Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Get Out of Jail Free Card

Who could be whispering my name?

I was in the Jarir bookstore, on my way to the airport after a three week visit to Saudi Arabia. My husband wanted me to get a feel for the place before moving there to be with him. To my surprise, I really liked Saudi Arabia, what little I had seen of it. And I really wanted to be with my husband. But who could be calling my name?

“I can’t believe it! Is that you, teacher?”

I turned to see a traditionally garbed man, whom I instantly recognized as my former student in classes I had taught back in the US.

“Khalid! Khalid! I am so glad to see you!” I exclaimed, and I was. Khalid was one of my very best students, before he disappeared from classes. He was bright, he studied hard, and from time to time, he would even practice hard and tell a joke in English. He was a student any teacher would remember. He had more maturity than the other students, who treated him with respect, but he also had a delightful sense of humor.

Instantly, my husband and two other men who had come with us to the bookstore were standing between Khalid and me. I knew they were protecting me, so I quickly explained who Khalid was, and introduced him to the men with me.

“You remembered my name!” he said with an astonished look.

“Of course!” I assured him, “You were one of my best students. I missed you when you left.”

“Truly God works in mysterious ways,” Khalid looked dazed. “I never dreamed I would see you again, and here you are, in my country.”

We had to leave. Khalid gave me his card, and asked that I call so his mother could invite me for tea. I told him I wouldn’t be back for a couple months, and he said he was hoping to start legal studies in London in January.

In the car, my husband and the other two guys were cracking up, slapping their knees, almost howling with laughter. I was annoyed; what was so funny about my running into an old friend?

“He’s a muttawa!” they exclaimed, continuing their cackles, “You’re friend is a muttawa!”

The muttawa, the religious police in Saudi Arabia, are kind of the boogeyman, and we scare one another telling Muttawa stories. The problem is that you never know what new rules are going to go into effect, or what old rules they will begin enforcing. Our embassy guidance, for example, was that we were NOT to cover our hair, that it was a choice made by Moslem women, but not a requirement for non-Moslem women. We were also told to carry a scarf and not to argue if a muttawa told us to cover our hair, but to cover, and to take it off again when out of sight.

We were told that if our abaya was too short, a muttawa might hit our legs with sticks. We were told not to laugh, and to keep our eyes lowered to the ground to avoid problems. We were told that sometimes you might be arrested and not even know what you were being arrested for, and to always carry your cell phone with the embassy number on speed dial. In short, we lived in terror of arbitrary powers of the dreaded muttawa.

“Khalid is muttawa?” I couldn’t believe my ears. My husband explained how you could identify muttawa, the short robes, the lack of egal, the sandals, and that Khalid had probably broken the rules he was in Jarir to enforce by having spoken to me.

I never saw Khalid again, not in the Jarir bookstore, not anywhere. I am guessing by the time I returned to live in Riyadh, he was in London studying. But I often think of his amazement, and my own, in that one-time encounter. I often think, as he said, that “God works in mysterious ways.” I wish him well.

For me, I was never again terrified of the Muttawa. Khalid was muttawa, and he was a good man. I carried Khalid’s card with me, and figured if ever I was arrested (never even came close) that I would tell them to call Khalid, and he would help me. I thought of it as my “Get out of Jail Free” card.

Going back to the Locard Exchange Principal . . . knowing Khalid as a student and as a person made a difference to me. It colored my ideas about the muttawa, made me less afraid. If the Locard Exchange Principal works on a social and spiritual level, I wonder if knowing me has colored his perceptions?

September 26, 2006 - Posted by | Adventure, Communication, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Locard Exchange Principal, Middle East, Random Musings, Saudi Arabia, Spiritual, Travel, Uncategorized


  1. Tolerant and Intolerant Islam
    (Or “Peaceful Islam” versus “Militant Islam”).
    by Dr. Tarek Heggy

    As early as the first century of the Muslim calendar, Islam has known radical sects who demanded blind adherence to their rigid reading of the articles of faith, side by side with mainstream Islam, whose adherents eschew violence and extremism and do not profess to hold a monopoly on Truth. The phenomenon began with the emergence of the Khawarij (Seceders) in 660 AD, (the middle of the first Hejira century), a sect which preached a dogmatic interpretation of Scripture and practiced a version of excommunication by branding those who did not adopt its teachings as heretics.

    This was the first such sect but by no means the last, and throughout the history of Islam the quiet of religious life was broken many times by marginal groups who tried to impose their extremist views on the majority by violent means. A comprehensive history of these groups has been compiled by my friend, Professor Mahmoud Ismail Abdul Razzaak, in an authoritative reference work entitled “The Secret Sects of Islam.” The author devotes special attention to the Qarmatians, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka’bah and kept it in a remote area in the east of the Arabian Peninsula for over a century.

