GOOD AND EVIL AND WOMEN IN SAUDIA ARABIA
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women. Noble Quran 2:228
U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a rousing speech and danced a traditional tribal war dance with Arabs during his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this month, where he described the war against terrorism as “a battle between Good and Evil,” and “not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.” Rather, “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.” He emphasized that everyone must “fight together, because united, we will not fail.”
We may recognize the distinction he would make between religion and morality because the long history of the religious cults of the so-called People of the Book i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, demonstrate the underlying crisis or hypocrisy of their adherents, between the ideals they profess and their conduct, especially when they murder each other in the name of supposedly the same one-god, and justify it as legal killing instead of illegal murdering, the winners being mysteriously blessed by that same god for the moral improvement and temporary peace after the destruction of countries and the death of millions of people, the most of whom are civilian “collateral damage,” but are still deemed guilty instead of innocent because they deserve the leaders who govern them.
It would seem that religion is an excuse for doing what people want to do in the first place, that it is in fact morally neutral, that it constitutes the worship of the absolute power everyone wants, the power to live forever without resistance, yet a person cannot have it all by himself because the individual is described by its limitations and would have no existence without opposition. At best, the Good or ultimate ethic of such religion identifies naked might and right. Religion worships absolute power of the All, and politics, the overriding morale of a culture, distributes it.
As a matter of fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is an absolute monarchy, with its one archon exercising the power of the presumably singular god of the universe of discourse at least, would not exist today if its religion and mores were not one. Neither would, for that matter, a truly united Islam, for Islam, no matter what the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions actually said—which we would, if only we could, offer in contrast to the gossip or oral lore scholars accepted centuries after his presumed existence—is ideally a theocratic empire with a political religion that eschews national boundaries. Islam as we know is roughly divided between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, each having its subdivisions or sects, and both aspiring to the realization of empire at one time or another, for good or evil in the most virtuous or vicious manner, depending on your perspective.
President Trump paid ceremonial tribute to King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad al-Saud, in short, Ibn Saud, “the founder of the kingdom who united your great people.” The “Third” Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. The founder of the Saud family dynasty itself was Amir Muhammad bin Saud, who collaborated in 1744 with religious leader Muhammad Ibn Abdul al-Wahhab at Nejd, and embraced his doctrine, an extreme puritanical version of the Hanbalism School of jurisprudence.
The continuing politico-religious alliance characterized as the Wahhabi Movement rebelled against the Ottoman Empire’s suzerainty over Arabia. After few setbacks, including an exile in Kuwait; after backing away from the Arab Revolt to create a united state; after refusing to proceed with the Wahhabi Movement in Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, lest the British be offended; —the Saud dynasty over the decades would eventually manage, with the indispensable help of British soldiers, guns, and gold, to take over most of the Arabian Peninsula.
Undoubtedly that history of desert piracy is naturally appreciated by President Trump, who loves Success and detests “evil losers” for not putting their tails between their legs like good losers. Now it is said that history does not repeat itself, at least not exactly. President Trump announced a trade deal with Saudi Arabia including a $110 billion arms deal, and called for a united “driving out” of extremists from all countries, as if they have somewhere else to go to murder Muslim and non-Muslim infidels, destroy sacred historic sites, dynamite temples and tombs, somewhere else where women are not allowed to drive and must not show flesh lest noble men become aroused and rape them.
Enormous oil reserves were discovered on the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia in 1938 and were exploited by the U.S-controlled Arabian American Oil Company, which was eventually nationalized by Saudi Arabia and named Saudi Aramco. Billions from the proceeds to Saudi Arabia were devoted to spreading the gospel of Wahhabism throughout the world, a religious culture that preferably calls itself “Muslim” or “Islam” or “Monotheism,” or “Salafism,” the ultra-conservative reaction to colonialism in Arabia, and so on, because the puritanical doctrine professed itself to be pure Islam, with all others condemned as infidels to be “driven out,” and because “Wahhabism” had been for some a derogatory term ever since religious leaders called for the extermination of its outcast founder before his marriage of convenience to the outlawed Sauds.
The intolerance of Wahhabism was exacerbated by Taqī ad-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, a medieval Hanbalist jurist and political activist whose interpretations of scripture have allegedly influenced the modern jihadism of Al-Qaeda and its offshoot ISIL. Unlike Imam Hanbal, he was intolerant of Shia doctrine, which declares that Allah appoints successor prophets to Muhammad, the first one being Abu Bakr, whereas Sunnis believe there is no such successor.
