Wednesday, June 10, 2015

David Commins's "Islam in Saudi Arabia"

David Commins is Professor of History at Dickinson College. He is the author of The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, The Gulf States: A Modern History, and Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria.

Commins applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Islam in Saudi Arabia, and reported the following:
From page 99:
National Dialogue

The first national dialogue on the theme of ‘Reinforcing National Unity’ brought together leaders of the kingdom’s different Muslim tendencies: Wahhabis, Twelver and Ismaili Shiites, Sufis, and non-Wahhabi Sunnis (Malikis from the Eastern Province and Shafiis from Hijaz). While plans for the experiment in intra-faith dialogue were moving forward, the United States’ invasion of Iraq exacerbated sectarian tensions in the Gulf, and al-Qaeda terrorists struck the Saudi capital. The need for religious toleration was more compelling than ever. In June 2003, the first national dialogue session convened for three days in Riyadh. Public recognition of Shiites and Sufis as fellow Muslims alongside Wahhabis was an important step. In fact, it was too big a step for the prominent Sahwa Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, who could not bring himself to accept the invitation to mingle with men he considered infidels. On the other hand, Sheikh Salman al-Awda, another Sahwa leader, not only attended but engaged directly with Shiite leader Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar. In symbolic terms, the session ruptured the two-hundred-year-old Wahhabi monopoly on religious representation. In concrete terms, the main impact was to break the ice for subsequent intra-faith encounters. Two months after the session, Crown Prince Abdullah established the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to plan future meetings.

At the end of 2003, the second national dialogue session was held in Mecca to discuss extremism and moderation. Participation was expanded to include members of the business community as well as ten women, who gathered in a separate room and followed the proceedings via closed-circuit television.
On page 99, readers get a glimpse of political dynamics surrounding religious life in Saudi Arabia in the wake of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the United States, which stirred a national debate over whether the country’s official Wahhabi doctrine fostered extremism and terrorism. We see the Saudi monarchy staging interaction between spokesmen for the country’s official religious establishment and representatives of Muslim minorities that have survived decades of discrimination and persecution. Royal control over public assembly and Wahhabi domination of public morality meant that men and women participating in National Dialogue sessions could not sit together. Sheiks from the “Sahwa,” or Awakening, tendency also attended. They share the Wahhabi establishment’s theological outlook but part ways in espousing political activism. In doing so, the Sahwa sheiks represent the evolution of religious thought as the country became a refuge for Islamists from Arab countries and underwent rapid social change.

In keeping with page 99’s sketch of multiple forces in play, other parts of the book take stock of how the today’s conservatism breaks with traditional ways. It was commonplace for women to ride animals before the automobile age, so why is there a ban on women driving? Women used to participate in the old agricultural, nomadic, and commercial economies, so why is there now a debate over women working? In addressing these and other questions about the role of religion in daily life, the book dismantles the common narrative that presents religion in Saudi Arabia as a monolith immune to change. Instead, the reader discovers how ordinary Saudis juggle personal convictions with the temptations of sudden affluence and the opportunities afforded by recent advances in communications technology to dodge surveillance by agents of puritanical doctrine.
Learn more about Islam in Saudi Arabia at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue