Modest Dress in Abrahamic Traditions
by Dr. Eren Tatari
One of the questions I am most commonly posed in the United States is about the way I dress. Why do Muslim women cover themselves from head to toe? Usually I respond to this question with another question: Why does a Christian nun or an orthodox Jewish woman cover herself? Or I simply say, I have not seen a bareheaded picture of Mary in any church, I do it for the very same reason she covers…
There are a great many similarities between the three monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The central goal of the religious journey in these Abrahamic traditions is to acknowledge the Creator and to love Him by obeying His wise and compassionate guidance. A common area where almost all the doctrines of the three traditions are overlapping is unquestionably “morals.” Decency, chastity, modesty, righteousness, and purity are virtues that believers are encouraged and required to struggle to achieve.
When people look at Muslim women who wear a headscarf, usually they only notice the headscarf as being different than Western-style clothing. Many believers who wear a headscarf prefer to use the term “modest dress” since it captures the essence of the practice better. Modest dress is prescribed to both men and women in the Qur’an. The general guidelines include covering certain parts of the body, wearing loose and non-transparent clothing to conceal the silhouette, and to dress in such a way as not to draw attention to one’s self. Modest clothing and covering the body is enjoined for men as well as for women; men are advised to cover at least between the knees and the navel, whereas for women the only parts that can be revealed are the face, hands, and feet. This difference is solely due to the physical nature and attractiveness of the female body, and should not be misinterpreted as gender inequality. Still, most men prefer to cover themselves from head to toe especially during prayer as a sign of respect in the presence of God Almighty.
Nevertheless, some people have a hard time grasping why the hair is so important. First, the hair is only one of the many parts that need to be covered. Second, if hair was not so attractive, women would not spend hours in front of the mirror or spend hundreds of dollars to make their hair pretty! However, the concept of covering in Islam is not restricted to only the headscarf, which would be undermining the meaning and effect of this practice. The underlying principle is to keep your beauty to yourself, your spouse, and those of the same sex, so that you will not be viewed as an “object.” The ultimate goal is to be modest before God and other human beings. Western feminists contend that one of the greatest problems of our age is the reduction of women to mere objects that are valued only for their physical beauty. I must add, though, that in Islam, physical beauty and marital relations are not viewed as a sin or something to be ashamed of. They are a gift of God and we are to enjoy them within the limits prescribed by God.
In the Qur’an, God has commanded believing men and believing women to act in certain ways to avoid indecent interaction with the opposite sex, which has great repercussions for individuals and society in this world and the Hereafter. Islam is a religion of prevention and protection, rather than a religion of punishment. All aspects of Islamic law aim to prevent sin in order to avoid punishment that would otherwise be necessary to ensure perfect justice. It is also important to point out that in Islam, sin is regarded as a transgression against one’s self or a state of being away from God and acting contrary to our own nature. In other words, God knows His creatures and their weaknesses best and lays down guidelines to keep them from sinning because of His love and mercy for His creatures. Modest dress also has the same logic and nature. God has commanded it in the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad implemented it in his life and taught it to his followers for sound and compelling reasons.
The practice of wearing modest dress existed in various cultures and religions prior to the advent of Islam. Hence Islam did not invent the covering of one’s hair or modest dress in general. Veiling (I use the term here to refer to wearing a headscarf and not to covering the face as the term “veil” may also connote) was a common practice in the Byzantine Empire during the Hellenistic era and also among the Sassanids of Persia. The veil was a sign of respectability and high status and was used to distinguish noblewomen from slaves and unchaste women who were not allowed to cover their heads. Subsequently, the practice was established in the Judaic and Christian systems 1 and the Arabic peninsula at large (even prior to the advent of Islam).
Judaic doctrines and traditions have emphasized the covering of hair and modest dress throughout history. Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of prayers in the presence of a bareheaded married woman, since it is considered nudity. 2 Jewish women in Europe wore the headscarf until the end of the nineteenth century when the pressures of a secular society triumphed over religion. Today, many Jewish women cover their hair in synagogues, yet only certain sects such as Hasidic Jews continue the practice in everyday life by wearing a wig.
