by Suraiya Ali
I want to preface this paper with the wish that I could explore this thread through all religions. It is not only through Islam and Hinduism that the divine ubiquity of clothing and adornment is prevalent. It is a part of the faith of Christ and Bahá’u’lláh, Zoroaster and Joseph, Buddha and Laozi. However, there is a special case with Islam and Hinduism, in that they have been forced on top opposite ends of a spectrum, when both have, for so long, operate in nuance.
As a devotee that lives with both and studies both, I find the dichotomy rather nefarious. The consequences of such a binary can be seen by turning on the international news. All over India, Hindu-nationalist sentiment works to rewrite history, a history that would erase Islam from the region. Right North, Pakistan works to make Hinduism societally obsolete, attempting to create a nation of Sunni-Muslim conformity. While such points are valid and scray, this paper finds itself focused on Islam and Hinduism’s mystical convergence.
Both creeds function in popular and esoteric spaces. Within that esoteric space, Hinduism and Islam find themselves cut from the same fabric. Having much in common, one thing that is rarely spoken about is their shared understanding surrounding the divinity of clothing and adornment. While this paper is not exhaustive, it will highlight that through the more left-handed side of both creeds, clothing plays an interact part in explaining the stories the faiths try to tell. Here I attempt an introduction to those stories, and how they weave the two faiths together beautifully.
This paper will be anointed with an exploration of the earlier aspects of clothing in Hinduism’s and Islam’s recondite facets. The two, then, will be spoken about separately, employing numerous sources to show how the weave of clothing has been a constant through both faiths. To bring it all under one house, we will return to the house of God that raised me. I recant a story of my personal experience with the divinity of clothing. This paper is short, and will only scratch the surface of an issue that deserves deep exploration. My hope it that it allows you, gracious reader, to consider the more esoteric ramifications of the clothing you wear.
For the creeds in question, clothing represents a direct facet of human creation. Its history is as old as the leaf loin clothes of Adam and Eve, or in the case of the other faith system; as old as when Vishnu, incarnated as divine serpent, decided to churn the cosmic milk ocean and bring to life creation, which happened to contain very beautiful goddesses, wrapped in silk and adorned with gold.
When it comes to Islam’s Sufism, the system has so many caveats that saying it is one thing is a definite way to come across several sources contradicting the initial claim. Dr. Idries Shah, modern expert on the topic, describes Sufism as “being bound by no religious dogma” and disliking “being given any inclusive name which might force them into doctrinal conformity.” The etymology, and in extension, the definition of the creed, is described by masters such as Hujwiri to be nonexistent, but to others, such as Professor R. A. Nicholson, believe it to be incredibly tangible. Nicholson helped popularize that Sufi’s were called such because they wore coarse garments of suf or grey wool.
While the legitimacy of this can be toyed with, as so many things about Sufism are ambiguous— entertaining the claim is vital to see what clothing means to Islam’s early expenditures into esoterica. Common understandings of any sort of asceticism, Sufism included, always deal with the detachment from the material such as clothing. Sufism began as an experiment in “being in this world but not being of it,” early devotees saw that parts of their material world were helpful towards the path to the Absolute. The incorporation of suf serves as the first domino in esoteric Islam’s divine relationship to clothing. 6th century Grey wool was uncomfortable, and much like how in Ramadan, Muslims practice remembering Allah when they feel a pang of hunger, the wool served the same purpose. In every itch, a reminder of their Creator. To identify a Sufi, a person could look at their robes of grey wool, clothing that represented the commitment taken towards devotion— a relationship that carries through Sufism throughout time and space.
Hinduism, both popular and esoteric, much like Sufism, come with many caveats. Hinduism and clothing run into a special issue, that at the beginning of the creed’s predecessor, Vedicism, was also the beginning of clothing, as fabric crop cultivation happens right as Vedicism develops for the masses. But even at that point, scholars point out that Vedic priests were still clad in draped fabrics and adorned with jewels. Hinduism developed in tandem with clothing and adornment, both being principle to the evolution of the religions devotional systems.
