There I was, a drab male lump in a queue of chic young hijabis on a sunny, crisp Saturday. We were waiting to get into the afternoon’s events at the London Modest Fashion Week (LMFW) in Bloomsbury. The line was moving glacially, and it was clear the event was going to start late. People started approaching the rugby player-built security guards around – who looked like they were channelling Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith from Men in Black – to check if the time on their tickets, 2pm, was right. Taking advantage of the bottleneck, a young woman – with an American accent with South Asian notes – started distributing a dissertation questionnaire to people in the queue. She focused only on the young women – I felt equal parts relieved and left out. I couldn’t help but see what the young women in front of me wrote in the ‘age’ column – 21. I made a mental note not to strike up a conversation in case they dealt the unintended indignity of addressing me as ‘Uncle’.
Why was I so self-conscious? Was it because I was surrounded by perfectly preened, young, mostly Muslim women, taking selfies and chattering away? ‘I’m not some creepy, non-colour coordinated lech,’ I wanted to protest aloud, ‘I’m here for research.’ Just as I was thinking this, two attractive English lads walked past the queue and stared, in what I thought was puzzlement, at the sea of hijabis before them. The coin dropped for one of them: ‘Oh, it’s fashion week, innit?’ ‘Course it is,’ the other replied, in a tone that was both enlightened and relieved. How wonderful, I thought, that this is how they made sense of the crowd of Muslim women before their eyes – how wonderfully London.
How liberating, I went on thinking, that these young British men would associate the hijab not with some stereotypically insular or ominous-sounding Muslamic event. Surely it was only in London that they would associate the mostly brown-skinned hijabis before their eyes with style and beauty. But then I wondered if this was a double-edged sword. Were they instead perceiving these hijabis as hot because this event adopted the format and atmosphere of a pre-existing, so-called Western template – runway fashion? Was this what it took for Muslims in Britain to be seen as more than pesky, radicalised religious minorities – to dilute the markers of our faith and gently stir them into the majority’s comfort zone? I realised that it was a bit rich of me to be thinking this – I am not visibly Muslim by any means and never have been. I have no beard, no jubba (ankle-length robe), and an accent that is difficult to pin down.
These thoughts about the politics of fashion, appearance, and identity were swirling madly in my head as we were eventually ushered into the building. Then we had to get into another queue that snaked around the basement and backstage area. The chatter got louder and more excited. I lost track of the number of ‘hi darlings’ and air kisses that were exchanged before my eyes at various spots in the queue. For the longest time, I was stuck in front of the 1001 Abayas stall. In an adjacent stall, there was a stylish, bearded young black man striking poses and getting photographed. When we finally took our seats beside the runway, the crowd’s anticipation was ripe. Soft electronic dance music played in the background – the mood was tasteful and understated. I wondered, not for the last time, if this was so that no one would confuse this for an immodest fashion show.
Phones were then whipped out en masse, mine included – although I was probably in a tiny minority of people using Keep Notes rather than Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. There was a mix of scruffy middle-aged men with cameras on tripods in one corner, obviously ‘official’ photographers of some description, and what I assumed were fashion bloggers or vloggers and their phone-camera-wielding fashionista followers on social media stationed in other parts of the hall.
At 3.30pm, finally, the spotlights came on. A woman announcer greeted the audience with the extended salam – assalamu alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh (the peace, mercy and blessings of Allah be with you). No shade intended, but I don’t think she was a Millennial, although she was certainly a snazzy hijabi. She welcomed everyone to stay and enjoy not just the runway – there were shops selling all sorts of products, from food to fragrances. For the first time, also, the event was hosting a runway for men. I did a double take when she then announced that Lindsay Lohan – yes, the Lindsay of Mean Girls and Freaky Friday fame, rumoured to have converted to Islam – was there, too.
And with that, the first catwalk show began. The clothes being modelled were loose-fitting and long yet attractively shaped, sedate yet showy in the choice of shiny material and floral textures, and innovative in the permutations of wrapping patterns for the headscarves. There were several ensembles which didn’t even incorporate headscarves – the models had their hair flowing freely. But even with these designs, the sleeves and the skirts or trousers were lengthy and no cleavage was visible. This is when I recognised that modest fashion can be deeply subversive and political – especially in an age when, for example, French schoolgirls are banned from attending classes because their skirts are ‘too long’, or when French women are forced to remove their burkinis at the beach at gunpoint. At the same time, ‘modest fashion’ shows such as these fly in the face of the draconian rulings and attitudes on women’s dress in many Muslim countries. In my native Malaysia, for example, online trolls – invariably Muslim men – get away with impunity for insulting and threatening even headscarf-clad women whose dressing is deemed to be not compliant enough with ‘true’ Islamic standards. Advocates of Muslim fashion thus always have to confront multiple opposition and criticisms. There is Western fashion imperialism on one hand, which continues to be unable to recognise Muslim clothing cultures as ‘fashionable’, and, on the other hand, the anti-Western, coercive dogma of traditionalist Islamic authorities. The fact is that for many Muslim women, items of clothing such as the hijab can have multiple meanings, including as markers of religious piety, political protest, personal style, and inherited culture.