Whereas Imam Hanbal thought all the received schools of jurisprudence were correct in one way or another, wherefore was tolerant of diverse perspectives and loathed jurists who declared their opinion was the only right one even if he himself disagreed with them, Ibn Taymiyyah was uncompromising; he demanded obedience to his creed, based entirely on the practices of the first three generations of the Muslim community (the salaf), or else be “fought,” whether they are Muslims or not. Ibn Taymiyyah rejected “innovations” such as visitation of the grave of the Prophet and saints to pray for the intercession of the dead with the deity was strictly forbidden as an expression of polytheism; the practice was not “innovative” at all inasmuch as it was grounded in prehistoric mourning of the dead and reverence for ancestors and significant leaders.
In fine, anyone who disagreed with Ibn Taymiyyah’s version of the path was a renegade unbeliever who should be punished here and now and hereafter. His earliest fatwa called for the death of a man who insulted Muhammad, and when the authority declined to execute the man, he led a protest insisting on the death of anyone who insults the Prophet, hence his first book, The Drawn Sword against those who insult the Messenger.
It should be remembered in the context of what the royalty faces in Saudi Arabia today that both Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah, were popular among the uneducated crowd for their perseverance against tyrants and their reformist jurists, influenced more or less by their contact with “Greek” rationalism, more than willing to imprison dissidents.
We would beg the pardon of the Prophet and the Companions, may peace be with them, if it were appropriate to ask them for intercession instead of directing beseeching Allah for protection for saying that Hanbalism School of jurisprudence should not be blamed for so-called Wahhabism and its long history intolerance. For example, we have this hadith or story from the “reliable” collection of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal himself, declaring that all one has to do to be a Muslim is a few simple things. Some Sunnis, followers of the path, say that if these things are done it is nobody’s business what the follower may believe.
“Malik narrated from his paternal uncle, from his father, that he heard Talhah bin ‘Ubaidullah say: A Bedouin came to the Prophet and said: 0 Messenger of Allah, what is Islam? He said: Five prayers every day and night. He said: Do I have to do anything other than that? He said: No. He asked him about fasting and he said: Fasting (the month of) Ramadan. He said: Do I have to do anything other than that? He said: No. He mentioned zakat (charity) and said: Do I have to do anything other than that? He said: No. He said: By Allah, I will do no more and no less than that. The Messenger of Allah said: He will prosper, if he means what he says.”
We find in Ibn Hanbal’s immense collection of hadiths such sayings as, “You should be truthful, for it leads to Paradise, and beware of lying, for it goes with immorality, and they lead to Hell. Do not sever ties with one another, do not hate one another, do not envy one another, do not turn your backs on one another; be brothers, as Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, has enjoined you.”
In marked contrast to Augustine, who declared that evil does not exist, one of Hanbal’s hadiths claims that evil does exist. Those who do not intervene will be punished by Allah, which is to say that people who ignore evil are good for nothing. And someone said that no one who is a miser, treacherous, reminds people of his favors, or mistreats slaves will enter Paradise, but that saying is rated rather weak. In the event another Prophet appears on this Earth, we should know where to bury him when he dies; Ibn Juraij said: My father told me that the Companions of the Prophet did not know where to bury the Prophet until Abu Bakr said: I heard the Messenger of Allah say: A Prophet is not to be buried except where he died. So they removed his bed and dug a grave for him beneath his bed.” And we should know that Allah will not hear the prayers of people who appoint their favorites to office until they go to Hell.
Now there is no good absent evil, despite the monotheistic efforts of theodicists to reconcile them in one god and declare this world to be the best of all possible worlds now and forever no matter what happens including causes and their effects and mysterious miracles besides. In Islam, much of the fault finding between good and evil lies in the interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. What the Prophet, Islam’s personal example, a messenger and not god incarnate, reportedly said and did is the Sunnah or path. Sacred text can be abused to justify both good and evil; before Islam, “sunnah” meant the manner of behavior regardless of their morality.
Again, Ibn Hanbal was popular in his day for his ascetic opposition to the political inquisition of the Abbasid Caliphate, whose ruler supported the rationalist dogma that the Quran was created, and was not the uncreated word of Allah. That would naturally put the Supreme Ruler above the Quran, something we recall that Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shiite founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran would one day do.
Ibn Hanbal liked the mystical Sufis and was somewhat superstitious himself, albeit he was a strict constructionist. He included contradictory hadiths and ranked them according to the proximity of the source to the Prophet and his Companions, and to whether a particular saying was repeated or not. He considered his enormous collection of stories as an imam to be consulted for guidance. He advised people to stick with the text and to avoid analogies and rationalizations.