Hinduism’s chronological entanglement with clothing and adornment leave it to be, as Anna Dallapiccola states in her Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend, “like no other country in the world…[boasting] millennia of uninterrupted adornment tradition.” The dictionary aids in explaining the protective properties several kinds of adornment held, adding esoteric qualities to every ring, necklace, and piece of embroidery. In its earliest stages, adornment held a devotional significance, as “jewelry and decoration on a person [were] believed to have magical and protective properties.” What was put on the body represented the bounty of the gods, along with protection from it being taken away. This caused the transitive property of clothing and adornment to form as Hinduism itself did, as knew technology inspired new ways to create adornment, new religious traditions inspired that technology, and adornment, to be put to good use. This created a positive feedback loop between the religion and the clothing and adornment it inspired, weaving Hinduism into a creed that will use both the physicality and symbology of clothing down to the modern day.
Hinduism and Islam were found in separate parts of the world at separate times, but even in their early gestation, they showcase a similar necessity and exploration of very fabric and adornment placed on the bodies of their most devoted followers. Through time and space, this relationship only blossoms into more diverse forms.
The Robes of The Believers
There is a poem by Pir Shams that has been adapted as a popular prayer for several Shia sects. The line “Tis you who’s Khidr’s guide, His teacher, his inspiration…” speaks about fourth Caliph to Islam and martyr for the faith, Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, being the guide to Khidr. Very important to this conversation, synchronized with figures from Saint George to Vishnu, Khidr is as close to a superhero as one could imagine in Islam. Shah describes him as the “unseen one” with “supernormal function” that include shapeshifting to mind reading. There is only one way to identify the figure who is dubbed “the master of Sufi’s,” and it is by his “robes of green fire.”
As the beginning of Islam’s most tangible esoterica comes with grey robes, the extension of those as identification for believers extends far and wide, as Khidr shows. In Shah’s accounts, Khidr is often caught teasing the ignorance of mortals, as his robe is said to hold every secret man is not able to comprehend. It is due to this clandestine offering that the robes sparkle like fire.
The importance of such green robes is unique– religion uses many devices, but for Islam to use robes to showcase man’s bright ignorance to divinity proves clothing’s importance in esoteric Islam. The legend of Khidr has been repeated throughout the Muslim world, as where ever Islam expanded, so did Sufism, and in turn so did Khidr. A marker of Sufism’s commitment to showing devotion through clothing, the “unseen one” also represents that the Islamic definition of asceticism is far from complete material denouncement, rather, it deems fabric and its devotional use as paramount.
While Khidr exists on the fringe of what is history and what is mythology, many more parts of Islam’s collective history and theology use clothing as a tool. The Sufi, also known as the Pir, Fakir, and Dervish, was at the forefront of Islam’s expansion. Along with him, came his infamous coat. The Dervish coat is said to be a patchwork of fabric so holy that it is “woven by the names and attributes of Allah.” Shem Friedlander, Sufi, and scholar, accounts that:
“The dervish wears special clothes…the robe he wears has twelve buttons that correspond to the twelve Imams within his path, the other four buttons represent the four doors and the four sacred books of Allah. It is also a shroud. Because to be a real dervish is to die before dying. If you’ve read about Sufism, then you’ve heard the expression to die before you die.”
Within the medieval history of Ismaili’s, one of Islam’s most notorious sects, the importance of clothing goes farther to express their devotion to those who would try to oppress them, as historian James Waterson recounts:
“The fidai’in [Ismaili’s] also appear to have adopted a uniform at this time for domestic guard duties, comprising a simple white robe with red cords to secure it, red turbans and red boots. The uniform may have been created as a visible sign of resistance.”
