By Badria al-Bishr
28 February 2014
When cars were first introduced to Saudi Arabia as modernisation began with King Abdulaziz, people narrated a story that a man placed fodder in front of a car because he thought it was a camel or a ewe in need of food. The car was understood as such. This simple thinking is fitting with the isolation which people lived in during that time and thus the incapability to understand new technologies.
This isolation caused an increase in physical objects and concepts being prohibited. New ideas were dealt with in a wrong way and were rejected as a result.
The car, the phone and the television caused a cultural shock for many Saudis during that era. There were also many jokes related to Saudis struggling to adapt with a modernized country, such as that of the woman who covered her face when a male host appeared on TV. Popular memories suggest that ignorance and simplicity and the limitation of one’s mind are behind these incidents.
But some still has the same stance regarding anything new that goes beyond their capacity of understanding. While phones, faxes and televisions are ordinary to them, the situation is different when it comes to electronic networks, satellites and social networking websites. The intellectual shock is the same, and prohibition is a precautionary reaction.
We kept evading the confrontation of the famous fatwa that prohibits saying that the earth rotates and that it’s spherical. We evaded this confrontation until the Salafi scholars who issued this fatwa died. This led to creating a generation of teachers who resort to acquitting themselves when explaining the lesson on the earth’s rotation and who remind of the fatwa which denies this fact about the earth and prohibits saying it.
Not Gone Yet
No one today denies the earth’s rotation and spherical shape. However, Fatwas prohibiting new technologies and concepts are not totally gone, so those who know more invalidate them. So are prohibitions absolute, maximal and eternal? Or do they change according to one’s knowledge?
Yesterday, I read a news piece on how the Saudi religious police is pursuing those wearing “power balance” holographic bracelet while another cleric has described them as mascots. There’s a mix up in these two stances that resembles offering fodder to the car or that resembles being accused of infidelity because you’re wearing a dress sewed by a Buddhist.
These bracelets which a “prohibiting party” is confused about are nothing more than an accessory which commercial companies market as a fashion that doesn’t require any religious belief. In the same way, if you drive a German car, it doesn’t mean you practice your religion in a German way.
When I was a teenager, there was the fashion of placing a red thread on our foreheads like the Red Indians. This fashion later faded away. If a young man wraps a piece of cloth around his wrist because it’s fashionable then this does not insult his fixed belief in God and it doesn’t make him a polytheist.
The other power balance bracelets which companies of alternative medicine promote as treatments of rheumatism are not related to a religious belief either. Wearing them is not for the sake of being blessed but it’s based on a physical theory that hasn’t been proven yet.
It’s enough to try this bracelet on until the symptoms of rheumatism exhaust you and you realize it’s useless so you dump it. Perhaps resorting to health and natural treatment experts to explain the function of these bracelets is the best solution to save people from being robbed of their money. This would be better than taking the matter to the council of senior scholars and have it prohibit something that requires specialized scientific knowledge.
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University’s Department of Social Studies.