How is a Muslim like Osama Bin Laden supposed to wear his beard?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 10 2007 6:53 PM

Muslim Beards 101

Are Muslims allowed to dye their facial hair?

Osama bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden gets a makeover

Days before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden appeared in a new video message urging Americans to embrace Islam. Bin Laden sported a trimmed, dark beard instead of his bushy, gray trademark. Some analysts suggest that he has dyed the beard as a sign of war; others think he now shaves to avoid detection and is just donning a wig. Can a Muslim dye his beard?

Yes, although many imams believe it should be discouraged. Islam emphasizes modesty and simplicity, but some of Mohammed's sayings (or hadith) recommend covering up gray hair with henna or a dye called katam. According to the hadith of Sahih Bukhari, this would set Muslims apart from Jews and Christians, who (according to Mohammed) didn't dye their hair. The prophet said to avoid black hair coloring, however, probably because you weren't supposed to try to mimic a natural hue.


The Quran says nothing on the subject of keeping beards, but believers are urged to follow the example of the prophets, who all had them. Mohammed in particular maintained a neat, groomed appearance, and scholars believe he trimmed his facial hair. The general guideline from Sahih Bukhari boils down to "Trim the mustache, keep the beard." Followers should cut their mustaches short enough that the skin above the upper lip is visible, and grow beards to at least a fistful in length. A longer beard isn't automatically better, though. According to one account in the hadith of Malik's Muwatta, the prophet sent a man with disheveled hair out of the mosque to groom his beard. Muslims must also refrain from trimming their hair during the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca—at least until they've walked seven times around the Kaaba.

In the view of modern, mainstream Islam, growing a beard is recommended but not always required. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a respected Sunni scholar in Egypt, says beards are optional. Taha Jabir al-Alwani, who helped found the International Institute of Islamic Thought in the United States, believes Muslims don't need to wear beards if it interferes with daily functioning—like if facial hair is prohibited at your place of work or if beards are uncommon in the country where you live. Relatively few Muslims wear big beards in places like Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco, where such an outward display of being Islamic might invite scrutiny from government authorities. Imams in Northern Africa also don't tend to have much facial hair.

On the other hand, you won't find too many sheiks or imams without impressive beards in the Sufi tradition. The reasoning here is that the worshippers are concerned only with their inward selves and not with outward appearances—thus the careless beards and mops of hair. Religious men in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh also prefer to signal their religious devotion with their beards. Muslims from Salafism, the literalist tradition to which Bin Laden is believed to subscribe, have also adopted the big beard.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Imam Johari Abdul Malik of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid of the Council of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and Vernon Schubel of Kenyon College.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?


Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.