Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - Birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad

Muhammad as the Messenger of God

Saudi Arabia is, of course, best known as the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.  In the past, the term Mohammedean was used to describe all Muslims, but this term is deemed to be highly offensive to Muslims, as it suggests that Islam is all about the worship of Muhammad, rather than submission to Allah.  I guess that Europeans and Americans, in the past, used the term Mohammedean as a linguistic parallel to terms such as Christian or Buddhist.  It's a very Western way of describing things and inadequate to explain Muhammad's role as a messenger of Allah.

Muhammad and the word of God

Having said that, from the point of view of a non-believer, I find Muhammad is pretty central to the development of the Islamic faith.  Leaving God to one side, what we have left is the word of God, passed on by Muhammad during his revelations and written down in the Qur'an (recitations) and, much later, recorded in the Hadiths (sayings) ascribed to Muhammad and written down in the centuries following his death.  Christians trying to understand the Qur'an would find a book that is completely different to the Bible - it doesn't have a narrative, as such, and it's certainly not a record of the life of Muhammad, in the way that the New Testament records the life of Jesus.  Non-Muslims and, more importantly, non-Arabic speakers, will struggle to understand the Qur'an.  The beauty of its message is contained in the words themselves.  The mercurial flexibility of the Arabic language and the hynoptic sound of the sutras when recited by those who believe, don't translate well!  Better to learn Arabic.

Muhammad the man

As there was no definitive account of Muhammad's life, what we know about Muhammad 'the man' has been obscured by the mists of time.  The first biography of Muhammad wasn't written until 767 CE, 135 years after his death.  We do know that he was born in Makka, around 570 CE and that he belonged to a tribe called the Quraish.  He married a wealthy widow called Khadija and travelled a lot between the Hejaz and Syria as a trader.  His travels brought him into contact with Christians and Jews and it is thought that he was influenced by the Christian anchorites (or hermits) and was inspired by them to withdraw to the desert on a tahannuth or retreat, which led to his first revelations on the true message of Allah.  A Christian monk called Bahira is believed to have foreseen Muhammad's destiny as a prophet of God.

The Night Journey

One of the most interesting parts of Muhammad's experience was his famous 'night journey'.  The first part of the journey, the Isra, sees him taken on a winged horse called Burag to Masjid Al-Aqsa, or 'the Furthest Mosque', believed to have been in Jerusalem.  In the second part, Mi'raj (which means ladder), he is taken to heaven where he meets the prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus.  Some Muslims believe his journeys to have been actual physical journeys, others ascribe the event to a dream or trance brought on by his revelations.

The Hijra

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the people of Makka didn't believe a word of Muhammad's story about his 'night journey' and begin to resent his message of God, especially when he started to criticise the pagan beliefs of those around him.  Apart from Khadija, Muhammad also had a protector in Makka called Abu Talib.  When both Khadija and Abu Talib died within months of each other, Muhammad suddenly found himself being forced out of Makka and took his followers on the famous Hijra (migration) which brought him to the city of Medina, where he found refuge from his enemies and started plotting his return from exile.  The Islamic calendar is dated from the year of the Hijra, so that the current Islamic year is 1431 AH. 

A Tale of Two Cities and the Satanic verses

Muhammad found willing converts in Medina and ultimately led his followers out of exile and reconquered the lands of his ancestors.  The biggest obstacle Muhammad had faced with the people of Makka was their unrelenting belief in the pagan gods of the region.  Makka had long been a place of pilgrimage, in the pagan tradition, before it became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims.  The famous Satanic verses of Tabari claim that Muhammad compromised with the pagans of Makka and acknowledged the pagan goddesses al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat.  Most Islamic scholars these days would take a different view and say that Muhammad was relentless in his efforts to rid Makka of its pagan beliefs.

Idolatry and depictions of Muhammad

One of the reasons Muslims believe that Muhammad (or indeed, any life form) should not be depicted in art stems from this desire to rid the Islamic tradition of idolatry.  Muhammad believed himself to be the messenger of God and didn't wish to be worshipped.  It's an interesting contrast with the Christian tradition that eventually came to accept the concept of the Holy Trinity - essentially worshipping Christ as a God and surely one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the Christian church.  I kind of appreciate the idea that Muhammad didn't want to distract people from the essence of their belief and the message of God.  It's such a contrast to my own upbringing, as a Catholic and all the depictions of Hindu gods that I researched during my learning about Rajasthan. 

