Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Honour and Shame

Honour is understood in a complex way as the absence of shame, for honour 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 honour, and every Arab desires and strives to be and become more honourable. The relationship between shame and honour has long been recognized by sociologists of Arab and Muslim cultures and also attributed to the generalized Mediterranean social complex.


Greater Mediterranean ethos of honor and honor killings

Mostly we in the West know about the issue of furious husbands killing their wives for sleeping around. In many Mediterranean and Mediterranean-influenced societies (e.g. Latin America), such a "crime of honour" was not even typically punished by the courts in the past. The reason the husband behaves this way is not just, as many Americans imagine, insane jealousy. It is because he believes his honour has been irretrievably damaged.

The whole system of clans, clan honour, and the investment of male honour in the protection of the chastity of females is the norm in much of the world (it operates to some extent in parts of Africa, in South Asia and in Central Asia, as well).


Naguib Mahfouz

The politics of honour and the body of the woman has been inscribed on nationalist politics in the Middle East for decades. Colonialism and foreign conquest has been spoken of as a kind of rape. Having foreign troops in one's country fooling around with its women is seen as symbolic of the humiliation of imperial subjection. This theme is central to the novel Midaq Alley, by Nobel prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz .

In the novel, a young Egyptian man kills his girlfriend for consorting with Western troops in Cairo during World War II. The incident is a symbol of Egyptian resentment at having been recolonized by Churchill during the war.


Fear, shame and guilt

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.


Guilt or Shame?

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.


West East

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.

A shame culture is one in which individuals are kept from transgressing the social order by fear of public disgrace.

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;


Fear and Power

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.


Conflict resolution in shame culture

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.


3 Paradigms

Guilt <-------> Innocence

Shame <-------> Honour

Fear <-------> Power


What are the shifting dynamics of the Mediterranean Region?

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.


Shame in an Arab society

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 and Discovery

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.

"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."


The Mediterranean

At the Cross-roads of different interpretations of what Society is about

Complex interpretations of East/West, North/South Reality-pictures

A story

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.

Al Ghazali said

"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."


How to eradicate a shame

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.


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.

Honour Murder

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 Jordan, 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 honour killings.

In January 2000 the Jordanian government rejected a bill that would increase the punishment for someone who commits murder because of protecting the honour of the family from one year to life imprisonment.

"Which is the better son?"

A father 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.


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 honour. To say no to your father's face would be to dishonour him. To agree with him, while in front of him, is to honour him.


Honour by offering hospitality

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



Flattery is second in the Arab ways of honouring someone. Arabs are often quick to flatter people they suspect as being honourable. It is a way of pouring extra honour onto a person while demonstrating to others around that they are honouring that person.


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 honour someone else with a gift.



"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 neighbours, relatives or a blood relation in any degree is humiliated." Ibn Khaldun

An Arab proverb states: "Learn as much of your pedigrees as is necessary to establish your ties of kindred."



Education bestows honour. If a man gains a doctorate degree, he receives a great deal of honour 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 honour the family. In the end, his achievements will raise the entire status of the family, and ultimately of the tribe.


Poetry and Language

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. Poetry, the ultimate Arab art formbound Arabs together as a people, rather than a collection of warring tribes.

When a poet appeared in an Arab family, neighbouring tribes gathered together to wish the family joy.



"Sharaf" is a quality that all desire. "Sharif" is a man's name, meaning honour. "Shariifa" is a woman's name, meaning honourable.

When guests arrive at your door, you can respond, "Itsharafna" (You honour us), and the response of the guest is "Itsharaft nehna" "We are honored."

Sharaf goes much deeper than good manners. Honour 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 honourable family produces sons who are shariifs, and daughters who are ashraaf.


Asking and Telling

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.


Arabs have a tremendous respect for wealth. Down through history, most honourable 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 honourable, 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 honour. 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 honour.

Alliance and Network

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.


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.

Strength and Violence

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 honours 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. Violence, in Arab history, has been part of demonstrating one's honour, 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.



Further reading

  • Bourdieu, Pierre, The Sentiment of Honor in Kabyle Society, in Honor and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) pp. 192-241

  • Campbell, J. K. Honor, Family and Patronage (New York, Oxford University Press, 1964)

  • Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, Islamic Society in Practice (Gainsville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1994)

  • Gellner, Ernest, Muslim Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)

  • Gilmore, David, Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (Washington D.C: Special Publication no. 22 American Anthropological Association, 1987)

  • Goodwin, Jan, Price of Honor; Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994)

  • Hamady, Dr. Sania, Temperament and Character of the Arabs (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960)

  • Hourani, Albert, History of the Arabs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991)

  • Zeid, Ahmend Abou, Honor and Shame among the Bedouins of Egypt, Honor and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966

  • Peristiany J. G.

  • Kinship and Modernization in Mediterranean Society, edited by J. G. Peristiany.

  • Honour and shame: the values of Mediterranean societies (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

  • Mediterranean Family Structures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

  • Honour and Shame in a Cypriot Highland Village, Honor and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966)

  • Peristiany, J. G. and Julian Pitt-Rivers (eds.)1992 Honor and grace in anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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