HONOR AND SHAME IN A MIDDLE EASTERN SETTING
Copyright 2000 All rights reserved.
Sociologists have recognized that three social issues have existed since earliest times. As civilizations formed, each of them grappled with the concept of fear, shame and guilt. These are, in essence the building blocks of society. Every society has its particular ways of dealing with these issues. And each of these issues have different importance, depending on the cultural makeup of that society.
These three aspects make up the basic building blocks of worldview. It is similar to the three basic colors that an artist mixes to make all the colors of the universe. On my computer, I can mix the three primary colors to make up 64 million other colors. That’s the way it is with worldview. There are many different kinds of worldview, but when carefully examined they can be better understood when looking at them in the light of man’s response to guilt, shame and fear.
Sociologists have used terms like guilt-based cultures, and shame-based cultures for years now. We must be careful, however, not to try and fit each culture or worldview into one specific category such as fear based or shame based. As I stated, these building blocks are similar to an artist, creating thousands of colors from three basic primary colors. How much of each primary color is used, determines what the final color will be when the paint is mixed. In the same way, all three building blocks are present in all cultures and worldviews, but how much of each one is present, determines the actual type of culture that emerges.
Having determined this, one must also consider how people in a particular local culture react to the elements of the overall culture. As an example, when an Arab is shamed, he may react by taking revenge on the one who causes the shame, but when an oriental is shamed, he may react by committing suicide. So while individual cultures may react to sin in different way, in general terms there are great blocks of the world that have similar worldviews.
Where are the major blocks? Many western nations (Northern Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand) have cultures that contain mostly guilt-based cultural characteristics. On the other hand, much of the Middle East and Asia is made up shame-based cultures. Most of the primal religions and cultures of the world (such as tribes in the jungles of Africa, Asia, and South America) are structured around fear-based principles.
The problem comes when we want to simply classify cultures into these three basic classifications. They do not easily fit, because they are made up of blends of all three.
Thus, when analyzing a culture, one must look for the primary cultural characteristics, and then the secondary ones. As an example, many North American Native cultures are made up of elements of both shame-based and fear-based cultures. On the other hand, much of North American culture has been made up almost exclusively of guilt-based principles, although this has changed in the last two decades.
As cultures and worldviews developed over the millennia, they have gravitated towards one of these groups. This polarization has created three mega-trends in worldview. While the majority of worldviews fits into these three classifications, many cultures draw equally from two or all three worldviews.
This mixing of worldviews is especially noticeable in South America where jungle tribes with fear-based cultures come in contact with shame-based cultures originating out of southern Spain, and guilt-based cultures brought by western religion and western business.
The goal of this paper is to simply introduce the idea of guilt, shame and fear based cultures, and then to examine how the Nabataean culture fit into this picture. Along the way I will use illustrations drawn from many cultures of the world, including modern Muslim culture.
None of us lives in exactly the same culture. Culture varies from town to town, family to family and sometimes even from individual to individual. All of us are different. We are made up of different fabrics and formed by the different experiences that come into our lives on a day to day basis. Even those who try to define “American” or “Canadian” culture can only talk in vague generalizations. Americans come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and have all kinds of values. Some live in middle class housing, some in cardboard boxes on the street, and some in large impressive mansions. It’s hard to place categorizations and descriptions on people who are so diverse.
Despite this, however, there are some general characteristics or mega-traits that fit the majority of people in the western world. Certain basic fundamental beliefs have molded western civilization. These beliefs have laid the foundations upon which these nations are built, and from which the fabric of their society has been formed.
One of these basic foundations is their belief in right versus wrong. This understanding is so deeply ingrained in western culture, that westerners analyze almost everything from this perspective. Most western forms of entertainment are built upon ‘the good guys and the bad guys.’ It is so familiar to westerners that few of them question its validity. It is such an integral part of religion and society, that they often cannot imagine a world where ‘right versus wrong’ isn’t the accepted basic underlying principle.
‘Right versus wrong’ is the yardstick used in their culture to measure everything else with. They talk about the rightness and wrongness of someone else’s actions. They talk about things being “right for me.” They are obsessed with knowing their rights and exercising them. Many western societies spend countless hours and billions of dollars debating the wrongs of society. Is homosexuality right or wrong? Is spending billions on the military right or wrong? Is possession of drugs right or wrong? How about possession of nuclear bombs, or weapons of mass destruction?
Almost every major issue the west struggles with involves an aspect of deciding whether something is right or wrong. They arrive at this basic tension in life because almost everything in western culture is plotted on a guilt/innocence line. (Innocence being something defined as being right or righteousness).
Guilt —————————- Innocence
The pulls and demands of these two diametrically opposed forces dictate much of western human behavior. Guilt can plague and haunt people bringing fear and condemnation upon them. Many westerners do everything they can to avoid being guilty. Psychologists spend a great deal of their time helping people deal with all sorts of guilt complexes.
Evangelical Christians in particular, often live in circles that are governed by guilt principles based on the authority of the Bible. Outside of these circles, guilt is defined in many other ways. It can be a sense of public disapproval, being in trouble with the authorities, or not being politically correct. However guilt is defined, and to what extent it influences a culture varies widely from location to location. However, the understanding of right and wrong has been instrumental in forming much of western society.
On the other end of the spectrum, is righteousness, or innocence. This is the unspoken goal of much of western society. “I*‘m OK, you’re OK*” is the most comfortable situation for many. Many westerners express their innocence with the statement that they are as good as the next person. If this is true, then they can get about their business of pursuing happiness and pleasure within the bounds of being OK and not guilty.
Most westerners do what they can to avoid being guilty and at the same time exercise their rights. This guilt/innocence thinking is so ingrained in western society that most westerners have immediate reflexes to events that catch them off guard.
Being a westerner, I have often noticed some of the reflexes that we have developed. Have you ever noticed what happens in the swimming pool when the lifeguard blows his whistle? Almost all westerners will stop to see who is guilty, and when they realize they are innocent will resume swimming. This is a normal scenario from the western world, but it is not true in much of the eastern world. When we in the western world do something wrong, like unintentionally running a red light, we may feel guilty. This is also not necessarily true in the eastern world.
Or, how about this scenario? Imagine a classroom full of grade school kids. Suddenly, the intercom interrupts their class. Johnny is being called to the principle’s office. What is the immediate reaction of the other children? In the west the immediate reaction would almost always be: “What did you do wrong?” Even western children almost always immediately assume guilt. Perhaps the school principal was going to hand out rewards, but much of western society conditions people to expect the worst, and they feel pangs of guilt.
So much of western thinking is wrapped up in guilt. Wars are justified on the basis of establishing guilt. During the opening days of the Gulf War, the American government spent many hours and millions of dollars determining if Saddam Hussein was guilty. Once they thought they had established that he was guilty of committing atrocities they had the right to take military action against him. Throughout the war, they continued to make statements about Mr. Hussein’s deranged mental state and irrational actions. All of this helped justify the war. In fact, all during the history of western civilizations, wars have had to be justified, and each side identifies the other as being the ‘bad guys.’
But some things are not easy to chart between right and wrong. Is a hungry child stealing food guilty? Should he be punished despite his hunger? These questions disturb us, because we feel that everything in life must fit somewhere between guilt and innocence.
In fact, western association with guilt has gone so far as to provide an avenue for people to develop guilt complexes. They feel guilt for what they have done and also guilt for what they have not done. They even feel guilt for what others have done. People who struggle with a guilt complex can even be overcome with embarrassment and feelings of guilt from the actions of others.
The flip side of guilt is innocence, righteousness, and exercising rights. As I mentioned, “I’m OK, you’re OK” is an important philosophy in western culture. In order not to point a finger at people, western society continues to expand the limits of what is acceptable activity. By making homosexuality acceptable, they help thousands of people avoid feeling guilty. This alone is enough to convince many people in western society that it’s OK for people to be homosexual. In fact, almost anything is tolerated as long as it doesn’t hurt another person.
I have been surprised to discover that many people in our western world believe that our fixation with right and wrong is not only normal, but also the only correct way to think. They assume that anyone, who does not think in these terms, does not think rationally or logically.
In order to understand guilt-based culture, we must go back to Greek and Roman times, and examine the origin of this pattern of thinking, and discover how this has had an impact on society and religion.
The Roman Connection
The Roman Empire has come and gone, leaving us with a few ruined cities, and a wealth of stories about conquest and heroism. While most of what the Romans accomplished has disappeared, there is one facet of Roman life that has impacted the west, right down to the present. It is the Roman law, or the ‘pax romana’ (Roman peace) which was brought about by everyone obeying the Roman law.
Roman law introduced the concept that the law was above everyone, even the lawmakers. This idea was not totally new. The Jews under Moses understood this. Greek politicians developed a similar plan with their city-state, but with laws that were man made, not divine. The Romans, however, perfected the system, and put it into widespread use. They developed a type of democracy known as the republic. They put in place a complex legal system that required lawmakers, lawyers, and judges. This Roman system of law left a tremendous impact on western society. Even to this day, much of the western legal system is still built around the basic Roman code of law.
Western civilization today is littered with references to the Roman Empire. Much of their coins, architecture, and language have Roman roots. Legal and economic theories are so filled with Romanisms that westerners no longer see them for what they are. They have become so much a part of their mental furniture, that few people today question them. As an example, Roman law during the Roman Empire assumed that the individual’s rights were granted by the state (by government) and that lawmakers can make up laws. Under Roman law, the state was supreme, and rights were granted or erased whenever lawmakers decided. This philosophy is sometimes called ‘statism.’ Its basic premise is that there is no law higher than the government’s law.
Roman politicians were not the first to invent statism but they did such an effective job of applying it, that the Roman Empire has become the guiding star for politicians in the west. Statists see the “pax romana,” the period in which Rome dominated the Mediterranean world, as the golden days of statism. The known world was “unified” and controlled by one large government. This unification was symbolized in Roman times by something known as the fasces. This was a bundle of wooden rods bound together by red-colored bands. In ancient Rome the fasces was fixed to a wooden pole, with an ax at the top or side. This symbolized the unification of the people under a single government. The ax suggested what would happen to anyone who didn’t obey the government. The Roman fasces became the origin of the word fascism.
