Islamic Modesty

Seth Ward

ד"ר סט וורד الدوكتور سيث وارد ܫܝܬ ܘܐܪܕ

Nov. 7 2013

This memorandum will briefly address Islamic concepts such as modest dress, rules about viewing immodesty, including images of immodesty, modesty of speech, and issues regarding the comingling of men and women. It is edited from a memorandum written to provide a conceptual framework for discussing such issues, raised in the context of a Muslim taking exception on religious grounds to certain US programs that compromise firm rules of Islamic law and well established societal norms.

Modest Dress and Viewing Immodesty (“lowering the gaze”).

The starting point for this discussion is the passage in the Qur’an that is best known as providing for clothing regulations for men and women, but also instructs Muslims to avert their gaze.

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty…. (24:30-31, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation).

This Scriptural passage clearly enjoins and links “lowering the gaze” and “guarded modesty,” and pertains to both men and women. It requires lowered gaze and guarded modesty for both men and women, in precisely the same language. To be sure, “a greater amount of privacy is required for women than for men” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali, n. 2984 on this verse); the Qur’an prescribes a broader definition of what needs to be covered for women, and chooses to discuss relatives to whom this does not apply in the verse about women. Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation “modesty” for a word that properly means “private parts” or “genitalia” reflects the “modesty of speech” required by Islam, and the broad extension of the concept to cover many forms of modesty. “Modesty” is used in this memo to link together a number of types of modest behavior, following Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation. But readers should always be aware that Yusuf Ali’s “guard their modesty” is a societally-correct one, (in that this concept is far greater than the literal meaning) but the literal meaning is “protect their genitalia.” In other words, “Islamic Modesty” as discussed here has not merely the normal connotation of modesty in English, but is much stronger than that, in that the Qur’anic language underlying the concept indicates indecent genital exposure and illicit sex.

Modest Dress: All branches of Islamic law agree that modesty applies to males and females. There are minor differences in the various legal traditions, but general agreement that for men, modesty involves covering from the navel to the knees; for women, only hands and face may be exposed (some allow exposing the feet as well). There is also general agreement prohibiting men and women from clothing that is tight or sexually suggestive, or from wearing only undergarments. (even if they provide minimal cover to the areas of immodesty). In Saudi Arabia, most jurists representing the official Salafi/Wahhabi strand of Islam rule that a woman’s face cannot be displayed in public, and many women wear niqab, the face-veil. (This is the case with this prisoner’s wife). The age for veiling is not strictly determined in the Quran; in 24:31, towards the end (not included in the citation above) and in 24:58 the Qur’an refers to young children seeing adults; the latter refers to “times of nakedness” (early morning, midday naptime and late at night) and has wording that more explicitly refers to pre-pubescent children, and suggests that older children should be treated as adults. Thus observing modest dress is required for children at or nearing puberty, but it is often practiced at much earlier ages. Saudi Arabia is a Hanbali country; classic Hanbali law prohibits looking at children older than seven. Other legal traditions mention different ages, often younger. While these rules are somewhat relaxed in family settings, many jurists note that modesty should be observed at all times possible, even men among men and women among women. Modesty needs to be observed even in total privacy.

Viewing Immodesty (Lowering the gaze): Islamic law mandates “lowering the gaze” when there is the potential for seeing immodestly clothed individuals. In practice, this applies even to gazing at modestly-dressed Muslims, to non-Muslims and to photographs or other images of them. Although Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates the Arabic term absar as “gaze,” the word refers to “sight.” In general Muslim men fulfill this requirement of Islam by refusing to look at a woman, or by looking at her face and hands only if she was properly observing veiling, but not at any other part of her even if it is covered by proper Islamic clothing. Men are generally allowed to look at men, but not at their penis and testicles. There is less agreement about whether men are prohibited from looking at areas next to the private parts, or at men with tight clothing or bathing suits in which some of the general outline of private parts is discernable.

Some Muslims do not extend these regulations to viewing images, in other words, it might be allowable for men to view images that did not strictly adhere to Islamic modesty, at least when there is no lust. But Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims (the official and dominant approach in Saudi Arabia) are in fact highly opposed to all images: making, saving or viewing any image of something that has a soul is problematic, let alone viewing immodesty.[1] If an image is in fact viewed, the image is often considered identical to viewing an actual person, the same rules of modesty would apply.

Display of images can contravene Islamic rules about modesty of dress, when photographs of men, women, and children depict sexually suggestive poses. Any sexually suggestive pose, and almost any image in undergarments or western-style swimsuits, for men, women, and children, subverts Islamic rules about modesty of gaze, which require men to “lower their gaze” when seeing any girl or woman except for close relatives, and prohibit viewing persons or images of persons in immodest dress. Immodest dress or nakedness of a man would occur when areas between the navel and the knee would be revealed or even when these areas are covered but in an insufficient, revealing or suggestive way. Immodest dress or nakedness of a woman would occur when anything other than hands and face are revealed, and even if fully covered, when the covering is insufficient, revealing, or suggestive.

Modesty is compromised by insufficient clothing or exposing genitalia, which is not merely a problem for what is considered indecent exposure by western standards, but even when sitting in the same room and requiring discussion with men as well as women whose clothing does not meet modesty standards. Some branches of Islamic jurisprudence have problems with any images of humans, even if the images are modest, except for identification and similar requirements. “Lowering the gaze” would already require that the Muslim would turn away his sight from any image of a human, and especially to refrain from viewing images exposing parts of the body that are covered in Islam, or poses considered sexually suggestive. Viewing these is contrary to the Salafi / Wahhabi Islamic law common in Saudi Arabia.

