Monday, July 14, 2014


So I was under the impression that I vaguely knew what mufti was. But after watching Endeavor last night on PBS I fear I may have it at least slightly wrong.I had thought mufti was the more casual uniforms worn in the military, and not the full regalia. But on Endeavor, at a certain point, the police dress up in mufti, which in this case means they disguise their true role by wearing civilian clothing.

As you can see, this will bear some looking into...


Source: The weekly press, 29 April 1926, page 28

(The caption reads "Returned soldiers in mufti and wearing medals marching past the Cathedral, Christchurch")

Well, I was wrong. To be in mufti does just mean to be in clothing other than one's uniform, whatever that may be. I think it is probably not very commonly used in the  U.S., as I realized that our own equivalent is perhaps "civvies", as in civilian clothing. Apparently in England and elsewhere in the British sway, they even now have something called Mufti Day, which is something like our casual wear day or some equivalent--it's not that unified here. In my former place of work, which didn't go in for formal work clothes in the first place, we were not as likely to have a dress down kind of day as we were some sort of dress up day.

"Mufti" actually comes from the Islamic world. In English, it stems back to the British Raj, and its intermingling with Muslim culture during colonization. A mufti was and presumably still is a judge. Rather chillingly for Westerners, one dictionary defines a mufti as 'one who gives a fatwa'. The most famous fatwa for most Westerners is the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for having the temerity to write The Satanic Verses. (It's a brilliant book, by the way, and I am perhaps in a minority position by liking it better than Midnight's Children.)

But a fatwa, in less inflammatory moments, is simply a judicial decision, rendered by a scholar of Islamic law. So don't get down on all muftis just yet.

So now we get to the second part of the question--how does "mufti" come to be a term for civilian clothing? Well, it's unclear. Although this strategy would be anathema to Anatoly Liberman, I will pass along the speculation that it comes from the 19th century theater and a rather stereotypical portrayal of Arabs there. Whether it was because they were portrayed exotically and colorfully, or because they were wearing robes and slippers is not clear. But I will say that this was not the kind of garb being worn by the British coppers on last night's Inspector Morse prequel.

The new guy is good, but we still miss you, Mr. Thaw.


  1. "Mufti" threw me for years. It sounds so exotic to ears accustomed to English that I was long sure it meant dressed up rather dressed down.

  2. Yes--I think I've had that opposite association at times too, Peter.