A virtue cherished by people of all walks of life and all times is modesty. The terms modesty, shamefulness or Haya are used particularly with regards to women and are often accompanied with the term Hijab. How does the Quran define “modesty”? Is it a feminine virtue? Modesty in the Quran tries to answer these questions and more.
Literally speaking, Haya (modesty) means feeling embarrassed of doing that which is wrong.
Terminologically speaking, Haya is a self-controlling force rooted in fear of embarrassment, knowing that a respected observer is watching. It regulates man’s actions based on religious law (Shari’a), the intellect (‘Aql) and accepted customs (‘Urf).
Characteristics of modesty in the Quran:
- Modesty in the Quran is an inborn quality.
- Modesty in the Quran is rooted in a sense of self-respect, honor and dignity.
- Haya is a contraction of the soul or feeling of shame.
- It leads to graceful and honorable behavior and avoiding wrong actions, in other words, it leads to abstaining from the haram and avoiding abandoning the obligatory acts (wajibat).
- One knows that a respected observer is watching.
أَلَمْ يَعْلَم بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَى ﴿14﴾
Does he not know that Allah sees [him]? 1
- Modesty in the Quran is not based on fear 2 or greed.
- Haya entails the power of your soul. It means that you are not weak or a coward, but a powerful person. This power comes from the fact that you consider a high position for yourself and your soul.
Is modesty in the Quran synonymous with piety (Taqwa)
No, modesty in the Quran is different from piety. Piety and modesty in the Quran are both forms of self-control. Piety is a general term which includes all other forms of self-control such as Haya, patience (Sabr), swallowing one’s anger (Kazm Gheiz), forbearance (Hilm) and fear (Khowf). Hence, modesty in the Quran is a sub-branch of Taqwa.
What does the Quran say about modesty (Haya)?
The word Haya (modesty) and its derivatives have been used four times in the Quran. Twice with regards to Allah (SWT), once with regards to Prophet Muhammad (S) and once about a woman whose name will be mentioned later in the article.
The verses about God
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي أَنْ يَضْرِبَ مَثَلًا مَا بَعُوضَةً فَمَا فَوْقَهَا ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَيَقُولُونَ مَاذَا أَرَادَ اللَّهُ بِهَٰذَا مَثَلًا ۘ ﴿26﴾
Indeed Allah is not ashamed to draw a parable whether it is that of a gnat or something above it. As for those who have faith, they know it is the truth from their Lord; and as for the faithless, they say, ‘What did Allah mean by this parable? 3
وَاللَّهُ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ ﴿53﴾
But Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the truth. 4
The verse about the Prophet (S)
یا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَدْخُلُوا بُيُوتَ النَّبِيِّ إِلَّا أَنْ يُؤْذَنَ لَكُمْ إِلَىٰ طَعَامٍ غَيْرَ نَاظِرِينَ إِنَاهُ وَلَٰكِنْ إِذَا دُعِيتُمْ فَادْخُلُوا فَإِذَا طَعِمْتُمْ فَانْتَشِرُوا وَلَا مُسْتَأْنِسِينَ لِحَدِيثٍ ۚ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكُمْ كَانَ يُؤْذِي النَّبِيَّ فَيَسْتَحْيِي مِنْكُمْ ۖ ﴿53﴾
O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s houses,- until leave is given you,- for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when ye are invited, enter; and when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behavior) annoys the Prophet: he is ashamed to dismiss you. 5
The verse about the woman
فَجَاءَتْهُ إِحْدَاهُمَا تَمْشِي عَلَى اسْتِحْيَاءٍ ﴿25﴾
Then one of the two women approached him, walking bashfully. 6
Why doesn’t God feel ashamed?
Note that Haya and the feeling of embarrassment is with regards to actions which are contrary to the intellect (‘Aql), religious rulings (Shari’a) and the common practice of people (‘Urf). In telling the truth, modesty is reproached. Hence, in informing others of a truth and bringing examples in that regard, there is no shame.
Which woman is mentioned in the Quran?
Modesty in the Quran has been mentioned with regards to two women. One of them is the daughter of Prophet Shuaib (AS) as has been cited in the above verse and one with regards to Lady Maryam (peace be upon her).
