Friday, 16 November 2012

Iranian Thinkers in Exile: What is the influence of progressive Muslim intellectuals living abroad?

Very soon after establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Khomeini-led revolution ousting the Shah in 1979 began eating its own children and has continued to do so. Now, more than thirty years later, Urs Sartowitz has written an assessment.

Abdolkarim Soroush
Scientist-philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush (pseudonym of Hossein Haj Faraj-Dabbagh), who was initially implicated in the very sinister cultural politics of the regime, eventually found himself on the margins, to the point when challenges of his views turned into outright attacks forced him into exile. Not surprisingly, because as his thinking matured, Soroush's interpretations of the Islamic tradition --  which remain an interesting mix of daring new readings combined with references to Sufis from the classical era such as Jalaluddin Rumi (although most Persian-speakers prefer to refer to him as Jalaluddin al-Balkhi) -- are lightyears removed from the Islamic republic's partyline.

His most radical theory relates to the Koran, which he feels was not revealed word for word to the Prophet, but was written by the Prophet, who was inspired to do so by God. Soroush feels that like the Bible, the Koran is a human work and can, as such, be fallible. In this way, he has moved on from previous statements, in which he said that the language and the length of the Koran was a matter of chance.(cf also the blog post of 20 March 2012).

Mohsen Kadivar
The same happened to the cleric Mohsen Kadivar. Starting out as a member of the religious establishment, his proposition that the body of Islamic jurisprudence as it has taken shape in the formative period of Islamic civilization has now become outdated and needs to be reformed in order to avoid becoming obsolete, made his internal position untenable. He now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina.

Even moderate, much more traditionally-inclined, thinkers such as the theologian Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari (readers of Persian can also go here), who thinks that Soroush is going to far, was no longer safe after advocating the separation between state and religion, questioning the legitimacy of the doctrine of velayat-e faqih -- that is the absolute rule of Islamic legal scholars -- which forms the bedrock of the current regime in Iran, or criticizing the supporters of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for attributing Mahdi-like qualities to the current Supreme Religous Guide.

Hasan Yousef Eskhevari
Being removed from direct contact with their domestic audiences immediately poses the question of what remains of their influence on Iranian Islamic discourses. While the internet and satellite TV offer solutions for this type of physical disconnect, there is a more fundamental question, which Sartowitz alludes to only in passing when discussing the controversial, even provocative, ideas of Soroush: 'Although he is opening up new opportunities for a re-interpretation of the Koran [...], it is questionable whether the majority of Muslims will follow him down this path'.

 Read the full article here

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Whereas the Qantara website used the anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to assess the progress in  democratizing the Muslim world, in the very same week a YouTube clip of an obscure, badly edited and poorly acted alleged parody of the Prophet Muhammad led to virulent reactions in a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East against perceived anti-Islamist conspiracies orchestrated by the West.

The essay The End of the "Anti-Thesis" argues that 'After a decade, 9/11 is over. Its main legacy – the idea that Islam is fundamentally opposed to Western democratic values – has finally lost its power of persuasion. What is making this antithesis untenable is the Arab Spring, which is revealing rather different sides to both Muslims and what the West has stood for in the past'. It surveys the rise of Islamophobia fed by rightist politicians in Europe and debates among academics on promoting national culture and the extent to which foreign contributions must be recognized:
And so the message of 9/11 has permeated political and intellectual discourse, parties and voters as well as scholars and opinion makers. Strikingly, its most vocal proponents have been anti-Islamists as well as Muslim extremists. If there is anything that al-Qaeda and Geert Wilders actually agree on, it is that there is a deep-seated Clash of Civilisations – that Islam and the West are indeed fundamentally opposed. And between them we have all been captured by that theme.
While this may have been an accurate statement of accounts for a number of years, now it must be balanced against the seismic shifts in the political landscape of the Arab world over the past two years:
Quite unexpectedly, the claim of the fundamental antithesis is ceasing to sound so self-evident. All of a sudden, the drum of Islam versus Western values has begun to lose its beat. It looks as if 9/11, after all, was not the start of a whole new era, but merely the beginning of one decade – a decade that is now coming to an end.

What made this transformation happen is not the death of Osama Bin Laden – his leadership had withered long before he was shot. Nor was it caused by Barack Obama – his speeches have promised outreach and reconciliation, but his foreign policy yet has to deliver. What has really undermined the 9/11 antithesis are the popular uprisings of the current Arab Spring. It is these revolutions that have shown that the dichotomy of Islam and Western values does not actually hold.

