Most of the Muslim world sees America through the eyes of Hollywood movies, which is far from an accurate portrayal of American morality. Nonetheless, there certainly is a big cultural gap in the way people in the West deal with modesty and privacy of the body, and the way individuals in the Muslim world do, regardless of their level of Islamic practice.
This Islamic sensibility of considering the human body of a very personal realm is connected to the concept of honor, dignity and privacy. This is not limited to Muslim countries. In fact, it is found in many Eastern cultures as well, such as in India and China, at a far higher level than in the West.
What is Hayaa? Hayaa, Satr, Nikah, and Hijab are four important concepts that help explain Islamic precepts relating to modesty.
Concept of Hayaa
The concept of Hayaa is considered a major Islamic virtue and an integral part of human character.
Ask anyone in the Muslim world, Muslim or not, and he or she will know what the Arabic word “Hayaa” is. But if you ask them to define it, they will be hard pressed to do so. Hayaa is in the grain of personal and social morality, values and behavior.
There is no exact English word which can convey the whole meaning of the Arabic term Hayaa. Most people translate it as modesty, shamefulness, and shyness. But all these words have negative connotations, which the word Hayaa does not have. Hayaa, unlike shyness and bashfulness, does not indicate that a person lacks self-confidence. In fact, in Islamic history, the person most noted for Hayaa, after the Last Prophet, Hadhrat Muhammad (SallAllaho ‘Alaihe WaSallam), was the third Khalifah (Caliph) Othman ibne Affaan.
A person with Hayaa is not a shameless person. He or she is chaste, moral, restrained, upright, and virtuous. He or she is not immodest, immoral, indecent, lewd, unabashed, unashamed, unblushing, and unchaste. No, we are not talking about angels here. A Muslim goes up and down in his or her faith and practice, but the ideals of Hayaa are such.
Prophet Muhammad (SallAllaho ‘Alaihe WaSallam) said that every way of life has its distinct character and for Islam it is Hayaa. (Muwattaa)
He also said Hayaa is the fruit of Iman (Faith). (Bukhari, Muslim)
Hayaa is not morality to be imposed, but something that must arise from within a person. But at the same time, it is not a private affair. It is an established and accepted social morality which members of society collectively regard as desirable.
A state, therefore, is expected to be the organ through which any society mediates its moral values. This is the reason that even most of the secular governments in Muslim countries, who allow television channels, ask for the removal of nude scenes from the movies.
Public Hayaa is also the reason that even in secular Muslim countries you will not find collective shower rooms in school dorms, community gyms, or army barracks where persons of the same gender freely undress and shower in front of each other. Many Muslims do not to stay in a free-dorm facility during course in western countries and choose residence at a high cost, because of the common shower area issue.
Hayaa is the reason many Muslim men and women prefer to be seen and treated by a doctor of the same gender. Hayaa is also the reason that Muslim men and women avoid situations where they are compelled to be alone with a non-Mahram (with whom marriage is permitted Islamically).
It is also because of Hayaa that you will not find the demonstration of public affection between spouses in public. That loving relationship is considered a private joy.
It is due to Hayaa that while romance is there, even in the secularist-run television stations in the Muslim world, bedroom scenes, explicit language, and sexual hints are not part of the shows. Of course, all of that is being challenged by satellite television, which brings the Hollywood version of America to Muslim homes around the world.
While Hayaa is an expected norm of personal behavior defining social morality, the basic Islamic personal law taught to Muslim children in homes or weekend schools around the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates includes the following concepts of Satr, Hijab and Nikah.
The Code of Satr
Satr is another important code to understand. Muslim men and women are asked by Prophet Muhammad (SallAllaho ‘Alaihe WaSallam) to observe Satr. This means Muslims must keep their bodies from the navel to the knees covered in front of others of the same sex. The only exception to this rule is one’s spouse.
Satr explains why in the traditional dress of Muslim countries, there is no exposure of the human body. Muslims will go to great lengths to avoid this. In many villages, people have refused to see physicians if they needed to undress for them. This prompted Imams to preach that a Muslim can uncover the part of body essential for treatment in front of a physician if required.