Danish newspapers and freedom of speech

I'm sure most people will remember the controversy caused by the Danish newpaper Jyllands-Posten and their cartoonists' depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that caused uproar in the Muslim world in the months following September 2005, leading to an estimated 100 deaths in the riots that ensued, not to mention the torching of Danish and Norwegian embassies and a Saudi-led boycott of Danish goods.  Although I'm not religious, I think it's important to respect other people's religious beliefs and I honestly don't understand why the Danish and Norwegian newspapers (and those in other European countries) wanted to publish these cartoons that were so obviously offensive to Muslims.  Interestingly, the UK, Canada and the US were amongst those countries that didn't reprint the images in their national newspapers.  It's dangerous to get involved with other people's beliefs and, as far as depictions of Muhammad are concerned, I think Muslims are in the best position to decide what is or isn't appropriate. 

Image credits:

The images of Muhammad's name in Arabic and the 17th Mughal miniature depicting the Burag are both taken from Wikipedia and are in the public domain.

The photograph at the bottom was taken by me and is an unusual depiction of animals (Tigers chasing goats) which can be found on the Registan in Samarkand (Uzbekistan)

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - A country for Old Men?

Try as I might to learn something about everyday life in Saudi Arabia, I find myself running into the pillars of Saudi society - Islam and the Saudi royal family.  In an attempt to understand the workings of the royal family, I've been doing some reading on Wikipedia and on the Internet, trying to get my head around the stranglehold that the House of Saud has on their country. 

My conclusion is that it all boils down to money.  The House of Saud is reputed to be the wealthiest family in the world, worth countless billions of dollars.  Not hard I guess, when your family consists of thousands of people, many of whom have incredible personal wealth.  I've just learned that the infamous Al-Yamamah contract saw $90 billion dollars worth of Saudi money spent on arms bought from the UK, starting in the Thatcher-era.  Any family that has that much money to throw around is going to be hard to oppose.  More to the point, I wonder what happened to all that revenue, we could be doing with it in recession-hit Britain.

The ties between the House of Saud and Britain (as well as the USA) are legendary.  Britain is partly responsible for the Saudis gaining control of Arabia, as opposed to their rivals the Al-Rashidi.  If things had happened differently, I might be blogging about Rashidi Arabia with its capital at Ha'il.  Unfortunately for the Rashidis they backed the wrong horse, a crumbling Ottoman Empire that disappeared as quickly as they did. 

Birth of a dynasty

The main reason the Saudis gained control of Arabia was due to the leadership of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the first ruler of the modern Saudi dynasty.  Abdul Aziz was brought up mostly in exile in Kuwait, the Saudis having been defeated and Riyadh taken over by the Rashidis.  With the help of the British and support of local tribes, Abdul Aziz managed to recapture Riyadh, then all of the eastern region, Nejd and ultimately the key western region of Hejaz, with the holy sites at Medina and Makka. 

The Saudi family are followers of Salafism, better known in the West as Wahhabism, an incredibly strict and (believe it or not) austere form of Islam.  One of the first things Abdul Aziz did when he conquered the Hejaz was to destroy some important Islamic shrines in Makka, related to the relatives of the prophet Muhammad, believing this sort of worship to be akin to idolatry.  At first Abdul Aziz ruled the Nejd and Hejaz separately, eventually uniting them to form Saudi Arabia in the mid-1920's, with the blessing of the British government, on the understanding that Saudi Arabia wouldn't interfere with the British protectorates in Kuwait and Iraq.

