Nudity in religion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search

Nudity in religion deals with the differing attitudes to nudity and modesty among world religions.

Abrahamic religions[edit]

The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all recount the legend of the Garden of Eden, found in the Hebrew Bible, in which Adam and Eve are unaware of their nakedness until they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After this, they feel ashamed and try to cover themselves with fig leaves.[1] This suggests that Judaism recognised that nudity in and of itself was not sinful, being a natural part of God's divine creation, but this attitude was only ever an idealised or literary notion, and lack of clothing in the Bible has to be understood according to context, denoting poverty or innocence or other characteristics. Judaism does not share the Christian association of nakedness with original sin, an aspect integral to the doctrine of redemption and salvation. In Islam the garden is in Paradise, not on Earth Koran 7:22, "when they tasted of the tree, their shame became manifest to them, and they began to sew together the leaves of the garden over their bodies." This is to show that women and men should be covered in clothing, for nudity has the stigma of shame attached to it.[2] Each of these religions has its own unique understanding of what is meant to be taught with the recounting of the story of Adam and Eve and the use of nudity in the Hebrew Bible.


See also: Tzniut

In Judaism, nudity is an aspect of body modesty which is regarded as very important in most social and familial situations. Attitudes to modesty vary between the different movements within Judaism as well as between communities within each movement. In more strict (orthodox) communities, modesty is an aspect of Tzniut which generally has detailed rules of what is appropriate behaviour. Conservative and Reform Judaism generally promote modesty values but do not regard the strict Tzniut rules as binding, with each person being permitted (at least in principle) to set their own standards. With the exception of the Haredi community, Jewish communities generally tend to dress according to the standards of the society in which they find themselves.

A person who enters a ritual bath (a mikveh) does so without clothing, including no jewelry and even bandages.

Care needs to be taken when reading the Bible, where some references to nakedness serve a euphemism for intimate behaviour[3] For example, in the legend of Noah we experience the hesitancy of two of Noah's sons when they have to cover their father's nakedness, averting their eyes, after Noah's youngest son "saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside" what he had done to his father.[4][5] Nakedness may also be a metaphor for empty-handedness, specifically in situations where a sacrifice or offering to God is expected.


Representation of baptism in early Christian art
Baptism of Clovis I.

The early Christian Church reflected contemporary attitudes towards nudity, where it was considered acceptable in some contexts such as working outdoors. For example Gospel of John 21:7 describes that Simon Peter is naked while fishing from a boat, but then gets dressed in order to meet Christ. Additionally, the Book of Isaiah and the first of the Books of Samuel describe Isaiah and King Saul preaching in the nude.[6][7]

The first recorded liturgy of baptism, written down by Saint Hippolytus of Rome in his 'Apostolic Tradition', required men, women and children to remove all clothing, including all foreign objects such as jewellery and hair fastenings.[8] Later Christian attitudes to nudity became more restricted, and baptisms were segregated by sex and then later were usually performed with clothed participants. Some of the Eastern Orthodox churches today maintain the early church's liturgical use of baptismal nudity, particularly for infants but also for adults.

Movements within Christianity have arisen from time to time that have viewed nudity in a more positive light. For example, to the Adamites and the Doukhobor sect social nudity was an integral part of their practices. Today, Christian naturists maintain that social nudity is a normal part of Christianity and acceptable.[9]

Early Christian art included depictions of nudity in baptism. When artistic endeavours revived following the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was a major sponsor of art bearing a religious theme, many of which included subjects in various states of dress and including full nudity. Painters sponsored by the Church included Raphael, Caravaggio and Michelangelo, but there were many other. Many of these paintings and statues were and continue to be displayed in churches, some of which were painted as murals, the most famous of which are at the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. In 1981, Pope John Paul II expressed the Catholic Church's attitude to the exposure of the human body: "The human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendour and its beauty... Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness... Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person...The human body is not in itself shameful... Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person."[10]


In Islam the area of the body not meant to be exposed in public is called the awrah, and while referred to in the Qur'an, is addressed in more detail in hadith.[11] In the Sunni tradition, the male awrah is from the navel to knees. Other denominations have differing interpretations. For women, there are different classifications of awrah. In public, many Muslim women wear the hijab and long dresses which covers most of their head and body, with only specific body parts such as hands and face exposed. But in front of direct family (parents, children, siblings), the awrah is relaxed further, allowing them to be uncovered, except between the chest and the thighs. Sharia law in some Islamic countries requires women to observe purdah, covering their entire bodies, including the face (see niqab and burqa), However, the degrees of covering vary according to local custom and/or interpretation of Sharia law.