Unfortunately events in the second week of September 2012 appear to set things back again. It is not inconceivable that governments in North American and European capitals will get second thoughts after having taken leave of autocrats they had propped up for decades and the -- by and large reactive, not pro-active --enthusiasm with which they greeted 'people's power' in the Middle East. This is also corroborated by Bassam Haddad's much darker assessment for Jadaliyyah

Although it is still a matter of debate who exactly is behind the amateurish 'The Innocence of Muslims', in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, rumors that the clip was the work of Israeli and American film-makers led to large-scale protests, attempts to storm the embassies of the USA and European countries, and eventually  the tragic death of several American diplomats, including the ambassador to Libya. From a detached and dispassionate point of view it is puzzling how such a badly edited and poorly acted little film can result in such violent responses. At face value it only appears to show how very sensitive Muslims have been become to any media coverage or depictions that are perceived as anti-Islamic. But is that really all there is to it?

'Innocence of Muslims' screenshot
The fact that in various Arab countries 'Innocence of Muslims' was immediately associated with America is certainly a worrying indication of strong anti-Western sentiments simmering just below the surface among large parts of the population, which are ready to explode at any moment. Evidently, it takes only the slightest provocation to ignite these negative feelings, leading to developments that quickly spiral out of control.

However, the fact that the most heated responses came from three Arab countries which have recently experienced violent regime changes seems to me more relevant than the fact that they are also Muslim countries. Yes, there have also been protests as far away as Southeast Asia, but Indonesian Muslim leaders, for example, have stated that the film does not deserve any attention. Therefore, it appears more likely that accusations of anti-Islamic conspiracies must be understood as a catalyst for political frustrations among the population with the way things have been going since the disappearance of the dictators. In that case religion can NOT be considered the root cause of the current frenzy affecting the mobs in Cairo, Benghazi and Sanaa. Unfortunately, it is often very difficult for political actors in the Muslim world to keep these things apart and for outside observers to interpret developments correctly.

The Religion Dispatches Website has made an effort to establish the identity of the maker of this film, while Bruce Lawrence, a respected historian of religion specializing in Islam, wrote a first measured commentary under the title 'YouTube Terrorism', assessing the effects the information era is having on political and religious debates. Different angles are provided by Omid Safi, in what one commentator described as a  twelve-point 'manifesto for sanity', and by Juan Cole in his widely read blog Informed Comment.

Tom Holland
With heated mass protests raging across the Muslim world, a domestic controversy in the United Kingdom on another instance of perceived anti-Islamic media coverage quickly disappeared from the headlines. As embassies and consulates were torched and diplomats met with a violent death in Egypt and Libya, Britain's Channel 4 pulled the repeat airing of a documentary on early Islamic history after writer and presenter Tom Holland had received threats. 

Although some media erroneously reported the programme's title as 'Islam: The Untold Truth', what Islam: The Untold Story tried to do was to present a thesis developed in the 1970s by a number of historians, at the time based at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), but since then transferred to Princeton. Their point of departure that since there is no indigenous written records dating back to the first centuries of the Islamic era, therefore Islam itself did not yet exist, has been challenged as selective and one-sided. After all, the fact that documentary evidence in Arabic has not survived does not mean it never existed. Moreover, circumstantial evidence can also be pieced together from archaeological remains or materials from the surrounding areas such as the Byzantine Empire and Persia. In any case, from the perspective of professional historians and other academics working on Middle Eastern history it remains an interesting hypothesis to put to the test, but the documentary was not very successful in bringing that particular point across; that it was a scholarly exercise by a number of academics which has met with increasing criticism and rejection by their peers.

Unfortunately, the result was once again what the newspaper The Independent called 'another unholy row about Islam'. Fortunately, a number of Muslim commentators also offered critical introspections and suggestions for more constructive responses when such issues arise: 
"It's not anger," says Mohammed Ansar, a Muslim commentator who has been a prominent online critic of Mr Holland's documentary. "Anger is what we're seeing in the Middle East. What we've seen in the UK has been much more measured."
Inayat Bunglawala, chair of Muslims4UK, agrees. "I have no time for those who say Channel 4 shouldn't broadcast such a programme," he says. "Every broadcaster and historian has the right to examine the historical origins of any faith. But our objections were more about the quality of the documentary itself and the arguments Tom made."

Tehmina Kazi, from British Muslims for Secular Democracy, is critical of Islam: The Untold Story but says many Muslim groups are too quick to move into an overtly hostile position whenever anything controversial airs about their faith. [...] "The default response was complain, complain, complain."She believes Islamic faith groups need to get better at responding with reasoned debate – something she felt many have done successfully over the Channel 4 documentary. "Respond, don't react," she says.
Evidently, it is possible for these debates to take place in a civilized atmosphere and on a level where sensitivities can be articulated in such a way that both sides are educated about the others' viewpoints. In spite of this week's atrocities in Benghazi, perhaps we have reached the end of the Anti-Thesis...

