Are Islamic Cultures Really Shame-Based? Part 1


SHARAAZ KHAN

Source of image: http://www.islamicmedicines.com

Modern Psychology has divided cultures into two categories—shame-based and guilt-based. According to the theory, shame-based cultures (primarily tribal) are considered inferior to guilt-based (primarily Western Judeo-Christian cultures). The reasoning behind this theory is that shame-based cultures employ shame to effect behavior which in turn leads to a wounded self-worth, rather than guilt—a liberating emotion. Accordingly, guilt-based cultures carry around a global feeling that “I have done something bad” versus “I am bad” in shame-based cultures. Modern psychology places Islamic cultures, under the banner of shame-based.

With this is perspective, some have implied that because Islamic culture is “shame-based”, its collective wounded psyche needs a scape-goat to project blame on and thus Israel and the West have become just that—scape-goats for a wounded Islamic psyche.  As a product of this wounded psyche, heinous acts of terrorism, exploitation of women and children, and other demeaning and harmful behavior becomes “normal” for Islamic societies. Since the world has done away with slavery and dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects under the protection of the Muslims) the natural outcome of this culture is therefore to turn to the current “weaker” elements of society.

Quoting a recent article on guilt vs. shame cultures, a particular “Dr. Sanity” in her blog reinforces the “superiority” of guilt cultures and contrasts it with Islamic cultures:

“The guilt culture is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights. As we noted earlier, the emotion of guilt is what keeps a person from behavior that goes against his/her own code of conduct as well as the culture’s. Excessive guilt can, of course, also be pathological. I am solely referring to a psychologically healthy appreciation of guilt.” The author further says, “In contrast, a typical shame culture (e.g., Japan as discussed by Benedict; or the present focus of this discussion: Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. As noted by Gutman in his writings, the desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has the side-effect of giving the individual carte blanche to engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved.”

What Gutman is referring to in the excerpt is something called “ghayrah” in Arabic and “ghayrat” in Urdu. It refers to that trait which is linked with self-honor, self-respect, good-reputation, or good-name of a person, family, or tribe. It is also loosely translated as shame in English. When employed positively, ghayrah can serve as a preventative of societal evil rather than dishonoring one’s self, family, tribe, ethnic group, and even country. When employed negatively, typically by political entities with the intent to cause sectarian violence or enmity between tribes and families, it can incite honor killings, retaliation, and many other crimes that are typically committed in rural and lesser educated sectors of the Muslim world. While ghayrah serves as a preventative of evil deeds in most cases and even “perceived evils” in some, it is not a global phenomenon in the Muslim world and varies demographically.

Before delving into whether or not the Islamic culture is shame-based, it only makes sense that we define a few concepts with respect to the nafs or self that has a bearing on the development of character as described in Islamic psychology.

Guilt has always played a part as a reminder and preventative of genocide historically, and we see this in reminders of the Holocaust, the Crusades, and other such horrific events. In the theological analysis of Christianity, we find that guilt plays a vital part in Christian creed and devotion. Christianity holds responsible, among others, for the “death of Jesus” (peace be upon him) the entire humanity now, then, and forever, due to its sinfulness. By contrast, guilt has no theological or creedal implication in Islam. However, it does play a major part in the redemption of the human spirit. Nevertheless, it is not a primary motivator towards performing good deeds or devotion. In the Islamic psyche, guilt plays a part, but mainly in prevention of committing the same evil deed again.  That is because one of the conditions of seeking forgiveness of God in Islam is that the perpetrator must genuinely be remorseful of the deed by recognizing before God that an offence has been committed. The other two conditions include vowing never again to return to the action (even though a person may return to it through weakness), and by seeking God’s forgiveness (maghfirah).  If the offence is committed against a fellow human-being, the perpetrator must genuinely be remorseful of the action by recognizing before the victim that an offence has been committed in addition to God and, and if possible and reasonable, the wrong deed must be rectified.

