Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Islam's great nail polish controversy

As a proud Muslim woman - and a feminist - I'm not wasting my time worrying which brands of nail polish are halal.

by Monsura Sirajee 

"SubhanAllah!" I heard my friend screaming as I was brushing my teeth one morning. Alarmed, I ran into her room to see if she was all right. She sat in front of her computer, beaming from ear to ear. "A company has finally invented a halal nail polish!" she shouted.

Although neither the Quran nor any early sources of Islamic law address the issue of nail polish, a consensus among the mainstream Muslim community is that praying with nail polish is not halal (permissible) because the waterproof barrier it creates on nails prevents the pre-prayer ritual of wudu (washing) from being completed. So its hardly a surprise that, like my friend, many Muslim women throughout the world are rejoicing over the recent invention of a wudu-friendly nail polish, known as O2M Breathable polish.

It may seem like a petty issue, but the nail polish debate has inserted itself into even the most respected publications of the Muslim community. An example of this can be found in Num Ha Mim Keller’s 2002 translation of the esteemed 13th century Islamic scholar Nawawi’s Al-Maqasid, a famous book of Islamic jurisprudence. In a section on how to perform wudu, Keller translates, "If dirt under the nails prevents the water of ablution from reaching the skin, then ablution is not valid." Without adding any annotation that the following statement is Keller’s own, Keller proceeds to write, "The same is true of waterproof glue, paint, nail polish." It seems unlikely that a 13th century scholar would be discussing the issue of nail polish. When I asked whether this could be an unwarranted assumption by the translator to an Islamic Law professor, she stated only half-jokingly that the nail polish debate is one of the most important issues facing the Muslim community.

Indeed, as I was reading up on the O2M Breathable polish, I was surprised to see how many Muslim women had written to their local imams to enquire about the permissibility of the polish. Many of the imams responded with long, detailed explanations about why they either thought it was better to err on the side of caution and avoid the polish or expressed their wholehearted support of it. Despite approval from their imams, some women felt that there were still some unanswered issues, such as how breathable the nail polish would be if multiple coats are used.

As I watched my friend immediately begin to pick out which colours she wanted, I could not help but feel just a little sorry. While some Islamic Law professors may believe nail polish to be the biggest headache of the Muslim community, I am certain there must be more pressing issues worth addressing and yet some of us have decided to focus on whether or not the pink nail polish I am so fond of prevents me from communicating with God.

I suspect the great nail polish debate has less to do with the nail polish itself and more to do with a paranoid mistrust of adopting any practices associated with the 'big, bad West'. My hope is that more Muslims will begin to employ some good, old fashioned ijtihad, the practice of making a decision by personal effort. After all, the Quran discourages the practice of seeking to regulate everything by divine command, pointing out that such a regulation is burdensome and restrictive (5:101, 102). Revelation is not meant to narrow intellectual curiosity, but enhance it.

As I helped my friend pick out exactly which of the 10 shades of pink nail polish she should purchase, I hoped she also realises that a similar diversity exists within interpretations of what is forbidden and permitted within Islam. Even a rudimentary study of Islamic Law will reveal that shariah does not divide the world into halal (permitted) and haram (forbidden). There are many shades of grey in between, which allow a great degree of, well, breathability. @newreligionEU

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