  1. It is from the shoulders (inclusive) down to the knees (inclusive). (Maliki and Hanbali opinion)
  2. It is from the stomach (inclusive) down to the knees (inclusive according to the Hanafis, but not according to the Shafi'is). (Hanafi and Shafi'i opinion)
  3. It is from the navel (not inclusive) to the knees (inclusive) when with either. (Alternate Hanafi opinion)

South Asian religions[edit]

Naga mystics, at the Hindu bathing ceremony of Ardha Kumbh Mela, at Allahabad

In ancient South Asian cultures, there was a tradition of extreme asceticism (obviously minoritarian) that included full nudity. This tradition continued from the gymnosophists (philosophers in antiquity) to certain holy men (who may however cover themselves with ashes) in present day Hindu devotion and in Jainism.


Among the Hindu deities, only the goddess Mahakali or Kali is depicted sky-clad, wearing the limbs around her waist and human skulls as a garland around her neck.

Among the Hindu religious sects, only the sadhus (monks) of the Nāga sect can be seen nude. They usually wear a loin-cloth around their waist, but not always; and usually remain in their Akhara or deep forest or isolation and come out in public only once every four years during Kumbh Mela. They have very long history and are warrior monks, who usually also carry a talwar (sword), trishul (trident), bhala (javelin) or such weapons, and in medieval times have fought many wars to protect Hindu temples and shrines.

Similarly, the Aghori, followers of mystic tantric rituals and who usually stay in isolated places or cremation grounds, can be found nude. But they usually do not appear in public nor do the general public go to meet them. Sightings of Aghori in public places is very rare.


In the Digambara sect of Jainism, monks are "sky-clad" and the members of this sect also keep their god naked. However, the Shwetambar sect is "white-clad" and their god is clothed.

New religious movements[edit]

Raelians in South Korea


In many modern neopagan religious movements, such as Wicca, social and ritual nudity is (relatively) commonplace. In Wicca, the term skyclad refers to ritual nudity instead of social nudity.


In Raelism, nudity is not problematic. Raelists in North America, have formed GoTopless,[13] which organizes demonstrations in support of topfreedom on the basis of the legal and public attitudes to the gender inequality. GoTopless sponsors an annual "Go Topless Day" protest (also known as "National GoTopless Day", "International Go-Topless Day", etc.) in advocacy for women's right to go topless on gender equality grounds.


  1. ^ Genesis 3:7 "And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons."
  2. ^ Koran7:26 "O children of Adam! We have indeed sent down to you clothing to cover your shame, and (clothing) for beauty and clothing that guards (against evil), that is the best."
  3. ^ "as a euphemism for sexual relations," pg 17-18, Biblical Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1977
  4. ^ Genesis 9:21-25 "[Noah] drank the wine [of his vineyard] and became drunk. He uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid [it] upon both their backs, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces [were] backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And when Noah awoke and learned what [Ham] had done to him, he said "Cursed be Canaan [Ham's son], the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers"
  5. ^ Note: it has been suggested (D. L. Edwards (1989) A Key to the Old Testament, Fount Paperbacks ISBN 0-00-625192-7, page 113) that this episode involved Ham doing more than just viewing his father's nakedness
  6. ^ Isaiah 20:2-3 "At the same time the LORD spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, "Go, and remove the sackcloth from your body, and take your sandals off your feet." And he did so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the LORD said, "Just as My servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot three years [for] a sign and a wonder against Egypt and Ethiopia."
  7. ^ 1 Samuel 19:23-24 "So he went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, "[Is] Saul also among the prophets?"
  8. ^ The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome - chapter 21:1-5:
    1 At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water.
    2 When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water.
    3 Then they shall take off all their clothes.
    4 The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.
    5 After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.
  9. ^ Christian Nudist Convocation : Supporting and Gathering Christian Nudists
  10. ^ Karol Cardinal Woytyla (John Paul II), Love and Responsibility, translation by H. T. Willetts, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1981.
  11. ^ Bukhari:6:60:282}, Sunnan Abu Dawud 32:4091
  12. ^ Bukhari and Muslim
  13. ^

See also[edit]