This is how the story goes: the Archangel Jabriel descends upon Maryam in the form of a good-looking man to bring her a news:
فَأَرْسَلْنَا إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَرًا سَوِيًّا ﴿17﴾
then We sent to her Our spirit, and there appeared to her a well-made man. 7
She is a single, modest and chaste woman. When she sees the man approaching her, she says,
إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِالرَّحْمَٰنِ مِنْكَ إِنْ كُنْتَ تَقِيًّا ﴿18﴾
“I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah. 8
The interesting point is that not only does she practice modesty and chastity, but also enjoins the man to abstain from the wrong.
Modesty (Haya) in hadith
There are many Islamic narrations which define Haya and explain about the practice of this virtue in one’s life. For instance, Ja’far ibn Muhammad (peace be upon him) considers modesty (Haya), chastity (‘Iffah) and guarding of the tongue as manifestations of Iman (faith). 9
In another hadith from Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him) we read that religion (Din), intellect (Aql) and modesty (Haya) always go hand in hand. 10
According to this hadith, if one possesses intellect, he/she will also have religion and modesty.
In another beautiful narration, Ja’far ibn Muhammad (pbuh) says,
لَا إِيمَانَ لِمَنْ لَا حَيَاءَ لَه
The immodest is faithless.
This means that if a person is faithful, he/she would also be modest.
The messenger of God (pbuh) says:
صِفَةُ الْعاقِلِ. . . لایُفارِقُهُ الْحَیاءُ
The characteristic of a wise person is that modesty never separates from him /her. 11
Reward of modesty
The commander of the faithful, Ali (AS) says:
مَا الْمُجَاهِدُ الشَّهِيدُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ بِأَعْظَمَ أَجْراً مِمَّنْ قَدَرَ فَعَفَّ؛ لَكَادَ الْعَفِيفُ أَنْ يَكُونَ مَلَكاً مِنَ الْمَلَائِكَةِ. ﴿33﴾
The reward of a struggler martyred in the way of God is not more than one who tries one’s best to remain chaste; as though the chaste is one of God’s angels. 12
Elsewhere his holiness says,
اَلحَیَاءُ مِفتَاحُ کُلِّ خَیرِ ﴿33﴾
Modesty is the key to all virtue and goodness. 13
Is modesty in the Quran a feminin virtue?
As can be seen in Islamic narrations, modesty should be an integral part of any person’s life as it is closely related with faith and intellect. In one hadith, modesty has been defined as the eyes of intellect. 14 Hence, men and women alike should possess this attribute. However, in a number of narrations, modesty has been mentioned as a virtue more possessed by women than men.
Ja’far ibn Muhammad (peace be upon him) says,
From the 10 parts of modesty, Allah the Almighty has granted 9 parts to women and 1 part to men. When a woman reaches her menstruation, one part of it is lost. When she gets married, another part is lost and when she has an intimate relationship with her husband another part is lost and when she delivers her baby, one more part is lost. After that it falls into the trap of sins, she will lose all her modesty but if she remains chaste, the remaining 5 parts will stay with her.
Why are women more modest?
Based on this narration, Allah (SWT) has gifted girls the virtue of modesty 9 times more than men to protect them from possible harms in their social interactions as they are more vulnerable to hurtful situations. For instance, if a 15 year-old girl ends up having sex with a 17 year-old boy without being married to him and she gets pregnant, who will take care of this child? Is the boy going to stay by her side and support her?
Nevertheless, this does not mean that men are totally deprived of modesty. A married woman with a child is 5 times more modest than a married man with a child. But he is still modest.
In a beautiful narration, the Messenger of God (S) has been cited as the most modest person.