Thursday, 21 June 2012


Although technically he does not qualify as a 'critical Muslim', because he was a Marxist thinker of Coptic descent, the sociologist and philosopher Anouar Abdel-Malek deserves to be mentioned in these annals, if only for the fact that he beat a fellow Arab Christian in criticizing the Western discourse on Islam and the Muslim world by a full fifteen years. This week, the doyen of social scientific analysis of Arab societies passed away in a Parisian hospital. The French capital had been his home since the 1950s.
Anouar Abdel Malek
As early as 1963, Abdel-Malek wrote an essay entitled 'L'Orientalisme en Crise', in which he critically examined Western approaches to the study of non-Western societies, and the Muslim World in particular. Written in French it never received the same exposure as Edward Saids' more extensive and illustrative Orientalism, but Abdel-Malek's examination has  impacted on Said's own investigations into this field.

In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, Abdel-Malek became one of the foremost commentators and critics of social and socio-political developments in the Arab world, including his native Egypt. One of his most famous books is a study on the role of the military in Egypt (Egypt: Military Society). Against the background of the aftermath of last year's Arab Spring, the subject has not lost any of its currency and relevance.

As indicated by his study of Orientalism, Abdel-Malek's interests were much wider; encompassing the Third World-at-large. In that sense his work formed part of the now obsolete discourse of Tiers-Mondisme, somewhat awkwardly translated as 'Third-Worldism'. This strand of thinking emerged from the 'Spirit of Bandung', set free at the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung. Tiers-Mondisme found its political translation in the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, which -- aside from the conference host, Indonesian President Sukarno -- also included among its founders, Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito, and China's Zhou En Lai.

Syed Hussein Alatas
In the early eighties, Abdel-Malek worked together with Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007), an Indonesian-born scholar of Hadhrami (southern Yemeni) descent who later worked at universities in Singapore and Malaysia (he is the brother of Syed Naguib al-Attas, the scholar of Islam who established the Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, ISTAC, see also post of 21 January 2012). Trained in Amsterdam as a sociologist of religion, Alatas' interests were more in the domain of intellectual history. During his student years he edited and published a periodical called Progressive Islam. Later he made name with The Myth of the Lazy Native,  a study of Javanese, Malay and Philipino intellectual traditions, and a book on the role of intellectuals in developing societies.

What united Abdel-Malek and Alatas was a critical attitude towards the overeasy dismissal of non-Western ways of thinking as intellectually less rigorous than the European tradition of reason which began its global spread from the Enlightenment Era onwards. The fruits of the collaboration led to the introduction of a notion of 'endogenous intellectual creativity' (For a comparative study of Abdel-Malek and Alatas, see Mona Abaza's Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt).

Hamza Qinawi
Although, with the advancement of years, he became less prominent, Abdel-Malek never let go of his interest in other non-Western civilizations, as became clear as recent as 2006, when he talked about his enduring interest in China as an emerging (or, more accurately, re-emerging) power, when he was interviewed for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. More recently, there was a bit of furor over a book, entitled The Intellectuals (المثقفون) written by Abdel-Malek's former assistant, Hamza Qinawi. It was said that the book was unduly critical of Abdel-Malek's thought and that, again allegedly, it had greatly upset the nestor of Egyptian sociology. Qinawi has denied this in a piece in Al-Ahram in 2009. To dispell any lingering impressions of hard feelings between the two, Qinawi contributed this obituary.


Friday, 15 June 2012


Tunisian philosopher Mohamed Turki
The uncomparable German Qantara website covering the World of Islam again provides an interesting take on the dramatic changes that have been taking place in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world over the last year or so, by showcasing the views of thinkers and intellectuals who are often receiving far too little attention in the Western media. In an interview Tunisian philosopher Mohamed Turki offers his insight into the Arab Spring that began in his country with the 'Jasmin Revolution', only to turn into a hot and bloody Summer.

Turki sees a real danger that developments are only foreshadowing a Götterdämmerung or Wagnerian 'twilight of the gods'  as campaigns for democratization, respect for universal human rights standards, and more transparency of murky politics are brutally crushed.

In response to suggestions that what Palestinian-Lebanese historian Hisham Sharabi (1927-2005) has called 'neo-patriarchy' or French-Algerian scholar of Islam Mohamed Arkoun (1928-2010) referred to as 'dogmatically closed systems' remain resilient and resistant to change, Turki noted: 
The neo-patriarchal system – which may look modern from the outside, but is in fact patriarchal – holds fast to certain consolidated structures of rule and resists any change in the balance of political power. This is why these neo-patriarchal structures – which may seem modern, but are in fact nothing more than modernistic – remain a sham. It takes more than this to be modern. Being modern is a project that has many facets and necessitates many changes too. It begins with the rule of law, includes human rights and goes right up to economic, political and social structures, which should all be open. This is not the case with either neo-patriarchates or patriarchates.
Real progress can only be made by transforming the economic, social, and political spheres. Without that the status quo will persist and the political system will continue to remain immune to structural changes. There are also inter-cultural and intellectual dimensions to this process:
The most important thing is that we work together and not against each other. Interculturally and transculturally: these are the elements that bring us forward, not Manichaeism, thinking in terms of black and white or thinking in terms of opposites. Ultimately, the West is a product of historical developments, just as the Arab-Islamic cultural heritage is.
As a philosopher interested in existentialism, Turki has published a book on such interfaces between humanism and inter-cultural dialogue:

In a further elaboration of how to avoid or leave behind the age-old assumed dichotomy between East and West, notwitstanding his own reference to Kant's theory of 'man's emergence of self-incurred immaturity', Turki stresses the need for collapsing such binaries: 
I consider it necessary that we speak here of a process that carries humanity, that brings us forward in the spirit of a society where everyone is equal, is recognised, can voice their demands and can in turn be criticised so that the project can be improved. This project must not be Western or Eastern. It must be universal. And that, basically, is the most important aspect of enlightenment, which, incidentally, did not start in the eighteenth century, but in the Arab-Islamic world avant la lettre, as the saying goes, in other words in the eleventh century with Avicenna and in particular Averroes.
To read the whole interview, click here.

Friday, 25 May 2012


After various incidents in Indonesia,  Allah, Liberty and Love,the latest book by the Canadian writer Irshad Manji continues to stir up controversy in Southeast Asia. The launch of a Malay translation under the title Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur also drew the attention of Muslim critics who allege it contains positions that are contraductory to the teachings of Islam.

Irshad Manji at the launch of the Malay translation of her latest book

Abu Seman Yusop
Malaysian newspaper The Star reported that the country's home ministry has decided to ban the book 'under Section 7 (Subsection 1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984'. According to Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wira Abu Seman Yusop, because:

  [....] the contents have elements that can confuse the public and contain words that insult Islam.

the Ministry was acting on the advice of The Islamic Development Department (Jakim) which has examined the book. Its Director-General Datuk Othman Mustapha said:

We will be getting copies of the book soon. Once we have gone through and find reasons why it should be banned, we will propose this to the ministry [...]. The decision to ban the book is the prerogative of the Home Ministry. We (Jakim) can only advise them as our analysis found that the book is dangerous for the Muslims
 As a result of this decision, various media outlets also carried news that copies of the book had been confiscated by the authorities: 'Enforcement officers from the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) have confiscated seven copies of the book. Chief senior assistant director of Jawi’s enforcement division, Wan Jaafar Wan Ahmad, said the raid at a bookshop in a well-known shopping complex here was conducted at 8.45pm yesterday':

We have received information that 500 copies of the translated edition of the book have been printed and are available nationwide. We are still tracking them [...]
 In a response to these decisions and actions, publisher ZI Publications questioned their legality. Said owner and director Ezra Zaid (follow on twitter):

 We published this book in the spirit of free inquiry – incidentally, something which Islam itself cherishes – and acting strictly in accordance with our right to free speech and expression as guaranteed by Article 10 (1)(a) of the Federal Constitution.'. While such constitutional rights can be 'regulated', Ezra contended that the Act cited by the authorities is unconstitutional as the Constitution does not permit them to restrict free speech and expression.

Watch this space for further developments.

Saturday, 12 May 2012


Irshad Manji
The controversies surrounding the visit to Indonesia by the Uganda-born Canadian journalist and activist Irshad Manji has thrown into sharp relief the growing antagonism between Islamists and proponents of liberal and progressive reinterpretations of the Islamic heritage in the world's largest Muslim nation-state. Manji was in Indonesia to promote the Indonesian version of her latest book Allah, Liberty and Love.

On two occasions, Manji's appearances were disrupted. On Friday, 4 May, Manji's talk at the Salihara Cultural Centre in Jakarta was stopped by the police, acting at the behest of the Islamic Defence Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI).This led immediately to critical reactions. Yenny Wahid, the daughter of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid, deplored the police intervention. Other commentators expressed their concern over the excessive influence the FPI appears to be able to exercise. The question were raised whether the FPI was not merely beyond the law, but even able to intimidate the police. One MP, Eva Kusuma Sundari, stated that the police is simply 'powerless' against the FPI. A member of the national parliament's human rights committee, Sundari is not stranger to controversy herself -- earlier this year she was persecuted by Islamists for speaking out in favour of the constitutional rights of Christians in the name of religious pluralism.

Irshad Manji is taken away from Jakarta's Salihara Centre
Meanwhile, a formal complaint against the way the police handled the whole affair was lodged by the organizers of the event at Salihara, a cultural foundation established by the leading public intellectual Goenawan Mohamad, the founding editor of the respected weekly current affairs magazine Tempo.