During Roman times, pax romana (the Roman peace) meant, “do as you are told, don’t make waves, or you will be hauled away in chains.” Roman Law was supreme. In contrast to this, there was the old way of obeying the supreme ruler. Under this system, the word of the ruler was law. With the Republic, the Romans elevated law, so that it was above the ruler. Now everyone, even the emperor of Rome had to obey the law. The law, not the ruler determined if people were innocent or guilty.
It is interesting to note, that as the early Christian church developed and grew, Roman law also had an impact on Christian theology. Since Roman law interpreted everything in the terms of right versus wrong, early Christians were deeply influenced by this thinking.
Early Church Theologians
Tertullian, the early church father who first developed a code of systematic theology, was a lawyer steeped in Roman law. Using his understanding of law, and the need for justice, guilt, and redemption, he laid the basis for Christian systematic theology, as it would develop in the west.
Tertullian was born shortly before 160 AD, into the home of a Roman centurion on duty in Carthage. He was trained in both Greek and Latin, and was very much at home in the classics. He became a proficient Roman lawyer and taught public speaking and practiced law in Rome, where he was converted to Christianity. In the years that followed he became the outstanding apologist of the Western church and the first known author of Christian systematic theology.
Basil the Great was born in 329 AD, and after completing his education in Athens he went on to practice law and teach rhetoric. In 370 AD, Basil, the lawyer, became Basil the Bishop when he was elected bishop of Caesarea. During his time as Bishop he wrote many books in defense of the deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. Basil’s training in law and rhetoric gave him the tools he needed to speak out in defense of the church.
Next came Augustine who was born in 354 AD into the home of a Roman official in the North African town of Tagaste. He received his early education in the local school, where he learned Latin to the accompaniment of many beatings. He hated studying the Greek language so much that he never learned to use it proficiently. He was sent to school in nearby Madaura and from there went to Carthage to study rhetoric, a technique used in Roman law for debate. He then taught legal rhetoric in his hometown and Carthage until he went to Milan in 384 AD. He was converted in 386 and became a priest in 391. He returned to Africa and became a prolific writer and bishop. No other Christian after Paul has had such a wide and deep impact on the Christian world through his writings as Augustine.
Ambrose was born around 340 AD, in Gaul. When his father, the prefect of Gaul, died, the family moved to Rome where Ambrose was educated for the legal profession. Later, he was appointed civil governor over a large territory, being headquartered in Milan. Upon the death of the bishop of Milan in 374, the people unanimously wanted him to take that position. Believing this to be the call of God, he gave up his high political position, distributed his money to the poor, and became a bishop. In 374, Ambrose demonstrated his ability in the fields of church administration, preaching, and theology. But as always, his training in Roman law enforced his views of guilt and righteousness.
Have you noticed the impact that law and lawyers had on the development of the early church? This trend did not stop with the early church.
John Calvin was born in 1505 in northeastern France where his father was a respected citizen. He studied Humanistic Studies at the University of Paris, and then law at the University of Orleans, and finally at the University of Bourges. Sometime between 1532 and 1533 he converted and adopted the ideas of the reformation. The writings of John Calvin, the lawyer and theologian, have had a tremendous impact on our society.
Calvin was not alone. Arnauld Antoine the French theologian (1612-1694), studied at Calvi and Lisieux, first law, then theology. He was made a priest and doctor in 1634. Arnauld spoke out against the Jesuits and his writings added to the impact of the reformation.
There are more examples of theologians who were also lawyers, such as Martin Luther, but this list will suffice to point out that legal thought and expression had much to do with the development of the theology of the Early Church and the Reformation. Each of these church leaders continued to develop the relationship between Christianity, as it was known in the west, and the legal understanding of guilt, justice, and righteousness. These lawyers were concerned with establishing guilt, or innocence, and they brought this emphasis with them, into their theology. And so the western church that developed used this theology to build their civilizations.
In the ensuing years, new nations in the New World would be founded on the theological basis developed by these church leaders. The United States of America was founded on these principles. The American founders attempted to establish a nation built on the Roman principle of a republic, and on the early church’s understanding of right and wrong.
Today, it is interesting to notice that there are many non-western sources who link guilt-based culture with Christianity. In October 1999, Isaiah Kalinowski, the Opinion Editor for the Jordan Times, wrote an article entitled “The Shame Culture that is Wabash.” In this article he pointed out: “… guilt culture is due largely to Christianity. A shame culture is one in which individuals are kept from transgressing the social order by fear of public disgrace. On the other hand, in a guilt culture, one’s own moral attitudes and fear of retribution in the distant future are what enforce the ethical behavior of a member of that society.”
From Kalinowski’s perspective, guilt-based culture is linked to Christian theology. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation, as the Bible was written in a shame-based setting and speaks to all cultures and worldviews. On the other hand, Christians, must recognize the incredible impact that guilt-based culture has had on their history and understanding and interpretation of the Bible.
The Eastern Scene
Christianity in the east, however, developed differently. Eastern theologians did not use Roman law as a vehicle for interpreting the gospel. Rather, the eastern world was caught up in the shame-honor relationship that was prevalent in societies scattered from the Middle East to the Far East. Eastern Orthodox theology didn’t deal directly with sin, guilt, and redemption.
Chrysostom, the early church theologian for the Eastern Church, was born about 345 AD into a wealthy aristocratic family in Antioch. He was a student of the sophist Libanius who had been a friend of the Emperor Julian. This man gave him a good training in the Greek classics and rhetoric that laid the foundation for his excellent speaking ability. After his baptism in 368, he became a monk in the eastern churches. Chrysostom rose to being an outstanding preacher, even winning the acclaim of the emperor. Today we have a record of around 680 of Chrystostom’s sermons and homilies and I am told that he never once preached on justification. In the end, he was banished because he spoke out so sharply against the views of the western theologians.
In the same way, Islam, which rose to prominence around 600 AD, teaches that God remains over all, and that law is in his hands, not the hands of lawmakers.
The Qur’an enforces the principle that God is overall with the story about Pharaoh and how he was shown Allah’s “mightiest miracle, but he denied it and rebelled.' The Pharaoh quickly went away and summoning all his men, made to them a proclamation. ‘I am your supreme Lord.' The Qur’an then tells us that Allah “Smote him,” and goes on to warn, “Surely in this there is a lesson for the God fearing.”
Therefore it would be unthinkable to a Muslim, that a lawmaker could make a law that is over all. This is why Islam presents both a religious and a cultural pattern for people to live by. God dictates both moral laws and civil laws.
Roman law and thinking has also impacted the way we westerner look at history. The danger comes, when we westerners take our Roman understanding of civilization and culture and apply it to those who do not have a Roman-based culture. We fruitlessly spend untold hours and incalculable amounts of energy explaining to what motivates people and shapes society, when in truth, we don’t understand the real principles of the other culture.
The answer to this dilemma is quite simple. We westerners must put our Roman, guilt-based understanding of culture and history aside, and strive to understand other worldviews and their thinking. Then we need to return to our history books and discover what is happening in a society that is not pre-occupied with right and wrong, or guilt and innocence.
As we drew near to the jungle village, the sound of drums could be heard. Drawing closer, we could see people dancing and withering on the ground. A man approached us and explained that they could not go further. The village was doing a sacred rite to improve the economy and bring more trade to the area. We were escorted away and not given a chance to introduce why we had come to their village. Later we heard that a human sacrifice had been offered to the spirits that day.
In another situation we arrived in a village when a rain-making ceremony was about to begin. They were invited to watch. A black bull was led to the edge of the village where it faced the direction from where the rain would come. The animal’s throat was cut and it fell over on its left side, to the delight of all. This indicated that the sacrifice was acceptable. The men then cut up the meat and cooked it. As the meat was cooking, an old man began to shout out a prayer to the spirits for rain. Soon everyone joined in. After the meat was eaten, the shouting turned into dancing. The villagers danced all afternoon until the rain came. It rained so heavily that everyone had to run for shelter. Did the rituals bring the rain? To the natives it was obvious and there was no way that we rational westerners convince them otherwise.
As these two stories illustrate, there are many people in the world today whose lives revolve around their interaction with the spiritual world. They believe that gods and spirits exist in the universe and they must live in peace with these unseen powers, either by living quietly, or by appeasing these powers.
Based on their worldview, these cultures and peoples view the universe as a place filled with gods, demons, spirits, ghosts, and ancestors. Man needs to live at peace with the powers around him, and often man lives in fear. This fear is based on a number of different things. First, man fears man. Tribal wars are endemic, with captives becoming slaves or, sometimes, a meal for cannibals. Whenever tribes encounter people from outside of their own group, they approached them with suspicion and fear.
Secondly, these people fear the supernatural. All around them events are taking place that can only be explained by the supernatural. Much like the ancient civilizations, they have developed spiritual explanations for how things work in this world. If crops fail, then specific gods or demons are responsible. If sickness comes, then other gods or demons are responsible. If a tribe fails in battle, it is because of the activity of a god or demon. Sickness is often viewed as a god reaping revenge. Everything in life, even romance, is somehow attributed to the activities of gods or demons.
The struggle that these people face is simply one of needing power. Using their voodoo, charms, and other methods, they seek to gain control over other people and over the controlling powers of the universe. The paradigm that these people live in is one of fear versus power.
At the end of the 19th century, E. B. Tylor attempted to understand the difference in thinking between Europeans and other peoples living in Africa and South America. In his writings he coined the word ‘animism’ from the Latin word anima for ‘soul.’ He saw the animistic worldview as interpreting everything from a spiritual philosophy rather than a materialistic philosophy. Many sociologists of Tylor’s era saw mankind moving from an ancient worldview based on the supernatural to a modern worldview based on science and reality.
Dave Burnett states in his book Unearthly Powers, that H. W. Turner later advocated the use of the term primal religion, meaning that “these religions both anteceded the great historic religions and continue to reveal many of the basic or primary features of religion.” Almost everywhere you find animists or primal religions you find people living under the influence of a fear-based culture.
Burnett goes on to state, “Power can be understood in many ways: physical, political, economic, social, and religious. The secular worldview tends to regard all power as originating from within the material world. … In contrast, primal worldviews see such powers not only as being real within the empirical world but as having their primary origin outside the visible world.”
