Books and Documents

Books and Documents (05 Jan 2012 NewAgeIslam.Com)

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.

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/books-and-documents/is-muslim-civilisation-set-on-a-fixed-course-to-decline?-asks-ziauddin-sardar/d/6299


  • You tube is very interesting, but will take lot of time to sit and listen to it, but i have a good mind to do it.
    By satwa gunam - 1/22/2012 3:36:53 AM

  • @Sadaf/Syed Rizvi. My just posted comment related to this article/link:

    . Acceptance of the episode of Satanic Verses of the Classical Sira (the Prophet’s early biography) stand shirk, kufr and nifaq (hypocrisy)


     Kindly read if you wish to know the truth from fiction.

    By muhammad yunus - 1/22/2012 12:33:47 AM

  • @sadaf/Syed Rizvi, The following conclusive remark based on a rationalist, historic critical evaluation of Islamic theological discourses/ Sira of the Prophet will hopefully convince you that what you Western scholarship refer as 'history', is no more than an anachronism of your/ their mindset: "It is high time that the Muslim theologians and scholarship acknowledge that the accounts reported in the Prophet’s early biography are laid out in the literary style and mental framework and imageries of the era - that was characterized by what we shall today call, fantasy, fable, imaginations and speculations verging on the fantabulous, the grotesque and the bizarre."

    Bottom line - what you/they call history today is no more than  "fantasy, fable, imaginations and speculations verging on the fantabulous, the grotesque and the bizarre." Kindly post a comment after reading the article wiht an open mind - as this is a very serious matter that should stimulate the reponse of the intellectual of Islam.

    By muhammad yunus - 1/22/2012 12:25:58 AM

  • If the answer to your question is 'yes' then this website should stop functioning forthwith. It is the easiest thing to be a Prophet of doom. You have to think what you at your level can do to stop Islam from extinction or reverese the tide of its decline - if you do believe that it has come from God and therefore it is going to stay.

    By muhammad yunus - 1/21/2012 10:57:12 PM

  • Not interested in a long drawn-out  debate about Lees Walker's writings  who does throw things around in bits and pieces mingled with his own biases. But, there is plenty on the internet that has not been disputed, and it is here were serious readers and defender of faith should be  taking parts in and can reach  wider audience and remove some of the misunderstandings the audience may have about Islam.

    Part 1 of 5
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    Not interested in a long drawn out debate on topics on which there is plenty on the internet. No doubt, Lee  Walker  throws some tit- bits around mingle with his own biases but some of his criticism  can be found on sites where  there is a whole lot more out there and being exposed to a wider audience, and it’s here where our serious scholars could be participating in and remove some of the misunderstanding  the public might have about Islam.

    Part 1 of 5



    Part 2 of 5


    Part 3 of 5


     Part 4 of 5


    Part 5 of 5



    Enjoy the reading/watching 1 of 5

    Part 2 of 5
    Part 3 of 5
    Part 4 of 5
    Part 5 of 5
    By Syed Rizvi - 1/20/2012 10:31:52 PM

  • OK, let us hear what those historical facts are, Mr. Syed Rizvi, that Lee points out? Please mention it point by point so that we can stay focused about the issue. And please don't tell us, it is already there from Lee, why are you required to enumerate. I think we need to see what you acknowledge and concede of Lee's blatant accusations and how much is that tenable. 

    By sadaf - 1/20/2012 1:18:36 PM

  • Problem with Lee Jay Walker is that he brings out some of the historical facts that we don't want to acknowledge; we just want him to just shut up.

    By Syed Rizvi - 1/20/2012 12:13:11 AM

  • Nothing new in such accusation, Beta Lee.  Enemy of Islam will of course say bad things. It is absolutely impossible that someone who is respected by so many could have been that evil or even evil at all. There is no evidence- forensic evidence to be basis of such accusation. In fact with the kind of hatred you display here, even if Nauzobillah such accusation had been true, people would never believe you. Your foolishness to be not able to conceal your bias is your undoing. Nobody has any fear of you. You may shout at the loudest of voice, use whatever means you have, but your ideas will always be seen as that of a frustrated individual. While the one against whom you utter this is the one who commands respect equivalent to sea, you are not more than a drop in comparison. You Loser.    
    By sadaf - 1/18/2012 2:10:59 PM

  • Walker says, "The early caliphs were also killed by Muslims," but does not mention how many early Popes were killed by Christians! The sins of Christians would fill a book, but it would be silly to call Christianity a bad religion.
    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/18/2012 8:07:14 AM

  • The author states "back to the elegant purity of Islam as a message of humility, unity, morality and ethics motivated by equality and justice."

    [Usual Walker Hate Speech deleted - Editor]

    Indeed this is the problem of Islam.  You see Buddhists can't be more pure than the Buddha, and Christians can't be more pure than Jesus.............but every Muslim visiting this website will have been married less than Mohammed - you see, Muslims are in denial with this reality and hypocrisy....every Muslim visiting this website will be more pure than Mohammed when it comes to marriage, having sex with concubines, and divorcing so many times.......this is reported in the Hadiths.....full stop!

