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Modesty

By:
Azizah Y. al-Hibri
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Modesty

Freedom from vanity (al-tawāḍuʿ) is a central concept in Islam, directly connected to the concept of tawḥīd (unity or divine oneness). According to the Qurʿān, Satan's fall from grace was a direct result of his vanity. Having been ordered by God to bow to Adam, all the angels complied except Satan. Satan explained his defiance as follows: “I am better than [Adam]; You created me from fire and created him from clay” (7:12).

Any Muslim who engages in vain and arrogant behavior, such as adopting an attitude of racial, gender, or class superiority, is embracing Satanic logic. The Qurʿān makes clear that, while God has bestowed on some humans more earthly gifts than he did on others, God created all humans from the same nafs (soul) and made them male and female, nations and tribes, so that they may come to know each other (49:13). Thus diversity was introduced into this world as a way of making the human experience more interesting and providing people with an incentive to communicate with one another. In the same passage, the Qurʿān also states that the most honored individuals in the eyes of God are the most pious.

The Qurʿān commends Christians and calls them “closest in friendship to Muslims” because “they do not act arrogantly” (5:82); the modesty of these believers evidences their faith in and submission to God. The Prophet said that a person with vanity in his heart, even if it weighs no more than a mustard seed, will not enter paradise. The Qurʿān is even clearer; it states that arrogant people are unjust, criminal, and nonbelievers (25:21, 45:31, 39:59), and that God will turn them away from divine revelation (or signs) and send them to hell eternally (7:146, 39:72).

Those who believe that they are more powerful than others install themselves as demigods on this earth, and their followers submit to them and not to God. This is shirk, believing in more than one god or in a god other than God. It negates tawḥīd. The Qurʿān is replete with examples of arrogant nonbelievers whom God disgraced, defeated, or destroyed, among them Pharaoh and his chiefs and the people of ʿĀd and Madyan.

For these reasons, Muslim jurists discouraged all types of behavior that might constitute even early symptoms of arrogance. Muslims were enjoined not to strut vainly down the street, to raise their voices to imply superiority, or to indulge in excessive luxuries. The Prophet himself dressed and ate modestly; so did his companions. He also mended his own garments, participated in housework and child care, and helped others, including widows and maids, in their tasks when they sought his assistance.

The emphasis on discouraging early symptoms of arrogance, combined with an increasingly entrenched patriarchal tradition in the Islamic world, has led some jurists to demand that Muslim women veil their faces and avoid public life. In fact, women during the life of the Prophet were not required to do either. Today, some jurists have found such excesses unjustifiable and have called for a return to moderation, which the Qurʿān describes as the defining characteristic of the Muslim ummah (2:143).

See also CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM; DRESS; HIJAB; SECLUSION; SHAME; TAWḥīD; and WOMEN AND ISLAM.

Bibliography

  • Abū Shuqqah, ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Muḥammad. Taḥrīr al-marʿah fī ʿaṣr al-risālah. 5 vols. Kuwait, 1990–. Excellent and thorough discussion of women and Islam. See volumes 3 and 4 for a discussion of the veil.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and John L. Esposito. Islam, Gender, and Social Change. New York, 1998.
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