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Clothing, colonization and spiritual identity

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Clothing must be among the most important but least analyzed sites of colonization. The works that examine the connection between colonization and clothing concentrate almost entirely on the material dimension of dress.

Clothing must be among the most important but least analyzed sites of colonization. The works that examine the connection between colonization and clothing concentrate almost entirely on the material dimension of dress. Few works take the additional step of defining clothing as a component of spirituality, and to find any work that addresses both the material and emotional-spiritual dimensions of clothing is no easy task. This is partly caused by the rigid segregation of genres of knowledge in modern academia, where discussions of spirituality are eschewed by materialist scholars, and discussions of materialism are ignored by religious scholars (except to refute it). However, a flaw in the current mode of organized intellectual activity in the world of modern universities need not hinder others from making necessary connections.

While clothing does not entirely make the person – for to say such a thing would be to seek refuge in the materialist analysis of modern academics – clothing does play a large part in forming and maintaining human identity, both individual and social. However, this dual sense of identity is not what is bound up with things like "identity politics," which seeks only to explore identity as a form of ascription, without moving beyond relativism. Spiritual identity realizes the innate connection between human beings and the unseen world of the Divine, and this intertwines with connections to the seen world, that of society. Identity is twofold: people are both spiritual beings and social beings, and clothing affects identity in both realms. This distinction sets aside most discipline-bound scholarship on clothing and colonization.

Human attire is equally capable of unmaking the person; that is, clothing (or lack of it) is a key aspect of losing one's identity, both spiritual and social. On this account, materialist and historical analysis can be useful in, for example, looking at how modern tyrannies have attacked the spiritual authorities of various cultures directly, while also attacking spirituality indirectly by persuading or coercing people to abandon traditional dress and wear the uniforms of modernity. These uniforms are of two types: those emphasizing conformity, such as the party clothes of various communist and fascist movements; and those emphasizing consumerism, such as the types of clothing worn by those riding the fickle waves of fashion. Spiritual and ethical identity can be unmade by adopting either of these uniforms, and this unmaking is particularly destructive to those non-Western peoples who wear modern dress (of either variety) because these clothes are so far removed from their own spiritual and cultural roots and history.

The question of what kind of clothing a person wears can be addressed as an instance of the norm of behavior that is innate to every human being by virtue of his or her particular mode of existence. By conforming to this norm, each person becomes what he or she chooses, realizing his or her possibilities as a created being. For Muslims, this means understanding tawhid and the fitrah of the human being, and acquiescing in the will of Allah (swt). Likewise, in as much as conforming to this norm is avoided, the person must accept a certain degree of self-contradiction and internal dissonance, which can lead to some or much disintegration of the self. According to many of humanity's spiritual traditions, not being (or becoming) one's self is tantamount to suicide. It is perhaps one of the ultimate sins to disintegrate the individual self from the One Self, which is represented by the human connection to the Divine; such a sin involves, in a way, paying penalties or suffering consequences (or both) until one's true self can be recalled and resurrected.

Each person owes his or her identity to possibilities and potentials, as a positive factor, and to limitations, as a negative factor. The interplay of these two factors makes each human being uniquely fitted for a part in the Divine Plan, while at the same time remembering that neither the potential nor the part in the Plan is entirely a free choice. In this context, the notion of freedom of choice is a translation into individual existence of the limitless and unconditional freedom that the Divine Will has. So individual responsibility begins with the way in which a human being plays his or her allotted part, which must always be done in comparison with the ideal norms laid down by the Divine Will. Interpreting these norms, of course, is a complex matter and beyond the scope of this essay; suffice it to say that there are ways, in all religions and ethical-spiritual pathways, to discern and understand the nature of the Divine Will.

While the more obvious utilitarian aspects of clothing – those relating to climate, gender, vocation and social status – can be taken more or less for granted, the important point is that these aspects are complemented by the significance of clothing as an integrating or disintegrating component in people's identities. In this way, the key components of clothing are those that define a particular form of apparel, including its shape, the material from which it is made, its color and its decorative features, the last including fastenings and trimmings. This combination of features and utility can greatly modify how a person is perceived by others, and how that person will perceive himself, even to the extent of making one look younger or older, and to some extent altering facial expression and posture. Anyone who has ever dabbled in acting or put on any sort of costume for a brief time can confirm how clothing, in this sense, can indeed make the person.

