Every religion has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty
- Prophet Muhammad
(Al-Muwatta Hadith 47.9)
"Why do you not keep a beard," I am often asked, People highly obsessed with technicalities of faith have sometimes vehemently tried to convince me that it's feminine to have a clean shave.
"If you keep a beard, I will be automatically drawn towards you because you'll be fulfilling a sunnah,” meaning the practice of the holy Prophet; a bearded man who befriended me exclaimed.
Surprisingly the gentleman never bothered to actually get to know me; if he did, he would have found a man striving to lead an ethical and moral life. But that didn’t really matter to him. I didn’t sport a beard, I was a condemned Muslim. For him visible markers of morality were more significant that invisible signs of chastity.
These are a few of the things that others feel are essential prerequisites for a place in heaven. If the true measure of faith for men is a four-finger beard and for women is to wear hijab, then what about the Prophet's teaching: "The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self. And the most authentic morality is the morality and chastity of the conscience“
The affinity for addressing minor but highly-visible issues at the expense of addressing more pressing and fundamental ones is a favorite pastime of those highly obsessed with the physical evidence of piety. Islam is a comprehensive code of conduct which has to be viewed in its whole and not in its parts. A model Islamic ideal is one that embodies the basic spirit of the Qur’anic code. Moderation is in fact the soul of Islam.
There is an authentic saying of the Prophet:
“You live in such a time that if any of you abandon even a tenth of what you are enjoined, you will be ruined. But a time will come when, if a person fulfills only a tenth of what is enjoined, they will be saved.”- (Tirmidhi, Book 34: Fitan (Sedition), Section 79, No. 2267)
Even though we, as Muslims, have become obsessed with women’s modesty, modesty is a virtue for both men and women. In fact, the Prophet himself was described as being the epitome of modesty in his behavior with people. When the Qur’an tells believers to lower their lustful gazes and guard their chastity – important aspects of the modesty tradition – it begins by commanding this to men before women.
Anyone who has studied the basic tenets of Islam knows that in the Quran , the injunction about modesty starts by addressing men — not women. It says that men, to be pure, should restrain their looks and guard their private parts (Q24:30).
Only after addressing men, subsequently, the Quran advises women in similar words, beckoning them to restrain their looks and guard their private parts. It also says that women should draw their head coverings over their bosoms, and only display their beauty to their husbands (Q24:31).
The Arabic word for modesty is hayaa. The interesting thing about this word is that it is linguistically related to the Arabic word for life (hayat). Muslim scholars and sages have taken from this that there is an intimate connection between the two terms. Modesty, it is said, is the virtue that gives spiritual life to the soul. This connection between spiritual life and modesty exists because the virtue is not just about outward appearances; rather, it is tolerance first and foremost about the inward state of having modesty before God – meaning an awareness of divine presence everywhere and at all times that leads to propriety within oneself and in one’s most private moments. Outward modesty means behaving in a way that maintains one’s own self-respect and the respect of others, whether in dress, speech or behavior. Inward modesty means shying away from any character or quality that is offensive to God. The outward is a reminder of the inward, and the inward is essential to the outward.
Women’s dress is a favourite subject of religious bigots of all hues with their own notions of morality. Everyone wants to talk about the "moral values" attached to women’s dress or the "purity" of their attire that "go against the parameters" laid down by the moral police. Nobody is interested in discussing the more critical issue — the morality or purity of one’s conscience. Today a woman’s character is defined by her clothes. The real markers like piety and moral fiber are being glossed over in our debased intellectual and moral horizon.
Modesty is a virtue for both men and women. A connection between spiritual life and modesty exists because that virtue is not just about outward appearances. Rather, it is tolerance first and foremost about the inward state of having modesty before God – an awareness of divine presence everywhere and at all times that leads to propriety (within oneself and in one’s most private moments). Outward modesty means behaving in a way that maintains one’s own self-respect and the respect of others, whether in dress, speech or behaviour. Inward modesty means shying away from any character or quality that is offensive to God.
When it comes to the clothes of women, everybody seems to be obsessed with it. More than a means to cover one's body, women's clothes have become a symbol of oppression for some and a mark of liberation for some others. But, more peculiarly, garments are often used as a benchmark by conservative Muslims to judge the morality of a Muslim woman and her “Muslimness”. There is still no such benchmark for Muslim men who owe a duty of modesty to the Quran whose injunction are as strong for men as they are for women. Indeed, judging by the discourse, one would assume that the primary religious duty of Muslim women is to observe "the dress code".
The great translator of the Qur’an, Mohammad Asad argues that what the Quran requires of women is that they should be dressed “decently”. Elaborating on this point, he states: “My interpolation of the word “decently” reflects the interpretation of the phrase ‘illa ma zahara minha’ by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi), as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-‘adah al-jariyah).”’
Although the traditional exponents of Islamic Law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of “what may (decently) be apparent” to a woman’s face, hands and feet — and sometimes even less than that — we may safely assume that the meaning of “illa ma zahara minha” is much wider, and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for changes that occur during the evolution of a society.
Several prominent commentators have reflected on a wide flexibility of interpretation in their commentaries. Al-Fakhr al-Razi stated that what should be covered is left to the prevailing custom, while al-Zamakshari left it to the custom and nature. Al-Wahidi and Ibn Atiyya allowed half of the arm to be uncovered, while al-Nisaburi allowed the uncovering of the arm to the elbow. Ibn Hayyan, in addition to considering custom and nature in what may be uncovered, considered the needs of poor women.
From certain imams insisting that earthquakes are caused by women not wearing proper dresses to muftis excommunicating Muslim women, the intellectual level of discourse that surrounds Muslim women is excruciating, and influenced by distorted notions of modesty. By reducing Muslim women to their bodies and pretending that modesty is their primary religious duty, we strip them off their personhood.
We are today is in a state of great upheaval. With gigantic and challenging problems such as superstition, sectarianism, bigotry, sectarianism, and patriarchy in Muslim-majority states, we simply cannot afford to divert all our attention to pedantic details of how to attire ourselves. If we are at all serious about preventing the so-called fitna (spiritual affliction) we must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us — attitude towards women. The pivotal injunction is the demand addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to “lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity,”
The shift in focus of religion from an ethical guide to policing of appearances (dress codes, rituals) is a curious phenomenon — a virus that seems to have seeped its way into mainstream Muslim consciousness. Our religious priorities seem to have shifted from spiritual transformation to very quotidian concerns about rituals and dress codes. This fixation reflects the very cursory manner in which we approach religion.
Let us get back to the fundamental teaching of the Qur’an, “…In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware” (Q49:13).
[Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades. He can be reached at email@example.com.]