In The Name of ALLAH, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful
People always strive to find happiness and tranquility in their lives. Islam contains a good moral code of living. Haya’ (or Al-Haya’) – in Arabic: حياء – is a key constituent of this code.
The Arabic word Haya’حياء can be translated as: modesty, shame, shyness or bashfulness. This article is a very brief description of ‘haya’ in Islam and the impact its presence or absence leaves on the society as a whole and on women in specific. The reader is encouraged to also research more on the topic through the references given at the end of this article and many other resources.
Islam encourages and treasures haya’ or modesty and considers it as one of the most important characteristics that each and every person should acquire and possess.
Islam considers haya’ and faith (Iman) to be inseparable. If one exists the other one will also be present, and vise-versa. The following are some Hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) that emphasize this great phenomenon:
“Haya’ (modesty) and Iman (faith) are two that go together. If one is lifted, the other is also lifted.” [Recorded by al-Hakim]
“Al-Haya’ is part of Iman.” [Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim]
“Iman has seventy some-odd or sixty some-odd branches. The most virtuous of them is the statement, ‘There is none worthy of worship except ALLAH’, and the slightest of them is to remove something harmful from the road. And Haya’ is a branch of Iman.” [Recorded in Bukhari and Muslim]
Furthermore, for Muslims, haya’ is one of the most important factors that keep a person away from committing a sinful act. If a person has no haya’, he/she will do almost anything.
The virtues of haya’ are something we find passed on from the earliest of the prophets. We find that all the laws of the previous prophets agreed upon this principle.
Abu Mas’ud ‘Uqbah bin ‘Amr al-Ansari al-Badri, may ALLAH be pleased with him, reported that the Messenger of ALLAH, peace be upon him, said:
“Among the things that people have found from the words of the previous prophets was: ‘If you feel no shame, then do as you wish.’” [Al-Bukhari].
The above saying by The Messenger (peace be upon him) points out that the message since the earliest of the prophets till his prophethood has been consistent that if a person does not have any modesty/shame, then there is nothing to prevent him/her from doing anything he/she wants. He/she will have no internal mechanism which tells him/her what is good behavior and what is bad.
An example of this is that of the people of Sodom, the people of Prophet Lot (peace be upon him); they had no shame whatsoever. They were without morals, without standards. As a result, they committed every type of criminal and evil act, in public or in private, believing that their bad actions were fair and wholesome. The Holy Qur’an describes this is Surat Al-Araf:
“And Lot, when he said to his people, “Do you commit (such) immorality not has preceded you therein any one of the worlds?” [The Holy Qur’an – 7:80]
Therefore, we understand that modesty is used as a criterion, a filter, for whether or not to do a certain act. Anyone contemplating an act and it is an act such that there is no reason to be ashamed of doing it before ALLAH then he/she may do that act. Whereas, if he/she is ashamed of doing it before ALLAH Almighty then he/she may not do it even if he is alone.
All of us are born with natural haya’. It is something that every human being naturally possesses. We feel a sense of shame to cover our private parts. This feeling originates from the Prophet Adam (AS) and his wife Hawa as we can see in the following verses from The Holy Qur’an:
“So he made them fall, through deception. And when they tasted of the tree, their private parts became apparent to them, and they began to fasten together over themselves from the leaves of Paradise. And their Lord called to them, “Did I not forbid you from that tree and tell you that Satan is to you a clear enemy?” [The Holy Qur’an – 7:22]
“And Adam and his wife ate of it, and their private parts became apparent to them, and they began to fasten over themselves from the leaves of Paradise. And Adam disobeyed his Lord and erred”. [The Holy Qur’an – 20:121]
Moreover, an example of the natural haya’ could be that of what we read to be a key characteristic of Sayyidina Othman ibn Affan (May ALLAH be pleased with him), the Companion of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the third Caliphate. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Should I not show modesty to one whom even the Angels show modesty.” [Saheh Muslim]
It is also narrated in Imam Ahmed’s book that Ashajj ibn ‘Asar said:
ALLAH’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said to me, “You have two attributes which ALLAH loves.” I said, “And what are they.” He (peace be upon him) said: “Maturity (الحلم) and shame.” I said, “Have they been with me since long ago or just recently?” He (peace be upon him) said: “Since long ago.” I said, “Praise be to ALLAH who put in my nature two attributes which He loves.”
Haya’ can also be acquired, nurtured or stunted through our actions. The acquired haya’ is attained as the result of knowing and realizing the Glory of ALLAH and His Attributes.