كانَ رَسولُ اللّهِ صلى الله عليه و آله اَشَدَّ حَياءً مِنَ العَذراءِ فى خِدْرِها. و كانَ اِذا كَرِهَ شَيئا عَرَفْناهُ فى وَجْهِهِ؛
The messenger of Allh (S) was more modest than girls behind veils, and when he did not like something we noticed it from his face. 15
Kinds of Haya
The Prophet of Islam (S) says in a hadith,
الحياء حياء ان: حياء عقل و حياء حمق، فحياء العقل هو العلم و حياء الحمق هو الجهل
Modesty (Haya) is of two kinds: one is out of thoughtfulness and the other out of stupidity; Thoughtful Haya is based on knowledge whereas the stupid kind is out of ignorance. 16
So the Haya of Allah (SWT) mentioned in Surah Baqarah, verse 26 is the Haya rooted in His All-encompassing knowledge and wisdom.
Looking at the topic from another perspective, There is good and bad Haya. The good Haya is the result of one’s thoughtfulness and the bad haya is the result of one’s stupidity.
What is bad modesty in the Quran
The Noble Prophet (pbuh) says in a beautiful hadith,
الْحَیَاءُ عَلَى وَجْهَیْنِ فَمِنْهُ الضَّعْفُ وَ مِنْهُ قُوَّةٌ وَ إِسْلَامٌ وَ إِیمَانٌ
There are two kinds of Haya; one of them is an indication of one’s weakness and the other, one’s strength, Islam and faith in God. 17
An instance of the first kind is when you have to say the truth yet you feel ashamed and do not want to be belittled. Or you do not ask any questions in the class because you feel ashamed of the teacher and the students.
The following instances are considered places where having modesty is reproached:
- Intimate spousal relationship
Abu Abdillah (pbuh) says,
خَيْرُ نِسَائِكُمُ اَلَّتِي إِذَا خَلَتْ مَعَ زَوْجِهَا خَلَعَتْ لَهُ دِرْعَ اَلْحَيَاءِ وَ إِذَا لَبِسَتْ لَبِسَتْ مَعَهُ دِرْعَ اَلْحَيَاءِ
The best of your women are those who remove the clothing (protection) of Haya from themselves when in the privacy of their husbands, and who wear it back once they are putting on their clothes. 18
- Educating one’s child
There have been cases where the mother or father felt ashamed of informing their children about a number of issues. Hence, the child did not perform her/his obligatory duties after Buluq (religious maturity) in the right way.
There are certain religious rulings the mother should teach her daughter and the father teach his son.
In certain societies, the children learn such issues from their teachers at school or their peers, therefore this duty is lifted off parents, nevertheless, it is essentially the parents’ duty to make sure their children are well aware of the Ahkam pertaining to them.
- When you do not know the answer to a question
At times you are asked a question for which you do not know the answer. Feeling shy to say “I do not know” is reproached.
In a hadith from Imam Ali (pbuh) it is cited,
وَ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي الْجَاهِلُ إِذَا سُئِلَ عَمَّا لَا يَعْلَمُ أَنْ يَتَعَلَّمَ وَ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي أَحَدُكُمْ إِذَا سُئِلَ عَمَّا لَا يَعْلَمُ أَنْ يَقُولَ لَا أَعْلَمُ
If the ignorant is asked of that which he has no knowledge, he should learn about it. None of you should be ashamed to say ‘I do not know’ if asked a question for which you do not know the answer to. 19
- Saying the truth
وَاللَّـهُ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ ﴿53﴾
But Allah is not ashamed of [expressing] the truth. 20
Let us say you are at a gathering and something is said which is wrong and people’s thoughts are being deviated by that idea, however, you feel shy or ashamed to speak up and say the truth. By holding yourself back from speaking, you are actually letting falsehood prevail among a group of people. You are oppressing the truth. This is because of your low self-confidence and being worried of being judged by others.
Another instance where Haya is reproached is in apologizing. You make a mistake but feel ashamed of confessing and saying that you are sorry. Not only are you supposed to ask forgiveness from God, but also have to go to the person you have wronged and apologize. This is one’s religious duty.
This could particularly come to use in family and social interactions. For example, the husband gets angry at his wife and shouts at her, then becomes remorseful but feels shy of saying that he made a mistake and refuses to apologize.
One should also learn to accept other people’s apologies. In the Dua of Abu Hamza Thumali one reads,
امَرتَنا ان تَعفُوَ عَمَّن ظَلَمَنا وَانتَ اولی بِالعَفوِ وَقَد ظَلَمنا انفُسَنا
You have ordered us to forgive one who has wronged us while you are worthier of forgiving us when we have wronged ourselves.
