Friday, July 22, 2005

TLS Article on Islamic Politics...

Honey-tongued
Fred Halliday
03 June 2005


CRADLE OF ISLAM. The Hijaz and the quest for an Arabian identity. By Mai Yamani. 226pp. Tauris. £29.50. - 1 85043 710 6

VOICE OF AN EXILE. Reflections on Islam. By Nasr Abu Zaid and Esther R. Nelson. 220pp. Greenwood. £25.80 (US $39.95). - 0 275 98250 5

There are at least three great myths about the Islamic religion and the Arabian Peninsula, each of which is propounded in both East and West. One is that Islam, and the people of the Arabian Peninsula, or at least of Saudi Arabia, are uniform, monolithic in belief and law, and homogeneous in national culture. The second myth is that the beliefs, society and politics of this region are in important respects unchanging, a timeless reflection of tradition, geography, ethnic character, to be understood as much through transcribed prophetic messages of the seventh century and the travel writings of intrepid British eccentrics as through a study of contemporary society and ideology. The third myth is that the culture and politics of this region are dominated by the desert, itself a timeless region that accounts for both the romantic and the harsh aspects of Islam and its core followers.

All of these are, in closer examination, false, though the casual enquirer might be forgiven for failing to see this, given the profusion of declamatory, but dogmatic, books on Islam, as well as the flow of travel writing and coffee table books on the desert, and given the efforts that many of those concerned with this region, be it oil-rich Ministries of Information and self-advertising rulers, or foreign oil companies, investment bankers and arms dealers, put into preventing independent and accurate research on these countries.

The peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone of the Middle East, are in fact extremely varied in practice, social behaviour and history, and within every Peninsula state, and above all in Saudi Arabia, there are differences of custom, sect, family and, not least, links to the outside world, some of them going back millennia. The claim of homogeneity of a people is, of course, not specific to the Arabian Peninsula, but has been propagated and enforced by states the world over.

The denial of change is equally false, yet it is one of the most pervasive misrepresentations of the Islamic world, one eagerly propagated by Islamic clerics as much as by external writers, that Muslims do not change. No society changes for internal reasons alone and, in the case of the Arabian Peninsula as with the rest of the Middle East, external factors, economic, military, cultural, have over the past two centuries had a major impact on them.

The image of the desert has as little validity: to say that the majority of the people of the Arabian Peninsula live in deserts is like saying that most English people live in thatched cottages. The whole cult of the desert serves to distract attention from the much larger proportion of the population who work on the land or who, as they have done for thousands of years, inhabit the major trading ports of the Peninsula, from Kuwait, Bahrain and Dubai, via Muscat and Aden, to Hodeida and Jiddah, or who live in the major cities of the interior: Mecca and Medina, the holy cities of Islam, were trading cities long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad. He was himself a trader, and someone who encouraged his followers to make money far more than the mendicant Jesus Christ. Islam itself, rather than being a religion of the desert, is the religion of an urban force that set out to conquer the desert.

The two books under review address, in contrasted but complementary form, these questions of how to understand the Arabian Peninsula and Islam, and to disentangle their real history from the mythology that surrounds them. At a time when there is much talk in the West, some informed, but much of it vapid and ahistorical pontification, of how to "reform" the Middle East, it is salutary to be reminded that all the major criticisms made of Middle Eastern states and intellectual culture have been made, and long before Western critics woke up to them, by writers from this region itself. Mai Yamani, a Saudi anthropologist, has already published Changing Identities, a pioneering and informative study of young people in Saudi Arabia, all the more persuasive because it shows how rapidly attitudes are altering among different generations, and how diverse Saudi opinion is.

Cradle of Islam, her study of Hijaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia conquered by Saudi forces in 1924, is exactly the kind of counter-mythical study needed, showing how the history, economy and culture of this area, which includes Mecca and Medina as well as the port of Jiddah, have differed from that of the Saudi forces that came from Nejd in Central Arabia and have imposed, through force and then through the use of oil wealth, their character on the region. Hijaz was a distinct region, ruled by the Hashemite family, from the tenth century, falling at various times under Egyptian and Ottoman control. It was its ruling family, led by Sharif Hussein, that rose with British backing against the Turks in 1916 and which later produced, under British tulelage, ruling families of Jordan, there to this day, and Iraq, ousted in 1958.