There are choices to be made, however, in how these possible meanings are presented at events such as the LMFW. In this case, once the runway began, the music changed subtly, into what I can only describe as chillout Arabian Nights techno-chic. This recurring aesthetic that blended the latest in the electropop revival and a more placid and, dare I say it, ‘Oriental’, vibe reminded me of what Jonas Otterbeck observes, in this issue, about the emergence of Islamic pop music. Writing specifically about the oeuvre of Awakening Records, which includes household names such as Maher Zain and formerly Sami Yusuf, Otterbeck notes that the company’s production values are ‘clean yet rather contemporary’. He explains:
Think Lionel Richie meets Taylor Swift. Distorted sounds or dark atmospheres are not part of the soundscape…. Musical instruments, with the exception of drums, were not used at first…. This was essential at the time as Islamic legal ethics rarely found stringed and wind instruments acceptable. Since Sami Yusuf’s debut, digital sound pads have been used extensively. These pads may consist of, for example, sampled voices producing a required type of sound texture, in this case the imitation of a choir or even different instruments. Pads are also used to provide vocal basslines and swooping synthesizer-like chords, creating much larger sonic landscapes than previous recordings of the genre. Almost all mainstream pop productions of today make extensive use of pads. However, around 2003-05, opinions started to change among Islamic intellectuals and artists and in the coming years several artists that used to produce vocals-only recordings started to add instruments, including such seminal artists as Yusuf Islam, Dawud Wharnsby and Awakening’s own Sami Yusuf.
Although Otterbeck is referring specifically to Islamic pop, where creating a modern yet religiously approved ‘beautiful sound’ is the foremost goal, much of what he says is applicable to the modest fashion sphere, as exemplified by the LMFW. In both settings, beautiful sounds are a way of redrawing aesthetic boundaries without either completely jettisoning religious tradition, whatever that means, or alienating the supposedly liberal, Western ‘other’. Because, of course, fashion and music are inseparable – a glance at the most iconic videos from the likes of Lady Gaga and the late George Michael illustrates this point amply enough. The use of music in the Islamic pop and modest fashion industries can therefore be seen as the attempt to have one’s trendy Muslim cake and eat it, too.
Yet it would not be right to be entirely cynical about this aural enterprise. In this issue of Critical Muslim, Doris Behrens-Abouseif complements Otterbeck’s analysis by pointing out that the idea of music as an expression of divine beauty has been ever-present throughout Islamic history. Focusing on Arabic-Islamic literature, Behrens-Abouseif argues that in this corpus, ‘music was the art to which [was] attributed the most profound impact on the soul’. This argument might come as a surprise to those of us who have internalised the idea that music of any kind is strictly forbidden in Islam. Behrens-Abouseif acknowledges this side of the argument but explains that Islamic opinions about music were not entirely unanimous or uniform. Jurists and scholars were divided about the stirring power of music, some believing that it could ‘lead to the profound religious experience of ecstasy’, while others held that it would result in ‘the kind of intoxication associated with immorality’. According to Behrens-Abouseif:
Although the jurists Abu Hanifa (d. 767) and Shafiʿi (d. 820) condemned music, in particular when performed by slave girls, al-Ghazali contradicted them with the argument that there is no statement in the Qur’an or in the Prophet’s traditions to justify such hostility. One of al-Ghazali’s arguments in favour of music was that it is perceived by one of our five senses which, together with the mind, were created to be used. He mentions the musical performances of the Patriarch David and the singing of birds which flatters the ear and refers to a hadith saying that all prophets sent by God had a beautiful voice; a preacher should have, therefore, a pleasant harmonic speech to move his listeners. He divided the influence of music into two categories – spiritual and physical. Al-Ghazali’s opinion was endorsed by other theologians, especially among the Sufis who, referring to the biblical Davidic tradition and to hadith, believed music to be an attribute of Paradise.
