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Is Muslim Civilisation Set on a Fixed course to Decline? asks Ziauddin Sardar




By Ziauddin Sardar

Wahhabism, the Saudis' brand of Islam, negates the very idea of evolution in human thought and morality. Ziauddin Sardar recalls his own experiences of a faith that shuns unbelievers including Muslims who do not believe in their arid ideology.

A uniquely lax notion of time has become integral to Wahhabism, the revivalist movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab that has become the state creed of Saudi Arabia. Abd al-Wahhab was born in 1703 in a small town in Najd, in the northern part of the kingdom, and brought up in the Hanbali sect, the most severe of the four schools of Islamic thought. Abd al-Wahhab advocated "the return to Koran and Sunnah" (the practice of the Prophet). His call was for a return to the purity and simple profundity of the origin of Islam. He rejected practices that had accreted and become permitted in traditional Islam, such as celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad or visiting the graves and shrines of saints and divines.

Rather like the Reformation thinkers in European Christianity, Abd al-Wahhab set himself against the abuses by which religion pandered to the gullible masses, rather than educated or ministered to them. His reforming zeal sent many back to the elegant purity of Islam as a message of humility, unity, morality and ethics motivated by equality and justice. If one needed a parallel, one could think of the elegant refinement and simplicity of Shaker furniture.

The contemporary Saudi creed owes as much, or possibly as little, to Abd al-Wahhab as it does to the 13th-century Muslim political scientist Ibn Taymiyya, who belongs in a long and heroic tradition of intellectual zealots. Ibn Taymiyya was concerned with the strength and survival of the Muslim community at a time when Islam, recovering from the onslaught of the Crusades, was under siege from the Mongols. He saw dissension among Muslims as their main weakness and sought to ban plurality of interpretations. Everything had to be found in the Koran and the Sunnah. The Koran had to be interpreted literally. When the Koran, for example, says God sits on His throne, He sits on His throne, period. No discussion can be entertained on the nature of the throne or its purpose. Nothing can be read metaphorically or symbolically.

I learned a great deal about modern Wahhabism from students at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. When I worked at a research centre at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah the late 1970s, we would hire these students by the hundred to help us with our surveys and studies. A few of them were Saudis, but most were from other parts of the Muslim world. Without exception, they were on scholarships and were guaranteed badly paid employment from the Saudi treasury on finishing their course. All were being trained as dias - preachers who would, on graduation, go out to Asia and Africa, as well as Europe and America, to do dawa: run mosques, madrasas and Islamic centres, teach and preach.

What did they learn? And what were they going to preach? From the dias, I discovered that in modern Wahhabism, there is only the constant present. There is no real past and there is no real notion of an alternative, different future. Their perpetual present exists in the ontological shadow of the past - or rather, a specific, constructed period of early Islamic history, the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The history/culture of Muslim civilisation, in all its greatness, complexity and plurality, is totally irrelevant; indeed, it is rejected as deviancy and degeneration.

So it is hardly surprising that Saudis had no feelings for the cultural property and sacred topology of Mecca.

The students from the University of Medina were fiercely loyal, both to their Saudi mentors and to their particular school of thought. The Wahhabism they learned was manufactured on the basis of tribal loyalty - but the place of traditional tribal allegiance was now taken by Islam. Everyone outside this territory was, by definition, a hostile dweller in the domain of unbelief. Those who stood outside their domain were not limited to non-Muslims; it included all those Muslims who have not given allegiance to Wahhabism.

The ranks of unbelief were swollen by the Shias, the Sufis and followers of other Islamic schools of thought. In the minds of these dias, and in Saudi society itself, the demarcation between the interior and the exterior, with us or against us, insider or outsider, orthodox or heretic, is almost total.

The students would often tell me that any alliance with the unbelievers was itself unbelief; that one should not just refrain from associating or making friends with them, but should also shun their employment, their advice, or emulating them, and should try to avoid conviviality and affability towards them.

In Saudi Arabia, the expatriates are treated in this fashion, confined to their specific quarters according to their status. The maintenance of rigid, sharp divisions is evident also in the treatment of women. It is not just that women are totally marginalised in society as a whole. The distinctive difference of the position of women has to be emphasised at every juncture.

