“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” 1 Cor. 9:22b-23 ESV
Some Thoughts on Cultural Awareness
As you think about welcoming people from others cultures into our own, please keep in mind the following:
When our international friends enter our culture and society they are beginning a journey with many unknowns. They may expect our culture, even of people who call ourselves Christians, to closely mirror what is shown in TV shows, movies, gaming, etc. We have an opportunity to demonstrate how our biblical beliefs, more than our culture, govern how we live our lives.
Culture goes the other way too. When we befriend people from other cultural backgrounds we are embarking on a journey into new territory, entering into people’s lives who have very different ways of doing things.
Understanding and being sensitive to the cultures and customs of our international friends is hugely important for welcoming them well, for building trust with them, and for glorifying the Lord in how we relate to them.
The purpose of this page is to help equip us with knowledge and awareness for this cultural journey into the lives of our Muslim friends who come to us from another culture, or whose parents have passed on cultural traits to them from another cultural background. In presenting this knowledge we draw on the Lord’s gracious provision of long experience in the Muslim world and among Muslims and other cultural groups here in North America. We readily admit that many Muslims may “break the mold” and be exceptions to the general rules we provide here. We do not want to encourage stereotypes or generalizations. We only want to suggest cultural traits you may encounter and benefit from being aware of.
We ask that you please read this material prayerfully, asking the Lord to build it into your growing ability to effectively minister God’s grace across cultures.
The honor and shame worldview
All of the aspects of appropriate cultural expression included on this page fall within a very important paradigm in most eastern cultures: the honor/shame worldview paradigm. Mastering the appropriate ways of interaction can show honor instead of shame, both in terms of Muslim people we meet and our own reputation. Of course, some of the Muslims we meet may already be making big adjustments to our western cultural context, but if we emphasize an awareness of the things listed below, we will be much less likely to offend our Muslim friends and much more likely to honor them and their families.
The importance of family and community
We may be very used to our individualistic Western culture, but for Muslim people an individual finds his or her identity, honor, respect, meaning, and so much more, as a member of a family and community. It is so important for us to remember this when relating to individual Muslims, and to try to understand the implications of our words and actions, not just for the one person we are talking to, but for his or her family and cultural or religious group. A family or community’s honor is greatly impacted by the actions of the individual person.
What do you answer when someone says to you, “What’s up?” “Not much,” right? The words don’t seem to have any meaning beyond acknowledging that there is another human being somewhere near us. The opposite thing happens routinely in many Muslim cultures. People can take quite a long time greeting each other because after they ask about the person him or herself they go on to ask about the person’s family and health and other aspects of their life from various different angles. The Islamic greeting, Assalam-o-Aleykum (Peace be upon you) and it’s reply, Wa Aleykum Assalam (And upon you peace) is the appropriate way to greet Muslims the world over, even in places where greetings are still used from pre-Islamic times.
Always use the right hand. As a rule, men and women should not shake hands. Some Muslims will place their hand over their heart after shaking hands (e.g. Pakistan and Afghanistan). In some cultures it is important to greet everyone in a room when entering the room, which can include shaking hands.
Beyond shaking hands
Muslims will often hug members of the same sex on special occasions (e.g. Eid celebrations) or if old friends have not seen one another for a long time. Some Arabs will “air kiss” next to one another’s faces, but only among the same gender.
Contact between men and women, boys and girls
It is best to avoid all contact with people of the opposite sex. Some western women find it very natural to touch a man’s arm when talking to him, but this should definitely be avoided. Normal and perfectly acceptable ways of relating within western cultures can communicate very unintended things to Muslims. Muslims can interpret eye contact, smiling, laughter, spending time together, and any kind of physical touch between men and women as an indication of affection beyond mere friendship. It is important for men to minister only to men and for women to minister only to women.
Humor and laughter are a great part of relationships. At the same time, it is better to be conservative in how we relate to people of the opposite sex in the area of laughter, as mentioned above. In some Muslim cultures too much familiarity between men and women in laughter can appear scandalous.
Eye contact and winking
It is always best to avoid or minimize eye contact between men and women. This may be especially difficult for western people who are used to a more direct interaction with people around them, but it is important to remember, as direct eye contact can be interpreted as being very forward. Avoid winking, as in some Muslim cultures winking always has sexual connotations.
Use of the right hand only
Never use your left hand for shaking hands, eating, drinking, pointing at anything, or handing something to someone. The left hand is associated with bodily functions below the waste, i.e. going to the bathroom.
The safest way to gesture at someone or something is to use the entire hand. The way we point to or at something or someone in western culture may appear very rude in Muslim cultures. Pointing with one finger, using the thumbs up sign, the “ok” sign, and beckoning for someone to come using an upturned hand are offensive in many Muslim cultures. When beckoning someone to come to you it is best to use a downturned palm.
The soles of the feet are considered dirty by many Muslim cultures. For this reason, it is good to avoid crossing one’s legs so that the bottom of one’s feet are facing someone else in the room. Another thing to remember is that if you ever have occasion to visit a mosque, it is good to sit on the floor with legs crossed and your feet under you, avoiding the more comfortable position of leaning against the back wall with your legs straight out.
Muslims remove their shoes when entering a mosque and typically a home. This is good to remember when visiting the homes of our Muslim friends, who will often have a large collection of their own shoes outside the front door or inside on a shelf.