The primary motivator of the conscience is guilt. In Middle English etymology, conscience is described as the means to be conscious, to be conscious of guilt, or to be aware of guilt. Based on the old definition, a conscientious person would have been described as one who feels guilt when a bad deed has been committed. The modern-day definition of conscience is more elaborate and diverging from its original. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good, and in another meaning, a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts. In Freudian Psychology, it is described as the part of the super-ego (the part of the psyche that plays a critical and moralizing role) that transmits commands and admonitions to the ego (the organized and realistic part of the psyche).

Coming back to guilt in the Islamic context, which part then of the Islamic psyche is guilt associated with? In Islamic psychology, the nafs ul-lawwaama (the self-reproaching self –also mentioned in the Holy Qur’an) is that part of the self (nafs) which blames or reproaches one for committing a wrong.  Imam al-Ghazali in his Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya Ulum ud-Din) described the nafs ul-lawwaama as the imperfect part of a greater and higher self called the nafs ul-mutmainnah (the calm self that is not moved by passion and that has assumed stillness, remaining satisfied). The great imam described the nafs ul-lawwaama as the imperfect part of the calm self that accuses and blames the self when divine duties are neglected. Another part of the nafs which is impulsive in its nature, is moved by passion, and incites or commands towards misdeeds and rashness is the nafs ul-ammaarah (the commanding self). This part of the self is the one blamed by the nafs ul-lawwaamah when a misdeed occurs. It is the part of the nafs that upon death dies along with the body. Thus, based on the definition of the nafs ul-lawwama we can safely say that the conscience is really part of or derived from the nafs ul-lawwama. Subsequently, while laudable if it is developed, it is not the highest form of the self, by Islamic ethical standards, since its motivation is the guilty emotion rather than self-discipline, self-restraint, righteousness, and so forth which are all products of the calm self. And so, by Islamic standards, the nafs ul-mutmainnah is in reality the highest form of the self and the goal of every sincere believer.  The point being made here is that guilt serves a purpose in the prevention of evil, but is not Islam’s goal for its collective culture. The goal of the collective psyche of Muslims is much higher and much more refined than just the collective guilty emotion.

The purpose of this article is to open up a window for Western reader into the development of a particular trait or virtue which in fact has an immense impact on the behavior and conduct of the Islamic culture.  This trait is not based on a culture, meaning a particular ethnic group, but is based in the religion and impacts the dynamics of the entire Muslim world.  As part of this virtue, ghayrah does play a part initially, yet to say that ghayrah and it’s consequences alone are the catalyst for collective behavioral change in a the Islamic culture is to over-simplify this complex virtue that I am about to discuss.

To begin, I will start with the stages of character development (tarbiyyah) typically employed in Islamic societies.

Stages of Tarbiyyah

As a part of enjoining good and forbidding evil, Islam lays the emphasis mainly on accountability of deeds. Accountability moves from the external (dhahir) realm to the internal (baatin). In other words, it starts with being accountable to other than the self, and it is perfected by being accountable eventually to God through a personal relationship that takes a lifetime to develop in the self.

For the child, the object of attachment, love and trust are parents. Thus parents become the primary guide and overseers of the actions of the child.  Through this relationship, a secure boundary in created in which the child learns those things beneficial and harmful for it. This is the beginning of tarbiyyah of the child. As a result, when the child is away from the parents or alone, it seeks the accountability of its parents in doubtful matters and remembers those things that are permitted or forbidden by the parents as a guide to make the appropriate life decision. In traditional societies and most Muslim countries, traditional parents will typically inform their teens to use their parents’ opinions as a guide when they are alone or need to make choices. They are reminded to ask themselves, “What would your parents think about the deed you are about to commit?” If the answer inclines towards their disapproval or towards the youth feeling a sense of shame and dishonor of his parents were he or she to commit the deed, it serves as a signal that such an act should be avoided.

This training is the beginning of self-restraint. Far from wounding the self, when the urge to commit an impending misdeed dissipates (as a result of not doing it out of shame or ghayrah), the self is left liberated because an evil act was avoided resulting in the strengthening of self-restraint, discipline, and esteem. These virtues free the individual from the need of excessive shame (which is negative) and from even falling into guilt (which too can be wounding to the self if in excess).  Since spirituality has not yet fully developed in the young teen, healthy shame continues to play a role in his or her life until spiritual maturity sets in.