In Muslim cultures, therefore, the concept of beauty incorporated but did not prioritise the visual – beauty was also aural, tactile and olfactory. But in the past, as in the present, the main issue – as formulated by Al-Ghazali and his supporters – was whether music provided a means of getting closer to God or an excuse to indulge in unlawful behaviour. Trying to discern the boundary between the two has never been easy, because of the sensuous and seductive nature in which beauty is described within Islam’s central texts. Behrens-Abouseif goes so far as to maintain that ‘in no other religion does the concept of beauty play such a crucial role as in Islam.’ The proof, she argues, is to be found within the Qur’an itself:
One of the most powerful testimonies of the significance of sensuous beauty in religion is the fact that, unlike in Christianity, the Qur’an and other Muslim religious texts describe Paradise in physical sensual terms, referring to precious materials – natural and processed – such as gems and jewellery, garments, architecture, and ornaments (55:54, 76), and to beautiful young women, or khayyirāt and ḥisān (55:70).
These arguments are persuasive enough – for me, at least – to recognise and celebrate that the concept of beauty, including the exhortation to appreciate it and strive for it holistically, lies at the heart of Islam. But do they justify the need for profit-seeking phenomena such as the modest fashion industry, or Islamic pop? In this quest to pursue supposedly Islamic ideals of beauty, who is the ultimate arbiter, or beholder, of what counts as beautiful? A sharia-ready response would be, ‘Why, Allah, our Maker, of course.’ But this, to me, would be casuistry at best and would smack of hypocrisy at worst. To behold some objects as beautiful and others as not is an act of power that too many human beings conveniently exploit in the name of divine instruction or otherwise.
The modest fashion runway is not immune from such acts of power, either. Sure, the LMFW models were admirably diverse on one level – from blonde and blue-eyed to brown-skinned and black; hijabi and non-hijabi. They were all also young, able-bodied, and slim. At the risk of sounding po-faced, I wondered why, in a show that was supposed to represent a holistic alternative to the allegedly exploitative practices of mainstream fashion, I could not see a single person who was plus-sized, older, or visibly disabled. This is not whataboutery – it’s about acknowledging the deleterious effects of the fashion industry on huge numbers of women, men, and people who do not fit neatly into either end of the binary. Neither is this a call to arms to destroy the fashion industry as an icon of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. Rather, it’s about understanding the power of conceptions and definitions of beauty in people’s everyday lives, especially women. As Nadia Mohd Rasidi recounts in her poignant essay in this issue, the idea of beauty – even when grounded in Islamic terms – can be experienced as a kind of tyranny for some people.
Nadia recalls sitting in her Islamic Studies lessons as a child in Malaysia, struggling with the idea that, for Muslims, ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ What follows is a raw, candid confession of a Muslim woman coming to terms with the role of ‘beauty’ in shaping her sense of self:
In a vague sense I understood that God’s beauty was something beyond my comprehension but His love for beauty, to me, had to be grounded in the tangible world that I lived in. And if God loves beauty, and if, as I then believed, I was not beautiful, what did that mean for me? It wasn’t that I thought God didn’t love me because I wasn’t conventionally beautiful. It’s that it was beginning to dawn on me that the beauty I was being told God valued still very much conformed to the parameters of human desire, and so no matter how sweet my words and good my deeds, as a fat person, my body would always betray me to other people through the ugliness of its excess.
This personal confession of Nadia’s turns into unflinching, multi-layered analysis as she dissects the politics of beauty pageants. She asserts that beauty pageants, as with the fashion industry, are a product of the patriarchal, male gaze. They are designed not only to define the idea of beauty for women, but for spectators to take pleasure in watching women struggle and squirm to fit into these male-centric criteria. Beauty pageants, according to her, are all about celebrating thinness, non-disability and, most insidiously, whiteness.
In this sense, the LMFW could claim to be a force for change of sorts. Blackness, brownness and yellowness were proudly on display, on the runway and in the audience. And, to be fair, there were plus-sized women – or ‘large and in charge’, as reclaimed by RuPaul’s Drag Race fan-favourite Latrice Royale – dotted about in the audience, if not on the runway. For women like Nadia, however, the battle always has to be fought on more than one front. For, in Malaysia, the appeal of events like beauty pageants is matched by the patriarchal enforcement of so-called Islamic morals and values, often disproportionately and heavy-handedly against women and religious and sexual minorities. According to a fatwa, or religious opinion – which, in Malaysia, has the force of state legislation – Muslim women are forbidden from entering beauty contests. The dilemma, as Nadia articulates, is this: ‘On one hand, the restriction is absurd and discriminatory; on the other, arguing for inclusion in an archaic form of aesthetic assessment undeniably rankles. It raises the question, what do we understand as distinctly Muslim beauty that stands in opposition to non-Muslim beauty?’
