Insight into Eastern vs. Western Thinking

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus - cover imageLately, I’ve been reading a book called Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (2014) by Nabeel Qureshi. As you might guess from the title, it’s an autobiographical story about a devout young Muslim man who investigated the claims of both Islam and Christianity and eventually converted to the latter. It is an engaging read. There is a section almost half-way through in which Qureshi explains some foundational differences between the way people of the East — and, in particular, Muslims — think and how their Western counterparts think….

“When my parents taught me to examine my beliefs, I was essentially expected to build a defense for what they had taught me. In [my high school “Theory of Knowledge” class], we were ostensibly doing the same thing — examining our beliefs — but in practice, it was the exact opposite. We were critically probing our beliefs, challenging them, testing them for weak points, pliability, and boundaries. Some students were even replacing them.

This difference between Eastern and Western education can be traced to the disparity that divides Muslim immigrants from their children: Islamic cultures tend to establish people of high status as authorities, whereas the authority in Western culture is reason itself. These alternative seats of authority permeate the mind, determining the moral outlook of whole societies.

When authority is derived by position rather than reason, the act of questioning leadership is dangerous because it has the potential to upset the system. Dissension is reprimanded, and obedience is rewarded. Correct and incorrect courses of action are assessed socially, not individually. A person’s virtue is thus determined by how well he meets social expectations, not by an individual determination of right and wrong.

Thus, positional authority yields a society that determines right and wrong based on honor and shame.

On the other hand, when authority is derived from reason, questions are welcome because critical examination sharpens the very basis of authority. Each person is expected to critically examine his own course of action. Correct and incorrect courses of action are assessed individually. A person’s virtue is determined by whether he does what he knows to be right or wrong.

Rational authority creates a society that determines right and wrong based on innocence and guilt.

Much of the West’s inability to understand the East stems from the paradigmatic schism between honor-shame cultures and innocence-guilt cultures. Of course, the matter is quite complex, and elements of both paradigms are present in the East and the West, but the honor-shame spectrum is the operative paradigm that drives the East, and it is hard for Westerners to understand.

This reliance on positional authority explains some characteristics in parts of the Muslim world that confound many Westerners, such as the continued practices of honor killings, child brides of six or younger, and blood feuds. For one reason or another, the prevailing sources of social authority in the regions deem these customs acceptable, perhaps even preferable. No amount of sheer reason is going to change these practices, nor will externally imposed prohibitions. The change will have to be social, internal, and organic.

But honor killings and blood feuds are generally not struggles for children raised as second-generation Western Muslims. We wrestle with the honor-shame principle that tells us, ‘It’s okay as long as you don’t get caught.’ If there is no dishonor, it is not wrong.”

At this point, Qureshi gives two fairly innocuous examples. In the first, he relates a story from his youth, when he and some Muslim friends were hanging out at a Taco Bell. It was their practice at fast-food restaurants to order water but fill up with soda at the refill dispenser. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. But, this time one of them was observed doing it by an employee, who tactlessly and publicly confronted him about it. He was caught with the evidence! Suddenly, what had been considered not a big deal was now shameful, because the boy had “suffered dishonor in front of many.” In an attempt to save face, he denied it, proceeded to fill the rest of his (transparent) cup with water, and walked away — as if water is normally a deep, bubbly pink.

baboo-oIn the second account, the author’s cousin was shopping for car insurance and discovered that he could get a better rate if he was married. So, of course, the single man claimed he was married. In fact, he even concocted an elaborate back-story for his “wife” (who, unfortunately, still lived in Pakistan), how they met, etc. Over a year later, he got in a fender-bender and called to file a claim. While explaining what happened, he was asked by the insurance agent if his wife was with him. His mind preoccupied with the accident, he said he wasn’t married. When the agent asked if he had ever been married, he again said ‘No.’ Needless to say, he was soon notified that his rate had been adjusted appropriately, and it was now more than twice his earlier rate. When the cousin told this story to his extended family, he was only chided by two people — Nabeel and one other American-born. “The elders laughed and told us to lighten up, asserting that the insurance companies had enough money as it was. My cousin boisterously agreed.” By the end of the tale, they were roaring with laughter. What started out as light ridicule for the dishonor of being caught committing minor insurance fraud was transformed into honor for being an entertaining storyteller. No shame, no guilt.

Qureshi continues…

“These are relatively harmless examples of how an honor-shame culture might see things differently from a Western culture of guilt and innocence. Of course, there is a highly developed notion of morality in Islam, so we must take care not to oversimplify the matter and assume that Muslims do whatever they wish if they believe they will not be caught. All the same, it is safe to say that guilt is less of a determining factor in the East than is shame.

Coming back to second-generation Muslim Westerners, it might now be easier to see just how difficult it can be to straddle these two cultures. When engaged in something less than socially acceptable, the young Muslim will be tempted to hide it and will begin to struggle with internal guilt. The natural Eastern tendency to hide shameful truths exacerbates the Western tendency to feel guilty.”

More broadly, the honor-shame paradigm is seen and felt in other ways, too, of course. For example, when Qureshi first started to seriously consider leaving Islam behind and becoming a Christian, he knew it would be devastating to his familial relationships. It would be viewed by family and the local Muslim community as betrayal of them and of Allah, bringing shame and dishonor upon them, not just him. However,

“[T]hese costs are not considered consciously. They form part of the knee-jerk reaction against the gospel. I never said, ‘I choose to remain Muslim because it would cost my family if I were to follow Jesus.’ Far from it, I subconsciously found ways and means to go on rejecting the gospel so I would not be faced with what I would have to pay….”

I hope you found these insights as fascinating and helpful in understanding the Eastern mindset as I did.


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