Is Beauty Evil?

Is Beauty Evil?
“It’s really difficult to walk around Muslims feeling broken inside, and the only thing they think needs fixing is a piece of cloth on your head.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah


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I suppose it was inevitable that I’d write this blog. I myself have been on multiple sides of the hijab experience, and I know how it feels to love hijab and I know how it feels to almost resent it. Some of my experiences with hijab were empowering and enlightening, and others were suffocating and humiliating. But very little of the positivity or negativity had anything to do with how I covered—and I’ve worn everything from a head-wrap or bun-at-the-back (and hair showing) to an all-black over-the-head abaya, gloves, and niqaab (face veil)—but most of it was due to how I was taught to view my body and soul… 


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Sisters, please don’t wear make-up or jewelry with hijab or niqaab. It defeats the purpose of covering.”

Today, it’s something that gets me choked up, hearing this statement. Perhaps it’s so difficult to hear because I myself once embraced this thinking, and may Allah forgive me, I taught it to others. And I worry about all the innocent little girls and naïve female converts to Islam who are inspired to be “good Muslims,” thinking that their piety revolves around being un-beautiful and unappealing in public—as judged by random men making no efforts to lower their gazes—regardless of whether or not the women have done all that Allah requires regarding hijab.


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Allah says what has been translated to mean,  

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them. And Allah is well-acquainted with all that they do.”

Al-Noor (24:30)

Though Allah equates male spiritual purity and righteousness with men’s own actions and choices, today Muslim women are taught ad nauseam that male purity and righteousness rests with women’s actions and choices, usually in the context of hijab (the Muslim woman’s covering). But Allah reassures us that He is well aware of what many men do. And what I find interesting is that when Allah tells us this, He uses the word yasna’oon, which in some contexts means what “men manufacture or fabricate.” So as I read this, I reflect on what is happening today with what women are being taught, and I say to myself: Allah is well-acquainted with what people manufacture in the name of men’s modesty and spiritual purity.


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Allah says,

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that they should not display their beauty and adornment except what [ordinarily] appears thereof…”
Al-Noor (24:31)

Though Allah Himself gives an exception to what must be covered of a woman’s zeenah (beauty and adornment), the message many women receive is that there is no exception. This concept of “no exception” often takes the form of telling women that it is sinful for unrelated men to see their eyeliner or kohl, their facial make-up, their facial or hand jewelry, and even the henna designs on their hands—even when they are in full hijab. This explanation is often justified through a strict literalist interpretation of both the term zeenah and the exception “what [ordinarily] appears.” The literalist interpretation is defended based on the grammatical structure of the Arabic and assumes that the exception involves only the zeenah that appears of its own accord without any choice or power on the woman’s part, such as when the wind blows and her shape can be seen or her ankles become uncovered, or when a passerby gets a rough idea of her height and general body size based on how the large, single sheet of burka cloth falls over her body.

In other words, for all intents and purposes, there is no exception.


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It wasn’t until I read books and stories that detailed the actual lives of early Muslim women that I realized that this explanation is not completely accurate. Though there are some reports that can be interpreted as describing some women appearing like this in public (which of course are used to “prove” the literalist interpretation to be applied to all women), the fact remains that eye kohl, henna, and rings were worn by early Muslim women, and these items were not always hidden from men in public.  


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It Defeats the Purpose?

When I hear that wearing make-up, hand henna, or jewelry defeats the purpose of hijab, I have but one question: What is the purpose of hijab?

Is the purpose to stay within the limits set by Allah—or to be always unbeautiful, ugly, and unappealing in front of unrelated men?

As for me, I believe the answer is the former. Unfortunately, many women believe the answer is the latter—because they were taught that the limits set by Allah are to be unbeautiful, ugly, and unappealing to unrelated men (a view that has, in some circles, gone so far as to suggest that it is forbidden to wear anything other than a single sheet of plain, unadorned black fabric outside the house).

What I understand from Allah’s limits is this: We cover our bodies (for our sake, not men’s), and the beauty that is allowed to appear is what would ordinarily appear because it is customarily displayed on those parts of the body that are allowed to be seen.

In other words, if you believe you must cover your face, then whatever would ordinarily appear on your eyes (like kohl or eyeliner) can be seen in public, and if you do not believe you must cover your face, then what would ordinarily appear on your face and hands (like make-up, henna, and rings) can be seen in public.