Additionally, should Muslim women be thankful for being saved by Muslim men from the ignominy of succumbing to the supposedly immoral Western standards of beauty? Or should they fight the ridiculousness of the anti-pageant fatwa to claim the freedom to compete in a patriarchal assessment of their boobs, bums, and brains (in that order)? While modest fashion advocates might protest that what they are doing is far removed from the idea of the beauty pageant – with its unashamed ranking of participants, including what they look like in swimsuits – the parallels are undeniable. The similarities come into sharper focus when we look at developments in Indonesia, home of Miss Muslimah, an Islamic beauty pageant launched in 2011. In this Jakarta-based competition, open to contestants from around the world, 20 hijab-wearing finalists have to demonstrate not only their style and physical beauty, but also their religious piety, humanitarian intelligence, and strength of character. Tasks include memorising the Qur’an, visiting impoverished slums and care homes for the elderly, and hobnobbing with corporate sponsors, all while praying five times a day – ‘and wearing heels’. Among the prizes offered are pilgrimage trips to Mecca and education scholarships.
Nadia’s bemusement at the very existence of such an ‘Islamic’ beauty pageant reaches its climax at the observation offered by a photojournalist, Monique Jacques, who says:
I thought the contradiction of a Muslim beauty pageant was so interesting and unique. In my work I’m always looking for ways to communicate the experience of young Muslim women to Western audiences. Much of the competition is similar to a pageant in America or anywhere in the West, just with headscarves.
And there’s the rub. (Or one of several rubs, actually.) As worthy as their goals sound to their originators and supporters, do efforts like Miss Muslimah and LMFW merely amount to ‘add headscarf to Western hegemony and stir’? Or, in the case of Islamic pop, ‘add beard and stir’? Do they actually represent a thoughtful rethinking of Islamic ideals and a challenge to discriminatory attitudes and practices within and beyond Muslim contexts? Or, as Nadia puts it, ‘Is the end goal then, once again, to flatten difference? There is comfort in the familiar, certainly, but such comfort only serves to assuage white and Western fears about the untamed other.’
The blanket is not all wet, though. Contradiction alert: I actually enjoyed quite a lot of LMFW. Yes, as I looked at the models parading in front of me, I did wonder about what the experience of looking entailed. What are you looking at, or for? Would it be how you imagine you should look, or actually look? Or would it be how you would adapt elements of the perfect look being displayed in front of you for your own unruly and stubbornly non-fashion-ready body? Or would you judge the models and the garments on their bodies with a harshness you would never resort to with someone you really cared for? Even as I was thinking these thoughts, I observed the audience around me. A group of girls beside me who were obviously friends – two non-hijabis (one Asian and one white) and a Somali hijabi – looked earnest and thoughtful, but not unkind. Two blond white men sitting across from me – representatives from a fashion line, I wondered? – had priceless reactions. They were demonstrably enthusiastic and invested in everything that passed before their eyes. Again, their expressions were devoid of the sneering judgement one would associate with the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada.
These reactions, and my own, made me reflect upon what some writers refer to as ‘the gaze’. The gaze, for those of us with the ability to hold it, establishes particular boundaries, hierarchies, intentions and understandings between us and the object, or objects, of our attention. In other words, the gaze objectifies. But are all gazes alike? Do all forms of objectification carry the same consequences for the one doing the gazing and the one being gazed at? Conventional feminist wisdom has it that the patriarchal, heterosexist gaze exploits and diminishes women (and men who do not conform to stereotypical masculine ideals). Complementing this idea is the decolonial or anti-colonial idea that the Eurocentric, white gaze has historically dehumanised or subjugated – and continues, in new guises, to dehumanise and subjugate – non-white, non-European peoples.
The value in these interrelated perspectives is that they make us reckon with relationships of power between the beholder’s eyes and the objects they deem to be beautiful. They expose the ideologies that underline a multitude of beliefs and practices on intimate and industrial scales, including skin lightening, cosmetic surgery, and inner wellbeing. But these analyses also run the risk of being too static and reinforcing the marginalisation of those who are already marginalised by the white, heterosexist, patriarchal, male gaze. The thing is, is gazing not a two-way relationship? Do those being gazed at not consciously invite gazes, and do they not gaze back at the people gazing at them? And, in an age of selfies and wefies, do they not take pleasure at gazing at themselves in the way that they want others to gaze at them, and to gaze at other people gazing at themselves? Is there not a more complicated view we could develop about the nature of the gaze?
