The Queen and the Maid

Dress styles and clothe designs do not belong to races, religious denominations, or geographical regions. They belong first, to cultures, and second, to humankind, in general. But most cultures, including Western, are narrow. Some, even stupid. In clothes, they insist on those designs and fashions alone that have been developed within their own cultures. (They are always: “they and us” in their narrow world). For example, in the Western culture you cannot wear a Sherwani: one of the most majestic overcoats ever designed. Nor will the Westerners ever wear an Arab thawb (wrongly pronounced thobe).

The taboo in the West is actually against anything Islamic. But most non-Westerners do not realize the extent of the Western culture’s narrow-mindedness. Unable to lift up their downcast eyes before their awesome deities, they cannot see any distortion in them. Therefore, they cannot see in matters of clothes that the Westerners are extremely broad-minded over removal of the clothes and not over wearing of them. The more broad-minded a Westerner is, the more will he allow removal of clothes, until a woman is left with nothing on. The more you put on, the more he dislikes it. And the moment you put on something belonging to another culture, especially Islamic, he curls his eyebrows into a bow shape, and shoots arrows of scorn at you. If it is for fun, he is always ready for some fun. If you are serious, he gets serious. That’s your law-giver, and you better take his lawful and unlawful seriously.

Muslims will wear anything Western, but not what we can call – because we do not know how to refer to it – as “other-Muslim.” So, Arabs will rather wear within their own regions, a suit complete with necktie in sweltering summer, but not a royal Sherwani in winter. To them it would be ridiculous to wear a Punjabi Shirt-Shalwar: because it belongs to the “other-Muslims.” So what if it is “other-Muslim?” The Arab might be somewhat puzzled over how to answer the question. That is because he never thought why. It is because his mentor and master, the Westerner will not wear a Shirt-Shalwar.

The directive in Islam on proper covering of the body is well-known. But the suggestion to choose the graceful is not so well-known, although a tradition of the Prophet states it in clear terms: “Allah is beautiful, He approves of the beautiful.” Another factor in choice of clothe designs is comfort. Utility is a fourth factor. For example, the Mexican hat. It prevents farmers from sunshine, (but not from sunstroke, unless they remain standing as erect as the scare-crows they pitch in their fields). The Western necktie is another example of utility in dress design. It prevents cold from entering through the neck opening. But if you want to see a slave of his culture, see him in a neck-tie in summer.

Headgear of the Arabs is another example of utility factor playing its role in the design of clothes. In summer, it saves from sunstroke as it covers the back of the neck where heat wave strikes. In winter, it covers the ears and the neck, and keeps the whole body warm. During sandstorms that last several days, when dust is ubiquitous, it is Arab headgear (ghutra or shammaagh) that rescues those who venture out. One can wrap it around the whole head, with only the eye area open, and prevent the dust from entering through the collar opening. Otherwise, a walk to the grocery at the corner demands a bath at return, and opening the mouth, without the ghutra wrapping teaches the lesson that life is better when you talk lesser.

In short, clothes have their functional value. Fifthly, simplicity cannot be ignored. It is another Islamic requirement, and an important one at that.

Western dresses do not meet with any of the characteristics, except the utilitarian one. Neither do they cover the body well, nor are they the best to look at. When men wearing a variety of dresses stand side by side a few of the well-dressed Westerners, the difference speaks out loudly. The royalty in some of the traditional Arab, North African, Sudanese, Chinese or Japanese dresses makes one of them look like a king with his subjects in Western dresses around him. This is where the East and the West meet to defy the famous lines: “The East is East, the West, West. Never the twain shall meet.” They do meet, because in all their humbleness, the kings choose to be courtiers.

As for comfort, Western dress denies it altogether. This is the reason why the necktie is removed as soon as a man is allowed by the etiquette to breathe freely. Rest of the clothes are also gotten rid of the moment their victims are off the public eye. The discomfort explains why many in the West prefer to remain nearly naked when in the privacy of their homes: a fashion that has invaded most homes. An Arab traveling through America had a memorable experience when he thought he would spend his last few hours well by presenting Islam to one or two people. The first apartment he knocked at was opened by a naked lady, who was of course quite willing to hear, if the man would stop shifting weight foot to foot, give up fuddling, and begin talking.

