What Would Mariam Do?
It can be argued that no era of history has witnessed the widespread exposure to illicit images and lewd behavior on a global scale as the current times we live in. From the easy access of internet to the effects of globalization, the world is in a state of consuming ‘all things immodest’ at an unnatural and exaggerated rate inflating the tendencies of shamelessness, showing off, vanity, the need for attention, and finally, perversion. The debilitating related physical diseases, psychological disorders, and plagued marital, family, and community relationships that have emerged are a testament to the fact that the very nature of our humanity is being tested, and indeed under attack, as the ‘animal tendency’ is exploited. Dr. Tariq Ramadan mentions that it is through humility that the being becomes human.1
At the core of modesty is the profound sense of humility before God, and respecting His laws and creation on that level. In other words, this good characteristic in Islam starts spiritually in the heart, and then expresses itself in interactions. So when our spirituality, humility and modesty are attacked, our humanity and nobility as vicegerents becomes endangered and humanity suffers deeply, as does the world it occupies. It is in this climate that we feel the great need to embody and nurture a more humble, modest, noble and chivalrous community of believers. And it is in this climate that we can really begin to appreciate and strive to hold onto the character of our beloved symbol of modesty and nobility, Mariam (alayha sallatu wa sallam - may Allah send His peace and blessings on her).
While entire books have been written on the subject of modesty in Islam, this final article of the ‘What would Mariam do?’ series will just focus on a handful of significant lessons, inspired by the life of our beloved Mariam (as) herself. Subhan’Allah (exalted is He), one major theme that emerges in her life is that being modest is a commitment, and that commitment is tested in the exact areas that one strives to be modest in.
Modesty in Personal Spaces
The first example of Mariam’s modesty is when she encountered angel Jibril (Gabriel) alone, who appeared in the form of a man. She responded:
“I seek refuge in Ar-Rahman from you if you are God-fearing.” (Qur’an, 19:18)
Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Whenever we have heard about noble humans seeing angels, especially angel Jibril, we know that they each take the form of a very handsome man. We know this from the story of Lut’s (as) people who were interested in angels, to Hadith Jibril where the companions described his handsome physical features, and the power of his presence.
Imam al-Aloosi mentions in his Tafsir in this regard:
“This is an evidence that it did not even pass as a thought in her mind to engage him even though she was in the most tempting situation to do so. He came to her looking extremely handsome as it is the way of the angels: when an angel assumes human form, it assumes the form of a very handsome man, just as he (Jibril) used to come to the Prophet in the image of Dahiyya (referring to a handsome man referred to as Dahiyyah al-Kalbi).”2
Now, let us hypothetically imagine that a young contemporary Muslim woman is approached by a very handsome distinguished looking young gentleman at an empty park. How many women in such a predicament would respond the way Mariam did? Mariam’s initial response was modesty and caution. Not only that, but when she found herself in a scenario of khalwa (full seclusion) with another man, she absolutely rejected it before there was even a conversation. This reaction shows she wasn’t interested in seeking attention from a stranger whom she had no business with, if even just in conversation. How many women (single or married, Muslim and non-Muslim) constantly seek some sort of validation or attention from literally complete strangers because of unresolved self-esteem issues? Whether dressing a certain way to get as many “looks” (or ‘likes’ on Facebook) as possible, or socially over-aggressive behavior with complete strangers, Muslim women and women in general have a lot to learn from Mariam.
Mariam (as) was truly spiritually liberated. Her self-esteem was based on her relationship with Allah, not with the number of stares or purpose-less, random conversations she could provoke from strange men. Still a radical idea, we learn from Mariam that in Islam a woman’s worth is not defined by men, but by her Creator. A very handsome ‘man’ (Jibril) was not an “opportunity” for Mariam to flirt with or “check out.” He was seen as an immediate threat—because a law of Allah had been broken—and that was khalwa with a man. Allah (swt) cautions us about His laws when he states:
“…These are the limits [set by] Allah, so do not approach (come close to) them.” (Qur’an, 2:187)
We can also learn from the way Mariam guarded her personal space. Modesty in one’s personal space includes the issue of not being alone with the opposite gender, as the Prophet ﷺ taught us, ”Whenever a man is alone with a woman the Devil makes a third.” (Bukhari)
It also includes physical proximity, the way we dress, our body language, and lowering our gaze from what is unlawful and/or tempting. While modesty starts in the heart, its absence often shows up in these personal spaces.
