Surmounting Community Honor and Islamic Law in Muslim Culture

by Ron Coody

Church planters must reckon with the problem of how to stimulate Muslims to think creatively outside the boundaries put down by the community.

Miscommunication between Individualists and Communalists
Mission communication with Muslims often happens when individualist westerners speak to an audience of hearers from communal societies. When the speaker tells the Muslims that they can have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, the individualistic presuppositions of such an offer sound at best odd to the Muslim, if not threatening or frightening.

Why? Because Muslims are unaccustomed to having exclusive individual relationships. Parents have relationships with children, families have relationships with families, in-laws with in-laws, clans with clans, tribes with tribes. The individual exists as a drop in the ocean of the community.

While the Western Christian values the freedom to think and explore and decide, the Muslim values group solidarity. A Muslim background believer (MBB) made this clear to me one day, saying,

When I was young, I began reading books, lots of books. I wanted to know the truth, see what ideas were out there that I didn’t know. That way, I could consider it all and make a good decision. But my father was very suspicious. He saw all the books I was reading—and they weren’t necessarily Christian books—and spoke harshly to me, accusing me of trying to become a Christian.

To question solidarity is to question the wisdom of the ancestors, the elders, and the teachers. 

Honor of the Group
One aspect of group membership is honor. Ascribed honor comes from being linked to honorable people and acquired honor through a special act which the community values. Honor gained by the individual is not hoarded but shared with the group. A westerner, Christian or otherwise, might be content to define his or her honor with no reference to any larger group.

Honor is more like self-esteem: when an individual receives an honor, like an award for intellectual, artistic, or athletic achievement, observers (even the closet friends and family) say, “You earned it, you got, it’s all yours.” On the other hand, a community-oriented culture would say, “We earned it, we got it, it’s all ours.” 

When Shame Enters
Honor produces group cohesion. Shame not properly managed weakens cohesion. Ascribed honor that comes from simply belonging to a family or clan with a good name can be lost if a member acts wrongly. The honor of the group depends on the honor of the individual members. One member can elevate the group honor by acquiring wealth, prestige, or bearing many sons.

The same member could shame the group through the loss of wealth, position, or sexual chastity.

The response, as any number of honor killings has shown, is to eliminate the shameful member as though to amputate a gangrenous limb. If left unmanaged, the shame will cast a pall upon the entire group in the eyes of neighboring groups, breaking down relationships within and without. 

Shame and Alienation
With the concept of self so tightly woven into the identity of the group, individuals consider the prospect of shame unthinkable. It means the loss of identity, becoming a sort of un-human or sub-person. Some missiologists have proposed that the Muslim’s love of community and fear of experiencing social and psychological alienation and isolation is far too great to consider accepting the gospel or any different way of life.

Tim Matheny writes,

So long as the Christian missionary effort appears to be a frontal attack against this group solidarity it will effectively oppose the progress of the Gospel. This is one area where changes must come if there is to be any significant response to Christ in the Arab world. (1981, chpt. 4)

From Whence Honor?
In many conversations about honor and shame cultures, one key question goes unasked. Although it is evident from numerous scholarly studies that honor and shame play an important role in many Muslim cultures, what is the source of honor and shame? From where do codes of honor arise? Who makes the rules of the game?

Some have tried to make a sharp delineation between honor cultures and law cultures. The Honor in Context Paradigm (HCP) offers a way to identify the function of honor and law in cultures, suggesting that these are not separate, but interdependent. This is critical when evaluating cultures where Islam mixes with other cultural mores.

At its source, honor is always the outcome of a human fulfilling a law or code through action, word, or state. An honorable person lives according to the prevailing standards of right and wrong. The real contrast between Eastern and Western cultures is less a question of whether they are honor-based or law-based and more an issue of (a) the orientation of the individual members toward either self-autonomy or group solidarity and (b) the difference in belief whether right and wrong have a natural or a divine source. This paradigm can be illustrated with an xy graph (see Figure 1 below). 

The question to be posed about any Muslim context is this: What constitutes their authority for right and wrong? The code or law that serves as a template for the honorable person will inevitably be assumed to have its source in either natural or divine origins. To what degree is this law derived from Islam? To step back even further, how much of their law defining honor is derived from earlier Judeo-Christian sources? 

