Posts Tagged Religion

The Kingdom and I: My Plight With Saudi Arabia

Good morning new day in Jeddah. It’s my last week here on this seasonal trip and, as usual, I’m getting anxious about my passport and my return visa. I always get anxious near the end of my trips to Saudi Arabia. Should I make that call and find out if it’s been issued and if I can have my passport back? Does that really speed it up or does it only aggravate? Sheer helplessness is my share as a woman, and as a “foreign” woman, whenever I visit.

What’s a return visa? That’s a long, twofold story. One part me, one part Saudi Arabian laws. Let me start with me.

My mother’s hometown was Medina, Saudi Arabia. Like many Medinans and other inhabitants of the hijaz area (the western coast of Saudi Arabia along the mountains) she was of immigrant descent. Many Saudis living along the Hijaz have Eastern European, Turkish, Central and South Asian, and even African roots. They’ve been living for generations in Saudi Arabia and are full citizens, yet their cultures, family names, and even accents, are an interesting hybrid you’ll find especially conglomerated in Medina. They always find themselves different from the rest of the peninsula because of the way many of them are brought up but, most importantly, because the Najd Saudis (indigenous inhabitants of the vast Arabian desert of the center and the north, covering Riyadh, and from which the royal family descends) see to it that they’re constantly reminded of their “unArabianness,” for lack of a better word. Stereotypes are exchanged between Hijazis and Najdis. The former call the latter “primitive bedouins” who mutilated the land of the Prophet and the latter call the former “pilgrim remnants,” like abandoned, unwanted leftovers from foreign pilgrims who don’t understand Islam the way God intended it. The real Saudi Arabia on the ground is in fact rich in its variation and multicultural society.

But that’s for a whole different post with lots of complicated details and I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. What I’m actually trying to tell you is simple: My mother was from Saudi Arabia.

Yet somehow, ironically, I’m still a foreigner by law. I’m still not entitled to citizenship even though there’s been lots of official talk that people like me, born to Saudi mothers, should be.

Fine. Where does that leave me?

Foreigners should get visas to enter Saudi Arabia. Woman foreigner? Woman foreigner must have either pilgrimage visa where she must enter with a group of pilgrims (this visa is seasonal, open only on certain months in a year, and confines the trip to certain cities within Saudi Arabia) or a regular visit visa in which a male guardian has to be involved; either as the person sending her the invitation from inside Saudi Arabia – in which case he would have to be present at the airport to meet her – or as a travel companion with his own visit visa (which by the way can be a multiple entry business permit lasting up to six months). Apart from the whole male guardian complication, if the male guardian is there and is available, the process should be pretty much straightforward, but in reality it can quite unpredictably take well more than a month.

I’ve had all kinds of interesting incidents on my trips to Saudi Arabia. On one occasion I was held at the airport even though my passport’s been stamped. I wasn’t allowed into the city because my uncle had to physically show up at the airport and show himself to the authorities. I was placed in a room full of women from Asia and Africa who had just arrived for work, waiting for their custodians to pick them up from the airport. Some were curled up by their things and sleeping, some appeared to have been in that room for very long hours – if not overnight – and certainly all of them were very, very exhausted. I was the only one fuming. The family fixer back then did his usual magic tricks and got me out.

As a way to get past all of this I decided that I would work on getting a residence permit based on my mother’s custody. This process ended all trouble for me for almost ten years. I only had to show up in the country twice a year to keep my residence going and, upon leaving, a return visa had to be issued each time. I’d be getting a piece of paper, stamp it at the airport, and it would be my means of reentering the country.

Complicated to many, but still pretty much straightforward. Believe me! Until then no action had started yet.

Then one morning my mother decided not to wake up again, and everything became a huge deal since. For the past four years I have been trying to move my visa custody from my mother to my uncle and it’s been proving to be more than an uphill task. You see, I happen to have an older brother, and according to custom, my brother gets priority in my guardianship. Never mind the fact that he is an Egyptian living in Cairo. Never mind the whole idea that the guardian needs to be a Saudi national living in Saudi Arabia so that I could actually get his custody for my residence permit in the same country he is in. I have a brother living in Egypt and my Saudi mother died, so as a “foreigner,” I should pack and leave. I have no privileges being the daughter of a deceased national. None at all.