The Test of Immodesty in Personal Spaces
The more someone cherishes and seeks to protect a particular value in their life, the more painful and devastating it is when that value is violated by someone else. What I hope we can appreciate in Mariam (as) is the first moments of panic she felt when she didn’t know Jibreel (as) was an Angel, and she actually feared being violated. Mariam (as) is not the only example of purity and modesty whose personal space was tested. Sara, the wife of Ibrahim (as) who Allah (swt) protected from being violated by a powerful King, and Yusuf (as) who Allah (swt) protected from being violated by the wife of al-Aziz — are other examples in our history. Any unwanted intrusive sexual attention is a form of harassment, and these historic examples in Islam all experienced it at some level. One can only begin to imagine the feeling of anguish and pain they must have felt in those moments.
At the same time, their stories are reasons to have hope. Within the Muslim community, there are unfortunate stories of sisters and brothers who have experienced the pain and anguish of harassment, objectification, and violation on some level, while they were innocent. As I have personally spoken with and met some victims, a trend I noticed was the tendency towards self-blame, and the feeling of being ashamed for what they had no control over. To such sisters and brothers, my message is please take comfort and receive the glad tidings that if you were tested with harassment, Mariam, Sara, and Yusuf (as) were also tested with those difficult moments of panic and pain. And they are from the most beloved of Allah’s creation. You have been tested with what great people have been tested with before you. It is not a reason for feeling ashamed, nor allowing self-blame, but rather taking comfort from your increased reward and elevation of your rank with Allah (swt) insha’ Allah (if Allah wills). Even the pain that is experienced, is an evidence of your devotion to the modesty that Allah (swt) loves.
The Prophet ﷺ told us, ”Each and every thing that afflicts the Muslim of suffering, hardship, anxiety, sadness, harm, and distress, even a thorn that pricks him, will be a means for Allah to erase his sins.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Also keep in mind that although the effects of such trials can hurt for a long time, Mariam, Sara, and Yusuf (as) overcame it and so will you insha`Allah. In this regard, the Prophet ﷺ mentioned: “Know that with patience comes victory, after suffering comes relief, and with difficulty comes ease.” (Tirmidhi)
“But give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere.”
“Those who say when afflicted with calamity, ‘To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return.’” (Qur’an, 2:155-156)
And it is the Prophet ﷺ who gives you the glad tidings that insha`Allah, something better is certainly headed your way. He ﷺ said, “When a slave of Allah is afflicted with a difficulty and says, ‘To Allah we belong and to Him we return. O Allah! Reward me in this trial and bless me with what is better,’ Allah will most surely reward him for his suffering and bless him with something better in place of what he lost.” (Muslim)
Imagine that Mariam (as) was given the highest rank for women in Jannah and it is her nobility that is remembered in the world today, as Sara (as) was given a son in an old age and he became a prophet, while Yusuf (as) was given authority and power in the land of Egypt and eventually reunited with his family. All of these examples insha`Allah are reasons for you to hope for immense good in this life and the next if you patiently persevere.
Modesty in Speech
Whenever Mariam (as)’s speech is mentioned in the Qur’an, her language is very beautiful. There is an especially beautiful statement that deserves our deeper reflection here. Once the Angel Jibril presents who he is and that she will be given a son, she responds,
“How can I have a son when no man has touched me nor have I been unchaste?”’ (Qur’an, 19:20)
What is beautiful about her choice of words is the reference to the physical act of intimacy in the form of a euphemism—this is also an evidence of her modesty. Her speech was pure subhan’Allah. She used a lot of words to say something that could easily have been said in less. Brothers and sisters, can we not benefit from Mariam’s beautiful adab (graceful manners and etiquette)—who spoke about this issue privately with an angel, and even then did not speak too frankly.
We take from this example the lesson of being modest in our speech, guarding our tongues from vulgar language, and seeking to have modest manners. A point of clarification is that Mariam (as) did not avoid the opposite gender altogether. She was taught by Zakariyah (as) as well as the other religious scholars of the masjid, as different works of tafasir include the opinion that the mihrab (discussed in Part 1) was specially built for her as a space she could use after she had started her menses. The point is she had according to these opinions reached the age of maturity and was still learning from male teachers.3 A point to take is when there is reason for interaction in a trusted environment, speaking plainly and respectfully is fine. This is also seen in the examples of the sahaba and sahabiyat.4
Another point of clarification is that when it comes to imparting knowledge, clarifying legal issues, and some specific exceptions in dawa, it can be imperative to use direct and frank language for the purposes of achieving a needed clarity. But the general rule for our speech is as the Prophet ﷺ taught us, which is “to speak well or keep silent.” (Tirmidhi) Humility and modesty in speech is expressed in more than just the issue of gender relations, but also in avoiding language and tones that reflect arrogance, pretension, and undue anger. It is also reflected in content that is prohibited, such as lying, gossiping, etc.
The Test of Immodesty in Speech
Mariam (as) valued pure and modest speech, and yet she was tested with people using the worst speech, slandering her for a crime of immodesty that she did not commit. Subhan’Allah, a trial that is enhanced in its gravity because she was not only innocent, but she was the highest example of a woman’s modesty and nobility we have in history. Imagine how she must have felt when she heard:
“They said, ‘O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented.”
