Does the Sunna Entail Dressing as the People of the Land I Live In?
Answered by Ustadh Salman Younas
Question: Is there such a thing as sunnah form of dress? Some speakers advocate that the dress of the land is closer to the sunnah than the supposed sunnah dress. What form of clothing is closest to sunnah for people living in the west?
Answer: Assalamu alaykum
The statement that the sunna way of dressing is to adopt the dress of one’s land is sound. It is also accurate to state that the sunna was to wear a turban, a loin cloth, sandals, and the like.
Different Understandings of ‘Sunna’
Both statements mentioned in the question are accurate in so far as they appeal to one or another of the meanings of the term ‘sunna’.
Linguistically, the sunna is defined as a path that is traversed. In the technical usage of jurists, the sunna is that which the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) performed persistently without prohibiting its non-performance.
The sunna in its technical meaning is subdivided into two types:
(a) the sunna related to habits and customs (al-zawa‘id/aada)
(b) the sunna related to worship (ibada)
The jurists are clear that the manner of dress adopted by the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) was from the former type of sunna and not the latter. In other words, the general manner in which the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) dressed was not done with the intent to legislate a legal ruling for the community and affirm that it was obligatory to dress in that particular manner. Rather, the prophetic dress was in general reflective of the customary dress of his people. [Sadr al-Shariah, al-Tawdih (2:248-251); Ibn Nujaym, Bahr al-Ra’iq (1:29)]
This is clearly demonstrated when looking at the dress of pre-Islamic Arabs and the Arabs (both Muslims and non-Muslims) during the lifetime of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him). All of them wore similar items of clothing, such as the izar, rida’, rayt/khimar, ni’al, and burd.
In other words, the general character of the prophetic dress was in accordance with the dress of his people. As such, in so far as the ‘sunna’ applies to the persistent performance of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) — whether as an act of religious practice or habit — it can be stated that his sunna was to wear a waist-cloth, sandals, a cloak, a head cap, and the like. But this habitual sunna was in keeping with the general customary dress of his people, the Arabs. Consequently, it can be said that the prophetic sunna was to dress in accordance with his land and people.
Exceptions and The General Guidelines of Dress
With the above said, the dress of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) did depart in important regards from the dress of his predecessors and contemporaries.
For example, the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) clearly defined the concept of ‘nakedness’ (awra) that all morally-responsible individuals from his community were obligated to cover as a minimum. Certain materials, such as silk, were prohibited in certain quantities. The dragging of garments below the ankles, which was common among warriors and leaders during the pre-Islamic period, was cautioned against and prohibited when done out of pride. The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) also introduced elements in his dress that distinguished his community from others, the rules of which return to the concept of imitation.
Most of the above examples relate to the general guidelines of dress. Indeed, as it relates to the legal rules concerning dress, it was precisely such guidelines that assumed the most prominent place in a number of legal texts. To put it differently, the prophetic guidance regarding dress did not stipulate a specific form that an individual was obligated to wear as a matter of religious practice. The guidance passed down to us largely related to general principles of dress. Mufti Taqi Usmani explains this by stating:
The law has given much flexibility as it relates to the legal rules of dress. It has not made necessary on the community any specific form of dress opposing which would be impermissible. Rather, Islam has laid down general principles related to dress and has made it permissible for people to wear any type of dress as long as it conforms to these guidelines. [Usmani, Taqrir al-Tirmidhi]
This flexibility is in keeping with the diversity of mankind who were created as different races speaking different tongues and with unique cultural practices. As God says, “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors.” (30:22)
The Libas al-Shuhra
It should also be noted at this point that there are other aspects of the sunna that jurists have understood as establishing the dislikedness of dressing in a manner contrary to one’s land unless there is some need to do so.
This dislikedness according to these scholars returns to such a manner of dressing being a cause for one needlessly standing out/notoriety (libas al-shuhra) among his or her people. The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) reportedly said, “Whosoever wears clothing that is extravagant and unduly attracting attention in this world, God will dress him in lowly clothing in the next world.” [Abu Dawud, al-Sunan (#4029)]
In light of this tradition and others, Imam Ahmad is reported to have advised someone wearing a particle type of cloak/mantle to “dress in accordance with the people of his land” adding that if this individual was in Mecca or Medina he would not have advised him to do such, since the cloak he wore was customary there. [Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyya (3:497)]
Similarly, Ibn Battal mentions that “in a given period, a person should dress according to the dress of his land, , as long as it is not sinful to do so, since dressing in a contrary manner is a form of notoriety.” [Ibn Battal, Sharh al-Sahih al-Bukhari (9:123)]
Imam al-Saffarini stated, “One should dress in accordance with one’s local dress so that he is not pointed out by people.” [al-Saffarini, Sharh al-Manzuma al-Adab (2:161)]
In the Mawsu‘a al-Fiqhiyya it states, “Wearing clothing that opposes the custom of people is disliked as it entails notoriety, namely needlessly standing out in the eyes of people and being pointed at.” [Mawsu‘a al-Fiqhiyya al-Kuwaitiyya (6:136-37)]
These opinions are all based on a prophetic instruction. Therefore, they are from the prophetic guidance. Of course, one must note that a particular dress being a cause for notoriety will differ from region to region; certain cities with a rich multi-cultural presence, for example, are accustomed to seeing people from varying backgrounds each with their unique dress.
In conclusion, the information above clearly demonstrates that earlier scholars did view dressing in accordance with one’s land and people as being entailed by the guidance of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) so long as the general guidelines the religion prescribes regarding dress were fulfilled.
While there are a number of other details relating to the issue that cannot be mentioned here, it is not inaccurate to state that the sunna guidance and the sunna practice was to dress according to the customary practice of one’s people.
In the context of the West, the general sunna and guidelines of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) can be fulfilled by dressing in trousers, shirts, and the like. The most important thing is to ensure that the principles the shariah has laid down for dress are met.
[Ustadh] Salman Younas
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Ustadh Salman Younas graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in Political Science and Religious Studies. After studying the Islamic sciences online and with local scholars in New York, Ustadh Salman moved to Amman. There he studies Islamic law, legal methodology, belief, hadith methodology, logic, Arabic, and tafsir.