In this way, those whose lives operate in the fear/power paradigm see themselves living in a physical world that co-exists and is influenced by unseen powers. These powers may be present in people or animals or even in inanimate objects like trees or hills. In some cultures, powers may be perceived in personal terms such as we would use for living beings. These powers are often regarded as having their own particular character, feeling, and ability to relate to others, and often, even have a will of their own. Like people, they may be angered, placated, or turned to in time of need.
Power is an important concept in fear-based cultures. In the Pacific Islands it is often called ‘mana,’ while the Iroquois of North America call it ‘orenda,’ which particularly refers to the mystic power derived from a chant. The Eskimos have the notion of ‘sila,’ a force watching and controlling everything. The Chinese have the concept of ‘fung shui,’ or the powers within the earth and sea. In folk Islam the term ‘baraka’ (blessing or holiness) sometimes embraces many of these concepts.
In most fear/power cultures, the main way of dealing with a power is to establish rules to protect the unwary from harm and procedures to appease those powers that are offended. These rules and procedures are generally referred to as taboo. Taboos come in the form of things like special people, forbidden or unclean foods, sacred objects, special acts or rituals, and special names. Appeasements are usually made in the form of sacrifice or dedication to the invisible powers.
These powers can take various forms, such as: ghosts, demons, ancestors who live around people, spirits in trees and rocks, and totems (clans associated with certain animals or inanimate objects.)
In order to deal with these powers, rituals are established which people believe will affect the powers around them. Rituals are performed on certain calendar dates, and at certain times in someone’s life (rites of passage), or in a time of crisis.
In order to appease the powers of the universe, systems of appeasement are worked out. They vary from place to place. Some civilizations offer incense while some offer their children as sacrifices to gods. However it is done, a system of appeasement, based on fear is the norm for their worldview.
Wherever this system of appeasement comes into being, religious persons come to the forefront to control these systems. In some cases they are known as priests. In other cases they are known as witch doctors, or shamans. Whatever their title, their role is the same. They are the ones who hold power. Often they are the only ones who understand the needs of the gods or demons, and they are the ones through whom the demons or gods communicate.
In every fear-based culture, the pattern is much the same. The witch doctor, priest, or shaman controls people through the use of fear. They are very effective in their roles, and as a result, whole cultures and people groups are held in their iron grip.
As archeologists and historians have dug through the sands of time, they have uncovered temples and signs of religious activity that reflect strong fear-based elements in early civilizations. Along with this, the structure of civilizations where rulers held absolute power reflects a fear-power base for their civilization. Kings, pharaohs, and rulers held supreme authority and wielded power through the fear that they instilled in the members of their civilization. This allowed civilizations like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and others to conquer wide areas of their world. While we can deduce the fear-power aspect in these civilizations from ancient buildings and military records, it is much harder to detect the importance of shame and honor.
Our taxi screeched to a halt. Lying in the middle of the street was a teen-age girl, dying. She had been shot in the head four times. Just then her brother walked across the street with two policemen and stated, “There she is. I killed her because she was in an immoral situation with a man.” Under the laws of the country, the young man was innocent. He had not committed murder but had preserved the honor of his family.
In another case, a girl ran away from home. Later her family learned she had married someone from another religion. They were furious. The police imprisoned the girl so that she would be protected from her family. Elderly grandmothers taunted the brother and father. “How long do we need to keep our heads to the ground in shame? Won’t you do something to cleanse the shame from our tribe so we can raise our heads and live in honor once again?” The family finally agreed to pay the police a $50,000.00 guarantee that they would not hurt her and she was released into their custody. Within hours her father and brother shot her thirteen times. The entire family was pleased that honor had been restored.
The guilt/innocence perspective in which westerners live dictates much of our thinking in the west. However, not everyone in the world operates within this paradigm. As I mentioned earlier, while living in the Middle East I noticed that when the lifeguard at a swimming pool blew his whistle, the westerners all stopped to see who was guilty, but the Arabs kept right on swimming.
As I observed this and other phenomena, I began to realize that Arabs and Arab society were operating in another whole dimension. Guilt did not have the same power and influence as it did in the west. While they were aware of guilt, it didn’t have the same strong connotations for them as it had for me.
If a policeman pulled me over, I immediately felt guilty, thinking that perhaps I had done something wrong. But when my Arab friends were pulled over, they didn’t display any sign of guilt. They talked boldly to the policeman, and even argued loudly with him over the issues at hand.
It was only after many years of living in a Muslim culture that it started to dawn on me that the Arabs around me were not operating on a level of guilt versus innocence. Nor were they operating in a fear versus power paradigm. I had heard much about this from missionaries living in Africa but it didn’t seem to apply to the Arabs of the Levant. Rather, I discovered that Arabs were living in a worldview where the predominant paradigm was shame versus honor.
Once I clued in to this, I began to explore this concept and tried to verify it on all social levels. I was amazed to discover what I found. When I would visit my friends, I would try to act correctly and they would try to act honorably, not shamefully. I was busy trying to learn the rights and wrongs of their culture, but somehow my framework of right versus wrong didn’t fit what was actually happening. The secret wasn’t to act rightly or wrongly in their culture. It wasn’t that there was a right way and a wrong way of doing things. The underlying principle was that there was an honorable and dishonorable way of doing things.
Every part of the Muslim culture I lived in was based on honor and shame. When I visited my friends I could honor them in the way I acted. They could honor me, in the way they acted. Three cups of coffee bestowed honor on me. The first, called ‘salam’ (peace) was followed by ‘sadaqa’ (friendship), and the third cup of coffee was called ‘issayf’ (the sword). The meaning was clear in their culture. When I arrived I was offered a cup of coffee that represented peace between us. As we drank and talked, the cup of friendship was offered. The last cup, the sword, illustrated their willingness to protect me and stand by me. It didn’t matter if I was right or wrong, they were bound by their honor to protect me.
Everywhere I moved in the Middle Eastern culture there were things that pointed to honor or shame. What chair I chose to sit in, who entered the door first, the way I expressed myself in Arabic, the very way I walked and held myself, all communicated to others around me ‘my place’ in the world. The cultures of the Middle East are filled with thousands of tiny nuances that communicate messages about shame and honor.
Shame is a popular topic today in western society. Shame, however is closely identified with a lack of self-esteem. Shame often stems from some form of abuse where children fail to learn trust.
This is quite different from the shame societies of the east where shame and fear of shame are used as controlling forces in people’s lives. (As compared with right and wrong being used as a controlling factor.)
As western parents, we teach our children to act rightly. If they don’t, we teach them that feelings of guilt are the proper response. In a shame-based culture however, children are taught to act honorably, and if they don’t, feelings of shame are the proper response. But it goes farther than just feelings. Shame and honor are positions in society, just as being right (and justified) is a position in our western culture.
In the west, young people are free to act as spontaneously as they want, as long as they are within the framework of right and wrong. They can be loud, boisterous, and happy, as long as they don’t break things, or abuse others. Our rule in the west is “As long as I don’t hurt someone else or their property, I’m generally ok.”
Young people in a Muslim setting are different. Wherever they go, they represent their families and tribes. Young people are not free to act as they want. They must always act honorably, so that the honor of their family and tribe is upheld.
If they act shamefully, then the family or tribe will react against them. Shameful deeds are covered up. If they can’t be covered up, they are revenged. It is the unwritten rule of the desert. The whole concept of shameful deeds can be traced back to the early Bedouin code of practice, which existed even before Islam arrived. This code, still much in existence today, affects not only the way individuals act, but also the actions of entire nations.
As I have visited with people from other eastern countries, I have continued to explore the concept of honor and shame among these other countries. It has helped me understand and communicate with people from places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Japan, and Korea.
In fact, I have discovered that the concept of shame and honor makes a great discussion topic. I have often asked people from shame-based cultures what are honorable or shameful acts or actions in their cultures. The discussion that follows is often highly stimulating, and usually reflects or contrasts similar attitudes right across the shame- based countries of the world.
In some cases however, there are distinct differences between cultures. As I mentioned earlier, if someone is badly shamed in an Arab culture and the shame cannot be hidden, then it is revenged, and the person responsible for the shaming is killed. In many eastern cultures, if a shame cannot be hidden, the way out is suicide. Even here, however, there are many similarities, as I have known of a number of students in Jordan committing suicide because of their poor school marks, just as happens in Japan.
In order for shame-based cultures to work, shame and honor are usually attached to something greater than the individual. Honor is almost always placed on a group. This can be the immediate family, the extended tribe, or in some cases, as large as an entire nation; as was demonstrated in Japan just previous to World War Two.
In most Middle Eastern cultures, honor is wrapped up with one’s tribe. Everyone grows up within a tribal concept. If someone is from the Beni Hassan tribe, he thinks and acts, and dresses as a Beni Hassan. His actions reflect on the honor the Beni Hassan tribe. If he acts honorably, the Beni Hassan tribe is honored. If he acts shamefully, the whole tribe is shamed. If the act is vile enough, the Beni Hassan tribe will react, and execute the offender, even though he is a member of their own tribe, and perhaps even their immediate family. Thus the honor of the tribe is restored.
Many years ago an Arab soldier’s gun accidentally discharged and killed his friend and companion in the army. After serving seven years, he was released on condition that he leave Jordan. He lived for nearly twenty years in the United States, but decided to return one day to see his family. When it was learned that he had returned, several young people, some of whom had not been born at the time of the killing, surrounded the house where he was and riddled his body with bullets. Their honor was restored, and shame removed.
If someone shames another tribe, tribal warfare could result, and often only the skilful intervention of a third party ends the strife. Arab lore is full of stories of how wise and skillful men have intervened in difficult situations. In fact, many national rulers gain their fame and reputation from their skills at ending tribal strife.
In the Middle East two methods are recognized. First, a skillful ruler, through diplomatic efforts and displays of great wisdom, can end disputes. Solomon’s dealings with the two mothers who claimed the same baby displayed the kind of wisdom that Arabs appreciate and desire in their rulers. The second kind of ruler crushes all of the tribes and by force makes them submit to himself. Peace may then rule, but once the controlling power is removed, old animosities return. This is well illustrated in the Balkans conflict where the domination of communism brought about a measure of peace. Once freedom returned however, old conflicts and animosities flared again.