Pork is so taboo for Muslims that for some more secularized Muslims not eating pork defines what it means to be a Muslim. Needless to say, avoiding pork or references to pork around Muslims is helpful. What do you do when a Muslim asks you if you eat pork or asks you what it tastes like? One suggestion is to talk about what Jesus said in Matthew 15:10-20. He says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth …” Focusing on the words of Jesus and even reading the passage with a Muslim person may not seem to disarm the immediate question, but it may give them an opportunity to think more deeply about the real importance of their question. Peter’s experience with adjusting to God’s grace for the gentiles in Acts 10 is another good place to end up with Muslims.
In spite of the strict prohibition against drinking alcohol in Islam, many Muslims do drink, some more discretely than others. Pakistan, for example, is facing a growing problem with alcoholism and deaths related to home-brewed alcoholic drinks. However, Muslims universally acknowledge that Islam forbids drinking alcohol, so we should avoid using alcohol around Muslims or joking about it.
Women will feel more comfortable around Muslims if they dress more conservatively. What does this mean? A longer length dress or skirt is fine. Stay away from sleeveless shirts. Shorts must be avoided entirely. If wearing pants, which is ok, a longer shirt covering the body is acceptable. If visiting a mosque it is best to be prepared with a headscarf, which some mosques even require for women visitors. Men will also communicate respect for Muslims if they dress conservatively. Even though some Muslims may appear more informal, it is still better to dress wearing casual slacks and a decent shirt, especially when first meeting people. Muslims do wear jeans, but many times will dress a little nicer when going out. In many Muslim countries, men are often careful to cover themselves, even wearing long sleeves. Shorts should be avoided by men as well, except when taking part in sports events or when with very close Muslim friends.
It is impossible to overestimate the positive impact of a cheerful and friendly demeanor in our relationships with Muslims. Some Christians have become overwhelmingly loved and accepted within Muslim cultures through consistently demonstrating a friendly, warm, smiling attitude toward others, even earning the descriptor “very good human being.” We cannot overstate the benefit and blessings that come from a healthy emphasis on being the “fragrance of Christ” among our Muslim friends.
Events and people vs. time
Although many Muslims do appreciate how punctual we tend to be in the West, many Muslim cultures do default to placing a high value on the event and the person over punctuality. This requires patience for those used to people arriving on time and events starting at the stated time. Being impatient will achieve nothing good. In the western context, Muslims may well be much more punctual than in some Muslim cultures. However, if we emphasize giving attention to people and a willingness to spend time with them, we can’t go wrong. People from many other cultures view westerners, including Americans, as enslaved to our schedules and calendars. Muslims can be pleasantly surprised when we love them through an “unrushed” demonstration of attentiveness and friendship. This is just one more way to show them honor and respect.
Many Muslims will greatly appreciate being given a printed invitation to an event. This is especially true of Iranians but of others as well.
It has been said that it is hard to outdo Muslims when it comes to hospitality. Most Muslim cultures have hospitality firmly built into them. This is partly due to the emphasis on earning merit in Islam through showing hospitality to guests. Some of this also comes from the desert hospitality of the Middle East, where a person’s own honor is at stake based on their ability to welcome and protect guests … and even enemies. No matter the motivation, Muslim hosts are some of the most gracious, generous, and self-sacrificing of any peoples. We would do well to receive their hospitality graciously, and show them extravagant hospitality as well. One part of showing hospitality is serving food or drinks to guests without asking, as in some cultures they may politely refuse one or more times. Another part is showing how much we care by finding out what foods are acceptable to them (halal) and which are forbidden (haram).
Muslim cultures vary on whether it is appropriate for a guest to bring a gift when invited to a Muslim person or family’s home. There are resources online which can answer this question specific to the culture of the person giving the invitation.
Placing the Qur’an on the floor or even on a chair where someone would sit is considered a sign of great disrespect to the holy book. We should show respect for all holy books, including the Qur’an and the Bible. Biblical references, Bibles and New Testaments, and devotional materials should not be kept in or displayed in bathrooms, which are considered an inappropriate environment for holy books. When hosting Muslims at a Christian venue or in a Christian home, Bibles should be placed respectfully on a table or shelf. (To give you an idea of how seriously Muslims take respect for their holy book, Muslim homes will often feature a special shelf up high in the room, especially for holding the Qur’an.) When carrying the Bible, we should hold it with our right hand, at least above waist level.
Respect for older people
This is an area of great opportunity for us in building relationships with Muslims. Older people are still shown great respect in many Muslim cultures, though this beautiful and biblical aspect of culture is being lost, even in some of the most traditional societies. Showing respect for older people we meet among Muslims through using terms like Dr., Mr. or Mrs., for example, and through letting them walk in front of us or go through a door ahead of us, or through serving them first when it comes to food or drinks, goes a long way in building goodwill and relationships of trust.
Honor and respect
If Muslim people know that you are trying to show them honor and respect, they will more easily forgive any cultural blunders you may make. How can you do this? Being agreeable when talking with those older than you, rather than disagreeing with them or arguing with them is one very powerful way. Deferring to those in authority and being aware of people’s status within their own community or culture is another. Learning about a Muslim immigrant’s culture, customs, traditions, religion, history, and geography of their country also does wonders for relationships with Muslim people, who are often surprised to find out that we know anything at all about such things. Yes, there is a strong, patriarchal honor system in many Muslim cultures that has evil tendencies, such as honor killing of apostates from Islam or of girls who date or marry outside their family’s wishes. We do not want to show respect for this broken and godless aspect of some Muslim cultures. However, we wish to emphasize the fact that so many of the things listed above for appropriate interaction with Muslims and avoiding offense are in fact ways of showing honor and respect, in keeping with the biblical commands to regard others as more important than ourselves and to do to others as we would have them do to us.
Al-Farooq Masjid photo credit: Rafiq Hamid, June 2017/Google Maps Images