For some Muslim men, dress offers a form of racial and religious resistance and redemption.
Typically, when we talk about Islam and fashion the focus is on women. This is true even when the women in question are not Muslim. Recall Melania and Ivanka Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May. Media coverage, particularly from the White supremacist alt-right, interpreted their uncovered heads as a pro-gender equality, and thus pro-democracy, statement to the “Muslim world.” The Trump women were read this way because for many on the political right and left, Muslim women’s dress is a sign of patriarchal domination. This type of thinking is part of what motivates burqa bans in France and questions like “Does your husband make you wear that?,” which Muslim women receive on the streets of the United States. All of this points to the ways a Muslim woman’s style of dress is entangled in broader questions of gender, religion, and power.
Yet what of Muslim men? Is what they wear of no consequence? How do the sartorial choices made by Muslim men also reflect and reproduce particular ideas and societal norms? In my own work with young Muslims I found that men’s dress was just as meaningful women’s clothing and likewise is in conversation with larger issues of gender, religion, and power as well as race and belonging.
In my recently published book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States, I explore my concept “Muslim Cool,” which is a way of being Muslim that resists and reconstitutes US racial hierarchies. Through Muslim cool, young US Muslims of diverse backgrounds configure a sense of Muslim identity by way of hip hop and Blackness. This Muslim identity contests two overlapping systems of racial hierarchy: dominant norms around culture and religion coming out of Arab and South Asian communities on the one hand and White US American normativity on the other. During my research I encountered a small but influential cohort of Muslim men who used the aesthetic principles of Black dandyism to challenge these parallel racial norms.
In general, the term “dandy” has historically referred to a man who is meticulously dressed and self-consciously uses clothing to claim a social status denied to him because he was born poor or working class. In this way the White male dandy transgresses stylistic norms related to class and gender, and he sets trends. The Black dandy is also a historical figure emerging from early European-African encounters. Likewise, the Black dandy transgresses norms in terms of gender, class, and significantly, race. Black dandyism is a performance of Black masculinity that is a sartorial take on Black cool. Black cool as expressive culture has two aims: to resist the dehumanization of Black people and to redeem Blackness through an autonomous set of social standards. Accordingly, Black dandies don styles associated with White masculine power but remix them to challenge rather than mimic Whiteness, which makes Black dandyism a form of racial resistance and redemption through style.
Black dandyism has made a comeback in recent years, what curator Shantrelle Lewis—creator of The Dandy Lion Project exhibit—usefully describes as a transnational movement among men of the African diaspora to assert their masculinity, humanity, and Afro-diasporic identities. From Brooklyn to the Congo, cohorts of Black men are choosing remixed Edwardian-era, Victorian-era and early 20th-century Americana styles over the archetypical hip-hop gear of jeans and T-shirts. Through a very self-conscious use of colors, prints, fabrics, hemlines, cuts, and accessories, Black dandies are signifyin‘ on, rather than submitting to, the tastes of White supremacy.
Muslim dandies augment this broader Black dandyism by using dress as form of racial and religious resistance and redemption. The Muslim dandies I worked with all hailed from major centers of urban Black life in the US and all but one was Black US American. Coming from the “hood” they are well attuned to the image of the urban Black male as a thug, a stereotype that constructs young Black men as hypersexual, hyperviolent, and nihilistic—as a threat. To counter this image, Muslim dandies wear suits as a sign of heterosexual masculine maturity or what they called being a “grown man.” Dressing like a “grown man” means returning to the styles of the men who preceded them, which includes inspiring figures like fathers and uncles and the “suited and booted” men of the Nation of Islam as well as stylish Black men who are on the other side of the moral spectrum such as pimps and hustlers. Suiting then becomes a way of not only rejecting the thug but also redeeming a stylistic tradition—the desire to look good and be seen while doing it—authored by Black men themselves.
Looking the part
Muslim dandies also use these styles to intervene in US Muslim sartorial discourse around race, authority, and Muslim identity. Converts to Islam, the Muslim dandies I worked with found that the styles of dress—urban, Black, and US American—they preferred were not going to fly if they wanted to be seen as authentically and authoritatively Muslim. For example, one Muslim dandy from Chicago, Abd al-Karim, described being considered a religious authority among his friends, who were also new to the religion, until he started trading in a Middle Eastern thobe (long male dress) for a three-piece suit. At that point he was passed over for someone who didn’t have as much religious training as he did but “looked the part.”
This idea of “looking the part” reflects a politics of pious respectability among US Muslims. Drawing on Higginbotham’s classic concept, “the politics of respectability,” the politics of pious respectability describes a performative landscape that privileges cultural practices from the “Islamic East,” such as forms of dress, over Muslim practice that originates in the US and marks them as emblematic of Muslim piety. The “Islamic East” is both territorial and conceptual space: a kind of Muslim elsewhere, which functions, as Zareena Grewal shows in Islam Is a Foreign Country (2013), as “the archive of tradition.”
