Reflections of an American Muslim

(Shahid Athar , M. D.)

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My beard is not that important. What I do with that cover is more important and what's in my heart is the most important.

My first ten years of post puberty life were spent in a Muslim country. I used to shave daily as it was assumed there that only religious fanatics or uneducated backward folks had a beard, and I was neither.

Twenty years ago when I came to the United States I was surprised to observe that many non-Muslims here i.e. musicians, hippies, even intellectual professors and shrinks, had beards. So out of fashion, I started experimenting on my face with different shapes and length of beard.

In 1979, with the Iranian revolution, growing a beard became a way of identification for many young Muslims. It was a common scene for eight years, to see on TV bearded folks marching in the streets of Tehran. In fact in those days a Sikh was mistaken as a Muslim and shot dead in Boston. Well! I had anticipated the revolution in advance, so when it came I already had a nice full beard.

But certain strange things started to happen to me. My friends, out of respect, started to elevate me out of proportion, expecting no mistakes from me or else considered me a fanatic revolutionary and scarcely detested me.

When I looked at my bearded Muslim colleagues, for some it was the final compliment to their beautiful Islamic personality, and for others, the beard was all they had. When I asked my mentor, a friend of fifteen years, a known Islamic scholar above seventy years of age, as to why he did not grow a beard knowing that it was a tradition of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)? He said, " When I used to have a beard, I just became a holy person to a few devout people. They started kissing my beard and my hand, while turning a deaf ear to what I was saying or writing. My views were liberal and did not match with my beard so some thought I must be a hypocrite."

The happiest incident connected with my beard happened when I was in a New York hotel. I ordered a plain omelet for breakfast. The American waitress, looked at me and said " You look like a Muslim, and I know this omelet is not plain. It has ham in it, so would you like to order something else?" I thanked her for saving me from eating pork and I thanked God for making me look like a Muslim.

Then a stage came when I could not figure out who among my friends were sincere towards me. Those who pretended that they loved me were sometime backbiting against me. So I decided to try an experiment. At the peak of my "holiness" -by that time I was a writer, author, speaker on Islam-1 decided to shave my beard to the shock of many, including my family members.

There were many who were obviously pleased, i.e. my three year old and nine year old, to them it did not hurt when I kissed them. However those who were scared of my beard really liked me clean shaved. My chief of medicine asked," Is this a message ?" I replied in his own tone, "No I am still a terrorist, in fact more dangerous now. I used to be Khomeini, now I am Saddam Hussain." One old patient had an interesting comment. He said, "Doc! You look naked without your beard" and I did "feel naked." Those Muslims who objected to me shaving my beard were the ones who did not like me with or without the beard, so it did not matter much. Someone commented, it added 10-15 years to my life (i.e. looked younger), but did I?

I observed my friends and Muslims who loved me truly, continued to love me without my beard, though in their heart they wished I had never shaved. One such message I received from a friend, Imam Siraj Wahhaj when I met him at a convention. Although shocked, he smiled and embraced me, without saying a word, touched my face, where my beard used to be, telling me without words that he loved me and my beard both.

My decision to grow back my beard was none of the above observation, nor demands of my patients that I should look more dignified, but a question I asked myself. How do I want to look when I am being laid to rest in the coffin. I looked at my former picture and the mirror and the answer was obvious.

I am fully clothed now!!