This is what I understand from reading the Qur’an, hadith, and the actual lives of early Muslim women—and understanding divine sources as a balanced whole, as opposed to isolated verses, hadith, or random stories used to “prove” what all Muslim women must do in every circumstance.

And Allah knows best.


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“But you can’t purposely beautify yourself!”

I certainly am of the opinion that both men and women should avoid going to extremes while striving to obey Allah regarding modesty and covering (which applies to men too); and I also am of the opinion that neither men nor women should intentionally “push the limits” so as to skirt around the entire purpose of obeying the limits in the first place.

But here’s what I learned from my studies in Qur’an, Islamic history, and authentic spirituality: It’s not my job to judge when anyone is “pushing the limits”—except myself. The concept of “purposely” doing anything is a matter of the heart and is thus virtually impossible to judge in anyone other than yourself. So I choose to focus on my own soul in this regard, and hope for Allah’s guidance and mercy for my own inevitable errors and faults.


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Leave. Me. Alone.

This is how many women feel when they receive yet another piece of thinly veiled harassment under the guise of “naseehah” (Islamic advice) regarding how beautiful they allegedly are to men, thus “proving” that their hijab is not “Islamically correct.”  Leave me alone! their hearts often scream.

“I suppose I should be flattered,” I jokingly told a friend of mine. “I didn’t know I was so sexy.” And incidentally, this conversation occurred during the time when I wore an over-the-head abaya and niqaab, yet Muslim men and their wives believed I should also cover my eyes, apparently because even if a camel wore a face veil, its eyes would be beautiful (No joke, that’s what I was told—as if the beauty of even an animal’s eyes sent men into sexual frenzy).


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Is Beauty Evil?
“Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty…”

—Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (Muslim)

 Personally, I don’t believe that beauty is evil, but I was certainly taught that it was. No, no one said outright that beauty is evil, but this was the unambiguous message that I received nonetheless.

If you’re beautiful, you’re in sin—even if you’re in full hijab.  This is the “Islamic hijab lesson” in many religious circles today. And the “beauty is evil” argument doesn’t stop there. It dictates that women shouldn’t speak to or in front of unrelated men (lest their “beautiful” voices sexually arouse the men). It dictates that women shouldn’t be “displayed” in front of unrelated men (lest their pictures or film appearances sexually arouse men). And in some cultures, it dictates that some women shouldn’t even be spoken about (lest the knowledge of their existence alone inspires all sorts of sexual fantasies in men).


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Men’s Loss of Manhood and Respect

When the narrative of women’s dress consistently revolves around men’s sexual weakness and arousal, especially regarding the dress of women who are already covered, there is a significant loss of respect for Muslim men in many women’s hearts.

As Muslim women, we are taught that men are our leaders in private and public life, and it’s difficult to reconcile this divinely assigned role of manhood with the helpless, sexually weak image many men paint of themselves. Though it is natural for any human being to feel attracted to the opposite sex and sometimes become aroused (often for reasons inexplicable to others), it is bizarre to be expected to listen to a public narration of this attraction and arousal—from a pulpit or Islamic scholar—and in all seriousness be expected to change one’s dress based on the inner workings of random men’s minds and hearts. I myself can’t imagine narrating my own attraction to men then writing a blog imploring all Muslim men to stop wearing a specific item of clothing or cologne, or to stop speaking or singing a nasheed because I dream about them at night.

Though I’m half-joking in this example, I’m completely serious in that it doesn’t make sense to view one’s own strength and ability for self-improvement as tied almost entirely to the actions of others.

In the “real world” (in which we all live), there will always be a variety of people, and some of them won’t be Muslim; and still others (Muslim or not) won’t make even the slightest effort at being modest or obedient to God’s laws. But men still need to be men, and they still need to lead.

And regardless of what others are doing or wearing, if men can’t handle their assignment of manhood, then they need to reassess their own hearts and behavior in front of God, not women’s dress and behavior in front of men.


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Spiritual Beauty Is Empowering and Enlightening

If I could give advice to new and striving Muslims, it would be this: Learn Tawheed (the Oneness of Allah) so as to avoid shirk, study the six pillars of faith and the five pillars of Islam so as to understand the foundations of your religion; and perform your five daily prayers and read Qur’an daily so as to incorporate Islamic spirituality into your daily routine—then go on with your life.


If you can find a good, supportive Muslim friend or two along the way and a balanced, non-sectarian masjid to attend when you need to study Qur’an or learn other basics, then hold on to them. But don’t suffocate yourself by trying to be the “perfect Muslim.” It doesn’t exist. That’s why true faith is about gaining Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, not about avoiding sin and error altogether.

