The beard 
Last week two Muslim boys were put in isolation at a Catholic school and ordered that they must return to school "clean" shaven. Coincidentally this weekend I made a trip to the Imperial War Museum with my daughter and we spent a lot of time in the Holocaust gallery there. There were many things in that gallery which would and should leave one shaking, not least how the Nazis' first systematic use of production-line killing was the extermination of disabled and mentally impaired people, especially children. One of the less distressing exhibits was footage of a Nazi SA gang forcibly shaving Jews' beards and payots (locks of hair) in the early 1930s. Inconsequential compared with what followed, yet very telling, how a minority was singled out for public humiliation in an environment where a more powerful group sought to impose its own definition of acceptability in its efforts to draw popular favour. I do not believe for a moment that the Head Teacher, Xavier Bowers, is part of a neo-Nazi vanguard of course. But I do believe that he would not have imposed this humiliation on his pupils if this was not a time when populist journalism could muster widespread anti-Muslim prejudice just as the proto-Nazis used anti-Jewish prejudice to gain advantage in the 20s and 30s.

Mr Bowers has the temerity to define Islam himself: 'Xavier Bowers told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph: "We have not taken this decision lightly. I have spent quite a lot of time researching the issue and speaking to Muslim elders. There is nothing specifically written in the Qur'an about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain."' Muslims have standards too, and included among them is the religious code that one lives one's life in accordance with the Sunnah. The repeated command of the Qur'an is, "Obey Allah and obey the Messenger of Allah!" (Qur'an 24:54 and many other verses), and the Messenger of Allah (S) stated plainly, "Whoever obeys me certainly obeys Allah." (Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa'i, Ahmad, and Ibn Majah). Many elements of the Sunnah, the way of life of the Messenger of Allah (S), are transient things, applying sometimes, abrogated at others. But one Sunnah was practised by him, 24 hours a day, every day of his life, and continues, for all we know, for every moment in his kabr, his grave, in Madinah. That one Sunnah is the beard. It is an explicit command: "Lengthen your beard and clip your moustache." (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Hambal) How was it practised? The answer, as with all of the Sunnah, lies in what is recorded of him and of his companions (R). Not one single male companion kept his beard shorter than a full fist's length anywhere around his face. (For the moustache, his advice was to trim it short, never longer than a grain of rice; trim it right down to stubble as one of the fitras every Friday before Jumu'ah salaah.)

The "choice the boys are making" is to practice their faith. It is not for Xavier Bowers to state what is and what is not within the Muslim faith. As for the Muslim elders supposedly consulted, yes there are no doubt many of sufficient age to have been numbered among those who arrived as total strangers in the 1950s and 1960s, who had no masjids to attend, who left behind halaal food and their families in order to make some money out of Britain's invitation. Many of them are still there as trustees of masjids that are so set in the ways of the village that young men and women despair at finding meaningful Islamic practice from the lectures of the imams these elders employ. Their inertia, and the opportunities it creates for others to humiliate young Muslim men, are a very large part of what drives young Muslims to seek alternative sources to define their religion.

It is also an element of what motivates Muslim parents to find alternative sources of education, and hence Muslim faith schools. My own experience as a parent, of Muslim faith schools, is such that there is not one I would recommend, for a variety of reasons, which go beyond the scope of this blog article. One reason however is that they echo the same sectarian prejudices as UK masjids and their competing sects, indeed they are usually founded and run by the same vocal advocates of particular sectarian viewpoints. And are run with the same cynical contempt for diverse Muslim perspectives: you will find more adherence to a diverse multi-faith curriculum in a typical Muslim school's RE lesson than in many non-Muslim schools; but you will most likely hear just one Muslim sect's perspective in the same lesson, with alternative practices condemned unequivocally. Worse yet, by extension, you will find apalling racism directed at racial minorities within the class and among the pupils - this is my own children's first hand experience.

A Muslim free school accused of imposing strict Islamic practices, such as segregated classrooms, has closed following an inspection by Ofsted. The BBC reported that unnamed former staff members of Al-Madinah, which opened as a free school in September last year, had alleged that girls were forced to sit at the back of the classroom, and that female staff members, including non-Muslims, had been forced to wear the hijab. However the article states, "Last week, the interim principal told the BBC that he had not received any complaints from colleagues regarding the dress code and that pupils were not being segregated, with girls and boys being treated equally." Whatever the case, the strict Islamic ethical code does not require any segregation between children pre-puberty. Post-puberty the notion of separation in a co-ed class is not at all what Muslim parents would send their children to an Islamic school for - the classroom is not modelled on a jama'at in a masjid. Separate schools, yes, in common with many secular and faith-based schools, but the entire rationale for that falls apart in a segregated classroom.

Non-Muslims being forced to wear hijab? Can I invent the term "Islamical Correctness" to define nonsensical reduction of ethics to absurdity? If someone is not a Muslim, he or she is not required to adhere to any Islamic dress or food or behaviour custom whatsoever. If you don't want to see a non-Muslim lady's hair, then either don't look or stay indoors out of harm's way. Even in the masjid itself, even at the time of salaah, there is no Shari'a basis for requiring visitors to cover their heads. They aren't going to walk around in front of you during the salaah - there simply won't be space to do so unless you've arranged your salaah without a sutrah, and even then, so what? What about when you make your salaah out in the open in public (where it is meant to be seen). Are you going to interrupt your salaah when a non-Muslim woman walks past and is glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, bare ankled or worse? Please stop the nonsense of imposing Islamic habits on non-Muslims, it achieves nothing. And, Mr Xavier Bowers, please stop imposing your ritual humilation and your contempt for their religious practice, on Muslim pupils - you are not helping your religion or theirs, nor your school or their education.

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