Modesty is a virtue which Islam demands of Muslim men and women. The most powerful verses commanding the believers to be modest occur in Surah al-Nur and begin with the words:
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 aware of what they do. (24:31)
The rule of modesty is equally applicable to men and women. A brazen stare by a man at a woman or another man is a breach of correct behaviour. The rule is meant not only to guard women, but is also meant to guard the spiritual good of men. Looking at the sexual anarchy that prevails in many parts of the world, and which Islam came to check, the need for modesty both in men and women is abundantly clear. However it is on account of the difference between men and women in nature, temperament, and social life, that a greater amount of veiling is required for women than for men, especially in the matter of dress. A complete code of modesty is laid down in the Qur'an as follows:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty save to 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 women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical desire, or small children who have no sense of sex; and that they should not stamp their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O believers! Turn all together towards Allah, that you may attain bliss. (24:31)
A key term in the above verse is zinat. It means both natural beauty and artificial ornaments. The word as used in the above verse seems to include both meanings. Women are asked not to make a display of their figures, not to wear tight clothing that reveals their shapeliness, nor to appear in such dress except to:
· their husbands,
· their relatives living in the same house with whom a certain amount of informality is permissible,
· their women, that is, in the strict sense, their maid-servants who are constantly in attendance on them, but in a more liberal sense, all believing women,
· old or infirm men-servants, and
· infants or small children who have not yet got a sense of sex
While Muslim men are required to cover the body between the navel and the knee, every Muslim woman is asked to cover her whole body excluding the face and hands from all men except her husband. The following traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) give us further guidance in the matter:
"It is not lawful for any woman who believes in Allah and the Last Day that she should uncover her hand more than this and then he placed his hand on his wrist joint. "When a woman reaches puberty no part of her body should remain uncovered except her face and the hand up to the wrist joint."
'A'isha reports that once she appeared got up in finery before her nephew, 'Abdullah ibn al-Tufail. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not approve of it. "I said, 'O Apostle of Allah, he is my nephew.' The Prophet replied, 'When a woman reaches puberty it is not lawful for her to uncover any part of her body except the face and this and then he put his hand on the wrist joint as to leave only a little space between the place he gripped and the palm."
Asma', the sister of 'A'isha and daughter of Abu Bakr, came before the Prophet in a thin dress that showed her body. The Prophet turned his eyes away and said, "O Asma'! When a woman reaches puberty, it is not lawful that any part of her body be seen, except this and this" - and then he pointed to his face and the palms of his hands. Hafsah, daughter of 'Abdur-Rahman, once came before 'A'isha wearing a thin shawl over her head and shoulders. 'A'isha tore it up and put a thick shawl over her. The Messenger of Allah also said, "Allah has cursed those women who wear clothes yet still remain naked." The khalif, 'Umar, once said, "Do not clothe your women in clothes that are tight-fitting and reveal the shapeliness of the body." The above-mentioned traditions make it explicitly clear that the dress of Muslim women must cover the whole body, except for the face and hands, whether in the house or outside, even with her nearest relatives. She must not expose her body to anybody except her husband, and must not wear a dress that shows the curves of her body. Some scholars, like Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, are of the opinion that, because modern times are particularly full of fitnah (mischief), women should go as far as to cover their faces because even the face may attract sexual glances from men. Shaikh al-Albani says, "We admit that the face is not one of the parts of the body to be covered, but it is not permissible for us to hold to this taking into consideration the corruption of the modern age and the need to stop the means for further corruption."
It is respectfully submitted, however, that in the light of the Prophetic traditions it suffices to cover the body, leaving out the face and hands up to the wrist joints, since this is the specified Islamic covering and it may sometimes be essential for a woman to go about her lawful engagements with her face uncovered. However if a woman prefers to put on the veil (burqah), she should not be discouraged as this may be a sign of piety and God-consciousness (taqwah). The rules on dress are slightly relaxed when a woman reaches old age and her sexual attractions have faded. The Qur'an says:
Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest and Allah is the One who sees and knows all things. (24:60)
However, if a woman is old but still has sexual desires, it is not lawful for her to take off her over- garments. Women at whom people are not possibly going to cast sexual glances but rather look at with respect and veneration are entitled to make use of the relaxation and go about in their houses without wearing an over-garment.
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