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Modesty (haya): Inner and outer

By Christine Benlafquih | 12 Dec 2012

Muslims should possess both an inner and outer modesty. This is reflected in behavior, speech and appearance, and includes being mindful of God at all times.

For many people in the West, the modest dress of Muslims — particularly the woman’s head scarf, or hijab — has become synonymous with the concept of modesty in Islam.

However, modesty encompasses far more than the clothes one wears. Modesty, as defined in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, is “freedom from conceit or vanity” and “propriety in dress, speech or conduct.”

Modesty (haya) in the Qur’an

Islam takes the concept of modesty even further. Modesty in Islam is known as haya, a word, which describes both shyness and a deeper modesty that is based on faith. A sense of haya should affect a Muslim’s conduct before God, before others and even when one is alone.

In the holy Qur’an, God says: “O children of Adam, We have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness. These are some of God’s signs, that they may take heed.” (Al-Araf 7:26)

Modesty in the Hadith

A number of narrated prophetic traditions (ahadith) illustrate the significance of modesty. The following hadith suggests that modesty is so important that the absence of it could lead a person to sinful behavior and disbelief: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘If you have no shame, do as you wish.’” (Al-Bukhari)

Another hadith links modesty to faith: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Faith consists of more than seventy branches. And haya (modesty) is a part of faith.” (Al-Bukhari)

A more comprehensive example of haya can be found in the following hadith:
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud relates that one day the Prophet said, “Be shy of Allah (God) Most High 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 as much as is His due, he should protect his head and that which it comprises (i.e. mind, mouth, ears), his stomach and that which is adjoining it (i.e. preserve it from unlawful wealth and protect the private parts from the unlawful), 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’.” (Musnad Ahmad)

Modesty for Muslim men and women

While modest behavior varies from person to person, guidelines do exist in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The code of modesty for both men and women includes:
• Lowering the gaze and avoiding flirtatious speech and conduct;
• Avoiding close physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex;
• Observing modest or Islamic dress according to the Qur’an and Sunnah;
• Not drawing unnecessary attention to oneself.
• In addition, women should:
• Avoid wearing perfume or cosmetics in front of unrelated men (and related men who are eligible for a woman to marry);
• Avoid drawing attention to jewelry and other hidden adornments.

Modesty is part of a broader spirituality

The inner and outer modesty of haya are just two aspects of a Muslim’s spirituality, which focuses on worship and obedience to One God. Muslims should also strive to be truthful, sincere, humble, patient, forgiving, charitable, moderate, kind, and considerate.