As a Muslim woman who wears hijab and had essentially been taught that my body is the property of men, I finally realized that my soul and body belong to me and my Creator alone and that my covering is to enhance my spiritual beauty in front of Allah, not to diminish my physical beauty in front of men.

I myself felt the most spiritually empowered and enlightened when, after years of trying to “do the right thing” based on others’ definition of Islam, I finally embraced Allah’s definition of Islam—striving to submit to Him each day despite my inevitable human imperfections. And, to me, this is what true beauty is, and it is the antithesis of evil.



No, I still don’t have the answers to everything, and I constantly wonder if I’m doing things right. But I’m okay with this too. Because our job as believers is to always be on the right path, not to always be right. And you remain on the right path by establishing a relationship with Allah through prayer and supplication, and consulting Him before taking a single step in any direction that could significantly affect your life or spiritual course.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy.  So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way.  So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection.  Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).

And to me, the promise of reward through religious simplicity, regular prayer, and sincere striving is sheer beauty. And that knowledge alone is one of the most beautiful, liberating things in the world.

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22 Comments

  • Sahara Posted 2014-02-24 8:12 pm

    The perfect balance.

  • umm fatima Posted 2014-02-26 1:50 pm

    Asalam alaikum, may Allah swt reward u 4 all d effort and i pray He accept all dat we do as an act of ibadah. By Allah i admire ur courage especially as a muslim in d west. I wear d hijab only 2 pls my creator and have told most of my friends in my husband present dat i wil only wear d niqqab 2 please Allah. From my own little understannding henna on hand is allowed bcos of d hadith of d prophet saas but for lipstick i dont knw of any. By Allah 2 we ur muslim sisters u are beautiful not bcos of ur looks but bcos of ur heart. Uhkti u dont need d lipstick

    • Binte shafiq Posted 2014-04-01 10:29 am

      Agree:)

  • me Posted 2014-03-02 11:55 am

    thx so much for writing this article. this thing has been bothering me for quite some time and like you, i came to resent the hijab for the very act of certain muslims who associate it as some sort of a behaviour control thingy for other men. insights like yours is very important. thx again

  • Rawan Posted 2014-03-03 12:39 am

    Thnk u

  • nada Posted 2014-03-03 12:58 am

    I love listening to readings instead of reading them, thank you for recording it.

  • amina Posted 2014-03-03 5:59 am

    I believe its best we leave off doubtful matters ukhti for Allahs sake and for the sake of our souls.

    • Fadela Posted 2014-07-07 9:30 am

      You mean “dont ever question anything and remain confused “

  • Toyeeb Posted 2014-03-03 2:41 pm

    Ma shaa Allāh, Sister! I agree with you. I have always thought about many of what you said and couldn’t agree more. The thing is when our scholars(may Allāh reward them) even see these clear narrations from the Sahabiat or Ahadith of the Prophet that are clear as the day, they end up concocting all far fetched explanation.

  • lubna Posted 2014-03-04 5:42 am

    Finally! Somebody who says that praying and the five pillars r the most important. I know of people who do not follow most of what Islam stands for but loves to oppress their women by picking on their appearance. I beleive that believing in the religion and having good morals comes before appearance.

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  • Fadela Posted 2014-07-07 9:32 am

    Salaam Aleikum, Thank you for this thought provoking and well written analysis of the issues. I have thought many of the same things. I’m excited to read more of your writing. Jazaki Allahu khairun

  • sister Posted 2014-11-19 12:24 pm

    Asalamu alaikum, i have always struggled with this issue of beauty, and after 28 years of being a muslim and having the view that i should be ugly, I finally gave it up a few months ago after losing over 100 pounds. I never realised how much of my identity is based around the belief that I should hide my beauty, that its my fault that men stare at me, or that somehow I am responsible for inappropriate comments towards me regarding my looks. I’m not going to lie and say that I feel 100% comfortable with my new ideas (especially with the weight gone) regarding my beauty, but I’m not willing to continue to feel ugly or sinful because of my looks anymore. I’m not going to flaunt them, I never have, but I’m not walking with my head down, and feeling guilty either. I have always been told that I should wear a niqaab, and I did for several years until breathing normally became more important for me. I literally couldnt breathe in niqaab while I was pregnant. Afterwards I never went back to it. But I have always been harrassed by others to wear it- women who feel insecure about my looks, friends, even some of my family- stating that in particular I should veil my eyes because of their unusual colour. My arguement now is that Allah created me as I am, and that I shouldnt have to bundle myself up anymore than what is required of any woman. I am not responsible for a man’s lingering look, nor a females insecurities because of my skin colour and eye colour, or anyones jealousy or envy…its not my problem. Its not my issue. Its theirs. I’m done feeling ashamed of my beauty, I’m done thinking that Islam requires me to be ugly. I am done with low self esteem and feeling worthless because of my looks. And alhumdulilah my girls are still young enough that I can teach them to be proud of their looks, and that in Islam there is no shame in being beautiful.
    So thank you for this blog topic. It goes a long way in relieving my heart and mind. Its refreshing to see a Muslim woman unafraid to discuss topics that need to be opened and discussed. May Allah reward you sweet sister. ameen.