The process of wearing clothes is symbolically linked to the process of "clothing" the Ultimate Reality with various layers of experiential reality, and in this way it should become possible to comprehend how any and all forms of clothing can alter the outward appearance and therefore the understanding of experiential reality as merely one of many manifestations of the Ultimate Reality. In other words, clothing has the power to conceal or reveal levels of reality, and changing one's mode or style of clothing is inseparable from manifesting the meaning of one's being. The choice of dress, beside being within the limits of a person's resources, can indicate three things: clothing demonstrates how one regards oneself in comparison to the norms of human dignity; it suggests how one desires to depict oneself and what attributes one wishes to claim to have; and clothing is influenced by the opinion one wishes one's family and society to have of oneself. The social dimension and the factor of self-respect, of course, are closely intertwined and in most cases constantly interacting. In any case, people will clothe themselves according to their understanding of the role they are called upon to play in this world, and an incorrect or incomplete understanding of this role can result in one making incomplete or incorrect choices of attire: this can eventually contribute to creating, and then normalizing, either a distinct closeness to, or distance from, the Divine Will.

One might ask, in light of all this, what principle determines the suitability of a type of clothing. To understand this principle, it must be remembered that for every possibility of manifestation of the Divine Will, there is a corresponding possibility of what might be called the "Un-Manifest." If, in a metaphysical sense, Being is a manifestation of primordial Non-Being, and the Word is a manifestation of primordial Silence, then clothing soon becomes the manifestation of primordial nakedness. However, this is not the nakedness of the lewd variety, but the idea of nakedness as the being stripped of all illusions. Once this nakedness has been affirmed, then clothing becomes necessary, and this is the inspiration for the invention of clothing. While different religions express this in different ways, in the Islamic tradition the concept of faqr represents the being's freedom from all competing interests, which is a form of nakedness. For one who is in a state of faqr, the thought could never arise that one must be clothed, because this state means the realization of Ultimate Being has been attained. Therefore, for one who has reached this primordial state, the natural consequence would be to discard all clothing as cloaks over the Ultimate Being, which in some sense is an expression of the will to reintegrate the Self. Before this Ultimate Being is attained, however, one takes to wearing clothes, and it is in this realm of experiential reality that various traditions differ about what the proper types of attire are.

Any discussion of clothing must also consider the implications of the style of clothing that is these days threatening to overwhelm all other forms of clothing: the modern Western attire. It has already come close to abolishing all distinctions among people, whether of race or language, of religion or culture or tradition. Like all attire, modern Western dress was developed with a certain conception of what it means to be human, and it has become a uniform of sorts for those wanting to express a sense of "individualism," in the sense of humankind being sufficient unto itself, not in need of any sacredness in life. Modern Western dress has therefore lent it-self more than any other form of dress to the expression of profane values. Western dress emerged first in Medieval Europe among the elite classes, in a world still attached to a semblance of tradition, but, like other habits of the Western elite, it eventually became the habit of the masses, once it had become relatively affordable and readily available.

This modern Western dress is notable for its powerful combination of ostentatious sophistication and casual ease, overlaid by frequent and gratuitous alterations in the name of "fashion," which is nothing but change for the sake of change. In this sense, modern Western dress is the antithesis of most traditions of cultural clothing, which are marked by formal stability. The profanity of modern Western dress is further exacerbated by the industrial mode of production, which makes it easily available and tends to promote synthetic materials: both the textiles used to make the clothes and the dyes used to color them. Modern Western clothing is also often accompanied by tight-fitting shoes or those with high heels, both upsetting the natural poise and gait of the human body, again in the name of fashion. These factors, with the help of advertising and the mass-media, have turned modern Western dress into a potent but negative psychological agent. Finally, modern Western dress is shorn of all meaningful symbolic character, which is largely replaced by product logos.