The storytellers who frequent the coffeehouses of the Middle East excel in telling stories of both kinds of rulers and heroes, especially heroes who can effectively deal with shame and restore honor. This is very different from the entertainment styles of the west, where the hero determines who is guilty, and punishes him, and right and goodness reign again. This is because in our worldview, we try to hang onto the concept that in the midst of a crooked and perverse world, right still reigns and has the upper hand. Those from a shame-based culture, on the other hand, cling to the idea of maintaining honor, in the midst of a shameful and alienated world.
For many western people it is very hard if not impossible to try and comprehend a culture that is based on shame, not right versus wrong. In most western cultures, telling the truth is right and telling lies is wrong. In the Middle East, people don’t think of lies as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ The question is, “Is what is being said, honorable?” If a lie protects the honor of a tribe or nation, then it is fine. If a lie is told for purely selfish reasons, then it is shameful.
Thus, in the west we debate ethics, by trying to determine if things are right or wrong. In the east, they debate ethics, by trying to determine if things are honorable or not.
Shame in Western Culture
In the past, shame has played a role in western culture. One has only to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or any of Shakespeare’s works to see the role that shame used to play. Shakespeare uses the word shame nine times as often as he does guilt. In time, however, our culture has changed and guilt has become much more important. Then, during the last twenty years, we have begun to move away from such a strong guilt-bases for our culture.
Why is this? I suspect that the popularity of Freud’s teachings is one reason. Sociologists generally credit Freudian psychology for the removal of guilt from western culture. Since his teachings have become popular in many universities, the concept of guilt has become unpopular and guilt has been assigned to others, such as our parents. Other factors, like the lack of responsibility within modern politics have influence young people today. Nixon and Watergate, and Clinton and Lewinsky have illustrated to people today that ‘right versus wrong’ is not the only way to think.
During the period of 1960 to 2000 western civilization has begun a slow but steady shift away from the ‘right versus wrong’ paradigm. Today young people are very reluctant to label anything as right or wrong. Instead, things are assigned the label as “cool” or “not cool.” In the eyes of many high school students, being cool is equivalent to being honorable. Being not cool is the equivalent of shame. I believe that this slow shift in worldview is responsible for many of the differences between boosters, boomers, busters, and Generation X’rs.
Shaming in History
Early Roman culture started out in the fear/power paradigm. Events of nature and history were interpreted within this paradigm. The worship of a pantheon of gods carried on during their whole civilization until Christianity became the state religion. When the Romans adopted the Greek pattern of placing the law above the emperor, they began to interpret events in their society on the guilt/innocence paradigm. This soon came to the forefront of their civilization, and fear/power was pushed to the back.
When the Romans conquered shame-based civilizations the people they conquered had a profound impact on their own culture. Shame was always present in Roman culture, but it slowly came more and more to the forefront and eventually into Mediterranean culture today.
In republican Rome, criminals had the doors to their houses burned as a public sign that a criminal was living there. Those who had been wronged could legally follow the criminal around, chanting and accusing him in public places.
The concept of public shaming carried on into the Middle Ages, and even into Victorian England where criminals were put into stocks. These stocks were located in public places, so that the criminal would be known and shamed before all. Pillories were rife during the Victorian age, when those who were pilloried had to endure the shame of publicly having rotten vegetables thrown at them. Branding criminals was practiced in England until the eighteenth century. Brands were often placed on the hands or face, so that the criminals would be publicly shamed wherever they went.
The major difference between east and west, however, is not the presence of the shame concept, but rather, the structure of society around either the group mentality or individualism. Eastern shame became much more powerful than western shaming activities, simply because in the east the shame rests on the person’s group rather than the individual. Since many eastern society functions in a group setting, the whole group suffers rather than just the individual. If the crime is bad enough, the group itself may oust or, for a severe offense, kill the offender.
In 1999 at least twenty-five women were killed to maintain the honor of their families in the country of Jordan. Hundreds of others were killed in countries like Egypt, Sudan, Syria, and Iran.
In many countries where shame-based culture is predominant, the names of criminals and those being ousted from their families for shameful activities are publicly printed in the newspapers. In western countries we tend to isolate criminals from their surroundings, and then determine if they are guilty. Criminals are then locked away out of sight, rather than publicly shamed in stocks in the public square.
It’s interesting to notice that in the Crow Indian culture in North America, mocking of some one else’s inappropriate behavior effects shaming. This is sometimes called “buying-of-the-ways.” If you imitate someone else’s inappropriate behavior, you are buying his ways. In some cases a person actually offers money to buy someone else’s inappropriate behavior. This is the ultimate shame.
In many shame-based cultures, rather than encourage others, people criticize and question others. This is seen as positive, as it keeps them from becoming too proud.
In the same way, Arabs are often quick to criticize leaders, especially elected ones, if they perceive that they are too ambitious or proud. They are sometimes publicly questioned or shamed, and often they leave public life. Even new language students discover that their neighbors are quick to point out that someone else speaks better than they do, or they are asked why they speak so poorly after being there for “a whole four months!” The criticism is often meant to keep them from being proud of how well they have done. Arabs understand that the criticism may be a compliment, but the poor westerner is often crushed.
Clash of World Views
As I mentioned earlier, there are three basic planes on which worldview, function. On each of these planes, there is a basic tension between two extremes. The three planes are:
Guilt <——-> Innocence
Shame <——-> Honor
Fear <——-> Power
It is possible to find all three dynamics in most cultures, but usually one or two are more dominant. Some cultures, however, operate almost entirely within one major paradigm. Secondly, cultures and worldviews are constantly shifting. The shift may be slow or fast depending on the events of history.
As an example, at the founding of the Roman Empire, the citizens of Rome operated almost entirely in a fear/power worldview, worshiping a pantheon of gods. As their civilization developed, they introduced the idea of law being higher than the emperor. In this one step they began to introduce the concept of guilt and innocence. As their civilization developed they moved almost completely away from the fear/power worldview. However, as their empire expanded they slowly introduced into it shades of the shame/honor worldview. One only has to watch the Godfather movies to see how guilt/innocence and shame/honor are the two planes that many Italians moved in during that era. Today, however, southern European culture has almost entirely lost its guilt/innocence perspective on life. Almost anything is acceptable today.
The Freudian question of why you have so much guilt? is not the question society is asking today. Today people are asking, “Who am I?” People are seeking to discover who they are, and want to find an identity. Several things consume us:
· Who am I and how can I express myself?
· How can I enjoy myself?
· Am I fully exercising my rights?
· What are my options in life and am I able to choose?
Dr. James Houston of Regent College in Vancouver, Canada thinks that in our postmodern North American culture, guilt is being replaced by shame. As I mentioned earlier, the concept of something being ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’ seems to have many similarities to shame and honor-based thinking.
We must be careful here, not to try and make cultures and worldviews fit into one of the three categories: guilt, shame or fear. All cultures are made up of a mixture of all three, and individual families and even individuals in the west identify with different worldviews.
As an example, in one family you may have an individual who is a conservative Christian with strong traditional roots. This person may relate much of life to guilt/innocence thinking. A teenager in the same family may not quite see everything as so black and white and may be reluctant to accept things as being right or wrong. Rather, he or she wants to be seen as cool and desires to act and dress as cool. To be anything less would be humiliating. At the same time, a third member of the family may be into the occult, psychics and horoscopes. He or she may see life as being influenced by the stars and occultic powers. Thus, in one family, you may have people who seem to be holding three completely different worldviews.
When digging deeper, however, you may find that these people do not hold strictly to one or the other of these mega-trends, but that they have adopted some of each of them into their lives.
This can be illustrated by looking at North American native cultures. Most of these cultures are made up of a mixture of shame/honor and fear/power worldviews. One North American native I spoke to recently seemed to be torn between seeking revenge for someone who had shamed him, and wanting to pray for him in the Indian sweat lodge.
The sweat lodge and the shaman religious leaders give us clues to the fear/power worldview of the Indians. The tradition of honoring or shaming people through honor songs at tribal powwows can help us see the importance of honor and shame in their society. As I have read about Indian culture and history and as I have interacted with missionaries working among North American Indians, I have been amazed at how clearly these cultural traits are part of everyday life.
Likewise, Hinduism and Shintoism are mixtures of shame/honor and fear/power paradigms. Even Russian culture is a mixture, one part being the shame/honor worldview of the east and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the fear/power worldview of communism.
In many cases, when guilt/innocence cultures have contacted shame/honor cultures they have clashed. As an example, the white man in North America could not understand and appreciate the North American native perspective on life. In the end, many Indians chose to die rather than face the shame of living on a reservation.
In North America in 1889, a young Paiute prophet known as Wovoka gave a message from his home in the Nevada desert. His disciples sent it to all the Indians across western America. The message from their prophet simply urged the Indians to “Dance everywhere. Keep on dancing. You must not … do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always.” Soon village after village of Sioux began to perform his “Ghost Dance” with its promise of a return to old ways in a world from which whites would have been erased by a flood.
The dancing appalled and frightened whites, and they wired to Washington for protection. Army troops fanned out to round up the Ghost dancers and to settle them on reservations. Among the last to be caught was a group of about 350 Sioux under Big Foot. They were led to a military camp at Wounded Knee Creek where they set up camp under a flag of truce. An incident triggered gunfire. When the firing ended, more than 150 Indians, men, women, and children lay dead. Others fled or crawled off wounded. Chief Red Cloud said of the incident, “We had begged for life, and the white men thought we wanted theirs.”
Guilt-based cultural values said that Indians must live on reservations. Fear-based cultural values said that the Ghost Dance would change the situation. Sadly, it ended with a massacre.
It is said that the Nez Perce Indians could boast that since Lewis and Clark first encountered their friendliness in Oregon country, no Nez Perce had ever killed a white man. Even when treaties were broken and settlers crowded into their lands they avoided retaliation. In 1877 they were given thirty days to move to a strange reservation in Idaho. Hoping to escape, they began an epic flight to Canada. They were caught 40 miles from the border.
