January 24, 2006
Lesson 1: Envy of the green kind
In many cultures, the symbol for envy has been the eye, or evil eye rather. Each culture has its own way of warding off envy of the malicious kind. I'm talking about the kind where you not only wish you had what that other person has, but you also wish for it to be taken away from them.
We've all been envious at one point or the other, perhaps in different ways, and of a different kind. Religiously speaking words have been implemented in order to admire without envy. Most Muslims will say "masha'Allah" (the way God wanted it to be), after paying a compliment to someone. Some are so passionate about not being envious that they leave you in no doubt of their...lack of envy.
"Mash'Allah Sarah you really look great in that outfit masha'Allah, I mean masha'Allah if I would wear it, it wouldn't look that great as it does on you masha'Allah."
Mash'Allah is also widely used by Christian Arabs, so one wonders if it is said by Muslims more in a cultural or linguistic context rather than religious?
The Greeks found another way, a less verbal one, of warding of evil spirits. One that requires an umbrella.
"Erifteria *spit* you look waaannderrfol *spit* in that outfit, *spit*"
Hmm... Ok, why not.
Often we have had envy depicted to us in colour. "He was green with envy". Colour or no colour, envy is a strong force that seems to overwhelm us bringing forth emotions that at times can be beyond propriety. Why are some more envious than others? And are some cultures or religions more aware of envy than others?
Across both the Middle-East and North Africa, a picture of the all-seeing eye hangs in cars, homes and around people's necks. The idea that this symbol can physically and spiritually protect you and your property from evil eyes is according to some unscientific and others might even say heretic, but it is nonetheless fascinating to see how some cultures have developed more sophisticated expressions, symbols and ways to deal with envy than others.
Another classic in the Muslim world is the Arabic phrase "Haaza min fadli Rabbi" (this is from the bounties/blessings of my Lord). You can find this on stickers stuck on people's cars, outside their homes and in shops. Imagine seeing that on Mr and Mrs Johnson's front door... it would most likely be perceived as over pretentious and even be met with an air of "who do they think they are?". Cultural context always has and will be a fascinating phenomena.
In Pakistan however, another type of expression has emerged. "Bud douaa". This basically means, "bad prayers", meaning bad wishes. It is no secret that a lot of people in Pakistan believe in some sort of black magic or evil wishing that could result in damage, and some even practice it. You frequently hear stories of beautiful girls getting married and loosing their hair after marriage because according to some "her in-laws performed black magic on her". Perhaps it's true, or perhaps her sister-in-law spiked her shampoo with weed control...
In Sweden, a few decades ago, it was customary to hang a horse-shoe above the entrance to the house. That was in order to hinder evil spirits from entering ones homes. I am not sure what horses have got to do with evil spirits, I should think bears are scarier than horses...and we have plenty of bears here. Then again, bears don't wear shoes... yet...
The word for jealousy in Swedish is "svartsjuka" which translated means "black sickness". Another colour... interesting. The word for envy is "avundsjuka", again, mentioning the word sickness. In spiritual Islam, envy and jealousy are classified as sicknesses of the heart.
Nowadays however, it is not widely spoken of in Sweden and the horse shoe, when practiced, is more to do with cultural heritage like "mom had one up there so we sort of kept it". Could it be that secularization or the lack of it has something to do with how envy is perceived in different parts of the world?
Whichever way it is, we continue to be engulfed by envy like fire eats up wood* and I will try not to forget to say mash'Allah and *spit* (just in case), next time my best friend shows up wearing the shoes I want...and I might even hit her on the head with a horse shoe, after all, I wouldn't want her thinking I'm sending out "bud douaa" for her.
* The Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) said: "Envy devours rewards as fire devours firewood."