The place of veiling in Christianity is as prevalent as in Judaism. The most obvious sign is the modest dress nuns have been wearing for centuries. Veiling was part of the Christian tradition, not exclusively for nuns: “And Rebekah lifted up her eyes and when she saw Isaac… she took her veil and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65). The Catholic Church had a canon up until the 1950s requiring women to cover their hair inside a church. Certain Christian denominations such as the Amish and the Mennonites still retain a head covering for women.
Likewise, there is a strong connection between clothing, modesty, and morality in Islam. Thus, the concept of modesty extends beyond mere clothing and encompasses austere manners. This ideal code of conduct and modest dress are required from both men and women. There is strong emphasis on the protection of people’s dignity in the Qur’an. For instance, assaulting someone with words or slander is a grave transgression. One of the most compelling reasons for modest dress in the Qur’an is modesty and to protect women from molestation. It is not a sign of male superiority or of high status, as was the case in ancient societies.
“And tell the believing women that they (also) should restrain their gaze (from looking at the men whom it is lawful for them to marry, and from others’ private parts), and guard their private parts, and that they should not display their charms except that which is revealed of itself; and let them draw their veils over their bosoms, and (tell them) not to display their charms to any save their husbands, or their fathers (and grandfathers and both paternal and maternal uncles), or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands (both their own and stepsons and grandsons), or their brothers (and foster- and step-brothers), or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or the Muslim women and the women of good conduct with whom they associate, or those their right hands possess, or the male attendants in their service free of sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of femininity. Nor should they stamp their feet (i.e. act in such a manner as) to draw attention to their charms (and arouse passion of men). And O believers, turn to God all together in repentance that you may attain true prosperity” (Qur’an, 24:31).
Reasons for wearing modest dress
First and foremost, it is essential to know that “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2: 256). Faith is a personal matter between a believer and her Creator. Likewise, choosing to put one’s faith into practice is a natural outcome of the believer’s spiritual journey. I decided to start wearing the headscarf after about two years of soul searching.
Despite being raised in a Muslim family and a predominantly Muslim society, I was taken by the numerous positivist philosophies sweeping away the young generations. I did have a vague belief in God that I never really thought about or confirmed in my heart and my mind. Hence, I did not really know what I believed in and why, which made it all the easier to drift away on the currents of disbelief. I cannot thank God enough though for bringing certain seemingly difficult incidents into my life that forced me to question who I was and where I was going.
As a matter of fact, every person is endowed with the inner urge to find meaning in his or her existence. If and when we choose not to shut off these existential questions and try to find satisfying answers, our personal quest for our Creator begins. We are all given numerous faculties, such as our mind, heart, senses, and so forth, that are meant to be used in this quest. By observing the universe and our own continuous creation, we can witness that there is no deity but God, and that He is the Creator of causes and effects simultaneously. This confirmation compels us to heed the message of God (the scriptures) and to read it with an open mind and heart to verify its truth. Once we confirm that the Qur’an is indeed our Creator’s message sent to us personally to inform us of the purpose of our creation, then our worldview is transformed. In a way, the Qur’an is like a manual. It is “our” manual, teaching us how best to use our faculties and our lives. God is telling us why and how He creates us (what our reality is) and what sort of attitude and conduct is in harmony with our creation (our nature, fitrah). If we follow His recommendations, which are glad tidings (bushra), we will be at peace with ourselves and the universe. He also warns us that when we do not follow the instructions in the manual, we may harm ourselves. In other words, we will be unhappy and live in a “hellish” state of mind and heart in this life and the Hereafter. It is ultimately our choice (since we are given free will) to heed and follow this manual or not. Every believer can experience and attest to the truth of the message in their life (or not).
Analyzing the messages in the Qur’an from this paradigm, we may find endless wisdom and mercy in its recommendations. The following is a summary of the many wisdoms and the mercy I see in the prescription of modest dress for all believers who may choose to adopt it in their lives, and this is why I decided to start practicing it:
A. Individual level: Inner peace and harmony
Adhering to the guidelines of Islamic modest dress brings inner peace to the individual for several reasons. Modesty and striving to mold one’s self in Islamic manners helps to discipline our ego which is the main source of personal ills. When I use the term “Islamic,” I am particularly referring to the literal meaning of the word Islam, “submission.” So, a Muslim is someone who tries to submit her free will to the Truth, that is, the truth that we (and everything around us) are being sustained and created continuously by God, and do not exist independently. Our ego, which is only one of the many faculties we have, is given to us as a tool. By striving to discipline its excessive desires, and channeling them in a positive direction, we transform ourselves for the better. 3 Submitting to the wisdom and compassion of God and obeying His recommendations about how we should dress is only one of many aspects of trust in God. Adhering to modest dress always reminds us that God is Ever-Seeing and that we are constantly in the presence of God. This is the utmost source of inner peace.
