“I guarantee a house on the outskirts of Paradise for one who abandons arguments even if he is right, and a house in the middle of Paradise for one who abandons lies even when joking, and a house in the highest part of Paradise for one who makes his character excellent.”
—Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (Sunan Abu Dawud 4800, Sahih according to An-Nawawi)
Years ago when I was living as an American expat in Saudi Arabia, I was sitting amongst a small group of expat women who were sharing their experiences of living as Westerners in the Middle East. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, others were humorous. After listening for some time, I decided to share a story of my own.
I shared how when my friend’s husband (whom I’ll call Aaron) had visited the Middle East for the first time before finally moving to Saudi Arabia, he knew very little Arabic. But he had memorized enough small phrases to get around. One day Aaron was out alone and when he got hungry, he entered the first restaurant he saw. Staring at the Arabic menu, he couldn’t make out anything that it said, so he decided to try to mimic what others were saying in their orders. This didn’t go too well, but Aaron kept trying.
As he was struggling, he heard someone raising their voice from one of the tables. Aaron turned and saw an Arab man beckoning him toward his table. Uncertain, Aaron walked over to him, hoping the man would help him choose the right words to order some food. But as the Arab man spoke and gestured, Aaron realized that the man was offering to share his own food with him. Initially, Aaron refused, using gestures and broken Arabic. But when for the third time, the man insisted profusely that Aaron share the meal, Aaron felt relief that he wouldn’t have to figure out the menu after all. So he took a seat across from the man and settled down and began eating the food being offered to him.
However, as Aaron enjoyed the meal, he sensed a change in the Arab man’s mood. Aaron looked at the Arab man and saw that he was frowning and not eating any of the food himself. This confused Aaron and caused him to pause his own eating. But when Aaron stopped eating, the man seemed to become more upset and spoke sternly in Arabic and with rough gestures that made it clear that Aaron should continue eating.
When Aaron finished his portion, the man still appeared to be angry. Then the Arab man pushed his own portion toward Aaron and through his gestures offered Aaron his own portion. But by then Aaron was no longer hungry, so he refused. But the man insisted again, still with an air of anger in his mannerisms. Feeling awkward and confused, Aaron refused and thanked the man in his broken Arabic then excused himself and went home.
At home, Aaron conveyed to his wife (who was Arab) what had happened and she said to him, “Oh no! You ate the man’s food? That’s why he was angry. It’s our culture to offer three times, and it’s generally expected that you refuse. No one expects you to actually eat the food.”
As I finished sharing this story to the group of women present, a couple of the women chuckled along with me. But there was one woman who appeared annoyed. “That’s his own fault,” she said bitterly. “He has no business coming to another country without taking time to know the culture.”
No Excuse for Ignorance?
Till today, the bitterness of the woman’s words stick with me. Often when I think of them, I’m reminded of my own struggles in the Middle East and how I’d researched so much about the culture before I traveled (first to Egypt and then to Saudi Arabia), even speaking to people who had lived there, but I was still at a loss. There’s simply too much to learn, and very little of it can be conveyed through research and the sharing of experiences. When it comes to immersing yourself in a new culture, like so many things in life, experience is its own teacher.
One incident in particular that sticks out to me regarding my own ignorance and lack of experience with Arab culture is when shortly after I arrived in Saudi Arabia, my husband and I were invited to the home of a prominent Saudi family known for their wealth and knowledge of Islam. During the visit, as was customary, I was in the women’s section of the home with the women, and my husband was in the men’s section with the men.
On our way home, we reflected on how much we’d enjoyed the visit. Then my husband asked me, “Did you exchange numbers with his wife?” I told him I didn’t even think to. He said it’s no problem, and he proceeded to text the man and thank him for the visit and conveyed that I would like to keep in touch with his wife. My husband shared in the text to the sheikh my mobile number to pass on to the sheikh’s wife, and asked that the sheikh’s wife contact me with her own number so that the two of us could keep in touch.
My husband never received a reply, and we were never invited back to the family’s home. We later learned that in Saudi culture it was considered very disrespectful to even mention a man’s wife, let alone anything about her mobile number. We also learned that it was considered ‘ayb (very inappropriate and disgraceful) to share your own wife’s number with another man, even if it was to facilitate the two women keeping in touch. It didn’t matter that there was no way to facilitate the two wives keeping in touch except by breaking at least one of these culture codes. What we had done was disgraceful, so our reputation was sullied; we were labeled as “immoral” and we weren’t even given the opportunity to explain ourselves.
Choosing Between Humiliation and Humanity
Yesterday I found myself chuckling at a humorous video posted online in which the person shared a disturbing encounter they’d had with a person who was ignorant of Muslims and Black people. Without thinking much about it, I shared the video with a couple of friends, and we got a good laugh out of it. However, as my laughter settled, I was suddenly reminded of the emotional pain I’d felt while living in the Middle East surrounded by a strange culture and wanting so badly to connect with the Arabs around me. However, it was rare that I was seen as a full human being, or tolerated after any mistakes or social faux pas. At times, I felt like nearly everyone around me was more committed to harsh judgment and character assassination than to empathy or patient teaching.