    Alongside the groups and sects whose members insisted on a literal interpretation of holy texts and laid down strict rules governing all aspects of life, there was the general trend represented in the main Sunni schools (the most important being the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafite and Hanbalite, and their offshoots, Al-Laith and Al-Tebarry), as well as the Shiites, who are split into a number of sects. The most important Shiite sect is the Imammeya, or Ithna’ashariyya, (i.e. Twelvers), so called because they accept as imams twelve of the descendants of Ali ibn-Abu Talib (according to their belief, the twelfth imam, who disappeared about 874 AD, is still living and will return).

    Within this general trend there emerged prominent proponents of deductive reasoning, like the great jurist Abu Hanifa, who accepted just over one hundred of the Prophet’s Hadiths as apostolic precept, as well as uncompromising champions of tradition, like Ahmed ibn-Hanbal, whose book, Al-Musnad, is a compilation of over ten thousand Hadiths. The conservative ibn-Hanbal served as the bulwark of orthodoxy and tradition against any intellectual endeavour, and for a time exerted a considerable hold on public imagination.

    Although his influence eventually waned, in its heyday tradition reigned supreme and very little room was left for reason. The two main disciples of ibn-Hanbal were ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya, who, like their mentor, allowed no scope for reason or independent thinking, but insisted on a dogmatic adherence to the Hadiths as authoritative sources of all matters spiritual and temporal, laying down strict guidelines to govern every aspect of everyday life. In addition, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas between Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali (Algazel), a strict traditionalist who did not believe the human mind capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by God, and Ibn Rushd (Averoess), who championed the primacy of reason.

    The exponents of these two schools waged a bitter battle in which the first salvo was fired by Al-Ghazzali with his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Ibn Rushd answered with his brilliant treatise in defense of rationality, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But despite his spirited defense, the outcome of the battle was clearly in Al-Ghazzali’s favour, and the great majority of Islamic jurists adopted his ideas, interpreting the precepts of Islamic law by appeal to the authority of tradition and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. Islamic jurisprudence was dominated by the Mutakallimun, or dialectical theologians, who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql), as advocated by Al-Ghazzali, over that of reason (‘aql), as advocated by Ibn Rushd. But though Ibn Rushd’s ideas were rejected by the Muslim world, they took root strongly in Europe, particularly France, which embraced his vision of the primacy of reason wholeheartedly.

    Thus Muslims can be said to have known two different understandings to Islam, as it were, one based on a rigid, doctrinaire interpretation of holy texts and the violent repression of free thought, the other on a moderate and tolerant understanding of Scripture which allowed for the acceptance of the Other. The first was espoused by the secret sects (limited in number and influence) which emerged in remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula and can best be described as the Bedouin model. The second took hold in the more intellectually vibrant climate that prevailed among the peoples descended from ancient civilizations in places like Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Levant, which I call the Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model of Islam.

    Until the mid-eighteenth century, this was the model adopted by most Muslim communities outside the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. But that was before the rise of Wahhabism, a puritan revival movement launched by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab from Najd, where he was born in 1703. In 1744, he forged an alliance with the ruler of Al-Dir’iyah, a tribal chieftain by the name of Mohamed ibn-Saud, who became his son-in-law. The alliance led to the first incarnation of the Saudi state, which, by 1804, had expanded to control nearly one million square metres of the Arabian Peninsula. It was a short-lived incarnation, lasting only until 1819, when Mohamed Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, led a military expedition which destroyed Wahhabi power and razed the capital of the first Saudi state, Al-Dir’iyah, to the ground.

    Mohamed Ali’s decision to send first his son Tousson then his son Ibrahim Pasha, known for his military skills, to destroy the first Saudi state had implications going far beyond the political or military ambitions of one man. It was in fact an expression of a cultural/civilizational confrontation between the two models of Islam, a confrontation the enlightened Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model decided to take to the heartland of the obscurantist, extremist and fanatical Wahhabi model.

    Mohamed Ali, who was extremely impressed by the European model of development and saw no contradiction between the mechanisms by which it had come about and his Islamic beliefs, believed the Wahhabi understanding of Islam stood as a major obstacle in the way of the dream he had nurtured since coming to power in 1805 (and until he abdicated in favour of his son Ibrahim in 1848) to place Egypt on a similar road to development.