    The early caliphs were also killed by Muslims and Muslims killed the bloodline of Mohammed by beheading a relative.....so, what purity is in enslaving non-Muslims, having sex with concubines, and so forth?

    The author of the article like the owner of this website desires to convert non-Muslims by lies......but Osama bin Laden knows that the Koran and Hadiths are based on violence and jihad and dhimmitude towards non-Muslims when obtaining power.......

    By Lee Jay Walker - 1/18/2012 7:00:42 AM

  • I wish my colleaguesto be felicitated with this article named, “It is time for Muslims to movetoward a new beginning” By Tahseen Abu Djihad

    Times of difficulty are always a good time toreflect about one’s position in life. This is not only true for individuals,but also for nations. The past year has been troublesome for most Arab nations.The dissatisfaction of the people with their living conditions reached a pointthat they took to the streets to demand better leadership for their countries.Today, they are still in the process of finding a new order for their lives andtheir societies.

    As long asthe stream of life runs calm and everything seems to be in order, a lot ofproblems remain hidden under the surface and people enjoy a superficial senseof relief and satisfaction. Nevertheless, even a seemingly calm running river,with a shiny surface, hides a lot of trash underground! It is in times ofdisturbances that much of this filth comes to the surface and people start towonder where all these impurities are coming from. It is a mercy of Allah thatonce in a while he forces us to face reality to recognize all the trash thathas built up in the so-called Muslim countries.

    Allah said,“Evil, (sins and disobedience to Allah) has appeared on land and sea because ofwhat the hands of men have earned (by oppression and evil deeds), that He(Allah) may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order thatthey may return (by repenting to Allah, and begging His pardon.)” (Qur’an,30:41) This is precisely the moment when people have to look deeper into therealities of life to find the root of all this mischief that happened, whichled their countries into this state of backwardness.

    It is abouttime that Muslims look for a new path and move in the right direction byleaving behind the path of falsehood, which has given nothing but misery.

    The bestexample to change a society can be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammad(peace be upon him) and his Companions. They transformed a country from utmostbackwardness into a large Muslim empire which dominated the world for a longtime.

    If, however,Muslims do not wake up and do not try their best to clean the society of allimpurities, like the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) cleaned the Ka’bafrom all impurities, then we will break our contract with Allah and would bedoomed!

    Allah saidin the Glorious Qur’an, “But those who reject our Ayat (proofs, evidences,verses, lessons, signs, revelations) and treat them with arrogance, they arethe dwellers of the (Hell) fire, they will abide therein forever.” (Qur’an,7:36)

    The timesthrough which we are passing are disturbing and distressing mainly because someMuslims do not follow the true teachings of the Glorious Qur’an and theMessenger of Allah (peace be upon him) anymore! “How shall Allah guide a peoplewho disbelieved after they belief and after they bore witness that theMessenger of Allah (peace be upon him) is true and after clear proofs had comeunto them? And Allah guides not the people who are Zalimun (polytheists andwrongdoers).” (Qur’an 3:86)

    Success isonly from Allah. It is mercy from Allah for those who follow His way,regardless of the fact he be whether an individual, society or nation. In Islamthere are two kinds of societies — Islamic and un-Islamic. The Islamic societyis the one that follows Islam not only in belief and worship, but also inmatters of law, economy and organization. This is the foundation of asuccessful Islamic nation and it was the secret behind the success of the firstMuslim nation; to follow the teachings of the Noble Qur’an and the ProphetMuhammad (peace be upon him) unconditionally and wholeheartedly.

    “The onlysaying of the faithful believers, when they are called to Allah (His words, theQur’an) and his Messenger (peace be upon him) to judge between them, is thatthey say: “We hear and we obey.” And such are the successful (who will liveforever in paradise).” (Qur’an, 24:51)

    “You do notworship besides Him but only names which you have named (forged) you and yourfathers — for which Allah has sent down no authority. The command (or thejudgement) is for none but Allah. He has commanded that you worship none butHim (i.e His monotheism); that is the (true) straight religion, but most menknow not.” (Qur’an, 12:40)

    One can justhope that Muslims today realize their chance to transform their countries intoreal Islamic states, according to the will of Allah! We need to understand thatlife in an Islamic state encompasses our tradition, lifestyle, values andbehavior as well as the way we are governed.

    By Raihan Nezami - 1/12/2012 11:42:27 PM

  • The Muslim wants to create a society based on rule of law and justice and equality. For this he looks at examples that were set during the Messenger Muhammad's time and later by some Caliphs. So, his aims may be good but he needs to find the means suitable to the present times.

    By Mubashir - 1/11/2012 7:25:40 PM

  • I think, it is perception with regard to development.  As far as the psyche of ordinary religious muslim is concerned, he is brain washed to go back to medieval period practice and that is the ultimate aim or development of them.  so in their perception they are developing to the ideal state. 
    By satwa gunam - 1/10/2012 4:40:31 AM

  • This is as good a critique of Wahhabi excesses and Saudi hypocrisy as one can find. Ziauddin Sardar, with his usual clarity and humour, debunks these regressive ideologies for being blind to the possibility of evolution in human thought and morality. 
    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/5/2012 2:14:49 PM

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