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SHAME. The concept of shame (Ar., hashm; Pers., sharm) is an aspect of social status often paired with honor as contraries of moral evaluation. This is at once too narrow and too broad. Notions of shame draw in religious injunctions to modesty, temperance, and covering that symbolically limit interaction with others. Local, tribal, and class-bound notions are commonly merged with understandings of Islamic concepts, which are used to justify and rationalize specific social constraints, particularly on women and sexuality. The same words gloss a range of experiences from misery to embarrassment, and from bashful to coy behaviors. Rather than being the contrary of honor, shame might be understood better as one of its companions in ensembles of ideas about social status and self-presentation.

The exteriority that makes seclusion, veiling, and segregation of women available to analysis has tended to skew understandings of shame toward an emphasis on extramarital sexual relations. More nuanced accounts of honor as performance have shown the equation to be too narrow; shame gives meaning to such behavior rather than taking meaning from it. The problematic identity attributed to women inheres in their ambiguous status in patrilineally denominated relationships of descent and kinship. Strong concerns with virginity and chastity mark their symbiotic and symbolic relationship to paternity.

Additional grounds for shame are as diverse as experiences of it. Where, as in tribal and peasant societies, land and control of productive resources are important, a person who must exchange labor for livelihood is in a position of social shame as a dependent and should act modestly. Such generic shame is relative; in commercial settings, artisans may have less social honor than traders but more than common laborers. More specific shame arises with bad dealings and social failures, which may be caused by another or self-inflicted. Shame can thus be an aspect of status, performances, and attitudes.

Indigenous understandings of shame are grounded in notions of persons and behaviors as balances of `aql and nafs-or cognitive and affective capacities-that inform a comprehensive social metaphysics. This metaphysics highlights control and self-possession, with shame marking their absence, lapse, or compromise in a problematic moral universe. Shame is involuntary and emotional, but also figures in the responses of shyness and modesty.

Shame can powerfully motivate efforts to overcome or wipe it out. It is the negative motive of jihad, the struggle to subordinate one’s own life and the social environment to the dictates of religion. Shame is also the harborage of revenge, which both wipes out a shame and at the same time affirms it. Much ritual politeness of Muslim society is a matter of avoiding shame, shaming or calling attention to the shame of another lest these consequences be invoked. Shame unrestrained or unmitigated can lead to violence equally without restraint.

Recognition of this power underwrites tendencies to avoid degrading another.

[See also Honor; Modesty; Seclusion.]


Anderson, Jon W. “Social Structures and the Veil: Comportment and the Composition of Interaction in Afghanistan.” Anthropos 77 (1982): 397-420.

Delaney, Carol. “Seeds of Honor, Fields of Shame.” In Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean, edited by David D. Gilmore, pp. 35-48. Washington, D.C., 1987.

Wikan, Unni. “Shame and Honor: A Contestable Pair.” Man 19 (1984) 635-652.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/shame/

  • writerPosted On: July 30, 2017
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