By Monique Hassan
What is modesty and what does it mean to you?
This is a question I believe all believers need to ask themselves. Modesty is an element found within many religions, it is a characteristic aligning with piety and respect. That is not to say that all who demonstrate modesty are pious, unfortunately, many look the part yet they do not act it. Ultimately, the psychology of Islamic modesty and self-respect are important aspects of Islamic character.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Faith (Belief) consists of more than sixty branches (i.e. parts). And Haya (This term “Haya” covers a large number of concepts which are to be taken together; amongst them are self respect, modesty, bashfulness, and scruple, etc.) is a part of faith.
حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو عَامِرٍ الْعَقَدِيُّ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا سُلَيْمَانُ بْنُ بِلاَلٍ، عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ دِينَارٍ، عَنْ أَبِي صَالِحٍ، عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ الإِيمَانُ بِضْعٌ وَسِتُّونَ شُعْبَةً، وَالْحَيَاءُ شُعْبَةٌ مِنَ الإِيمَانِ
Some will give answers such as modesty is how we dress, our clothing should not be provocative or indecent. Sure, this is part of it. Modesty goes much deeper than just the clothing on our backs though. Modesty does involve protection of one’s chastity, but this is not the sole intention or benefit of modesty. A modest sister or brother avoids arrogant and disrespectful words, they do not boast nor backbite and they maintain a level pattern of speech.
And do not turn your cheek [in contempt] toward people and do not walk through the earth exultantly. Indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful. And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice; indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys.
وَلَا تُصَعِّرْ خَدَّكَ لِلنَّاسِ وَلَا تَمْشِ فِي الْأَرْضِ مَرَحًا ۖ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ كُلَّ مُخْتَالٍ فَخُورٍ
وَاقْصِدْ فِي مَشْيِكَ وَاغْضُضْ مِنْ صَوْتِكَ ۚ إِنَّ أَنْكَرَ الْأَصْوَاتِ لَصَوْتُ الْحَمِيرِ
Quran 31: 18-19
A modest individual takes into account their external appearance, how they talk to others, how they interact with their environment, their perspective is humbled and they strive for patience. In this we can see that Islamic modesty is much more than just dressing properly and lowering one’s gaze. It extends to the physical and mental. For example, a woman could be in a loose abaya with a long khimar, but if she is yelling at someone crudely on the street while waving her arms around she is not displaying modesty in her behavior.
How the Veil Impacts us Psychologically
To be clear, when I state the veil I am referring to the Islamic head covering and clothing. This could be associated with the niqab (only eyes show) or a head covering which shows the face fully.
When a sister dawns her veil for the first time, specifically when it is with the intention to wear it full-time, this has an emotional impact on her. It is more than just covering our head and aspects of beauty; it is a decision to be identified as a believer even if that means doing so amongst disbelievers and standing out as different. For those of us in western cultures, the veil is a walking shahada declaring your faith to the world. Absolutely, the Islamic Veil impacts you psychologically. Islamic modesty impacts our behavior, our emotions and all of this impacts our thought patterns.
You become more self-aware and have to remember that every action we do or don’t do, will be perceived as a perception of Islam. If a covered sister is rude, people will associate rudeness with Islam. If a covered sister is very patient and generous, people will then associate this positivity with Islam. This is an added level of anxiety for many in the west as we are expected to be exceptional billboards of piety, but we must remember no one is perfect.
Veiled sisters are choosing to alter their identity; they are seen as Muslim before anything else. This is more apparent in western cultures where the veiled woman will stand out and be more noticeable than other women around them. This makes some feel exposed and they begin to feel vulnerable, this fear escalates into anxiety and all too many debate removing their veil. In these moments of anxiety, it is important to remember why we cover. It is not for anyone, it is for Allah
And Allah is most knowing of your enemies; and sufficient is Allah as an ally, and sufficient is Allah as a protector.
وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِأَعْدَائِكُمْ ۚ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ وَلِيًّا وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ نَصِيرًا
If we consider the impact of speaking modestly to others, we can see a great benefit and wisdom in this. Others will perceive us as being more patient, respectable and mindful. Anyone can yell or use crude language, but it takes more effort to present ourselves with calmness and truly listen to others to understand, not to respond.
We can gain more knowledge ourselves by actively listening and showing others this basic respect. In practicing this we are able to better understand different perspectives and in turn we can better defend our positions with intelligent and respectful words when we do disagree.
One’s career and family life are positively impacted such as if people know Brother Omar has a reputation for being modest and kind in his speech, they will be more likely to engage with Brother Omar and listen to his perspective. If Brother Omar was known for being rude and arrogant in his speech, people will go out of their way to avoid him and his voice will carry less weight.
Modesty as a Protection from Arrogance
We know arrogance is dangerous for Muslims and it is the opposite of humility and goes against modesty. This is not only a negative personality trait, original sin stems from pride and arrogance which we see in the account of Iblis (Shaytan) refusing to bow .
A believer that attempts to embrace modesty is also striving against arrogance. They are striving to become better in their representation of Islam and their obedience. That being said, sometimes modest clothing becomes a source of arrogance and this is a problem. A believer must be very cautious not to get trapped into thought patterns like “I am so modest, I am the best Muslim” or “That sister is not modest, what is wrong with her”. When this starts to happen, a seed of arrogance is blossoming from within and it will be in defiance of true modesty. As already mentioned, modesty is much more than just our clothing.
The external is often a reflection of the internal, thus we can say that a modestly dressed believer is showing their inner modesty. This is true much of the time, but not always. We must be mindful and self-aware to recognize when our external modesty is not lining up with the internal.
The psychology of Islamic modesty shows that modesty is more than just obedience; it is like many aspects of our faith, a blessing. At least 5 times a day we are bowing in submission and humility to Allah . In these moments we should be at our most modest internally and externally. We should feel a remembrance of the mercy and blessings we receive on a daily basis. The prayer mat is the place where the ultimate love story unfolds, our submission to our creator and our sustainer. Our modesty is a part of that submission and as we work to strengthen our modesty, we strengthen our bond to our faith.
So now I will ask again and I hope to see your answers. What is modesty and what does it mean to you?