SOME WOMEN COVER only their hair, some their faces, as well. Some men are cloaked from head to toe in thawb (long garment for men), while others prefer Westernized suits. Whatever the attire, modesty is the dress code for all believing Muslims, male or female. This is not new information. Anyone reading the Quran or studying the Sunnah can confirm that Allah prescribes clearly that His followers should abide by a specific but not difficult dress code. Modesty in dress does not merely mean ‘covering up’ one’s body; it means dressing respectably. It means that a Muslim should represent himself and his Ummah in a pleasant manner.
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The Prophet regarded looking good and dressing well as a sign of worship, demonstrating the blessings of Allah,
Allah loves to see the signs of His favors on His slave. (Tirmidhi)
Explaining this hadith, Imam Tirmidhi said that while keeping within the limits of moderation, a believing man or woman can, and should, dress nicely and care about his or her appearance.
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Interestingly, the recommendation to look good and care for one’s appearance applies equally to people when they are in public (at school, work, etc.,) and when they are in the privacy of their homes. A woman who remains at home to care for her children and husband is just as accountable for her appearance as a woman who leaves her home every morning to go to work. Similarly, a husband who dresses in suit and tie for work daily is equally responsible for maintaining good hygiene and an attractive appearance for his wife and children, friends and family. All of them are required to represent themselves in the best possible light, reflecting the beauty of Islam. However, this beauty should not be displayed in a way to attract unnecessary and inappropriate attention.
Moderation Encourages Modesty
Modesty is not limited to dress; it also incorporates requirements such as cleanliness of body, nails, hair, and teeth. However, this concern should not exceed Islamic limitations, since that would lead to pride and showing off. One should look pleasant without being extravagant, for Allah has allowed His servants to enjoy beautiful things and encourages them to adopt them.
Our efforts to beautify ourselves, though, should not be limited to just our physical body. What good are a beautiful outfit and clean body when the heart is darkened and dirty? We sometimes take great pains in our appearances and forget to sift through our thoughts, ideas and opinions. Is our attitude humble and our behavior moderate? Are our hearts clean and pure? This cleanliness of mind and heart translates to modesty.
Modesty of the Heart
A modest heart is one that is sincere and humble, one that does not allow showing off and boasting. There is a fine balance between enjoying beautiful clothes and accessories and emphasizing them. Displaying a new, designer outfit for others’ approval is obviously not modest, while wearing the same new outfit after giving thanks to Allah is modest. A Muslim who understands that every action is for the sake of Allah also understands that anything contrary will negate good deeds and cancel reward. A heart that is modest will refrain from seeking fame and reputation and will only seek reward from Allah. This type of modest heart makes pure intentions and monitors words and deeds to confirm that they remain sincere and modest, akin to the modesty represented in the person’s heart.
Ensuring that words and deeds remain modest is not always easy. Certainly, there are some deeds that are more easily contained, such as salah and siyam (fasting), which are rituals that many perform, not for reputation, but for the sake of Allah. However, other deeds are more enticing and can lead to boasting. For example, giving charity is sometimes an action that can mislead the donor into showing off. Some people might enjoy the effect that donating large sums of money has on their reputation. These people are headed for a great loss; Islam prescribes generosity and giving charity, but not at the expense of sinful pride. In fact, the Quran clearly warns against this:
O you who believe! Do not annul your acts of charity through preening and injury, like he who spends his wealth to be seen of men and believes not in God and the Last Day. His parable is that of a smooth rock with dust upon it: a downpour strikes it, and leaves it barren. They have no power over anything of what they earned. And God guides not the disbelieving. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:264]
Part of the problem of performing actions for the approval of others instead of for the sake of Allah is that people sometimes get concerned with how their deeds compare with others. People get caught up with keeping up what everyone else is doing. This can become a great deterrent to sincerity in actions and deeds. Unnecessary concern with others in all aspects leads to nothing good.
In addition to avoiding keeping a watchful eye on what others are doing, we should avoid keeping a watchful eye on those of the opposite sex. Refraining from inappropriately admiring the beauty of the opposite sex requires modesty of the heart. A man with a modest heart feels shame in gawking at a woman’s admirable physical qualities, and a woman with a modest heart feels shame in staring at an attractive man. Lowering the gaze leads to another attribute of a modest heart, bashfulness (haya’). Bashfulness is characterized as a nature that prevents one from being proud or arrogant. Although by nature women are expected to be bashful, the Prophet was the best example of bashfulness, indicating that all of mankind can demonstrate bashfulness. Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri narrated,
The Messenger of Allah was more bashful than the virgin hiding away in her own room. If he saw something he disliked, we would know it only from his facial expression. (Bukhari and Muslim)
This degree of haya’ can be achieved only if one has a pure and modest heart, a heart that avoids and shuns things disagreeable with the teachings of Islam.
By now, it should seem obvious that modesty is not simply a matter of dress. In fact, modesty of the heart and the body go hand in hand. One doesn’t necessarily require the other, and in some cases, people might practice one before or more than the other. However, we should remember that both are a necessity for us to be completely and totally modest, inside and out.