November 1, 2007


The battle at Islam's heart (Ziauddin Sardar, 01 November 2007, New Statesman)

Now, however, through painstaking research of recently unclassified documents and interviews with those involved in the uprising, with security and army officers and the Saudi royal family, Yaroslav Trofimov has pieced together a thorough account of the events. The Siege of Mecca provides a gripping and revealing account of this brutal uprising.

The insurgents were led by a Bedouin preacher, Juhayman bin Seif al-Uteybi, and his brother- in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, the alleged Mahdi. The rebels included Egyptians, Pakistanis and American converts, but most were Saudis from the Oteiba tribe, which had actually helped King Abdul Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, to seize control of the Arabian Peninsula in 1902. They believed that the royal family had become corrupt, that the state was promoting heresy, that religious scholars were collaborating with the royal family in spreading immoral practices and that Saudi Arabia had become obsessed with money and consumerism. I knew their kind rather well.

Juhayman and his band were followers of the blind scholar Sheikh Bin Baz. Bin Baz, a major architect of the contemporary Saudi Wahhabi brand of Islam, later became Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. He had been a dean at Medina University, where he indoctrinated thousands of students with his firebrand puritanism. More devout followers were invited to desert retreats for special attention - Juhayman being one of them.

As a researcher at the Hajj Research Centre in Jeddah, I often used to meet Bin Baz's students. They were, without exception, irrational zealots. Largely tribal people, they had replaced fierce tribal loyalty with loyalty to their brand of Islam. And Islam, as far as they were concerned, was how they defined it - with more emphasis on rather dubious and historically questionable traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than on the teachings of the Quran. They saw themselves as the only authentic appointed guardians and defenders of Islam. Everyone else was, by definition, an unbeliever and hostile to Islam. That included the Shias, the Sufis and liberal folk like me. The students would often tell me that my association with unbelievers was nothing but apostasy.

My colleagues and I took it as granted that the Medina students would eventually do something drastic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2007 2:22 PM
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