Some might argue that, in a discussion of spirituality and clothing, modern Western dress itself developed within or beside a spiritual tradition, namely that of Western Christianity, and that it is therefore at least analogous to the types of dress that evolved within or alongside other spiritual traditions elsewhere, and should not be seen as opposed to other types of dress. To understand the limits or this argument, one needs to bear in mind that error can never exist in a pure form, nor be completely opposed to truth, because truth has no opposite. So error is a sort of ruination or abomination of truth, and some semblance or mockery of truth can still be found in its defective nature. Otherwise, one has to accept a radical dualism within the universe, which for Muslims is counter to the basic principle of Islamic monotheism, tawhid.

If one accepts this premise, then it stands to reason that even though Westerners today are wearing a kind of clothing that affirms secular and profane values, they are less adversely affected by those clothes than Easterners are, since what we are calling Western dress, no matter how profane it may have become with time, is still somehow rooted in the Western experience of spirituality. Alongside the development of "progress" and "perpetual change" as cultural factors in the West, there has been a certain amount of time for Westerners to adapt to this way of life, and even build up a sort of partial immunity to its worst effects. However, for Easterners who adopt the Western mode suddenly, or upon whom it has been imposed by colonization, the results are more like a virulent epidemic. For those who belong to the Western tradition, who ascribe to its values and have grown up within its cultural norms, there can be some positive factors in that lifestyle that may exist alongside or despite its corruptions and errors. For the Easterner, however, changing over to the Western way of life and adopting its clothing can involve an almost total reversal of values, developing a life contradictory to their families' and societies' physical and mental norms. The result, which can be seen anywhere one cares to look in Eastern societies today, is confusion.

Careful observers of culture and society today admit that behind the pervasive flight from traditional values and customs, including food and clothing, there lies a profound loss of spiritual life and awareness. This shows itself in many ways, as on the surface it is detectable by a loss of personal dignity, usually found alongside an almost mystical reverence for Western civilization and the modern lifestyle, often far beyond the mere recognition and satisfaction of basic needs. Those who imitate the West, in fact, usually adopt its worst fads and fashions, which are not imposed through colonization or other coercive methods, but rather adopted wholeheartedly into local societies, at times even long after they have been abandoned by the fashion-addicted minions actually living in Western societies. Some have attempted to explain this in terms of an almost overwhelming human psychological urge to experiment with novel and strange experiences, which is especially strong in those societies where there is still a strong sense of tradition. But the problem is that, alongside the wilful adoption of the fads of the fashionable West, there is usually a flight from religious faith, a neglect of spiritual values and an abandonment of any sense of involvement with or commitment to a Divine Will or Command. For such people, traditional clothing is a reminder of what must be abandoned or set aside in order to participate in the "progress" and "freedom" of the modern Western lifestyle.

While all this can be verified in many ways, there is one area that still for the most part has not succumbed to the temptations of the modern Western mode of dress, and that is the clothing of women in traditional and Eastern societies. While men have almost completely abandoned their traditional dress and adopted the uniforms of the West, either of the conformist or consumerist type, one can just as easily find the sisters, wives and daughters of these same men still wearing abayas, chadors, saris and any one of a number of traditional forms of women's dress. The Western observer interprets this as the "oppression" of women, but one cannot avoid perceiving a connection between this missionary zeal to unclothe Eastern women and the hopes of the fashion industries to re-clothe them in the ever-changing fads of modernity. Muslim and other Eastern women living in the West are particularly brave, noble and dignified in their traditional dress, as some Western societies are expressing outright hostility toward Muslims, especially in the post-911 world that is fueled by American paranoia. We must doubly commend women, therefore, in that they not only hold fast to their traditional clothing in their own societies, but that they choose to wear them in the "progressive" West, while their men are wearing suits, sneakers and jeans.

The traditional attire of a people is inextricably bound up with the historical, spiritual and cultural traditions of that society, by way of the associations such clothing carries and the symbolic meaning it possesses. History shows that wearing modern Western dress has often been the first step away from traditional values and spirituality. Probably history will also one day show that re-discovering Eastern clothing can be a first step in a return to non-secular values and ethics. Of course, there are many factors in the flight to and from tradition, and perhaps clothing seems a trivial matter with which to be concerned, for clothing does not fully make the person. However, clothing, like food and shelter, is surely an important factor in making, or unmaking, the individual and the environment in which that individual lives and interacts with others.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 7

Rajab 16, 14252004-09-01

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