Succession to the Saudi throne

Abdul Aziz, quite unusually, adopted a form of succession which would pass from brother to brother, rather than from father to son, as is more usual (sisters and daughters don't even come into it).  As Abdul Aziz had about forty-five sons in total, this was pretty doable, but has left Saudi Arabia of 2010 with a King (Abdullah) who is 86 years old, a proposed successor (Crown Prince Sultan) who is a sprightly 82 and Abdul Aziz's youngest surviving son (Muqran) is 65 years old (three years older than Prince Charles).  This type of succession has certainly helped the House of Saud retain their reins of power however, even I can do the math, it's obvious there will have to be a change sometime in the coming years.  If Muqran outlives the rest of them, then I guess it will be up to him to appoint a successor.

The Story so far

To date five of Abdul Aziz's sons have occupied the Saudi throne.  They are:


Abdul Aziz's second son by his first wife, Princess Wadhha of the Bani Khalid tribe.  Saud's older brother and Abdul Aziz's first son, Turki, died in the terrible flu epidemic that swept the world in 1919.  His wife was pregnant at the time he died and later gave birth to Turki's first son who, by the old system of succession, could have become Abdul Aziz's successor.  The rule of succession was changed after Turki's death.

Saud wasn't incredibly popular with the conservative powers-that-be and was more known for his extravagant spending on palaces than his good deeds.  He also tried to change the rule of succession back again, so that one of his own sons could succeed him and power would remain within his immediate family.  He appointed his own sons to positions of power, overlooking the natural rights of his half-brothers and almost bringing Saudi Arabia to the point of civil war in the early 60's before Saud was forced into exile and his younger half-brother took over.


was anti-communist and he banned trade unions in 1965.  During his reign Saudi Arabia was starting to feel the first positive effects of being in the oil business and Faisal's lasting legacy was his contribution to the 1973 oil crisis, tripling the price of oil almost overnight, Faisal was instrumental in the OPEC embargo against the West.  Events in other countries were starting to shake the foundations of Saudi society, eg. events in Libya, where Al-Gaddafi ousted the equally formidable Libyan royal family in 1969.  Faisal established incredibly close ties with Pakistan and the Pakistani city of Lyallpur was renamed Faisalabad in his honour. Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by one of his half-brother's sons, who was subsequently declared insane.


doesn't seem to have left much of a legacy and had little interest in politics, preferring to act as a symbolic head of the country.  I'm wondering if he was seen as an easy target when Iranian dissidents occupied the Grand Mosque in Makka in 1979, claiming that the existence of the Saudi Royal family was un-Islamic and that they were unworthy custodians of the two holy mosques.  No wonder he died of a heart attack in 1982.


ushered in a period of unprecedented spending, which is a stereotype many Westerners have of how a Saudi royal might behave.  Whether visiting ports in the French Riviera on his $100 million ship Abdul Aziz or flying to London on one of his many gambling trips in his $150 million Boeing 747 with an in-built fountain, he certainly made himself at home with the world's moneyed classes! Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, forcing him to delegate most of his responsibilities to the Crown Prince Abdullah, who would become his successor.


is the current King of Saudi Arabia and faces a country that has been shaken up by the activities of terrorist organisations such as Al-Queda and an economy that is desperate to diversify its industries, in preparation for a day when the oil runs out. 

As for dynastic succession, it's very easy for us in the West to sneer and pat ourselves on the back for being such clever democrats.  The reality, of course, is that we have our own political dynasties, who are much subtler about their strangehold on power.  Is it any coincidence that Mark Thatcher was rumoured to be involved in the Al-Yamamah contracts?  What about the Bush dynasty and their close connections with the House of Saud?  As far as I can tell, the Saudis have been welcomed with open arms by our ruling dynasties, eager to cash in on the fountains of wealth. 

Image credits:

The archive photo is by flickruser bedharak aka R Sameer, who is originally from Hyderabad, but now lives in London.  It shows four of Abdul Aziz's sons (and one of his grandsons) who formed a delegation to the United Nations in New York in 1947. 

The second photo is of Riyadh's Kingdom Tower, the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and a remarkable symbol of Saudi wealth.  It was taken by flickuser ~Firas who is from Qaseem in Saudi Arabia, but currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Thanks bedharak and Firas for sharing this wonderful image with us using the Creative Commons license. 