The Hijaz was in many ways the opposite of the timeless desert: its prosperity rested on the pilgrimage and on trade, its population drew on immigration from across the Muslim world, including Africa and Central Asia, and its elite was in modern times in the forefront of Arab modernism, producing before the First World War a sophisticated press. The Saudi conquest of the 1920s changed all that. The merchants of the region were offered a compromise by King Ibn Saud, and were again brought to the centre of government by King Feisal, until his death in 1975: among those so promoted was Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the author's father, to whom this book is dedicated and who, as oil minister in the early 1970s, became the best known face of the new Arab oil policy. But the predominant tendency of the Najdis was to subordinate Hijaz to their customs and economic concerns (though there was, Mai Yamani insists, very little intermarriage) and in time to move decision-making to the desert capital in the centre of the country, Riyadh. The final straw, in 1985, experienced as a humiliation by the Hijazis, was the decision to move foreign embassies from Jiddah, where they had traditionally been based, to Riyadh.

The focus of Cradle of Islam is on social custom, on what is distinctive about the Hijaz, and how, over the past two decades in particular, a sense of more distinct Hijazi identity has emerged, in speech, in dress, in food, in festivities (the celebration of "Meccan Nights") and, above all, in attitudes to the central Saudi state. While Yamani examines custom in detail, and also appends a fascinating glossary of terms used in Hijaz, including a phrase used of women ("Her tongue is of honey"), the underlying message is of the drawing of political as well as social boundaries, and of change, promoting diversity, within an apparently unitary Saudi Arabia. Perhaps because of the anthropological framework, some issues are left unstated: as with any regional or revived geographic term, it is far from clear what the boundaries, social composition or population of contemporary Hijaz are, nor does one get a sense of how far, among other recent changes, we can include the spread of a radical Islamist sentiment. The focus on the "awail", twenty-five leading families, allows of a great deal of finely observed social detail, but it may, inevitably, contain a certain social foreshortening, rather as if one were to judge the sociology and politics of early nineteenth-century Hampshire by reading solely the novels of Jane Austen.

In many ways, Nasir Abu Zaid is a writer wholly different from Mai Yamani. An Egyptian of peasant origin, from the Nile delta village of Quhafa, he was trained as an expert in linguistics and interpretation, writing his PhD on hermeneutics in the study of the Koran. He came to fame in the early 1990s when -amid a more general campaign of hostility to liberal and independent thinkers within Egyptian society, a campaign that cost the life of at least one writer, Faraj Fuda, in 1992 and led to a knife attack on the Nobel Prizewinning novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1994 - he was prosecuted by Islamists for his views on the Koran, and his wife became the object of a legal process designed to force her to divorce someone designated as an apostate. In 1995, following the failure of his colleagues at Cairo University adequately to support him, he went into exile in Holland, where he now teaches.

Abu Zaid is in many ways a typical Egyptian. He makes this clear in his autobiographical Voice of an Exile, a combination of personal reminiscences and discussion of his academic writings, written with Esther R. Nelson, an American professor of Religious Studies. Zaid grew up with the hopes of his generation in the Arab nationalism of Nasser, only to see it grow sour in the 1960s, with the failure of socialism inside Egypt, and in the defeat in the Six Day War of 1967.