    Years after the defeat inflicted on them by Ibrahim Pasha (who captured their leader and sent him to Egypt, then to Istanbul where he remained until his death), the Saudis reemerged as a political force in the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula. Basing themselves in Riyadh, they began to meddle covertly in political affairs. This placed them on a collision course with the al-Rashid family in Ha’il, and the two sides were soon locked in battle. The Saudis, under the leadership of Abdul Rahman, father of the founder of the current Saudi dynasty, King Abdul Aziz, were defeated in 1891. Abdul Rahman fled to Kuwait with leading members of the House of Saud, where they remained in exile until 1902.

    During this period, they were the guests of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabbah, who played an important role in the formation of the young Abdul Aziz. Born in 1876, Abdul Aziz, who came to be known as Ibn Saud, was encouraged in his dream to recapture Riyadh by the ruler of Kuwait. In 1902, Ibn Saud (Abdul Aziz) seized Riyadh and waged a 30-year campaign to assert his dominion over the Arabian Peninsula. In 1925 he entered first Mecca then Medina, and, in September 1932, the 56-year old proclaimed himself king over the Kingdom of Najd and Hejaz, later to become the first kingdom named after its ruling dynasty, Saudi Arabia.

    Concomitantly with the birth of the new kingdom, which officially adopted the doctrine of Wahhabism, came the discovery of vast reservoirs of oil under its deserts. This provided the Wahhabis with a virtually endless source of funds which they used to propogate their model of Islam.

    Three decades after the creation of Saudi Arabia and the discovery of oil, many things had changed in the world:

    One, Saudi Arabia had built up a huge fortune that enabled it to further the cause of Wahhabism not only within its own borders but throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Its efforts proved successful, as many once moderate Muslims were gradually won over to the harsh version of Islam preached by the Wahhabis.

    Two, beginning in the ‘sixties, Egypt suffered a reversal of fortune at all levels, including a decline in its general cultural climate, allowing Wahhabi influence to infiltrate the venerable institution of Al-Azhar. The defeat of June 1967 opened the door wide to groups which espoused the Saudi understanding of Islam and who translated their radical views into political action, often at the point of a gun.

    Three, in the context of the Cold War, the West in general and the United States in particular adopted a number of misguided policies towards the region, including turning a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabi influence in the Arab and Islamic world, and even occasionally supporting radical groups inspired by the Wahhabi doctrine to achieve their own political ends, such as ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

    The assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an extremist group was a wake-up call which alerted the world to the growth and spread of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi model of Islam and the retreat of the Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model. A succession of similar events attested to the dangerous spread of this model in most societies with a Muslim majority, in Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia.

    On the morning of September 11, 2001, a group of fanatics belonging to the Wahhabi brand of Islam launched attacks on New York and Washington that illustrated how the members of this sect view the Other in general and Western civilization in particular.

    For the average European or American unfamiliar with some of the facts presented in this article, it is easy to believe that Islam, violence and terrorism go hand in hand. But those who have a more thorough grasp of the issue know that this perception of Islam has taken hold only because a puritanical, fundamentalist model of Islam, which was marginal and ineffectual before oil wealth put it on the map, has managed, thanks to petrodollars, to make the world believe that its interpretation of Islam is Islam.

    The doctrinaire version of Islam propounded by the Wahabbis had no followers among the Muslims of the world before the expansion of Saudi influence following the oil boom. Millions of Muslims in Egypt, Turkey, the Levant, Iraq, Indonesia and throughout the world remained immune to the appeal of the fanatical, violent and bloody message of what was a small and obscure sect bred in the intellectually barren landscape of the eastern Arabian Peninsula.

    All that changed with the massive influx of petrodollars into the coffers of Saudi Arabia, which used its new-found wealth to propagate the message of its home-grown Wahhabi sect with missionary zeal. Hence the emergence of militant Islam as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, a force that now represents a dangerous threat to world peace, to humanity and to Islam and Muslims.

    Half a century ago, the Muslims of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey were models of tolerance who believed in a gentle and enlightened Islam that could, and did, coexist peacefully with other religions and cultures. Following the decline in living standards they have suffered since at the hands of despotic and corrupt rulers, they have become easy prey for the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

    The perception of Islam today by many non-Muslims is that it is a fanatical and violent religion. That is a superficial view which ignores the fact that there are two models of Islam, one that is uncompromising and extremist in its views and another that is tolerant, moderate and humanistic. It is also a naïve view that can lead to dangerous decisions like the ones which informed the West’s policies when it turned a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabism and established close links with radical Islamic movements like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    Finally, there is no need to point out to the neutral reader that the existence of Qur’anic texts which can be used to evidence the violence of Islam is unimportant, because there are enlightened interpretations of the same texts which link them to specific circumstances and events. At the end of the day, any text, even if it is divine, requires a human agency to interpret it, and the real test is how the mind elects to interpret it.

