First – the Opinion piece:
Will Saudi Arabia Cease to Be the Center of Islam?
Sept. 7, 2018
By Faisal Devji
Mr. Devji teaches history at the University of Oxford.
An Urdu novel published in 1869 by Nazir Ahmad, a writer in Delhi, portrays two young Muslim girls at their geography lesson. As they identify various countries on a map, the girls come across the Arabian Peninsula. Their teacher describes it as an empty space infested by marauding Bedouin, one whose only significance lay in its historical role as the site of Islam’s birth.
The monuments and institutions of Mecca and Medina, the birthplaces of Islam, had always been minor in architectural quality and financial endowment compared with the splendid mosques, tombs and seminaries found at the centers of Muslim power in Baghdad and Cairo, Istanbul and Isfahan, Delhi and Samarkand.
Muslim kings rarely visited Mecca and Medina. Instead, those cities served as places of exile for their enemies.
Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world. Even as Mecca and Medina represent the most important sites of Muslim pilgrimage, the vision of the holy cities as remote and perilous is still reinforced by the occasional stampede of pilgrims during the Hajj.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has been moving fast to make his country a political and military power for the first time since its founding. He has engaged in a pitiless war with Yemen, imposed a blockade on Qatar and embraced increasingly aggressive positions toward Iran and other rivals. Whether or not Prince Mohammed’s strategy succeeds, it will transform Saudi Arabia’s religious status in the Muslim world.
In the late 19th century, for the first time since the Prophet Muhammad’s day, the Arabian Peninsula was placed at the center of Islam’s modern geography as Ottoman power waned over the Middle East and British influence extended outward from its economic and military base in India.
An unknown artist’s depiction of The holy sanctuary at Mecca.The David Collection/Fine Art Images — Heritage Images, via Getty Images
The “Muslim world” emerged as a category that provided a novel way in which to imagine a religion in cartographic terms. In 1882, a British diplomat and Arabist, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, published a book titled “The Future of Islam.” He foresaw the Muslim world’s colonization by European powers and sought to bring Islam under the protection of the British Empire, which possessed more Muslim subjects in India than the Ottomans did in their empire.
Mr. Blunt was among the first to make an argument that eventually redefined the geography of Islam by placing Arabia at its center. He argued that Istanbul and its Turkish emperor could never be true Muslim leaders, a role he saw as reserved for Arabs and their homeland. Istanbul, the capital of the only remaining Muslim power, had to be divested of its claim to the caliphate, and Islamic authority had to return to an Arabian Peninsula defended by the Royal Navy.
And the British writer saw British India as crucial in the making of this new Muslim world centered on the Arabian Peninsula. Apart from India’s large Muslim population, the country’s armed forces, traders, laborers and pilgrims had become crucial to the security, economy and demography of Arabia even in Ottoman times.
During this period Arabia was witnessing a consolidation of power through an alliance between the Wahhabi movement and the family of Ibn Saud, which led to the establishment of modern Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Initially, the Wahhabi movement inspired horror among Muslims in India and elsewhere, as its partisans demolished shrines and the tombs of saintly figures whose reverence they considered idolatrous. Indian Muslims cheered when the Ottomans declared the Wahhabis heretics. They supported the Ottoman claims to Muslim leadership until the new Turkish Republic abolished the caliphate after World War I.
But attitudes changed over time, and the Wahhabis came to be viewed more favorably in Muslim societies with weak or colonized elites well beyond Arabia.
By the 20th century, the British themselves had got into the habit of admiring the Wahhabis and those who appeared to be their Indian followers, whom they saw as the Protestants of Islam out to destroy the decadence and superstition of their corrupt and Catholic coreligionists.
The movement’s Muslim admirers included both extreme conservatives and liberal modernizers who, like the English, saw Wahhabis as rationalists willing to break with the “popish” authority of traditional religious authorities as well as of Muslim kings and return to the pure Islam of its Arab origins.
