In these days of rampant Islamophobia, a trip to an Arab country could do everyone a bit of good. Being amongst Muslims has certainly changed me, and understanding other cultures, not judging them, is key, I believe, to peace.
Travelling either as a lone female or with a group of women in the Muslim world, you will not only be welcomed, but also looked after. After living, travelling and working in the Arab world, I feel more comfortable and welcome here than in any European country. As life in Muslim lands is dominated by religion, the similarities amongst Muslims in different countries can be generalized across the board. The Quran advises Muslims how to lead a respectful, moral and good life. In fact it is a holistic way of life: how to eat, wash, dress etc. Probably if more of us were good Christians or good humans, the world would be a better place. However it must be said that no person or culture is perfect, and as humans we are prone to err…but we can at least try to be better.
Here are a few of the things I enjoy:
1. Hospitality. Hospitality is no. 1 in Islam and there is nothing an Arab loves more than to share a cup of very sweet tea with their guests. OK, this means a lot of them have bad teeth, but sugar is not just to sweeten the tea, it is also good luck, a sign of hospitality and happiness. Depending on the country you are in, you might also be offered food, cake, fruit or nuts. In earlier times, Arab nomads living in the harsh environment of the desert were required to offer any traveller/trader passing through food, drink and lodgings for a minimum of 3 and one third days. After this the guest was supposed to be revitalised and strong enough to continue his journey.
Picture: typical hospitality: my friend Maria enjoys more food than you can poke a stick at!
Here is a bit more background to it: Honoring, or treating a guest well is coupled with two of the most important beliefs in Islam, belief in God and belief in the Day of Judgment. In Islam, the hospitality relationship is triangular; it consists of host, guest, and God. Hospitality is a right rather than a gift, and the duty to supply it is a duty to God. When a guest arrives at a Muslim home, they provide their guest with a pleasurable experience in order to reap rewards attained by pleasing God. The guests must be greeted warmly and shown into a comfortable and appropriate room. They are given food and drink so that they do not have to ask for these things. It is the host’s duty to make the guest feel comfortable. One way of doing this is by identifying his or her possible needs in advance. It is better to offer a guest something before he or she has the chance to ask for it because a courteous guest may hesitate to mention any need. Out of his or her thoughtfulness, such a guest would even try to prevent the host from offering anything.
One of the great Islamic scholars of Islam, Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali wrote about the generosity of Prophet Muhammad to his guests. “(He) used to honor his guests; he even spread his garment for a non-relative guest to sit on it. He used to offer his guest his own cushion and insist on him to accept it until the latter accepts [sic] it from him. No one came to him as a guest but thought that he was the most generous of people. He gave each one of his companions sitting with him his due portion of his attention, so he directed his listening, talking, looks and attention to all his companions. His meeting [sic] were characterized by modesty, humbleness and honesty. He used to call his companions by their favorite nickname to honor them…”
When I am visiting Muslim friends, they give me the best chair, offer me cushions and make sure I am more than comfortable.
2. Living in an Islamic country. I have spent a lot of time in Morocco, travelled in Jordan, Palestine and lived in Egypt for long periods of time. Ex-pats are accepted and respected. Even if we don’t integrate, learn the language or contribute in any way. We are not expected to convert or change. I don’t think I could say the same for large Muslim or other communities in the West. Muslims are expected to look after their neighbours.
The neighbour holds a special status in Islam. Islam encourages Muslims to treat their neighbors in a nice way and be tolerant with people of other faiths.
Here are some tips I found on the internet on how to approach your non-Muslim neighbors in a kind way that exemplifies Islamic manners:
1. Being good to neighbors is not only restricted to those who share the same building with you. Your roommate at the dorm is your neighbor; the person sitting behind you or next to you in a bus or at a bus stop is your neighbor; the one sharing your office at work is your neighbor; the person enjoying fresh air next to you in a public garden is also a neighbor. You ought to treat all of those people kindly and socialize with them within the permitted scope of Shari ‘ah.
2. Introduce yourself and your family to your neighbors when you move into a new place or when new neighbors move in.
3. Care for them continually, especially at times of need and distress, as “the neighbor in need is a neighbor indeed.” If a neighbor is elderly or chronically ill, offer to run errands or shop for him or her.
4. Always keep in mind the mighty reward that is in store for you in the Hereafter when you show kindness to a neighbor.
3. Anybody will speak to you. If you are sitting at the bus stop, riding on the train, at a cafe – complete strangers may speak to you, greet you, compliment you. This is not unusual. Unlike my experiences in Europe, or more specifically Switzerland, where you don’t really talk to people unless you know them or have a pressing reason. For me this is what I call the difference between a warm culture and a cold culture. Whenever I take a train or bus journey in a Muslim land, I always take food to share, because in my experience, when someone sitting next to me has something, they always offer it and don’t just keep it for themselves. I can’t count the amount of times I have been on a bus in Egypt and the Muslim beside me has bought me a drink or snack (whether I wanted one or not) when the bus has stopped for a break on a long journey.