“O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste’.” (Qur’an, 19:27-28)
It is amazing to reflect on how some of the best slaves of Allah (swt) that ever walked this earth were at one time slandered. In issues relating to claims of immodesty, the amazing examples of Mariam (as), Yusuf (as), and Aisha (ra) are plenty to reflect on. In each case, they experienced a great deal of pain and suffering from the incident. Yet also in each case, eventually their name was cleared and their honor was not only restored, but elevated from what it had been previously, subhan’Allah.
For those innocent who have experienced being ostracized due to slander, take comfort that your test was shared by such honorable and noble figures in our Islamic history, and know that it is your right to have your name cleared. Have hope in Allah (swt) who allowed Isa (as) to speak from the cradle for Mariam (as) and revealed verses for Aisha (ra). Have the persistence of Yusuf (as) who strove to clear his name, as doing so is a sign of one’s integrity. In a number of cases I have heard of with innocent people being slandered in our times, Allah (swt) protected them and provided them with defenders from people and places they did not expect as well as the community’s eventual embrace. It is a reminder to seek to be of the people whom Allah (swt) loves, especially when one has been transgressed, for He protects His beloved servants as these two hadith qudsi reveal:
“If Allah loves His servant He would call Jibril and tell him ‘I love this person, therefore love him.’ And Jibril would love him and call out in the heavens ‘Allah loves this person, therefore love him.’ And the inhabitants of the heavens would love him. Then he would be embraced by the people of this world.” (Muslim)
“Whosoever shows enmity to someone devoted to Me, I shall be at war with him.” (Bukhari)
In the end of such cases, subhan’Allah, every un-repented slanderer experienced serious trials in their own lives. So, in the example of Mariam’s test in facing slander, there is encouragement and hope for the innocent, as well as a grave warning to those who allow their tongues to move too easily in spreading false rumors, without repenting.
Modesty in the Heart
Mariam (as) was someone who had humility and modesty in her heart, as expressed in her relationship with Allah (swt). While this relationship was detailed in Part 2 of this series, a few important points will also be mentioned here. Allah (swt) repeatedly affirms her modesty and chastity in the Qur’an, but He also says about her:
“…she was of the Qaniteen (obedient).” (Qur’an, 66:12)
Only one who feels humility and shame in the presence of Allah (swt) is someone who can fully practice obedience to Him. This is evidenced in the Prophet ﷺ’s statement: “If you feel no shame, then do whatever you want.” (Bukhari)
This is why Mariam (as) was able to practice modesty in her speech in the presence of an Angel. We too, can embody that sense of shame in the presence of the Angels. The Angels who record our deeds, and are present with us are easy to forget, but we should strive to remember them and feel shame in sinning while we know they are witnesses, as we too hope to be written amongst the obedient. Renewing the intention for actions, making dhikr, doing muhasaba (the act of taking account of one’s daily good and bad deeds), istighfar (seeking forgiveness), and remembering du`a’s for different situations all help increase one’s sense of shame in front of Allah (swt). Furthermore, feeling shame before Him encourages us not only to avoid the bad things, but also strive hard in doing the best we can because we know He is watching. It is in this light that we can appreciate the Prophet’s ﷺ definition of our community: “Every religion has a distinct characteristic, and the distinct characteristic of Islam is modesty.” (al-Bayhaqi, Ibn Majah and in Malik’s Muwatta)
Subhan’Allah, it is with a very heavy heart that I end this series on our beloved example of Mariam (as). Truly the good and beneficial of this series was from Allah (swt), and the mistakes are from myself and the shaytan. I know I have not done justice to my role model and heroine whose hands I pray I am allowed to kiss in Paradise for all that she has taught me as a slave of Allah, and as a woman, and I ask Allah (swt) to forgive me for my shortcomings in writing about the most beloved and honored ‘muslimah’ to have ever walked this earth, whose name He mentioned in His Revelation to us. May His peace be upon her and may her rank be elevated in Paradise. May Allah (swt) allow us to be inspired by her life, and embody humility and modesty in our hearts, speech, and personal spaces. May we overcome the tests of modesty that present themselves with commitment and resolve, the way Mariam(as) did when she was faced with such challenges. May we be a people whose humility and modesty are distinctly felt, reminding the souls around us of the nobility of their true nature and the honored cause for which they were created. May our commitment to modesty be an invitation for the sense of humanity that must be regained in the world. May we absorb and live the lessons we took from Mariam (as) as a wise and honored student, her spiritual journey, her devotion to the da`wah of Islam, and her commitment to modesty. May Allah (swt) accept our humble efforts and grant us tawfeeq in serving Him in the best way. All Praise and Glory is due to Him, and May His peace and blessings be upon the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.