Why Does God Like Beards So Much?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 18 2011 5:35 PM

Why Does God Love Beards?

A discussion of facial hair in world religions.

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ

Photograph by Jozef Sedmak/Hemera/Thinkstock.

An Amish splinter group has gone on a crime spree, forcibly cutting the beards off of their rivals. Many religions, including Sikhism, Islam, and sects of Judaism, encourage or require their men to keep beards. Jesus Christ is often depicted with a beard. Why does God like facial hair so much?

Because it’s manly. Although beards appear repeatedly in religious texts, God never explicitly tells us why they’re so holy. In the absence of any divine exposition, many theologians have posited that a hairy face is a symbol of masculinity bestowed upon men by God. St. Clement of Alexandria, who was among the most emphatic proponents of this view, argued: “But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! And, in truth, unless you saw them naked, you would suppose them to be women.” St. Augustine seconded Clement’s characterization, noting, “The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man.” 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. In today's world, Protestants and Catholics are more likely to follow prevailing facial hair fashions, while Orthodox Christians tend to stick to the biblical, pro-beard view.

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Muslim scholars have long argued over the importance of beards. Some view shaving as haram, or forbidden, because the prophet and his immediate followers wore beards. Others argue that shaving is merely makruh, or undesirable, because there isn’t a specific Quranic prohibition on it. As in Christianity, a number of theologians believe that the beard is holy because it is part of God’s distinction between man and woman. One Pakistani scholar noted: “The Prophets of Allah kept beards and expressed their liking for it since this is from among the norms of human nature. It is an expression of manliness and as such a sign, which distinguishes men from women.”

Keeping a long beard is one of the main tenets of Sikhism, and again there are indications that the commandment relates to masculinity. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a controversial Indian militant Sikh, argued, “If you do not want beards then you should urge the women to become men and you should become women.”

Several Hindu communities shave their men as part of religious rites, and scholars interpret the act as returning the participant to an infantile condition, without hair or gender. The freshly shorn subject is forbidden to have sex for a prescribed period. (These groups do not shave men as part of the rite of marriage.) Ascetics who keep themselves permanently hairless give up sex entirely.

As with other bearded religions, the Amish appear to wear their beards as a sign of manhood, and the recent attacks are consistent with the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition of forcibly shaving an enemy to emasculate him. The Ammonites humiliated the emissaries of King David by shaving their beards. In the Book of Judges, Samson loses his strength when his hair is cut. (Samson lost all of his head hair, not just his beard.)

Masculinity isn’t the only proposed explanation for why religious groups have favored them. Some communities kept beards to distinguish themselves from their nonbelieving neighbors. Ancient Near Eastern art portrayed Israelites as bearded, while the hated Philistines were clean-shaven. There are Muslim scholars who think the prophet wore a beard to distinguish his followers from Christians.

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

Explainer thanks Susan Niditch of Amherst College and author of “My Brother Esau Is a Hairy Man": Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel, Patrick Olivelle of the University of Texas, and Saul Olyan of Brown University.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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