I against my brother. I and my brother against my cousin. I, my brother, and my cousin against the world (Arab Proverb)

Arab warriors fighting against the world
Bedouins in Battle.

[You can follow me on Twitter @creatorvilla.] The sequence in the title comes from a famous Bedouin proverb. The jBedouin were militarized Arab nomads who inhabited the deserts of Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia prior to the development and sedentarization of the early 20th century. The proverb captured how human beings have conducted themselves for the great majority of recorded history. Human beings are tribal, and the basic unit of the tribe is the immediate family. Beyond the immediate family, people form loyalty ties based on kinship. However, there is a problem with this system. First of all, it implies people are always in conflict with others. And second, it implies that every human being will have an enemy in the great majority of people on earth. Indian-American novelist and author of The Sweetness of Tears, Nafisa Haji, captures some of this tension.

There is an old Arab Bedouin saying: I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I my brothers and my cousins against the world. That is jungle law. It is the way of the world when the world is thrown into chaos. It is our job to avert that chaos, to fight against it, to resist the urge to become savage. Because the problem with such law is that if you follow it, you are always fighting against someone.

Nafisa Haji, The Sweetness of Tears

Fortunately, most of us live in ordered societies where our immediate survival is not at stake. We don’t have to walk around with the same level of distrust as the ancients, knowing that the probability of us losing our lives or our livelihood is meager. But the remnants of old ways of evolved thinking die hard. And the seed of distrust is still strong within the human race. This seed manifests as anger, hatred, selfishness, and a desire to harm the person of others even using all non-physical means possible. It is this internally driven chaos that can wreak havoc in even the most ordered external environments.

The way to overcome the law of the jungle isn’t simply to create better government. That will only limit the scope for internal chaos to manifest as outright violence. The way to overcome the law of the jungle is to cultivate an inner love for other people. This is much easier said than done. What reason does anyone have to love others? There are multiple ways of answering this question.

Spirituality—my faith is a powerful anchor in my life. I believe that all people were created in the image of God. This gives me a reason to strive to love everyone, even if I fall short the majority of the time. Spirituality is an anchor for a lot of people. But there are non-spiritual approaches that work toward the same end.

A sense of universal connection—The consciousness that all living things are connected such that the well-being of each of us affects other people. Every instance of an innocent person being victimized by crime is a reminder of this principle. But universal connection works in an opposite manner as well. People who follow good laws, innovate solutions to problems, and show kindness make the world a better place for others. There are myriad philosophical and material goods that we take for granted in the world, like the belief of universal equality and the opportunity to live a much better material life relative to the rest of the world. These were gifted to us by others.

Humanism—a theoretical framework a core belief of which is that human beings are capable of great good when placed in the right environment. Each individual has fundamental value and can learn to behave in a way that maximizes the overall welfare of the species. Humanism works best the more people that are on board—it is a mutual decision to further collective interests and is more specific than a universal sense of connection. Its focus on humanity and optimism about the potential of the human species distinguish it from other approaches.

Karma, sowing and reaping, or the law of reciprocity—These concepts share the idea that how people treat others sooner or later has an effect on their own life. Sometimes the concept has religious overtones, but it can be understood purely through a secular lens. The law of reciprocity holds that people tend to treat others the same way that others treat them. But there is a way of understanding the psychological benefit of showing love independent of whether said love is returned. A Biblical Proverb illustrates my point:

A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself

Proverbs 11:17

The Arab proverb cited above is the diagnosis of a problem. A problem at the level of ideas and norms that is responsible for the currently fractured state of human affairs. Surely, there must be a better way of interfacing with the world.


  1. I find hatred and jealousy go hand in hand. There are many reasons for jealousy which transforms into hatred. In school it’s a fight between the smart and not smart. I’ve witnessed it several times, though I thought it was silly, the ones involved took it seriously.
    Then there are politicians who fight tooth and nail against his /her opponent. Under these circumstances love has very little chance.
    I do like the idea of spreading love but 21st century is clearly failing in this area.

  2. I wouldn’t rule out changing ourselves–we do need to–but we need to change our governments as well. Because they can take us to war even when a majority of their people oppose it. Because they can stir up old hatreds that seem to lie all too close to the surface, turning cousin against cousin. Unless we do both, we are trapped.

  3. If each person were to truly accept full responsibility for his or her action and practice empathy, we would have less anger and envy. Recall when the question posed to famous authors, “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton wrote to say, “I am.” How true. Imagine if people stopped blaming others for their own demise . . .

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