Shortening/Cutting of Women’s Hair
Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan
Is it permissible for women to shorten/cut their hair?
Opinions have differed around the issue of a woman shortening her hair. Some scholars have adopted the position that it is completely prohibited (ḥarām); others hold the diametrically opposite view that it is permissible (jāʾiz/mubāḥ); while yet others have adopted the position that it is disliked and offensive (makrūh). In the ensuing paragraphs the sharʿī arguments supporting the various positions come under discussion.
Arguments for prohibition
Protagonists of this view argue on the basis of a number of aḥādīth or alleged aḥādīth, which are listed below:
- RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam prohibited a woman from shaving the hair of her head.
- A woman will be covered on the Day of Qiyāmah by her hair.
- RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam prohibited the jummah for a free woman, and the ʿaqīṣah for a slave woman. (The word jummah refers to the hanging of the hair over the shoulders. The ʿaqīṣah is the tying of the hair in a bun.)
- There is a special group of angels whose form of tasbīḥ is: “Subḥāna man zayyana al-rijāl bi al-luḥā wa an-nisāʾ bi al-dhawāʾib” (Perfectly faultless is He Who adorned men with beards and women with tresses.)
- RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam prohibited males from imitating females, and females from imitating males.
- RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam prohibited imitating the kuffār.
Arguments for offensiveness
While I have seen this view expressed, I have not seen the argument upon which it is based. I presume it to rest upon the premise that feminine beauty is marred by the shortening of the hair, and it is from here that the offensiveness of the act would arise.
Arguments for permissibility
The permissibility of cutting the hair is supported by the following arguments:
- The report that the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam shortened their hair until it had the appearance of a wafrah. (Wafrah is hair that hangs up to the earlobes.)
- The sharʿī rule that things are permissible by default until rendered unlawful by proof.
As an initial point of departure it might be mentioned here that a basic requirement in textual evidence is authenticity. The preceding section contains seven textual arguments, four of which fail to satisfy the requirement of authenticity. They are the following:
- the ḥadīth that states that a woman will be covered by her hair on the Day of Qiyāmah
- the ḥadīth about the tasbīḥ of a special group of angels
- the ḥadīth prohibiting the ʿaqīṣah for a slave woman and the jummah for a free woman
- the ḥadīth prohibiting the shaving of the hair for a woman
1. The first ḥadīth
The ḥadīth sources at my disposal contained no trace at all of the ḥadīth about a woman being covered by her hair on the Day of Qiyāmah. The absence of an alleged ḥadīth in the vast array of consulted sources may in itself may be taken as a sign of the spuriousness of the ḥadīth.
What adds to the spuriousness of this alleged ḥadīth is the fact that it seems to contradict other authentic aḥādīth. It has been narrated in Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (no. 6527) that Sayyidah ʿĀʾishah, upon hearing RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam say that people will be raised naked on the Day of Qiyāmah, inquired as to whether this nakedness would not lead people to look at the ʿawrah of one another. RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam replied that the state of affairs on that day will be far too horrendous for such things. In Jāmiʿ al-Tirmidhī (no. 3332) it is recorded that he thereupon recited the āyah, “Every man on that shall be preoccupied with such a matter that makes him indifferent (to others)” (80:37).
2. The second ḥadīth
The ḥadīth about the tasbīḥ of the Malāʾikah is ascribed in al-ʿAjlūnī’s Kashf al-Khafāʾ (no. 1447) to al-Ḥākim, as well as to Ibn Ḥajar’s takhrīj of ad-Daylamī’s Musnad al-Firdaws. It does not appear in al-Ḥākim’s Mustadrak, so assuming that al-ʿAjlūnī’s ascription is correct, it would have to be in another work by al-Ḥākim such as his Tārīkh Naysābūr. Howsoever that may be, none of this provides grounds for regarding the ḥadīth as authentic. Authenticity is determined through the application of rigorous criteria to a ḥadīth in its full form; mere ascriptions to obscure sources do not suffice.
Even if it had to be assumed for argument’s sake that this ḥadīth is in fact authentic, it would still be a long way from proving that it indicates the unlawfulness of cutting the hair. The fact that Allah adorned men with beards did not preclude Ibn ʿUmar and other Ṣaḥābah from trimming their beards to the length of a fist. By the same token, the adornment of women with flowing tresses does not have to mean that the shortening thereof is unlawful.
3. The third ḥadīth
The ḥadīth prohibiting the jummah for a free woman is documented in al-Musnad al-Ṣaghīr by al-Ṭabarānī (no. 363). Al-Haythami has correctly remarked in Majmaʿ al-Zawāʾid (vol. 5 p. 169) that its narrators are all reliable, but its failure to satisfy the requirements of authenticity is due to a problem with continuity in its chain of narration.
