Wednesday, June 9, 2010
The Turban in Islam
ALLAHUMMA salli 'ala sahibi al-taj, goes a famous Yemeni prayer _ "Our
Lord, bless the Owner of the Crown!" The "crown" is the turban, and its
owner is the Holy Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace.
'Imama, the turban, has been the most distinctive vestimentary sunnah _
"way of life" _ of Islam since the beginnings of the Religion. 'Abd
Allah ibn 'Umar said: "The Prophet used to wind the turban around his
head and tuck it in behind him, letting its extremity hang down between
Turbans were worn even before Islam and signified a man's honour. An
Arab saying goes, "Turbans are the crowns of the Arabs". This was
explained to mean that although the pristine Arabs were too proud to
accept a king's rule over them, and therefore had no crowns other than
The early Muslim way of wearing the turban consisted in two pieces of
headdress: the qalansuwa or borderless hat of varying thickness, and the
'imama, the actual turban cloth wound around the qalansuwa. Abu Dawud
mentioned in his Sunan that the Prophet is related to have said, "The
difference between us and the pagans is that we wear the 'imama on top
of the qalansuwa." Thus, wearing either exclusively of the other was
originally a foreign practice.
The material of the turban is ideally white muslin, a very fine cotton.
The colours and length of the turban vary. In the chapters on the
Prophet's turban in the books of the "Prophetic Characteristics" known
as Shama'il, the authorities have mentioned seven and 10 yard lengths as
the two standards. However, as long as one can at least wind the turban
around once, its length suffices, while great Shaykhs of the past have
been known to wear large and heavy turbans exceeding 10 yard-lengths by
All of the founding Imams of the four schools of Ahl al-Sunnah
wal-Jama'ah wore the turban. In their biographies of the founder of the
Hanafi School, Imam Abu Hanifah _ famous for his awesome analytical mind
_ al-Suyuti and al-Haytami relate that he owned seven turbans, perhaps
one for each day of the week.
The Hanafis, such as Subcontinent and other Asian Muslims from the
Chinese to the Turks, are particularly strict about never praying
bareheaded. A famous manual of law according to the four Sunni Schools
states, "According to the Hanafi school it is abominable to pray
bareheaded out of laziness. But praying bareheaded out of humbleness and
a feeling of submission is permitted."
The founder of the Maliki School _ which dominates most of Africa today
_ Imam Malik ibn Anas always wore beautiful clothes, especially white,
and he "passed the turban under his chin (a style known as tahannuk),
letting its extremity hang behind his back, and he wore musk and other
scents," said one of his students.
Malik stressed the wearing of the turban, particularly for the learned.
"The turbans should not be neglected," he said. "I wore the turban with
nary a hair on my face. When I asked permission from my mother to pursue
the scholarly life she said: 'First, wear the garb of the scholars'; she
took me and dressed me in short-hemmed (mushammara) garments, placed a
tall headcover on my head and tied a turban around it then she said,
'Now go and write the Science'.
"I saw over 30 men wearing the turban in my teacher Rabi'a's circle. He
would not put it down before the Pleiades rose (late at night) and he
used to say: 'I swear it strengthens wit!"'
Baring the head in Islam was the sign of a man of low condition and is
listed in many a manual among the "acts which betray lack of
self-respect" (khawarim al-muru'a). A scholar relates that as a young
man, one day, he entered the mosque in Madinah without anything on his
head whereupon his father scolded him to no end. "How dare you enter the
It was a different matter, however, if the same was done out of
humility, as revealed by the wording of a question that was put to one
of the eight-century authorities in Syria: "Is it all right if people
gather in the mosque, making zikir and reading al-Qur'an, praying to
Allah and taking their turbans off their heads, weeping, as long as
their intention is not pride nor self-display but seeking to draw closer
to Him?" he replied yes.
The illiterate Shaykh 'Ali al-Hajjar was described as "the Bare-Headed,
the saintly man" but another Egyptian, the stern Ibn Daqiq al-'Id, said:
"What is carried on top of the head should not be put down" _ at least,
not on the floor.
Imam Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi'i, founder of the School which bears
his name and dominates large parts of the middle East and the totality
of Southeast Asia, "was thrifty in his dress and wore thin clothes of
linen and Baghdadi cotton. He sometimes wore a headcover that was not
very tall but he wore the turban very often", said one of his students.
"I counted three hundred turbans in his circle save those I could not
Another said: "Al-Shafi'i used to wear a large turban, as if he were a
desert Arab." Both he and his student, the Imam of the Hanbali School,
Ahmad ibn Hanbal, passed it under his chin the way the North African
Touareg and many Sudanese do to this day.
Such is the high nobility of the turban that we are told even the angels
wore it. Of the Qur'anic verse, "Your Lord shall help you with five
thousand angels bearing marks" (Surat Ali 'Imran, verse 125), Ibn
'Abbas, the greatest of the early exegetes, said: "The signs are that
they wore turbans."
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