Have I misunderstood or misrepresented the cultures about which I have written? My intention in writing is to offer not to impose, a diagnosis.
The suggestions proffered here need to be placed in the context of other, related offerings. All of them have been consulted and considered in writing any kind of book on Islam and the Arabic people.
Sania Hamady – in a seminal book published in 1960, boldly delineated significant traits in Arab personality. She gives detailed examples of attitudes, including sayings and proverbs, to illustrate her conclusions.
Morroe Berger – wrote as a sociologist drawing broad conclusions from his study of Near Eastern culture generally in the 1950’s and Egyptian society specifically in the 1960’s. An exaggerated striving for self-esteem, a deep suspicion of others, an extreme adherence to tradition and a ‘infatuation with the ideal’ which leads to frustration are the hallmarks of Arab personality around which Berger sought to cluster his observations.
Raphael Patai – an anthropologist focused his suggestions about contemporary Arab ‘ethos’ on an analysis of a few, primary values inherited from the Bedouin society. He felt that the preservation of self-respect was the characteristic of ultimate importance for Arabs, justifying a conclusion that ‘value’ for Arabs is as much defined by the actions and attitudes of others as from any internal motivation.
John Gulick – anthropologist who has more recently researched Middle Eastern peoples, strove to discover an answer to the question ‘How should an Arab distinctively think, feel and act, to be genuinely Arab?’ In each of these important realms, where self-identity is achieved, there are major contradictions between the ideal and the real, between what should be the case and what actually is the case.
David Pryce-Jones, in his contemporary interpretation of the Arabs, speaks from the perspective of a journalist and not a social scientist. In his view, they stay chained to a non-democratic political reality, due to their leaders being ‘encircled’ – enmeshed in a particular worldview in which careerism is a primary reason.
Cultures work as functional wholes. I am, to some extent, indebted to these and others for stimulating my thinking about some of the cultural ‘characteristics-in-tension’ which I have had the opportunity of outlining from time to time.
To anyone who has crossed an ethnic or cultural boundary, it is obvious that we human beings live in quite different ways. Those constructs of reality are recognised as channels for allowing the ‘soul’ of each particular culture to find expression.
If the ‘human being’ is perceived as a creation of God, subject to a destiny imposed from above, then life might well consist in helping each human being to come to a place of submission and acceptance of their lot on earth.
The truth is that the Westerner’s ‘circle’ is as much closed as the Middle Easterner’s. It is just that the Western circle is different from the Middle Eastern variety.
In the history of Christian mission to Muslim peoples there have been some Western missionaries, past and present, who managed to identify with the ‘soul’ of Middle Eastern culture – Temple Gairdner, Charles Marsh, William Miller, Samuel Zwemer, Lilias Trotter, Joy Loewen – theirs was an insight born of the Spirit and arising out of long-term residence among Muslim peoples in the Middle East and North Africa.
The goal is for successors to such pioneers to overcome prevalent, psychological barriers of miscomprehension and fear – we are ‘normal’, everyone else is strange or weird, even wrong.
In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, a careful contrast is couched in two phrases among the words of the Teacher. On one hand, we have eternity in our hearts. All people are made in God’s image, and the ‘circles’ in which they conceptualise and prioritise values or norms are dim reflections of how their Creator has made them to function. Each ‘circle’ has a certain validity. On the other hand, there is madness in the hearts of people. The image of God is marred in us all.
The only person who dare differentiate between the ‘eternity’ and the ‘madness’ is the Holy Spirit. Where ‘things fall apart’ in a specific ethos is often where divine mending might begin.
All these things represent a ‘doodling in the sand’, a pause for reflection. Then might we seek His insight into cultures other than our own, His evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses and His inspiration for most faithfully representing Him to them.