When Britain decided to support Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi troops in the 1930s, Indian Muslims were prepared to welcome the creation of Saudi Arabia. The ground for this welcome had been laid once Istanbul, or for that matter Cairo or Baghdad, was replaced by Mecca and Medina not only at the geographical center of Islam but also as the historical models for an ideal Muslim society.
The new geography of Islam was also a Protestant one, with Rome’s decadence mirrored in Istanbul and forsaken for Geneva’s austerities as found in Arabia’s holy cities. At its birth, Saudi Arabia looked very much like Mr. Blunt’s vision of it, the center of Islam protected by the Royal Navy and placed firmly in the camp of Christian powers.
After World War I, the American Navy replaced the British, and oil turned the kingdom into a crucial resource for Western capitalism. But its religious and economic centrality was contradicted by Saudi Arabia’s continuing political marginality, with Britain, the United States and even the Pakistani Army responsible for its internal stability and defense from external threats.
Today, Saudi Arabia is ostensibly countering Iran, but its claims to dominance are also made possible by the decline of Egypt and the decimation of Iraq and Syria. Turkey remains its only and as yet ambiguous rival apart from Iran.
And Prince Mohammed’s kingdom is looking more like a “secular” than a “theocratic” state in which sovereignty has finally been wrested from clan and cleric to be claimed directly by the monarchy. But Saudi Arabia can assume greater geopolitical power only by putting its religious status at risk, defined as this has been by its marginal role in geopolitics.
What will the subordination of religious to secular if despotic authority mean for the geography of Islam? In the aftermath of World War I, when the Ottoman defeat placed Islam’s sacred cities under indirect European control, Muslim thinkers debated the idea of neutralizing Mecca and Medina politically on the model of the Vatican or internationalizing them in the name of the world’s Muslims. Iran still refers to the latter option when trying to prise the holy cities from the grasp of the Saudis.
The project to make Saudi Arabia a politically rather than religiously defined state is likely to demolish the century-old vision of an Islamic geography, which has always been premised upon Arabia constituting its depoliticized center.
Mecca and Medina will still receive their pilgrims, but Islam may finally assume a truly global form and dispense with a colonial cartography in which the Middle East enjoys pride of place despite containing a small minority of the world’s Muslims.
Islam would inevitably find itself at home in Asia, where by far the largest number of its followers live, and toward which global wealth and power are increasingly shifting.
And my reaction.
It is important to understand political Islam and its reaction to the rampant West over the last 250 years in order to properly appreciate how much of that shock reverberates to this day.
I refer you to two books currently in my library – Charles Allen’s “God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad” . This is the same Charles Allen of “Buddha and the Sahibs” fame. And the second one is Pankaj Sharma’s “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia”. I will try and precis these for us a little later today.
I agree with the writer that logically the centre of gravity of Islam should shift to the populous countries of Asia, particularly to India and Indonesia where Islamic philosophy has had a chance to come up against another system of thought and has had to adapt. Indeed I believed for a long time that a new kind of Islam will be born here and Indonesia. As anyone who has travelled in Java Island will tell you, there is still very much a syncretism that has crystallised in Java over the centuries. It is true that much of that is under threat.
And the flirting with extremism that a nuclear powered Islamic Pakistan in response to India has damaged Pakistan but also damaged any hope of reforming Islam.
Back to Saudi Arabia. A deadly combination of the internet, a surplus of petrodollars, and the ability to provide basic infrastructure to failing societies like Pakistan has created the modern Jihadi. This will continue to remain the case unless the reform in Saudi Arabia is real.
And there I have no hope. MBS is a kid hopelessly out of his depth, and it will take a simple fatwa to overturn some of his cosmetic measures – such as giving women the right to drive. There is no political culture. And I am not so naive as to recommend democracy because the shambles of the Arab spring is before us. An America that is on the retreat from its values-based order, and a rampant Russia and China who could not give a hoot about values, means that MBS will replaced by another dictator. I do not believe things will improve.
I will leave you with another recommendation, Ziaduddin Sardar’s “Mecca: A Sacred City”. The corruption of the Saudis has converted Mecca into something it was not and all done in complicity with the mullahs. No wonder Osama Bin Laden had such anger towards the Saudis.