Modesty: An Inside-Out Approach
By: Naiyerah Kolkailah

Think modesty (hayā’). What comes to mind? It could be wearing hijāb and dressing modestly. Or maybe it is using decent and clean speech. Or it might be conducting ourselves with dignity and self-respect around the opposite gender. If we know we’ve fallen short in our modesty, we feel the need to change in some way. So, we try to wear more loose-fitting clothes, for example, or wear less make-up. Or we might try to curse a little less, look at lewd images less often, or flirt a little less with a guy friend or girls at work. But sometimes we find it difficult to change these habits and behaviors. Why is that? Part of the reason is that we overlook the inner spiritual dimensions of modesty; we try to cure the symptoms without dealing with the problem at its root. It is almost like trying to save a dried out plant by dipping its leaves in water or fertilizer.

Maybe what needs our attention is less apparent. Maybe it is our attitude towards Allah (swt), or the purity of our hearts, or the depth and strength of our faith in Allah. If we develop modesty and shamefulness in our hearts, it becomes easier for our thoughts, desires, conversations, and actions to reflect that modesty. When we have modesty with Allah, our manners and behavior with His creation will naturally exude more modesty. So, outer modesty is a byproduct and manifestation of the God-consciousness and modesty we nurture within.

What is Hayā’?

Linguistically, hayā’ is derived from the root hayiyy, which comes from the word hayāh (life). Heavy rain is referred to as hayyan because with it comes the life of the earth, and plants and animals. Similarly, the worldly life and the afterlife are defined through hayā’; whoever does not have hayā’ would be (spiritually) dead in this life, and also miserable in the afterlife. Some linguists have said: “The life in one’s face comes from its hayā’, just as the life of a planted seed comes from watering it.”

The level of one’s hayā’ is based on how much life is in the heart…so the more alive the heart, the more complete the hayā’.

Technically, hayā’ is defined as a change or a state of humility that overtakes a person out of fear of being blameworthy. Ibn Al-Qayyim says: “Hayā’ is a state that emerges from combining exaltation with love, so when the two are coupled, hayā’ is born.” Some scholars say that it stems from feeling shameful in the heart about something and feeling averse to it.

It can also emerge when the servants know that Allah, the Truth, is looking at them, making them more patient with a certain struggle, or making them feel uncomfortable with their own sin, or making them refrain from complaining.

Hayā’ can also come from recognizing the bounty and graciousness one receives. This is because a generous person would not return favorable treatment with mistreatment.

Al-Junayd, may Allah have mercy on him, said: “Hayā’ is seeing the Signs, and being aware of one’s shortcomings. Out of these two will arise a state of hayā’. In reality, hayā’ is a character trait that encourages a person to avoid shameful things and prevents one from neglecting the rights of the One Who deserves them most.”

Hayā’ and Imān

It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Hayā’ and imān are two companions, so when one increases, the other also increases.”

He (SAW) also said: “Hayā’ is a part of Imān.” Imam Al-Nawawi (may Allah have mercy on him) reported that Al-Qadi `Iyad said: “Hayā’ was made to be a part of imān—even if it is innate—because it can either be acquired and adopted like all other acts of righteousness, or it can be one’s natural disposition. However, practicing hayā’ according to Islamic legislation requires that it be acquired with the right intention and with sound knowledge. That is why hayā’ is a part of imān. Another reason is that hayā’ encourages one to do acts of righteousness and it prevents one from committing sins.”

Allah’s Love of Modesty

It is narrated that the Prophet (SAW) said: “Verily, Allah the Exalted is Modest and Concealing (Sittīr); and He loves modesty and concealment. So, when any of you bathe, let him conceal himself.”

Al-Mubarakfuri (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “(The Prophet)’s statement ‘Allah is Modest’ means He is Modest in practice, or shows a lot of Modesty. Describing Allah with the Attribute of Modesty is to be understood in a way most befitting for Allah, just like all His other Attributes; we believe in them but do not delve into how (the traits are manifested).”

Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “…Whoever has a trait similar to one of Allah’s attributes, that trait will lead him to Allah, and will bring him closer to Allah’s Mercy, and will make him/her beloved to Allah; for Allah is Most-Merciful, and He loves the merciful; He is Most Generous, and He loves the generous; He is All-Knowing, and He loves the knowledgeable; He is strong, and He loves the strong believer—who is more beloved to Him than the weak believer; He is Modest, and he loves the people of modesty; He is Beautiful and He loves the people of beauty; He is One (witr) and he loves the people of the witr (prayer).”

Who Deserves Our Modesty?

A person should be modest with Allah, the All-Mighty and Exalted, with the angels, and with oneself. Whoever is modest with people but not with oneself has belittled his self because he does not see it as worthy of his own modesty. Whoever is modest with oneself but not with Allah does not truly know Allah, the All-Mighty and Exalted. As such, the Prophet (SAW) told a man he was advising: “I advise you to have shame with Allah as you would have shame (in the presence) of a righteous man from your people.”

In the words of Allah, the All-Mighty and Exalted, “Does he not know that Allah sees (everything)?” (Qur’an, 96:14). There is an implied warning to the servant; if he knows that Allah sees him, then he should be ashamed of committing sin.  Whoever knows that the One he worships is observing his worship will be more inclined to adorn it externally with humble reverence and internally with sincerity and presence. Surely, Allah knows the secret glance of the eyes and what the hearts conceal.

The Prophet (SAW) has made modesty a standard and measure for a person’s actions. Nawwas ibn Sam`an, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that he asked the Messenger of Allah (SAW) about righteousness and wrongdoing. So he (SAW) responded: “Righteousness is good character and wrongdoing is what makes you feel discomfort, and that you would hate for people to see (what you are doing).”

One of the areas where modesty [i.e. shamefulness] should be avoided is in seeking knowledge and in educating. `Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “One who does not know should not be ashamed of asking until he has knowledge, and one who is asked about something he does not know should not be ashamed to say ‘I do not know.’” Al-Bukhari said that Mujahid said: “The one who is shy or arrogant does not gain knowledge.” `Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said: “How great were the women of the Ansar; their modesty did not prevent them from seeking knowledge about their religion.”

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