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.







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The Old Testament largely agrees with contemporary Muslim perspectives on the actualities of the unseen world.  Lying demons are Lucifer’s children, while prophet Elisha’s buried bones can impart renewed life to a corpse.

Pragmatism, however, is not to be the main motive for moving ‘successfully’ in such a world.  It is all a matter of living faithfully towards God in such a context.

Some Muslims who become believers in Christ experience extraordinary problems, seemingly the result of their entanglement in dangerous spiritual dynamics during former shrine visitation and vow-making.  In its place, Muslims discover in their experience, that God is at hand, present and willing to be in daily relationship with His children.

The Lord’s desire for such divine/human relationship is well illustrated in the way that the subject of vow-making is progressively dealt with in the biblical revelation.  Care was taken, when producing the Septuagint to use words which differentiated the narrow sense of vow-making in the Old Testament text, from the common and careless proliferation of vows and votive offerings by then ubiquitous Greek and Roman worlds.

In the New Testament, the Greek words carefully chosen in the Septuagint were adopted and used for ‘calling on God’.  And in Christ’s name, the believer may ask what they will and they shall be answered positively.

In reflecting upon the syndrome of vow-making in Muslim experience, it would seem that the cult of saint veneration which provides its rationale has developed to meet needs unsatisfied by the beliefs and practices of formal Islam.  ‘Submission’ to a remote God or impersonal fate is not enough of an answer when a woman finds herself barren or her child sick with a fever.

The ordinary Muslim knows that her disequilibrium arises in the context of a vast world of competing beings and powers. The obtaining of a saint’s assistance via a process of vow-making provides one way of seeking new equilibrium either for herself or for those whom she loves.

The saint cult stands its ground in the face of orthodox criticism basically because ordinary Muslims continue to experience unanswered felt needs and because, as devotees of saints, they find the process to work.

The Old Testament is not unfamiliar with a rite of vow-making, though it insists that vows be made only to God. Prayer, now, is supremely to be the channel for intimacy between a believer and the Lord of all creation.

In terms of relating this wonderful news to Muslims, it would seem that as much emphasis must be placed on experience (their pragmatic sense) as upon conveying cognitive information about Christ.  Jesus Christ as healer, answerer of prayer, exorciser, guide, light, peace and sustainer of mortal beings is the only person in the world who can, in  glorious tenderness and great power, replace the Muslims’ inclination towards shrine visitation.





The Value of a Vow

Should We Make Vows Today?

What does the Bible say about keeping your vows / oaths?

37 Bible Verses about Making A Vow


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The vows that are recorded in the Old Testament are usually made by people in a state of disequilibrium.  Hannah is a woman who is barren, yet who longs to bear children for her husband Elkanah.

 She made a vow, saying, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction (suffering) of Your maidservant and remember, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life; a [a]razor shall never touch his head.” – 1 Samuel 1:11

David exemplifies someone in  an extreme state of disequilibrium who makes a vow when he mistakenly seeks asylum with the Philistines in Gath.

Your vows are binding upon me, O God;
I will give thank offerings to You. – Psalm 56:12

We are informed that this psalm was composed when the Philistines had seized David in Gath and upon his freedom he writes this one —

I shall come into Your house with burnt offerings;
I shall pay You my vows,
Which my lips uttered
And my mouth spoke as a promise when I was in distress. Psalm 66:13-14

Jonah, while reaping the results of his disobedience, also seems to have made a vow during his brush with death.

“But [as for me], I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I shall pay that which I have vowed.
Salvation is from the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9

Vows, as they are recorded in the Old Testament, constitute conditional promises of action or attitude – such as Jacob such conditional promising as he proposes a partnership with God to get him out of his earthly scrape.

Then Jacob made a vow (promise), saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and clothing to wear,  and if [He grants that] I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. – Genesis 28:20-21

Jephthah, one of the pre-kingdom judges of Israel, makes a vow-promise which he lives to regret.

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the Ammonites into my hand,  then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31

His only child, a girl, is the first ‘whatever’ to come out of his home to meet Jephthah on his victorious return.

Vows, as recorded in the Bible, are serious affairs.  There was one exception.

Vows, once made, are to be fulfilled as soon as appropriate.  The strong words of Boaz, expressed in terms of a vow, must have given young Ruth a settling sense of peace as she waited out the night. Certainly the next day, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi knew for sure that Boaz would not rest until the issue of his marriage to Ruth was sorted out.

In the fulfilling of vows there is  to be no attempt to cheat God. Deformed animals (cow or sheep) might occasionally be presented to the Lord as freewill offerings, but under no circumstances will such stunted or deformed animals be accepted in fulfillment of a vow. At the end of the Old Testament period, Malachi pronounces people as accursed who have an acceptable male in their flock and vow to offer it, but then sacrifice a blemished animal instead. Such activity makes a mockery of the holy name of God. Neither will the Lord accept, as vow fulfilment, earnings derived from female or male prostitution.