Monday, 23 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - An introduction to Islam

As I'm blogging about Saudi Arabia, I think this is a perfect opportunity for me to learn about Islam, the same way I learned about Hinduism when I was blogging about Rajasthan.  I'm no expert though and I apologise in advance for misrepresenting any aspects of the religion, I can assure you it's not intentional. 

I must admit, I did know a little bit about Islam, before I started reading for this blog, at least the Uzbek version of Islam, as I lived in Samarkand for almost two years.  Unlike a lot of Westerners, I've had a very positive experience of Islam and I like to think that I have understood more about the religion than the negative stereotypes of Western media sources.  As with Hinduism, I need to profess my disbelief in any religions or the existence of God, but I find the whole subject of religion fascinating and I'm interested in learning more. 

Blogging about Islam is such a massive undertaking and I really just want to begin with the basics.  A lot of the information I'm taking is from Malise Ruthven's Islam: A very short Introduction, published as part of a series by Oxford University Press (that I'm always raving on about).  The opinions expressed in this blog are my own.  Other things I would like to cover in future blogs about Saudi Arabia are Muhammad and Shari'a Law.  I'll probably leave other aspects, such as the Quran, Sufism, Shi'a, the role of women and Jihad to future blogs about other Muslim countries.


I guess the most surprising thing about Islam for a Westerner is that it doesn't really differ from Western religions in the way, for example, that Hinduism does. It's important to remember that Islam is part of the same religious tradition as both Christianity and Judaism.  As Christianity developed from Judaism and went off in its own direction, adapting to the European societies that identified with Christian beliefs, Islam was a reaffirmation of traditional beliefs and an attempt to purify the message of God that had been corrupted and confused in Jewish and Christian interpretations.  I can't help comparing the origins of Islam to the origins of Protestantism in Europe, ie. getting back to the essentials of religious practice and away from the corruption and materialism of the predominating church. 

I guess there is a big difference between orthodoxy (ie. harmony of beliefs) and orthopraxy (ie. harmony of practice) and whilst Islam is relatively orthodox in relation to Christianity and Judaism, it's not necessarily orthoprax and it's the practice of Islam that is difficult for Westerners to understand, as it so often differs from the way Christians and Jews practise their respective religions.

The diversity of Islamic orthopraxy

Unlike Christianity, there is no centralised 'church' in the Muslim faith.  Even Saudi Arabia, which might be considered to be the centre of Islamic beliefs, with the important religious sites in Makka and Medina, wouldn't really be acceptable as the leader of Islam for most believers. 

Leadership comes at a local level and this leads to a diversity in Islam that most people in the West fail to recognise.  An estimated 23% of the world's population follow Islam but it's far from being a monolithic community.  I can understand the frustration of Muslims everywhere, when they are portrayed as religious fanatics and fundamentalists.  We can quite easily identify the differences in Christian beliefs and practices, in terms of the different Christian sects, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the myriad of Protestant belief systems.  Similarly, Islam has been adapted to local circumstances and whilst the essential orthodoxy of the religion is consistent, the practice of Islam varies from one community or society to the next.

The fall of Communism and Islamophobia

Islam is perceived to be the fastest growing religion in the world and, since the fall of communism in the late 80's, there has been a growing anxiety in the West, which sees Islam as the main obstacle to Western orthopraxy.  I would argue that orthopraxy in the West goes beyond religion - even those of us who are not practising Christians share a belief system of sorts, based on the values of the Enlightenment and a liberalism which is the basis of most Western societies.  This seems to bring us directly into conflict with Islam and the news headlines in the past few weeks have been all about headscarves (France), mosques (New York) and charity, or the lack of it (Pakistan).  The western media definitely sensationalises these conflicts and, in my opinion, distracts from the very real changes that are occuring in Islam at the present time, as it adapts to the pressures of a globalised society and dominance of western consumerism. 

Whilst people in the West live in fear of an Islam that wants to convert us all and impose Shari'a law, societies based on Islamic beliefs and traditions are finding themselves confronted with the overwhelming impact of globalisation and a capitalist system that seems to preclude any alternatives to consumerism and greed.

