‘Why & How Not To Identify Muslims With Clothes or Beards’ by K.A Abbas

(Following is a reproduction of an article originally titled, ‘Of Caps and Beards !’ by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. The article was published in ‘The Bombay Chronicle’ on 6 December, 1942.)

What distinguishes a Muslim from a Hindu in India ?

I was asked this question by an American journalist and I replied, ‘Nothing.’ There is no reliable means of identifying a Muslim or a Hindu from his appearance or dress. 

But attempts—sometimes well-meaning, but generally insidious—are often made to identify a certain mode of dress with a certain community—to recognize a ‘ national Muslim dress’ along with a ‘National Muslim Home’. Such attempts at creating distinctions where none exist at present are dangerous, however good the motives that inspire them. They help to create a psychological atmosphere of disunity. Even a harmless poster may pave the way to Pakistan !

   Foreigners, and even many Indians, for instance, seem to accept the Fez cap (also known as Turkish cap) as the universal headgear of Muslims. Again and again it is used to depict and symbolize a Muslim. In his otherwise excellent book, The Story of India, Frank Moraes commits the common error of describing the Fez cap as the common, distinguishing headgear of Indian Muslims.

And in last week’s People’s War, I saw a reproduction of a poster issued by the Communist Party of India which commits the same error. It is a striking poster, eloquent with its strongly-drawn lines which suggest action and determination— something which no National War Front poster has been able to achieve hitherto. The slogan ‘ HINDU MUSLIM EK HO—QUAMI HIFAZAT KE LIYE ; QUAMI HAKUMAT KE Liye’ is unexceptionable, but the Fez cap on the head of one of the two figures is wrong in fact and wrong in policy for any organization striving for national unity. 

Language, dress, food, many of the social customs—these are several points of unity between millions of Hindus and Muslims in the country. Any attempt to suggest the absence of such a unity is a blow at the very monument of unity we are striving to create. 

How can the Fez cap be accepted as the ‘national headgear’ of the Muslims when over 90 percent of Muslims do not use it? Banished from Turkey by the edict of the late Kemal Ataturk, a starched version of this cap does survive in Egypt, where it is the recognized ‘National headgear’ for Muslim and Christian and Jew alike. In other Arab countries the Fez cap generally distinguishes an old Jew. Even in India, one can see some of our indigenous old Jews going about fluttering the tassels of their Fez caps. 

Mr Jinnah does not wear a Fez cap. He prefers a fur cap of uncertain shape. Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan does not wear a Fez. He affects a white Punjabi turban. H. H. the Aga Khan would sooner be seen in a Riviera straw hat, an English ‘topper’ or a tropical ‘topee’ than in the Fez cap. Sir Currimbhai Ebrahim does not wear a Fez cap with his Bond Street suits. The Raja of Mahmudabad crowns himself with a non-white Gandhi cap, Nawab Ismail Khan chooses a fur cap like Mr Jinnah, and Chaudhari Khaliquzzaman also has never been seen in a Fez. Indeed at the last meeting of the Muslim League Working Committee I hardly saw any Fez caps. 

There are only two classes of Indians who habitually wear Fez caps—the students of the Aligarh Muslim University and the Victoria drivers of Bombay, whether Hindu or Muslim ! 

The more one probes this question the more one finds how silly it is to confuse cultural traits and sartorial fashions, which are the result of geography and history and climate, with religious beliefs.

The Muslim peasants of Bengal wear dhoties, the Hindus of the Frontier Province wear shalwars. The women among Maharashtrian Jews (Bene Israel) drape their saris just like other Maharashtrian women and the South Indian Christians can hardly be distinguished from the members of the other communities. 

Nor are beards a correct index of a man’s religious affiliations. Here again, foreigners are liable to imagine that Muslims have a monopoly of the hirsute adornment. It was this very error which led an American correspondent to describe Dr Moonje as a ‘devout Muslim’. The Hindu Mahasabha champion has an impressive flowing beard, while Mr Jinnah ‘the Qaid-e-Azam of the Muslim League’, is clean- shaven. Tagore had a Christ-like beard, while Iqbal, ‘the Poet of Islam’ had only a moustache. Dr Bhagwandas, the eminent Benares scholar of Hindu scriptures and philosophy, has a patriarchal white beard, while Mr Halim, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Muslim University, is beardless ; Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Azad, of course, have beards, but so has Babu Purshottamdas Tandon and so had the late Vithalbhai Patel. 

The Hindu Rajputs are proud of their fierce martial beards, the Roman Catholic fathers and Jewish rabbis vie with the staunchest Maulanas in the matter of long beards; the Rishis and Swamis and Yogis seldom shave. The ‘godless’ Karl Marx and atheist Lenin both had beards, and in Europe a ‘Blue Beard’ denotes the reverse of piety and austerity. 

Both among the masses and among the modern sophisticates, it is difficult to distinguish between a Hindu and a Muslim or a Catholic and an atheist. And sometimes the foreign journalist is hopelessly stumped. 

An American correspondent had a series of arguments with an Indian journalist extending over a period of several weeks. They discussed every aspect of the Indian problem and finally got stuck over the communal question. The American found the Indian youth a staunch Congressman, a bitter critic of Pakistan and the Muslim League and a violent, uncompromising, advocate of a united India. 

‘It is all very well for you Hindus to talk like that’, said the American, ‘but what about the Muslims?’

‘Well, what about them’, asked the Indian. 

‘I can’t imagine a single Muslim endorsing your view point’ 

‘Then start imagining right now, for I am a Muslim’ 

The poor Yank almost collapsed.


Share this Post on :

Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at www.awazthevoice.in

Translate »