Have You Ever Thought about Power of Shame?

On Shame, Society and Islam

I have always thought that it is the right and even the obligation of the youth to examine the social structure established by the previous generations and rebel against the corruption and injustices they find in it.

I see this kind of generational rebellion as the natural way of humanity correcting itself perennially. But sometimes, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Sometimes, youth culture does not have the wisdom to see the baby in the bath and removes the good with the bad.

The good going away with the bad is a reality of modern times. Youth culture, in its dismantling corruption and injustices, has taken aim at shame. Rightly so they are rejecting a kind of shame that is put upon the human in unjust ways.

But they are not pausing to think if shame is ever useful. They have not looked with wisdom to even see if the baby is still in the bath.

What Is Shame?

Shame is a very painful feeling of humiliation caused by the awareness of a misdeed. Shame has a moral imperative. It is an embarrassment at the thought of a sin.

There exists an extreme and toxic shame. In the framework of shame-based religions, there is an understanding that the human being is inherently shameful. In this context, they teach that feeling sexual desire, angry, etc. are shameful, and that we are born in sin and are therefore shameful.  Their approach is very harmful to our wellbeing as humans.

Mary Lamia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist writes, “[…] with shame, “bad” behavior is not separate from a “bad” self […]” In the context of religious doctrines this drives the human being to not view him/herself as self, but as sin itself.

Shame as the basis of faith leads to feelings of humiliation, disgrace, and inadequacies in the face of impossible standards. This is so toxic that in many cases it has led to rejection of faith and in extreme cases has led to violence.

Violence and Rejection

James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who studies the relationship between shame and violent crime, says, “Universal among the violent criminals [Gilligan worked with] was the fact that they were keeping a secret, a central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed. I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed […].”

In these extreme cases where shame was a startling introduction to life and the exposure to shame was oft repeated, the injustice of being shamed as an innocent child made the victims of shame rebel against the society that did not offer them dignity and honor as human beings or protect them from parents who treated them with gross indignity.

Shaming people for being people has not only created a crime epidemic in many societies, it has also pushed many people to rebel against faith. And some of those who have felt the most shame in a religious context are even violent against religion or religious people, as is the case with antitheists.

This is the context in which youth culture needs to push back, to thrown off the mantel of shame. Shame is not a part of the human being’s natural state and shame is dangerous if wielded in this way.

But this is not what is happening. Youth culture is not rejecting shame as a toxic and erroneous religious doctrine. They are not weeding out toxic shame from faith. They are leaving religion and shame all together without understanding different faiths or the proper place of shame.

Have You Ever Thought about Power of Shame? - About Islam

Shame’s Function

Islam does not teach the human being to feel shame for his/her natural state. In fact it teaches us that the human being is honored (Al-Tin, 4), dignified (Al-Isra’, 70), and the most favored of God’s creation (Luqman, 20).

Islam teaches that God created us with a good nature, fitra, not in sin. Islam also rejects the idea that we should feel shame for what makes us human. It teaches that each emotion and human drive has its proper place in our lives and should not be denied entirely but used in an appropriate and healthy manner.

From this perspective, shame has its place in the Islamic context. We are created with the emotion of shame so that we feel embarrassed at the thought of sin and humiliated at the thought of others discovering our misdeeds.

Islam teaches that intrinsic shame should prevent us from committing sins and when we slip, shame prevents us from willfully exposing our sins. But by rejecting the sense of shame entirely, we bring about a society wherein people do not put shame in its proper place, where people even brag about public displays of belligerent corruption.

A clear example of the divorce from shame and shamelessness’ impact on society can be seen in the evolution of pornography. Only a few decades ago, people felt shame to admit that they consumed porn. But steadily porn became more common and was consumed more openly.

Today, porn is everywhere and watched by nearly everyone, including children. People feel no shame about it.

But with the increase in porn consumption has come an increased rate of violence against women. Porn has become an all-consuming addiction for many. And many men are experiencing sexual disfunction from the amount of porn they watch. These are only a few problems societies around the world are experiencing because of a lack of shame.


Here’s where we figure out where the baby is in the bathwater. Islam teaches us that shaming people for natural feelings and even their very existence is unjust shame.

Islam teaches us that if we do sin, we should not expose our sins.

The Prophet (PBUH) said, “[…] All of my ummah will be excused, except for those who make their sins known […]” (Bukhari)

Islam teaches that we should not seek to shame others. The Prophet (PBUH) said,

“Whoever conceals (the fault of) a Muslim in this world, Allah will conceal him (his faults) in this world and in the Hereafter.” (Muslim)

And that we should mind our own business when it comes to the sins of others. The Prophet (PBUH) instructed, “[…] do not backbite the Muslims. And do not search into their private matters […]” (Recorded in Ahmad and Abu Dawood)

From the Prophet’s (PBUH) example with the alcoholic companion and the Bedouin who urinated in the masjid, we know that shaming others should take a backseat to mercy and compassion.

But also, Islam teaches us to avoid extremes, to check and see if there is a baby in the bathwater. We should not collectively reject the entire notion of feeling shame. Shame is a powerful tool. When used improperly it can destroy people and strangle faith out of hearts. However, When used properly it can maintain dignity and reduce corruption.

First published: July 2018

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for AboutIslam.net and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.