In this case, shame-based cultural values clashed with guilt-based values. Being cooped up on the reservation was a terrible shame and the ultimate humiliation for Indian chiefs. Leaving the reservation was breaking the law.
In 1878 a band of northern Cheyenne left the reservation to return to their old lands “where their children could live.” Overtaken by soldiers, a chief said “We do not want to fight you, but we will not go back.” Clearly the shame of living on the reservation was too much for them. As they had broken the law by leaving, and now refused to return, the troops opened fire. Some Indians escaped and continued their journey. They met up with soldiers at Fort Robinson where they faced an ultimatum. “Go south or go hungry.” Court records tell us what happened next. “In the midst of the dreadful winter, with the thermometer 40 degrees below zero, the Indians, including the women and children were kept for five days and nights without food or fuel, and for three days without water. At the end of that time they broke out of the barracks.” Troops hunted them down. They chose death over returning to the shame and humiliation of reservation life. Today many natives still feel the sting of shame. Many have turned to the numbing effects of alcohol, and others have immersed themselves in their native religions as they seek answers to their problem of self-esteem.
Western civilizations have now turned their attention to more global issues. Global travel and trade have forced us into a position of trying to understand people from different cultures.
When researching the material for this book, I became aware of the large number of books in print in the western world that deal with the Muslim or Arab mind. These books exist not only in the religious sector but also in the political and business sectors. Westerners, for whatever reason, struggle when they encounter Arabs and other Muslims. Western businessmen struggle to know how to do business in the Muslim world. Western politicians are often confused and unprepared for the actions and reactions of Muslim leaders. Political misunderstandings and blunders have created hardships and even wars. Even Christian missionaries have not fared any better in their efforts to communicate the Christian message.
Throughout the history of Christian outreach to the Muslim peoples of the world, Christians have faced tremendous struggles in knowing how to clearly communicate the gospel message. Most of the church’s efforts at communication have been received like water off a duck’s back. The message is proclaimed, and the hearers are completely indifferent, sometimes resistant, and occasionally reacting with hostility.
Over the years, countless misunderstandings have developed between Christians and Muslims. Muslims often view Christians as immoral idolaters and blasphemers holding to old documents of untrustworthy heritage. Many Christians are suspicious of Muslims, viewing them as dangerous, and unpredictable. Some go as far as thinking that all Muslims are violent and oppressive.
The secular world has not fared any better. Political tensions and issues create misunderstandings on both sides. Many Muslims view western countries as expansionist and threatening. Many western nations view Muslims as terrorists, and their governments as oppressive. The average western person reacts very negatively to leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Oil-rich Arabs are viewed as a threat to the economic stability of the west. Desperately poor and oppressed Arabs, such as the Palestinians are looked upon as terrorists. On a political level, Muslim nations and western nations have fared no better than Muslim and Christian clerics in understanding one another.
And so over the years, there has been a desire on the part of many westerners to try to understand the Arab Muslim mind. This is why there are many books and articles currently in print on the topic of the Arab mind.
Everyone realizes the importance of this topic. A St. Louis Post dispatch revealed some of the US military thinking when it stated “Pentagon Threat-Assessment Officer Major Ralph Peters believes intelligence officers must set aside their preoccupation with numbers and weaponry. Instead, he says, they must start reading books that explain human behavior and regional history.”
The religious world has reacted much the same way. Theologians from all backgrounds are now crying out for a greater effort at understanding each other’s view points, and for a renewed effort in accepting one another’s views.
The problem of understanding one another is not easy. When we meet another person whose system of beliefs is different, we tend to interpret that system according to our own framework of understanding. It can take months and even years of living in another culture to begin to understand that culture. But not everyone reaches a point of understanding. Many westerners living in an Arab culture simply define the culture around them according to their own understanding and perspectives. They assume that the other person thinks in a similar pattern as they do. They then try to understand the culture from their own framework, based on how their own culture works. Years ago, I started out this way, but soon realized that I could not fit everything into neat packages. There was something about Arab society that I did not understand.
My wife and I entered the Arab culture when I was a twenty two year old student. At that point I had read most of the books in print about Arab culture and thought patterns. My move into Arab culture was not so much a conscious decision to understand them, as it was a conscious decision to become part of their culture. I initially concentrated on language learning and cultural adaptation. I began by living among the Arabs in the Levant. After two years, I moved to the edge of the Empty Quarter, and then, one year later, back to the Levant. Several years later, we moved to what was then the Yemen Arab Republic. A few years later we returned to the Levant, and made our home in a large urban Middle Eastern City. Then in 2000 we moved into a small village on the edge of the desert and lived among the nomadic Bedouin. We lived between the ancient city of Petra and Wadi Rumm. All in all we have spent nearly twenty years immersed in Arab culture.
I say this, not to brag of any accomplishments, but rather to point out that our personal experience with the Arab world is based on a wide variety of exposures over a long period of time. Along with our personal experience, we have cultivated friendships with foreigners and nationals living in a host of other Muslim countries, stretching from North Africa to Indonesia. During the last four years I have also lectured in many countries of the world on the topic of shame-based cultures, and have interacted with people from across Asia, as well as with First Nation people in North America.
During our years in the Middle East, I was involved in various types of employment, and I mixed with all levels of society. I have visited the marble palaces of oil-rich Arab sheiks. I have sat in the tents of the poorest Bedouin Arabs. I worked for a number of years as a liaison officer for a western organization, interacting with all levels of government in the Yemen Arab Republic. In the Levant, I worked with charities reaching out to the poor and handicapped. As a rule, we have always made our home in lower middle income neighborhoods.
And in all cases, we have tried to understand and communicate our beliefs to those around us so that they could better understand us, our religion and the society we came from.
One of my initial personal goals was to discover how the Arab mind worked. And so, with my western training ingrained in my thinking, I started asking, “What is going on now?” That seemed to be my favorite question, and for many years I was curious to know what was going on in my neighborhood, in my city and in my nation. I even wanted to know what was going on in my neighbor’s head.
During all of these years, I began to notice patterns emerging. The oil-rich Arabs of the gulf, the mountain people of Yemen, the Bedouin of the desert, and the city dwellers of the Levant all held similar codes of conduct. While each region had its peculiarities, there was an overall pattern of similarity between the cultures.
These patterns, however, were not always clearly noticeable. Often there were many confusing and seemingly contradictory events. It was hard to work out what was happening, but in time, I moved on from trying to understand what was happening, to trying to understand why what was happening was happening. I refused to believe that people acted and reacted unpredictably. In fact, the longer I lived in the Arab world, the more I recognized the predictability of the Arabs. During the Gulf war years, I was in the west, and I enjoyed being able to predict certain events in the war, days and sometimes weeks before they happened. However, I found the Gulf war tremendously stressful. Watching western news, I could understand the actions and re-actions of the western nations. Having lived in the Middle East, I could understand the actions and re-actions of the Arab nations. On one side was western understanding, and on the other was Muslim understanding, and in the middle was the yawning chasm of misunderstanding. And countless millions of people paid the price with their lives, their wounds, and tremendous economic loss.
It was during this time that I began to realize how far apart western and Muslim thinking patterns really were. The west saw events and interpreted them one way. The Arabs saw events and interpreted them another way. It wasn’t that one was right and the other was wrong. Thinking in terms of right versus wrong is a western thought pattern. During the Gulf war, western governments poured their resources into proving to their people that they were on the side of right, and that Saddam Hussein was on the side of wrong. Numerous instances were relayed to the western public to prove the wrongness of the Iraqis’ leaders. The people of the west watched their TV’s and interpreted the news according to rightness and wrongness, with the majority supporting their government’s actions.
In the Middle East, the situation was less clear. Many Arab nations initially supported Saddam Hussein, and only in the face of tremendous western pressure did they start to withdraw their support. Almost all of my Arab friends told me that Saddam Hussein acted predictably and strove manfully to protect his honor and the honor of his nation. Not one of them ever discussed the rightness or the wrongness of the war.
And so, it was during the Gulf war, and in the period since then, that I seriously started to study the Arab Muslim mind, and what it was that made this mindset so different from my own. As I wrestled with Muslim thought patterns, I began to question my own culture. How did we develop our own thought patterns? Were they right? Is my own culture ‘balanced’ in its view of life on planet earth? During the course of history, what forces have molded my own culture? I spent many hours studying history in order to understand how events in history molded our western thinking and also Muslim thinking.
Having said this, I also realize that Islam is changing, and that western cultures around the world are putting pressure on Islamic culture to change. Islam in the west is struggling to find bridges between western cultural norms and the Muslim mindset. In my interaction with Muslim clerics in Britain and North America I have been amazed at their reinterpretation of certain verses in the Qur’an. These Muslim clerics have arrived at these new interpretations because new interpretations are necessary if Islam is to have any real impact on western guilt-based society.
In the next two sections of this paper we will look at shame and honor in Arab Muslim culture. In doing this, I will not deal with the typical parts of Muslim culture that are often addressed. I will not dwell on “how much coffee goes into the coffee cup” nor “how many times it should be served.” We will not look at body language, rules of etiquette, nor the unspoken rules of the desert. These are all part of culture, and vary from setting to setting. In these chapters, however, I want to go deeper and look at the basic fundamental mindset of Muslims. I want to examine the issues that are most important to the Muslim mind, and upon which cultural rules are built.
Islam and Shame
“Arab society is a shame-based society,” says Dr. Sania Hamady, an Arab scholar and one of the greatest authorities on Arab psychology. “There are three fundamentals of Arab society,” she goes on to state, “shame, honor and revenge.”
A few years ago, Arabs were loath to talk about their culture. Most Arab people had never interacted with outsiders to the degree that they would start to examine their own and the others’ cultures. But that has changed and today you will find Arab psychologists and Arabic media speaking out about their own culture. There are a number of issues that they raise as being important to them.
Arabs have always lived in groups and they tend to do everything from a group mindset. The larger extended family makes up one’s group, and the gathering of all of one’s relatives makes up the tribe.
In the cultures I have moved in, Arabs have defined their relationships with others in terms of near and far. Those who are related to you by blood are near, and those from other tribes are far. People can be brought into a near relationship through marriage, or adoption. If a foreigner is adopted as a ‘son of the tribe’ a great honor has been placed upon him.
