Is the so-called shoe insult an Arab custom, a Muslim one, neither, or both?
The question has surfaced as news organizations struggle to make sense of the shoe-hurling Iraqi journalist whom President Bush encountered at a Baghdad press conference over the weekend.
Many of the media's explanations have saddled the episode with cultural and religious meaning, noting that Muslims consider shoes to be ritually unclean and remove them before entering mosques. But Middle East scholars say shoe abuse appears to lack distinctly Muslim or Arabic origins and that some widely disseminated interpretations of the weekend run-in probably go too far.
"It's one of those cases where we're trying to make it a lot more alien and bizarre than it actually is," says Jamal Elias, a University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor who specializes in Islam. "The journalist was disgusted with something Bush was saying, and he acted out. I can't imagine if you go to a press conference with George W. Bush they let you carry too much with you, so he took off the one thing he could hurl—his shoe."
Elias notes that the shoe insult appears in Islamic literature as early as the 12th century. A hagiography of a Sufi saint published around 1600 claimed that the saint showed his spiritual superiority to a levitating person by making his own shoes levitate even higher and whacking the levitator's head with them.
Most Middle Eastern Muslims remove their shoes before entering a house, not just a mosque, suggesting the custom is more practical than religious. "Taking off shoes when entering a mosque or home is not a religious rule," says Jonathan Brown, assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Washington. "It's just the etiquette that's developed around cleanliness, etc. In fact, Muslims can actually pray with their shoes on. But you can imagine what that would do to the carpet of a major mosque."
Shoe insults aren't limited to the Arabic or Muslim worlds. In South Asian countries like India, Hindus—as well as Muslims—have a custom of humiliating people by parading them in public wearing a garland of shoes.
Even more basic shoe etiquette varies throughout the Muslim, Arabic, and Asian worlds. For instance, it's considered rude in Arabian Gulf nations to sit with a leg lifted or folded over one knee, lest one expose others to the soles of his or her shoes. But that custom is much less widely practiced in other nations in the region, like Egypt.
Omid Safi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of North Carolina, says that the meaning of the recent shoe incident is probably more universal than has been acknowledged. "We saw on CNN and BBC a ton of articles offering instant 'anthropological insights' on how the shoe touches the earth, and is the lowest part of the body," he wrote in an E-mail message. "What if in an American context someone had thrown a shoe at Bush? Would we see that as a sign of great love for the President?"
- Read more on the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at President Bush.
- Read more by Dan Gilgoff.