laughs Talha Naqvi, a middle-aged head of an NGO. ‘It became a symbol of piety. Everyone from mujahids to smugglers to traders grew a beard,’ he said.
But according to Talha the real beard explosion happened in the 1990s: ‘This was the time when we first started hearing about people going around and asking young men to grow beards because it was an Islamic tradition. I used to say, if this was a tradition then so was riding a camel or using a brick for a pillow by early converts, so why not follow those examples as well?’
Talha says that the rising number of Pakistani men having beards for religious reasons became even more ubiquitous after the tragic 9/11 episode. ‘More and more young men today keep a beard as an Islamic edict.’
It seems after all these years of searching for some kind of identity, many young Pakistanis have ended up finding one with the help of a beard (or hijab). It’s become an exhibition of instant piety, and more so, a somewhat long-winded belief system that with their purposeful new looks they belong to a special community of chosen people; a herd-like expression of some divinely cohesive uniformity – at least in looks, which in turn may only have little to do with religion. It’s a statement very much opposed to the notion of diversity.


Filed under History, Islam, Left, Pakistan, Society

15 responses to “Smokers’ Corner: Beards: a trim history

  1. Hayyer

    Wearing beards in Pakistan is like wearing teekas in India. In the 50s and 60s it was hard to find any politician with one, even the Sanghis. Now they are spotted even on non Hindu political foreheads.

  2. Milind Kher

    A lot of the younger crowd in the community who are well educated, management graduates at least, are beginning to sport beards.

    Yes, it is being seen as a means of identification with the religion. This has heightened after the increase in communal polarization.

    However, IMO there are far more weighty issues to be attended to than the beard for men and hijab for women. A lot of prioritization needs to be done. Education and health need to be the prime concerns.

  3. its funny that a self-acclaimed alcoholic, druggie and atheist is writing this piece…infact he has nothing to write about except anti-islam and anti-pakistan stuff…….
    why is it that ppl ranting about secularism are least tolerant about people’s personal choices like sporting beards or wearing hijabs….
    i agree with milind, that our society is raplidly polarizing to extrems…… on one hand are the religious extremist…and on the other are secular extremists…..both harassing each other in every possible way….

  4. Milind Kher

    Extremism and Islam are mutually exclusive. The Muslim community is the community of the middle path – Ummatan Wasata.

    Therefore, extremism of any kind must be shed. I agree.

  5. Vajra


    Your mail caught me awkwardly poised in the very act of climbing onto a nearby fence, to watch proceedings from an uncomfortable perch, which however had the advantage of offering some rudimentary protection from the pitched battle which is evidently on the verge of breaking out.

    As a druggie, alcoholic and agnostic who sports a beard (top row, extreme right) more to conceal a weak chin than for either ideological or theological reasons, I fear that both sides in the argument will first turn to rend us poor harmless middle-of-the-grounders. Particularly fanatics and take-no-prisoner moralisers like your partner in your duet.

    Spare us and go on to slaughter the leftist scum straightaway; don’t bother with us in-betweens, caught between the lines of the opposing forces, please. Our prayers will be with you.

    And leftists reading this, please pulp the fundos directly without wasting time on us harmless fellow-travellers; please, please. Our red salute to you, comrades.

  6. Rafay

    Vah bhai vah Pakpatriot. Kamal hai. What hot air you emit.

    The intellectual abilities of the virulent often show up in their limited vocabulary and world-view. Which is what distinguishes NFP from people like Pakpatriot. You simply can’t find a better critic, and if it took him alcohol and drugs to get to this point, good for him and three cheers for redemption.

    Meanwhile, what I actually wanted to say – before I got distracted – was why, if he doesn’t like the “maulana” moniker, doesn’t Comrade Edhi trim his beard? I dare say it would make him devilishly rakish.