The Prophetic example and those that followed remind the youth and parents to encourage the choice of good company and to avoid the bad of it. The Prophet (peace be upon him) once said: “Man is influenced by the faith of his friends. Therefore, be careful of whom you associate with.” and “A man is upon the religion of his friend, and there is no good in friendship with one who does not see for you what he sees for himself.” Hazrat Ali (may God be pleased with him) the fourth Caliph of Islam once said “The company of bad people becomes the cause of low esteem of the good people.” Because young adults tend to trust and confide in friends as part of normal human development, friends play an important role in his or her development. The effect of bad company on the youth is not hidden from any parent who has a teen. A good friend on the other hand will guide his or her friend to that which is positive, beneficial, safe and wholesome. Friends that don’t care for other than themselves will attempt to corrupt the behavior of his or her peers to justify his or her own behavior. Good friends, how they view the world, and their opinions all thus become an important part of the tarbiyyah of the young adult as an extension of the greater Muslim community.

One of the concerns of people belonging to Eastern cultures is that in Western societies teens are prematurely offered the right to privacy, at school, at the doctor’s office, hospital, etc, resulting in a sudden disconnect after elementary school between parents and the child. Parents are not fully aware of the activities and the behavior of their teen outside the home, and these children of Eastern parents often end up living hypocritical and dual lives, one in the house and another out. One may also attribute the rude behavior that is so commonly found among the youth with respect to their teachers and lack of respect for elders in general to this disconnect. Were a well-wisher of the child to inform on the child’s deeds to the parents, he or she would often be rebuked for minding the others’ business or in the case of professionals, reported on for being unprofessional. Privacy is a touchy subject in Western societies and what is being presented here is how Islamic cultures see it. On the other hand, in Islamic cultures, this overseeing of the child takes place at the community level where elders and teachers play a role.  As a result, a youth will think twice, even thrice before publically committing an offence in the fear that someone who knows him and his parents will witness and report on his or her misdeeds, and thus dishonoring him and his family. In such societies, a healthy shame and positive ghayrah prevents evil deeds in the wider interest of the society. The point here is that, at this stage, the overseeing of the well-being of the youth moves from parents to positive role models, friends, teachers, and the community in general as well.

Additionally, within the community, religious institutions also play a vital role in the tarbiyyah of the child and youth. Typically this starts with recitation of the Qur’an and with teaching prayer rituals, and basic Islamic ethics. While religious knowledge (Islamic law and other subjects) beyond the basics is encouraged in young adulthood, its effect still does not set in until the spiritual development of the child is also occurring, which becomes possible only when the youth comprehends and applies what he or she has learned from the religious education.  Application of spiritual and religious knowledge requires many factors towards its success. This includes positive role models, positive example and encouragement of parents, and a healthy environment to develop. Such an environment is provided by the community and parents, so that when the child moves into young adulthood (teen years) and tests the boundaries set by parents early on, the environment acts as a preventative towards extreme and immoral lifestyles and counter-cultures.

When spiritual yearning, search for the truth, and faith hopefully set in when the young adult takes on a more mature outlook, the realization of earlier lessons of tarbiyyah begin to ring true. Now the lessons learned in the past become the guide.  The realization of the kiraam ul-kaatibeen sets in. The kiraam ul-kaatibeen are angels who record deeds, good, and evil, on either sides of the shoulders of each human being. These deeds are laid open on the Day of Judgment when an accounting is performed. Now the mature religiously inclined youth is concerned with increasing his or her good deeds and avoiding evil ones. As a result he or she remains watchful over their actions so that they are not put to shame when the books and accounting are opened on the Day of Judgment in front of God and all of humanity to see. This is the effect of a religious teaching in ideal conditions and now this sense of being accountable to an Higher Authority is further strengthened, yet not complete.

