Sunday, August 30, 2009

Honor, humility, and realism in Islam

Amr Khaled, the charismatic Egyptian preacher I just mentioned who is under fire for being to sympathetic to Jews, has an English section to his website. I found the following passage fascinating:
We have previously discussed the importance of not being passive and that we should take positive actions, and the importance of seriousness and perfecting what we do. This time we will talk about the Honor and Dignity ('Ezzah) of the Muslim Ummah. 'Ezzah encompasses meanings of Honor, Dignity, Might, and Glory, and its opposite is Zillah or humility. Today we will say, "Yes" to Honor and "No" to humility. A Muslim only accepts Honor and never settles to humility. Allah wants us to be an Honorable and Mighty Ummah, so why do we drift ourselves to the weakness of humility? Do you know how we sowed the seeds of humility in our Ummah? When a Muslim father slaps his wife on the face, in front of his children, he's sowing the seeds of humility. When a teacher beats a student or punishes him or her in a humiliating way and when a father punishes his son in front of his friends, they are both sowing seeds of humiliation. All these things make a Muslim used to humiliation and make us forget that we were to be honorable people.
From reading this passage and the rest of the lecture, it is clear that Islam does not distinguish between humility and humiliation! Khaled does later on give specific examples of when humility is allowed (towards Allah and towards one's parents) but for him the two words are synonymous.

Self-esteem and humility are not opposites. On the contrary: both attributes should reflect a realistic self-image. To give a personal example, I may consider myself a pretty good writer compared to many bloggers, but compared to others I know I am not good at all.

A realistic self-assessment should impel one to improve him or herself; it should not lead to either despair or to self-righteousness.

Yet this Muslim preacher - who by any account is more modern and progressive than most - cannot conceive this simple concept. To him, humility is the exact opposite of honor. Worse yet, neither concept is based on reality.

For Islam, honor is something to be demanded, not earned. In Islam, humility is shameful. Neither of those views has a grounding in truth, which means that Islam is based on self-deception.

What a contrast with the Talmudic expression "Whoever seeks prestige, it flees from him, but whoever flees from prestige, it comes seeking him." Honor is not a right and humility is not a shame.

As a result, Islam looks upon people who are genuinely humble as being weak. Which brings up an interesting Catch-22 when dealing with the Muslim world today: if the West portrays itself as humble, it indicates weakness and that it is ripe for attack; if the West portrays itself as strong, it is perceived as humiliating Muslims and therefore it must be attacked.

Never do Muslims look at themselves as being inconsequential to the rest of the world, which is the biggest humiliation of all. Another example from Khaled illustrates that neatly:

The day the Jews came into our country and occupied Al-Aqsa Mosque; they were chanting a certain song. If you listen to that song, you will feel so sorry for yourself and will be eaten up with grief. Do you know what they were singing when they seized Al-Aqsa Mosque? They chanted, Muhammad is dead, he only got daughters. This is not meant to insult women, but rather to insult men.
The story is of course absurd. When Jews returned to Jerusalem, the last thing they were thinking about was humiliating Muslims, it was sheer joy at recovering the holiest site in the world. Yet even well-spoken Muslims cannot conceive of a world where they are not constantly in the center of everyone else's thoughts; they have to make up a story of Jews humiliating Muslims.

Once again, we see an Islamic worldview that is based on anything but reality, whether it is false bravado or a false sense of humiliation. (Of course, it is not only Muslims who have this failing, but Islam embraces this attribute.)

One cannot understand the Islamic world without understanding this essential concept.