Harm in the Middle East

Picture of the Kaaba and a group of pilgrims they walk around to perform Hajj or Umrah, and all Muslims follow its, Located i
Picture of the Kaaba and a group of pilgrims they walk around to perform Hajj or Umrah, and all Muslims follow its, Located in Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

I normally never read bumper-stickers, but one I saw about a year ago - DO NO HARM - was so simple and clear (and, for me, magnetic) that I felt compelled to Google it. What I found was a group of friends who are dedicated to trying to decrease the suffering and to increase the kindness in the world through the distribution of a simple three-word message. I joined the group and started distributing their gifts.

Having lived in the Arabian/Persian Gulf countries as an English teacher for 16 years, I was motivated to try to understand how cultural the concept of "harm" is. I first thought about the similar Arabic word that I had often heard, especially in Saudi Arabia -- haram, which translates as "something forbidden by Islam" (or by Allah.) I remember one of my university students telling me that Muslims believe that a haram act is always recorded by an angel on the sinning person's left shoulder. It's interesting (and perhaps ironic) that haram is a cognate of Hebrew ḥerem, just as salaam is a cognate of Hebrew shalom. Both mean "peace."

Types of
acts are those prohibited and considered sinful in Islam because of:
  • Their mere essence (like premarital sex, eating pork, drinking alcohol, or getting a tattoo)
  • Harm they cause an individual (like adultery, murder, and theft) or
  • Reasons that are "not fundamentally harmful but are associated to something that is prohibited," such as money earned through corruption, praying in a house taken illegally.

Besides behaviors, there are also haram places such as the sacred sites in Saudi Arabia -- Mecca and Medina, which are referred to as as The Two Haram (sacred) Mosques. That leads us to the word "harem," an English word borrowed from Arabic, which refers to a place that is "forbidden because [it is] sacred [or] important" and originally meaning the "women's quarters" of a house. Harem later transitioned -- at least in English -- to "the female members of the family" who were confined to closed quarters in an area forbidden to men.

Finally, Westerners know this word being examined from reading about the harmful extremist group Boko Harem in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. They take their name from a local term that roughly translates to "Western education is a sin (haram); that is, "harmful."

So how did "harm" enter our language in America? From Old English hearm, which meant "hurt, evil, grief, pain, insult," that had come from Proto-Germanic harmaz, and on and on. Today the word is even used to settle scores. Where? In the Middle East, of course.

Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami once said in a speech that there is not much time to remedy the "great harm" Iran has suffered in the past eight years. Khatami said: "If we cannot remedy at least some of the major problems in the economy, international relations and internal issues, we may suffer greater harm."