How are chastity and modesty in the Quran related?
Chastity (‘Iffah) literally means contentment with the little that one has. Technically speaking, chastity is a kind of self-control in the form of abstinence from that which is Haram yet alluring and beautiful.
Ali bin Abi Talib (peace be upon him) considers chastity as the fruit of Haya (modesty):
ثمره الحیاء العفه
Chastity (Iffah) in the Quran has been used with regards to the stomach and the private part in the following verses:
وَلْيَسْتَعْفِفِ الَّذِينَ لَا يَجِدُونَ نِكَاحًا حَتَّىٰ يُغْنِيَهُمُ اللَّهُ مِنْ فَضْلِهِ ۗ ﴿22﴾
And let those who do not find the means to marry keep chaste until Allah makes them free from want out of His grace. 21
لِلْفُقَرَاءِ الَّذِينَ أُحْصِرُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ لَا يَسْتَطِيعُونَ ضَرْبًا فِي الْأَرْضِ يَحْسَبُهُمُ الْجَاهِلُ أَغْنِيَاءَ مِنَ التَّعَفُّفِ تَعْرِفُهُمْ بِسِيمَاهُمْ لَا يَسْأَلُونَ النَّاسَ إِلْحَافًا ۗ وَمَا تُنْفِقُوا مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ بِهِ عَلِيمٌ ﴿273﴾
[The charities are] for the poor who are straitened in the way of Allah, not capable of moving about in the land [for trade]. The unaware suppose them to be well-off because of their reserve. You recognize them by their mark; they do not ask the people importunately. And whatever wealth you may spend, Allah indeed knows it. 22
When a person has Haya, he/she considers oneself as an honorable person in the presence of God at all times. Therefore, he/she would never lower oneself to do that which is disliked by God such as having a haram relationship with a non-mahram or begging for food or money to others which are instances of unchasefulness based on the Quran. In other words, with modesty comes chastity.
How do we know modesty in the Quran is an inborn quality?
The story in the Quran of the first humans ever created, namely Adam and Eve, helps us find an answer to this question. When they tasted of the forbidden tree, their nakedness became exposed to them. 23 What was their immediate reaction?
وَطَفِقَا يَخْصِفَانِ عَلَيْهِمَا مِن وَرَقِ الْجَنَّةِ ﴿22﴾
they began to stitch over themselves with the leaves of paradise. 24
This reaction is certainly an instance of modesty in the Quran, which is rooted in an inborn desire of covering one’s nakedness and private parts. They were not taught by other people, such as their parents to cover their nakedness. Doing so was a natural reaction.
Vanishing of modesty in the Quran
Satan employs certain ways in convincing mankind to put aside Haya, the most important of which is making the bad action look beautiful to mankind:
وَ إِذْ زَینَ لَهُمُ الشَّیطانُ أَعْمالَهُمْ ﴿48﴾
When Satan made their deeds seem decorous to them 25
قَالَ رَبِّ بِمَا أَغْوَيْتَنِي لَأُزَيِّنَنَّ لَهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَأُغْوِيَنَّهُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ ﴿39﴾
He said: My Lord! Because Thou hast made life evil to me, I will certainly make (evil) fair-seeming to them on earth, and I will certainly cause them all to deviate. 26
Satan will have power over all those whose guardian is ‘Taqut’:
وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَوْلِيَاؤُهُمُ الطَّاغُوتُ ﴿257﴾
As for the faithless, their awliya are the fake deities. 27
إِلَّا عِبَادَكَ مِنْهُمُ الْمُخْلَصِينَ ﴿40﴾
“Except Thy servants among them, sincere and purified (by Thy Grace).“ 28
Four acts which diminish modesty
- Begging people
Begging people to help you, diminishes your sense of honor.
- Too much intimacy with a friend
Becoming too intimate with a person and not observing the etiquette of ethics in their presence, for instance, changing clothes in front of a person one feels very close with, leads to the diminishing of modesty.
