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Is this the world's most dangerous moustache?

Malik Afridi's fabulous facial furniture has led to Taliban death threats.

Last Modified: 16 Aug 2013 12:55
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"I can leave my family, I can leave Pakistan, but I can never cut my moustache again," said Afridi [EPA]

Any lesser man would give in. After the kidnapping, the death threats, the forced separation from a wife and ten children, most men would just shave it off.

But Malik Amir Mohammad Khan Afridi is not "most men".

With a moustache that would make Goliath's father jealous, Afridi has faced down some of the scariest people on the planet.

"People give me a lot of respect. It's my identity," he told the AFP news agency. "I feel happy. When it's ordinary, no one gives me any attention. I got used to all the attention and I like it a lot," said the 48-year-old grandfather.

But the Pakistani businessman's wonder whiskers have provoked the wrath of armed groups in the beautiful northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province on the Afghan border.

Lashkar-e-Islam, an ally of the Taliban, declared his carefully groomed 30in (76cm) massive moustachios to be "un-Islamic". The armed group first demanded protection money of around $500 a month. In a region not known for its citizens' private wealth, Afridi refused to pay up - and was kidnapped and held hostage by the group for a month.

The falcon could perch on his moustache.

- Arabic proverb used to describe the magnitude of a man's status or pride

They released him from his cave prison only when he took up the razor. "I was scared they would kill me, so that's why I sacrificed my moustache," he said.

He fled to the restive provincial capital, Peshawar, a city plagued by frequent attacks by anti-state Taliban fighters, who target both the Pakistani authorities and supplies bound for Afghanistan. 

Last year, Afridi, unafraid, grew it back - spending up to 30 minutes a day waxing, combing and fortifying his facial furniture - and the death threats began again. To keep his wife and ten children safe, he left his hometown and family behind, and once again took to the road. He now sees them only rarely.

The cocktail of oils, soaps and ointments he uses to keep his follicles fabulous cost around $150 a month - but Afridi receives help from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa administration, which pays him a "moustache bursary" of $50 a month as a symbolic gesture of the state's appreciation for the bravery and virility supposedly associated with the manly growth.

Of moustaches and Muslims

But are the locks upon his lip truly "un-Islamic"?

Several religions have teachings to do with hair. The Rastafari and some Hindu holy leaders are known for their dreadlocks.

In Christian history, the Roman church prohibited beards for both laity and clergy, and required the tonsure - the shaving of the scalp - for clergy. The Irish tonsure stipulated shaving the front of the scalp. As for the Greeks, they required clergy to grow beards, said Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University.

"Believe it or not, there were ferocious fights over these issues," he told Al Jazeera.

There is a hadith often cited in such matters. In Islam, these are sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which are analysed and interpreted by scholars to become sunna, or general rules for Muslims.

The controversy over such a trivial matter speaks volumes of the steep decline in Islamic values of peace, compassion and tolerance in Pakistan.

- Ishtiaq Ahmad, University of Oxford

"Cut the moustaches short and leave the beard," says the famed hadith found in a collection by Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari.

Muslim men who grow out their beard and shave their lips are emulating the Prophet Muhammad's actions, say the religiously inspired fans of the style.

And while many particularly defined groups, such as some Salafists and Wahhabists, adhere to the teaching, the existence of clean-shaven Muslim men - and those bald-chin moustache-wearers such as Afridi - prove that such teachings, like the wearing of the hijab, are not accepted universally.

Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was said to have shaved his highly recognisable beard in order to go into hiding in Pakistan (coincidentally, Abbottabad, Bin Laden's hiding spot, is just 140 kilometres from Afridi's hometown). And former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is known for his clean-cut look.

"As for Mr Rafsanjani, he is known in Iran as 'the shark' because of his natural lack of facial hair," said Bulliet.

'Social intimidation'

So how can groups such as Lashkar-e-Islam make such pronouncements and hound someone such as Afridi - for all intents and purposes a simple and honest Muslim man - to such lengths in the name of their specific interpretation of centuries-old sayings?

"The controversy over such a trivial matter speaks volumes of the steep decline in Islamic values of peace, compassion and tolerance in Pakistan," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. "[Pakistan is] a country born in the name of religion, yet religion has now become its principal headache. For it is in the name of Islam that Muslim-on-Muslim violence occurs on a daily basis.  

"Unless the Pakistani state reshapes itself conceptually and structurally, the exclusivist, regressive form of religiousity, inspired by violent Wahhabist-Deobandi creed, will continue to grow. This will further narrow down space for any sort of cultural expression," he told Al Jazeera.

Bulliet agreed. "The point of the people harassing Mr Afridi is social intimidation," he said. "Militants want people to appear in public in conformity with their interpretation of sunna, not so much as a matter of absolute belief... as to demonstrate their sway over Muslim populations. Their willingness to act with violence to enhance a general fear of them is well known, so usually a threat will suffice."

'I can never cut my moustache again'

The question of Islamic instruction on Muslim moustache maintenance and bearded benevolence is nothing new, yet a definitive answer remains elusive.

I'd even sacrifice food, but not the moustache. It's my life. It's not part of my life. It is my life.

- Malik Afridi

"That's what God gave us - hair on the face - so that's part of being a man, I guess," one bearded Muslim told the (sadly defunct) website Phillybeard.com.

Yet his Philadelphia barber disagreed. "I don't really like to be identified by my beard - as in: 'Oh, you got a beard, you're Muslim.' Only ignorant people do that," he told the same site. "My stature, my character, the way I carry myself, will clearly state to you what my religion is."

Back in Pakistan, Afridi's family just wants him to come home. But they may be waiting a while. "Sometimes my family tell me: 'Cut it, it would be better if you lived with us.' I can leave my family, I can leave Pakistan, but I can never cut my moustache again," he said.

With few other vices, this appears to be the path Afridi has chosen. "I don't like smoking. I'm not fond of snuff, or drinking. This is the only choice in my life," he said.

"I'd even sacrifice food, but not the moustache. It's my life. It's not part of my life. It is my life."

Follow James on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

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Al Jazeera and agencies
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