Claims of proximity to this tradition are a powerful form of cultural capital which links race, ethnicity, class, and religion into a hierarchical framework that makes the Muslim immigrant, like an Arab US American, a religious and cultural normative ideal in the US because they can claim closeness to the “Islamic East.” This hierarchal framework conflates ethnic background and religious authority, effectively rendering Blackness as religiously “less-than” because it is not rooted in the “Islamic East.” In turn, this racial hierarchy is reproduced in stylistic norms—Muslim men who wear thobes or South Asian shalwar kameezs are accorded authority in the community over those who wear hip hop gear and those who don three-piece suits.
Accordingly, in many Black Muslim communities, men who are religious authorities tend to wear clothing more closely identified with locations such as Karachi and Cairo than with any US city. These Black Muslim male leaders dress to “look the part,” which bolsters their religious authority by helping to mitigate their lack of roots in the “Islamic East” and the subsequent loss of some of the privilege of male authority in US American Muslim communities. In contrast, Muslim dandies counter the politics of pious respectability by asserting their Black Americanness through the appropriation and remixing of EuroAmerican styles.
Back to Black
Muslim dandies’ clothes and accessories remix styles that come from the EuroAmerican elite with Black American and global Muslim traditions. In practice this might look like pairing a modern-fit tweed suit, pocket square, and velvet slippers with a fashionable cane, non-silk tie (in accordance with religious law), and cufflinks in the shape of the Prophet Muhammad’s sandal (a Muslim sigil). This stylistic mix and match of style reflects the cosmopolitanism dandyism is broadly known for. It also reflects what Robin Kelley calls the polyculturalism of Black expressive cultures (1999). Kelley’s concept of polyculturalism identifies how cultural forms marked Black, like all cultural forms, are not of “pure” origins but the consequence of cultural exchanges and multiple cultural flows. Likewise, Abd-al Karim sees his style as “deeply consistent with patterns and norms of dress” in Black communities precisely because it “flip[s] white mainstream sign[s] and symbols.”
Abd al-Karim also described his stylistic motives as trying to assert that Black US American Muslims do indeed have culture despite not having immediate origins in the “Islamic East.” This motivation was echoed by Faheem, another Muslim dandy par excellence from Oakland, California. During our interview, Faheem described being profoundly impacted by the sight of a prominent Black Muslim scholar joining a group for the morning prayer in “satin pajamas” like his father would wear rather than “a Moroccan robe, [Asian] lungi” or some other clothing associated with the “Islamic East.” That moment and others like it inspired his dandy aesthetic by giving him the permission “to be Black. To be unapologetically yourself, and not feel that imitating other people is somehow, in any way, shape or form, beneficial or good.” As Faheem’s story demonstrates, the Muslim dandy’s assertion of Black American identity through style is simultaneously racially and religiously meaningful because it reaffirms the connection between Black identity and Islam—a connection that often leads these men to become Muslim in the first place but is delegitimized by the politics of pious respectability.
Muslim dandies draw on dominant White/EuroAmerican styles yet, as dandies do, they dress on their own terms. They dress the part that is Black, Muslim, and male, yet not a threat. The thug wears jeans and a T-shirt, but the Muslim dandy is suited and booted. They also dress for different publics. Like the broader Black dandy aesthetic, they use dress to challenge mainstream discourses of Black pathology. They dress to challenge the racial hierarchies of pious respectability in Muslim communities. They dress inspired by and for their people. As Faheem explained, they dress from “a place of love, and a place of concern, from a place of authenticity, and from a place of connectivity.”
Muslim dandies’ style demonstrates the significance of dress within Muslim communities, for men as well as women. This stands as an important corrective to the fetishization of Muslim women’s dress and the stereotypical ideas about Muslims and fashion it engenders. Yet the complex ways Muslim dandies navigate race and belonging, gender, religion, and power also reiterates the key role dress and style continue to play in identity formation.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar, artist, activist, and associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American studies at University of Michigan. She is also the founding director and senior editor of www.sapelosquare.com. You can follow her work at www.doctorsuad.com or @drsuad on Twitter.
Cite as: Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. 2017. “Muslim Dandies.” Anthropology News website, September 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.602
Note: Khadeer’s institutional affiliation has changed since the print publication of “Muslim Dandies.” The article in Volume 58, Issue 5 of Anthropology News lists her institutional affiliation as Purdue University. The online publication of “Muslim Dandies” lists her current affiliation, University of Michigan.