I have three young boys whom I love dearly —all loud, all convinced they are the center of the universe, and all wanting to run around naked if I let them. I never really thought much about modesty as it related to raising children until I had them, and I have come to realize how tightly interwoven it is with other virtues like honesty and kindness that we place in such high regard. I doubt anyone would argue that modesty is a fundamental aspect of being Muslim. Yet, surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) our focus is almost always on the outward manifestation of modesty, especially as it applies to women. Somehow, we've taken something beautiful, deep and multi-dimensional and made it flat and superficial. Modesty is (or should be) gender neutral and any talk of modesty, therefore, must begin with the heart, not the hemline. At the heart’s core lie virtues of kindness, respect and love for our fellow man.
We often forget that the outward manifestation of modesty is ultimately about preserving the spirit. It’s like caring and fussing over the beautiful coat of an animal, and failing to nourish it. No matter how much you take care of the outside, if the inside isn’t duly nourished, it will die. The equivalent is having a soul that doesn’t know Allah (swt), a soul that doesn’t feel shy in front of God and His creation, since God knows and sees everything. Regardless of how modest and healthy the outward appearance of a Muslim, the soul must be nourished in order for it to thrive.
The time has come to reassess how we define modesty in the Islamic context, and to expand our focus from the physical in order to encompass more of the spiritual, for the sake of our Ummah and our children. In an age of excess, instant gratification, and rampant consumerism, I look at my sons and I think about how I have to teach them about having modesty in everything—material possessions, social behavior, privacy, respect and gender relations.
As a parent, I often feel like what is missing is the discourse about how we can teach these virtues to our children, so come adulthood, they actually know what modesty means. We are quite literally in the midst of a narcissistic epidemic, riddled with attention seeking behaviors. Pictures have moved away from capturing a memory or how we feel at a beautiful place or moment, to a self proclaimed celebration on social media of things like every meal, pose, and outfit, ultimately encouraging a culture of personal promotion and exhibitionism.
The fact that our children think every moment of their lives deserves an audience, and are seeking affirmation for it in some way, shows how far we’ve come from the very essence of humility and modesty. We forget that, particularly in the era of “bling”, modesty needs to be taught the same way we teach our children about anything else. It’s a skill that needs to be refined with examples and reminders, and should emphasize the idea that at the heart of modesty is a different type of self-love, a love that benefits—not destroys—the self, the community and our relationship with Allah. If our children don’t know any better, it’s because we have not done our part in teaching them modesty.
I often think about what I want my boys to know about modesty, and here are a few things I pray that I can teach them in sha’a Allah:
Modesty is about self-respect and being aware of all your actions. It’s about respecting space and privacy, both yours and the privacy of others. It’s about knowing when to let someone in, and when to respectfully keep them out, and vice versa.
Modesty is making a conscious effort to stay humble, and showing regard for your speech and decency in your behavior. Showing off everything I have materially is just as detrimental as showing off what I have physically. Seeking constant admiration from others feeds into our ego, and that stunts spiritual growth.
Modestly is about how being kind is just as important as being right, and what better example than the beautiful, famous story of Al-Hassan and Al-Hussain, (may Allah be pleased with them) as they taught proper wudu to a man in the masjid. The humility and respect they exhibited is our ultimate example. Their goal was not to shame him or to point out a wrong. The source of their modesty was love and respect for their fellow Muslim, wanting for their brother what they would want for themselves, which is the pleasure of Allah (swt).
Modesty is about avoiding excess, and the idea of valuing what you have versus valuing what you don’t have.
Modesty is thoughtfulness and caring about how you affect others.
Ultimately we're trying to raise young men and women of conviction and promote an environment that is nourishing for the soul so that we can fulfill our ultimate goal of serving Allah (swt) by being an asset, not a blight, on humanity. Modesty, in all its definitions, is at the heart of creating that and it starts with us as parents. We can’t control the Internet and social media, and we can’t control their peers. But we can model these virtues at home, set the necessary boundaries and make a point to remind and teach them. They may not always appreciate it, but as their lifelong teachers, the lessons will stick with them, even if it takes time for them to embrace it. If we put half the emphasis and effort we do on character as we do on academics, the world would be a much better place. The key is to stop assuming that it's a given and start showing our children what modesty means, rather than limiting ourselves to what it supposedly ‘looks’ like, and then blaming them when they fall short.
By Hala Amer , 28 Apr 2014