But even if the ḥadīth should be assumed to be authentic, it still would not indicate the unlawfulness of cutting the hair per se. The ḥadīth does not speak of the length of the hair or the issue of shortening it, but rather of the manner of keeping it. Slave women are prohibited from keeping it clasped in a bun or braided since this manner of keeping the hair was characteristic of free women. Free women, on the other hand are prohibited from letting the hair fall loosely over the shoulders since this manner of keeping the hair was specific to slave women. The underlying intention was thus to maintain a distinction in appearance—an objective reflected in several other instances in the Qurʾān and the Sunnah. This meaning of the ḥadīth is given by al-Munāwī in Fayḍ al-Qadīr (vol. 6 p. 312)
4. The fourth ḥadīth
The ḥadīth prohibiting a woman from shaving the hair of her head is documented by both al-Nasāʾī (no. 5064) and al-Tirmidhī (no. 917). The latter also points out its cause of defect on account of which it falls short from being authentic. Even if the ḥadīth had been authentic, the extension of the prohibition on shaving to trimming remains patently questionable.
This leaves us with the following three aḥādīth:
- the ḥadīth prohibiting females from imitating males and vice versa
- the ḥadīth prohibiting imitation of the kuffār
- the report about the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam shortening their hair
Imitating the opposite gender undoubtedly stands condemned as an act that incurs the wrath and curse of Allah. However, to assume that whenever a woman shortens her hair it is an act of imitating men would be unjustified. The issue of imitating men comes into effect only when there is a conscious intention to resemble a man, or when the hairstyle becomes recognizable upon first glance as an exclusively male hairstyle. Shortening the hair is thus not an inherently male act. But for a woman to shorten it with the intention of resembling men, or to shorten it to such an extent that the hair has an undeniably male appearance qualifies as the sort of imitation condemned in the ḥadīth.
Imitating the kuffār
The same can be said about imitating the kuffār. Shortening the hair is by no means an act characteristic of the kuffār. Thus the issue of imitating the kuffār comes into play only when the cutting of the hair is accompanied by the intention to resemble them, or when the hairstyle adopted is one that is associated exclusively with them. Where the cutting of the hair is not accompanied by any of these two factors, it will not be justified to invoke tashabbuh bi al-kuffār (imitating the kuffār) as a reason why a female may not cut her hair.
Practice of the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam
Abū Salamah ibn ʿAbd ar-Raḥmān ibn ʿAwf reports that the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam used to cut (literally, take from) their hair until it appeared like a wafrah. Wafrah, as stated earlier, is the name given to the hair when it hangs up to the earlobes.
The authenticity of this narration is above question. It is documented by Imam Muslim in his Ṣaḥīḥ (vol. 5 p. 4, with al-Nawawī’s commentary). However, a number of questions have been raised around the ḥadīth. One area of concern has been the fact that Abū Salamah, being a strange non-maḥram male, could not have seen the hair of the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam. This objection loses its force when it is considered that Abū Salamah, who was born about 10 years after the death of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam, spent his life, and more significantly his childhood in Madīnah, where as a minor he had access to the houses of the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam, most of whom lived until well after the year 50 AH.
It is also contended that it was on account of performing ʿumrah very often that the hair of the wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam appeared so short. This weakness of this contention is its lack of substantiation. Another contention is that the ḥadīth does not speak of cutting the hair, but rather of tying it up onto the head in such a way that it assumes a shorter appearance. This line of argument seeks to interpret the words of the ḥadīth away from its apparent meaning. Interpretations of this sort are resorted to only when compulsive evidence indicates that the apparent meaning was not intended. In this case there is no reason — in the form of external evidence — to believe that Abū Salamah, in saying that the wives used to cut their hair, had anything in mind but conventional cutting.
There are some aspects of appearance and adornment for which definitive limits have been set in the Qurʾān and the Sunnah (such as the beard, and the use of gold and silk for males); and others for which such limits have not been set. Having critically examined the aḥādīth that exist on the issue of cutting the hair for females, I think one can safely conclude that it falls into the second category.
This category, on account of the absence of textual regulations, is regulated by other determinants, such as the concept of ʿurf, or custom, which changes from one society or age to another. Since the sharʿī ruling is based upon the ʿurf in such cases, it tends to differ from one society or age to another. Thus, if in a particular society the cutting of the hair constitutes a mutilation or a despoilment of beauty, it would be undesirable in the eyes of the Sharīʿah; but where the act of shortening the hair is not viewed in such a light, the act cannot be considered offensive any longer.
In my opinion, our society does not view the cutting of a woman’s hair as an act which despoils her beauty. Those in our society who do disapprove of it, do so not on account of a perceived mutilation, but rather for reasons such as the aḥadīth we have discussed.
The general norm of permissibility set by the ʿurf of a society might at times be contradicted by more specific factors. Thus, while a society in general might not look upon a woman’s cutting her hair as a despoilment of her beauty, it is possible that her husband dislikes shortened hair. In this case the preference of the husband will take precedence over the norm of society on account of the wife’s duty to obey and satisfy her husband.
In light of:
- the lack of authentic evidence to support prohibition;
- authentic proof that wives of RasūluLlāh ṣallaLlāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam used to cut their hair; and
- the fact that our society does not equate cutting a woman’s hair with despoiling her beauty,
I can only conclude that it is, in principle, permissible for a woman to cut her hair, provided that her husband does not object, and that the shortening of the hair is not done in imitation of males or the kuffār, either by express intention or by resultant appearance.
والله تعالى أعلم