The Wahhabi-Saud pact has held the desert kingdom together since the 1920s; now it is pulling apartby John R Bradley / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
One humid evening last Ramadan in the plush garden of a villa belonging to one of Jeddah’s oldest merchant families, a select gathering of Saudi men and women sipped orange juice and fanned themselves as they listened to a lecture attacking Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s austere brand of Islam. The lecturer was Sami Angawi, a self-proclaimed Sufi leader of the vast swathe of Saudi Arabia known as the Hijaz, which runs along the Red sea and is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
For some time after the al-Saud imposed their rule on the area in 1925 regular elections continued to be held for the town councils in Hijaz, but by the 1960s they had been phased out. Moreover, Wahhabi Islam imported from al-Najd, the central region, had gradually stamped out other expressions of non-Wahhabi thinking once taken for granted in the Hijaz cities.
With the aid of a slideshow, Angawi reminded his audience of how Wahhabism had eroded the historic Hijazi urban culture of tolerance and diversity. There were periodic gasps of outrage as the images showed how Wahhabi domination had led to the destruction or neglect of almost all of the Islamic and pre-Islamic history of the Hijaz. The private house in Medina of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, was shown in a state of advanced decay, the rubble finally being reduced to dust under the giant wheels of yellow bulldozers.
Angawi documented the destruction of historic (mostly Ottoman) monuments; the lack of tolerance for all schools of Islamic law and thought other than the Hanbali one, from which Wahhabism derives; and the promotion of hatred for the “infidels”-Jews and Christians-of the west, as well as for the non- Wahhabi Muslims in their midst like Sufis and Shi’i.
One detail alone from that evening is proof that the west coast has nevertheless retained its own culture: Saudi men and women sitting next to someone who might not be a direct relative, in an audience where only a few of the women were veiled. Some of Angawi’s audience were old enough to recall the carnage of the 1920s, when the al-Saud unleashed its army of Wahhabi zealots against what they called the “little infidels” of the Hijaz. Their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters-wearing modest but colourful traditional Hijazi dresses, instead of the all-enveloping black gown of the al-Najd-have grown up with stories about Wahhabi massacres in the…