Arabs usually demand a high degree of conformity from those who are near to them. This conformity brings honor and social prestige and a secure place in society. The individual who conforms to the group has the advantage that all those members of his group are bound to help his interests and they will defend him unquestioningly against ‘outsiders.’
From top to bottom Arab society is permeated by a system of rival relationships. This is because in the Arab value system, great value and prestige are placed on the ability to dominate others. In the constant struggle to dominate and to resist domination, the rivals of a given group quickly seize on any ‘shame’ to destroy the other group’s influence. Isolating a target, and thereby destroying it, often achieved this, as an individual could not survive in the desert outside of the group setting. If one tribe attacks the honor of another tribe, the entire tribe will respond, in order to protect their place of honor.
Arabs fear isolation because an individual or small group can only function effectively when he or it is identified with a group or a large body that can offer protection. This fear of isolation can be attributed to the fear that the Bedouins had of being isolated and left as individuals or small groups to fend for themselves in the harsh, hostile desert environment. The isolated persons could easily be taken as a slave by other tribes and could spend the rest of their life in a low and mean position. By sticking together, individuals could offer each other protection. Thus family units and relationships became paramount in knowing whom you could trust, and who would stand by you if an outside force attacked you. Proverbs 14:28 shows similar thinking in ancient times when it states: “A large population is a king’s glory, but without subjects a prince is ruined."
There are many types of shame in an Arab society. For the Arab, failure to conform is damning and leads to a place of shame in the community. This is often hard for Westerners to understand. We in the west value our individualism, but Arabs value conformity. The very meaning of Islam is to conform to the point of submission. The very object of public prayers and universal fasting is to force conformity on all. There is an Arab proverb that can be translated as “Innovation is the root of all evil.” If one fails to conform, he is initially criticized, and if he refuses to conform is put in a place of shame by the community.
Shame can also be brought on by an act. Raping one’s sister is considered by all as a shameful act. However, few things are considered right or wrong. Right and wrong in Islam are defined by the Qur’an. Something may be right or wrong, because the Qur’an says so. But the Qur’an doesn’t provide a nice list of rights and wrongs. So Muslims often talk about society. Society dictates what is acceptable and unacceptable. If you act against society, you may be acting shamefully, but not necessarily wrongfully in God’s eyes. After all, the Qur’an tells them that God created good and evil.
Muslim men use this rationalization when living in what they consider an immoral western nation. They can partake in drinking alcohol and sexual escapades, because the society they are living in doesn’t define this as shameful. Something may be shameful at home, but when in different circumstances, the Arab may react differently. There is a proverb that states, “Where you are not known do what ever you like."
Beyond this, shame is not only an act against the accepted system of values, but it can also include the discovery, by outsiders, that the act has been committed. Dr. Hamady puts it this way: “He who has done a shameful deed must conceal it, for revealing one disgrace is to commit another disgrace.” There is an Arab proverb that says, “A concealed shame is two thirds forgiven.”
A Syrian scholar, Kazem Daghestani, tells of an Arab husband who caught his wife in bed with another man. He drew a gun and pointed it at the couple while addressing the man. ‘I could kill you with one shot but I will let you go if you swear to keep secret the relationship you have had with my wife. If you ever talk about it I will kill you.’ The man took that oath and left and the husband divorced his wife without divulging the cause. He was not concerned about the loss of his wife or her punishment but about his reputation. Public shaming and not the nature of the deed itself or the individual’s feelings had determined his action.
The story is told of a sheik who was asleep under the palm tree when a very poor Arab saw him and stole his expensive cloak. In the morning the sheik was angry and his followers hunted down the thief and brought him to trial. When asked for an explanation, the accused said, “Yes, I did steal this cloak. I saw a man asleep under a tree, so I had sexual relations with him while he slept and then I took the cloak.” The sheik immediately replied “That is not my cloak," and the thief went free.
The possibility of failure in some way also fills Arabs with dread, as failure leads to shame. So often an Arab will shrink from accepting challenges or responsibilities. However, when away from his family this can change drastically. A meek Lebanese businessman at home can become a shrewd risk taker in the middle of Africa.
When there is failure, often outside forces are blamed. Anger, resentment, and violence are focused on outside elements in order to shift the blame to them. In the case of other Orientals with similar shame/honor type cultures, failure is often focused on the individual, and, for example, a Japanese businessman may take his life when faced with tremendous shame. In an Arab situation, the Arabs will assign blame to someone else and react violently towards him.
As a result, it is very easy to unintentionally offend an Arab. The Arabs have a very detailed code of conduct, and breaking that code can result in offense. This can be as simple as pouring too much coffee, or making your visit too short.
Shame can also result when an Arab is not treated as a special case. He expects any rule to be bent to suit his convenience. He expects to be the favorite, and his friends have to constantly assure him that he counts more than others.
For example, when interviewing a number of businessmen, each interview should be conducted exactly the same length of time. Once a man accused an interviewer of spending five more minutes with the previous man. The interviewer got out of the situation by explaining that the extra time was necessary because the previous man could not express himself as eloquently and therefore took longer.
There are lots of little things in Arab culture that matter greatly. Everything in the culture has meaning and an action as simple as stretching the left hand towards a person’s face, as a westerner might do in casual gesticulation, could be tantamount to telling many Arabs that he has the evil eye and that your hand was used defensively against it.
It is important to realize that shame is not attached to all of the actions that we would call wrong. While raping one’s sister is a very shameful act, things like lying can be either shameful or honorable, depending on the circumstances.
Al Ghazali, the medieval Muslim theologian stated: “Know that a lie is not wrong in itself, but only because of the evil conclusions to which it leads the hearer, making him believe something that is not really the case. Ignorance sometimes is an advantage, and if a lie causes this kind of ignorance it may be allowed. It is sometimes a duty to lie… if lying and truth both lead to a good result, you must tell the truth, for a lie is forbidden in this case. If a lie is the only way to reach a good result, it is allowable. A lie is lawful when it is the only path to duty… We must lie when truth leads to unpleasant results, but tell the truth when it leads to good results.”
The rule for telling the truth, or not, is bound by honor and shame. If shame can be avoided, or honor obtained; then lying is more honorable, and therefore the thing to do.
Arabic Words for Shame
The most common Arabic world for shame is ‘ayb'. It is used repeatedly in child raising and usually means “Shame on you,” or “That is shameful!” In most cases it is not applied to very young children, because it implies a degree of prior knowledge and instruction that should have been followed. Older children who have disobeyed or have behaved disrespectfully are usually given a lecture which begins and ends with ‘ayb”
The instruction about shame is not restricted to just relatives. Almost anyone can instruct children, telling them that what they are doing is shameful, and usually the children will respond positively, not negatively. The power of the negative use of shame enforced positive reactions in people’s lives. Children learn very early on that their personal behavior represents a part of the whole of family honor. Once this sense of honor is acquired, it remains with the person throughout life.
When adults relate together, shame also plays a role. Foul language is undignified and shameful. Losing your temper and shouting insults are shameful. Failing to come to the aid of a family member, or neighbor when one is able and worthy, is shameful. Failing to support family members for whom one is responsible is shameful. Gossip that could or does cause harm is shameful. Anything that adversely and unfairly affects the dignity of another person is considered shameful.
Sometimes when greeting an Arab and asking ‘How are you?’ one gets the answer ‘mastur al-hal’ or “the condition is covered." This means, everything is all right, and my family and I are not being shamed. All shame is covered.
There is also an Arab word ‘hishma’ which means shame or timidity and reserve, often because the person is in a lesser situation. This would strip the Arab of spontaneity and liberty of action while in the presence of someone with greater honor.
Shaming someone with language
There are many ways that Arabs shame and abuse one another with language.
A common form of abuse among women quarrelling over reputations is “qahba ya bint l’haram (you slut, you daughter of sin)".
A man may be called a qawwad, a man who combs the streets looking for johns to bring to a prostitute. This term is perhaps the lowest form of abuse, from one man to another.
More commonly Arabs may angrily say to one another: May God make your face ugly, or May God make your face black. The inferred meaning is: May God bring shame upon you.”
Calling someone a dog is a great shame, especially calling him a dog in public, since dogs eat scraps and leftovers and not the prime meat that is reserved for the honorable.
Sometimes other family members are also included in the taunt, saying that someone’s mother or other family members were illegitimate.
When Shame happens
In Arab culture, shame must be avoided at all cost. If it strikes, it must be hidden. If it is exposed, then it must be avenged. At all costs, honor must be restored.
The fear of shame among Arabs is so powerful because the identification between the individual and the group is far closer than in the west. Because Arabs think in a group mindset, the importance of the group weighs heavier than the importance of an individual. If an individual is in a position of shame, he then looses his influence and power and through him his entire group will similarly suffer, perhaps to the point of destruction.
Revenge Shame can be eliminated by revenge. This is sanctioned by the Qur’an (sura Xl,173). “Believers, retaliation is decreed for you in bloodshed.”
It may also be eliminated through payment by fellow kinsmen in the group, or by the public treasury. In the case of a killing, the price of the blood must be settled between whatever groups are involved.
This need for revenge is as strong today as it ever was. In Egypt in 1972, out of 1,120 cases of murder, it was found that 25 percent of the murders were based on the urge to ‘wipe out shame.’ 30 percent on a desire to satisfy ‘wrongs’ and another 30 percent on blood-revenge.
In the small country of Jordan, honor killings (killings to preserve honor) have come to public attention. The Jordanian penal code in the 1950’s stated: “He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one or both of them is exempt from any penalty.” Some years later a penalty of one year imprisonment was instituted as many murders were being classified as honor killings.
In January 2000 the Jordanian government rejected a bill that would increase the punishment for someone who commits murder because of protecting the honor of the family from one year to life imprisonment. So, in the opening months of 2000, members of the royal family in Jordan joined a demonstration of young Arabs protesting the laws and attitudes about honor killings. Growing numbers of Jordanian young people are educated in the west and western thinking and culture is beginning to clash with traditional eastern thinking and culture.
