Dress and Modesty in Islam
8 August 1997
The recent controversy surrounding the arrest and prosecution of the three Muslim contestants of the Miss Malaysia Petite beauty pageant, has now led the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr Hamid Othman, to call for a meeting of all heads of state religious departments this month to streamline guidelines and mode of enforcement on indecent dressing and behaviour among Muslims. He said the meeting would define indecent dressing and behaviour before the law is enforced nation-wide.
While this proposal has its supporters, others have found the very thought of a definitive notion of indecency, beyond what has been determined by the Penal Code, objectionable.
The public humiliation the three young women were subjected to by JAIS (Selangor Islamic Affairs Department) enforcement officials has already drawn widespread condemnation from the Malaysian public and the press. The proposal to further delegate to the same authorities the function of drawing up guidelines on indecency and dress should therefore be reviewed.
Sisters in Islam takes the view that if at all there were to be any move to impose new legal standards on the public conduct of Muslims, it must be carried out only with the widest possible consultation (shura) of those who will be affected by these standards. These laws and guidelines designed to restrict our fundamental liberties will have widespread public impact and far-reaching consequences on Malaysian society as a whole. They cannot be made in isolation and by an exclusive group of people who believe that no one else has a right to talk, discuss, or question matters of religion.
Any state laws and fatwas that affect our fundamental liberties must be consistent with the provisions of the Federal and State Constitutions. It has been argued that the legislative authority to restrict our fundamental liberties lie with Parliament, not with the State Legislative Assemblies. It has also been pointed out that the offence of indecency is a federal crime under the Penal Code. Therefore any attempt to punish indecency under the state Shari’ah Criminal Offences Enactment constitutes an unconstitutional trespass on federal powers. It can also lead to double jeopardy, violating the legal and constitutional principles that no person shall be punished for the same offence twice.
However, what is of greater concern to Sisters in Islam, is whether an Islamic worldview on dress and indecency exists in the Text of the faith. If it does exist, then state religious laws and fatwas must find its rationale here. It must also be firmly rooted in the Qur’anic injunction to uphold justice and be in full consonance with genuine community interests (maslaha). Otherwise, no amount of legal wizardry can cloak them with any legitimacy.
In any discussion on dress, it has often been assumed that the specificities of dress for Muslim women is directly and unambiguously prescribed by the Qur’an. This is not so.
The Qur’anic Text espouses universal values and principles. However, these are often expressed through the context of the cultural and historical specificities of 7th century Arabia. Muslim scholars have always recognised this characteristic of the Qur’an and the facility it allows for accommodating human experience across the various cultural
manifestations of Islamic belief. Therefore, differences of opinion would always exist on how to apply Qur’anic injunctions in differing and changing socio-cultural situations. The Text is not meant to be frozen within any specific historical period. A study of Islamic history will show that the body of Shari’ah law is the product of intense intellectual activity and diversity of opinion straddling a period of six centuries, before stagnation set in.
The present challenge requires a reawakening of rigorous intellectual inquiry and discourse. Only then can we extract the universal principles that are found in the timeand-space bound examples in the Text and apply them to our present socio-cultural context.
We have done this in many aspects of the economic and political life of Muslims in Malaysia today, from areas such as Islamic banking, Islamic trading in futures, to advances in medicine, to the idea of the nation state and the system of parliamentary democracy. But somehow this ability to innovate, to use ijtihad (human reasoning on the basis of the Text) and to understand changing times and circumstances has not been extended to issues affecting women.
The recent selective persecution of Muslim women by JAIS displays yet again this misogynist attitude; one which has prevented many men from recognising and adopting the universal Qur’anic principles of justice and equality, and in this particular case, how they can apply to matters of dress and public decency in contemporary Malaysia.
The Qur’anic discussion on dress centres on modesty. This is understood, first, as an avoidance of excess, and second, as the covering of nakedness. Surah al-A’ raf, 7:26, speaks of clothing to cover nakedness, and clothing as a thing of beauty; but it says the garment of piety or taqwa is the best of all. The Surah then goes on to espouse in verse 31 dressing well for worship but not to do this in excess.
In the context of covering the body, modesty calls for covering of what is shameful, i.e., the private parts of the body (the literal awrah) which are not to be displayed wantonly and without cause. Verses 7:26 and 7:31 taken together clearly enjoin the covering of our nakedness, and more importantly they espouse that no amount of material used or discarded can take priority over taqwa or God-consciousness.
The Qur’an indicates that modesty arises out of our own God-consciousness and others cannot impose that God-consciousness by enforcing or coercing covering or removing covering. Al-Baqarah, 2:256 states categorically, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. In his commentary, Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains that religion depends upon faith and will and these would be meaningless if induced by force. Education and self-regulation rather than coercion and laws facilitate one’s journey towards God-consciousness.
