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Thoughts on Modesty

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					Thoughts on Modesty

By Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood                                             16/03/2004


    “Every religion has its characteristic, and the
        characteristic of Islam is modesty.”

This statement made some 1400 years ago by the
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon
him) is just as relevant today as it was then. The
Prophet lived in turbulent times, when slavery,
debauchery, drunkenness and sexual abuse was rife;
when poor women could be maltreated without
redress and wealthy women could live totally without
morals if they wished, without much criticism.

When the Prophet was a teenage boy he was one of
the founder members of a society of “Knights of
Justice” created by his uncle, determined to bring
protection and fair dealing to the weak and insecure. He, and those of like mind,
were loved and admired for their nobility, years before the revelation of Islam. The
revelations, when they came, encouraged and exhorted them to show others that
compassion, generosity, courage, modesty and patient faith were the right way to
live.

Modesty is such a „quiet‟ characteristic, that perhaps
nobody thinks about it very much. What are modest        Modesty is such a ‘quiet’
people like? They are self-effacing, and humble; they characteristic, that
do not wish to draw too much attention to                perhaps nobody thinks
themselves. They feel embarrassed when they are          about it very much.
given praise, and genuinely do not really feel they
have done all that much to deserve it, for everything they do is no more than their
duty and their delight, in serving God. They would hate to be picked out for praise
above their fellows, or pushed forward into the limelight, shown off, or made to
perform „party pieces‟ for the applause of others.

Modesty also implies a personal and physical shyness and reticence, as opposed to
a wish to flaunt themselves for their physical charms. In this day and age, when it
seems to be taken for granted that young women wish to walk down the streets of
town wearing garments that cover little more than their underwear does, and when
everything seems geared up to a lifestyle that encourages females to make
themselves as sexually attractive as possible, and to feel failures if they are not
turning heads, women who are not like that, and do not wish to be, are regarded
by some as being rather odd.

It is an unfortunate sort of discrimination, for in actual fact very large numbers of
girls and women are naturally modest, and do not wish to flaunt themselves at all,
and feel no sense of distress or loss if they are not arousing male desires or
interested glances. Wearing hijab, or becoming a „covered lady‟, is one of the odd
problems facing girls and women who convert to Islam and who then decide to
alter their style of clothing, and/or wear a head-veil.
Ironically, genuinely shy and modest women can feel really uneasy and „forced into
the arena of public scrutiny‟ when they change old habits; putting on hijab can
cause people who know you to stare, or wonder why you suddenly think yourself to
be „better‟ or „more holy‟ than them, or to bring out remarks about how well they
know what you are really like; or to wonder why you are seeking to „dress up in
fancy dress‟, or pretending to be an Arab or a Pakistani or whatever. Muslim
women who take the further step of covering their faces often face a similar
reaction from Muslim women who don‟t.

This is not something that male Muslims know very
much about. There is no equivalent requirement for a       Modest behavior implies
man as regards his clothing, or head-covering, or          the genuine desire to do
face-covering. I suppose something similar would be        good for no reason other
for a convert man to feel it was a good thing required     than to please Allah,
by Allah to turn up at the office or go to the garage or   seeking no reward, or
factory in an Arab long white dress, and put a bag         thanks, or public notice.
over his head.

Yet there are rules in Islam for male modesty. I have winced in horror on a plane
coming home from Damascus in which all the male passengers were Muslims,
except a couple of western tourists, who wore shirts open to the waist (sweat,
chest-hair and all), and shorts, and were quite oblivious to (or not bothered by) the
reaction of distaste from those all around them. In fact, male Muslims are also
expected to dress modestly, in clean clothing that covers them and does not
emphasize their sexuality.

Needless to say, it is not only modest clothing that is required, but also modest
behavior-not the Dickensian Uriah-Heepish sort of crawling humility-but the
genuine desire to do good for no reason other than to please Allah, seeking no
reward, or thanks, or public notice. The cover-up clothing of Muslim women is not
intended as a punishment or an endurance test, but as a wish to appear graceful
and feminine without encouraging any sexual advances. „Covered ladies‟ are not
necessarily innocent youngsters, virgins about to be sacrificed in marriage, but
may be mothers of half a dozen children, perhaps
married several times.