One question for mission among Muslims is this, what troubles them more, the possibility of facing isolation from the group as a result of bringing dishonor through failing at some point in the social law or the possibility of suffering the judgment of a holy God upon their sins? Another question is how to bring a Muslim to see the difference between the code of honor based on natural sources and the honor that is based on the divine law that flows out of the character of YHWH. 

The Will of Allah
The classic contrast between an honor society and a law society sets these systems as an antithesis of one another where individual and group honor—both ascribed and acquired—is a derivative of social preferences and law is a derivative of some sort of objective right and wrong. 

In the most basic terms, in a simple honor society ungoverned by concepts of transcendent/divine law, the physically or mentally strong determine what is right and wrong, what is honorable. Might makes right. For observers of non-theist cultures, this makes a certain kind of sense. Societies put value on the individuals and clans whose physical and mental powers enable them to acquire and maintain access to the limited resources in the environment. A good relationship with these resourceful people, called patrons, could mean the difference between life and death for their clients and allies. The warrior class would take on a special kind of honored status as those chiefly responsible to fight for and protect the resources.  

Having arisen in seventh-century Arabian tribal culture and exhibiting an ongoing culture of struggle, Islam seems like a good candidate to analyze and describe in terms of honor and shame. But this encounters some problems. First, as the HCP suggests, all cultures base their sense of honor on some kind of belief in right and wrong, good and bad. For cultures that honor power, the assumption is that power is good or that the fruits of power are good. Goodness has some kind of objectivity to it, even if it is grounded only in the traditions of the ancestors or the laws of nature. The pursuit of honor is never completely arbitrary to those who seek it, but it has its own sets of rules. The challenge is to find the rules. 

Second, Islam, unlike Eastern religions that do without a transcendent law-giver, is a strict monotheism overlapping in many ways with Judaism and Christianity. Its authoritative texts not only prescribe many of the same moral and religious laws found in the Bible, they also set down many other laws in the sayings of Muhammed (the Hadith) and his lifestyle (the Sunnah). As the Qur’an says,

To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed. He would have made you a single people, but (his plan is) to test you in what he hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is he that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute. (Sura 5:48)

The Sermon on the Mount
The key distinction here is not between the Muslim world as an honor culture and the Christian world as a law culture. Law and honor operate in both cultures. The important distinction under consideration is whether the individual members of a society are oriented toward autonomy or community, toward the self or the group. The Muslim whose identity is inextricably linked to the group follows the will of Allah through the public practice of prayers, giving, fasting, confession, and pilgrimage. The public nature of these practices solidifies group identity and allows individuals to enhance their standing in the community. 

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus did not condemn the need for honor and worth, because he adds the promise that “your Father who sees you will reward you in secret.” He shifts the individual’s focus away from drawing honor from the community to receiving honor from God. Just as Jesus’ Jewish audience, Muslims have a sense of divine law grounded in revelation handed down through the prophets. And just as the Jews, Muslims believe it is God’s will to practice their obedience to the law before other people. Was Jesus anti-community? Was he advocating individualism? 

The New Nature
The answer to this question has to do with soteriology. The parable Jesus told of the Pharisee who publicly honored himself with a litany of his goodness and the sinner who bowed his head in shame gives a hint to the reason why Jesus called for change of direction. He was saying in essence that people can confuse the approval of others with the approval of God. People can confuse group approval with divine approval.

Self-validation generates honor that is then shared like any other resource. In a Muslim culture where the individual defines him or herself in terms of the community, the question “Am I saved?” is much less important than “Are we saved?” 

If the group judges itself mostly honorable most of the time, then it has some ground to feel secure. Like the Laodician church, the group has a tendency to judge itself honorable with its wealth and status. Jesus is warning that the only way for humans to get a true assessment of personal honor and innocence is if they place themselves solely under the scrutiny of God.

If a person is constantly acting out attempts at religious obedience in front of others whose moral faculties and powers of judgment are just as faulty and prone to error as one’s own, the true self will never come into the light. Groups that critique themselves will inevitably excuse themselves.  By calling for people to step away from the group into a place with God alone, Jesus is opening the way for conviction of sin and finding true justification and new honorable status in the grace of God. This then puts them into the church, where honoring God is the goal, rather than seeking honor. 

Thinking as an Individual
Descent from Adam does not impute honor and the works of the flesh do not acquire honor. The Apostle Paul spells out this difference of orientation in Philippians when he says, “I was a Hebrew of Hebrews…etc.” and concludes that he considers it all rubbish compared to knowing Christ Jesus. 

