Muslims live and die for honor.

The importance of honor expresses itself in the cultural virtues of hospitality, generosity, community, and relational loyalty. Islamic cultures highly esteem the Qur’an, Muhammad, ummah (community of believers) and even the Arabic language itself. Due to group identity, to insult one of them is to insult them all (for example, Charles Hebdo). To say honor is important to Muslims is an understatement. We must keep in mind that Arab Muslims believe the West has intentionally humiliated and shamed them throughout history. One reason young Muslims resort to terrorism is to regain honor. As an Iraqi jihadist phrased it, “When the Americans came, they stepped on our heads with their shoes, so what do you expect us to do? Christians, therefore, who minister to Muslims must be cognizant of honor-shame dynamics.

Guilt and shame are two different cultural/moral systems.

Collectivistic, or group-oriented, cultures use the carrot of honor and the stick of shame to control moral behavior. The community enforces morality externally (hence the importance of relationships and reputation!). When a person is shamed it affects his/her entire reputation as well as the family. Individualistic cultures, primarily located in the West, appeal more to legal notions of right and wrong to govern social behavior. Morality is internalized, so people experience guilt for misdeeds. Guilty persons become innocent when they are forgiven or justice is served.

Shame is not just an Arab or Asian characteristic.

While shame is more dominant in certain cultures, people in every culture deal with shame—that crippling sense of deficiency, worthlessness, uncleanness and rejection. Ever since the Fall when Adam and Eve hid and covered themselves, shame has plagued the entire human family. Many subgroups in America are “honor-shame” oriented—the military, immigrant communities, sports teams, gangs, and junior high young people. Social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter), with its ability to make private information public, are the new domains for shame and status in today’s culture.

The Bible is an honor-shame book.

The scriptures were written in cultures steeped in honor and shame. They were the pivotal social values for the Ancient Near Eastern culture of the Old Testament, the first-century Judean culture of the Gospels, and the Greco-Roman culture of the early church. Honor is a major theme throughout the entire Bible. In fact, “shame” appears twice as often as “guilt.” Even the book of Romans uses “shame” six times, “honor” fifteen times and “glory” twenty times in explaining the Gospel. Hence, we can expect the Bible to speak to the Muslim heart that longs for honor.

God cares about the honor of Muslims more than they do.

God wants all people to experience and receive his honor through Jesus Christ who died to remove shame and restore honor. The cross was the ultimate “honor death.” People no longer have to “make a name for themselves” (Gen. 11:4) because God promises to make their names great (Gen. 12:1-3), and “Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame (I Pet. 2:6-7). Hence, honor comes to those who believe. When God intervenes in human affairs he removes the shame and restores the honor of his people. He does not just forgive their sins, as shown by the stories of Moses, Joseph, David, Ruth, Job, Esther, Mephibosheth, and Daniel.

The Bible speaks of sin in terms of shame and dishonor.

Sin is not simply breaking a rule or law, but breaking relationship. When Israel failed to keep the Torah they broke covenant with God and shamed him before the nations (Rom. 2:23). So God spoke of sinful Israel in shameful and shaming terms—harlots and adulterers. Sin shames God and does not give him due honor. It fails to glorify him and belittles his worth. (Rom. 1:21-24; 3:23). Western cultures view shame as a private emotion rooted in psychological insecurities, but shame is ultimately a theological–not psychological or cultural–problem. It is rooted in disloyalty and separation from God.

Shame is a major reason why Muslims reject Christ.

This plays out in multiple ways. First, the idea of an incarnation is blasphemous, for Muslims say, “Why would God defile himself by becoming a lowly human? Princes don’t become bums!” The thought of God suffering utter humiliation on the cross is repulsive. Muslims reject the cross for reasons of honor and shame–not just on historical grounds. One Muslim put it this way: “We honor [Jesus] more than you [Christians] do. . . . We refuse to believe God would permit him to suffer death in such a shameful way.” Moreover, since conversion shames one’s family, Muslims often reject Christianity for sociological reasons more than for theological reasons. Leaving Islam is a rejection of family and community.

Evangelism should include relational and communal language.

If salvation is legal forgiveness, and the honor of being in God’s family, then our evangelism should use values and metaphors that are more credible for the community. Most Western gospel presentations emphasize legal and judicial imagery (for example, law, guilt, transgression, justice, innocence). Here is a basic gospel summary emphasizing honor, shame, and community.

  • God wants to honor you as his child. He created us with glory and honor to live in his family.
  • But, our disloyalty disrespects God and brings disgrace. We are now spiritual orphans, separated from our Father.
  • The disgraceful death of Jesus covers our shame. The cross restored God’s face and brings reconciliation. We are adopted as his worthy children with a new inheritance.
  • In order to have harmony with God you must give allegiance to Jesus. Receive God’s gracious welcome into his family and live under His name. Stop boasting in your own honor, and receive God’s honor.
Sharing a meal is a great ministry strategy.

“I have a Muslim neighbor! How can I minister to them?” The best answer is, “Eat with them!” When Jesus wanted to honor people he ate with them (Lk. 15:1). In honor-shame cultures, the people you eat with define both your community and identity. Table fellowship confers honor. This is why hospitality and meals are so significant in Muslim cultures. As a guest, therefore, be sure to graciously accept the honor given by your host. If a meal does not work, then at least arrange to have tea together. Around food and drink, you can sit, relax, and converse with Muslim friends. It is in such a context that the Gospel can be shared most effectively.