Sadly, there is evidence that , late in the life of the kingdom of Judah, vows were being made by a group of Israelites to other supposed mediators.  In Egypt, they lapse into a rather mixed-up faith which includes the making and carrying out of vows to ‘the Queen of Heaven’. The Lord gives Jeremiah a message condemning this activity. Vows, such solemn events in themselves, are only to be made to Him.

In stark contrast with the unacceptable state of affairs exposed by Jeremiah, Isaiah prophesies of days in which Egyptians will themselves acknowledge and worship the Lord.

And so the Lord will make Himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know [heed, honor, and cherish] the Lord in that day. They will even worship with sacrifices [of animals] and offerings [of produce]; they will make a vow to the Lord and fulfill it. – Isaiah 19:21

The outsider will live as an insider before the Lord.








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Manipulators and/or submitters

Some said he was deli (insane), some said he was veli (a saint)

Most Muslim cultures accommodate in their peoples’ worldview a bewildering contrast between fatalistic, passive dependence and individualistic, active aggression.  People are what they manage to become — some even make it to sainthood.

Submission is the basic ‘ought’ of most Muslim cultures.  What’s written in God’s book is what his lot on earth will be.

Inheritance laws, marriage regulations, divorce proceedings and the broad outlines of the kinship system with its emphasis on the paternal line and its stress on the division of the sexes, thus have religious sanction.

If final responsibility lies with God or fate, why need the human agent worry so much about safety rules at work, seat-belts in cars or smoking in the bedroom?

Control over the future is thus projected away from people.  After all, ‘God is with the patient’.

The cosmological map of most Muslims, however, is not limited to an understanding of God or fate ‘up there’, with humanity ‘down here’ acting out the destinies imposed from above.  He instead pursues with his energy and money whichever powers or beings might potentially work in his favour.

A dichotomy therefore exists.  Changing his destiny is his goal, though he wouldn’t express it thus.

Two opposing concepts – submission to, and manipulation of , the supernatural with the assertion that God is the ultimate revealer.  In orthodox circles, such meddling with the supernatural is of course strenuously deprecated.

Pilgrimages to shrines and the making of vows are common preoccupations of ordinary Muslims.  Women especially, though by no means exclusively, visit shrines on  a massive scale throughout the Muslim world.

The primary purpose in making a vow is to get what, in the ordinary run of events, is not obtainable.  Vows could involve small or large commitments such as making regular offerings at a shrine, building a mausoleum in memory of a saint concerned, or going on pilgrimage.

Fulfilling a vow is of extreme importance though often no fixed time is set.  If a person has made a vow and not fulfilled it, nightmares or accidents tend to be interpreted as reminders of the need to make good what has been promised.

Rites of vow making often involve a prayer, a reading or reciting of Qur’anic verses, the tying of pieces of rags or threads to the railing or doors of a shrine, or the lighting of candles.  The candles and rags are reminders to the saint of the favour asked.

Motivations for vow making are many.  They are, in descending order of priority — bearing a child, marriage for oneself or a member of the family, recovery from sickness, return of a relative from a visit to the city, success in school examinations for a family member and well-being of one’s animals.

After fulfilment of the request by the saint’s mediation, various expressions of thanks are made.  Larger gifts for bigger requests, included the sacrifice of a goat or even a sheep, and the whitewashing of the shrine.

Different saints are approached for help with different problems.  Yacoub is a popular saint sought for his help in healing barrenness in women.

Sickness is a common condition leading to shrine visitation. In the absence of help from the remote God of formal faith, any help from a proven source of blessings (baraka) will be appropriated if possible.

The pragmatism of Muslims in their search for sustained equilibrium in life outweighs the theological niceties of ‘submission’.  Muslims are rampant manipulators as much as they are humble submitters.

Close up of hands connecting puzzle element and making jigsaw complete

Close up of hands connecting puzzle element and making jigsaw complete






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The New Testament concept of the kingdom of God challenged the inherited divisions of Near East society in the first century.  The moves away from a strictly Jewish Christianity towards one which could accommodate any variety of human cultural form are carefully documented by the non-Jew Luke.

In Acts, Luke is particular about highlighting the involvement of ‘the Twelve’ in authenticating or ratifying the shift from Jewish to universal concerns.  Thus it’s contrived that representatives of the Twelve are present to authenticate both shifts in the understanding of the word ‘brother’ – now to include Samaritans and Gentiles.

Later, in the expansion of the church, Paul learns to translate the Messianic message into language appropriate to Gentile milieu, shown especially in his speech on Mars Hill outside Athens.  Eventually John specifically restates the ministry of Jesus in concepts accessible to the constructs of the Greek mind.

To a large extent, by the end of the first century, the ‘middle wall of partition’ between Jew and Gentile had been broken down ‘in Christ’  in practice as well as in theory.  The process had been carefully monitored by the Twelve, promoted by Paul and Barnabas and accelerated by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon non-Jews.