For Samia Rahman, the idea that selfie culture could contain liberating elements remains questionable. It provides but faux liberation from the Eurocentric, patriarchal gaze. In her essay on Selfies and Other Gazes, she argues:
Filters, photo-editing, Snapchat and all manner of duplicity are employed to make a person prettier and thinner than they could possibly aspire to be In Real Life (IRL). IRL a person is flawed. A beach-ready body and perfect skin comprise an image perpetuated by elite supermodels who deny they ever diet or have a skincare routine…. You gotta fake it to make it. It’s all about attitude and editing. Now that our lives are lived through the medium of virtual reality, it is an encumbrance, no an obligation, to smooth those wrinkles, trout that pout and present a super-enhanced version of your best possible self. Brushed and sculpted, using all the latest guides and trends and YouTube tutorials, you can now dare to gaze out from the black mirror and be blisteringly judged and brazenly objectified.
There are even apps now – several of them – for ‘perfecting selfies’. The verdict, according to Rahman, is that there is no way to subvert the gaze. The solution is simply to stop gazing and to start seeing or apprehending each other, and ourselves, as fellow members of humanity. And so, Rahman repents ever calling anyone pretty, or handsome, because such compliments do not only exclude those who are not privileged or lucky enough to receive them, they also diminish the very people they intend to praise. ‘Pretty’, ‘handsome’, ‘gorgeous’, and ‘hot’ say nothing about each person’s struggles, aspirations, gifts, and concerns.
While Rahman’s sentiment is salutary, it might be a little bit difficult to put into practice. The line between physical beauty and inner fulfilment is often fuzzy. There’s a reason, after all, for the enduring popularity of sentiments such as ‘if you look good, you feel good’. Alongside this is the reality that attaining beauty and projecting happiness have probably always involved some level of artificial enhancement and deception, notwithstanding the rise of the selfie. An intriguing case study of how the boundaries are blurred can be found in none other than one of the former axes of evil, according to former US President George W Bush – Iran.
In this issue, Nima Nasseri reports an intriguing trend within the Islamic Republic about cosmetic surgery. No, it’s not that this is booming business in Iran – it has been for a while, especially amongst women. What is noteworthy is how popular going under the knife has become amongst Iranian men now, too, who account for a third of all clients of cosmetic surgeries in the country – double the global average. By far, the most popular procedure for Iranian men and women now is the nose job. Quoting a study by Johns Hopkins University, Nasseri reveals that ‘the rate of nose jobs per capita in Iran is seven times that in the US’. And no, this phenomenon is not restricted to the wealthier or upper classes. The cosmetic augmentation of the Iranian conk is also popular amongst ‘office workers, university students, shop keepers, and even teenagers who choose to spend their savings or risk going into debt for such procedures’. Neither is the phenomenon restricted to lax Muslims or secular Iranians – in Nasseri’s observation, the obsession is shared equally amongst the pious and impious.
Such statistics fly in the face of Iran’s reputation for upholding and imposing hard-line interpretations of Islam. Nasseri argues that they actually indicate unexpected and non-organised forms of resistance against the state’s official anti-Western policies, which often border on caricature. Such widespread yet seemingly apolitical actions can sometimes push the state into conflict or compromise. For example, state-sponsored websites which once condemned cosmetic surgery are now publishing guidelines on how to perform wuzu, or ritual ablutions, for people who are recovering from such procedures.
The majority of people Nasseri spoke with highlighted not only the surgery’s tangible benefits – one cosmetics businessman underwent a nose job to attract a larger clientele – but also the wonders that it did for their self-esteem. Of course, this boost in confidence could also come from the relief of being rewarded for conforming to rising social pressures regarding physical beauty. The sting in the tail is that Iranian nose jobs also reveal a certain level of self-directed racism. According to one surgeon Nasseri interviewed, what people are really looking for is to remove the characteristic ‘Persian bump’ so that they can look more European. Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of plastic surgery, the removal of this inherited ‘hooked nose’ now adds to a sense of Iranian pride.
Iranians, however, have not monopolised the obsession for achieving physical perfection by removing all traces of native heredity in favour of a Eurocentric ideal. As Yovanka Paquete Perdigao discloses in this issue, skin lightening products are big business in Africa and Asia. This is despite the fact that many of them have been shown, time and again, to cause all manner of harmful side effects. The percentage of women who regularly use these products in the African continent alone is staggering – ‘77 per cent of Nigerian women; 60 per cent of Zambian women between the ages of 30 and 39; 59 per cent of Togolese people; 50 to 60 per cent of adult Ghanaian women; 52 per cent of women in Bamako, Mali; and 35 per cent of people in Pretoria, South Africa’.