Here, Friedlander and Waterson help bring the importance of Islam’s relationship with clothing full circle. It is a total relationship, one that is worn in this life, as Ismaili’s used clothing in real time to demonstrate their faith, one that was deemed left handed in comparison to others. Clothing and adornment also allow for the Muslim to cross over into the next life, as Friedlander shows, that such a coat or robe serves an importance for the souls, and not just the body’s, utility. Clothing is not only a part of the divine relationship between creator and His progeny but also a catalyst in taking that relationship to the next stage. To those on the left-hand path, it is not a nefarious attachment to this world, but when used properly, a guiding light towards their soul’s ascendance.
Adornment of The Holy
Hinduism’s relationship to clothing is beyond transcendental. Hinduism’s esoterica is a vast space full of several types of clothing and adornment. The divine use of that clothing and adornment is obvious to many Hindus, especially to India’s artisans. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, prolific Indian film-marker who specializes in the historical drama, creates costume designs, dialogue, and musical compositions that speak towards the ubiquity of divinity.
His latest movie, Bajiao Mastani, showcases the relationship between Muslim Rajput Princess, Mastani Bai, and Hindu Marathi Prime-minister, Bajirao Ballad. Set in the 17th century, the movie is a treasure trove of gorgeous costumes and of dialogue showcasing the Muslim-Hindu tensions between Mastani and Rao’s family. The following segment takes place when Mastani enters Rao’s house when he is not there, to give his first wife blessings in honor of her new child.
Family Member 1: “If you wanted to bring valid offerings, you would have worn holy saffron robes, instead of those the color of green poison.”
Mastani: “People have associated each religion with a color, but color has no religion. To see religion in color, and only color is a way to have your heart turn black.”
Hindu Priest: “Don’t pay her any attention, she has forgotten the difference between a Dargah and Durga.”
Mastani: “Perhaps you have forgotten that the very idol of the Durga you speak of, is anointed with a green shroud, green choli, and green bangles. That in the Dargah, sanctified pirs and fakirs have their tombs covered with saffron robes. Will you still tell me I do not know the importance of color?”
The dialogue brings up an important comparison between the Fakir and his final resting place, the Dargah, and Durga, the Mother Goddess of the more recondite practices of Hinduism. While it was used an alteration device in the movies dialogue, the similitude between the worship of Durga, has many similarities to Sufism, especially when it comes to clothing and adornment.
Much like how in Sufism, a figure can be recognized by their robe. The mystic practice of Goddess worship too, takes much heed to use adornment and clothing for the sake of ritual. Whether it is by the name of Ma, Durga, or Kali, the feminine force is always portrayed adorned. Even while She practices “ritual nakedness,” She is always shown to wear necklaces, headdresses, anklets, and earrings. In Arjit Mookerjee’s Kali: The Feminine Force, every illustration, from 2,000 BCE to the 19th Century, showcases the Goddess adorned with something—from saris spun of gold or entire body suits made of jewels. The more powerful that force, in the case of Kali Ma, the more intense the adornment and clothing.
Kali Ma, the Hindu manifestation of malignant female energy, is showcased throughout time to wear a skirt of arms with a necklace of heads, and several other appendage related pieces of clothing— all attained from the bodies of men sacrificed to her. Devotion and sacrifice come hand in hand, as the Sufi’s may have worn coarse wool to remember their commitment and devotion, becoming a symbol for those after them. In Goddess worship, Ma is depicted wearing the bodies of the sacrificed, to show to those after them the commitment undertaken with devotion.
The use of clothing to represent this sacrifice is substantial because it draws a link between something often viewed as material, even sybaritic, to something esoteric, and purely immaterial, as the Goddess always represents a force beyond the corruptibility of this world. Clothing becomes transcendental in representation—it is not only the items Kali Ma wears to adorn herself, it is also an unadulterated representation of the fidelity of her devotees. One cannot exist without the other, as the clothing cannot exist without the sacrifice, and the sacrifice cannot be so purely represented without the clothing being one it’s prime final forms.
