The values of Arab culture are unique and often mysterious to Westerners. Even the word Arab can be unclear, because people presume Arabs are a single race. However, the term Arab refers to culture and language rather than lineage. Just as Americans are of mixed race and ethnic backgrounds, so are Arabs. Learn more about Arab religion, values and cultural practices.
The Arab Population
World Bank data for 2019 estimated the population of the Arab world to be 427.9 million. There is no clear definition of what it means to be Arab; it is generally considered to be groups of people who speak a language of Arabic origin. Arabs are considered to be located in 22 principle countries situated in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). If you plan to travel to this region for leisure or business, be aware of the values and beliefs that differ from those in Western countries.
When trying to understand Arabic values, you need to take into account the effect of Islam on Arabian society. Although there are other religious groups in the Arab region, the majority religion in the area is Islam. According to the Pew Research Center, about 93 percent of the Arab population is Muslim and about four percent is Christian.
The Koran (Qur'an) is Islam's principle text, which Muslims believe God revealed to the prophet Mohammed through the Angel Gabriel. It is one of the foundations of Islamic law. Islamic law is also known as Sharia, and it has become part of the constitutions and secular laws of most Arab countries. Some places, such as Saudi Arabia, use Sharia law for all areas of jurisprudence.
- Establishing justice
- Upholding public and private morality
- Preventing hardship on individuals and society
- Preventing oppression
Each Arab country interprets Islamic law differently; some follow it more strictly than others. Countries that adhere to extreme interpretations of Sharia, such as stoning, capital punishment and cutting off the hands of thieves, tend to make headlines in the West. This can cause the misconception that these actions are the norm.
Things to Consider When Visiting
There are several things you might want to think about when visiting Arabic countries.
- Muslims pray five times a day, and all other obligations and responsibilities are scheduled around prayer times.
- When entering mosques, women are expected to wear modest clothing and cover their heads.
- People remove their shoes before going into mosques.
- Unless a mosque is a tourist attraction, men and women typically use separate areas to pray, read and study.
- During the month of Ramadan (Islamic Holy month, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar), Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. As a result, business hours are affected by the holiday.
Family is an integral aspect of Arab culture. Families maintain tribal and clan connections in many countries and loyalties are strong, hence the expression, "I and my brothers against my cousins; I and my cousins against the stranger." People know and speak proudly of their genealogy. The extended family celebrates together for Eid al-Fitr, a holiday that signifies the end of the Ramadan.
In the Arab world, parents play conventional roles in family life.
In most Arab countries, men play the patriarchal role. A man is expected to take care of his family financially and feels shame if he is incapable of providing for his wife and children. Again, this is a value from the Koran, which designates men as protectors of women. However, due to changes in society and education, wives frequently help support the family. Sometimes this undermines the role of the man as the breadwinner. Although the father has the final say, parents discuss and plan together before making decisions.
Many women in Arabic countries maintain a traditional role and stay at home. A woman's job is to raise the children, help educate them and manage the house. Western society conceives them as oppressed and unequal to men, but it is important to keep in mind that:
- Just because a woman appears to be a housewife, it doesn't mean she's not involved in business matters.
- Traditions are changing, and women are working outside the home as well as from the home. However, they are discreet about their careers.
In her book, Women, Power and the Academy: From Rhetoric to Reality, Mary-Louise Kearney states that there is a misconception about the status and roles of Arab females, pointing out that throughout Islamic history many women have reached high positions in government.
Children imitate the example given by their parents. Boys learn to be 'men' from an early age, to protect the women of the family and take on responsibilities outside the house. Daughters are taught to run the house, and they receive praise for feminine traits. Children do not leave home until they marry. Often, one son will live at home after marriage in order to care for his parents' needs. The healthcare support system is weak, so young women rely on their mothers and grandmothers during childbirth and in the childcare that follows.
Respect for older individuals is another value that can be traced to the Koran. In Sūrat al-Isrāʼ, god commands that the elderly are esteemed, treated dutifully, and spoken to gently and politely. Consequently, they are consulted on all matters, even though their advice may not be followed. There is still a tradition of family business, so fathers and sons sit together to discuss everything related to work and the household.
Education is valued, and there is a commitment to improve education. People are proud of their qualifications. When you meet parents, they will name drop about the schools and colleges their children attend, boasting about their accomplishments and expecting you to show you're impressed. Whenever possible, the poor send their children to school, struggling to keep them in education and scrimping to pay for private tuition in the hope that they will attain school certificates or even university degrees. You should realize that for these families, reading and writing is an achievement.
In the Arab world, privacy is highly valued and it stems back to the Koran. People do not discuss their concerns outside the family. If a person talks disparagingly about a relative or speaks of private affairs to an outsider, he is frowned upon.
Privacy also extends into the way homes are built. There are parts designated to visitors, and areas where guests are never invited to venture. Often the house's construction allows female guests to meet wives and daughters in their apartments. Men will entertain friends in the salon, or in their own section of the house. If the home is small, they time meetings so that visitors do not have to see family members with whom they have no business. Alternatively, appointments are arranged outside.
Everyone has heard of Arabic generosity and hospitality. When traveling anywhere in the Arab world, it is a matter of honor that you receive a warm welcome. To maintain good relations be aware of the correct behavior.
- Stand when someone enters the room.
- Respect the different living areas in the home, when an Arab says, 'my home is your home,' it is only an expression.
- Don't shake hands with an Arab woman unless she gives you her hand first.
- Don't speak to Arab women before you are introduced.
- Don't ask about an Arab's wife or daughters.
- Accept a gift.
When invited to eat a meal with Arabs, you will find differences in etiquette.
- You will always be offered snacks; decline the first offer but then accept the next one.
- It is impolite to refuse a beverage.
- Always use the right hand when eating, drinking, passing, or accepting food and drink.
- Do not overstay your welcome. Leave soon after eating.
Importance of Food
Food is important in the Arab culture. A host will offer their guest the best they have, and they put their love and appreciation into their meal. The menu will include a diverse variety of foods such as lamb or fish. Appetizers might include olives, nuts, and raisins. Bread is also very important to this culture. In fact, the refusal to break bread with someone is considered a betrayal. However, since pork is forbidden in Islam, you won't see this on the table.
Modesty and Clothing
In the Arab world, most people are conservative, and modesty is a positive trait spoken about in the Koran. While dress codes and customs differ from country to country, in some countries, both genders wear national dress and women are required to wear hijab, a veil, or burqa, and robes that hide the outline of their bodies. In other countries, there is little difference between their clothing and western-style clothing.
The most important areas to cover for the sake of modesty are the top of the shoulders and arms. However, modern women also wear short sleeves, skirts, and jeans.
Basic dress tips to follow when traveling to the Arabic world are:
- Casual dress is unacceptable and impolite for many social occasions. Err on the side of formality.
- Shorts and sleeveless tops should only be worn at the beach. They are not acceptable while sightseeing or in religious sites.
- Clothes should be clean and pressed.
- While Muslim dress is unnecessary, check the local customs and rules before traveling, to ensure that you do not give offense.
Interaction Between Cultures
Whether for business or pleasure, meeting people from the Arab world is an enriching experience. You can learn interesting differences between the Arab cultures and your own, as well as understand the similarities and appreciate universal commonalities.