June 30, 2014 By

Islamic Fashion: Corruptive or Corrective?

islamic fashion

“Islam is all about achieving the ideal of spiritual reform. So it offers an ethical vision beyond the immediate temptation of matter and materialism. What we call ‘Islamic fashion’ is oxymoron. Fashion is the sole by-product of capitalism, a political and economic reincarnation of materialism. How can Islam be in accord with the pettiness and superficiality of materialism? You know, fashion abayas, denim purdhas and other syncretic products rely on tools and techniques of capitalist production and distribution. Can a denim purdah designer disavow and speak against consumerism? Hardly, I think. Modesty is a revolutionary concept of Islam. It goes beyond the immediate, visible realm of clothing towards the very idea of living. Here you struggle against excesses, superfluities to remain content with all that does not glitter. I don’t know how Islamic fashion can identify with that.”

Maryam, who emailed us this query, surprised that we are doing an issue on Islamic fashion

While agreeing with the general purport of this statement, we would like to argumentatively depart from many points raised in order to expand it into a comprehensive critique.

Maryam brings to fore an important question on the age-old concept of modesty-which in debates among Muslims is usually associated with clothing and wearing. But she ‘picks’ people associated with Muslim fashion as the point of her fierce criticism. We would like to place this criticism in the context of Kerala, where this web magazine is based. In Kerala, much before purdhas and abayas became popular and rampant, Muslim women had adopted indigenous modes of dressing, which included Sari-common clothing among Indian women-and full-sleeve blouse. One of the reasons why such indigenous clothing is not being used much is that it is taken to be less modest than purdah and abaya, which, for religious reasons alone, have become fashionable and become staples of the consumerist Muslim. Meanwhile, clothing which had been popular before the spread of ‘full covering’ could well have been termed ‘simple’ and ‘modest’, as they were cheaper to produce. So, the term ‘modesty’ was translated in Kerala as something which prevents sexual provocation in clothing, even if the material used to create modest clothes is expensive. Such modest clothes are part of consumerist frenzy about Maryam is concerned in her question. There is another problem in the picture. There are women-we have spoken to a few-who say that denim purdhas are more sexually provocative than even Saris, as they reveal the contours of body. So the term ‘modesty’ is a term too complicated to define. And we can’t take it rashly as a point of protest against consumerism or capitalism, as alignment with and resistance against capitalism are done in more unforeseeable ways than ‘fixities’.

Another problem in the discourse of modesty that is bandied about in Muslim public space is that it is woman-centered. Even the questioner herself is not free from the bias, as she limits her criticism into purdhas and abayas. The sharpest criticism against capitalism and consumerism should be raised against the consumption of female body in which ‘male gaze’ plays a critical role. The verses usually cited in defense of modesty are verses 24:30 -31, where, firstly, Muslim men are asked to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and, secondly in order, Muslim women are asked to lower their gaze, guard their modesty, shun seductive ornaments and draw veils over their bosoms. But most critics rarely bother about ‘gaze’ which, in the increasingly sexualized public space of ours, should be the first, immediate point of our censure.

There are many interpretations later developed on these verses-which have been analyzed elsewhere– which paved for designing and developing couture in accordance with the spirit or letter or both of the stipulations in the verse. This is by and large defined as Islamic fashion or Muslim fashion. Criticism against fashion industry for its homogenization, promotion of cut-throat competition and consumerism is also applicable to Muslim fashion. However, the potential of Islamic fashion-by relying fundamentally on the revolutionary concept of modesty, though it is structurally limited in the capitalist mode of production and distribution-for developing an aesthetics which ‘considers fashion and clothing not as an end in itself, but as objects pointing to deeply spiritual, ethically conscious state of living, should not be lost sight of.

Many designers, bloggers and activists-including Modestly Active-associated with Islamic fashion are themselves critics of the capitalist, neo-liberal and mechanistic fashion industry

Many designers, bloggers and activists-including Modestly Active-associated with Islamic fashion are themselves critics of the capitalist, neo-liberal and mechanistic fashion industry


The adjective ‘Islamic’ is a corrective to the way fashion is conceptualized. Many designers, bloggers and activists-including Modestly Active-associated with Islamic fashion are themselves critics of the capitalist, neo-liberal and mechanistic fashion industry. So there is a neat distinction among them between fashion and fashion industry and their attempt is to overcome the unethical ways of fashion with a revolutionary deconstruction of its modes and products. Though fashion industry can co-opt them and neutralize them-retailers like H&M display fashion abayas-we should not miss the point that many practitioners of Islamic fashion are critics of the double standard of western modes of fashion. Their criticism lies in extending their sense of spirituality and ethics towards their conception and nurturing of outward beauty-which the Quran and Prophetic traditions idealize. Islamic civilization itself bears testimony to the development of an indigenous fashion what with tapestried carpets and clothing; specially designed jewels and ornaments etc. Sense of beauty and fashion that we inherit from this legacy can be creatively converted into a genre of fashion which can be placed as a critique of the homogenizing, all-encompassing ideals and modes of today’s fashion industry. We believe, that is what people associated with Islamic fashion actually do.

This is not a critique of Maryam, rather an expansion of her argument into certain points we should not lose sight:

Male gaze should first come under scanner when we take the question of modesty into consideration; though homogenizing fashion industry encompasses it, Muslim fashion itself is a corrective to the industry; when we speak of resistance, we should explore the ethical and spiritual possibilities of Muslim fashion; modesty, beyond the question of covering, determines the style of living simply-the value which even abayas violate and which the traditional clothes may foster; and the struggle against the capitalism and materialism can’t be done in abstract, but rather by creatively engaging in it and ethically transforming it.

Posted in: Q&A