Both religion’s esoterica prove to use clothing in a manner that is dual purpose. Clothing is not only a way to showcase devotion or be recognizable as a devotee of a certain path, it is also used to transcend material fascinations and understand intangible aspects of spirituality. Whether it be through the Green robes of Khidr or the necklace of heads around the neck of Ma, clothing and adornment become representative of the thing that the devotee is reaching for: a connection with the Absolute.
The relationship between clothing and its ritual importance then trickles down to even the smallest elements of the fabric Hindu’s and Muslim’s adorn themselves with, even in modern times. Today, higher members of the Ismaili congregation still, as an unwritten social convention, wear white or light colors to Fidia’ majlis, a ceremony that requires a mystic oath to gain admittance. Devotees of the Goddesses still clad themselves in red to symbolize the blood of the sacrificed. To the esoteric side of both faiths, clothing is in no way a material struggle, but a path to liberation, one thread at a time.
I have always been clad in the clothing of devotees, as in my upbringing it was the only way to enter the house of God. The specific house in question is a Jamat Khane, the house of prayer for Ismaili Muslims, the sect of my family. When it comes to the congregation of my local Khane, it represents only the South Asian sphere of influence. Over all, however, our Islam is one that is very Sufi; mixed with religions such as Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Sikki.
This is the story I represent. My Mother is nationally, Iranian and Indian, ethnically Marathi and Persian, and my father is nationally Pakistani, ethnically Sindhi, Gujarati, and Persian. My nuclear family then, represents almost a large amount of the international Ismaili community and my parents never let me forget it. I have from a young age, been indoctrinated into knowing my history, ritual and theology. For my mother, a big part of this was making sure I understood the sanctity of clothing and adornment. The result of this is knowing the difference between a Shahrarah and a Ghararah or a gold from Iran versus India.
On the night of Noroz in 2013, I graced my Jamat Khane’s evening prayer service in a specially made pink and orange chiffon Anarkali. Embroidered to perfection with flowers, I matched it with a stack of bangles that went up half way both of my arms, flowers in my hair, and a huge nose ring glittering in my nose. An outfit from India made to wear to a Persian holiday, around a congregation that was mostly Pakistani, it represented my entire being. I felt like the very spring we were celebrating. In that feeling, I was preserving my collective culture and religion. I was doing my own version of devotion, my own version of zhikr.
My religious education teacher decided to disagree. Upon wishing me Noroz Mubarak that night he also told me I was being far too material, dressing in that “way.” It shocked me that a man of learning could say something so reductive. I was quick to correct him. In the middle of 1,000 people I very cordially explained that in my ornate attire I was representing history. In doing that, I am detaching myself from the world we live in, and am entering, as physically as possible, the role of the devotee. Clothing has the power to bring one to God. He has never forgotten that conversation and still brings up to this day.
This paper was a glimpse of what clothing and adornment mean to the collective esoterica of creeds that have for some time been put against one and other. The fabric will always tell a different story. I was not able to mention everything. I was not able to mention the black Chador of Bivi Fatima, sanctified figure from the family of the Prophet, or the fact that Krishna would steal the clothing of his devotees to tease them— but it is my hope that this peek into such a vast history inspires a different opinion in people who see clothing as strictly material, especially within the creeds in question. In extension, while many Muslims and Hindu’s bicker, fight and kill over their differences— in large swaths of the world they wear the same clothing and adornment to the houses of God they harbor, where the prayers they recite translate to be synonymous.
A devotee can be defined as many things, but its purest facet is using everything in their power to maximize their relationship with divinity. If an extra pair of bangles or a sweeping silk robe, does this for some, then there is no reason to deem them any less worthy of the divinity they seek. Clothing has always been an intrinsic part of the divine conversation, recognition of that is paramount to weaving relationships where we often only see the tension.