In traditional Arab culture, peace is a secondary value, when compared to the degree of feelings that shame and revenge invoke. This has led to the Western impression that peace in the Arab context is merely the temporary absence of conflict.
In Arab tribal society, where Arab values originated, strife was the normal state of affairs because raiding was one of the two main supports of the economy. In the past, the ideal of permanent peace in Islam was restricted to the community of Islam and to those non-Muslims who accepted the position of protected persons and paid tribute to Islam. On the other hand, Islam instituted jihad (holy war) as the accepted relationship with non-Muslim states, and made no provision for peace with them as sovereign states. Only a truce was permissible, and that was not to last for more than ten years.
This form of thinking then influences all aspects of life. As it has commonly been stated: “There is honor within Islam, shame without.”
Islam and Honor*“Honor is understood in a complex way as the absence of shame, for honor and shame are bound to one another as complementary, yet contradictory ideas*.” Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Islamic Values and Social Practice 1994
The other side of shame is honor, and every Arab desires and strives to be and become more honorable. The relationship between shame and honor has long been recognized by sociologists of Arab and Muslim cultures and also attributed to the generalized Mediterranean social complex.
In many cases the absence of shame conveys the idea of honor. Many times I have heard Arabs describe their families as being honorable, because they don’t do or act as others might. Conforming to social mores is utmost to maintaining one’s honor.
Arab storytellers tell the story of a father who is working in the hot sun with two of his sons. When he needed a drink of water, he asked the older of the boys to get him some. ‘No, I will not,’ the elder son replied. The father then asked his younger son who said ‘Yes, certainly father.’ but he did not get the water. At this point the storyteller always asks his audience, “Which is the better son?” To give the wrong answer would be shaming but the storyteller knows that his listeners will give the correct answer. The younger son is the better of the two because he had saved his father’s face by not defying him.
In the west we would point out that both boys were wrong. This seems irrelevant to the Arab who does not think in terms of right and wrong, but in terms of shame and honor. To say no to your father’s face would be to dishonor him. To agree with him, while in front of him, is to honor him. When Jesus told a similar story in Matthew 21:28-32, he added that the first son, who refused later, went and did what he first refused. In this way, he restored honor by obeying his father. Jesus used this illustration to show that repentance covers shame, a concept that has been adopted by western Christianity.
If there are shameful acts in the Arab culture, then what are the honorable ones? In most Muslim cultures, hospitality is one of the most important ways of showing honor. Hospitality honors the guest and covers up any shame the host may have. When you visit an Arab home, great effort is made to be hospitable. Rather than shame you, Arabs try very hard to honor you with hospitality. Everything is done to honor the guest and to present an honorable image of the Arab family.
The reverse is also true. If you don’t want someone to visit you, simply talk to him or her outside your door, where everyone will see that they are not invited inside. They will immediately feel shamed and will not return to your home.
If hospitality is first, then flattery must be second in the Arab ways of honoring someone. Arabs are often quick to flatter people they suspect as being honorable. It is a way of pouring extra honor onto a person while demonstrating to others around that they are honoring that person.
Third on my list is gift giving. If you admire something in an Arab home, they will be quick to insist that you have it as a gift. Even if you do not admire something, they will offer you gifts, demonstrating their willingness to honor someone else with a gift.
As the above three demonstrate, a visit to an Arab home is full of expressions of honor. Where you sit in the room, how you are fed, what you are fed, the hospitality shown, the flattery expressed and the gifts that are offered all express various levels of honor. Moreover, the reverse is true. If someone visits your home, you are obliged to be warm and hospitable. It is even expected that you will be overly hospitable almost demanding in your insistence that your guests eat, drink and accept your gifts. You must insist that people eat your food. Small friendly fights break out over the food, and the guests must demonstrate their willingness to accept the hospitality that is shown.
There are many other ways in which honor is calculated in an Arab society:
Honor is attached to your family and your history As long ago as 1377, Ibn Khaldun wrote: “One feels shame when one’s relatives are treated unjustly or attacked, and one wishes to intervene between them and whatever peril or destruction threatens them.” Also, “The affection everybody has for his allies results from the feeling of shame that comes to a person when one of his neighbors, relatives or a blood relation in any degree is humiliated.”
An Arab proverb states: “Learn as much of your pedigrees as is necessary to establish your ties of kindred.” Another adds: “Many a trick is worth more than a tribe."
This is the reason that Arabs strive so hard to maintain the honor of the tribe. It is the duty of the eldest son of each family to maintain the honor of the family. If someone greatly offends the tribe, he will be the one to oust them, or, in the case of irreparable damage, execute them.
No where is the honorable status of family and tribe more evident than in the differences between religious beliefs. During the Yemeni War (1962-1965), two Egyptians, a Coptic Christian and a Muslim, both members of well known and upper class families, had been lifelong friends. They were wounded in the same action, the Muslim in the arm and the Copt in the leg. Disabled, they lay awaiting treatment and removal from the battlefield. A half-empty truck arrived and picked up the Muslim, but left the Christian despite his desperate pleas for help. The truck crew had orders to collect the Muslim wounded before the Christian wounded. One word from the wounded Muslim friend could have saved the Copt. It was never uttered, and the Coptic Christian died on the field, probably slaughtered by Yemeni tribesmen.
Education bestows honor. If a man gains a doctorate degree, he receives a great deal of honor in an Arab society. It is for this reason that Arabs strive to gain high educational standing. Many poor families sacrifice almost everything and work very hard to help an elder son make it through higher education. The elder son will work hard to honor the family. In the end, his achievements will raise the entire status of the family, and ultimately of the tribe.
A young man has little status in his family until he is married. Suddenly he gains status. Once his first son is born, his status rises even farther. An Arab proverb states “A man’s wife is his honor.” While this sounds like a compliment, the opposite is true. If a man’s honor is injured through his wife’s misbehavior, swift judgement will come upon her.
Honor in the Arabic language
Language is always changing. That is why the language that a people speaks often reflects the values of the culture.
Albert Hourani, one of the greatest modern Arab scholars living in the West, has said that his people are more conscious of their language than any people in the world. This consciousness is obsessive. Language is everything to the Arab. It is a divine expression. It separates those who are near and far. It separates the educated from the uneducated. It is an art form, and for centuries was the sole medium of artistic expression. Every tribe had its poets, and their unwritten words ‘flew across the desert faster than arrows', and, in the midst of outward strife and disintegration, they provided a unifying principle. Poetry gave life and currency to the idea of Arabian virtue. Based on tribal community of blood and insisting that only ties of blood were sacred, poetry became an invisible bond between diverse clans, and formed the basis of a larger sentiment. It was poetry, the ultimate Arab art form, which bound Arabs together as a people, rather than a collection of warring tribes.
When a poet appeared in an Arab family, neighboring tribes gathered together to wish the family joy. There would be feasts, and music. Men and boys would congratulate one another, for a poet was a defense to the honor of them all, a weapon to ward off insult from their good name, and a means of perpetuating their glorious deeds and of establishing their fame forever.
It is interesting to note that traditionally Arabs only wish one another joy, on three occasions: The birth of a boy, the coming to light of a poet, and the foaling of a noble mare.
The Arabic language is so powerful, that Arabs will listen intently to someone speaking well, whether he speaks the truth or not. “I lift my voice to utter lies absurd, for when I speak the truth, my hushed tones scarce are heard.” Abu ‘lAla, Syrian poet 973-1057
Anyone wanting to understand Arab history and culture must be a student of Arab poetry. Arab poetry is full of vainglory. The poets glorified themselves, their brilliant feats, their courage and resolution and their contempt of death. The Arab hero is defiant and boastful and when there is little to lose, he will ride off unashamed, but he will fight to the death for his women.
An example of the ideal Arab hero, is Shanfara of Azd. He was an outlaw, swift runner, and excellent poet. As a child, Shanfara was captured by the Bani Salman tribe and brought up among them. He did not learn of his origin until he was grown up. He then vowed vengeance against his captors and returned to his own tribe. He swore that he would slay a hundred men of the Beni Salman and he had slain ninety-eight when he was caught in an enemy ambush. In the struggle, one of his hands was hewn off by a sword stroke, but taking the weapon in the other, he flung it in the face of the Salman tribesman and killed him, making his score ninety-nine. He was then overpowered and slain. As his skull lay bleaching on the ground, a man of his enemies passed by and kicked it. A splinter of bone entered his foot, the wound festered and he died, thus completing Shanfara’s hundred.
Arabic words for Honor
Honor is a value that is applied to both individuals and families or tribes. “Sharaf” is a quality that all desire. “Sharif” is a man’s name, meaning honor. “Shariifa” is a woman’s name, meaning honorable.
When guests arrive at your door, you can respond, “Itsharafna” (You honor us), and the response of the guest is “Itsharaft nehna” “We are honored.”
Sharaf goes much deeper than good manners. Honor embodies the pride and dignity that a family possesses due to its longstanding good reputation in the community for producing upright men and women who behave themselves well, marry well, raise proper children, and above all, adhere to the principles and practice of their religion. An honorable family produces sons who are shariifs, and daughters who are ashraaf.
The Arabic word ‘ird deals with reputation; what other people think. This reputation is more important than fact. If a man from one group approaches a woman, and is rebuffed, but later brags about it, perhaps even adding lies, the woman’s group will be forced to punish her and thus themselves. The offence against ‘ird becomes very serious when public notice is taken. This is why Arab women fear being alone with a man. If there are no witnesses, the man can say anything about their time together, and the woman will bear the consequences.
Arabs can have different values when it comes to ‘ird. For example, one’s reputation regarding the women of his tribe may outweigh his honor as a fighter. Often ‘ird is used in the plural sense. Shirridna bi’irdna, a common proverb among the men means “We came away with our honor intact.”
It is also interesting to note that the Arabic word for ask and tell is exactly the same word. I don’t ask, I tell you to loan me something, because it would be unthinkable for you to refuse me, as this would be a shame. In much the same way, if someone has it in their power to help someone else, (especially if they are related) they must. Not to do so would be a shame to the whole tribe. Even if a person disagrees, the claim of the tribe is greater than his own opinions.