    Moreover, there are also many Qur’anic texts which proscribe the use of violence and aggression against those belonging to other faiths and creeds, and calls on Muslims to treat them fairly and humanely. But texts should not be the focus of debate here, not least because this would allow extremists on the other side to justify their use of violence by invoking Old Testament texts exhorting believers to violence, notably in the Book of Joshua, son of Nun.

    What needs to be done at this stage is to champion the cause of enlightenment by supporting moderates and promoting the humanistic understanding of Islam that once prevailed among the vast majority of Muslims. Efforts in this direction must go hand in hand with a counter offensive against the rigid, doctrinaire, even bloodthirsty, version of Islam that first appeared among isolated communities separated from the march of civilization by the impenetrable sand dunes of the Arabian desert. Geographical isolation coupled with a narrow tribal outlook is a lethal mix that cannot possibly shape a humane and tolerant perception of the Other.

    The time has come for the Saudi government to part ways with Wahhabism and to realize that the alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi dynasty is responsible for the spread of obscurantism, dogmatism and fanaticism, poisoning minds with radical ideas opposed to humanity, progress, civilization, cultural continuity and pluralism, the diversity of opinions and creeds that is one of the most important and enriching features of human life.

    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | September 26, 2006 | Reply

  2. Holy Smokes, Joan! Great information. thank you for your help.

    Comment by intlxpatr | September 26, 2006 | Reply

  3. Indeed Khalid is a good man. Your senses tells you that & his good manners has touched many as you’ve explained.

    By the way, Khalid in Arabic means: The Immortal. & a Muttawa means: The Obedient to Allah/God. It also means the religious teacher. Any person who practice his/her religion rightly, continuously is considered to be so.
    Even women.

    It’s an obligation, & a high level of practice & devotion to be aspired to, by Allah’s will of course. Muttawas intentions are mostly to remind, help & encourage submitters uplift their spirits to aim for what’s after this evanescent life. Other than that nothing. They wouldn’t want to change ones beliefs. Our Quran teach us so:

    Sura 18, The Cave (Al-Kahf)
    Absolute Freedom of Religion
    [18:29] Proclaim: “This is the truth from your Lord,” then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve.

    Sura 2, The Heifer (Al-Baqarah)
    No Compulsion in Religion
    [2:256] There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way. Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in GOD has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks. GOD is Hearer, Omniscient.

    Sura 28, History (Al-Qasas)
    Only God Guides
    [28:56] You cannot guide the ones you love. GOD is the only One who guides in accordance with His will, and in accordance with His knowledge of those who deserve the guidance.

    Note: The prophet uncle was a disbeliever; who loved, raised & took care of him because he was an orphan. Prophet Noah’s son was a disbeliever as well. It’s only in Allah’s willing, when he wants things to be done he will say “BE” & it will. We believe in that indeed.

    Thus, the boogeyman Muttawas myth, is just another cheap propaganda.

    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | September 26, 2006 | Reply

  4. As the original Joan discovered, it is always a fine line between encouragement and intimidation. Those who “encouraged” Christians to admit to their heresies, one of which was owning and/or reading copies of the Bible, were terrifyingly devoted to bringing the true message of God, and protecting people from information they were too “simple” to process accurately.

    Some Muttawa, in their righteous zeal, might also be described as hmmm. . . over-encouraging?

    To me, being given the power to protect/police society is an enormous responsibility, and one which has temptations to abuse, in every society.

    Great references, Joan, and I am very grateful for these sura.

    A friend sent me a Ramadan card which said:
    “Allah singles out fasting from all other types of worshipm saying “Fasting is for me, ” because no one knows whether you are fasting or not, except Allah”

    is this a sura? I look for consistencies between our faiths.

    Comment by intlxpatr | September 27, 2006 | Reply

  5. Monotheism – A natural instinct.
    Before Creation, God summoned all of us human beings and had us bear witness that He Alone is our Lord. Thus all human beings are born with an instinctive knowledge about God.

    Indeed, no science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power.

    There is a big difference between a Muttawa literally (what I ment & explained before), & the one & only Saudi “committee of prohibition of abominable behaviors” (what you ment). It must be affirmed, that this committee is only in Saudi..! & the people who you see & think they’re Muttawas, they are not; even though they are called that by habit. They’re simple people – usually uneducated – put in there to keep an eye on the open market, the public & keep some kind of order!?

