Modesty: A Source of Goodness

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One of the Prophet’s companions, Imran ibn Hussayn, mentions: “The Prophet said: ‘Modesty brings nothing but good.’

Commentary by Adil Salahi

Modesty is a virtue, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was keen to stress. Indeed it is a universally acclaimed virtue, with most religions and traditions praising it. However, Western societies sometimes try to cast an air of disapproval on modesty, picturing it as a weakness that inhibits a person from claiming what is due to him. Instead, they emphasize the need to be assertive so that others do not take advantage of our modesty.
This is a wrong view of looking at things. Being modest in social dealings does not mean that a person should abandon what is rightfully his or hers. Modesty is the opposite of boasting and asserting what one does not have. It is thus the opposite of presumption, temerity or cheek. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is often associated with being aggressive or domineering. As such, it may be a virtue where people generally do not give due consideration to others, but it is far from being so where people are very considerate and willing to allow others not only what is rightfully theirs, but a little more in addition.
In a Muslim community, people are always encouraged to be kind and generous, morally and materially. The Prophet makes it a condition of faith that one considers others in the same way as one considers oneself. He says: “By God! A person is not a believer unless he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” This applies to all situations. Where a person finds something that he loves to have or enjoy, he should love that all his brothers and sisters should have or enjoy the same thing. Thus, selfishness is reduced within the Muslim community as everyone is considerate of other people.
This is why Islam stresses the virtue of modesty as it helps us to keep the selfish tendency down and to stress the brotherhood of all believers. One does not seek to stress one’s own position, but rather he considers himself as part of a greater entity, the Muslim community. The Prophet even says that modesty is highlighted by earlier prophets as a virtue to be sought: “Among the words people received from early prophets are: if you feel no shame, then do as you wish.” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Abu Dawood, Ibn Majah, Ahmad and others). It is modesty that makes a person feel ashamed when he does something wrong. Hence a person who has no sense of shame is not affected by people’s reaction to whatever he may do.
In a different Hadith, one of the Prophet’s companions, Imran ibn Hussayn, mentions: “The Prophet said: ‘Modesty brings nothing but good.’ A person named Basheer ibn Kaab said to him: ‘It is written in Al-Hikmah: It is part of modesty to maintain propriety, and to have inner serenity.’ Imran said to him: ‘I am reporting what God’s Messenger has said and you speak to me of what is written in your scroll.'” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
We need to explain two things here. First is the Prophet’s statement that modesty brings only what is good. This is obviously in any situation which does not necessitate asserting the Islamic point of view or the Islamic rule. Where these need to be stated and clarified, refraining from doing so under the pretext of modesty is not to be condoned. Similarly, choosing not to speak out against some evil action is closer to cowardice than modesty, and the two are different. While cowardice is unacceptable by any standard, modesty is praised in most societies and by all divine religions.
The other point is the objection the Hadith reporter made when someone in the audience tried to confirm his statement by quoting from Al-Hikmah, or the book of wisdom. The objection is not to what is stated. There is no doubt that it is correct and in line with Islam. But the person making the statement appeared to be making a counterstatement, rather than quoting something in support. It is as though he was saying: “Oh, yes! This has been said before by others.” While this may be acceptable when we have a discussion with colleagues, or between equals, it is not acceptable when it is in a rejoinder to a Qur’anic or Hadith text, because it would be putting people’s own statements on a par with the Qur’an or with the Prophet’s Hadith.This is what is clear from Imran’s, the Prophet’s companion’s, rejoinder: “I am reporting what God’s Messenger has said and you speak to me of what is written in your scroll.”
Another Hadith in praise of modesty quotes the Prophet as saying: “Modesty is part of faith, and faith leads to heaven; while vulgarity is part of unfaith, and unfaith leads to hell.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Ibn Majah and Al-Hakim).
There are several Hadiths which describe modesty as part of faith. This means that it is an essential quality of the believers. A true believer refrains from claiming anything which does not belong to him. In fact he is hesitant to claim all that is due to him for fear that he might be thought of as ill-mannered or presumptive. He is always ready to forgo something of what is due to him as an act of goodwill or generosity, or when he feels that forgoing it serves a better purpose, or pleases others or brings them happiness. All these qualities are encouraged by faith, which teaches all virtues and as such leads the faithful to the right destination in the life to come, i.e. heaven.
The opposite quality, which is rendered in the Hadith as vulgarity, includes a range of bad manners, including vulgar language that demonstrates lack of propriety and decorum. Needless to say, such a quality encourages contravening Islamic values and standards. As such it leads its people to disobey God and His Messenger. When this becomes a habit, it certainly leads the perpetrator to hell where he suffers God’s punishment.