All men in the kingdom dress in white - crisply ironed troupes and jallabiyahs. White is the natural colour for such an extreme climate: it reflects the sun and absorbs very little heat. Women have to be covered, from head to toe, by law, in black shrouds that absorb all the sun and all the heat. Women wear their shrouds ninja fashion, observing not traditional female Muslim dress or Hijab, but the more extensive Niqab, the head-covering that leaves only a narrow slit where the eyes are visible. The only place in Saudi Arabia where this refinement of dress is not seen is within the precincts of the Sacred Mosque itself, where the conventional Islamic precepts of female garb include the requirement for the face to be uncovered.

Initially, I dismissed the confessions of students from Medina as the ranting of overzealous young men. I also suspected my own observations of Saudi society. As someone brought up and educated in Britain, I thought, I was looking at the Saudis from a biased perspective.

And what about people such as my friends at the King Abdul Aziz University, Abdullah Naseef and Sami Angawi? I had not, and still have not, met more rounded, humane, compassionate or refined individuals. In the person of Naseef, the university president, the simple profundity of Islam that Wahhabism sought to recapture soars beyond any simplistics that could be termed fundamentalist. Both in his own lifestyle and the way he related to others, Naseef was a sublime minimalist. He oozed culture in a society that was totally devoid of art or culture; he radiated subtlety and finesse while surrounded by clumsiness and ugliness. He operated unfailingly with a gentle, peaceful tolerance, while all around him a harsh, brutalising incivility and disdain were becoming the normal routine of Saudi life.

The true import of Saudi Wahhabism was brought home to me in November 1979. During that fateful month, a group of zealots occupied the Sacred Mosque in Mecca.

Under a pale scimitar moon, and among thousands of worshippers circling the Ka'aba, a group of Bedouins brought out sub-machine guns, rifles and revolvers concealed beneath their robes and fired into the air. They allowed most of the worshippers to leave the Sacred Mosque, then they bolted all 39 doors to the mosque from the inside. Their 27-seven-year-old leader, Mohammad al-Qahtani, proclaimed himself the "mahdi" (redeemer) who had come to purify Islam. The insurgents came largely from the Oteiba tribe, which included many European and American converts to Islam. They belonged to the al-Moshtarin sect and believed that a man had to buy his place in paradise by devoting all his goods and his life to religion.

They accused the Saudi state of co-operating with Christians, confirming the heresies of the Shias, promoting dissension by permitting more than one interpretation of Islam, introducing television and film into the kingdom, and instituting the fetish of money. Mecca was cut off from the rest of the world and the mosque surrounded by the army and the national guard, whose main function is to guard the royal family. But before the rebels could be (literally) flushed out of the mosque, they had to be sentenced formally to death. The task fell to Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, the chief scholar and the mufti of the kingdom.

Bin Baz was blind and I used to see him often at the Sacred Mosque. The spectacle was always the same. A young student, holding him by his left shoulder, would lead him around the Ka'aba while hordes of admirers and devotees would try to kiss his right hand. The accusations of the rebels against the Saudi state were read out to bin Baz. He agreed totally with the thesis of the rebels. Yes, he said, a true Wahhabi state should not associate with the unbelievers. Yes, more than one interpretation of Islam should not be allowed under any circumstances. Yes, images of all kind were forbidden in Islam, including television and film. And, yes, money should not be fetishised.

The only thing Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz disagreed with was that these things actually happened in the Saudi kingdom. So the Sacred Mosque was flooded and the messianic rebels were drowned. It seemed to me that the puritan rebels were at least honest, truer representatives of Wahhabism - unlike the dishonest Wahhabite state.

By radically denying the complexity and diversity of Islamic history, over time and vast areas of the world, and rejecting diverse, pluralistic interpretations of Islam, Wahhabism has stripped the faith of all its ethical and moral content and reduced it to an arid list of do’s and don'ts. To insist that anything that cannot be found in a literal reading of the sources and lore of early Muslims is kufr - outside the domain of Islam - and to enforce this comprehensive vision with brute force and/or severe social pressure for complete conformity spells totalitarianism.

