Ḥayā: More Than Just Modesty
What is ḥayāʾ?
Ḥayāʾ is of the most superior qualities, of the greatest in status, and of the most beneficial. Indeed, it is quintessential to humanness, for whoever carries no ḥayāʾ has no share of humanness other than flesh, blood, and outward appearance. Likewise, there is no potential for good in a person [without it]. Were it not for this quality, he would never be hospitable to a guest, keep a promise, fulfill a trust, take care of anyone’s needs, prefer what is pleasant, avoid the obscene, cover his private parts, or abstain from fornication. Were it not for ḥayāʾ, many people would not have fulfilled any of their obligations, nor acknowledged the rights of any being, nor kept the ties of kin, nor even shown kindness to parents. The driving element in these acts is either religious, namely hoping for its good outcome [ultimately], or it is worldly, which is the ḥayāʾ of its doer from the [eyes of] creation. Therefore, were it not for ḥayāʾ from either the Creator or the creation, one would not have engaged in these acts.
The ten shades of ḥayāʾ
- The ḥayāʾ of guilt; this is like the ḥayāʾ of Ādam عليه السلام when he fled in Paradise after committing a sin. It is reported that Allah said to him, “Are you fleeing from Me, O Ādam?” He said, “No, my Lord! Rather, out of ḥayāʾ from You.”
- The ḥayāʾ of inaptitude; this is like the ḥayāʾ of the angels who tirelessly glorify Allah by night and day. Then, once the Day of Resurrection begins, they say, “Glorified You are! We have not worshipped You as You deserve to be worshipped.”
- The ḥayāʾ of awe; this is the ḥayāʾ of being deeply acquainted with the greatness of Allah. This ḥayāʾ intensifies in proportion to the slave’s knowledge of their Lord.
- The ḥayāʾ of generosity; this is like the ḥayāʾ of the Prophet ﷺ from those he invited to Zaynab’s wedding dinner. They overstayed their welcome, but he ﷺ was too shy to tell them, so he simply stood and left.
- The ḥayāʾ of chastity; this is like the ḥayāʾ of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib رضي الله عنهwhich prevented him from asking the Messenger of Allah ﷺ about washing away pre-seminal fluid, as he was married to his daughter.
- The ḥayāʾ of humility; this is like the ḥayāʾ of the slave from his Lord, the Mighty and Majestic, when he asks Him for his needs. This may stem from the asker belittling himself and realizing the enormity of his sins, or from grasping the greatness of the One being asked.
- The ḥayāʾ of love; this is the ḥayāʾ of the lover of his beloved. It is so powerful that whenever his beloved, who is absent, simply comes to mind, an unexplainable ḥayāʾ may flare in his heart and heat his face. Most people do not realize why they tremble and become bashful upon suddenly seeing their beloved. This is caused by the heart sensing the beloved’s authority over it, and hence that thrill and fear overtakes it.
- The ḥayāʾ of servitude; this ḥayāʾ is necessitated by a blend of love, fear, and recognizing that a person must serve Allah, but can never do so adequately due to His incomprehensible grandeur.
- The ḥayāʾ of dignity; this is the ḥayāʾ of a noble soul when it feels that it acted towards others in a way that is beneath its standards of dignity, be it in sacrifice, generosity, or kindness.
- The ḥayāʾ from oneself; this is the ḥayāʾ of a noble soul when it detects its own deficiency, or that it has settled for less. It is almost as if one has two souls, one ashamed of the other. This is the most complete ḥayāʾ, for if people were to be ashamed of themselves, then by greater virtue, they would become ashamed in front of others.
Ḥayāʾ in Islam
Ḥayāʾ is a quality of Allah
Whoever exhibits ḥayāʾ, even during acts of obedience, wherein his heart is cast between his Lord’s hands in shame and intimidation… Were such a person to fall into sin, Allah (the Glorified and Exalted) is shy to look at him in this state, due to his significance in Allah’s eyes. He has ḥayāʾ to see His cherished slave, who is valuable to Him, in such a foul state… In everyday life, we see this. Were a man to come across someone very dear, beloved, and near to him—perhaps a child, companion, or another loved one—while they are betraying him, this discovery brings about a strange feeling of ḥayā, as if he were the criminal, and this is the peak of nobility.
Ḥayāʾ is the hallmark of the prophets
Ḥayāʾ kept his words ﷺ few, as if he were sick,
Though his body had not suffered the slightest prick.
Ḥayāʾ among the Companions and early Muslims
Where ḥayāʾ does not belong
The chosen one [(Prophet Muhammad)] ﷺ was certainly committed to ḥayāʾ himself, and would instruct others with it and encourage it. However, his ḥayāʾ would never prevent him from speaking the truth, nor fulfilling any religious injunction. This was in adherence to His words (the Most High), “...and Allah does not shy from the truth.” (33:53) That is the epitome of ḥayāʾ and its most perfect, beautiful, and balanced form.
As for someone who is overwhelmed by ḥayāʾ such that it deters him from truth, then such an individual has abandoned shyness before the Creator to be shy before the creation. Whoever is like this loses out on the benefits of ḥayāʾ, and becomes characterized with hypocrisy and showing off.
How to cultivate ḥayāʾ
When my Lord says to me,
Had you no shame to disobey Me?
You hide the sins from My creation,
And with those sins you come to Me?