Outdo One Another: Reflections on Arab Hospitality

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“It’s still early!” 

This is the standard response in the country where I live any time you prepare to leave someone’s house after a visit. You may have arrived there at 6 pm, and now it’s nearly midnight. They’ve fed you seconds and thirds of a sprawling feast, plus a few rounds of dessert, a huge bowl of fruit and three cups of tea (with five spoons of sugar each). Their grandfather has long fallen asleep in front of the TV, and your two-year-old is on his third breakdown of the night due to exhaustion. It doesn’t matter how obvious it is to you that it’s time to go; when you attempt to take your leave, the response will inevitably be, “It’s still early!”

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Whatever their preferred strategy, the message will be clear: they don’t want you to leave. You are welcomed and treasured, and your presence in their home is an honor.

The more earnest hosts will beg you to stay the night (after all, your toddler looks too tired to drive home). They may immediately send a daughter to the kitchen to fetch one more treat or a glass of soda, just to make it impossible for you to leave. Whatever their preferred strategy, the message will be clear: they don’t want you to leave. You are welcomed and treasured, and your presence in their home is an honor. They could never tire of serving you, and they could never give too much.

outdo one another in showing honor

“It’s still early” is only one example, but it’s the perfect example to sum up what I’ve experienced of Arab hospitality in the nearly ten years I’ve lived here as, essentially, a professional guest and host. But the spirit of relentless generosity doesn’t end there. I’ve sat at “tables” on the floor in run-down apartments where my plate was piled high with delicious food, only to slowly come to the realization that our hosts were meekly nibbling at spoonfuls of rice and vegetables in order to save all the meat for us. I’ve had neighbors show up at my door the day we returned home from the hospital with a newborn baby, bearing large trays of fully-cooked, hot meals for my entire family. Then, I’ve had them show up again the next morning with the same thing without any prompting from us.

Paul’s encouragement in Romans 12:10 for Christians to “outdo one another in showing honor” immediately brings to my mind classic Arab hospitality. If you bake your friend cookies or send a visitor home with leftovers, they will always return your dish filled to the brim with something delicious from their kitchen. The challenge to “outdo one another” has become a real and necessary part of my family doing effective ministry in the Arab world. However, even if you don’t serve in this area of the world or minister regularly among Muslims, I believe there are several rich lessons to learn from their world-renowned hospitality. 

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The host is always thinking about what else you might need and what else they can give. It’s never inconvenient. It’s never too much.

Further along in that passage of Romans, in verse 13, Paul urges the church to “seek to show hospitality,” as he does in 1 Peter 4:9 and Hebrews 13:2. Hospitality is also listed in 1 Timothy and Titus as one of the qualifications for deacons and elders. Surely we all can benefit from some lessons from the experts when it comes to improving our practice of this necessary component to Christian life and ministry. 

principles of hospitality

My personality as a hostess and housewife has undoubtedly been shaped by the culture where I’ve been a guest for so many years. In light of this, a few key underlying principles stand out to me when it comes to genuine, loving hospitality.

1. Hospitality is assumed. It is not even asked for or offered. Moreover, when it is offered, “No” is rarely taken as a serious answer. In fact, I’ve learned it’s truly an artform to get your “No” taken seriously. After sitting a few minutes in someone’s living room, a glass of juice will arrive before you, whether you are in the mood for juice or not. If your plate is emptying at dinner, another heaping spoon of everything will be added before you even know what’s happening. If the seats on the subway are full, the woman who did get a seat will reach out to grab the bags or the small child you’re carrying so she can hold them while you stand. Without actually saying much of anything, there is a cultural understanding—“Of course I’m going to take care of you. This is what I should do.” Objections are often met with genuine shock, sometimes even offense. “Let me know if you need anything”—a common offer heard between American friends—is rarely heard, if ever. “It’s not your job to tell me what you need. It’s my job to see your needs and care for you.”

2. Hospitality is generous. I believe this is probably the most important part of Arab hospitality. You not only welcome a friend or stranger—anyone can do that. You love them fully and well. Always one more serving, one more cup, one more hour. If you require something they don’t have, they send a son to the store to retrieve it immediately. The host is always thinking about what else you might need and what else they can give. It’s never inconvenient. It’s never too much.

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While we as Westerners are unlikely to start reprimanding our guests for leaving and begging them to sleep over, we as Christians must consider that there is more to hospitality than simply inviting and hosting.

3. Hospitality is for everyone. While one of the last things you’ll hear is, “It’s too early to go,” the first things you typically hear are, “You’ve lit up our home,” and “You’ve honored us.” I have no doubt that we have visited homes of people who have been leery, suspicious, or simply unexcited about us. Perhaps they have had doubts about our motives. Perhaps they don’t respect or trust Westerners in general. Often, our hosts are very conservative Muslims who have never really known a Christian, let alone had one of us in their homes. But as sure as I am that this must occur, and may even occur often, I couldn’t tell you which homes have felt this way and which haven’t (except for the few who have later confessed to having those feelings before getting to know us more). Everyone has made us feel more than welcomed and cherished. Any person is welcome at the proper Arab table and treated as an honored guest.

Obviously, the specifics of hospitality will differ from culture to culture. While we as Westerners are unlikely to start reprimanding our guests for leaving and begging them to sleep over, we as Christians must consider that there is more to hospitality than simply inviting and hosting. There is so much we all can learn from the heart behind the Arab world’s richly generous and unrelenting hospitality, which is one of its most endearing and widely celebrated traits. If hospitality is something we’re commanded to do and do well—within the church and for strangers—it is something we should be challenged to reflect on and grow in.


Grace Allen* is an IMB missionary who has been serving for 10 years in the Middle East with her husband and children.

*Name changed

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