However, with time and with changing life circumstances, environment, ideologies and mode of living, one’s haya’ level, whether natural or acquired, can fluctuate, either increasing or decreasing.
In fact, the more a person commits sins and lewd acts, the more his/her feeling of haya’ is lessened, to the point where it may disappear altogether.
For example, the television and some social media show many images that are considered to lack haya’. If we intentionally expose ourselves to these images then our level of haya’ will eventually decrease.
The more one continues to watch these images the lower and lower his/her level of haya’ becomes until he/she reaches a point where he/she feels unashamed to watch these images in front of anyone else even children, other family members and friends. They become numb and desensitized about this kind of behavior that makes their minds normalize and the behavior becomes part of their life and becomes fully accepted.
This very low level of haya’ is alarming and should alert the person to do something to overturn the impact and revive his/her haya’ bar.
What should a person do when he/she notices that his haya’ level is low? How do we return to our natural ALLAH’s given/expected state of haya’?
A person who notices that his/her haya’ level is low should improve it by abundance remembrance of ALLAH (dhikr), getting closer to Him Almighty and fearing Him.
The person is also advised to be closer to and network more with the righteous Muslims to revive his/her natural haya’. Obviously, the more we realise the presence of ALLAH Almighty and His blessings upon us, the more the natural haya’ within us grows.
In this regard, it is narrated that ALLAH’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said:
“Have shame before ALLAH as is befitting.” We said: “O ALLAH’s Messenger, we do have shame praise be to ALLAH.” He (peace be upon him) said: “Not that, rather having shame before ALLAH as is befitting is to guard your head and what it contains, your stomach and what it takes in, to remember death and disintegration and whoever desires the hereafter leaves the ornamentation of this world. Whoever does all that has shame before ALLAH as is befitting.”. [Recorded by At-Tirmidhi]
عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ مَسْعُودٍ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ اسْتَحْيُوا مِنْ اللَّهِ حَقَّ الْحَيَاء. قَالَ قُلْنَا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ إِنَّا نَسْتَحْيِي وَالْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ قَالَ لَيْسَ ذَاكَ وَلَكِنَّ الِاسْتِحْيَاءَ مِنْ اللَّهِ حَقَّ الْحَيَاءِ أَنْ تَحْفَظَ الرَّأْسَ وَمَا وَعَى وَالْبَطْنَ وَمَا حَوَى وَلْتَذْكُرْ الْمَوْتَ وَالْبِلَى وَمَنْ أَرَادَ الْآخِرَةَ تَرَكَ زِينَةَ الدُّنْيَا فَمَنْ فَعَلَ ذَلِكَ فَقَدْ اسْتَحْيَا مِنْ اللَّهِ حَقَّ الْحَيَاءِ.
The manifestation of possessing haya’, therefore, happens through having:
- Haya’ towards ALLAH – a Muslim should feel ashamed to have ALLAH see him doing – or hear him saying – something that displeases Him Almighty, especially when that Muslim is alone and out of the view of humankind
- Haya’ towards the Angels – as they are noble and dignified creatures who witness the acts performed by creatures
- Haya’ towards other humans – an essential characteristic that keeps people from harming one another and from performing indecent acts
- Haya’ towards the person him/herself – a person should be ashamed of him/herself when he/she performs acts that are shameful.
To improve the society as a whole everyone in it, collectively and individually, must take part in reviving haya’. The concept of haya’ or modesty should be promoted through all possible means and at all levels and by everyone: educators, teachers, lecturers, parents, and du’at (preachers). Because Haya’, as we have seen, produces nothing but good. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said:
“Haya’ does not produce but goodness.” [Recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim].
If haya’ is not encouraged and promoted in the society, especially in today’s fast advancing information technology and open media, misuse of technology, media and data becomes a natural resultant. Internal limitations or barriers to engaging in whatever one wants become weak or even disappear. Some people might develop ‘distorted’ haya’.
Distorted haya’ produces distorted and weak Iman (faith), as pointed out in the Hadith above by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
This in turn leads someone to produce poor interpretations, conclusions and judgment of the situations he/she comes across and eventually makes faulty decisions.
In such cases, the chances of committing sins and evil like crimes, drug trading/addiction, distrustful acts, adultery and exploitation of women and vulnerable people become higher as much as the chances of delaying or neglecting obligations.