He returns again and again to his Egyptian character, his love of jokes and of Egyptian family life. For him the greatest pain of exile is being cut off from his students. He also regards himself as a typical Muslim, allowing tradition and culture to define much of his life. Where he has broken with prevailing ideas, however, is in the interpretation of the Koran. Abu Zaid is not the first person, nor the last, to make the arguments that provoked much outrage: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a number of liberal and modernist Muslim thinkers, in the Arab world and in India, argued, as he did, that Islam had historically been, and should remain, open to other ideas, that it had to adjust to the modern world, that some division between religious and non-religious, ie, political and secular, power was desirable. Such early twentieth-century Egyptian writers as the liberal reformer Ali Abd al-Razzaq, the novelist Taha Hussein and, Nasir Abu Zaid's particular hero, for he too was expelled by his academic colleagues in the late 1940s, the specialist in Islamic studies Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah. A much earlier example of such greater openness is to be found in the work of Ibn Arabi, on whom Abu Zaid wrote his PhD thesis. Ibn Arabi, who was born in Spain and died in Syria in 1279, believed that the Koran should be interpreted according to its context and in the light of contemporary needs, and that Islam should draw on Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim, thought.

All of this was then, as it is now, anathema to those of a dogmatic and literalist bent. In particular, the argument revolves around the approach to be taken to reading the Koran: the dogmatic argue that it is an eternal text, with only one version and one meaning; those of a more literary inclination remind us that the Koran was "created", ie, originally dictated by an angel to one man, Muhammad, in what language we do not know, and that the text we use today is one of several possible versions written down at a later point on the basis of oral tradition. More importantly, argues Zaid, the Koran should not be seen as a given, but as the product of its time. Thus provisions that are outdated, like those on stoning or slavery, should be discarded while modern interpretations can be given to other general injunctions, such as those on cosmopolitanism, social equality, freedom of belief and material progress. Zaid is equally clear about what has become the main demand of many Islamist groups, the Shariah, or Muslim legal code: while the Islamists treat this as a single, divinely ordained and all-purpose canon, Zaid argues that it is a product of human legal judgment and argument over centuries, has no single meaning and does not contain the answer to many contemporary problems. In his own words: "Shariah law is human law. There is nothing divine about it". This is something that requires considerable scholarly authority, but also personal courage, to articulate in much of the contemporary Muslim world.

Zaid is a victim, as he himself discusses, of a hardening of attitudes in the Arab world in particular towards debate and diversity. A number of prominent Egyptian intellectuals have switched from secular, sometimes Marxist, thinking to Islam, others have been silenced, and the State has colluded with the Islamists to ban books and harass publishers. The most authoritative study of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, by the French orientalist Maxime Rodinson, who died in 2004, long a standard textbook in Egyptian universities, has been removed from circulation. The reasons for this shift are several: an increased frustration with the West and hence rejection of intellectual interaction with non-Muslim ideas; an appropriation by Islamists of the cultural dogmatism derived from nativist nationalism and from Stalinism; the hardening of modern Islam, in which the openness of the original nineteenth-century "salafis" has been replaced by a new harsh dogmatism, epitomized by Sayyid Qotb (who died in 1966), the intellectual godfather of al-Qaida; growing censorship by Arab states, including such supposedly more liberal ones such as Kuwait and Qatar, of unwelcome books; and, in a region beset by anger and injustice, the appeal to the young of intolerance and violence.

Different as in many ways they are, the two authors under review are, nonetheless, products of a common, and resiliently pan-Arab, intellectual and political context, one in which the certainties of both established states and Islamist opponents are rejected, in which scholarship of a high level is linked to contemporary critical needs, and in which, in particular, the claim to authority over what is, or is not, "Islamic" is contested by authors rooted in the history and culture of their particularly countries. At this time of external lecturing to the Arab and Muslim worlds about their need to change, it is salutary to be reminded, as one is by both of these books, of how the countries concerned are constantly changing, and of the very active, and often courageous, role of Arab intellectuals in this process. It is a comment on the difficulties such intellectuals face that, while they are able to return to their countries on visits, they are not able to function as writers and academics, and spend much of their working life in exile. One indication of this censorship: I was unable to place a review I wrote of Mai Yamani's earlier book in any Saudi-funded publication. Such censorship has, however, nothing to do with the Arab mind, nor Islam, since both of these authors are, in their core culture and in their intellectual concerns, as Arab and Islamic as any of their critics, except that they are wiser and more learned.

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