Modesty in Islam

“Modesty and faith are connected with one another just like two things fastened by a rope. If one of them is gone, the other is also lost” [1]. Imam Baqir (AS)

Modesty is a special sense that prevents one from saying inappropriate words and making mistakes. It refers to an uncomfortable feeling accompanied by embarrassment, caused by one's anxiety about being exposed to some unworthy or indecent conduct. This concept, as one of the highest and most fundamental moral qualities, is known as Haya in Islam. Modesty describes shyness and shame, but Haya represents a more profound implication that is based on faith. In many sayings (Hadiths), it has been quoted that modesty is linked with faith and originates from it [1, 2]. Hence, it is one of the most important characteristics that every Muslim should acquire and possess [3]; particularly Muslim women (“haya is a good characteristic for all, but is better for women” [4]).

Modesty in Islam

Modesty: natural and acquired                           

There are two types of modesty: natural and acquired. An example of the former is the feeling of shyness and humility naturally occurring in a young child that makes him/her cover the private parts of the body from others. Or, in the story of Eve and Adam (PBUT) where they realize their nakedness and try to hide their genitals. This kind of modesty is common sense that exists within all human beings, believer or non-believer: “God Almighty divided the modesty among people just as He divided the provision” [5], and what differentiates them from animals: “If modesty did not exist … the promises wouldn’t be kept … Nobody would do any good, and nobody would refrain from the evil … if it weren’t for modesty, many people wouldn’t stop sinning.” [6]. Modesty serves as a cover on the soul that conceals the defects and calms down wrath and lust [7]. No one can, therefore, justify his/her sins and mistakes because of not being naturally given the sense of modesty.

The latter, on the other hand, can be only attained as a result of knowing and perceiving the Glory of Allah and minding His presence everywhere and in every second. In Islamic ethics, modesty is more than just a question of how a person dresses and acts in social interactions; instead, it is reflected in a Muslim’s conduct before God, before others and even when one is alone.

Modesty towards others

Modesty towards others entails that one has a decent and reasonable behavior in public, avoids indecent talks and vain activities, and respects everyone around him/her. If one has developed this ethical aspect within him/her and obeyed this sense, he/she will become ashamed when someone notices him doing something wrong. This feeling will be even worse when the other person is of a higher position. This, consequently, stops him/her from repeating that action.

To clarify the importance of the modesty towards people, Imam Ali (AS) said that the evilest of all is who is not ashamed of his actions in front of people [8].

Modesty towards others includes especially the opposite gender and involves not gazing at them [9], harming them in any way or indulging in any forbidden (Haram) relation with them. In Surah Nur, Allah guides both men and women to the key to modesty by saying that the believing men and women should lower their gaze and guard their modesty (24:30-31).

A good instance of modesty in the interactions between opposite genders is described in Surah Qasas, verses 23-26, between the daughters of Shoaib (PBUH) and Moses (PBUH). These verses demonstrate that the daughters of prophet work and appear in the society, but they care about how they interact with others; they concentrate on what they should do without having unnecessary dialogues with men. They communicate as much as necessary, with respect and dignity. Their speech is direct and clear-cut with Moses, so are Moses’s words. Even the way they both walk is with care and shyness [10].

Modesty in Islam

Modesty towards Oneself

Modesty towards oneself means that a person treats himself fairly in private. It is caused by the unpleasant feeling that arises when thinking of or doing something improper which consequently stops one from forbidden (Haram) thoughts or illicit acts. It was mentioned that when one does something indecent and suddenly notices the presence of others, he becomes ashamed (if he still possesses the natural modesty that is laid within his soul); a higher level of Haya is being ashamed of oneself when no one else is present. This kind of modesty is known as the yield of faith: “The shame a person feels from himself originates from [his] faith.” [11].

Modesty towards God

Modesty towards God is called the best level of modesty [12]: “be modest in front of Allah for He has a right to your modesty” [13]. To accomplish this, one should first believe that nothing can be concealed from God “Does he not know that Allah sees [him]?” (96:14). In fact, Allah sees and knows everything, and is closer to humans more than themselves: “and We are nearer to him than [his] jugular vein” (50:16). Consequently, a modest person toward God will avoid any indecent act, in public or private, and will leave sinful thoughts behind.

Modesty in Islam

References:

[1] M. al-Kulaynī, “Al-Kafi”, vol. 2, p. 106.

[2] M. B. Majlesi, “Bihar al-Anwar”, vol. 75, p. 309.

[3] M. al-Kulaynī, “Al-Kafi”, vol. 2, p. 106, T. 5.

[4] A. Q. Payande, “Nahj Al-Fasahah”, p. 578, T. 2006.

[5] S. H. al-Amili, “Wasail al-Shia”, vol. 20, p. 135.

[6] M. B. Majlesi, “Mofazzal monotheism”, Chapter: Human Senses.

[7] “Nahj al-Balagha”, no. 223

[8] “Ghurar Al-Hikam”, no. 5464

[9] M. B. Majlesi, "Bihar al-Anwar”, vol. 101, p. 40.

[10] N. Makarem Shirazi, “Tafsir Nemooneh”, vol. 16, p 58-59.

[11] “Ghurar Al-Hikam”, no. 4944.

[12] “Ghurar Al-Hikam”, no. 5451.

[13] H. T. Nuri Ṭabarsi, “Mustadrak al-Wasail”, vol. 8, p. 462.