Posts from December 2017

We have to talk about male modesty

December 5, 2017

The bare minimum for a man to cover his ‘awra’ (‘nakedness’ according to Islamic law) is much less than that for women. Men must cover from their navel to their knees and women must cover all of themselves except their hands and face. That is the law, but the spirit of Islam dictates that male modesty in practice is relatively similar to female modesty. It’s always baffled when the West criticizes the way Muslim women in particular dress around the world (calling their style of dress ‘backwards’ or ‘oppressive’), I think to myself But the men are dressed almost identically? In the Emirates where women dress in long flowing abayas, covering their heads and often covering their faces as well, men dress in long white thobes and also cover their heads. That is just one example among many, throughout the Muslim world the standard dress for both men and women has been long and loose clothing covering most of the body, some men —like the Tuareg (Mali), also cover their faces.

This is not the case, however, in the West. While many Muslim women retain their Islamic head covering and relatively modest clothing. Many Muslim men opt out of looking distinctly Muslim. They give no outward signal that they share the faith of their covered female counterparts, they instead look indistinguishable from non-Muslim men. And for the most part, as with women’s fashion, Western men’s fashion is immodest.

The typical style of men’s clothing is ‘separates’, i.e. pants and a shirt that give maybe 1-3 inches of space from the body, this being the case it often outlines the shape of a man’s body to the point that you could recognize the one who exercises regularly from one who doesn’t. On top of showcasing the outline of one’s body, exposure of one’s ‘nakedness’ is highly plausible. A typical shirt will reach slightly above the hip bone (far from the knees). Despite the very low requirement for the coverage of male ‘nakedness’, many men are barely fulfilling it, a man in the typical t-shirt and jeans outfit is likely to expose his back throughout the day —when he sits, when he bends down and other minor movements. While men’s hair is by far not as attractive as women’s hair, traditionally it would be covered, instead, in our culture, Muslim men mimic their non-Muslim counterparts with the latest trendy haircut.

I’m by far not making a “what about men” argument as a retort to the excessive attention on the way women dress —women, in general, are more attractive than men and so maybe it is appropriate to spend more time discussing female modesty, its requirements, and its virtues, but that doesn’t excuse the overwhelming silence from many male shuyukh concerning male modesty. There are few exceptions, of all the lectures I’ve attended or listened to I’ve only heard male modesty discussed three times. Both Shaykh Rami Nsour and Imam Zaid have suggested Muslim men wear kufis in solidarity with Muslim women. This is a valuable contribution to the relatively mute discussion on male modesty. As Muslim minorities, Muslim women often get the brunt of Anti-Muslim abuse (though on the opposite end it allows us to be on the frontline of dawa), if more Muslim men would boldly “dress like Muslims” maybe some of that negativity could fall on to them. But this should not be the only reason Muslim men consider dressing more modestly. Modest dress is a part of our faith and so it is their duty as much as it is ours to dress as modestly as possible.

The third exception to this nearly mute conversation on men’s modesty was during a three-day seminar with Sheikh Nuh Ha Meem Keller, may God preserve him. He dictates a particular code of dress for those who come to seek knowledge with him —both men and women. Once during a gathering, he told a man in the audience, who was in the process of asking him a question, that he ought to cover his head, then tossed him a kufi. I recall him saying that it did not befit the status of knowledge (that one should have their head uncovered).

What we wear contributes to our mood, says something about who we are, and advertises our values to the world —it doesn’t tell the whole story, but it says something and both Muslim men and Muslim women need to be conscious of that. Umm Sahl, a shaykha in Jordan, once told us, “The dress of righteous people has always been the same”. Look across religions and cultures at priests, monks, nuns, Imams and their followers, the dress is always the same —loose, long, covered and often unassuming. Modesty is not gender-specific, somewhere along the way Muslim men in the West got way too comfortable with barely fulfilling the minimum all while criticising Muslim women —a bit of a ‘pot calling the kettle black’ scenario, this has been the case for far too long. While the conversation on women’s modesty should continue, male shuyukh need to take the time out to scold their brethren for opting out of modesty and taking the easy road of assimilation.

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