The Saudi person who is helping me with my papers has been going here and there and checking in every direction he could to find out if there’s anyway we could still move that custody. He was presented with two solutions: Either my brother accompanies me to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo and writes an official renunciation of my guardianship, thereby officially moving it to my maternal uncles (I do have Egyptian paternal uncles but SHHHH!!) or I get my permit as a nanny in my own uncle’s household.

It may raise a few eyebrows, but red tape, tardiness, turtle speed and the occasional bumps on the road to any official paper work have actually made the nanny option quite appealing to me. As long as it doesn’t involve the embassy as well, which could mean more and more papers back and forth and officials taking vacations and locking papers up in their desk drawers, then at least I’m still only dealing with the ministry inside Saudi Arabia.

But a voice inside me tells me that something would be very, very wrong if I ended up with this option. So I’m going to go ahead and see if the embassy procedure in Cairo is in anyway doable, like if somehow miraculously the embassy is less tedious to deal with. They do have a whole new headquarters near my home now with a huge helicopter platform at the roof, so they should feel pretty fresh, eh? It actually took some five or more years to finish and lots of harassment to me by their Egyptian construction workers each time I walked to the gym, but I’ll try not to think too much of that when I walk in. The harassment part is a Cairo problem really, so let’s not confuse culprits.

I’ll just play it by ear till my residence expires. Until then, and in the coming few days, I need to restrain myself from thinking too much about whether or not my return visa has been issued yet and whether or not I can actually fly back to Cairo on the date scheduled. This is my predicament each and every time I come here. I have men doing this on my behalf (since it would be virtually impossible for me to do it for myself) and I really appreciate the help so I hate to push, but I never quite understand why they don’t get me out of their way from the very beginning by getting my shit done instead of leaving it till the last minute.

Apart from that, I have a little confession to make. I think a lot each time I go back to Cairo whether the whole experience is worth it. I think a lot about losing that permit and just not bothering with Saudi Arabia anymore, but it’s hard. I have family here. I have childhood memories. I care about the old places and the old cities. I care about the time old, authentic beauty and spirit in the little bazaars and the aromatic alleys and the holy places. I can’t let ugliness win, can I?

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The Book of Eli, the Book of God

I’d say Hollywood has suddenly hit a new note, and a rather bold one.

I ended up with my friend on a seat to watch the Book of Eli because the showing of the film we actually wanted to see was canceled. My friend suggested the film out of curiosity and I went along with her. When the film actually started a cat was killed. I thought to myself, “Ok, this film isn’t for me. Let’s see where it takes us still.”

The idea of a third world war often used to haunt me as a child. I used to ask my father so many questions that his answers at times had to end up getting into politics and history. I recall him telling me that if a third world war erupted it would mean the end of the world, because the world now has what are called “nuclear” weapons that bring about destruction of all life on earth. I used to think so much about it. I rested with the fact that that would be what brings about Judgment Day.

The Book of Eli brings that fear so alive, and delves into what life would be like after such a war. Eli, the main character, appears to be a devoutly religious man, strong and ruthless with his enemies, and merciful with the weak. The book he keeps with him is the Bible—the last copy that remained. He carries the book and embarks on a journey towards a promised place, walking on foot, and faces the wrath of a person who tries to take hold of the book.

Two interests collide. Eli wants to deliver the book to a place where he knows it will be safe, and where its message is going to be spread again to bring about peace and harmony. And the other person wants the book because it will guarantee him power and authority over his subjects.

Now that is two ways of looking at religion, an issue that so many reformist thinkers in the Muslim world have engaged in, and so many have actually acted upon it. Ali Shariati, for one, argues that history Islamic history has gone through a dialectic relationship between these two types of religion: the religion of authority and the religion of the people. The former stands for oppression and authoritarianism, the other for faith and revolution. Both types use the same book, each with its own interpretation.

What amazed me after having watched the film is the title. The Bible is actually referred to as Eli’s book, not God’s. Offensive this may be to some devout religious people, it is in fact an attempt to hit straight to the message: It is a book for man, it is what man does with the book that matters, otherwise it would only be paper.

But wait! That’s not all that Hollywood sent us through this film. Eli appears on a very early scene in the film wearing a Palestinian scarf around his neck, what is commonly known in Arabic as the Hattah. Eli, with his Palestinian scarf, carried the responsibility of the book with the entire message of justice to mankind, protecting and preserving it. Eli and his Hattah represented the religion of the people, those with the free will who refuse to submit to the tyrant.

Change is everywhere. This is not just a new Hollywood note; this is a giant leap.

