The Arab Art of Gift-Giving
Arab gift-giving by Muslims during Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha and Christians at Christmastime is still an important part of social bonding (photo, wishes msg)
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the world of gifts, there is simple gift-giving and not-so-simple gift-giving. All cultures have their concepts of the gift. The Arab concept has deep roots in its culture history, beginning at least with the Bedouin. In an economy of extreme scarcity, the Bedouin had a strict pattern of gift exchange, in some senses compulsory.
While Arab Americans are in no way bound by these ancient customs, there are certain legacies that have carried over to the present. We will look at some of these legacies, guided by contributing writer, John Mason.
Early Arab Practices of Gift-Giving and Exchange
In its earlier form, an Arab “gift” was an item given within a complex set of relations and institutions. Now, if that sounds complicated—it is.
Formulated by a French anthropologist named Marcel Mauss, the concept of a gift was defined in its pre-modern terms as compulsory, a way of transferring goods as part of a cycle of obligatory return of gifts. In effect, the gift was like a substitute for our present, impersonal economic system.Traditionally Arab Bedouin gave jewelry to the bride or her family as part of the bridewealth (photo: Pinterest)
An example of this informal economic exchange system among the Bedouin is the bride price or bridewealth, a kind of dowry. It is a form of exchange, a gift of money or goods given by the groom and his family to the bride’s family. A few of the most common gifts in Arab Bedouin society include cloth, livestock, food and silver and gold jewelry.Traditional Arab Bedouin marriages involved a complex exchange of gifts (photo: Pinterest)
While it may appear that the bride price payment reduces a woman’s status to that of chattel, it is more accurate to view this transaction as compensation made by the groom’s family to the bride’s family for the loss of her labor as well as the right to her children.
Therefore, the bride price is also referred to as progeny price. As in most societies where the bride price is practiced, for the Arab Bedouin, children are highly valued for their economic contributions to the family. Thus, a married woman will often be expected to have as many children as possible.
Such a “gift” as the bride price has another purpose, which in today’s society is perhaps overlooked or simply ignored. It serves to unite kin groups to one another in a broad network of relationships. Not only are the bride and groom’s kinship groups united by the economic exchange, but the members of the groom’s kinship group act collectively to acquire the payment.
The groom, in turn, will later act with his kin group to secure bride payments for his other male kin. The money that a bride’s family receives from their daughter’s marriage will most likely be spent on finding a bride for her brothers and, in turn, uniting the family to yet another kinship group.
This description of the more traditional Arab practice of the bride price may not ring a bell with contemporary Arab Americans, whether Christian or Muslim, but it was the basis for “gifting” of the bride to the groom for many centuries. It continues in some Arab countries and in the Arab Petro-world may involve millions of dollars.
Here, at home in America, the bride price does not usually have a basic economic exchange function that it had for traditional Arabs, but rather, it fits into the tradition of the American marriage pattern. In that system, perhaps following a bit of Arab and other cultures, the bride’s family is “expected” to pay for the wedding. In “postmodern” America, tradition aside, “payment” is not an issue in marriage, if even marriage itself is seen as a necessity in joining two persons “in eternal bliss.”
Religious Overlay of the GiftThe Muslim tradition of giving zakat or charity to the poor is common around the Arab World (photo: sound vision)
In contemporary religious terms, gift-giving is seen among Arab Americans as one of “good manners” and perhaps of strengthening relations between the giver and receiver.
The Quran is filled with statements about the value of giving gifts. Such giving is interpreted to mean that the exchange would be rewarded with a return at a later time of something of more-or-less equal value. Recall, this concept was introduced during a pre-modern time of economic scarcity and in the absence of a free market. Yet, it still lingers into modern times.
No to be forgotten is the zakat or the third pillar of Islam, a form of tax based on a percentage of personal income, raised as a form of almsgiving and aimed at the relief of the poor. Zakat was an annual alms tax levied on each Muslim as a religious duty and used for charitable and religious purposes.
The New Testament of the Bible builds its concept of the gift of God’s gift of His son Jesus to mankind. In return for that gift is the Christian obligation to devote one’s life to worship of God. According to the New Testament, Jesus told the rich man to give all he had and praised the widow who gave nothing of material value since she gave “all she had.”
The New Testament also contains beliefs that the faithful should minister to others through a sense of helping them through so-called “gifts of the Spirit.” In the Christian West, especially during the Christmas season, gift-giving has become so commercialized that it is perhaps difficult for some to link it to spiritual values.Charitable endeavors established by Christian Arab Americans are common–Danny Thomas, descendent of Lebanese Maronites, is famous for founding St. Jude’s, which is devoted to curing children’s illnesses (photo: quotesgram)
Arab Gift-Giving as a Practical Matter
In looking at gifts, charity deserves a special note. Charity is thought of by both Muslims and Christians as a special kind of gift, provided to the poor and needy and rooted in religious and spiritual values. Arab Americans are known to be very charitable in their giving and are well known for their donations to causes of the poor and needy here and around the world.
In the writer’s long association with Arabs in both the Middle East and the U.S., he has discovered the significance they attach to gifts. From the extreme of an Arab friend literally offering me the shirt off his back, to the long term hospitality he received from Saharan Desert people he was living within Libya—he always felt he was a little too often on the receiving end of the gifts.
However, he figured out how to “repay” the gift, in the case of his Saharan friends, by driving them to the medical clinic in the next oasis or hauling water from their wells to their home, both otherwise arduous journeys.
We look for your ideas on the meaning of gifts in your life. Many thanks.
“Giving gifts in Islam,” Islamweb.net, 8/09/2019
New Testament of The Holy Bible
The Holy Qur’an
John Mason, who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi and the American University in Cairo, served on the United Nations staff in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively with USAID and the World Bank worldwide.