The entire definitions of ‘entertainment’, ‘fun’, ‘joy’ and ‘arts’ become anything but that which is compatible with the definitions of the core concept of Haya’. The Entertainment in this case becomes destructive and negatively affecting the concept of haya’, the faith and hence the society.
For instance, for a woman, a slim figure becomes essential because the clothing advertised exposes everything on a woman (except her intelligence). A woman becomes a commercial object for financial gains. She is used and sometimes even enslaved, trafficked. And the system feeds upon itself endlessly because the ‘internal mechanism’, the ‘tool’ – haya’ – which can discontinue these acts is missing.
In contrast, the Islamic moral code of living teaches that one must promote haya’ not only in him/herself but also in those he/she deals with. In order to prevent any destructive or unbefitting trends or desires to prevail in the society, one must dress decently and cover up his/her body.
This point is emphasized especially in the case of women. An example of this will be the story of Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) and the Shepherdess. This story showcases the shyness of the Shepherdess when she went to call Prophet Moses to meet her father [See The Holy Qur’an – 28: 23-28].
Islam is a total life system that enjoins respect for the purity of life. It insures purity of family life as well as purity of the individual. A woman is a special individual in the eyes of ALLAH and not just a produce for commercialization. The exploitation of women does not exist in Islam. Women are not used, abused or sold for economic gains.
And to ensure that this doesn’t happen, Islam’s code of modesty extends to all woman’s life, including her attire, her hijab (the head-cover worn by Muslim women), which is an outer manifestation of an inner commitment to worship ALLAH Almighty.
In the Quran, ALLAH Almighty says: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts (modesty) and not expose their beauty and adornment except that which [must ordinarily] appears thereof and to wrap their veils over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to ALLAH in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed”.
When ALLAH Almighty revealed this verse, the female companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) promptly adopted the guidelines contained in it.
Today, and in a similar spirit of obedience, Muslim women have maintained the modest Islamic dress ever since. Their love for ALLAH and commitment to modesty empower them in the face of challenges.
The beauty of the Islamic code of living is that it requires not only Muslim women to be modest, but Muslim men too. They cannot wear silk, gold, jewelry and should be clothed fully from stomach to knee.
Having said the above, it is important to note that sometimes some people wrongly use Haya’ to justify not doing something or giving up an obligatory act. For example, using haya’ as an excuse for not encouraging good or discouraging evil, or, for being silent or passive in the presence of falsehood or oppression. Some people use haya’ as an excuse for not doing what is correct and allowed or is even a recommended or obligatory act. Not taking away a harmful material from the street or the path or not helping an elderly person to cross the street are some good examples of this phenomenon.
Another example of abusing haya’ is to use it as an excuse for not seeking knowledge. Although many Muslim read and understand and frequently use in their daily conversation the saying: “There is no modesty in asking questions in religious matters”, but as a matter of fact only a fraction of Muslims practice this and in a few certain sensitive issues. When it comes to seeking knowledge in a classroom or lecture hall the situation is different.
Most Muslims become shy and use modesty as an excuse. Parents at home, teachers at school and lecturers at Universities need to encourage the attitude of asking questions to seek knowledge and promote the correct definition of modesty.
Unless there are expected harmful consequences for doing a certain act, one is encouraged to be proactive in his/her actions.
It is narrated by Umm Salamah that a woman said: “Oh Messenger of ALLAH, ALLAH is not shy to tell the truth. Does a woman have to perform Ghusl if she has a wet dream?” He said: “Yes, if she sees water.” Umm Salamah laughed and said: “Do women really have wet dreams?” The Messenger of ALLAH said how else would her child resemble her?” [Sunan An-Nasai]
In conclusion, haya’ or modesty is a great Islamic concept that leads to goodness and keeps people away from doing bad or indecent acts especially when its values are maximized. Faith and haya’ are linked. When there is iman, there is haya’, and vice versa.
In order to develop ourselves as believers, we need to cultivate our sense of haya’; haya’ in front of the creation and, most importantly, haya’ in front of ALLAH Almighty.
ALLAH Almighty sees everything that we do. We should be as shy towards Him Almighty in private as we are towards people in public. Because, with Him Almighty lies the highest reward.
- The Holy Qur’an: https://quran.com
- Shahid, Muhammad Haneef. (2002). Why Women are Accepting ISLAM. Darussalam. K. S. A.
I would like to express great gratitude to all who reviewed this article and generously fed back to me their comments and suggestions. A special Thank You goes to sister Hala Mubarak for her invaluable remarks and suggestions.