U.S. Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of mass murder in the 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, grew a beard in anticipation of meeting Allah.
For many devout Muslims, being clean-shaven at death is considered a sin and Maj. Hasan faces execution if he is convicted on any or all of 13 counts of premeditated murder he faces.
But U.S. Army Colonel Gregory Gross, the military judge hearing Maj. Hasan's case, is more concerned with the accused appearance at his court martial.
So the long-awaited trial in the worst fratricide mass murder by an American serving soldier – an apparent act of jihad perhaps inspired by radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – has been delayed while lawyers spar over Maj. Hasan's bushy, black, beard.
Is it an act of insubordinate defiance or a devout display of religious conviction?
Since June, the military judge has tossed the newly bearded Maj. Hasan from the court – forcing him to watch pre-trial proceeding on a video feed in another room. He has also slapped the wheelchair-bound defendant with a $1,000 fine for contempt.
But when Col. Gross threatened to have Maj. Hasan forcibly shaved, a superior court stepped in. Now the case is delayed while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces weighs whether the judge's ruling that military decorum and army regulations banning facial hair trump Maj. Hasan's claims of religious freedom.
"Army regulations expressly authorize non-consensual haircutting and face-shaving for recalcitrant incarcerated soldiers," the judge's lawyers said in a filing this week to the appeals court. "If the judge has authority to bind and gag a disruptive accused, then certainly he has authority to forcibly shave (one)."
Pentagon regulations ban beards although neatly trimmed moustaches are allowed. The U.S. military does make occasional exceptions. A handful of Sikhs, some Muslims in non-combat roles such as doctors and several rabbis serving as chaplains have been allowed to grow beards.
But in Maj. Hasan's case, the military judge deems he is flouting army regulations. He has ordered the accused to appear clean-shaven and in uniform for his court martial.
The appeals court must now determine if the military judge can order Maj. Hasan to be forcibly shaved. If not, the fact that he is banned from the court as long as he is bearded could be grounds for an appeal or mistrial.
The whole sideshow over facial hair has delayed the court martial that was supposed to get under way last week.
The mass murder at the Texas army base nearly three years ago stunned the nation. The gunman, shouting "Allahu Akbar" – God is greatest – opened fire with a pair of pistols in a crowded deployment centre where scores of soldiers were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. More than 40 of the unarmed soldiers were were shot, some repeatedly as they attempted to crawl to safety; 13 were killed.
The carnage ended when a civilian policewoman shot Maj. Hasan, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
The psychiatrist, it turned out, had been swapping e-mails with the U.S. born, al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, something the military knew about but failed to regard as a danger sign even though several of Maj. Hasan's colleagues had warned of his worrisome radicalization.
Earlier this month, Maj. Hasan tried to enter a guilty plea on the 13 counts of premeditated murder but they were rejected by the military judge because, he said, military law doesn't permit guilty pleas in death penalty cases.
Although more than a dozen crimes, including treason, murder, espionage and – during wartime – desertion still carry the death penalty under U.S. military code of military justice, the last soldier hanged was in 1961.
When Maj. Hasan's trial does finally get under way, it is expected to take several months.