Hadith, Islam, Quran, women, women's rights
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The principle of modesty


Dr. Riffat Hassan is a Pakistani-American who is a Professor of the Religious Studies Programme at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Islamic feminist who is considered as one of the pioneers of feminist theology in the context of the Islamic tradition. She has written extensively on rights of women in Islam. Women’s morality has been a subject of debate and controversy in all human societies. ‘The project’ has been about shaping women’s attitudes to suit the interests of others, those who hold power at a given point in time.

Sadly though, among all these artificial constructs of morality, the real woman has remained missing.  Left out intentionally. The one who is not a mother, a wife, a daughter or a sister. Rather the one who is a person with her own hopes and ideals about life.  It is always refreshing to come across articles that talk about women from women’s perspective. That is they are written by women who have experienced, in one way or the other, the feeling of living under burdensome and despotic ideologies about their own moral identity.

Dr. Hassan, in this article has pointed out a crucial dilemma facing our society at large. Dressing norms have, for centuries, acted as a powerful method of controlling women; their body language, thinking patterns, level of freedom and standing in society. Generally religion, and Islam in our case, has been the most effective and widely used tool for justifying these controls. 

Hence, the need of the hour is an honest and progressive reinterpretation of our Islamic ideals that can help us reorient our lives in truly modern sense. Or may I say reorient in Quranic sense, as seen through the eyes of a woman, standing in front of her Creator, asking for no more but what is due to her

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By Dr. Riffat Hassan

IN the context of proper attire and conduct, the Quran lays down one basic principle, namely, modesty which is stated in Surah 24: 30-31: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (avoiding its concentration on a person’s body, or a certain part of it) and to be mindful of their chastity; in this they will be more considerate for their own well-being and purity, and surely God is fully aware of all that they do.

And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (avoiding its concentration on a person’s body, or a certain part of it) and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display the charms of their bodies (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.

And let them not display (more of) their charms to any but their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of (the physical attractions of) women’s nakedness; and let them not swing their legs (or other actions in their walking) that may aim to draw attention to their hidden charms.

The injunctions in the cited passages are discussed briefly below:

Lowering of gaze:The Quranic injunction enjoining the believers to lower their gaze and behave modestly applies to both Muslim men and women. There are no Quranic statements which justify the extremely rigid restrictions regarding segregation and hijabwhich have been imposed on Muslim women by some societies or groups like the Taliban. If the Quran intended for women to be completely secluded and covered from head to foot, why would it command the men to “lower their gaze”?

Dress code for both men and women: Dr Fathi Osman has pointed out that “modesty is required in the outdoor dress of both Muslim women and men”. In his view, “All the points of special attraction in the male body have to be covered, and displaying the muscles or most of the body merely for attraction is against a man’s mindfulness of chastity and decency and extends the temptation for evil-doing.”

What may ‘decently’ be apparent in the case of women: Elaborating on this point, Muhammad Asad states: “My interpolation of the word ‘decently’ reflects the interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi), as ‘that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-adah al-jariyah)’.

The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to ‘lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity’: and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately, i.e. in consonance with the Quranic principle of social morality, be considered ‘decent’ or ‘indecent’ in a person’s outward appearance.” Expressing a similar view, Dr Fathi Osman states: “The prominent commentators reflected … flexibility in their commentary on the verses 24:30-31. Al-Fakhr al-Razi stated that what should be covered is left to the prevailing custom, while al-Zamakshari left it to the custom and nature. Al-Wahidi and Ibn Atiyya allowed half of the arm to be uncovered, while al-Nisaburi allowed the uncovering of the arm to the elbow. Ibn Hayyan, in addition to considering custom and nature in what may be uncovered, considered the needs of poor women.”

Drawing khimar over the bosom:Muslim women are enjoined to draw their khimar over their bosoms. Explicating what khimar denotes, Muhammad Asad states: “The noun khimar (of which khumar is the plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less like an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer’s back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term so familiar to the contemporaries of the Holy Prophet [PBUH]) does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman’s breasts are not included in the concept of ‘what may decently be apparent’ of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed.”

Provocative gait:In keeping with the general law of modesty, Muslim women are instructed not to walk in such a way as to attract unnecessary attention. Muhammad Asad has pointed out that the expression “yadribna bi-arjulihinna … alludes to a deliberately provocative gait.”

The writer is professor emerita at the University of Louisville, US, and a scholar of Islam and Iqbal.

rshass01@gwise.louisville.edu

This entry was posted in: Hadith, Islam, Quran, women, women's rights

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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