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The Voice in the Middle: Qaradawi’s Book on Jihad

 

By Arwa Mahmoud

After 9/11 the concept of jihad was immediately interpreted by most Western media as a global “holy war” against all non-Muslims.  Jihad became synonymous with terrorism and the media began to run stories of the perceived inherent, violent nature of Islam as evident in the Quran and in Islamic educational curricula.

In the midst of the confusion that was expressed in the media, Muslim attitudes were polarized between constant apology and denial of any significance of jihad in today’s Islam, and continuous assertion that armed jihad is an obligation against all non-Muslims, and cheering September 11.

To a great number of Muslims, however, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were evidence of a divorce between theory and practice that has long plagued the Muslim world.  It was these voices in the middle that were the least heard and understood.

Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi’s recent book on the meanings and rulings of jihad comes today as a much-needed reference for a clear and comprehensive understanding of the history of jihad in Islam—one that traces the linguistic meaning of the concept and the various developing debates on interpretations and applications of jihad in today’s world.

Qaradawi’s book represents this middle voice that comes out strongly and at many times boldly to challenge a number of preconceived ideas held by both extremes.  A key value in his work is that he devotes the larger part of the book delving in discussion with Muslim scholars of opposite views.  It takes a comparative approach that maps the opinions of a variety of scholars over the different types of jihad, rulings over engaging in armed conflict with non-Muslims, and the ethics of war conduct.  It offers a clear and rather interesting picture of the internal debate.

A controversial figure himself who was accused of supporting terrorism because of his support for resistance movements against Israel, Qaradawi remains one of the most widely read and trusted Muslim scholars who are respected by millions of Muslims worldwide.  For this reason, what Qaradawi says about jihad is important.  His writings have a mind-shaping effect on many.

Fiqhul Jihad: Deconstructing the Terms

 

Understanding jihad in Islam and trying to figure out why much of such violence is taking place cannot do without resort to scholarly reference that deconstructs all the relevant terms for a clearer and more responsible understanding of the concept and the corresponding phenomena.

In the Arabic language the title is Fiqhul Jihad, or the jurisprudence of jihad.  The connotation of the Arabic word fiqh stands for more than merely a set of laws and rulings; it also implies thorough in-depth understanding of a specific issue.  Hence the name of the book can be best taken as “understanding jihad.”

Qaradawi offers a significant distinction between fiqh and Shariah.  He points out that Shariah is a divine revelation from God.  Fiqh, on the other hand, is the derivation of rulings from this revelation.

Unlike the common practice of fiqh among a number of Muslim scholars as a repetition or copying of rulings previously arrived at by imams of another age, Qaradawi reminds the reader of the original understanding of fiqh as a continuous engagement with the surrounding conditions of the age or the circumstances of a specific situation in order to arrive at a desired ruling.

It is therefore a dynamic, constantly changing process. Such distinction, if clearly placed in the mind of an observer, would clarify the distinction between theory and practice.

It would make it easier to pinpoint the faults and confusion in the practice, and would show the many ways with which an Islamic principle can be understood.

Accordingly, Shariah can only be found in fiqh; it does not exist in a vacuum but rather in the many facets of its application.

The book also offers a conceptually based approach in understanding the term jihad. It does not stop at refuting the common misconception of it being equivalent to holy war; it reaches down to the linguistic root of the word, which is juhd, or effort.

Defined as “a Muslim’s exertion of effort in the resistance of evil and fighting falsehood, starting with exerting effort within oneself against evil drives, moving to resisting evil in society, and ending with resisting evil wherever it is, and within one’s capacity.”  It is a wider and more comprehensive term than the normally understood qital, or armed fighting, which is rooted in the Arabic word qatl, or murder.

This definition associates the exertion of effort with the establishment and protection of justice, liberty, and dignity for the well being of a society.  Jihad is therefore directly attached to value and conduct rather than belief or affiliation.  With this understanding maintained throughout his research, he attacks the Muslim view that jihad is armed fighting against non-Muslims simply because of their beliefs.

In this larger context, Qaradawi stresses the centrality of jihad in Islam.  He presents it as a religious obligation required of each Muslim.  Prayer, fasting, and the rest of the regular rituals are not considered sufficient for a person to be a true Muslim; he or she has to be an active member of their community for the realization of such broad objectives.

Armed Jihad: The Battle Within

 

Why and how to fight are questions that are often left to the general public, and in many times are swiftly answered by those who assume a position of authority or responsibility over armed jihad.

