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In The Name Of God The Most Merciful, Most Compassionate
There’s not a woman in Philly who would rock a burka just to make a fashion statement.
But when it comes to Muslim-inspired menswear, well, that’s another story. Regardless of their religious affiliations, certain Philadelphia men, mainly African-Americans, have adopted the style of wearing long, old-world-style beards, sometimes pairing them with calf-length trousers and long shirts – all looks inspired by traditional Muslim attire.
For many, this convergence of hip-hop with Islamic style is purely a fashion statement and has nothing to do with whether a guy worships in a church or mosque. Some jokingly refer to non-Muslims who adopt this mode of dress as “asalama-fakems,” a play off the traditional Arabic greeting of “as-salaam alaikum,” meaning “peace be upon you.”
Whatever you call it, the Islamic-style aesthetic has been around for a while, and the beard in particular – often referred to as a “Philly beard” or a “Sunni” – has come to be identified with the City of Brotherly Love. My friend Anthony Henderson, the fashion stylist who divides his time between Philly and Los Angeles, makes a point of wearing it because of hometown pride.
“I can go to a corner store in Crenshaw or in Watts and people will say, ‘You’re from Philly,’ ” Henderson said. “And if I have to go to a new barber here in Los Angeles, I say, ‘I need a Philly beard.’ They automatically know what it is.
“I love my Philly beard because I think it makes me look attractive and sexy. People like to touch it and pull on it.”
Henderson’s chin whiskers are in a circle beard that connects his mustache with his goatee, and are darkened with hair dye that gives his beard Philly-esque definition. Barbers such as Darryl Thomas of Philly Cuts at 44th and Chestnut will use a dark wax pencil to give a sharp edge to the beard, a “serious outline.”
“We just put that razor on it and make it look real hot,” Thomas told me.
The most famous Philly beard-wearer is rapper Freeway.
“In college, we would often call it the Freeway beard, the Philly beard or the Muslim beard, also the West Philly beard,” said Ben Piven, who created a short YouTube documentary on the topic. “There’s a specific shaping to it, the way it puffs out around the cheeks and the sideburns and extends below the chin, definitely low in the mustache area in keeping with the Islamic style of facial hair.
“It’s definitely well-groomed, well-kept. It’s a neat look,” he added.
To the uninitiated, the trend can confuse. When Adnan A. Zulfiqar, the Muslim spiritual adviser at the University of Pennsylvania, moved here in 2003 to study law, he would automatically give the Muslim greeting of peace to Philly beard-wearers, assuming that they, too, were conservative followers of Islam. According to tradition, devout Muslims trim their mustaches but allow their beards to grow.
“Muslims will wear the beard as a way to pay respect to the prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that all the Abrahamic prophets wear beards,” Zulfiqar told me. “It’s a sign of piety. It’s a sign of religiosity, a sign that you’re trying to walk the path that the prophet walked.”
He added, “I think a lot of people in Philly do it because it’s become a part of the culture, urban culture in particular. It’s now part of Philly.”
Zulfiqar occasionally will be approached by a stranger who compliments him on his facial hair by saying, ” ‘I like your Sunnah.’ ”
“Sunni” is derived from the term Sunnah, which is Arabic and generally refers to the practices or ways of the prophet Muhammad. Police dispatchers can be heard on police scanners describing suspects as wearing “Sunni” beards.
The so-called Philly beard has been growing in popularity with non-Muslims since the mid-’90s, according to Mark Lightfoot, owner of the Philadelphia Hair Co., 5805 Germantown Ave.
“It probably started out as a fad, but it’s not dying down,” said Lightfoot, who’s also a barber. “If it’s 10 people I do, it’s probably six or seven of them that get it.”
The popularity of the beards is a sign of how mainstream Muslim culture has become in Philadelphia. Another example is the style of wearing pants cropped to an above-the-ankle length. During ancient times, certain Muslims would allow their clothing to drag on the ground as a sign of extravagance or to demonstrate their wealth.
“More conservative Muslims believe your pants shouldn’t be below your ankles because it’s a sign of arrogance,” explained Zulfiqar, who’s working on a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “The prophet was, like, ‘No. You have to be simple.’ ”
Given the number of Muslims in Philadelphia, this look is likely to endure.
But the beard? Like a lot of women, I much prefer a little chin stubble to a full-face beard. I asked Thomas of Philly Cuts if he thinks that the Philly beard will ever go out of style, and he laughed.
“They are here to stay. This is Philly. You don’t see the cheesesteak going anywhere. You don’t see the hoagie going anywhere. This is what we do.”
Dear Jenice Armstrong
Your article: "Sunnah Beard: the latest trend amongst non-Muslims in Philadelphia USA" is very interesting and I did get a kick out of reading it. Unfortunately, when you wrote; "African-Americans, have adopted the style of wearing long, old-world-style beards, sometimes pairing them with calf-length trousers and long shirts – all looks inspired by traditional Muslim attire", you are repeating a wrongly held view in the west and in some Muslim circles that long beards or Arab/Afghanistan men wear Salafis support is Islamic. There is no Islamic dress code or the prescribed length of beard. These are cultural manifestations, which some ignorant Imams push as Islamic. 60 Muslim countries have diverse historical and cultural norms and these do not tally with each other.
I spent a few days in Philadelphia about 5 years back. I was astonished by how many people have beards and three quarter pants there. Initially I thought they were muslims but realised soon enough that many of them weren't. Its cool seeing the influence muslims have had on the region, inshallah it is more than just the impact on the look, and affect is had on the character and lifestyle of the people. I have to admit that have grown up in Sydney, the chance to be in a place where the beard was the norm felt good and gave me the rare chance to not feel out of place, sort of like Lakemba :)
I remember Napoleon when he came down to Australia and gave a talk somewhere. He mention that in Philadelphia non Muslims wear beards and sunna clothing, but I thought he was exaggerating. Now I guess not.
MashAllah What a fantastic article. Believing men were commanded to leave the beard to grow. Its such a sign of masculinity, so much so without it is effeminate. InshaAllah this acts as a reminder for other brothers who are struggling with the beard. I have heard of sisters who have actually asked for their betrothed or husband to remove it! 'Authubila! If a sister says such a thing she is transgressing what is prescribed. InshaAllah brothers over here don a full sunnah beard for the sake of Allah ta'ala - not fashion. It comes across as insincere and from the the wrong intention if it is a small stubble type things. Instead of standing our as a muslim they appear to sometimes be conforming to fashion. May Allah keep our brothers strong Islam - ameen
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