As a side note I would like to also add that many women mention that wearing modest dress frees them from the pressures of society to conform to a particular physical type or to fashion. Knowing that they are not being judged as feminine “objects” helps to enhance their self-esteem. When we dress and act modestly, others value us as human beings based on character and intelligence.
B. Family life: Solidarity and peace
The family is considered a vital unit in Islam. A peaceful marriage is essential for many reasons, one of which is the adequate upbringing of children. The break up of families leads to crisis for family members as well as society as a whole. That is why divorce is described as the most disliked of the permissible practices. The practice of modest dress and piety by both husbands and wives may help to maintain the solidarity of the family. Being extremely careful about the way one acts, talks, and dresses around the other sex may serve as a barrier preventing many indecencies from occurring. As I mentioned above, Islam is a religion of prevention (vs. punishment). Therefore, all the ways to temptation are blocked so that we will not destroy our lives in this world and the Hereafter. Statistics leave no doubt that these incidents are very common in both Western and Eastern societies in this century due to the decay of the role and importance of religion in the face of the rise of materialism.
Thus, the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions on the matter of modest dress and manners aim to reduce these indecencies and preserve peaceful marriages. Even though many examples of men and women who claim to be pious, yet engage in unlawful acts with the opposite sex, may be cited, the ideal of Islam still proves to be true. God knows that human beings are imperfect creatures and the guidelines are there to set the perfect standards one should struggle to achieve.
C. Social level: Perseverance of society
Islam does not only seek to guide the individual out of the context of her surroundings. The realities of everyday life require human beings to interact with others unceasingly, hence social matters are also addressed in the Qur’an. The modesty of an individual’s dress and manners automatically affect society at large. Indeed, the problems of sexual harassment and assault are widespread in our societies. Trying to catch and punish the perpetrators of these offences after the harm is done does not solve the problem. Prevention of the crime is the effective solution and is possible with individuals reforming themselves and learning good morals and values. Only in such a way can the entire society be reformed. When and if men and women practice ranges of nudity, the society at large is affected negatively. For instance, harmony among married couples and the piety of individuals may deteriorate. This does not mean that only women must watch the way they act and dress, but as the Qur’anic verse 24:30 states, men are obligated to lower their gaze and adopt modest dress and manners as well.
“Tell the believing men that they should restrain their gaze (from looking at the women whom it is lawful for them to marry, and from others’ private parts), and guard their private parts and chastity. This is what is purer for them. God is fully aware of all that they do” (Qur’an, 24:30).
Men are first warned to control themselves, and then the required dress for men and women complements the decency of society. Also, to reduce the debate only to the matter of clothing is indeed wrong and misrepresentative of Islam. God is concerned with our inner selves primarily. Thus, modest dress serves its purpose only when it is appropriately complemented by the right morals and manners, and a whole Islamic way of life.
Eren Tatari is a PhD student in the Political Science Department, Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research interests include Muslims in Western politics, gender studies, and the political representation of minorities.
1. Esposito, John. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islamic World, OUP, 1995, pp. 108–111.
2. Muhammad, Sherif. “Women and their Legal Rights in Monotheistic Religions.” The Fountain, Issue 41, Jan-Mar 2003, pp. 30–44.
3. For instance, the ego falsely claims or wants to be independent.
It does not like to recognize authority or feel gratitude. Hence, the challenge is to use the other faculties God has given us (such as our intellect and heart) to discipline our ego and submit our free will to God’s will. In Islam, human beings
are not deemed intrinsically evil. We have the potential to be higher than angels or lower than animals. We have been given many faculties as tools to find and stay on the Straight Path.
Unal, Ali. The Qur’an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2006.