MMI activists destroying Irshad Manji's book
Then on Wednesday, 9 May, members of the Indonesian Mujahedin Council (Majelis Mujahedin Indonesia, MMI) attacked an injured Manji, her assistant and several participants during a discussion session of the book at the Institute for Social and Islamic Sciences (LkiS) in Yogyakarta. In response, to this experience,  The Jakarta Post ran a piece under the title Irshad Manji is having second thoughts on Indonesia, in which she noted that -- in comparison to her earlier visit in 2008 -- it appeared there were “more conservative groups in the country this year”. Earlier, the same newspaper reported she was also considering writing a book about Indonesia.

Anti-JIL campaigner
A few days later the same newspaper ran an Op/Ed on the state of affairs in the intellectual debate on Islam in Indonesia. In this article Amika Wardana, an Indonesian research student at the University of Essex, highlights the polarization that has been affecting the Indonesian Muslim scene for quite a while, pitching the proponents for a literalist interpretation of the Indonesian doctrines, such as the FPI, against the advocates of more liberal readings, propagated, among others, by the Liberal Islam Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL) . Earlier this year, the protagonists and antagonists in what is becoming an increasingly confrontational encounter over the place of religion on both public and private life in Indonesia, have launched initiatives to battle each other -- largely online -- under the headings 'Indonesia without JIL' and 'Indonesia without FPI'.

Anti-liberal Islam demonstrators
Whereas the former are mobilizing to free Indonesia from liberal Muslims, the latter reject the FPI's monopolization of what 'real Islam' is, and condemn the front's frequent recourse to thuggery and violence. On the back of the Irshad Manji controversy, 'Indonesia without FPI'  are now threatening the national police with a lawsuit, accusing them of siding with the FPI. The anti-FPI campaign does not only consist of Muslims holding different opinions, in February this year, the Asia Times published an article under the title 'Secular Revenge', reporting on indigenous Dayaks from Kalimantan (Borneo) preventing a visit by FPI leaders to Palangka Raya in the province of Central Kalimantan . Apparently emboldened by this act of valiance, anti-FPI sentiments spread quickly to the Javanese cities of Surabaya and Jakarta.

Anti-FPI rally
The clash between different interpretations of Islam in Indonesia can be traced back to the opening up of the public space after the collapse of the military-dominated New Order Regime led by General Suharto, in the wake of the latter's resignation in 1998. Whereas the ensuing Reformasi Era presented Indonesians with unprecedented opportunities for pursuing their democratic rights, including the exercise of free speech, the other side of that coin also meant that Islamist activism, including its radical, militant, and violent variants, was also able to enter the public arena too. The first signs of growing religious antagonism can actually already be traced to the mid-nineties when the first riots and pogroms flared up as the ageing president began losing control of the political system.

JIL founder
Ulil Abshar-Abdalla
The watershed event was the fateful fatwa no. 7, issued in 2005 by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) in which this body, dominated by conservative religious scholars, condemned the principles of pluralism, liberalism, and secularism as 'un-Islamic' (The full text in Indonesian is available here. For an analysis in English, click here). This pronouncement was not only directed against JIL, its founder Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and his intellectual mentor Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005).

It is also a barely veiled rejection of some of the key principles of the Pancasila state doctrine which has governed Indonesian politics since independence. Moreover, it was taken by organizations such as the FPI as a license to go after fellow Muslims they deemed as deviants. Since then, liberal and progressive Muslims have been pushed into the defensive. As Amika Wardana observed:
There are at least two major obstacles undermining Muslim intellectualism: The lack of political will and the inability of public officials to preserve the freedom of religion and free speech; and the silence of the majority — moderate Muslims — toward intolerant and violent actions perpetuated by Muslim thugs. [...] In short, while we may lose hope in the current regime tackling the current intolerant and repressive actions campaigned by Muslim thugs, we have to approach the majority of moderate Muslims to stand up against them. 
Only by winning the hearts and minds of the majority will we envisage religiously tolerant environment of exuberance for Islamic intellectualism.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Liberal heresy in the contemporary Islamic cosmopolis

A review of Cosmopolitans and Heretics by Sajjad Rizvi, Associate Professor of Islamic Intellectual History at the University of Exeter. Here are a few highlights:

The book under review is [...] an exercise in contemporary intellectual history. [...] Critically, it not only abandons an essentialist reading of religion as a timeless set of doctrines, practices and rituals, but also distances itself from postmodernist approaches to religion by holding onto the category of religion as a meaningful concept and signifier. 
[it] examines the role of three contemporary ‘liberal’ Muslim thinkers who stand outside the mainstream, who have a training in the traditional disciplines of the Islamic space of learning often called the madrasa (or at least have a familiarity with it), and who are not just influenced by but also express the traditions of intellectual fashion current in metropolitan academia and its study of religion. These three voices are Hasan Hanafi, the late Nurcholish Madjid and the late Mohammed Arkoun.
 Kersten’s argument is partly that unlike the earlier generation of colonial, modernists who were simply concerned with making Islam ‘relevant’ to the contemporary world through the adoption of modern ideologies, institutions and practices, this generation of thinkers expresses not only a distrust of the possibilities of modernist commensurability but also of the ‘fundamentalist’ quest for authentic being through an atavistic and ahistorical ‘return’ to the pristine, early generation of Muslims, al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ. 
...the book offers an excellent corrective to the Middle East focused bias of Islamic studies and is a strong advocate for a serious study of South East Asian studies. It is refreshing to see a ‘view from the edge’, especially given the demographic and institutional significance of Indonesia.
Read the full article on Rizvi's MullaSadra blog: Hikmat: Liberal heresy in the contemporary Islamic cosmopolis.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Dissonance or Harmony? Critical Muslim Thinking in Saudi Arabia

