Rich Y. (B.Th) has worked in the Arab world for eight years.
When I was new to the Arab world, I used to have a one-dimensional view of “honor” and a stock approach to discipleship with Arabs—“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
However, as I have listened to Arabs, I have reached the conclusion that honor is multidimensional. It defies one-size-fits-all approaches to discipleship. That may seem obvious now, but it wasn’t at first.
2 Kinds of Honor
Habibollah Babaei of the Academy of Islamic Sciences and Culture in Qum, Iran, distinguishes between two kinds of honor—Al-Karamah and Al-’izzah. Arabs believe that God gives Al-Karamah to all humans at birth. It is the minimum honor people have. It is, therefore, unjust to degrade someone’s Al-Karamah. Al-’izzah, on the other hand, is different. It is the sense of having high self-esteem. It includes having a high standing and refusing to bow down to factors which would dishonor you.
While Al-Karamah is a gift from God, Al-’izzah is something people earn. Some Arabs see Al-’izzah as something earned through a zero-sum equation, “I have high status because you do not,” or, “I have good children because they are better behaved than yours.” However, we must be careful not to apply this competitive, comparative approach to everyone. Arabs often think of sharing Al-’izzah alongside others. “I have Al-’izzah because my son gets high grades,” but not necessarily, “I have Al-’izzah because my son gets higher grades than yours.”
There is another difference. While Al-Karamah always relates to an individual, Al-’izzah can be felt by both individuals and collective groups. A family can share in the sense of Al-’izzah, because one member is revered in the community. A neighborhood can share a sense of Al-’izzah, because the homes are expensive.
Al-’izzah is something which is earned. People seek it because it protects and insulates their Al-Karamah from humiliation and degradation.
The Social Nuances
The difference between Al-Karamah and Al-’izzah is complex; the problem is that this one-dimensional view of honor limits discipleship. Arabs seek different nuances of honor for different reasons. No one seeks Al-Karamah, but they fear losing it if others degrade them. This fear can be a strong reason why people seek Al-’izzah to protect themselves or to protect others, such as family members and believers. On, the other hand, someone might seek Al-’izzah for different reasons. They may wish to be elevated above others for the sake of being better than them or being higher in status.
Asking questions brings dimensions to the situation. What is motivating this person to seek Al-‘izzah? Is the motivation coming from fear of dishonor and therefore working as a protection mechanism? Is it because they want to protect others? Is it because they want to degrade others? Is it a mix? Thankfully, the Bible is not one-dimensional, and it will have something very different to say into these situations.
Read this related post about the distinction between honor and dignity in Western cultures.