The great debate: Can I wear that nail polish?

“SubhanAllah!” I heard my friend screaming as I was brushing my teeth one morning. Alarmed, I ran into her room to see if she was all right. She sat in front of her computer, beaming from ear to ear. “A company has finally invented a halal nail polish!” she grinned. Like my friend, many Muslim women throughout the world are rejoicing over the recent invention of a “wudu [ablution]-friendly” nail polish, known as O2M Breathable polish.
Although neither the Qur’an nor any early sources of Islamic law address the issue of nail polish, the consensus among scholars and the general Muslim community remains that praying with nail polish is not permissible. When performing the required ablution before the five daily prayers, it is necessary for the water to run over the face, neck, ears, hair, arms, hands and feet; the waterproof barrier nail polish creates on nails blocks water from touching and washing over the nail enamel during the pre-prayer ritual of wudu.

It may seem like a petty issue, but the nail polish debate has inserted itself even in respected publications. When Num Ha Mim Keller translated esteemed 13th century scholar Nawawi’s Al-Maqasid’s book on Islamic jurisprudence, he discovered a section devote to ablution which read, “ “If dirt under the nails prevents the water of ablution from reaching the skin, then ablution is not valid.” Without adding any annotation that the following statement is Keller’s own, Keller proceeds to write, “The same is true of waterproof glue, paint, nail polish.” It seemed unlikely that a 13th century scholar would address nail polish in his writings, and when I pointed out this unwarranted assumption by the translator to my Islamic Law professor, she replied, only half-jokingly, that the nail polish debate is one of the most important facing the Muslim community, especially in the West.

Indeed, as I was reading up on the O2M Breathable polish, I was surprised to see how many Muslim women had written to their local Imams to inquire about the permissibility of this brand. Many of the Imams had responded with lengthy, detailed explanations about why they either thought it was better to err on the side of caution and avoid the polish or expressed their wholehearted support of it. Despite approval from their Imams, some women remained reluctant to purchase the polish. They felt there were still some unanswered questions, for example, how breathable the nail polish would be if multiple coats are used.

As I watched my friend immediately begin to select which colors she wanted, I could not help but feel just a little sorry for her and for the state of Muslim community in general. When my Islamic Law professor had laughingly retorted that nail polish was the biggest headache of the Muslim community, she was, in fact, highlighting the pettiness of some of the debates that Muslims expend their energy on today. I am certain there are much more pressing issues that need to be addressed, and yet some of us have decided to focus on whether or not the pink nail polish I am so fond of prevents me from communicating with my Lord, who is described in the Qur’an as “closer to man than his jugular vein” (50:17).

I suspect the great nail polish debate has less to do with the nail polish itself and more to do with whether Muslims should adopt practices associated with the “big, bad West.” My hope is that more Muslims will begin to employ some good, old fashioned ijtihad– the practice of making a decision regarding Islamic law by personal effort and independent of any school of thought or religious scholar. We have the tools in front of us! Instead of, may I suggest we flip through the neglected copy of the Qur’an collecting dust on our bookshelves? After all, while most of us do not read or speak Arabic, reading an English translation is not forbidden. Better yet, read the Qur’an in its original language, while you have your browser open to some authoritative books of hadith, Arabic lexicons, or an English translation of the Qur’an, courtesy of Google scholar. Ijtihad isn’t merely my suggestion, but rather a Qur’anic injunction. At multiple points in our Holy Book , God exhorts Muslims to reflect and ponder. On the other hand, our Creator discourages seeking to regulate everything by Divine command, pointing out that such a regulation is burdensome and restrictive.

O you who believe! Ask not of things which, if they were made [known] unto you, would trouble you; but if you ask of them when the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be made known unto you. Allah pardons this, for Allah is Forgiving, Clement. A people before you asked [such questions] and then disbelieved [as a result]. (5:101-102)

In other words, when we become tangled in the meticulous details of our faith’s rituals, we make the observance of our faith cumbersome. Revelation is not meant to narrow intellectual curiosity, but rather enhance it.

As I helped my friend pick out exactly which of the ten shades of pink nail polish she should purchase, I hoped she realized that a similar diversity exists within jurisprudence. Even a rudimentary study of Islamic Law will reveal that Shariah does not divide the world into “halal” (permissible) and “haram” (forbidden).There are many shades of gray in between, which allow a great degree of… dare I say, breathability.
Monsura Sirajee is a student at Boston University pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in History and Religion. She is an active member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and an advisory board member of the BU Interfaith Council.

Photo credit: Esmay de Olde

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