Without a doubt, modesty is part of our faith.
Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once said, “Verily, every religion has a (signature) characteristic, and the characteristic of Islam is modesty.” (Ibn Majah)
Not only is it a distinguishing trait of the religion, but it is also a divine commandment when it comes to interactions between men and women. In the Qur’an, in Surah An-Nur, the meaning of what Allah says has been translated to:
“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)
But, what exactly is modesty or haya? Is being shy the same as being modest? When teaching our children proper Islamic etiquette, it is important to know the differences.
Modesty or Haya
The word that is often used for modesty is haya. It can be described as a code of conduct by which Muslims strive to live. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, "Faith consists of more than sixty branches (or seventy in another narration). And Haya is a part of faith” (Bukhari, Muslim). Our modesty in front of our Lord is what keeps us from committing sins while our modesty in front of people is what keeps us from doing something potentially embarrassing.
The term "haya" covers many concepts. Mohammed Elshinawy wrote in an article for Yaqeen Institute called Haya: More Than Just Modesty, that haya is defined as conscientiousness, shame, modesty, bashfulness, and all related feelings that deter a person from behaving indecently. It is derived from the Arabic word ḥayāh, meaning life. Elshinawy explains that “Arabs considered people’s ‘being alive’ directly proportionate to their experiencing ḥaya.”
Conversely, a person who lacks haya is compared to the deceased, because their lack of guilt and God-consciousness deadens their faith. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, summarized this lack of modesty in the following hadith: “… ‘If you feel no shame, then do as you wish’” (Bukhari). When a person does not have that inner voice of healthy shame or guilt, they do as they please – committing the most atrocious acts and obscenities. They do not respect themselves and are not mindful of other human beings or of the One who sees and knows all. Thus, it is our duty to live modestly and teach our children to behave modestly, as well.
Don’t Be Shy?
Shyness, on the other hand, is a reaction to certain situations or circumstances. The American Psychological Association defines shyness as the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. A shy person may choose to withdraw from other people or avoid a situation due to their feelings of discomfort, nervousness, or insecurity. While bashfulness can be a commendable part of modesty, shyness can also hinder a person from performing acts of goodness. For example, if an individual feels too shy to pray at school or work and they may choose to pray at home after the allotted times.
Some children are shy by nature. According to Psychology Today magazine, shyness is driven by both biological and environmental forces. Although researchers have not proven that humans can be born shy, they acknowledge that babies are born with different temperaments. Some babies display behaviors that show an inhibited temperament after only months outside the womb. They may startle more easily or become overstimulated and noticeably uncomfortable in different situations. Those with exceptionally sensitive temperaments are more likely to go on to be shy children. This is not to be confused with introversion. While some shy individuals may be introverted, the difference is that introverts prefer to be alone. On the other hand, just because a child or adult is shy does not mean he or she is not an extrovert or yearns to interact with others.
Parents may worry that their child or children are too shy, even in the Islamic center or around other Muslims. However, they should know that shyness is normal and being supportive is the best defense against that shyness becoming debilitating social anxiety later in life. Children and adults can overcome their shyness through self-awareness, guidance, planning, and patience. Additionally, adults should not pressure children into uncomfortable situations or interactions, especially when it involves touching. Pushing a shy child to hug, kiss, or simply shake hands with a person only because that person is an elder, relative, or a fellow Muslim, sends the wrong message to the child that anyone can have free access to touch or interact with them, despite their discomfort. Shyness does not equal disrespect.
Teaching Modesty to Children
Parents and other caregivers can help children learn how to be modest in the proper way by modeling that behavior for their children. Being unapologetically Muslim by practicing our faith outwardly (as well as inwardly), turning away from lewdness, and being mindful of our speech and actions are all ways we can exemplify modesty. We can also teach children basic social skills like greeting with the salaam and a smile, making eye contact, speaking up and speaking clearly, and not being afraid to ask questions or stand up for themselves.
Setting up and respecting boundaries can also be part of modesty. If a child is shy, we should not rebuke this quality. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, once passed by a man from the Ansar who was admonishing his brother about modesty. The Prophet said, “Let him be, for modesty is part of faith” (Bukhari, Muslim). Again, we learn that some level of shyness is commendable.
In another hadith, we see the opposite – when shyness is not recommended. Abdullah ibn Umar was sitting with his father, Umar, in the company of other companions, may Allah be pleased with them, when the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, asked them about a tree that resembles a believer most. The companions were stumped but Ibn Umar knew the answer. He said, “Everybody started thinking about the trees of the desert areas and I thought of the date-palm tree but felt shy (to answer). The others asked, ‘Oh Messenger of Allah! inform us of it.’ He replied, ‘It is the date-palm tree.’ I told my father what had come to my mind and on that he said, ‘Had you said it I would have preferred it….’” (Bukhari) It was a sense of modesty in front of the senior companions that made Ibn Umar remain silent, but when he mentioned this to his father, Ibn Umar learned that it would have been better for him to speak.
Modesty Is Not for Women Only
It should be noted that modesty is something that applies to both men and women. When it comes to teaching our boys about modesty, we should use the same approach as with girls. In addition, modesty is not the same as hijab. Hijab has become known simply as the scarf that is used to cover a Muslim girl or woman’s hair, but hijab is more than that. The word hijab, from the Arabic root word, “hajaba,” literally means concealing, screening, and protecting and is used to refer to the code of dress for Muslims, men and women. It is a manifestation of modesty, or a means by which to obtain modesty and inspire modesty in others. When a person is modest, they strive to cover their sins, their nudity, their lusts, etc. As a result of their behavior, they also instill a sense of healthy guilt or shame in those around them.
And this was the case with many of the companions, who felt a surge in their faith whenever they interacted with the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. He taught that,
“Vulgarity is not found in anything but that it disgraces it, and modesty is not found in anything but that it beautifies it.” (Tirmidhi)
What does modesty look like in boys and men? It is the respect and healthy shame that keeps their eyes from wandering, their faith from wavering, their limbs from oppressing others, and their lips from speaking foul language. Modesty in men is looking away from things that are forbidden and feeling repulsed by immorality. One of Islam’s historical figures most known for their modesty was a man - Uthman ibn Affan, may Allah be pleased with him. So, we see that modesty is not just for girls and women, but for every Muslim.
To foster modesty in our boys and girls we must model that behavior and teach them about the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. He was the embodiment of modesty and by studying about his life, and that of his closest companions, like Abu Bakr, Omar, and Uthman ibn Affan, we will know how to best apply it in our lives.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six. She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam and culture in Spanish. She is also the Spanish content coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America’s WhyIslam Project and has also written, illustrated, and published a dozen children’s books. Díaz lives with her husband and family in Maryland.