Tim Matheny says,

Most Protestant missionaries and those of the churches of Christ have emphasized the right of the individual to make his own religious choices. This is not a basic Arab conception, because (as has been noted) Arab society and Islam do not recognize the right of the individual to make his own religious decisions. (Parshall 1985, chpt. 5)

These assertions are true to an extent, but there may be a deeper problem. Not only do Muslim cultures not recognize an individual’s right to make a decision, individuals may lack the cognitive and spiritual resources to make a decision even if given the right.

In other words, the problem is not simply that individuals do not want to lose group solidarity, as though they can rationally think through and choose between competing choices. It is that they may lack the developed faculties and inner permissions to think through their existence apart from the group. John Mbiti explains it this way,

Traditional religions are not primarily for the individual, but for his community of which he is a part….To be human is to belong to the whole community, and to do so involves participating in the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and festivals of that community. A person cannot detach himself from the religion of his group, for to do so is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships and the entire group of those who make him aware of his own existence. To be without one of these corporate elements of life is to be out of the whole picture. (1970, 3)

The Inner World of Dreams
Is this one reason why dreams and visions are so catalytic in Muslims coming to faith in Jesus Christ? During the conscious waking hours, the individual is constantly gauging thoughts and behaviors in relation to the community. But fewer places are more private than the inner recesses of the mind’s dream world.

When Jesus, the man in white, shows up in this inner dream world, he bypasses the normal conscious and sub-conscious thought processes that blur the boundary between the self and the community. For the first time the Muslim recognizes the self as it stands in relation to God, free from the faulty community filters that soften the appearance of guilt and dishonor. In the private dream world, a true awakening occurs to see the real problem of sin and that enables the individual real solution of Jesus’ goodness. 

The Mustard Seed and Muslim Soil
Workers plant the mustard seed of the gospel into Muslim soil. How can it take root in hearts unaccustomed to considering anything outside of community-sanctioned experiences? Can something more be done? Phil Parshall writes,

We should, however, be committed to reducing every unnecessary hindrance, both sociological and theological, to the Muslim becoming a follower of Christ. My postulate is that we can do a much better job of evangelism among the Sons of Ishmael than we have in the past. (1985, chpt. 5) 

Valerie Hoffman suggests that part of the answer lies in the basic family units that make up the larger society:

Although we do not deny that Christ calls us each to individually follow him, the individualism of our culture may cause our evangelistic methods to be ill-adapted to Muslim culture. “Household evangelism respects the integrity of the home, moving with and not against the social unit created by God” (Hulbert 1978:175). Isn’t this a biblical response to the problem of social ostracism? (1979, 581-593)

Closing Thoughts
For Muslims, the ever-present, all-important community elicits their devotion and arouses their admiration. But this does not mean that Islamic cultures are only based on localized codes of honor and shame. The community gives or withholds its favors based on the law of Islam. This creates huge barriers for the gospel and church planting in Muslim societies.

First, Muslims can confuse the approval of the community with the approval of God, making it difficult to confront Muslims with the biblical standard of God’s holiness. Second, communalism in Islam makes it very difficult for individuals to think independently of the group, the ancestors, the elders, and the teachers. Church planters must reckon with the problem of how to stimulate the Muslims to think intentionally, critically, and creatively outside the boundaries put down by the community. 

Church planting among Muslims can only proceed when people awaken in their minds and hearts to step back from the local and Islamic honor codes and see their identity as it becomes visible in the light of God.  

Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. 1978. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. New Delhi: Nusrat Ali Nasri for Kitab Bhavan.

Hoffman, Valerie. 1979. “The Christian Approach to the Muslim Woman and Family.” In The Gospel and Islam: A 1978 Compendium. Ed. Don M. McCurry, 581- 593. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.

Luther, Martin. Theodore Graebner, Trans. 1949. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535).  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Matheny, Tim. 1981. Reaching the Arabs, A Felt Needs Approach. Pasadena, Calif.: William  Carey Library.

Mbiti, John S. 1970.  African Religions and Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co.

Neyrey, Jerome. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville, Ken.: Westminster John Knox Press.

Parshall, Phil. 1985.  Beyond the Mosque, Christians within Muslim Community. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. 
 _____. 1994. Inside the Community. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.


Since 1993, Ron Coody and his family have lived and served in church planting and widespread evangelism in Central Asia among Turkic peoples. He has a PhD in missiology and has written extensively on the subjects of church-planting among the unreached and Christian persecution.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 138-145. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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