Arabic Language Blog

Why Death is *NOT* Considered Taboo in Arabic Culture Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Arabic Language, Culture, Vocabulary

Regardless of their various walks of life, Arab people enjoy very much living life, and as a rule of thumb embrace it to the fullest.

Do you perhaps know an Arab person from your own entourage?

Chances are, he or she is a bon vivant(e), as the French put it. If not, then you can be certain that he or she is just حــــــالة استثنـــائيــــــــــة, an exception to the rule!

Now, having made that explicitly clear, to simply make the statement “Arabic people love life” would in fact be only telling half of the story.

How so?

Whether they are adherents to the Muslim faith, or even Christian faithfuls, Arabs usually agree on the wisdom reflected in the following maxim:

 اعمــــــل لدنيـــــــــــاك كأنَّك تعيــــــــــش أبــــدا »

« واعمـــــــــل للآخـــــــــــــرة كأنَّك تمــــــــوت غـــــدا


« Work for your life as if you were to live forever,

and work for your hereafter as if you were to die tomorrow »

If anyone is genuinely interested in understanding the mind and soul of people of Eastern cultures, grasp what guides them and what profoundly motivates them overall, then they will have to understand this مُعتقــــــد أساســــــي (fundamental tenet)—even if they don’t personally share it with them!


Of course, not everyone in الغرب (the West) perceives death as a محظـــــــور (taboo) subject, nor has it always been the case.

Renown Western playwrights and philosophers such as ShakespeareLeibnizSchiller, and others like Lord ByronBaudelaireNietzsche, followed later by Sartre and Baudrillard  (to mention only those few) have long pondered over the subject of death. Each in their own manner, of course.

William Shakespeare, the author of “Othello” (a possible English transcription of the Arabic name “عُطيـــــــــل”), was a Rosicrucian whose name is believed by several authors to be a mere pseudonym. Some even suggest the “Empiricist” philosopher Francis Bacon as a potential candidate, whereas in fact the two men were deadly rivals in the English court of King James I.
The Arabic name “Sheikh Zoubir” is only one of such “nomen mysticum” put forth to “unmask” Shakespeare’s real identity—long before Libya’s ex-dictator would famously popularize the so-called “myth
” of “الشيـــخ زوبيــــــر.”

Speaking of death in “Macbeth”, Shakespeare wrote:

« Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow »

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 19-24

However, one wonders, why is it that today, in general, the subject of “life coming to an end” tends to be shelved alongside the most sensitive -or “touchy”, if you will- of all topics in modern and post-modern Western culture, whereas that is far from being the case in Arab culture?

In one of the “Yahoo! Answers” provided to the question “Why death is such a taboo“, one Internet user (facetiously) goes:

“People are extremely uncomfortable with the fact that one day, they will eventually die, pass away, conk, croak, decease, depart, drop off, expire, breath their last, kick the bucket, buy the farm, move on to greener pastures, go way of all flesh, relinquish life, shuffle off their mortal coils, meet their makers, and bite the dust.”

And another one (soberly) explains that:

“Death scares us. Period. It is the end of pleasure, the end of family, the end of learning, the end of absolutely everything, and as most people grow fond of living throughout their lives, they grow equally horrified by the prospect of losing it all.
This fear is, of course, amplified by the fact that death is such a grave unknown. We don’t exactly know what we’re bound for when we depart.”

That pretty much sums up the answer to the first part of our question.

As for the second part, to understand the other perspective, namely why death is not treated as a taboo in Arabic culture, the key answer is precisely because death is not seen there as “ذلك المجهــــــــول الكبيـــــــر” (“that big unknown.”)

Speaking about it is neither “depressing” nor “overly scary.”

Instead of being perceived as نهاية كل شيء (“the end of everything”), it is on the contrary regarded as the beginning of another phase.

It is seen as the beginning of yet another life.

The term “الحيـــــــــاة الدُّنيـــــــــــا“, “this life”, “earthly life”, conveys the idea of being “lower” -as in the word “أدنى“- than “الحيـــــــــاة الآخـــــرة“, “the last life”, “the everlasting life”, or simply the “hereafter.”

Indeed, the trilateral Arabic root اخـــر can either designate the concept of “otherness” or that of “finality.”)

These two sorts of lives are both considered as important in Arabic culture, with the latter complementing the former, giving it both معنـــــــى (significance) and long-term غـــــرض (purpose.)

It is a culture which holds الدِّيـــــــــــن (religion) as its guiding principle, as well as its defining essence.

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