On the question of removal of clothes, something else comes to mind. Recently, a politician called another a thug. What the West does not understand is that the Muslims will rather accept a thug as a leader than someone of a filthy mind. Orders faithfully executed, Western leaders smile in amusement at some photographs. But the Arabs are near to vomiting. This is where the two worlds do not meet. And the difference is because of Islam. Little wonder that revision of Islamic text books is one of the demands of the bright minds, dark souls.

As for simplicity, the simpler the Western dress, the uglier it is. It is on the high ground of utility that Western dresses can challenge any other design. Yet, only some and not all of their designs meet with the condition. The simplest and the most common ones of the Western dresses are designed for fast movement, to be least cumbersome at work, and so on. They suit very well workers at the workshops, motorcyclists, and of course, circus artists. The last mentioned would not wish to jump rope to rope with the aristocratic Sudanese dress on.

The utilitarian characteristic of commonly worn Western dresses goes well with its material character. In Western culture, productivity comes first, humans next. Comfort is measured against pennies. If it costs a few pennies extra, comfort could be considered, if you persisted long enough. Little do the Westerners realize that one of the reasons why they are always tense, even during their everyday living, is the dresses they wear. Several decades ago, the Sufistic Ashraf Ali Thanwi (who spent most of his life in the Indian countryside) was asked what he thought of the Western culture. He quipped, “It is not a culture; it is a torture.” (Not tahzeeb, but ta`zeeb). A man can have more than two eyes, if he so wishes. And of course, he wasn’t thinking merely of clothes.

The Western dress was not always as bereft of graceful qualities as it is now. A maidservant of the Middle-ages looked like a queen, while today’s queen in her jeans tends to look like her. The necktie then, in those times, was what  it should be now: a flowing muffler, of checquered design, that covered the neck. The neck, as we all know, is a fine sight when completely out of sight. The scarf of the Middle Ages, that lifted a woman’s face, like a flower embedded in leaves, has been abandoned in favor of hair dyes. Every woman above forty includes it in her grocery list to conceal her age.

With regard to grace, we must observe some caution. To some people, some clothes look funny. They cast jeering looks at, as they would describe, laughable attire. But, although aesthetic values cannot be denied, and, admittedly, not every dress design is worthy of defense, much comes from broad or narrow mindedness of the people and their cultures. A point we are about to stress is that a good culture is one which can accommodate everything that meets with the characteristics we have described.

In Muslim cultures, most gentry have preferred to wear something on the head, considering it bad manners to go about bare headed. An Arab scholar of the contemporary world is reported to have sought excuse from his audience in his drawing room, before removing his headgear. That is Muslim culture. The demands of an Islamic culture however, are different. The Hanafiyyah argue that since in many cases the headgear is for pomp, one might remove his headgear while offering Prayers. Some of the renowned figures of the past chose to go about in the bazaars with bare heads. They wished to demonstrate that they were no better, no worse than the plebian. It also helped them trample on their egos, if there was any left after their spiritual exercises. In clothes, they chose the simplest that their local culture offered, easily adopting another culture’s dress, although they lived within their own cultures. But they also warned that to wear poor quality attire, in order to impress others of one’s other-worldliness, is actually this-worldliness. Did we say something above about an extra pair of eyes?

Examples of the liberal-mindedness of Islam were demonstrated by no less than the Prophet himself. (One of the hundreds of minor reasons why we think he qualifies to lead the people). He wore clothes of all sorts and all designs, local as well as foreign. From simple two pieces of cloth, to shirt and loin cloth, to shirt and trouser (at least he purchased one, as a report goes), to Yemeni cloak, to even a Roman shirt: he wore everything that the Makkan, Yemeni and Syrian markets made available. His broad-mindedness has not been matched even by the religious class of his followers.

At the moment the Islamic world is between a beggar and a borrower in cultural matters. Muslims must attempt to combine, from the broad choices available, the five elements we have spoken of. They also need to add on a few of their own designs. Every age has its own demands (if you will step into it). And they should have the courage to wear their designs for the uncultured ones to learn from. But, from the present state of mental slavery, with their faculties of mind frozen, their sense of innovation imprisoned, by the kings and the courtiers, can they attempt any such vice?