These verses (7:26 & 31) are Meccan and were revealed earlier in the prophethood of Muhammad saw. As a jurisprudential tool, Meccan verses address all humankind by laying down general principles of universal application.
The later Medinan verses tend to be more specific in their thrust, to respond to particular events in the life of the Prophet saw and his first community. The Medinan verses also discuss modesty and dress. In this discussion the historical and cultural circumstances of the emerging statehood in the city of Medina are important factors to be kept in mind when analysing the relevant passages. They illustrate how the universal principles were applied within the context of the first Muslim community.
In the period of the first community, the first verses on modesty are found in Surah an-Nur, 24:30-31, where both men and women are urged “to lower their gaze and guard their modesty”. Verse 31 goes on to urge women not to display their “beauty” in public beyond what may ordinarily be displayed and enjoins them to “draw their khimar over their bosoms”.
The khimar has been referred to by some scholars as a head-covering customarily worn by Arab women in pre-Islamic times as an ornament that was let down loosely over the wearer’s back; in accordance with the fashion of the time, the upper part of the woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, and her breasts were left bare. Hence, the reference to cover the bosom by means of a khimar does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such. Commentaries on the Surah note that the injunction meant to make it clear that a woman’s breasts are not included in the concept of “that which a human being may openly display in accordance with prevailing custom”.
The final verse in Surah an-Nur on modesty and dress, 24:60, allows women “…advanced in years who no longer feel any sexual desire…” to discard their (outer) garments, provided they do not aim at a wanton display of their beauty.
Surah an-Nur essentially discusses what are the private parts that must not be wantonly displayed. The common thread of these verses is to advocate modesty and moderation.
A later Medinan Surah, al-Ahzab, 33:59, enjoins the Prophet’s wives, daughters and the believing women to draw their cloaks Ualabib) around themselves when they go out in public so that they are recognised as respectable women and are not molested.
These verses do not lend themselves to the interpretation that the Qur’an espouses a specific type of dress. They infer that modesty can be achieved in different forms of dress suitable to different cultures, times and places.
The specific dress, jilbab, worn by wealthy and privileged women of pre-Islamic Arabia, marked them in public as women who were protected and therefore to be respected. This eventually became the dress of modesty during the time of the Prophet saw. The verse 33:59 enjoins believing women to don this cloak so that they, too, could be treated with respect and not be molested. The universal principle here is respect for women, not the use of the jilbab which is culturally and historically specific.
It is clear that all the Meccan and Medinan verses quoted above, extol moderation and self-restraint, shun wanton display and enjoin respect for women as a sign of God-consciousness.
If we are guided by these verses on modesty and dress, then women who display what may not be ordinarily displayed (an-Nur, 24:31) are not to be treated with disrespect or molested (al-Ahzab 33:59), for the Qur’an extols the lowering of the gaze as being the correct response (an-Nur 24:30-31). The best garment of all is the garment of piety or taqwa (al-A’ raf 7:26).
Clearly, the Qur’an does not appear to promote any specific form of dress. Yet we seem poised to introduce more and more laws and regulations on dress and morality which does not encourage more taqwa among the believers, but fear of the state and of Islam.
The message of the Qur’an is not intended to cripple the human mind. In deciding to make religion a part of public life, the daunting task for all of us today is to nurture an ability to reconcile our faith to the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Are we to be a nation of muqallids (blind followers) which can only lead to further stagnation and intellectual paralysis or are we ready to embrace and nurture a critical mind among Malaysians and Muslims, especially the future generation?
As a first step, we must recognise the difference between what is revealed and therefore divine and infallible; and what is the result of human intellectual effort and social customs, and therefore fallible and changeable. The opinion of the Fatwa Council or the state religious authorities is merely a human effort in interpreting the limitless message of the Qur’an. It should be open to debate and discussion.
Those in religious authority must begin to understand that they are operating within a democratic, multi-ethnic society whose citizens are not only increasingly better educated, but are also better informed on Islam and its eternal commitment to justice, equality, freedom and virtue. The public outcry over the banning of the KRU concert and the arrest of the three beauty contestants show that many Malaysians are no longer willing to remain silent in the face of injustice, extremism and overzealousness committed in the name of religion. To use coercion to enforce rulings and edicts made in the name of religion, but perceived as unjust by the community, will wrought dire consequences on our social fabric and political stability.
Sisters in Islam
This letter was published in The New Straits Times (9/8/1997) and Utusan Malaysia (9/8/1997).