There is no false modesty intended. But they are         Modesty also implies
giving certain specific messages: firstly, that their    simplicity, and lack of
faith is Islam and they have chosen to submit to the     desire for ostentation.
will of God in every aspect of their lives; and
secondly, that they wish to be appreciated for their characters and good deeds,
and not for whether or not they happen to be pretty or slim or sexy.

Modesty also implies simplicity, and lack of desire for ostentation. A woman could
be completely covered, but in some gaudy material, shrieking color, and also
dripping with jewellery, gold and pearls. That‟s one sort of ostentation. Or she
might be the only woman in her community who chooses to be head to toe in
black-that might well be genuine piety, but it could also be a form of ostentation
too. Allah will judge the lady not on her clothes at all, but on her motives, her
niyyah, and the quality of her life and what she does with it.

Of course, the covered clothing can be quite a sacrifice-notably when the
temperature soars and one must find garments in pure cotton, and not wear short
sleeves, and if wearing the veil one must remember that a large amount of body-
heat escapes through the head, and one can end up feeling quite faint and
uncomfortable.

There is always a lot of controversy about the extent of a woman‟s hijab in Islam.
Some women cover absolutely everything, others interpret it to mean „modest
dress according to the society in which one lives‟ and even dispense with the head-
veil. Hijab certainly means that a woman should not be showing her cleavage, or
wearing a garment that is transparent and reveals her underwear, or one that is
tight and clinging. My husband, coming from Pakistan, was horrified to note that
old ladies in the UK brazenly went round showing their legs to all and sundry-to
him, any skirt above the ankle was a mini-skirt.

The compulsory aspect of hijab to a Muslim woman is
modesty-how this is interpreted in clothing styles is      The values of modesty
not compulsory at all, and is left to the piety and        and genuine humility are
taste of the individual. Modesty and simplicity, and       God-given, and those
trust in Allah go hand in hand. I had a friend in          who possess those
Jordan a few years ago, a straightforward Muslim           characteristics are
man who had asked me to bring him the present of a blessed indeed.
pair of denim jeans from the UK. When I also gave
him a shirt to go with it, he was almost offended. What did I bring him a shirt for?
He already had two. He promptly gave one shirt away to someone less fortunate
than himself. I will never forget the lesson of his attitude. It was one of my key
experiences in bringing me into Islam.

I learned another lesson from him, too. A button came off, and I volunteered to
sew it on for him. This earned a small rebuke, for it would deprive of employment
the poor man down the street who earned his living by such things as sewing on
buttons. One cannot help but compare the practice of Islam on that very simple
and modest level to the fanaticism and squabbles and outright corruption that have
marred the beauty of Islam in more comfortable and
affluent surroundings.

Modesty goes hand in hand with value. When men          A truly simple-living
and women are modest, they are in fact valuable         person makes nonsense
people, and without any thought of self-                of the ephemeral
aggrandizement, realize their value. The values of      wealth-and-status-
modesty and genuine humility are God-given, and         seeking ambitions of
those who possess those characteristics are blessed     those who do not realize
indeed. Moreover, they are lights shining in the        there is more to life than
darkness, giving an example of hope and goodness to     just this level of
others.                                                 existence.

A truly modest person makes the raucous pomposity and arrogance of others show
up; a truly simple-living person makes nonsense of the ephemeral wealth-and-
status-seeking ambitions of those who do not realize there is more to life than just
this level of existence. A truly pure person reveals the tawdriness of lust and
lasciviousness and the selfish dangers of unbridled sexuality.

May God bless us, and fill our hearts with love and compassion, and direct our lives
along a path that will enable us to bring help, hope, serenity, shelter and peace to
others, and a means of rescue and healing to those already hurt and damaged by
callousness, cruelty and abuse. Amen.

*Reprinted with the permission of the author.

				
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