Women's Issues: Inner Modesty
Dr. Aisha Hamdan
In Islamic discourse a great deal of emphasis is placed on the issue of hijab for women with much debate about the extent and nature of that covering. This is obviously an important issue for Muslim women, but an equally significant topic is that of Modesty. The Prophet, sallallaahu alayhe wa sallam passed by an Ansari man who was counseling his brother on modesty (He was advising him not to be too much shy or modest). The Prophet said: "Leave him (and do not advise him like this); for modesty is part of faith." (Bukhari and Muslim). The Prophet, sallallaahu alayhe wa sallam, also said, "Modesty results in good alone and nothing else." (Bukhari and Muslim).
Modesty is a term that is used often but one that is not clearly understood. One way to conceptualize it would be to think in terms of moving from an outer layer to the inner workings of a system. The covering, or hijab is the surface layer of modesty that everyone sees and that is very obvious to all. However, a woman could wear hijab and modesty may not go any deeper than that; it could be an artificial form of modesty or one done to satisfy another person.Going deeper, the next layer may consist of what is commonly known as self-consciousness or shyness. At this level the woman not only wears hijab, but also acts in a way that is reserved and respectful. An important behavior in this category is lowering of the gaze. "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." [24:3 1 Emphasis is often placed on men lowering their eyes, but this is also a requirement for women. Eyes should be turned away from everything that is forbidden. This includes not looking at any non-mahram man, at the awrah of another woman, or with bad intentions at another person. In one hadeeth qudsi, the Prophet, sallallaahu alayhe wa sallam, reported that Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, says, "Looking at a non-mahram (men relatives to whom women cannot get tnarried) is one of the poisoned arrows of Satan. Whoever will stop it because of fearing me, I will bless him with such Emaan, the sweetness of which he will feel in his heart" (Tabarani).Another characteristic at this level is humility in speech. As with everything in Islam, a woman's speech should be in moderation. It should be neither too loud nor too soft (so as to be alluring). Idle, senseless, excessive conversation should be avoided since it has no benefit and distracts from more important responsibilities. When a woman engages in conversation she should keep it decent and respectable and void of such harmful vices as backbiting, mockery, suspicion, and gossip. She should be humble and not boast about her abilities and achievements. "Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their salah, and who shun vain conversation, and who are payers of zakat" [23:1-4]. Being placed between two pillars of Islam demonstrates the very significance of this pronouncement.A woman should also attempt to avoid contact and conversation with non-mahram men. When this is necessary, such as for educational purposes or in the work environment, the discussion should be limited to pertinent matters and the woman should speak in a straight-forward and virtuous manner.
As with the hijab, these rules of etiquette may be observed for various reasons. The woman may act modestly because of cultural norms, her own innate disposition, or to impress or satisfy other people. This may have no connection whatsoever to the innermost level of modesty as any non-believer may follow the same code of conduct.. The center of this innermost level is the heart, alongside Emaan. A true believing woman does not engage-in these behaviors for other people; rather, she does it for the sake of Allah. She does not do so out of shyness from other people; she does it out of shyness from Allah. She is humble in the presence of Allah because she knows that everything she has, her wealth, her status, her abilities, are only from Him. This understanding highlights the interconnection between modesty and Emaan. The Prophet (pbuh) said, "Indeed, modesty and Emaan are companions. When one of them is lifted, the other leaves as well." (Baihaqi). And when this happens, the moral fiber of society is jeopardized.