After living in the Middle East for some time, it wasn’t long before I felt like it was ‘ayb to be Black or American at all in their culture. I recalled how in many circles it was a sign of piety and dignity to look down on Westerners and other non-Arabs. I also recalled how it was customary to speak condescendingly to and about these non-Arabs regarding their ignorance and (alleged) lack of morals. And I recalled, painfully, how this was often done with a tone of haughty disgust. It reached the point where I began to have so much anxiety around Arabs until I could no longer be around them or even look at them for the pain this incited in me.
Suddenly, as I thought of the video I’d just watched and gotten a good laugh out of, I felt sick to my stomach. I thought of the person who was being mocked in the humorous video I’d just shared, and I remembered myself as a confused, sincere foreigner in the Middle East surrounded by people who didn’t have time for ignorance like mine.
I cringed for the pain that the person must be going through after speaking to a person they thought was trustworthy only to find themselves the subject of a video and public mockery. Though the person wasn’t mentioned by name, it hurt my heart to think of how I’d feel if someone had responded to me like this during my days as an “ignorant American” amongst Arabs.
Battling Anti-Muslim Bigotry and Racism
Don’t get me wrong. I see nothing wrong with venting and finding humor in normal human interaction from time to time. But what concerns me is how this seems to be the norm today more than sincere empathy and actual teaching. In this environment of mockery and public shaming, very little progress is made. It’s one thing to respond harshly to obvious ill intent—or even to sincere ignorance that could cost someone their job, safety, or life. But it’s another thing entirely to view normal human interactions as consistent opportunities for public shaming and humiliation.
When this is done to highlight anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, I’m left wondering what our end goal is. Is it to eradicate these spiritual and social diseases? If so, is there a middle ground? Can we find humor and humanity in our inevitable misunderstandings? If not, then what’s the point of the public sharing at all?
Alhamdulillaah, there do exist organizations and projects aimed at educating those who sincerely want to learn. But unfortunately, this is not the norm. It’s the exception.
I myself have been attacked by self-proclaimed activists for Muslims and Black people when they felt I didn’t know “basic information” or if I didn’t do enough for “the cause.” And none of these attacks felt good, nor did they inspire me to learn or do more. I was just left feeling like a worthless human being who could never get it right.
Though I continue to do my own community work in the best way I know how, I have lots of anxiety around those who carry themselves like only worthless idiots don’t know such-and-such about “their history”, or don’t do such-and-such for “the cause.”
I can’t imagine how someone without even my limited level of knowledge and experience must feel.
Ignorance Can Be Annoying, I Know
But I get it. Ignorance can be really annoying. I myself sometimes feel frustrated with the words and actions of ignorant people. But even in this, I have to stop myself from harming my own heart and soul in front of God. Though I certainly allow myself to at times express anger and frustration—and to even indulge in humor as a coping mechanism—I’m trying to do better at checking my own heart and intentions in how I react to my emotional pain.
I’m learning that every moment of angry venting isn’t for public conception, and that public mockery of someone’s sincere ignorance is very rarely okay. In striving upon this spiritual betterment, I have the motto: Share, don’t shame. Educate, don’t humiliate.
I also remind myself of this:
When someone is genuinely ignorant, that’s God’s doing, not theirs. When someone is arrogant and oppressive—with or without ignorance—that’s their own doing, not God’s.
So please don’t shame and humiliate your sincere brothers and sisters in humanity just because God has decreed that they still have some life learning to do. Whether they’re sincerely ignorant of Islam or of racial issues, take a step back and consider the fact that it is God who decreed this circumstance for them—and that it is God who placed them in your path.
No, it’s not your job as a Muslim or a Black person to educate every ignorant person who crosses your path. But it’s also not your job to shame and humiliate them either. So when you do choose to give their ignorance time and attention, consider carefully why you prefer shaming over sharing, and humiliating over educating—especially if this is your consistent response.
Statements like, “Educate yourself! It’s 2018! You have no excuse!” help almost no one. But they do humiliate the sincere who really just don’t know.
If a person doesn’t know what they don’t know, they can’t educate themselves. They need help—just like you do when you don’t know something. And even if they are aware of their ignorance, how exactly do they go about educating themselves without our help?
If they go at this alone (as we demand) and inadvertently learn from untrustworthy sources then begin to share what they think they’ve learned, then we’ll likely shame and humiliate them for that too. “Keep your ignorance to yourself!” we’ll say.
So what is our goal, really?
Check your heart.
And be careful how you treat God’s servants during your brief time on earth.
We’ll all be called to account for every word and deed we put out into this world. Choose carefully—especially when it’s sincere ignorance we’re addressing, and not arrogance and oppression.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
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