Rich (B.Th) has worked in the Arab world for 6 years and is researching patronage in Arabic language, culture and theology.
Arabs look to community leaders to help them, including managers, fathers, businessmen, celebrities and teachers. My university students expected me to help them with various life issues or mediate discussions with other lecturers. I would usually refuse saying it wasn’t my place to intervene.
My students didn’t have the same scruples. They’d generously offer me help from well-connected people in their families on a range of things from getting paperwork done, to hiring cars, to meeting influential people.
1. Patrons care for their flock
Arabs expect people with power, resources or connections to help those less fortunate. God blessed them to bless others. The Arabic for patron— raai—means “shepherd,” and the clients they care for are called “their flock.”
Some Arab patrons become someone’s kafeel. This means they guarantee to use their honourable status to protect them, pay debts, speak on their behalf when accused, and to represent them in all disputes. Based on my survey of 200 Arabs, 95% agree that “patronage plays a role in my life.”
2. Ingratitude shames
Arabs quote the proverb, “If you give to a generous person, you’ll own them, but if you give to a depraved person, they’ll rebel against you.” Good people repay favours with loyalty and honor. My students repay me by obeying me or honouring my teaching skills before other teachers.
In the proverb, people who receive but then don’t return honour are “depraved.” Ingratitude is one of the worst traits in the Arab worldview. The failure to reciprocate shames those who gave, and this destroys relationships.
Sadly, I now realise I often shamed students by asking them to help me with something they couldn’t. They felt ungrateful and depraved since they could not return help. The shame caused them to skip classes to hide from me.
3. Asking for help honours
I now ask for help indirectly to protect my students’ honour. If they can, they offer to help. If they can’t, they specifically haven’t let me down. They usually do the same to me.
4. Showing gratitude honours
I’ve also been struck by how greatly Arabs express their gratefulness for gifts or favours. Its so honouring of others’ generosity, and the reciprocity strengthens relationships.
5. Patonage and the gospel
Reciprocal favours permeated relationships in antiquity (see John Barclay, Paul and the Gift). The system of reciprocal giving was called “grace.” Likewise, ingratitude was seen as one of the worst traits.I’ve found it very powerful to explain these aspects of the gospel to Arabs.
Paul says God “made the world and everything in it…he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else….so that they would seek him” (Acts 17:25). The problem is that mankind repaid God’s generosity with ingratitude. We neither glorified God not gave thanks to him. Instead we rebelled, dishonouring God. We broke our patron-client relationship. This realisation causes great shame in Arabs.
Wonderfully, God, who gives to the ungrateful and the evil (Lk. 6:35), responds incongruously to our ingratitude. He gives us the single and greatest gift possible, his beloved son’s life.
When we trust in Jesus, he becomes our “kafeel.” He guarantees us. He pays our debt. He speaks on our behalf. He gives us His honour. He re-connects us with his father and other believers.