What makes a person honorable? I have asked this question to many Arabs. If they are confused, then I clarify the question by asking, what makes a person honorable enough to be a sheik? What would you look for in a person, before you would vote for him to be your sheik? The answers are interesting.
Arabs have a tremendous respect for wealth. Down through history, most honorable Arab leaders have been wealthy ones. Even Mohammed, the founder of Islam, rose to a position of great wealth. The use of this wealth, to help the poor and the masses, is seen as very honorable, and is often portrayed in Arabic literature and stories. Wealth allows the leader to be hospitable and generous, two elements that are extremely useful in obliterating shame and restoring honor. A wealthy leader can throw money around, gaining respect, and covering a multitude of sins.
Arabs are keenly aware of their heritage. Some can trace their heritage back to Mohammed. Others back to great leaders. Every tribe has stories of how individuals in their tribe achieved great honor or displayed honorable characteristics. Shameful figures in the tribal background are expelled or killed in order to preserve the tribe’s honorable heritage.
Arabs respect age and wisdom. Elders are listened to with respect. The language elders use is often more formal and elevated than young people are capable of. Elders are looked to for their wisdom, as they know all the old stories and can often give wise and good counsel. Elders often have more money, and may have demonstrated their wisdom in acquiring riches, or maintaining the tribal lands and tribal honor.
Certain individuals have charisma. They are good looking, have a confidence about them, and carry themselves with honor. Often they have accomplished something of note and have been able to capitalize on it. Many times they are good at communication and at politically finding honorable solutions to problems.
Arab lore is full of heroes who display tremendous physical strength. Most Arab boys are brought up to think highly of being manly and strong. Physical strength, as well as charisma and financial strength are a winning combination in Arab culture.
Many Arabs look to leaders who have formed strong alliances. Since strength and riches are often found in a group setting, someone with strong alliances can rely on the combined strengths of many groups. Many political leaders in the Arab world use their alliances with tribes and families to put them into political power.
Every Arab boy knows stories of Arab heroes who faced overwhelming odds. Whether he overcame or not is not the issue. The act of bravery, in itself, is very honorable. If one sits in an Arab coffeehouse and listens to the storytellers, or if you visit your neighbors and ask, you will hear stories of brave Arab heroes.
All Arabs belong to a group or tribe. Loyalty to the family tribe is considered paramount to maintaining honor. One does not question the correctness of the elders or tribes in front of outsiders. It is paramount that the tribe sticks together in order to survive. Once again, Arab history and folklore are full of stories of heroes who were loyal to the end.
Dr. Sania Hamady, one of the greatest authorities on Arab psychology, herself an Arab, says: “life is a fearful test, for modern Arab society is ruthless, stern and pitiless… It honors strength and has no compassion for weakness."
In Arab countries between 1948 and 1973, a mere quarter of a century, no fewer than eighty revolts occurred, most of them bloody and violent. No wonder the west has a negative view of Arabs and Islam.
Violence, in Arab history, has been part of demonstrating one’s honor, and in removing shame from the tribe. “With the sword will I wash my shame away. Let God’s doom bring on me what it may!” Abu Tammam, a ninth-century poet in Hamasa.
Our own History
Before we criticize Middle Eastern culture for their views on honor and shame, we must admit that our own history, only a few short hundred years ago, was rife with honor and shame. The ‘high’ French and German culture of the 18th and 19th century gave rise to dueling, which carried over to the gun fighters of the American west. In Europe, a culture of honor survived for many years among the military and military families. These events are often forgotten, as we tend to view history through the filter of our own experience.
Honor in an Arab society is understood, in a complex way, as the absence of shame. Honor and shame are diametrically opposed factors, and the fundamental issue that defines society. In most shame/honor-based societies, people accept that everyone has to deal with a measure of shame. The question is, “how is shame dealt with?” Few families or tribes can escape the birth of a handicapped child. The question then arises, what should be done with this child? Should the child be hidden away? Should it be killed? Should it be neglected, so that it eventually goes away? Is it more humane to quietly give it to an institution?
In some shame/honor-based cultures, Christian societies have reached out to handicapped children in crisis, attempting to rescue them from families that are reeling from the shame of having birthed such a child. Sometimes handicaps are not so easily noticed. The child grows, and becomes a part of the family fabric. Then disaster falls, when it becomes increasingly obvious that the child is deaf, or has some other handicap that was not immediately noticeable. The discovery of such handicaps can crush whole families, as they lose their place of honor in the community.
A Look at World History
Over the last three thousand years of history, great historical periods have come and gone. In the years before Christ, the world was torn apart by competing armies. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and others vied for power. Vast armies moved back and forth over the known world with first one and then another civilization becoming dominant. Despite their linguistic and cultural differences, most of these civilizations held a similar worldview. Gods and demons controlled their universe, and man lived in fear of these powers, and he did what he could to appease them. The first chapters of civilization on earth were in the hands of those who lived in fear-based cultures.
At the time of Christ, the guilt-based cultures had started to rise to power, and they strove to take over the known world. First Greek and then Roman armies marched across the world, seeking to subject everyone to their worldview. While their civilizations still had many fear-based qualities, their new emphasis on the law helped them develop the first great civilizations based on using guilt as a controlling factor. The millenium following the birth of Christ belonged to these guilt-based cultures. These civilizations were known as the Greek, Roman and Byzantine Empires.
In the last days of the year 999, civilization was following a clear course. The future of world politics lay with Islam. It was an unstoppable force that would eventually control much of the known world, including whatever parts of Europe they chose to occupy.
The Muslims had energy, confidence, and imagination. Their society was now far superior to that in Europe. Bernard Lewis, the renowned historian of Islam, has written that the Muslims of those days “(they) neither feared nor respected the barbarous individuals of northern and western Europe, whome they saw as uncouth primitives.” Islam, at this stage was probably the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan civilization in the world.
So how did it happen, that Christian Europe and the colonies it established in America, eventually dominated the world? What started out as Islam’s millennium became Europe’s in the end. Islam grew until 1669, when the Ottoman Empire, after a long war, took Crete from the Venetian. That turned out to be Islam’s last acquisition. Fourteen years later it became obvious that history was reversing itself. In 1683, the Ottomans, after trying to conquer Vienna for 60 days, withdrew in disarray. The fighting that followed destroyed much of their army and crippled the military wing of Islam.
A Polish man named Kulyeziski had been instrumental in defending the city, and for his efforts he was rewarded all the coffee the Turkish army left behind. Gifted in the ability to capitalize on opportunity, he opened a cafe in Vienna, and commissioned a baker to create a unique new pastry to accompany the coffee and celebrated the great victory over Islam. The baker produced a crescent shaped pastry that the Viennese could eat to celebrate their devouring of the Muslims. It was called the croissant.
From the Muslim perspective, however, Europe soon ceased to be an invasion target and became an alien force whose armies and cultures began to trespass on Arab lands. A key year in European history was 1492. The date is well known as the year when Columbus arrived in the Americas. In January of that year, however, Granada, the last Islamic city in Spain, surrendered to Christian armies. Before the year was over, Columbus had arrived in America and Europe started their great expansion westward across the Atlantic.
Islam now turned its attention to the shame-based cultures of the east, spreading as far as Indonesia and Malaysia, and deep into China. In the south, they began moving against the fear-based African cultures, spreading deep into Africa.
And so history has moved from the early civilizations that were fear-based (BC), to the rapid expansion of the guilt-based cultures (100 BC - 999 AD). During the millenium from 999 AD till 1999, shame-based cultures seem to have had the first opportunity, and then the ball was passed to the guilt-based cultures of America and Northern Europe. And now, historians from the guilt-based cultures of the world are trying to unravel the mysteries of ancient cultures. However, if they do not have a clear understanding of how those cultures worked, they can misinterpret the events and objects that they uncover.
Against this background, we want to consider the Nabataean culture. This paper will address some of the initial observations that can be made. Other papers on Nabataea.net will address specific cultural and religious issues.
The Nabataeans were descendants of Abraham through the line of Ishmael. Ishmael was known as the “son of rejection” since Abraham rejected him and chose instead the line through Isaac, (which became the Jewish nation.) In many ways, Muslims today still feel the sting of this rejection, although many millennia have passed since that event.
Today, as two thousand years ago, the cultural worldview of all of the tribes of Ishmael was primarily shame/honor based, with a small mix of fear/power. This acute awareness of their past combined with their situation up until 85 BC would have left them with a sense of being the under-dogs, which seems to have been the opinion of the civilizations around them.
From Nabataean history we can deduce that the Nabataeans elected a ruling sheik rather than living under king or tyrant. While Roman historians called this leader a king it is obvious that he always ruled by popular opinion, and was elected rather than the son of the previous ruler. This use of consensus rather than dominion points way from a fear/power paradigm.
In a shame-honor paradigm, the group is more important than the individual. The group dictates the concept of shame and honor, and each individual in the group can affect the honor or shame of the entire group.
It is obvious that Roman and Greek historians had some trouble with understanding this concept. They referred to the Nabataean ruler as a tyrant or king, although this term was not used until after 85 BC when the Nabataeans started to try and impress the west. The western historians were interested in the fact that Nabataean rulers could be examined by their own people. This is still a common practice among Arab sheiks today.
Since the Nabataeans were part of the eastern shame/honor paradigm, this must be read into their history if one is to understand their culture.
There were elements of Nabataean culture that would have made them a shameful in the eyes of those around them. They were seen as merchants, pirates, pimps, nomads, and camel drivers. Once they obtained control of the city of Damascus in 85 BC they went about making changes so that they could impress others with the level of their civilization.
Some of the changes that they made to their civilization included:
· using Greek names
· minting coins
· adopt the name ‘king’ for their ruler
· move from riding camels to riding horses
· allow the rise of powerful merchant families which based themselves out of Roman cities
· raised the status of women to equals with men
· made great profits and publicly displayed their wealth
· built a great city (Petra) as a show piece of their civilization
· build a second great city (Bosra) as a show piece of their western civilization
· joined the Roman Empire, when allowed to enter as a noble people who could operate as powerful merchant families within the Roman structure.
In the end, after Roman annexation, the Nabataeans that were left in Nabataea struggled for honor. By 900 AD, under Moslem occupation they had slipped back to a place of shame.
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