- Talking too much
When one talks too much, he/she would make more mistakes, which in turn leads to one having less shame. Less shamefulness leads to less piety and as a result one ends up with a dead heart.
Drinking alcohol lessens one’s power of reasoning so one could not distinguish between right and wrong. With no intellect, there is no reasoning and with no reasoning there is less shamefulness.
Levels of modesty in the Quran
We have the feeling of modesty in the presence of three groups of people:
At this level you may not feel ashamed of doing a bad action in the presence of God, nevertheless, you do not want other people to see you doing an evil act. So when no one is watching, you would steal something from a shop.
- God and the angels
Someone who has reached this level of modesty, knows that at all times, he/she is being observed by the Almighty and His angels, hence, he/she abstains from many wrong acts even in the absence of other people.
This is the highest level of Haya, which is the result of respecting your own human honor and dignity. This concept is closely related with piety (Taqwa).
Ali ibn Abi Talib (peace be upon him) say,
أحسَنُ الحَیاءِ استِحیاؤُکَ مِن نَفسِکَ
The best kind of modesty is modesty with regards to oneself.
Piety (Taqwa): The best form of modesty in the Quran
In the story of Adam and Eve and their eating of the forbidden tree, we see that the result of their listening to the temptations of Satan was the removal of their clothes and their expelling from paradise.
يَا بَنِي آدَمَ لَا يَفْتِنَنَّكُمُ الشَّيْطَانُ كَمَا أَخْرَجَ أَبَوَيْكُم مِّنَ الْجَنَّةِ يَنزِعُ عَنْهُمَا لِبَاسَهُمَا لِيُرِيَهُمَا سَوْآتِهِمَا ۗ إِنَّهُ يَرَاكُمْ هُوَ وَقَبِيلُهُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا تَرَوْنَهُمْ ۗ ﴿27﴾
‘O Children of Adam! Do not let Satan tempt you, like he expelled your parents from paradise, stripping them of their garments to expose to them their nakedness. Indeed he sees you—he and his hosts—whence you do not see them. 29
“Garment” provides physical and apparent protection for a person’s body parts and is a manifestation of one’s modesty. Now piety (Taqwa) is a protection of one’s inner faith.
Satan’s first move is the removal of the garment of Taqwa from one’s body. This way, all vices become more reachable.
According to the Quranic teachings, nudity is an introduction to many corruptions. Just take a look at the people of our time. Under the banner of freedom, they strip off of their clothes, nevertheless, observing the hijab as a personal choice becomes the symbol of low self-esteem and oppression.
Is modesty in the Quran the same as hijab?
Modesty in the Quran is not the same as hijab. Modesty in the Quran is the feeling of shamefulness in exposing one’s nakedness to others; and hijab is the result of the feeling of modesty. In other words, when one is modest, one would not like to expose his nakedness to others, hence, he/she covers himself/herself up.
- Quran 96:14 (Qarai)
- In “fear”, one is frightened of someone’s power over him/her.
- Quran, 2:26 (Qarai).
- Quran, 33:53 (Yusuf Ali).
- ًQuran, 33:53 (Yusuf Ali)
- Quran, 28:25 (Qarai)
- Quran, 19:17 (ُShakir)
- Quran, 19:18, (Yusuf Ali)
- Al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 106.
- Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 1, p. 86.
- Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 1, p. 129, h. 12.
- Nahjul Balaghah, wisdom no. 474.
- Ghurar al-Hikam, h. 340.
- Ma’ani al-Akhlaq, vol. 1, p. 312.
- Makarim al-Akhlaq, p. 17.
- Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 68, p. 331.
- Tuhaf al-‘Uqul, p. 418.
- Wasa’il al-Shi’a, vol. 20, p.29.
- Al-Khisal, p. 315.
- Quran, 33:53 (Qarai)
- Quran, 24:22 (Shakir)
- Quran, 2:273 (Qarai)
- Quran, 7:22 (Qarai)
- Quran, 7:22 (Qarai)
- Quran, 8:48 (Qarai)
- Quran, 15:39 (Qarai)
- Quran, 2:257 (Qarai)
- Quran, 15:40 (Yusuf Ali)
- Quran, 7:27 (Qarai)