Immodesty of Speech

Islamic sources prohibit discussion about intimate affairs outside of marriage. Typical is the following ruling: “It is not allowed to talk to someone about anything that is related to sexual or intimate issues (except one’s spouse).” [2] These sources typically prohibit writing about these matters or reading about them, whether in a book (addressed to a broad audience) or in a letter. In her book Sexual Ethics in Islam, Kecia Ali says that, “as one scholar notes, ‘Talk about illicit sex might be as socially destabilizing as its perpetration’” referencing L. Peirce’s study of jurists and court cases,[3] adding “This is not a simple matter of prudery […but] is woven into the fabric of Islamic legal thought as well as embedded in Muslim social norms” (p. 73). This goes far beyond intimate or incriminating details; it is famously considered impolite to refer to a man’s wife, even just to send regards.

The most important basis for Islamic law and practice after the Qur’an is the Sunna, the authoritative practice of Muhammad, consisting of hadiths, reports about what the Prophet said, did or tacitly agreed to. The most often-cited specific source for not speaking about sex except between spouses is the hadith:

Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported that Allah’s Messenger said: The most wicked among the people in the eye of Allah on the Day of Judgment is the man who goes to his wife and she comes to him, and then he divulges her secret.

This hadith appears in one of the two most authoritative hadith collections, Sahih Muslim, Book on Marriage, 3369-70.[4]

The story of Moses at the Well (Qur’an 28:23-25, parallel to Exodus 2:16) is also used to support modest speech. In the Qur’an the young women at the well assert only that their “father is an old man,” rather than speaking more words than necessary, and “afterwards, one of them came back, bashfully.” Abdullah Yusuf Ali reflects the Islamic tradition when he characterizes how she spoke: “Modestly, she gave her message” (28:25, n. 3353).

The importance of refraining from immodesty in speech any discussion of intimate sexual details has even wider application and importance in Islam. As Kecia Ali noted, this concept has become intrinsic to the legal and social fabric of Islam. The reason is that it reflects the understanding of the Qur’an’s repeated injunction to “enjoin the good and forbid evil.”[5] The verse in Qur’an 9:71, “The Believers, Men and Women, are protectors one of another, they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil,” is often cited as the reason men and women should not talk about things related to sexuality or illicit behavior. This and many other aspects of modesty are imposed by the ubiquitous Saudi Mutawwa, or Religious Police, whose Qur’anic justification comes from these verses, as indicted by their official title: the “Commission on Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.”

Disclosures and discussions of sexuality are prohibited, beyond discussions between husband and wife, and so explicit sexual discussions outside of the marriage bond might be allowable in private, only with medical professionals, usually of the same gender, in the context of treatment. Discussions with strangers, or in a group or classroom or other format are particularly problematic. Modesty of speech is, as Kecia Ali observed, intrinsic to Islamic legal thought and Muslim social norms.

Commingling of Men and Women in Islam

Saudi Arabia has a high degree of separation of men and women in the public and private sphere. There are some changes in recent times, but not all in the direction of greater integration of men and women. Saudi shops that employ both men and women now have to put up a barrier keeping them separate; women were allowed into the Shura Councils, but a barrier and separate entrance keep them divided from the men. Women’s employment benefits from the fact that men are prohibited from selling to women at lingerie and cosmetics shops; gender separation has ramifications for banking and the practice of medicine, promoting female bankers and doctors in gender-separate environments. Commingling extends to sports: Saudi Arabia did not field any women’s teams in the Olympics. Gender separation extends into the social sphere: women and men are rarely together in traditional Saudi culture. Indeed, as the U.S. Department of State asserts:

Many areas of life in Saudi Arabia are segregated by sex to ensure that unrelated men and women have no possibility of mingling (a punishable crime). Some Mutawwa try to enforce this normally by asking for proof that a couple is married or related. Women who are arrested for socializing with a man who is not a relative may be charged with prostitution.[6]

As female professionalism grows, there may be increasing ability to maintain gender separation, a situation quite contrary to the social reality in the United States. There is a small net increase in mixed-gender spheres in contemporary Saudi Arabia, but an important trend in the opposite direction: the increase of female doctors, for example, does not necessarily lead to a more gender-neutral medical environment, but instead makes it easier to insist that women are seen only by female physicians, men by male physicians. The same is the case in banking and financial services, in law, and many other areas. In part this is keeping the sexes separate, but there is also maintaining additional levels of modesty for women; although in theory a man could be seen by a female doctor or be hired by a female boss, this whole idea runs counter to legal and social norms in Saudi Arabia, where men are expected to be the protectors of women’s modesty and honor, according to Islamic law, tribal and social practice. Attempts to upset this social reality are viewed with mistrust. In Saudi Arabia and other traditional Islamic societies, commingling of unrelated or unmarried men and women for any purpose, even for education or business, and even without any discussions, actions, or hints of sexuality, can be considered dangerous and participants can be considered as if they were engaging in prostitution.

Some general observations

The lifestyle in many traditional Muslim societies differs greatly from American lifestyles in all matters involving gender, licit and illicit sexuality, and interactions of men and women. Viewing any images at all, and certainly viewing sexually suggestive images, is inconsistent with the conservative norms in those societies; most of the images of people encountered in American advertising, reporting, broadcasting and so forth are prohibited at least by strict Islamist strands of Islamic law and cultural practice. So too do commingling of the sexes, for whatever purpose, and speech, writing and reading that has any sexual reference. Indeed, some Muslim sources prohibit any conversations between men and women except between man and wife, or very close relatives.

Seth Ward

Associate Acad. Prof. Lecturer in Islam and Judaism

Dept. of Religious Studies, University of Wyoming

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One Response to Islamic Modesty

  1. drsethward says:

    My expert testimony was quoted in a news article in the Colorado Independent: http://www.coloradoindependent.com/144931/al-turki-colorados-favorite-scapegoat

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