Beard Cosmetics Win a War

Figure on the right: red beard tinged with henna, maybe?
Sala de los Reyes, Alhambra (Granada, Spain)

The arrival of the Muslims to Iberia brought along certain cosmetic practices associated with the beard that were extremely shocking to the local population, namely, the dyeing of the beard with different colors. To this practice, the Muslim armies reportedly owe some military victories, such as the case of the capture of the city of Mérida in the South-West of the Iberian Peninsula. The city, after having put up a strong resistance, capitulated to the Muslim commander Mūsā ibn Nuṣayr in the following beard-related circumstances, reported both in Islamic and Christian sources. Let us read here the account by the Arabic chronicler Al-Maqqarī (d. 1632 c.e.) in his Nafḥ al-ṭībb (a compilation based on earlier sources):

“Mūsā offered to treat with the besieged on terms of peace; accordingly a deputation, composed of the principal inhabitants, came forth from the city to settle with him the conditions (…). Mūsā made use of the following stratagem to deceive and astonish them: he received them the first time with his white hair and beard both undressed. Not having agreed then, the deputies returned back to the city, and appeared again before him on the day before the feast of Al-fiṭr; but what was their astonishment to behold his beard, which he had tinged with hinna, dyed of deep red, resembling that of the branches of the arfaj.[1]Again not having come to a perfect understanding, the deputies returned back to the city, and when they came to visit Mūsā the next day, they were still more astonished to see his hair and beard entirely black, a circumstance which filled them with amazement, for the barbarians were totally unacquainted with the practice of staining and dressing the beard. When they went back to the city they said to their countrymen, ‘Know ye that we have to fight a nation of prophets, who can change their appearance at pleasure, and transform themselves into any shape they like. We have seen their king, who was an old man become a young one; so our advice is this, that we should go to him and grant him his demands, for people like them we cannot resist.’”[2]

The use of plant-based dyes such as henna were well-known among the first Muslims, and it seems that in the period of Islam’s early conquests, the Arabs became acquainted with a multiplicity of substances that could be mixed in with the henna, in order to develop a diversity of resulting colors: yellow, orange, red, dark indigo, black… The hadīth literature preserves long debates about the permissibility or advisability of using all these coloring substances, which over time became associated with the Muslims. The use of dye to color grey hair became a way for Muslims to differentiate themselves from other monotheists, such as Jews and Christians, who seemingly rejected this cosmetic practice (according to Juynboll, this particularly applies to traditions stemming from Syria). The use of black dye was considered controversial in some traditions, which considered it a conceited pretense of youthfulness. These traditions preferred orange or reddish tinges, which covered the grey but did not dissimulate the fact that a dye had been employed.

In a Shiite tradition (see Juynboll, p. 71), the Prophet is presented as having employed black hair dye before a battle in order to scare the enemy (presumably, to appear stronger, since a young commander in chief would terrorise the adversaries more than a grey-bearded one). In the above-cited passage from the Islamic conquest of al-Andalus, we find a similar use of hair and beard dye. According to this narration, the Muslim commander Mūsā cunningly employed different shades of beard dyes in the context of the negotiation of a military surrender in order to intimidate the enemy, conveying the impression that he had some sort of supernatural powers, being able to present at will as an old venerable elder or as a young, black-bearded youth.

Although we would be well-advised not take the historicity of the account at face value, the text does reflect well the wide-ranging diversity of the practices introduced by the Muslims in the Iberian peninsula, with many of which “the barbarians were totally unacquainted.” This included, apparently, the practice of sporting orange, red, and dark blue beards.

[1] Rhanterium epapposum, small shrub with yellow flowers native to the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (as noted by Pascual de Gayangos).

[2] Al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, edited and translated by Pascual de Gayangos, New York-London,  1840, vol. 1, p. 285.


  • Alfonso X el Sabio, Primera Crónica General: Estoria de España que mandó componer Alfonso el Sabio y se continuaba bajo Sancho IV en 1289, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Bailly-Baillière e hijos, Madrid, 1906, vol. 1, p. 317.
  • Al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, ed. and translated by Pascual de Gayangos, New York,-London,  1840, vol. 1, p. 285.
  • Jiménez de Rada, Rodrigo. De rebus Hispaniae. In Roderici Ximenii de Rada Opera Omnia, cura et studio Juan Fernández Valverde, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis LXXII, Turnholt, Brepols, 1987, pp. 112-113.
  • Juynboll, G.H.A. “Dyeing the Hair and Beard in Early Islam: A Hadīth-Analytical Study,” Arabica 33 (1986): 49-75.

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