So it appears that the harsh intolerance of Wahhabism, which claims derivation from Hanbal’s literalism and his rejection of the “enlightened” rationalists of his day, is more or less political, and rooted in the “barbaric” struggle of Arab tribes before the advent of the Prophet. That is, the difference is not so much in the religion of Islam but in the culture, the Saudi-Wahhab culture in that respect being more “primitive” than that of other Muslim nations.
Now that observation of cultural differences in respect to good and evil sheds some light on the pronouncement in Saudi Arabia of President Trump’s principal advisor and beautiful daughter, Ivanka Trump, who champions in her inimitable way the rights of women and children. After all, the progress of civilization, some historians say, can be measured by the rights of the weaker sex. Madame Trump said that Saudi Arabia has made “very encouraging” progress in empowering women, although there was “still a lot of work to be done and freedoms and opportunities to continue to fight for.”
Saudi Arabia as everyone knows has one of the worst human rights records in the world, its state religion allegedly fosters terrorism throughout the world, yet it remains the strategic ally of the United States, receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in arms. Only recently has its thousands of religious police, the mutaween known as the Commission for the Promotion of virtue and Prevention of Vice, been restrained from pursuing, stopping and arresting violators of the strict religious code, and must instead report violations to the police. The disappearance of the mutaween from the street has resulted in considerably relaxed public areas, with women wearing more colorful over-garments, and men no longer fearful they will be hounded into mosques. I-phone images of abuses and social media postings have been credited with the curbing of repression.
Furthermore, a woman since April 2017 may apply for education and healthcare without the approval of a man, although she needs permission to leave the country. Yet still she is subject to the guardianship of men in other respects. For example, she cannot drive a car, despite the fact that women could ride camels in the old days. Today there is no reason why a woman should not be seen riding a camel or a horse provided that she ride sidesaddle for convenience and not expose her legs if she does not want be gawked out. A Muslim woman may want to wear a $10,000 burka in Islam over her dress and heels on the way to a private party, or a burkini on a Riviera. Forget not that many women are pleased to be orthodox. The point is that they should wear what they want to wear, and, if they are Muslim, to remember that respect is the key, for the Prophet said that the wife is the garment of the man and the man the garment of the wife.
“Women driving is not a religious issue as much as it is an issue that relates to the community itself that either accepts it or refuses it”, Madame Trump said, and suggested that it was culture, not religion, holding women back.
Madame Trump is correct about the significance of culture. Many of the prohibitions stem from misogynist or androcentric traditions that pre-date Islam, where at times women were treated like dogs in some quarters—dogs today in the United States are often treated better than people. Islam in fact resulted in the liberation of women from barbaric discriminatory practices, rendering females equal with males while recognizing a division of labor purportedly suiting their biological differences.
A regressive interpretation of something the Prophet might have said or done according to hearsay handed down with all its variations would allow a fanatic to murder girls and their parents at music concert, excusing himself by reference to the primitive law of retaliation and the killing of many thousands of girls and parents back home who were not invited to such a concert.
A progressive doctrine advances the noble Arab in the desert as well as dwellers in the city, as all yearn for the greatest happiness of creatures in peace and prosperity. At least that is the teleological perspective, the goal of a creator who loves creatures, and in that love is the difference between good and evil.
However that may be, Ivanka Trump is up to date on the feminist perspective in Saudi Arabia. Muslim activists say the obstacle to freedom is culture, not religion, and they are correct, in an analytical sense, depending on their definition of a power that is theoretically beyond definition in its absoluteness, and their definition of religion, if it is not culture, which it definitely is; and then there is the political distribution of that absolute power every individual yearns for, deny it or not. It is all culture; the mental i.e. moral culture that from Day One unto the Final Hour distinguishes and cultivates those practices that are believed to be the best according to the good and not the evil of the family, clan, tribe, nation, and humankind. The human race demonstrates that a wholesome variety in the garden is the spice of life. Gardens must be weeded. Poisonous plants must be exterminated or safeguarded and employed as useful medicines.
The holy war on terrorism is indeed in a formal sense a battle between different faiths and sects; but it is essentially a battle against fear, the fear that motivates people to seek help in a higher power, a terrorist almighty, whether in numbers or in a god or charismatic general. The crusade against terrorism is indeed a battle between different civilizations within civilizations, because it is an inner jihad against incivility, and some civilizations are more civil than others. It is not a battle against barbarians; it is struggle against the barbarous idea that might makes right instead of the righteous notion that right makes might. It is a cultural endeavor to find and do what is best instead of what is worst.