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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Islam in Saudi Arabia

Since reading and reviewing Halal Monk  I've been looking for more books that will help to fill in the blanks in my knowledge of Islam.  I've read so much about Wahabism, the dominant sect of Saudi Arabia, from the perspective of its opponents.   Yet I knew nothing about its history.  I also wanted to know about the beliefs of Wahabis  from a source that might be less biased than the sources I've previously encountered.  I don't imagine that there is such a thing as a completely unbiased source about any subject.  Islam in Saudi Arabia was published by Cornell University Press and was written by David Commins, a professor of history at Dickinson College.  He has done research on Wahabism in Saudi Arabia and has written a previous book on the subject called  The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia.  I downloaded Islam in Saudi Arabia from Net Galley and this is my honest review.
I think my most important takeaway from this book in the context of Saudi culture is that Wahabism is a longstanding ally of the Al Sauds who rule Saudi Arabia.  The 18th century founder of the tradition, Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab was very close to the Al Saud family of that generation.  As the power and status of the Al Saud family rose over the centuries, so did the religious influence of Wahabism.   The relationship between the Saudi monarchy and Wahabi clerics has been uneasy at times.  There has even been violent conflict over the role of religion.

 Wahabism sees itself as the most pure monotheistic sect of Islam.  Their criticism of other sects reminds me of  Protestant Reformation preachers condemning the saints of the Catholic Church.  Christianity has also had its controversies over monotheism. 

  Wahabi clerics usually concede the political realm to the government, and the  Saudi government usually allows Wahabi clerics to control all matters of religious life.  The Saudi situation isn't like the American idea of separation of church and state.  The Saudi monarchy does interfere with religion if religious leaders criticize them.   Since 9/11 there has been some liberalization of Saudi media.  Many issues are now openly discussed that had never previously been aired publicly.  The one thing that is still never allowed in Saudi newspapers, television or online forums is condemnation of  the Saudi government.

When I was reading the section in this book about women and sports in Saudi Arabia, I tried to think of sports that women could play veiled with the hijab prescribed by Wahabism called the  full niqab which covers a woman completely except for eye slits.  I thought that this hijab could interfere with vision. So  I did a search on veiled women playing sports.  I found pictures of veiled woman athletes, but none were wearing the full niqab of Wahabi women.  There was an article dealing with Muslim women wearing sports hijab at the 2012 Olympics.  The women shown were Shiites.   Unfortunately, sports hijab doesn't meet Wahabi standards.

Yet does hijab really block vision? I found an article that deals with this question as it affects driving.  Should Driving While Wearing Burqas Be Illegal?  The case involved an Afghani woman driving in France wearing the hijab prescribed by the Taliban which covers the eyes with a mesh screen.  Her lawyer argued this wouldn't impact vision.   The article advances the view that if this sort of hijab wasn't allowed for driving, then motorcycle helmets should be banned instead of mandated.   Yet I looked at the narrow slits of full niqab and thought that they weren't comparable. An Afghani woman in her hijab might really have a better view of the road than a Saudi woman in Wahabi hijab.  Does this mean that Saudi women really shouldn't drive?  I have a modest proposal.  Maybe the Wahabi  clerics should give permission for Saudi women  to wear the Afghan form of hijab while driving.

 I read  about a concern that soccer players wearing hijab in hot climates might be adversely affected in an article by Qanta Ahmed M.D. on Hijab in Sports  Yet it occurred to me that U.S. football players wearing helmets during hot weather would probably have the same problem.  I think that  a climate controlled dome would be a solution for both hijab wearing soccer players and helmet wearing U.S. football players in hot climates.   Another problem that Dr. Ahmed mentions involving the safety of hijab when a player is being tackled might be more intractable.   Perhaps hijab should not be worn for contact sports. 

I noticed that there is currently no digital edition of this book available for sale.  If Cornell University Press decides to make Islam in Saudi Arabia available in digital format, I would recommend that the endnotes be hyperlinked within the text.   As a reviewer who downloaded this digitally, I had a more difficult time checking sources than I would have had with the print version.  I couldn't simply turn to the correct page.  I have said this in a review before, and I think it cannot be said too many times.  Hyperlinking to endnotes should be standard practice for scholarly non-fiction in digital format.

This review is based on a publishing proof.  The final version may have revisions, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention any problems that I noticed during my reading of this proof.  I had some organizational issues.  It seemed to me that Commins couldn't decide whether he was going to present his subject chronologically or topically.  He tried to do both, and the result was a great deal of unnecessary repetition.   My preference would have been one consistent organizational approach.

 I learned a great deal from this book that I hadn't known about Wahabi history and practice.  I also learned about Shiites in Saudi Arabia, and how the political relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has influenced the status of  Saudi Arabian Shiites.  So I do think that this is a valuable book for Western readers.



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