The Five Pillars of Islam

As a belief system that has spread right across the world and has been adopted by so many different types of societies and cultures, the central ethos of Islamic beliefs is incredibly clear and uncomplicated.  I guess the Five Pillars of Islam unite the Muslim community in a way that strengthens Islam and helps it meet the challenges of 21st century life.  The five pillars are:

1. Shahada - the basic declaration of faith

lâ ilâha illallâh, Muḥammadur rasûlullâh - There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger - this is what the Arabic writing on the Saudi flag says.

2. Salat - Worship

This relates to prayer and the idea (at least in the Sunni tradition) that Muslims must pray five times a day

3 Zakat - alms-giving/compulsory charity

It's no coincidence that Saudi Arabia is one of the world's largest contributors of aid to poorer countries.

4 Sawm - the fast during Ramadan

Fasting is an important part of Islamic orthopraxy.

5 Hajj - pilgrimage to Makka

All good Muslims should try to make a pilgramage to Makka at least once during their lifetime. 

To be honest, I don't think any of these five pillars would be unfamiliar or unacceptable to Christians and, on a very basic level, I'm beginning to wonder what all the fuss is about!

Image credit

The photograph of a Muslim family in Langkawi, Malaysia was taken by self-confessed flickr addict Jim Boud - you can see more of Jim's photos at http://www.flickr.com/people/boudster/ 

The image of the children at prayer was taken by flickruser Ranoush, aka Rana Ossama, who is a student from Ismailyah in Egypt - you can see more of Rana's photos at http://www.flickr.com/people/ranoush/

Thanks Jim and Rana for sharing these images with the world using the Creative Commons License.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Saudi Arabia - Chicken Kabsa

Saudi Cuisine

I'm a big fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, so I was really looking forward to getting stuck in to a traditional Saudi dish.  After a bit of research online, I came to the conclusion that the staple of Saudi Arabia is a dish called Kabsa.  Not dissimilar to Uzbek plov but with lighter ingredients, such as orange, and not as much oil.  The recipe I used for this was from a website called inmamaskitchen.com

The ingredients

There was nothing unusual in this dish and I already had all of the spices in my cupboard, so it cost next to nothing to make.

The main ingredients are:

Chicken, which should be cut up into bite-sized mouthfuls.
Two onions, which should be chopped up finely.
Two carrots, which should be grated.
Orange zest
Four cloves of garlic, chopped (although this might have been overkill)
Tomato puree
Two tomatoes, chopped finely
Four cloves, four cardamom pods, a cinnamon stick, broken up
As much rice as you need for four people
Almonds, which should be cut into slices and raisins (I used sultanas) to scatter on the meal at the end.
Salt and pepper to taste.


I started by heating oil in a large saucepan and adding the chopped onions, letting them fry for a few minutes until they'd started to turn brown.

Once the onions have browned a bit, I added the chicken, garlic, chopped tomatoes and tomato puree and stirred these together for about five minutes until the chicken had turned white on the outside.  The recipe requires the addition of orange zest and, not wanting to waste the juice of the orange, I marinated the chicken in orange juice and then added this to the mixture when I added the chicken.  I don't know whether or not this was a good idea and the whole thing certainly tasted very orange-y, so I guess it's a matter of taste. 

After the chicken had fried a bit, I added the grated carrot and all of the spices and some salt and pepper.  This idea of this dish is that the chicken will cook with the spices for about twenty minutes or so.  After twenty minutes, you remove the chicken and add the rice, so that the rice cooks in the liquid of the Kabsa.  I must admit, I struggled a bit with the idea of removing the chicken at all, but I decided to go with the recipe in the end and kept the chicken warm in a metal contained with a foil covering. 

The rice should be long-grain - I used regular long-grain rice, but you could also use basmati.  To prepare the rice, I washed it in a sieve, which I think softens the rice and makes it easier to cook when you add it to the pot. 

The result was pretty delicious and I'll definitely be adding it to my international cuisine Smörgåsbord

(<-- After the chicken has been removed and the rice has been added)

(<-- Boil the rice for about twenty minutes)

(Chicken Kabsa, don't forget to scatter with almonds and raisins, or sultanas -->)

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me.