Islamic Morality

Apr 5, 2009, 7:56 AM |


Imam Shu'bah Ibn Hajjaj was riding his horse when Abdullah intercepted him. Abdullah was a known street urchin. Not only was he given to a life of sin, he was also unabashed about it. Imam Shu'bah knew that trouble was ahead when Abdullah stopped him.

Shu'bah (d: 100 A.H.) is known as Ameer-ul-Momineen fil Hadith. He is one of the foremost scholars of the science of Hadith criticism. Abdullah knew his stature as great Hadith scholar, but he was bent on having some fun. "Shu'bah replied. "You are going to tell me a hadith or else...."Abdullah treatened. When Shu'bah realized that he could not talk his way out of this, he said: "OK, I'll tell you a hadith." First he narrated the isnad (a chain of narrators) and then the hadith: "If you have lost haya then do whatever you feel like." Abdullah's demeanor changed suddenly. It was as if the Prophet (SAW) has himself cought him in his mischief and was speaking to him: "Abdullah, if you have lost haya then do whatever you feel like." He was totally shaken. "I just wanted to cause trouble for you," he admitted, "but please extend your hand. I want to repent."

This hadith turned a life around. Abdullah, the street urchin, became a student and then a great scholar of Hadith. Today he is known as Shaikh Abdullah ibn Maslamah Qa'nawi. His name can be found repeatedly in Sihah-e-Sitta or the six most authentic collection of Hadith, especially in the collection of Imam Abu Dawood who was his disciple.

What is haya? It is normally translated as modesty or inhibition but neither word conveys the same idea as haya. Modesty suggests shunning indecent behavior but it also implies bashfulness based on timidity. That is why the adjective based on its opposite, immodest, is sometimes also used as a compliment suggesting courage. Inhibition is defined as "conscious or unconscious mechanism whereby unacceptable impulses are suppressed." This is a very neutral definition with no reference to right or wrong. So one finds psychiatrists "helping" their patients overcome inhibitions.

In contrast to the moral ambiguity of these words, haya refers to an extremely desirable quality that protects us from all evil. It is a natural feeling that brings us pain at the very idea of committing a wrong.

Along with its unique connotations comes the unique value of haya in Islam. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said:

"Every religion has a distinct moral call and the moral call of Islam is haya." (Ibn-e-Majah, Hadith 4171)

Another famous hadith says:

"There are more than seventy branches of iman(faith). The foremost is the declaration that there is no god except Allah and the least of it is removing harmful things from the path. And haya is a branch if iman." (Muslim, Hadith 51)

As some muhaditheen (Hadith scholars) point out, the number seventy is a figure of speech. What the hadith tells us is that the declaration of faith is the most important part of iman but a centerpiece of most of the actions that iman calls for. It is the basic building block of islamic morality, When it is lost, everything is lost.

Based on such teachings, Islam brought abuot a moral revolution  of unprecedented dimensions with haya as its cornerstone. The pre-Islamic Jahiliya society of Arabia knew the word but did not understand its meaning. Nudity, the antithesis of haya, was not only common in everyday life, it was even part of the most important religious rituals of tawaf (circumbulation of Ka'bah). So were all the other evils that flow from it. Islam exterminated all of those evils and changed the society in such a way that haya became one of its most cherished values. To this day in Friday Khutbahs around the world, the third Khalifah Sayyidna Uthman is mentioned as the person with the best haya (asdaquhum haya). Is there any other religion that celebrates haya like that?

Islam's law about hijab, its ban against free mixing of men and women, its teachings about felations between men and women --- all of these reflect a deep concern for haya.

For men and women who have not lost their haya, these come naturally. There is a moving story from the earlier Islamic period about a woman who learned that her young son had been lost in a battle. She ran in a panic to confirm the news, but before that she took time to make sure that she covered herself fully in accordance with the newly revealed laws of hijab. She was asked how did she manage to do that in a time of great personal tragedy. She replied, "I lost my son, but I did not lose my haya."

There is no Islamic life without Islamic morality. There is no Islamic morality without haya.