In his biography, Mirror to the Blind, Abdul Sattar Edhi complains how he detests being called a ‘maulana’.
‘Mine was never a religious beard,’ he says. ‘It was always a revolutionary beard,’ he explains – perhaps inspired by Karl Marx, whom Edhi identifies as an inspiration during his youth. In the book he is quoted as saying that hardly any man in Pakistan used to have a beard in the 1950s.
A senior journalist, Ghulam Farooq, agrees: ‘In the 1950s and 1960s, no self-respecting Pakistani from any class would have liked to be seen with a long beard, apart from the mullahs. All this stuff about the beard having any religious significance played absolutely no role in the lives of Pakistanis. In fact, the beard was seen as a symbol of exploitation and bigotry.’
Showing me black and white photos of political rallies of the late 1960s, a former progressive student leader, Naushad Hussain, enthusiastically challenged me to point out ten men with beards among the hundreds that stood listening to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Asghar Khan in the photos. I couldn’t.
‘Look closely,’ he smiled. ‘There are only three.’
‘What about the ‘revolutionary beards’?’ I asked.
‘Revolutionary beards became famous in the West after Castro and Che Guevara’s revolution in Cuba,’ Naushad explained. ‘But long hair and revolutionary beards (in Pakistan) really became popular from 1970 onwards.’
A. Kabir, another progressive student leader (at the Karachi University in 1973-74), suggests that very few male students had beards even in the 1970s. ‘Ironically, only the most radical Marxists on campus went around with beards, looking like Che. Even the staunchest members of the right-wing Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), were clean-shaven. Being young and having a beard (and long hair) in those days meant that one was a radical leftist.’
Beards, especially heavy stubbles, also became popular as an expression of one having a creative and artistic disposition. Mahboobullah, a former graduate of the famous the NCA, Lahore, remembers that (in the 1970s), coffee houses and college canteens were full of long-haired and bearded young men sipping tea and beer, chain smoking and discussing politics, philosophy and art. ‘A young man with a neglected stubble or a beard, talking reflectively with a cigarette in his hand became a trendy pose in those days,’ Mahboobullah chuckled. ‘Women loved it!’
Karamat Hamid a former student at the Dow Medical College in Karachi in the 1970s, says that by 1976 almost all leading Pakistani TV actors had beards. ‘Talat Hussain, Rahat Kazmi, Shafi Muhammad… the creative big shots had beards. It became a global fashion. Cricketers like Dennis Lillie, Wasim Raja, Ian Chappel, rock musicians, Hollywood actors and directors, painters, college boys and even university professors all over the world had beards,’ remembers Karamat. ‘It was a fashion expressing creativity, intellect and manhood.’
So exactly when did beards stopped being a liberal/leftist aesthetic and start becoming a ‘religious symbol’?
‘I believe the trend started in the 1980s,’ says Sharib, a former member of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (who later joined the MQM).
‘I remember a lot of us were very impressed by the looks of the Afghan mujahideen. Then we started to keep beards like them,’ he explained.
In other words, one can say that the ideological symbolism of the beard had started to grow from left to the right. Fatigued by the exhaustive liberalism of the preceding decades and now under the propagandist hammer of a reactionary dictatorship, a lot of Pakistanis started rediscovering God, as it were, in the 1980s.
‘Beards started emerging on the most unlikely of men,’ laughs Talha Naqvi, a middle-aged head of an NGO. ‘It became a symbol of piety. Everyone from mujahids to smugglers to traders grew a beard,’ he said.
But according to Talha the real beard explosion happened in the 1990s: ‘This was the time when we first started hearing about people going around and asking young men to grow beards because it was an Islamic tradition. I used to say, if this was a tradition then so was riding a camel or using a brick for a pillow by early converts, so why not follow those examples as well?’
Talha says that the rising number of Pakistani men having beards for religious reasons became even more ubiquitous after the tragic 9/11 episode. ‘More and more young men today keep a beard as an Islamic edict.’
It seems after all these years of searching for some kind of identity, many young Pakistanis have ended up finding one with the help of a beard (or hijab). It’s become an exhibition of instant piety, and more so, a somewhat long-winded belief system that with their purposeful new looks they belong to a special community of chosen people; a herd-like expression of some divinely cohesive uniformity – at least in looks, which in turn may only have little to do with religion. It’s a statement very much opposed to the notion of diversity.