The common questions that arise concerning modesty in Islam include how women should dress and who this dress code applies to. As important as these questions are, there are other vital questions that are often unheard of and go unanswered. Isn’t there a sense of modesty in the way women present themselves? Don’t men in Islam also have a significant role in modesty? Is it necessary that women dress a certain way in order to present themselves as righteous Muslim women?
Modesty is a state of mind rather than a state of dress; it initially flourishes from within an individual. Al-Bukhari once said, “Indeed from the teachings of the first prophets which has reached you is, ‘If you do not have shyness, then do as you please.” Shyness is in heavy accordance with modesty, and it is a way of life. One must first master the modesty that comes within, and only then should one continue on by dressing a certain way ordained by the Quran. The three main qualities a Muslim woman should aspire to possess are humility, purity, and sincerity. These three attributes, also mentioned in the Quran, will give women a sense of true modesty. The first of the three characteristics is humility, which is the capacity for one to lessen their own importance for someone else. It also refers to the persistence of goodness a person must display no matter what disrespect another individual exemplifies. In 25:63 the Quran states the following in regards to humility.
وَعِبَادُ الرَّحۡمٰنِ الَّذِيۡنَ يَمۡشُوۡنَ عَلَى الۡاَرۡضِ هَوۡنًا وَّاِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الۡجٰهِلُوۡنَ قَالُوۡ
سَلٰمًا The true servants of the Merciful One are those78 who walk on the earth gently79 and when the foolish ones address them, they simply say: "Peace to you";80
This verse exemplifies the importance of replacing your anger with kindness. If one gains humility, the individual loses arrogance, pride, and pretentiousness. When women have humility, modesty covers them like a sense of aroma. Another characteristic is purity; it is an imperative quality when it comes to Muslim women and modesty. It can be defined in various ways, but I consider the best way to perceive it is by recognizing it is an innocence brought on by clean thoughts and actions. The following Quran verses identify with the significance of the process of purity—purification.
قَدۡ اَفۡلَحَ مَنۡ تَزَكّٰىۙ
وَذَكَرَ اسۡمَ رَبِّهٖ فَصَلّٰى
(87:14) He who purified himself shall prosper,13
(87:15) remembering his Lord's name14 and praying.15
To obtain purity, and ultimately modesty, in Islam, women who pray and read the Quran are purifying themselves in the eyes of Allah. By doing the aforementioned rituals, women will start to embody a sense of purification. Another very important attribute to women in Islam aspiring to achieve modesty is sincerity. It is the act of being genuine in every thought and action being put forth. Every action is the outcome of a good intension. The Quran also proposes and discusses the concept of sincerity.
الَّذِيۡنَ هُمۡ عَنۡ صَلَاتِهِمۡ سَاهُوۡنَۙ
الَّذِيۡنَ هُمۡ يُرَآءُوۡنَۙ
(107:4) Woe, then, to those who pray,8
(107:5) but are heedless in their Prayers,9
(107:6) those who do good (in order) to be seen,10
The verses above refer to the people who are insincere in their actions. Putting on a facade is hypocritical; outward appearances and actions don’t mean anything if they are not representative of the true intensions a person possesses.
Many believe in this false accusation that Muslim women are being forced to dress and act in certain ways while men can do as they please. Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and just as women have a role in modesty, men do as well. The following verse reinforces the concept that men, too, must be modest.
قُلْ لِّـلۡمُؤۡمِنِيۡنَ يَغُـضُّوۡا مِنۡ اَبۡصَارِهِمۡ وَيَحۡفَظُوۡا فُرُوۡجَهُمۡ ؕ ذٰ لِكَ اَزۡكٰى لَهُمۡ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰهَ خَبِيۡرٌۢ بِمَا يَصۡنَـعُوۡنَ
(24:30) (O Prophet), enjoin believing men to cast down their looks29 and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is well aware of all what they do.
No matter what women wear, men are asked to lower their gaze. Women were made so mesmerizing that they can attract attention even fully clothed and covered; however, if women do decide to dress more revealingly, men still have an obligation to cast their gaze downwards. Women who dress a certain way provides no excuse on how Muslim men should respond. A woman dressing immodestly has the same consequence as a man not lowering his gaze when passing by. Each gender has an equally important duty to fulfill when it comes to modesty in Islam.
One of the most sought after questions in regard to modesty in Islam is the importance of dressing modestly. Must women dress modestly in order to be a good representation of what Muslim women should be? This is not the case. There are plenty of conservative Muslim women who do not abide by the modesty lifestyle even if they look the part. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many Muslim women who dress more revealingly may have very worthy Islamic qualities. The first thing Muslim women should be concerned with when it comes to modesty is obtaining the qualities that will make modesty arise from within. From there, the women can continue on the journey of becoming modest by looking the part. The following is what the Quran states in regards to modesty.
يٰۤـاَيُّهَا النَّبِىُّ قُلْ لِّاَزۡوَاجِكَ وَبَنٰتِكَ وَنِسَآءِ الۡمُؤۡمِنِيۡنَ يُدۡنِيۡنَ عَلَيۡهِنَّ مِنۡ جَلَابِيۡبِهِنَّ ؕ
ذٰ لِكَ اَدۡنٰٓى اَنۡ يُّعۡرَفۡنَ فَلَا يُؤۡذَيۡنَ ؕ وَكَانَ اللّٰهُ غَفُوۡرًا رَّحِيۡمًا
(33:59) O Prophet, enjoin your wives and your daughters and the believing women, to draw a part of their outer coverings around them. It is likelier that they will be recognised and not molested. Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.
The verse states for women to wear something that is covering, and it continues to say that Allah is very forgiving. At what age women have to cover themselves and how much they have to cover can be debated. Does this verse really make it mandatory for women to wear a hijab and dress modestly? If women have to convince themselves to wear a hijab and dress more modestly in order to exist as better Muslims, they are not yet ready for it. It should never be a question of whether it is mandatory or not. It should be if they are ready yet. If they have acquired all the modesty qualities yet. If they are ready to showcase to the world what lies inside. When Muslim women have truly gained the modesty from within, they will wish to cover themselves with what they deem appropriate in regards to what the Quran and Hadith say about it.
Modesty is much like beauty, if not beauty itself. It’s not that outward appearances don’t matter, but it’s what’s on the inside that is of more value. There is much more to modesty than an appearance; it is a way of life applicable to both males and females.