In a totalitarian society, things move slowly and mysteriously. I was at the ministry of the interior waiting for an exit visa to leave Saudi Arabia. At around two o'clock, the time that offices usually close in Saudi Arabia, the jawazat (visa section) window opened. A hand holding a file materialised through the window and flung the file in the air. A man waiting patiently in the shade jumped up, caught the file, opened it to take a brief look and walked briskly out of the compound with a satisfied look. A few moments later the hand emerged again, and another file was flung in the air. Another man caught it and walked out. The process continued for several minutes.

Finally, the hand appeared once more, and Shaikh Abdullah, who was accompanying me because he had responsibility for arranging visas for university employees, jumped up from a squatting position and caught the file. He opened it and glanced at it. I looked at him anxiously. "Have I got the exit visa?"

"Well, not quite," Shaikh Abdullah replied. "You haven't got the visa, but the letter from Doktur Naseef has been honoured."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"I don't know. I have never faced this situation before. But I think you can leave the country tomorrow."

"As long as I can leave the country. That's all I want." I took the file from Shaikh Abdullah. There was a letter attached to my passport.

At that moment I had a strange thought. "Considering all files look the same, and the man behind the window did not indicate anyone or anything, how did you know which file to jump and catch?"

Shaikh Abdullah was irritated with the question. "I can't tell you everything. Now if you take this letter to the airport, you will find they will allow you to leave the country. "Khalas," he said, stroking his palms and fingers as though he was dusting his hands. "Khalas," he repeated. "It's over." Without waiting for a reply, Shaikh Abdullah jumped in his pick-up truck and drove off.

The following day was the first day of Ramadan. The city, indeed all of Saudi Arabia, stays up all night. During this blessed month a whole new inverted lifestyle emerges. The day becomes night. Once the cannon is fired (actually there are 12 cannons fired in unison) to mark the end of suhur, the city goes to sleep. Suhur is the last light meal before the beginning of the fast, just before dawn. The streets are deserted; offices, shops and business establishments are closed, opening for only a few hours between ten and one. The city begins to show signs of life just before sunset.

By the time the cannons have been fired again, now to announce the iftar, the light meal that marks the end of the fast, the city becomes vibrant with excitement. The skyline is illuminated with a riot of colour, roads become jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic and streets and alleyways are crowded with people shopping for the following day. The offices and shops open again at around ten at night and will close only after two o'clock in the morning. Some restaurants and shops will still be doing brisk business right up to dawn.

It is truly astonishing how easily and speedily the Saudis adjust to change, to living by night and sleeping by day. The previous Ramadan, after the siege of Mecca, I had started thinking about permanence and change in Islam. I had started to write The Future of Muslim Civilisation. It was an attempt to articulate my own vision of what an Islamic society should and could be.

Nothing remains "contemporary" for ever, I argued. Islam has to be rearticulated, understood afresh, from epoch to epoch, according to the needs and requirements, the specific demands of geographical location and the circumstances of the time. What changes is our understanding of the constants. And as our understanding develops, Islam of one particular epoch may not bear much resemblance - except in devotional matters - to Islam of another epoch. Wahhabism, I had concluded, had been employed to introduce two metaphysical catastrophes in Islam.

First, by closing the interpretations of our "absolute frame of reference" - the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad - it had removed agency from believers. One could have only an interpretative relationship with a living, eternal text. Without that relationship of constant struggling to understand the text and find new meanings, Muslim societies were doomed to exist in suspended animation.

If everything was an a priori given, nothing new could really be accommodated. The intellect, human intelligence, became an irrelevant encumbrance, given that everything could be reduced to a simple comply/not comply formula derived from the thoughts of dead, bearded men.

Second, by assuming that ethics and morality reached their apex, indeed an end point, with the companions of the Prophet, Wahhabism, which became the basis of what later came to be known as "Islamism", negated the very idea of evolution in human thought and morality. Indeed, it set Muslim civilisation on a fixed course to perpetual decline.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

Source: The New Statesman

Extracted from Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim by Ziauddin Sardar, published this month by Granta Books (£16.99) 

First published in New Statesman, London, on 14 June 2004.