In his latest book The Fifth Hammer: Pythagoras and the Disharmony of the World, Princeton Professor Daniel Heller-Roazen tells the story of the ancient tradition which holds that 'Pythagoras discovered the secrets of harmony within a forge when he came across five men hammering with five hammers, producing a wondrous sound. Four of the five hammers stood in a marvelous set of proportions, harmonizing; but there was also a fifth hammer. Pythagoras saw and heard it, but he could not measure it; nor could he understand its discordant sound. Pythagoras therefore discarded it. [...] But, time and again, the transcription has run up against one fundamental limit: something in nature resists being written down, transcribed in a stable set of ideal elements. A fifth hammer, obstinately, continues to sound. [...] linked together as are the tones of a single scale, The Fifth Hammer explores the sounds and echoes of that troubling percussion as they make themselves felt'.

Abdullah Hamidaddin
In Saudi Arabia, the country's notoriously conservative -- not to say reactionary -- religious establishment consider Abdullah Hamidaddin such a 'fifth hammer'. A consultant on social networking, author, and aspiring scholar of Islam of Yemeni origin, he has been pioneering critical Islamic thinking in the Kingdom by convening progressive discussion groups ('salons', majalis) in Jeddah. These gatherings bring together generally young intellectually inquisitive Saudis who are interested in exploring questions of faith, belief, and critical thinking beyond the very narrow confines of official discourse dominated by the constrictive views of Islamic officialdom. Abdullah Hamidaddin has written a book about this phenomenon under the title Harmonious Being  (الكينونة المتناغمة ).

Harmonious Being
(Abdullah Hamidaddin)

Recently Hamiddadin found himself in hot waters again, following accusations of heresy and investigations into his connections with Hamza Kashgari, the Saudi columnist who was extradited by Malaysia when facing charges of blasphemy in his own country over a fictitious conversation between the Prophet Muhammad and himself which was disseminated via twitter (leading to widespread protest and support).

Saudi columnist Hamza Kashgari
Since then he has been a regular face on Arabic TV channels explaining his intentions with these initiatives, but more often to defend himself against allegations of creating dissent and deviations from officially sanctioned Islamic learning.

Prior to entering the current fracas, Abdullah Hamidaddin had already made a name as a scholar and editor of texts from the Zaidi tradition, a Shi'ite sect originating in the 8th century which flourished again briefly when Yemen was a kingdom between 1918 and 1962 under the Hamiddadin dynasty. They were finally ousted in 1970 after a protracted civil war following a 1962 military coup, and found refuge in Saudi Arabia.    Also Abdullah Hamidaddin's descent from the last Yemeni Imam has been the subject of debate, as becomes clear from the interview below.

 The whole interview is available on youtube (in Arabic).

Thursday, 19 April 2012


On 18 April 2012, I attended a pre-release presentation of Najdat Anzour’s King of the Sands, a biopic of Abd al-Aziz ibn Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, a.k.a. ‘Ibn Saud’, an emir of the central Arabian Al Saud clan, and founder of the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The event featured a brief trailer of the film, which is due to have its international release in May, and a panel discussion including the director and two of the international cast members (Fabio Testi and Bill Fellows) moderated by Makram Khoury-Machool, a Palestian-born media studies specialist currently based at the University of Hertfordshire.

Najdat Anzour
Najdat Anzour is the son of the Syrian pioneer of Arab cinema, Ismail Anzour. Although Anzour junior’s reputation rest primarily on the production of epic TV series about important episodes in Islamic and Middle Eastern history, he is also known for not shying away from controversial topics, addressing sensitive political topics. His latest, King of the Sands, falls into that category. At the press conference  the director reported that he has already received threats of lawsuits by unidentified parties trying to prevent its release through their lawyers.