  7. mohammad

    I think I am in a better position to comment on beard because most male in our family support one. My eldest brother has a trimmed ginger one, another has a long beard with long mustache, the one with trimmed is pragmatic religious while one with very long one has no religious inclination what so ever, does that mean he is a ‘bleeding heart liberal’ of course not but a macho village guy. Another cousins who is on death row in a jail at rawalpindi has the biggest one, it will be hard to find another punjabi who owns 2 feet long ginger beard, again it is male chauvism, hey do not you think I have fab family. I think having long beard is definatly new in punjab religious or otherwise, but not in rural sindh baluchistan and tribal areas, where is extension of their manhood as mustach is considered in other parts.

  8. gv

    most men in my family s’pport beards too!!!! (myself included) mostly full beards where ever we can grow them – but its mainly because each and every one of us tends to look like a trannie on vacation without one…

    Damn!!! damn those soft skinned baby faced aristo genes to hell!!!! 😛

  9. Ummi

    Indian Sikhs and Jewish Rabbis would have longer beards than Muslims but fortunately both communities don’t have crooks and half-baked liberals like we have in Pakistan who never miss a chance to ridicule a religion.

  10. Hayyer

    What an accurate test; of honesty,and of politics and religion. That all knowing and wise God up there somewhere deciding if we are to be saved by measuring our beards. Instant judgment at puberty. Either saved by 18 or condemned.
    I know Sikhs, Indian or not, and of Jews, liberal not crooked, but quite depilated.

  11. Milind Kher

    It is noteworthy that not a single ayat of the Holy Quran gives the command to grow a beard.

    This is based purely on ahadith. In any case, growing a beard is not a furqan between believing and not believing

  12. agree with u ummi….
    i came across a very accurate description of nfp potrayed by a blogger recently….. this is exactly what these pseudo-intellectuals like nfp do when they label a beard or hijab “terrorist” instead of an attitude…… do read:

    One can just imagine, that a stray cat gets run over by a car on Khayaban-e-Shamsheer, the driver of the vehicle drives on as if nothing happened.
    Another car pulls up in front of this injured cat as it struggles to get up onto all fours. The considerate driver comes out the car to check on the status of the cat. The driver’s hands become stained … with the boold of the cat as he attempts to discover the extent of the injury.
    In the meantime a leftist journalist wades out of his house to ‘stare blankly’ at this scene. This wannabe rockstar journalist wasted and delusional, looks at this driver and identifies him as supporting a small beard and his car stereo sounding out some verses from the Quran, immediately pulls down his jeans and starts peeing on the floor as some form of protest…
    Not being able to get a reaction, he pulls out his mobile and rings up his mates Musharaf and Zardari. He cries, “Taliban” over the phone, “I’ve got a nice little earner for you”, he concludes. As if out of no where, Pak Intelligence and CIA appear, shoot the cat, take the ‘Taliban’ on a rendition flight to Bagram, where he is tortured until he is at his last few breaths and then incarcerated in Gitmo for years only to be released without charge.

  13. mohammad

    First of all let me make it clear that I am not a liberal or a pseudo religious zealot fantasizing a contemptible taliban emirate but a pragmatic pakistani, now I am fuming as someone is declaring him or herself more patriotic than me. Therefore for the sake of all good things in the world I will request dear person with moniker pakpatriot to change it to talibpatriot which in more appropriate as we both understand. Now if someone is trying to intimidate others by associating himself with mindless and ungrateful criminals then that is simply self delusional as nation is quite capable of entertaining miscreants.

  14. YLH

    Ummi mian,

    Neither the Sikh nor the Jewish community have crooks like you either who make everything about women’s clothes and who condone terrorism.

  15. Ummi

    baby YLH, censoring others comments and then whining like a girl is really a liberal stunt.

    @Kher sahib: you need to study Islam101 which will help you to learn that for muslims both Quran and hadiths are equally important. Most of content in Quran are commandments and hadiths actually explain those commandments. For instance , there is no instance in Quran about how to offer prayers but there are atleast 600 verses about prayers in Quran.