Imam Shu’bah ibn Hajjaj was riding his horse when Abdullah intercepted him. Abdullah was a known street urchin. Not only he was 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 the “Amirul Momineen fil hadith.” He is one of the foremost scholars of the science of Hadith Criticism. Abdullah knew his stature as a great hadith scholar, but he was bent on having some fun. “Shu’bah! Tell me a hadith,” he said with mischief in his eyes. “This is not the way to learn hadith,” Imam Shu’bah replied. “You are going to tell me a hadith or elseâ€¦” Abdullah threatened. When Shu’bah realized that he could not talk his way out of this he said: “OK, I’ll tell you a hadith.” He then narrated the isnad (a chain of narrators) and then the hadith: “Prophet Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam said: “If you have lost haya then do whatever you feel like.”
Abdullah’s demeanor changed suddenly. It was as if the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, had himself caught 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 Abdullah ibn Maslamah Qan’awi. His name can be found repeatedly in Sihah Sitta or the six most authentic collections of hadith, especially in the collection of Imam Abu Dawud 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 psychiatrist “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 connotation comes the unique value of haya in Islam. Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said: “Every religion has a distinct call. For Islam it is haya.” [Ibn Majah]. Another famous hadith says: “There are more than 70 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 of Iman.” [Bukhari, Muslim]. As some Muhaditheen point out, the number 70 is a figure of speech. What the hadith tells us is that the declaration of faith is the most important part of Iman but that is not all. Iman also has to reflect itself in all kinds of actions in real life. Moreover, haya is 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 about a moral revolution of unprecedented dimensions with haya as its cornerstone. The pre-Islamic Jahilya society of Arabia knew the word but did not understand its meaning. Nudity, the antithesis of haya, was not only common in every day life, it was even part of the most important religious ritual 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 Hazrat Usman Radi Allahu unhu is mentioned as the person with perfect haya and perfect Iman (Kamil lil-haya wal Iman). Is there any other religion that celebrates haya like that?
Islam’s laws about hijab, its ban against free mixing of men and women, its teachings about gender-relations — 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 learnt 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 have lost my son, but I did not lose my haya.”
And for centuries afterwards Muslim societies did not lose their haya.When Muslim lands came under the western colonial rule about three centuries ago, they were faced with a civilization that was no different than the pre-Islamic Jahilya on the issue of haya. While it did not have better morality, it did have better guns. At the gunpoint of military and political domination, Muslim societies were made to loose their grip on haya on the collective scale. The powerful and attractive media became an important instrument in this war. First it was books, magazines and newspapers. Then radio. Now it is television. Together they projected ideas and images detrimental to haya. They made indecency attractive. The pace was increased tremendously by television, which has shown more firepower than all the previous media combined.
When historians write about the moral decline in Muslim societies in the twentieth century, they will probably underscore television in subverting the moral fabric of society. We can get a sense of the rapidity of our fall by realizing that what was unthinkable just a decade ago has become routinely accepted today. In some cases, we seem to have lost all control. Isn’t it shocking that while contraceptive ads cannot be shown on TV in the U.S. or U.K for moral reasons, they are freely shown in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?
We can get out of the morass by making haya as our number one concern in both individual as well as public lives. There is no Islamic life without Islamic morality. There is no Islamic morality without haya.