Although shocking to many Islamic “defenders,” some orientalist claims that Islam preaches at the point of the sword, or that Muslims are urged to fight all non-Muslims, are not necessarily groundless.

Qaradawi addresses a much-heated discussion over Islamic scholarly claims that around 140 Quranic verses were replaced and hence nullified by a single verse some Muslim scholars called “the verse of the sword”—a process known in Arabic as naskh.

Claims that certain Quranic verses replaced and nullified others are not new to Islamic thought, yet the contemporary shrinking room for the exchange of ideas and open scholarly debate within the Sunni tradition have isolated many views and rendered them alien to the public and hence more difficult to refute.

Qaradawi deals thoroughly with the claim and questions the very principle of nullification – or replacement of rulings – in the Quran, arguing for a vibrant and “living” text that was not revealed to be later nullified.

Through naskh, Qaradawi argues that the verses of the Quran do not cancel each other out; they offer further detail and clarification with each new revelation.

Armed jihad was therefore further specified, and its rules of conduct were laid out. It was not a comprehensive call of annihilation that replaced all that preceded it.

Why and How

 

The idea of war was generally frowned upon in the Quran and armed Jihad, with its linguistic meaning, was perceived quite differently not as a “holy war” but rather as a much-hated necessity for the protection of the general well being of the Muslim community. There was nothing holy about it.

Jihad, like other Islamic prescriptions, can only be fully comprehended within the socio-logic of a pulling and hauling pattern that constitutes the Islamic worldview, a pattern that is often known in Arabic as Sunnat Al-Tadafu`.  Throughout history, strong forces have often been replaced by others, which in turn were also replaced.  Oppression and injustice often bred rebellion that struck back at the heart of their establishment.

Therefore, jihad with all its facets is perceived as a necessary force of change in society.

Armed jihad, whether offensive or defensive, and in its most basic meaning, fell within Islam’s holistic message for the protection of the oppressed; of religion; land; and liberty of creed.  It was therefore one of the tools with which a “moral balance” was maintained.

Consequently, the practice of armed jihad has a strict code of ethics which Qaradawi stresses in his distinction between the use of force and violence.  Building on historical text and a number of incidents, he shows that Muslim fighters are urged to avoid the resort to violence at all costs.  Qaradawi launches a vicious attack on much of the practices that violate this code, such as the murder of children or the mutilation of dead bodies.

Jihad and the World: Three Abodes

 

Often repeated by some Muslim groups, the expressed view of the world to be divided into two abodes – an abode of Islam and an abode of war – does have a place in Muslim scholarly literature.  How these two worlds are to be managed and the conditions that govern relations between them remains subject to a series of interpretations that developed with the ages.

Qaradawi challenges this division by introducing a third world: the abode of the covenant.

By adding the abode of the covenant Qaradawi reconstructed the abode of war; he narrowed it down to the State of Israel.  As a settler state that was artificially established on invaded land, Israel is perceived to be an aggressive entity that should be resisted and fought.  The fight against it is thus a religious fight because it is a religious obligation to resist occupation, not because Israel is a Jewish state.

The abode of the covenant consequently became the rest of the world.  Muslims are bound with other countries by international treaties and laws by which they have willfully chosen to abide.  Threatening the security of the people in such countries would thus be considered a form of transgression.

Contemporary Concerns

 

With all the detailed theoretical examination of the means and conduct of armed jihad, Qaradawi lays a solid foundation for a more informed practice of Shariah rulings on armed confrontation.  In most of the ideas presented in his book, some of his propositions are revolutionary by many conservative Muslim standards.

However, issues such as the relationship between the Arab state especially with its own people, and where it falls in all of this, remain unanswered.

Theoretically, Qaradawi considers the duty of jihad to be the official concern of the army of the state under which Muslims reside.  How should Muslims act if the head of state is corrupt, oppressive, and does not fulfill the duties required, remains loose.

With a closer look at a phenomenon like Al-Qaeda, it would be an oversimplification to assume that the 9/11 attacks were merely the result of misinterpretation of religious text.

The key problem with the Al-Qaeda ethos is the absence of strong state presence that is capable of protecting and maintaining sovereignty over much of the countries of the Arab world, which for decades has not witnessed any states that are able to use their forces effectively to deter aggressive powers from the outside, rather than use them inside against the people they are supposed to protect.  With little room for free religious learning and a shrinking collective awareness, Al-Qaeda becomes equally the result of an oppressive and unjust state from within.

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