Modesty & Social Contracts



Invitation to Islam

 A Survival Handbook 


By Thomas McElwain (Ali Haydar), Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Comparative Religion, University of Stockholm

Former Nordic Representative of the Seventh Day Baptist Missionary Society

Voting delegate to the Baptist World Alliance, Zagreb, 1989






     Although following fashions in dress has an aspect which seems inimical to Islam, it is worth considering that Islamic dress is the practice which is most visible to non-Muslims. Islam cannot make any concessions to Western criticism or desires in the matter of bodily modesty. Muslims ought, however, to foster concession in this matter in terms of style. It is perfectly appropriate for immigrant Muslims to continue to use the dress styles of their home country. It is not appropriate to give the impression that Europeans reverting to Islam ought to follow the same styles. They ought to follow the same standards of modesty, but in styles appropriate to their own country and culture.

     The truth is that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share traditional standards of modesty. There are still areas of the world where Christians dress with the same modesty as traditional Muslims, although they have greatly decreased in the last century. It is a misapprehension that modesty is a trait unique to Islam. It is scandalous that a political conflict has been made of this issue in many areas, especially in Europe, considering that Christians in theory have the same duties, according to their own faith, as do Muslims.

     European Muslims have sometimes failed in the matter of style. Perhaps some propagators of Islam have put too much emphasis on the principles of modesty and too little on how they ought to be adapted to new situations. There has been a tendency, especially among women, to copy foreign styles. This is one of the foremost barriers to embracing Islam by Westerners. They get the impression that one must dress in black and cover the face, because that is the way women dress in one or another country. There should be a movement among European Muslim women towards designing and acquiring styles of clothing which preserve Islamic modesty while at the same time recognizing features of Western dress styles. Unless this is done, Islam has a future in Europe only among those who marry immigrant Muslims or are attracted by exotic, foreign dress.



Social Contracts


     Islam and Christianity differ greatly in the matter of social contracts. In Islam, a free individual has the right and indeed obligation to make certain contracts with others which are binding under religious law and consequently even under secular law in such countries which recognize Islam. The right of individual contract is greatly diminished under other religious and legal systems, such as those dominant in the West. Marriage, for example, has already been seen to have a sacramental character in Christianity, and even where this is minimal, to be established only through the intervention of an authoritarian establishment. Two individuals do not have the right in Christian contexts to contract a legally binding marriage. The attempt of Christians to do so is generally considered fornication. The same generally holds true for other types of individual contracts, such as buying and selling, renting, or other matters. The law intervenes to determine the forms of individual contract, which are rights essentially granted by law rather than recognized by law. Thus the marriage of church and state in Western societies continues, even when ostensibly weakened, to govern individual freedom of contract in ways which contrast with Islamic practice, whether or not actual conflict is present.

            In dialogue with Christians, therefore, the issue of personal contract is one difficult to get across. The Christian has a tendency to consider contracts not having legal or ecclesiastical control to be less than serious. In such cases they depend solely on the word of honor. For Muslims, personal contracts are made within the Islamic experience, and imply binding responsibility before God and consequently legal binding as well. Perhaps the best way to get this across to a Christian in dialogue is to make a comparison to Christian sacraments. An Islamic contract has for the Muslim the same sacredness as a Church sacrament for a Christian. Some Christians may be positively surprised that Islam recognizes an individual freedom in such matters which is lacking in Christian society.