Islamic Ethics: Modesty

Given the vastness of this topic, it is difficult to pen a few lines on modesty. In the light of traditions the signifcance of this topic is very evident and the number of traditions that have dealt with this subject serve to underline how critical this quality is near Allah.

Modesty according to traditions has been categorized into 3 levels
(1) A person’s modesty in front of others.
(2) His modesty while he is alone
(3) His modesty near Allah.

Shame and modesty in front of others is the first level of modesty. Hazrat Ali (a.s.) says that when one who is covered by modesty his defects remain hidden from people. The second level of modesty is to be ashamed of oneself in loneliness. In this context the infallibles (a.s.) narrate,

‘The excellence of morals is that a person is ashamed of himself in loneliness, because if he is ashamed of others and not of his own self then his soul has no value in front of him.’

A persons is not ashamed of others due to his stature or age, but because it is a rational thing and wisdom demands it. Hence if we consider ourselves wise then we should feel ashamed of ourselves regardless of whether we are in an assembly or alone. Hazrat Ali (a.s.) narrates,

‘The best shamefulness is to be ashamed of one’s self.’

The third level of modesty is being ashamed of Allah. This is the best form of modesty. This means that at the time of performing any action a person reminds himself that he is under Allah’s constant surveillance. If he is about to perform a bad action and stops from doing so out of shame near Allah, then this shamefulness is the best form of modesty.
The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) exhorted,

‘Be ashamed of Allah in its real sense.’

The people asked, ‘How can we be ashamed of Allah in its real sense?’ He (s.a.w.a.) replied,

‘He who wishes to be ashamed of Allah with sincerity must always keep death in front of him and turn away from this world and its attachments. He should safeguard his head and all those parts which are related to it, take care of his stomach and the things inside him and should not forget the grave and tests of this world."

Modesty conceals the defects of a person from others, it is with the help of modesty that a person can distinguish between good and bad. It enables a person to think more clearly. If a person realizes that his action (good or bad deed) is observed by the two angels, Allah, the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and the infallibles (a.s.) and also knows that his deed may be exposed to the people on the Day of Judgement, then he will refrain from performing that action if it is evil. A person must try to refrain from all sorts of evils. It is appropriate to state over here that it is unlawful for us even to hear indecent and useless talks even if it is a joke, because the infallibles (a.s.) have warned that Allah has made Paradise unlawful for those who indulge in indecent talks, foul language even in jest.

Ameerul Mo’mineen Hazrat Ali (a.s.) reveals,

‘Modesty and shamefulness have been mixed with deprivation. If a person is ashamed of bad deeds then he will refrain from them and his fate is wisdom and good fortune. On the other hand, if a person is ashamed of good actions then he will be deprived of it. Modesty elevates a person to the height of perfection. If a person is ashamed in performing lawful actions without any reason then this will stop him from reaching the height of perfection.’

When a person should not be ashamed
There are certain things for which man should not feel shame. For instance, man should never fell shy in acquiring knowledge. He must never use shame as an excuse in seeking knowledge even if it is from a person younger to him. He should never feel shameful of saying ‘I don’t know’ in those matters in which he does not have any knowledge.

One should never feel shy in giving less. Because offering something even if it is less is better than giving nothing.

One should never feel shy in three things:
a) Serving guests
b) To rise out of respect of one’s father and teacher;
c) To seek his right even if it is less.

Benefits of modesty
Many advantages of modesty have been related in traditions, some of which are as follows:

  1. Modesty hides the defects of a person.
  2. It is a part of one’s faith.
  3. It is from the best of habits and attributes.
  4. The best dress of religion is modesty.
  5. It is the best companion of generosity.
  6. It is the path leading to all good deeds.
  7. It is a dress, which guards one from sins and is a veil that prevents evils.
  8. Shamefulness near Allah keeps one safe from mistakes and lapses.

The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) says;

"It is with modesty that the following good virtues spring forth in a person – progress, kindness, fear of Allah in the apparent and hidden, adopting the path of peace, refraining from evils, cheerfulness, generosity, success and praising others in front of the people. These are the attributes that are acquired by a wise person through modesty. Hence, for him is glad tidings who accepts Allah’s advise and is wary of disgrace and humiliation."

Then let us ponder over the advice of Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s.) when he wrote a letter to one of his companions and ordered him to narrate its contents to others and ponder over its meanings. The following words were also mentioned in the letter;

‘It is upon you to adopt modesty and refrain from those things from which your pious ancestors refrained.’