4. Your wish is their command. If you say you need or want something, even just in passing or thinking out loud, my Muslim friends and acquaintances feel morally obligated to try and fullfill my wish, whatever it might be, if they possibly can. It is nice to know you can rely on anyone to help you out, and you want to do the same for them – this gives a sense of community. It’s also nice to feel like we are being good, helpful humans. Everything is about the common good of the community and not just about the individual.
5. Feel like part of the family. If you are as open to them as they are to you, you will find yourself bonding very quickly. Seriously, within minutes I often feel like I am sitting amongst old friends. I was once beckoned into the house of a lady for a cup of tea. After chatting for a few minutes we found out we were both going to the same wedding that day. I had no dress to wear and asked her if I could borrow one off her – she gave me a lovely dress and insisted I keep it. Now ain’t that nice!
A lot of people regard Arabs with suspicion because they are not used to people being so open and friendly right off-the-bat unless they want something. Once you get used to it, it is nice to feel like nobody is a stranger.
Picture: My neighbours at my house for my birthday
6. Always feel safe. Old Arab souqs (markets) or medinas (towns) are usually made up of a labyrinth of tight, shady alleyways. The kind we see in horror movies in the West where people meet tragic, bloody endings! However Arabs had other reasons for making their towns like this: protection from invasion, protection from the weather etc etc. If I am ever out late, going home through dark alleyways, I never feel afraid or unsafe. I feel safer in the Arab world than anywhere else, because I know if I needed help, everyone within earshot would be there for me.
7. Respect of food – Muslims respect their food. They don’t waste it, they don’t disrespect it and they are thankful for it. As a foreign guest eating out of a communal dish with them they often throw the choicest bits of food over to my side of the dish to eat. And make sure I am full to bursting point! Here are some of the rules for communal eating with Muslims, who eat with the right hand.
Picture: sharing a communal dish of tropical fish and rice
Here are some of the rules for eating:
-Pick up, clean and eat a fallen morsel.
-When you have finished eating, clean the plate, bowl, etc. lick your fingers and then wash your hands.
-Do not blow on your food as it is considered to be full of germs
-Do not criticise the food.
-Do not lean while eating.
-Wash the hands after eating.
-Eat in company
-Do not let a bottle touch your lips when drinking
-It is not permissible to throw leftover food and drink away (unless it has gone off). Leftover food must be saved for the next time or it should be given to the needy; if there are no needy people, then it should be given to animals, even after it has dried out. Leftover food should be put in a visible place where it will not be mistreated, in the hope that someone who needs it for his animals will take it, or it will be eaten by some animals or birds.
8. Random Acts of Kindness – As human beings, we are prone to make mistakes. Therefore, Muslims believe we are always in need of God’s forgiveness. Hence, any action that brings forgiveness will get you points when it comes to going to Heaven. Bring on the points, Game ON! This is why you experience random acts of kindness all the time in the Muslim world. I love it and practice it myself as much as I can. We could learn a lot from this in the West!
Once I was on a long train ride in Morocco during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims don’t eat or drink from sunrise until sunset. My train compartment was full, and there was a pious Muslim sitting opposite me, with his young son, reading the Quran. I had gotten the train early and by about 2pm I was ravenous, so decided to sneakily eat some biscuits. I got them out of my bag and was very discreet eating them – but the Muslim man noticed. He got up, got his sons bag out of the luggage rack, took out the boy’s lunch and made him share it with me. It was a very sweet gesture, as he was recognising that I don’t need to practice Ramadan and was hungry. Things like this happen ALL the time.
9a. Cat Stevens. He obviously discovered that Islam is not just a religion but a beautiful way of life, a guide to being a better human. Now known as Yusuf Islam, he has always been one of my favourite singer/songwriters.
9b. Modesty and Respect There is nothing wrong with the nude human body, but I do recognize modesty as a sense of decorum and respect. I often see tourists wearing seriously inappropriate clothing, be it on a Muslim beach or in a European town – it’s about respect, people! Modesty teaches you respect for other cultures and really, modesty is not just in your clothes, but also in your actions and how you carry yourself. Whether you are Christian, Muslim or just a good human, people will judge you by your clothes and actions. I support women who freely choose to express their values and faith through their clothing. I don’t want to sound like a nun, but really, what would this world be like without any kind of morals or respect? We have already seen a deterioration of it in the West, which brings with it problems like loss of values, break up of family units etc. I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture.
Islam – it really is just about trying to be a good human. And we could all learn a lot from that.