Somewhat addressed during this period was the problem of freedom and slavery, part of the socio-economic reality of the Roman Empire. Paul’s general exhortations to slaves, however, require their continuing obedience to their human masters, in the understanding that in Christ they are already, essentially, ‘free’.

Least attended to, in the New Testament corpus at least, was the perception and place of women in both Jewish and Roman worldviews.  The practical implications of ‘kingdom’ and ‘brotherhood’ for the male-dominated worlds of Jesus and Paul were there, however, and the evidence of the charismatic days of Jesus’ public ministry and the first flowering of Christianity suggests that women were happily included in both discipleship and leadership.

The dynamics of brotherhood/rivalry are critical with regard to the building up of the body of Christ among believers from a Muslim background.  An understanding of the reality of these dynamics in many current Muslim cultures will perhaps take the sting out of incipient church situations where vying for power or negotiating for position seem to occur alongside the wonder of mutual fellowship as brothers and sisters in Christ.

If Western Christians prove practically that ‘brotherhood’ is only reserved for church services or pre-arranged meetings, it is not surprising that rivalry issues come up in the church groups for which they are responsible.  Can we learn to see ‘church’ as a vital mix of daily interaction between believers and not ‘meetings’ we ‘go to’?

In Christ the possibility that the spiritual reality of unity can become increasingly our experience here on earth in the nitty-gritty of relating as Christians across cultures.  Such were hard and long lessons to learn when the early Christians’ expectation was that the other party (Gentile, slave, woman) needed to do all the converting.

Is the Holy Spirit asking us to hold lightly some of the dynamics of ‘church’ a-la-Western-mode and allow Him time to bring to birth fellowships with a different face?  Perhaps, on His agenda, the brotherhood/rivalry issue will not be the first priority for transformation.


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Pawns in the power game

It must be recognised that a powerful process of challenge goes on constantly in many Muslim societies. When places at university are limited in number, when the job market is stretched to capacity, when there is only so much ‘good’ to go round, there develops fierce competition between ‘brothers’.

Those holding power do all they can to protect their place of privilege.  An under-the-surface rivalry continues through the web of various family and clan relationships, emerging now and then in public victory or ignominious defeat.

In the early development of Islam as an expanding force, a new layer of distinction came to eclipse former tribal renown.  There is a pecking order favouring Arab over non-Arab, city-dweller above desert-dweller, because of the esteem given to Muhammad (both Arab and city-dweller) by the Islamic community.

Each locality knows its own hierarchy of privilege.  Such are the stories found in the novel – God Dies by the Nile by Nawal El Saadawi.

In Arab society, it often seems to be the case that more authority is exercised than responsibility shouldered.  Such are things written in the short story – A Lone Woman by Zakaria Tamer.

In the post-independence era, many Muslim (Arab and other) nations have developed as dictatorships where the country’s wealth and control of its financial policies has become concentrated in the hands of a few ‘great’ families.  There is no ‘exposure’ nor censure of those families as long as they remain united and powerful against all rivals.

As a result, absolute rule begets conspiracies, rivalries on a massive scale.  David Pryce-Jones, in his incisive book on the Arabs, lists some of the plots and counter-plots that have marked Middle Eastern politics in recent decades.

The rivalry factor filters into every aspect of living.  It elevates impersonal processes at the cost of human relationships.

Perhaps the most daring exegesis of ‘rivalry’ in recent years has come from the pen of Naguib Mahfouz in Children of Gebelawi. Can the ministry of ‘prophets’ make a difference on earth? The people are condemned to live in despair – not brothers but pawns in the power game.

The monestary in Maalula

The monestary in Maalula






Pawns in the Game



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انا على أخوي وأنا وأخوي على ابن عمي وأنا وابن عمي على الغريب

An old Arab proverb goes, “Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother and my cousin against the stranger.”

The concept of brotherhood is very important to Islamic communities.

Belonging to the ‘umma (the brotherhood of Islam) is the privilege of every Muslim.  It is significant that the Islamic calendar starts from the beginning of the formation of the ‘umma in Medina in AD 622, and not, say, from the birth of the Prophet or from the time he began to receive revelations.

At a ritual level, the details of piety and socio-religious duty were delineated in the Qur’an.  The Qur’an came down in favour of strengthening the patriarchal agnatic clan and from that perspective, rules were made against incest, against divorce (apart from some situations), against polyandrous marriages, against the relegation of women and children to the categories of mere chattels or potential warriors.

In the last part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, many leaders of Arab nationalist causes sought to identify Arabism with Islam.  The vocabulary of such Muslim nationalism was infused with words such as ‘umma (brotherhood) and milla (identity by religious community).

More recently, the concept of ‘umma has been emphasised by the ideologists of contemporary Islamic reform movements.




The Muslim Brotherhood’s Fight For Egypt

Muslim Brotherhood


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