King Abd al-Aziz
(a.k.a. Ibn Saud)
King of the Sands is presented as a 'landmark taboo-breaking film, telling a 'dichotomous' story. On the one hand, the undeniably impressive feat of an impoverished prince in exile to not only reconquer his ancestral lands, but then continue to expand these until he controlled the better part of the Arabian Peninsula, under which soil were lying unknown and hitherto untapped mineral resources of a magnitude that would bring the kingdom eventually unimaginable wealth. On the other hand, this accomplishment also demanded single-minded ruthlessness and violence, resulting in the extermination of the rivalling Emirs of Hail, the Al Rasheed, and eventually also the massacre of his own shock troops, the Ikhwan (an irregular militia recruited from the main nomadic tribes not to be confused with the modernist Islamic Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt), when they became in liability in the late 1920s and early 1930s because they threatened the king’s relations with the British in Jordan and Iraq. This episode also shows how Western imperialism impinged on the monarch's independence, foreshadowing the kingdom's future entanglement in world affairs once the oil started to flow.

Little of this becomes evident from the trailer (to watch it, click on the image above), which was clearly cut in accordance with the well-rehearsed Hollywood formula: the hero sent on his quest, a dapper brooding prince wielding his sword, battling enemies, even a bedroom scene with one of the dozens of women Ibn Saud would marry in his life time (boy gets girls). 

Marco Foschi
So it still remains to be seen if the film will indeed deliver a balanced – warts-and-all – biography of Saudi Arabia’s first king. However, the very fact that a Syrian has taken it upon himself to produce an unauthorized film of the kingdom’s founding father has already ruffled some feathers, and it will certainly not be shown in Saudi Arabia. Not that this matters, observed Najdat Anzour wryly, because the country has no movie theatres or cinemas anyway. Lawsuits aside, another indication of the film's potentially controversial nature is the choice of the cast: Anzour selected Italian actors Marco Foschi and Fabio Testi to play the young and old Ibn Saud.

Abd al-Aziz in old age
Allegedly this decision was motivated by their command of English without sounding like native speakers, but Anzour also admitted that Arab actors would not touch the part of the Saudi monarch, because of the implications depicting a political figure from the Arab world, even  historical one,  might have for their career in the Middle East. In spite of that, alongside Turkish actors, lesser characters are played by Syrians and Lebanese.

Fabio Testi as the old king

An apparent concession to a Western audience is the inclusion of Bill Fellows as the British explorer-turned-Muslim cum royal adviser, Harry St.John (Abdullah) Philby (1885-1960). During the First World War, the Indian Office and the Arab Bureau in Cairo were vying for influence over British policy in the Middle East. The Arab Bureau, which was part of military intelligence and had links to the War Office and Foreign Office, had sent T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) to the Hashimite Sharifs of Mecca to coordinate an 'Arab Revolt' against the Ottomans. Meanwhile, the India Office --which was also responsible for security in the Persian Gulf -- instructed Philby to travel to Riyadh and make contact with Abd al-Aziz. Eventually, and to Philby's great frustration, it was decided to buy the Saudi ruler's loyalty on condition that he kept quiet and desist from attacking the Hijaz for the duration of the war. Not until the early 1920s, was Abd al-Aziz free again to pursue his ambitions; first destroying the al-Rasheed before swinging West and oust the Hashimites from the Hijaz. In 1932 the central Najd region and the Hijaz were united into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Bill Fellows as Harry St John (Abdullah) Philby

Azour remained non-committal in his response to a question whether a film in Arabic would have more prominently featured courtiers from surrounding Arab countries such as Bin Saud’s personal physician and confidante, the Syrian Rashad Pharaon, or Hafiz Wahba, the Egyptian-born former governor, minister, long-serving ambassador to London, and ARAMCO executive. By the way, it must be said that Fellows bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Philby.  (As a further aside it should also be noted that – in real life, not in the film -- veteran Italian actor Fabio Testi is a spitting image of Sean Connery)

Interestingly the event was attended by descendants of both the Al Saud and Al al-Rasheed dynasties: Madawi al-Rasheed, a professor of social anthropology at King’s College London who has increasingly shifted her research to both historical and current developments in Saudi Arabia. Not unsurprisingly, she has also built up a reputation as a critic of the Saudi regime that radiates far beyond the academic community. Also present was Basma bint Saud, youngest daughter of King Saud (1902-1969, r. 1953-1964), the oldest surviving son and first successor of  King of the Sands main character. Princess Basma has recently moved to the London suburb of Acton, and is suddenly hailed as a prominent advocate of reform in Saudi Arabia.

Prof Madawi al-Rasheed
In the Q & A session, Madawi al-Rasheed queried the director whether the film focuses solely on the power politics of central Arabia, or whether the film will also show that Saudi Arabia is a composite state, encompassing the Najd plateau of the interior, the mountainous Western region of the Hijaz where Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, and the oil-rich Eastern Province near the Persian Gulf, as well as the desert regions bordering Yemen and the Emirates in the south and the east, and Jordan and Iraq to its north.

In a reaction to a query from one of the journalists present and which director Najdat Anzour deferred to Professor al-Rasheed, she also emphatically stated that the al-Rasheed family had no involvement in the production of the film whatsoever, and she had only recently become aware of the project.