    & if you read Dr. Heggy’s article you’d understand by now; that the Islamic Wahhabi model is the one Saudi Arabia harbors. Sadly & tragically, which encourage extremist. Thus it’s the rigid Saudi culture we’re talking about here, & not the true soul of the peaceful Islam. You wouldn’t believe that, but Wahhabi Saudis once attempt to rage war on Kuwait long long time ago, they would cut open the cloths covering their chests & shout that in killing us Kuwaitis they would be mortals!!!! NUTS!! & of course they did kill may!! We, as well, suffered from such limited rigid mentalities.

    Of course, we as Kuwaitis & other moderate Muslim countries do not believe, support or practice such rubbish! Simply because, we believe in personal freedom & that Allah is the ultimate judge, also like everywhere else we believe that people are capable of choosing for themselves what’s best for their well-being & if not, police is there. Otherwise, why was police academies invented in the first place?! LOL

    So, as you explain Khalid was studying in the states & now going to study law in London, & the best part when he invited you to have tea with his mother. That is so sweet & humble. So, please stop wondering if Khalid had probably broken thee rules! LOL there is no roles to be broken in the first place! & that defiantly makes him an open minded, & a true kind moderate Muslim. Who can never be compared to such dumb committee when your husband & his friends described him as such – a Muttawa! LOL

    & allow me to correct something cultural here; when a Muslim man continuously dose not wear his egal (the balk round thing they wear in their heads to hold – qutrah – the white cloth), that’s a sign of modesty towards life in general… they think so. That of course wouldn’t make those who do wear it, less modest! Because, God judge us for what we believe truly in our hearts to be & not what we trade mark ourselves of as a signature to something or a code.

    For example, what the Westerners used to wear as symbol of slavery like the neck tie & the denim jeans, is now being counted as luxurious in their/your culture & no one would point out why the indifference about it.

    Finally, the answer to your question if “Allah singles out fasting from all other types of worships saying “Fasting is for me, ” because no one knows whether you are fasting or not, except Allah” a sura? No, it’s Hadeth Qudessi – sacred phrase said to the prophet by Allah, but it’s not Quran.

    Sorry for the delay in answering, but I was busy & tired.

    God Bless You All,


    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | September 29, 2006 | Reply

  6. A Brief Illustrated Guide To Understanding Islam

    *lovely booklet

    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | September 29, 2006 | Reply

  7. Joan, every time you write, you give good information. I like it that you also give references. You need to know that whenever you include a website in your comments, it goes to moderation, and will not show up in the comment section until I OK it . . . and that can sometimes take a while.

    As busy and tired as you may be, you gave me very good information. Thank you, friend.

    Comment by intlxpatr | September 29, 2006 | Reply

  8. I’m glad that I can be of any help of clearing up even little, while I can, about God’s Final message to humanity – Islam.

    About the websites links, when you OK them I assume you can access them – most importont – right?

    I hope you had the time to read the story of Mrs. Sue Watson – Former pastor, missionary, professor. Master’s degree in Divinity Unitarian Christians.

    Sue Quote: “It is not easy to change your religion. I did not want to loose my salvation if there was salvation to loose. I continued to be shocked and amazed at what I was learning because it was not what I was taught that Islam believed. In my Master’s level, the professor I had was respected as an authority on Islam yet his teaching and that of Christianity in general is full of Misunderstanding. He and many Christians like him are sincere but they are sincerely wrong.”

    I had tears in my eyes when I read her story…

    When truth touches us all so deep.. We cannot deny it… She spoke about not wanting to loose salvation if there was salvation to loose.. & I strongly connected with her right there!

    You are most welcome, friend.

    Comment by JOAN OF ARC | September 29, 2006 | Reply

  9. Excellent conversations and nice posts. Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. Islam is submission to Allah, our Creator. May Allah grant the light to each human being, for the one who passes this world without the light, is surely a loser, forever.
    And by the way, we need no humans to interpret the Word of Allah, but we need to see the life of our Beloved Prophet (peace be upon him), for when our Beloved Prophet spoke, He spoke on the command of Allah.

    Comment by xpat | October 22, 2006 | Reply

  10. Xpat – thank you for your visit and for your kind words. If you are in Riyadh, my favorite time of the day was dusk, at the Diraa castle & souks, when the sky would go deep purple, everything would close as the men went off to mosque, and there would be ten minutes of hushed silence and the stars would appear, one by one.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 22, 2006 | Reply

  11. I wonder if “God did work in mysterious ways” again?!

    I know I’m pumping an old post, but I couldn’t resist not to post.

    Enjoyed the comments.

    Sometimes you look back it old stuff and wonder what changes has taken over and if it still feels the same.

    Comment by Touché | October 2, 2007 | Reply

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