The Etiquettes of Hijab
Due to secular fundamentalists who have banned the "headscarf” in Turkey and France, many people in the world now think Hijab means headscarf. In the fight for the hearts and minds of Muslim women, the headscarf has become a symbol of assertion for Muslim feminists as well as a symbol of women’s oppression for most Western feminists. However, the concept of Hijab has a much broader meaning than a piece of cloth on a woman’s head.
Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) has described the issue in detail in following Aayaat (Verses) of Quraan:
قُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ذَلِكَ أَزْكَى لَهُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ Oوَقُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَى جُيُوبِهِنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَائِهِنَّ أَوْ آبَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَائِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَاءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِي إِخْوَانِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِي أَخَوَاتِهِنَّ أَوْ نِسَائِهِنَّ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُهُنَّ أَوِ التَّابِعِينَ غَيْرِ أُولِي الْإِرْبَةِ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ أَوِ الطِّفْلِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يَظْهَرُوا عَلَى عَوْرَاتِ النِّسَاءِ وَلَا يَضْرِبْنَ بِأَرْجُلِهِنَّ لِيُعْلَمَ مَا يُخْفِينَ مِنْ زِينَتِهِنَّ وَتُوبُوا إِلَى اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ [النور: 30-31]
”Tell the believing men that they must lower their gazes and guard their private parts; it is more decent for them. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women that they must lower their gazes and guard their private parts, and must not expose their adornment, except that which appears thereof, and must wrap their bosoms with their shawls, and must not expose their adornment, except to their husbands or their fathers or the fathers of their husbands, or to their sons or the sons of their husbands, or to their brothers or the sons of their brothers or the sons of their sisters, or to their women, or to those owned by their right hands (slaves girls), or male servants having no (sexual) urge, or to the children who are not yet conscious of the shames of women’s hidden private parts. And let them not stamp their feet in a way that the adornment they conceal is known. And repent to Allah O believers, all of you, so that you may achieve success.” (An-Noor 24:30-31)
These Aayaat further need to be explained, especially in the context of modern day where slavery is non-existent.
The original authentic Islamic teaching explains that the Satr for women does not include hands, feet and the eyes. Those who allow the face of women exposed have extremely week arguments and apparently under the awe of West. The best way is to cover with Jalbaab (big piece of outer cloth or simply using the Burqa or veil) that conceal the curves and shape of the body along with the most attractive part of the body abruptly comes in the sight i.e. face.
The etiquettes of Hijab go beyond a dress code. It defines the relationship that men and women in a Muslim society maintain with each other. It lays out the guidelines for interaction between the sexes, particularly those not related to each other by marriage or blood. In essence, it is a set of legal and social norms that define gender relations in the public and private space in the Muslim world.
Even Muslim architecture incorporates the element of Hijab in defining public and private place within one’s own home.
The Institution of Nikah
Nikah means marriage in Arabic. This is the only relationship in which an adult man and a woman can expose the body in front of each other. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that dating still remains unheard of in the Muslim world, despite the practice’s introduction through Western media in the region.
Extramarital sex is considered a major sin in Islam, and Muslims are encouraged to marry. This is why in several Muslim countries, governments offer a stipend for eligible couples to get married if they cannot afford to.
Of course, there are people who do have affairs in the Muslim world. But this is considered a serious crime against one’s family, the community, and a major sin.
The institution of marriage in the Muslim world has been seriously challenged by the cultural imports from the West. However, its strength despite these pressures, prompted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to note that the only countries in Africa where AIDS has not become an epidemic are Muslim countries.
The concepts of Hayaa, Satr, Nikah, and Hijab are Islamic values, norms, and etiquettes. Although not all Muslims are following these commandments, social morality is still defined by these norms in the Muslim world. And nudity is nothing but the antithesis of Hayaa, even by those who may not be living by these standards in the Muslim world.
Breaking these norms is taken extremely seriously in Muslim societies. Many states treat crimes against these norms so seriously that they use capital punishment.
Unlike what some in America lead us to believe, no one hates America in the Muslim world because of democracy and freedom. It is the immorality of America (championed by Hollywood), along with American foreign policy which defines the conflict between the Westernized elite and religious elements in Muslim societies.