  • Stephanie Posted 2015-01-01 7:55 am

    Assalamu alaikum,

    I, myself, have been going through the battle of truth with my inner mind as of late. These are topics that hit close to home.

    I appreciate your candidness, your “what’s for me isn’t for everybody” approach, as I feel the same way. Religion is not about forcing people to believe the same as you. Religion is personal. Your personal relationship with God. And I want to improve my relationship while inspiring others around me (my non-Muslim family, my daughter, my husband, etc) to improve theirs as well.

    Thank you for writing! I’ve just found your site, and I look forward to reading more!

    May Allah bless you for opening yourself to others!

  • sahra Posted 2015-02-16 5:30 pm

    May Allah forgive you, and have mercy on you when you meet him ummZakkiyyah. That’s all I want to say right now

    • Umm Zakiyyah Posted 2015-02-16 8:08 pm

      Thank you for the beautiful du’aa, Sahra. Ameen! And may Allah forgive your sins and have mercy on you when you meet Him. And may He write you down amongst those whom He loves. Jazaakillaahukhairan for remembering me in your prayers.

  • Ilm Posted 2015-07-20 3:55 am

    This was absolutely amazing mashaAllah. The hijab/abaya/niqab thing has been totally misinterpreted, but this blew my mind. I love how we can be beautiful (in terms of what is apparent) and still cover according to what Allah has ordained. I love how it is something done solely for Allah’s sake and how men are given responsibility to handle their own gazes, lusts, and selves. This is just…wow. I’ve been trying to summarize my thoughts regarding the hijab/abaya/niqab and haven’t had the time to do so, but this did it perfectly. I feel like there’s clarity and sincerity in my intentions now, jazakillah khairan kathira for that. 🙂

    Wassalam
    Ilm

    P.S: I absolutely adore your blog and have been binge-reading your articles all night long <3 I love you for the sake of Allah!

  • lihe Posted 2015-11-22 10:37 am

    I found your post while doing a search for “beauty is evil.”

    The more something is guarded, the more pronounced it becomes in people’s perception. This is human nature. It explains, at least partly, why in cultures in which women are hidden, women’s faces and bodies are regarded as sexually dangerous to men and to themselves, but the reverse is not regarded as true. It is a vicious cycle. After all, women can be sexually aroused by the sight of men. If men were hidden also, our perception of that effect would increase likewise.

    In my culture, the sight of the average woman’s body is so commonplace as to be part of the background noise of life. My face and wrists and hair are not inflaming men with desire, not even my husband. What inflames him is our meeting as lovers. But that does not mean that beauty is not a problem here. Here, it is treated as a status symbol and (of course, wrongfully) as a conveyor of information about a person’s character. It pits people against each other, creates an unjust hierarchy of value. The more conventionally beautiful a person is, the better they are treated, the more opportunities they are given, and therefore the higher their self-esteem and confidence. And also the more at risk they are of being exploited for the gain of others, and not being valued and loved for anything but that usefulness. You can take away the effect of the mere sight of a woman or man on the libido, but beauty remains dangerous for other reasons. It’s why I am simultaneously distrustful of and sorry for people who seek to enhance and flaunt their beauty.

  • war4u Posted 2015-11-24 9:31 am

    awesome. Admin u r great

  • Rushda Posted 2016-05-15 11:20 am

    Jazak Allah Khair for this article. Would you please recommend some books about the lives of the sahabiat in English? I can never seem to find them.

  • abdullahi busari Posted 2016-12-15 7:38 am

    Alhamduillah. Jazak Allahu khair.Thank you for speaking out what has been disturbing the minds of many muslim women for years ago.

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