By Munazzah Chou, Hertfordshire
For many in the West, the modest dress of Muslims, particularly the woman’s hijab has become synonymous with the concept of modesty in Islam.
However, modesty encompasses far more than the clothes one wears. In the Holy Qur’an, God says:
“O children of Adam! We have indeed sent down to you raiment to cover your shame, and to be an elegant dress; but the raiment of righteousness – that is the best…”
Modesty can be thought of as freedom from conceit or vanity and propriety in dress, speech and conduct. It can be expressed in social interaction by communicating in a way exhibiting humility, shyness or simplicity.
Modesty in Islam is known as ‘haya’, a word which describes both shyness and a deeper modesty that is based on faith; an uneasy feeling accompanied by embarrassment, caused by one’s fear of being exposed or censured for unworthy or indecent conduct. A sense of haya should affect a Muslim’s conduct before God, before others and even when one is alone. A comprehensive explanation of haya can be found in the following hadith:
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud relates that one day the Prophet said, ‘Be shy of Allah as much as is His due.’ The Companions present said, ‘All praise to Allah, we are shy of Him.’ The Prophet said, ‘That is not the point. Whoever is shy of Allah should protect his head and that which enters it, and his stomach and that which he puts into it (i.e. preserve it from unlawful wealth) and he should remember death and that which is to come after it; and whoever desires the Hereafter should abandon the adornments of this world. Whoever fulfills these duties has been shy of Allah as much as is His due.’
Haya is an attribute which encourages the believer to avoid anything distasteful or abominable, it keeps a believer from being neglectful in fulfilling their obligations for fear of displeasing Allah. The Holy Prophet Muhammad, has said,
“Modesty and faith are interlinked: if either of them is lacking, the other is lacking too.”
When faith is lacking, the life of this world can become the primary preoccupation. This can lead to behaviour that is immodest, overbearing, and assertive. A believer who is convinced of meeting God and having to account for what he does in this life will hesitate before stressing his own importance and acting in any manner considered immodest in any way. When modesty is wanting, the dictates of faith can never be fulfilled.
Hijab is an Arabic word meaning barrier or partition which in Islam has a broader meaning and includes behaviour as well as dress for both males and females. Islam stresses the relationship between body and mind and the wearing of the outer garments and veiling of the body leads to veiling of the heart and shielding it from impure thoughts. The Holy Qur’an states:
“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.”
“And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty and embellishments except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms…..”
These verses make clear that men and women are to conduct themselves with modesty and propriety at all times, and especially when in each other’s presence. The physical covering is only the first step to developing hijab. The true and full observance of hijab is achieved when “veiling” extends to the mind and heart and then we become impervious to impure and immoral thoughts when in contact with the opposite sex.
All women among the people of the book i.e. Jews, Christians and Muslims have been instructed to observe head coverings but Islam is unique in its philosophy. The Holy Qur’an states:
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and the women of the believers, that they should pull down upon them of their outer cloaks from their heads over their faces. That is more likely that they may thus be recognized and not molested. And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.”
Yet another purpose of hijab is to protect women from unwarranted harm. Often in the West women are considered and treated as sexual objects and Hijab is a physically manifested barrier to that harassment.
The view that hijab inhibits freedom and equality, a most prevalent view in the West may well have had its roots in the biblical explanation of the creation of man and woman and the veil:
“A man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God. But woman is the glory of man. For man was not created for woman, but woman for man. This is why the woman ought to have a sign of authority over her head, because of the angels.” (1 Corinthians, 11:7-10)
Thus, according to the Bible, the veil is a sign of man’s authority over woman and the standing of women in society has been clearly defined as subservient to men.
The Islamic rationale for hijab is entirely at odds with this prevailing stigma and numerous Quranic references attest to a woman’s equality to man. In Islam hijab signifies modesty as well as comprising a protective role.
The Promised Messiah, founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, writes,
“The observance of hijab is an outward expression of inner modesty, which is not only an icon, sign and representation, but a means to attain the level of modesty required for faith.”
The hijab is a measure to prevent arrogance, vanity, pride, vulgarity, impurity, unchaste behaviour, as well as a physical barrier to deflect unwanted attention. It is a visible representation of our humility, chastity, simplicity, inner beauty, obedience and faith.
Finally returning to the concept of modesty the word ‘haya’ is from the same root as ‘hayat’ which means ‘life’. Thus, modesty is coupled with spiritual life, and without this we would be living a life that is spiritually dead.