Culture in the Middle East Is Ascriptive Unlike Europe

Middle East, MPC JournalThere is no clash of civilisations but there are similarities and dissimilarities among them. The culture in the Middle East, known as Islamic culture, is not an exception. Culture is very complex to understand. Culture in the Middle East is different from the European because of the features lying in the dimensions of each one of them. These dimensions help us understand other cultures and effectively interact with them. In this article only ascriptive vs. achievement dimension will be discussed.

A major contrast between the Arab culture and the European one is that the former is ascription-oriented while the latter is achievement-oriented. The difference is not hard to understand and is basically concerned in how different levels of status are accorded to different individuals.

Achievement-oriented cultures attribute status according to individual’s accomplishment. People are evaluated or judged based on what they have accomplished and on their record. Ascriptve cultures attribute status to individuals according to factors like age, birth, kinship, class, gender, personal connection, money or education. Therefore, ascriptive status indicates being while achieved status indicates doing.

In a Middle Eastern society, it is more likely that people ascribe a status to someone because of who they are, while in a western society people are more likely to ascribe a status to someone based on what they do.

In the Middle East and North Africa, people tend to make references of someone’s qualification for a job by focusing on where a person received his or her education and not what they exactly studied. The field of study might come in the second place. In a western society, this process is more likely to be the other way round.

The ascriptive feature of the Arab culture or the so-called Islamic culture in the Middle East and North Africa has a significant impact on how information is circulated and produced. The age of a person determines his or her authenticity, or the wealth of a person could determine the importance of his or her words. The person in this context is sufficient as a source of information despite a clear lack of proper knowledge. No evidence is required.

In a west and north­­­ European context, age or wealth of a person could play a minimum role in comparison to the importance of evidence. Therefore, a person is not enough as a source of information. A person needs to provide background information.

The acceptance of everything Ulama (Islamic clerics) say could be a good example from the culture of Middle East. While Ulama have a say in every possible issue, they sometimes do not have proper knowledge to rationalise their arguments, yet they might have huge numbers of followers, who believe them because they are who they are – Ulama. They do not need to provide background information. They are the source of information.

The example of space dynamics and how the solar system works could illustrate such an ascribed status. Several Ulama repeatedly claimed the sun rotates around Earth while Earth is stationary. Obviously it is a lack of science understanding, yet not many scientists or other Islamic scholars explicitly address this issue to correct the misunderstanding. This owes to the ascribed status to these Ulama. The class, education, gender, interpersonal connections or wealth are important.

In 1966 Abdulaziz Bin Baz, a leading Saudi Islamic theologian and former Mofti of Saudi Arabia, ruled that Earth is stationary and the sun orbits Earth. He repeated his fatwa in 1976 and several times in the 90s. Sheikh Muhammad Bin Uthaymeen, a prominent Sunni Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia also confirmed what Bin Baz ruled out and concluded that the sun rotates around Earth and not vice versa and that explains “the existence of the day and night”. This was also confirmed inter alia by the prominent theologian Saleh Al-Fozan and the Syrian ‘scientist and theologian’ Mansour Al-Kayyali, and others such as Abdullah Bin Abdurahman Aljibreen,  and Abu Bakr Al-Jazairi.

In 2014, Sheikh Bandar Al-Khaibari said: “Earth is stationary and doesn’t move” at a university speech in United Arab Emirates. To support his argument, Al-Khaibari cited Islamic clerics such as Abdulaziz Bin Baz and Saleh Al-Fozan.

Another example could be offering a seat to women or elderly individuals in public transport. In a Middle Eastern society, an old woman is more likely to expect someone to give her a seat. It is a code of conduct. In a western society an elder woman might not expect anyone to offer her a seat. Although, someone might help out of being nice. The age is important in ascriptive cultures.

Ascriptive cultures leave more space for corruption and embezzlement, and less for organisation. Certain people could reach everything because of their status and not because they compete to accomplish their goals. The son of a president, for instance, is more likely to become a president because of his ascribed status–The son of the president. No qualification is considered or needed for that job, but rather power and kinship.

Hafez Al-Assad prepared his son Basel, a civil engineer, to become a president of Syria. After Basel’s death in a car accident in 1994, Bashar, a training eye doctor in London, was called for duty. Bashar became a president of Syria in 2000 in a feign referendum after the death of his father.

Hosni Mubarak groomed his son Jamal, a businessman, to become his successor as a president of Egypt. Gaddafi also prepared his son, Saif Al-Islam, to be his heir. Ascriptive culture tends to recognise kinship more than achievement and it is widely accepted. In a western society, such a practice could be considered a scandal. While many members are needed to constitute a cultural norm, some might take advantage of some cultural aspects to consolidate their power and gain benefits.

There is no clear cut between ascription- and achievement-oriented cultures. Cultures might vary on that scale, where some might give more value to achievement than others. On the level of individuals, these concepts become much more complicated. Personal education, experience and preferences may strongly interfere in someone’s orientation. Therefore, not every person in the Middle East is ascription-oriented and not every person in Europe is achievement-oriented. It is rather different degrees and layers of tendency to be either ways.

Cultural differences owe to the richness of experiences of these cultures and civilisations. There are no static cultures. All cultures are in flux and they are evolving in a way or another. The change now is overwhelming and happening much faster than ever before.

By Hakim Charles

Hakim Charles studied political science of the Middle East, European Studies, journalism and linguistics. He has been lecturing at different German universities since 2011 on issues related to ideology and the interplay of power thereof in socio-political life, and religion and its relationship to contemporary politics in the regions of West Asia and North Africa, especially Egypt and Syria. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC Journal) since 2014 and has published over 100 articles in different languages, academic and otherwise, in a wide spectrum of on-line and printed newspapers, journals and think tanks. His current research focuses on Islam-inspired political ideologies such as Islamist extremism and Salafism, radicalisation, de-radicalisation processes in Germany as well as peace and conflict in the Middle East.

7 thought on “Unlike Europe Culture in the Middle East Is More Ascriptive”
  1. Hi. culture is an interesting issue, at least for me. I agree with your view in this article, in some regards. My problem with your view is that i can not conclude form those examples that European culture is not ascriptive.
    perhaps i can discuss it more in an essay for your weblog. or?

  2. There is nothing absolute, therefore, I do not claim in this article that culture in Europe is absolutely not ascriptive. Let’s imagine that there is a scale, in which achievement is on one side and ascription on the other side of the spectrum. European culture as it is now tends to be oriented more towards achievement than ascription and Middle East culture tends to be oriented more towards ascription than achievement. On the level of individuals, these categorisations become more complicated as individuals tend to be scattered on that spectrum, in which we might find Europeans, who are ascription-oriented and Middle Easterners, who are achievement-oriented. I am looking forward to your contribution in this regard.

  3. It is a critical issue in middle-east that should be addressed. but not a cultural issue. Firstly the same thing can be observed all around the world even in the most developed European countries. Especially your example about sun and earth had a same counterpart in Europe. Secondly you has written: “In a western society, such a practice could be considered a scandal.” Somehow it is a correct sentence. But the same practice – with different degrees – actually happens in the most developed democracies like US. I can refer you to this NYTimes article.

  4. Knowing the difference should be a key element in finding the methods to motify refugees for integration, see the stream of refugees coming to europe the last montsh. See the Cologne desaster, its communication through the media. See the helpless western-type discussion and political struggle then following. Where is the scientific based support for political discussion and better governance to this question? How to create an “ulama-effect” so that integration in western society works with the best impact althought individual (and religious) identity may not be disturbed.

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