Basma bint Saud asked whether the release of the film at this instance was entirely coincidental. Having been many years in the making, Anzour assured her that this was indeed the case – but he anticipates that the tectonic shifts in the political landscape of the Middle East over the past year obviously will mean more attention for the film than would have been the case under other circumstances. The ‘Acton Princess’  finds herself very much in the spotlight, not just because she is a Saudi royal with a critical view of her own country, but also because on her mother’s side she is of Syrian descent, allegedly with close links to the Assad family.

HRH Basma bint Saud
Admittedly, Princess Basma’s ideas concerning women’s rights, education, social services, the excessive power of judges, abusive practices of those working for the General Presidency for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the so-called mutawwa’s), and the general dominance of religious scholars in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs  make a lot of sense. However, on closer inspection her ideas on political reform in Saudi Arabia can only be qualified as very modest indeed. With her insistence that she is not challenging the authority of her uncle, the current King Abdullah, she remains not just a royalist through and through, but also a loyal member of the dynasty itself.
I am still an obedient citizen and I will always be behind the royal family. But I will never be quiet about what is happening on the ground. […] I owe my uncles everything and what I owe them most is to tell them the truth. My mistake, my ruin is going to be insisting on telling the truth even if they don't like it. Because I think they need to hear it, especially from one of their loyal,royal own.
This comes as no surpirse -- the main lesson the Al Saud have learned from history is that internal dissent will spell the end of their iron grip over the kingdom. This happened in the late nineteenth-century when competing princes squabbling over supremacy within the then already quite expanded clan were outmanoeuvred by the Al Rasheed of the northern Jabal Shammar region. With Ottoman backing they ousted the Al Saud from their power seat, eventually sending them packing to exile in Kuwait.

Laudable as her criticism of the archaic religious establishment may be, I wonder what weight her words carry back home and how she can back up the claim she made in an interview with The Independent that:
She has studied Islam in depth, becoming a scholar of the faith's great texts to give her the authority to challenge the teachings of Saudi imams. Armed with the evidence of scripture, she has rebuked the authorities in writing on issues from driving to the doctrinal basis for the requirement that women cover up in public.
In the interview, Princess Basma insists that reform in Saudi Arabia must respect local tradition and culture – read: should safeguard the political status que, i.e. Al Saud hegemony. Even on that key issue: Saudi women’s right to drive, she plays it safe:
This is why I am against women driving until we are educated enough and until we have the necessary laws to protect us from such madness. Otherwise we might as well hand out a licence to the extremists to abuse us further. If as drivers we get harassed, they will say to the Islamic world "see what happens when women drive, they get harassed they get beaten" and they will call for even more stringent laws to control women. This is something we can't afford. Fundamental changes in the law and its attitude to women are needed before we take this step.
Easy to say for a princess or any upper-class Saudi woman whose family can employ private drivers.

Interview with Princess Basma bint Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz Al Saud

Indeed, as The Independent noted, the princess 'goes out of her way to emphasise that her criticisms do not relate to her octogenarian uncle, King Abdullah, or the other senior members of the monarchy. Instead, the focus of her anger is the tier of governors, administrators and plutocrats who run the country day to day'.

Aside from challenging the governors – nearly all of whom are also members of the royal family, her criticism of this ‘second echelon’ of the Saudi state structure sounds disingenuous. Technocrat ministers are tied hand and foot to the senior princes who really call the shots in Saudi politics. Commoners in the cabinet who thought they could chart their own course or who dared to challenge royal authority lost their jobs overnight, these include oil ministers Abdullah al-Tariki and Ahmad Zaki al-Yamani,  and Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a former minister of health and industry, and poet, who was fired for writing a controversial poem, After being 'exiled' as ambassador to Bahrayn, he was eventually rehabilitated -- serving as ambassador to London and then rewarded with another cabinet post as minister of labour.

Even what Basma bint Saud calls the non-royal plutocracy has only been allowed to reach or retain that position with royal approval. Business families such as the Aba al-Khayl, Rashid, Gosaibi, Alireza, and othersd were only allowed to prosper to a certain extent. Acting as mega import agents certainly brought them great wealth, but they were never permitted to make ‘deep’ strategic investments in the domestic economy: oil and other mineral resources, the petrochemical industry, and airlines remained firmly under control for the royal family.

Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz
It is ironic that accusations of corruption and incompetence come from the daughter of the king who, in the 1950s and 1960s, brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, and whose failure was of such magnitude that it first led to a virtual palace revolution by ambitious young princes under Talal ibn Abd al-Aziz in 1962, and eventually – two years – later to the decision of key members of the royal family that the king had to go, replacing him with his brother, Crown Prince Faysal. Also King Saud ended his days in exile:  expiring of a heart attack in Athens in 1969.