What is the reason for the popularity of these dubious products? For Perdigao, the blame lies squarely with colourism, or shadeism, which is a direct consequence of European colonialism. Early in her essay, she establishes why the politics of skin lightening are emphatically not similar to the politics of tanning for white people – the choices we make to beautify our bodies do not exist in a political vacuum. As Perdigao argues, tanning and skin lightening are not parallel phenomena because ‘no people of colour had colonised and brutally ruled Caucasian people and installed a meritocracy based on skin colour. It is precisely within European colonialism that the obsession with skin lightening began.’
Before Muslims can cheer at this anti-Orientalist takedown, however, there are some uncomfortable home truths to reckon with. As Perdigao stresses, the rise of Muslim civilisations was not exactly immune from skin-colour racism either. The examples that demonstrate this are many. The Arabic word abd, for example, means ‘slave’ but is often used by Arab Muslims to describe African or dark-skinned people. And within Muslim-majority African cultures, light-skinned people enjoy higher status, for example, in Somalia. In some other predominantly Muslim African countries, skin colour remains a function of slavery and inequality, for example in Mauritania and Libya. Outside of Africa, Perdigao serendipitously gives the example of Iran, where Afro-Iranians – mostly descendants of Africans captured by Arab slave traders – remain invisible, despite their numerous contributions to Iranian culture.
The colourist bias has also permeated the modest fashion industry. The lack of representation of black women in the 2017 Dubai Modest Fashion Week sparked an uproar amongst black Muslim beauty and fashion bloggers and vloggers. Their protest against what they rightly saw as intra-Muslim anti-black racism culminated in the hashtag #BlackMuslimahExcellence, which went viral instantly. In hindsight, I wonder if this partly explains the visibility of black men and women at the LMFW I attended.
Despite these critical caveats, as I’ve already confessed, I wasn’t exactly hunched in a corner, silently spitting tacks. As self-conscious and insecure as I was, I was intrigued about what was going on around me, in a good way. After the end of the first runway, I wandered around the venue and found myself in a hall where loads of different products were being sold. There were, of course, headscarves and other garments, sold by lines such as Mimpikita, Till We Cover, Cover Me Collection, Hafza Studio, and Deena’s Style. There was Jubbas, showcasing its line of men’s jubbas (or thawbs), religious books, and fragrances. When I was browsing at this particular stall, the guys who were minding it were spritzing perfume samples on a couple of hip black youths. There was also Sweetlicious – selling sweets, of course – and Two London, which was selling foundation and fake eyelashes.
I found the last stall, the National Zakat Foundation, a logical fit, yet somehow slightly jarring as well. There was something about seeing this promotion of obligatory almsgiving, an essential tenet of Islam, at a fashion show. It was logical because, of course, the event was consciously conceptualised as a celebration of a holistic, integrated, and stylish expression of Islam. And so, why not pay the obligatory poor-due after you’ve bought your five designer headscarves and two sets of halal nail polish?
Many commentators – of various beliefs – are increasingly critical about the societal pressures on us all to adhere to superficial standards of beauty. However, concentrating on ‘inner beauty’ and ‘wellbeing’ isn’t the solution either. As Irum Shehreen Ali argues in her essay on ‘Wellness’, this reflective turn towards ‘inner beauty’ has its own exploitative, inane dimensions. The legitimate goal of pursuing ‘self-actualisation’ has now given birth to, as she puts it, the ‘wellness industrial complex’. And it’s gendered, too, because guess who the prime targets of the wellness industry are? Women, of course.
As Ali explains, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the emphasis on wellness and inner beauty. In a world that hasn’t quite recovered from the 2008 financial crash, and where massive problems such as violent conflict and environmental degradation seem to be intractable, people do need to believe that they can find resilience, strength, and happiness within themselves. And some advice is just sensible – eat healthily, exercise more, cultivate supportive relationships, and get enough rest. The problem is when wellness becomes an industry in which people’s understandable scepticism about quick fixes regarding external beauty becomes exploited by a load of quackery about inner wellbeing. For example, according to Ali:
In an atmosphere of anxiety regarding food, clean eating philosophies offer reassurance that if you follow the rules of this holistic way of life, you too will be healthy and whole. As a result, thousands are obsessing over chemical toxins, using coconut oil for every ailment, going gluten free despite not having coeliac disease, adopting ever more rigid and inflexible patterns of eating. Many doctors and scientists have shown elimination diets to be based on bad science. Writer Bee Wilson notes that faced with conflicting nutritional information and an overwhelming array of unhealthy food, clean eating is ‘best seen as a dysfunctional response to a still more dysfunctional food supply: a dream of purity in a toxic world’.
It is not just ‘clean eating’ in which such potential for harm exists – Ali includes the obsession with yoga and mindfulness in the West as areas in which capitalist profit-making and fake expertise flourish synergistically. Ultimately, the main problem with the industrialisation of wellbeing philosophies is but a subtler and more insidious version of the main problem with societal obsession with physical beauty. It turns the people who do not meet these impossible standards into failures without challenging the very structures that are designed to guarantee failure for the many, not the few. As Ali argues:
Promoting this retreat into the self as a path to inner beauty does nothing to change the very socio-economic structures of our late capitalist societies that leads to the disaffection, loneliness and sense of loss that we are seeking to heal. It is essentially a philosophy of selfishness, dressed up as spiritual awakening. It also locates the entire onus of inner wellbeing and happiness on the individual and ignores the problem of oppressive cultural norms.
It would be unfair to give the impression that the audience and organisers of LMFW did not possess this potential for self-reflection and self-criticism. After the lunch break, as I left the National Zakat Foundation counter and returned to the main hall, I managed to catch a panel discussion on the evolution of the Muslim male’s lifestyle. Some of the discussion was light, fun and informative. For example, there was the chronology of how Muslim entrepreneurs in East London are benefiting from the rise of the hipster beard. Because, of course, many brown and black Muslim men in Britain were growing beards long before they morphed from being security threats into the latest fashion trend. But because of this new fad, Muslim beard-grooming outlets are now doing booming business – they’re run by people who know what they’re doing and who use halal, ergo ‘natural’, beard-care products.
The real revelation on the panel, however, came from an Asian Muslim halal entrepreneur whose appearance – bearded, muscly, tattooed, accompanied by a baseball cap, denim jacket, and skinny jeans – I can only describe as post-Salafi swank. At some point during the discussion, he said, matter-of-factly, ‘Well the whole Muslim fashion industry is about privilege, isn’t it?’ It’s about the Muslims who are becoming more middle class also becoming more visible because of their rising disposable incomes, whilst the majority of Britain’s Muslims still live in poverty.
This proposition finds its corollary in Henry Brefo’s contribution to this issue, on the increasing appropriation or incorporation of Muslim symbols by clothing manufacturers and other designers. The introduction of hijab-friendly athletic gear by Nike, for example, could be seen as an act of inclusion, but it could also be a cynical marketing decision to attract a growing demographic of Muslim consumers. Brefo asserts that the absorption of Muslim symbols into Western culture has a long history – but it has never resulted in a greater acceptance of Islam within the West. This discrepancy – between finding certain elements of Muslim cultures appealing whilst retaining Islamophobic attitudes – is not resolved in the versions of multiculturalism endorsed by the state and marketed by big corporations. As Brefo argues:
Multiculturalism is acceptable so far as it conforms to the norm, even within the realm of fantasy. The celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, must always involve a troupe of Indian women dressed in traditional garb, gyrating to public delight. This suggests that the city must once again be graced with native sexuality for the benefit of subsequent generations, who no longer have the Empire at their disposal. Africa Day can be summed up by a cacophony of colours and sounds, all too insufferable to your average UKIP voter hankering after a post-Brexit, white utopia.
If Brefo is right, then the LMFW can only find success if it can consistently find its target between the shifting goalposts of ‘fundamental British values’ whilst playing up Muslim exotica for its own sake. Lipstick laden Muslim women in hijab seem to fit the bill – for now. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, this year’s LMFW premiered a male runway, too, which I awaited excitedly. I didn’t really know what to expect, but never have I seen so many thawbs on a runway in my life. Every single fashion line that was showcased – including Sulyman by SO.ME, Al-Imaan by Jubbas, Ilyas X Morrison, and Sunna Style – consisted overwhelmingly of variations upon a loose kaftan. I was bracing myself to get bored, but there were surprising delights to be found here, too. Particularly memorable was when one of the young black models broke out some hip-hop dance moves on the runway, to raucous applause. Even more surprising was how, at some point, I started leaning forward in interest, despite myself, thinking, ‘Well, I’d wear that. Or maybe that one, in a different colour. Or that one, in Ramadan.’ And for all the critical analysis I developed on the day, I have to confess that I’ve actually bookmarked the Jubbas website. No, this is not product placement – I haven’t bought anything. But I do have my eye on the Al Noor Wine Thobe which is retailing for what I consider to be an affordable £24.99. The only thing is I don’t know if it will go with my skin tone.
Just when I thought I’d seen everything, I looked around before I left and noticed that there were no women wearing niqab (the face-veil). Well, why would they be here anyway, I wondered. Surely the whole point of wearing a niqab is to reject the fashion industry as haram. But this is why Muslims don’t call God the Manifest (az-Zahir) and the Hidden (al-Batin) for nothing – as I walked up the stairs towards the exit, who should I have glimpsed entering but a woman in a niqab, also wearing what I would swear were fake eyelashes. Now I really had seen everything.
