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RetroSaudi: The Agony Uncles

December 14, 2017

This post, the latest in my RetroSaudi series comparing the Saudi Arabia I lived in thirty years ago with the country today, is about my experience of the rules of observance in Islam.

As someone brought up in the mild traditions of the modern Church of England, I was never much attracted to the symbolism and the rituals of Catholicism. For me, faith was always about the big things – belief, attitude and behaviour – rather than what I saw as the minutiae.

When I first came to Saudi Arabia, I was constantly surprised by the emphasis among devout Muslims of rules – rules for worship and rules for daily life. Lots of them. Big ones, medium-sized ones and little ones.

In the Anglican church, apart from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, we didn’t seem to have many rules that we were expected to follow if we were to avoid going to hell.

We once even had a Bishop of Durham who doubted the Virgin Birth. Enough to have had him burnt at the stake as a heretic in earlier centuries. And he certainly wouldn’t be very popular if he was a Muslim expressing similar sentiments about the origins of Islam.

Although I had long possessed a rudimentary knowledge of the Holy Quran, and the importance of the Hadiths, in which the acts and words of the Prophet, and, by extension, the example he set, are enshrined, it only fully dawned on me how important rules are in Islam – or at least the Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – when I became a regular reader of the Arab News.

This august broadsheet was Saudi Arabia’s first English-language daily newspaper. Many of the cuttings from previous episodes of RetroSaudi came from copies of the newspaper I brought back to the UK when I finished my first stint in the late 80s.

As anyone familiar with the Muslim world will know, Friday is to Muslims what Sunday is to Christians – a day of rest and religious devotion. Yes, I know, in the West it’s become a day for shopping, football and DIY. But wherever Islam is practised, Friday is still the day for putting your best togs on and going to the mosque, even if you don’t manage it at any other time of the week.

In keeping with the requirement for religious contemplation, this was also the day when the Arab News would publish a centre spread devoted to Islam. I’ve always been interested in the great religions, so it became one of my favourite reads of the week, and not only because of the learned articles contributed by the sheikhs.

What fascinated me most was what could be described as the agony column. Whereas in the West, agony aunts try to unravel a host of sexual and emotional conundrums for their suffering readers, the Arab News agony column was devoted to dilemmas of faith.

People would write in with what to a non-Muslim’s eyes were bizarre questions about religious practice. Many were related to what the business world would describe as compliance issues. What amazed me was the minute detail of observance that clearly worried the readers.

Sometimes the queries were broad and quite fundamental, such as this one on the nature of prayer:

And this one about divorce:

Other questions were related less fundamental issues, such as bodily functions invalidating acts of worship. They are in excruciating detail, as are the answers:

Since the questions appeared in an English-language publication, I doubt if those seeking answers were Saudi. There were numerous Arabic publications with similar sections. I suspect that most of those who wrote in English were expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. As this clipping illustrates, concern with the form rather than the content of devotion was a theme that exercised people back home, too:

The purpose of these cuttings is not to mock, but to illustrate how important detailed observance is to the Muslim faith. It would be highly presumptuous for me to offer an opinion about the minutiae of another person’s religion. I think it’s important to keep an open mind.

In fact I once had a highly informative discussion with a Saudi doctor at a workshop I was facilitating. He was keen to stress the health benefits of the physical act of praying. He then took me into the bathroom and talked me through the process of ablution, which he had me try for myself. I have to say that I would find it hard to carry out such a ritual five times a day, but clearly for an observant Muslim it’s part of the rhythm of life. But as someone who injured his back a while ago, and needs to carry out regular stretching exercises to keep a recurrence at bay, I can certainly appreciate his point about the bending and stretching required at prayer.

More than anything else, what these letters from anxious people conjured up for me is lonely men in their male-only accommodation  – and occasionally women, perhaps working within Saudi families – worrying about whether they’re on the right path to the hereafter. After all, money was not (and still isn’t) the only reason for so many from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to leave their families and friends and live often thankless lives in the birthplace of Islam.

A wider perspective is that these agony columns were a precursor to the internet forums and religious channels that abound today. Religious TV is as popular in the Middle East as reality TV in the West. Broadcasting from a number of countries in the region, sheikhs deliver their opinions on matters great and small. They have huge followings, even if some of their utterances are met with popular derision.

A few years ago a sheikh in Saudi Arabia, Saleh al-Lohaidan, ventured the opinion that driving was detrimental to women’s health. As the BBC quoted him at the time:

“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” Sheikh Lohaidan told the news website

“That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.”

Soon afterwards, at least partly in response to the sheikh’s advice, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a young Saudi singing No Woman No Drive, a glorious adaptation of Bob Marley’s classic.

Never let it be said that Saudis lack a sense of humour.

More recently, Sheikh Mohammed Al Arifi, one of the prominent clerics who avoided Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent clampdown, drew a less humorous response when he expressed a view on whether it was permissible to wash the feet before prayers without taking socks off. One Twitter follower commented “Jerusalem is lost and you are talking about socks”.

The agony columns of the 80s seemed to indicate a hunger for guidance. This in turn suggested a lack of confidence, or an unwillingness to rely on one’s own knowledge. Perhaps it also reflected the possibility that religious education was scantier for South Asians thirty years ago than it is now.

The hundreds of madrassas funded by the Kingdom in the intervening years across the subcontinent will undoubtedly have improved understanding among their students of the faith, even if the teachings are not necessarily to the liking of all Muslims, and certainly not to westerners who blame them for the spread of jihadi violence.

Today, most of the religious channels are in Arabic, a language spoken only by a minority of South Asians, which suggests that at least in the Arab world, the hunger for guidance is still strong. Since some of these channels – and those who broadcast on them – are beyond the reach of the most determined autocrats, it’s easy to understand why one country could nearly go to war with another that it accuses of supporting what it considers the pernicious influence of the internet agony uncles and their inflammatory rhetoric.

The sheikhs were far easier to control when their only means of expression were the newspaper articles they wrote and the mosques in which they preached. In the 1980s, the nearest equivalent to the modern religious channels were the cassettes of their sermons that found their way into mosques and bookshops throughout the world. Satellites and the internet are far more effective.

I don’t blame those who turn to religious authorities for certainty in a volatile, confusing world. And many of the sheikhs I’ve met are positive, moderating influences. But sometimes I can’t help thinking of the scene in the movie The Life of Brian, when the accidental not-the-messiah appears on his balcony and tries to send away the mob of would-be followers by screaming out:

You don’t need me!

You don’t need anyone!

You’ve got to think for yourselves!

You’re all individuals!

A subversive message indeed.

  1. Ronnie Spraggs permalink

    Bloody brilliant stuff, and an absolute privilege to read, as per usual…

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