As one grows from religiousness to spirituality and love for the Prophet of God, the guide of humanity (peace be upon him), sets deep inside the spiritual Muslim, the possibility of being dishonored before the Beloved Prophet of God (peace be upon him) when his or her deeds are presented to him daily, as mentioned in the Prophetic traditions, becomes a preventative, not just out of fear but out of love for the Prophet of God (peace and blessings be upon him and his family). This ultimately ends with love for God rather than just the fear of God, and culminates in true God-consciousness. This is the state of Ihsaan where one worships God as if he sees Him and if he does not, he realizes that God is watching him and that no secret lies hidden from the Creator of the Universe, Most Exalted. When this sense of accountability becomes ingrained and faith is complete, one ultimately remains concerned only with that which is pleasing or displeasing to God. For that individual, all other opinions of societal players where shame or ghayrah plays a part fade away. Yet their status in society as parents, adults, teachers, role models is not lost. All of these players must be given due respect for the role they have played in the development of this value called taqwa in Islam. What remains is the taqwa of God and accountability ultimately to the Knower of the Unseen (‘Aalim al-Ghayb).

Thus the tarbiyyah of the Muslim individual starts with parent-consciousness, family-consciousness, community-consciousness, angel-consciousness, prophet-consciousness, and eventually ends with the highest form of consciousness, which is a form of God-consciousness called taqwa. Its development is not solely at the hands of parents, but as a complete working system in the greater interest of society.

Taqwa therefore doesn’t merely mean to have a conscience since guilt is not the primary motivator. As discussed, it doesn’t even come close to describing the inner meanings of this word because of the western cultural background associated with the word conscience.  So when Islamic societies have become characterized by psychologists as being shame-based as opposed to guilt-based, it only makes sense that we question how much of that is true.  Based on what we have learned about the Islamic character development, it would be more accurate to describe the Islamic culture as a “Taqwa-based” culture as opposed to just  “shame-based”. This will more accurately describe the Islamic culture as Islam’s method is one of moderation, a middle way, which avoids and discourages extremism in action and in character. Subsequently extreme shame and extreme guilt both are looked down upon in Islam.

How far, then, from the truth can one be by implying that wrong-doing is acceptable to those who belong to “Islamic cultures” as long as no one knows? And to label the Islamic culture as shame-based only is an over-simplification of a culture that is hugely diverse and widespread that not only spans the Muslim world but also has vast numbers of adherents who have been born and raised in Western countries. Theories such as these, when expounded by those with an agenda or ill-intent, can be very dangerous as it leads to the systematic dehumanization of a people, not unlike those who use ghayrah negatively.  Are we then not any different than those we are trying to implicate?

…Continued in Part 2 and Part 3

Part 2 and 3 to include:

– Definition of Taqwa
– Natural Outcomes of Taqwa
– Motivators of Taqwa
– The Effect of Fasting in Ramadan on Taqwa
– Levels of Taqwa

Sharaaz Khan
Sharaaz Khan is Managing Director of the Islamic Education and Cultural Research Center (IECRC) and the IECRC Academy for Youth and Children, Sacramento where he teaches Islamic subjects to children and youth and provides Islamic counseling, mediation, and healing to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He is a Curriculum Developer, Instructional Designer & Learning Operations professional.
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3 thoughts on “Are Islamic Cultures Really Shame-Based? Part 1

  1. What than bunk of BS from than Islamoprobia over educrate female doctor. Eithjer one is better than the other. All societry have element of both.At our mosque we are worry about our muslim teenager get too western like than the western world is in mortal decay.

  2. Fascinating,yet I’m a little uncomfortable with lumping so many societies and cultural regions together simply because they share Islam. THe taqwa angle is equally interesting but it sounds more like an ideological assertion rather than a tool of analysis for understanding collective behaviors.

    • It is our over educrate elite who donot believe in Allah(God) at all. To feel guilt you needed to feel shame of yourshelf. I believe the western world needed to change to the eastern world way of raiseing teenager. That why I say western world is in an state of mortal decay.

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