While I can’t offer a working definition of ‘beauty’, I wonder if, as a Muslim, there are ways to capture its transcendent potential beyond the usual sensorial allegories of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The contribution by Hasina Zaman comes achingly close to offering this larger view of beauty. Zaman, a Muslim woman director of a funeral company that caters to a multifaith clientele, makes a rare yet utterly compelling case for appreciating beauty as a matter of life and death. Specifically, she asks us to think about the ways in which we can prepare ourselves, and our loved ones, for a beautiful end to our earthly lives. This is not recycled mumbo jumbo from the wellness industry, but an observation based on personal experience and challenging everyday work. Zaman begins by revealing the anguish she felt in the aftermath of the suicide of a member of her family – and the ugliness of how their surrounding community reacted to this tragedy. From this example, Zaman suggests that the callousness with which some people approach death, including Muslims, is also connected to ignorance about a host of other issues, including mental illness. To make things worse, supposedly excessive expressions of grief amongst the bereaved are often seen as possible signs of mental illness, instead of a fluctuating journey of emotional and spiritual recovery. Perhaps the most poignant observation that Zaman makes is of workshops on death, dying and bereavement which she often delivers for caregivers:
On one such course, the carers I was teaching, all of whom were Muslim, were charged with exploring the notion of a ‘Good Death’. Many were perplexed by the idea and, when called upon to close their eyes and imagine death, eighty per cent said they had imagined themselves drowning in the sea – lonely, scared, and terrified. Each carer, it seemed, had slanted towards envisioning a devastating and painful death. Only after many questions, which asked them to imagine themselves bedbound and to describe their ideal surroundings, were the majority able to describe a Good Death. Many said they envisioned an end in which they were not in hospital or in a care home, but in their own bedroom, on a sunny day with windows framed by open curtains, and the Qur’an playing in the background.
This is why, for Zaman, the capacity to conceive of a ‘beautiful death is a rare and courageous gift’, but one which we can only give ourselves and to others if we have appropriate examples to follow. She contends that these examples can be found at the heart of Islamic teachings – but it is rare that these are conveyed in ways that many of us might find comforting or helpful.
One powerful resource at the core of Islam that can help us reconceptualise beauty is the Asmaul Husna, or the Most Beautiful Names of Allah. In his contribution, Mahmoud Mostafa, a Mevlevi Sufi, contends that this epistemological shift can only be made possible through spiritual experience. We can’t think ourselves into a new understanding of beauty – we have to experience it and live it. For Mostafa, one of the most profound impacts of contemplating the Divine Names is the revelation that while they might possess attributes which we could stereotypically regard as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, they transcend these unhelpful binaries and can help us break out of them, if we would only pay attention. Mostafa narrates what happened when he meditated upon four of the 99 names – Al Halim (the Most Forbearing); Al Quddus (the Most Holy and Pure); An-Nur (the Light); As-Salam (the One Who is Peace) – at a retreat in San Francisco. Ultimately, according to Mostafa, the practice of engaging with Allah’s Beautiful Names is an aid to helping us embody the one-ness of creation, or tawhid:
A truly Islamic and tawhid-ic perspective would encourage men and women to step outside prescribed gender roles and support the realisation of the inner creative potential in each of us by virtue of our humanness. This creative potential is the Most Beautiful Names awaiting expression through each of us.
In other words, transformation is possible when we contemplate the existence of a Beholder of beauty beyond ourselves. But Mostafa’s conception of a Beholder that is at once transcendent and immanent is not the equivalent of the reductive, readymade, legalistic conception of Allah that permeates so much of contemporary Islamic discourse. What Mostafa’s piece suggests is that the Beholder is Beautiful, too, only in ways that we cannot hope to comprehend completely yet could gain so much by trying to, regardless. This is perhaps the beauty of the contributions to this issue of Critical Muslim. They all probe the notion of beauty – some more forcibly than others – but in doing so, they question how it is constructed in the first place. In other words, if beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, this volume turns its gaze resolutely on the beholder, and what kind of power the beholder wields upon the beheld, and vice versa. Our contributors suggest that the solution to the puzzle of beauty – ‘What is it?’; ‘Who gets to define it?’; ‘Where do we find it?’; ‘Who benefits and who suffers?’ – is to put the onus of responsibility on the beholder. Because why burden the objects of beauty with ever-growing pressure to comply with fickle standards that are designed for most of them not to measure up to anyway? As Mostafa suggests, perhaps it is the self-appointed beholders of beauty who should be convinced to change their attitudes towards it, mirroring the generous and non-judgemental attributes of the Divine.