Debate Magazine

Modern-Primitive Saudi Culture

By Cris

By the standards of cultural evolutionary discourse which tend to dominate our ways of thinking about the world, Saudi Arabia can be classed using any of these terms: modern, developedcomplex, industrial, and/or advanced.

kingdom-tower-riyadh-city-saudi-arabiaSaudi Arabia is certainly rich, and it is material-monetary wealth which underpins all these characterizations. But it was not so long ago that the tribes and territories that became Saudi Arabia were characterized as “primitive.” In Modern History of the Arab Countries (1969), Vladimir Lutsky sets the scene:

Arabia had always been the most backward country of the Arab world. Feudal relations here still bore traces of a patriarchal way of life reminiscent of the times of the prophet Mohammed. In the 18th century, as of old, nomadic cattle-breeding and oasis irrigatory farming remained the basis of the country’s economy. Vast though they were, the Arabian steppes with their meagre vegetation. had never been able to satisfy the needs of the growing cattle-breeding population. From time immemorial, Arabia had suffered periodical “pasture crises,” which played havoc with the primitive economy and drove the surplus population from the peninsula. Besides causing waves of emigration, the lack of pastures also compelled the Bedouins to settle on the land, till the fields and cultivate date palms and other fruit trees.

As a Soviet era historian, it’s not surprising that Lutsky equates economic forms with social advance. It is taken for granted that increases in productivity and population, along with the formation of larger and more cohesive political units, are progressive. This view is not, however, peculiar to Marxism. It is commonplace also in capitalist and Western societies.

Ironically and revealingly, it really doesn’t matter if one’s view of “modern” Saudi Arabia is marxist or neoliberal — both are underwritten by progressive historical and economic myths. As the story of “modern” Saudi Arabia is usually told, its “advance” towards nation-state complexity was due in large part to the unifying impulses of Sunni Wahhabism. Lutsky’s account is typical:

The founder of wahhabism was a theologian from Nejd by the name of Mohammed ibn Abd el-Wahhab, who hailed from the settled tribe of Banu temim. He was born in 1703 at Uyaina in Nejd. His father and grandfather were Ulema. Like them, Abd el-Wahhab had traveled widely in the Moslem world (Mecca, Medina and also Baghdad and Damascus, according to some reports), studying theology. Everywhere he took an active part in religious disputes, returning to Nejd in the forties to preach his new religious doctrines. He sharply criticised such superstitious survivals as fetishism and totemism, which, to him, were indistinguishable from idolatry. Formally all the Arabs were Moslems. But, in reality, there existed many local tribal religions in Arabia. Each Arab tribe, each village had its fetish, its beliefs and rites. The variety of religious forms that stemmed from the primitive level of social development and the lack of cohesion between the countries of Arabia were serious obstacles to political unity. Abd el-Wahhab set up against this religious polymorphism a single doctrine called tauhid (unity). Formally, he did not desire a change in the doctrines of Islam, but merely preached a return to Islam’s former purity as proclaimed in the Koran. Abd el-Wahhab’s “religious revolution” was also “an alleged return to the old, the simple.” But the meaning of the “revolution” lay not so much in a new interpretation of the tenets of Islam as in an appeal for Arab unity.

This is a classic progressive account of cultural development, according to which peninsular Arabians were “primitive” for economic (“feudal” and “nomadic”), political (“anarchic”) and religious (“polytheist”) reasons. If we fast forward to today’s Saudi Arabia, it is now a card-carrying member of modernity, fully plugged into the world economy as a unified nation-state and complex society. Such is the logic of cultural evolutionism, which measures advance along these axes with varying degrees of emphasis.

Saudi Arabia, however, stands as something of a rebuke to this tidy story of progress. Why? Because this supposed advance was facilitated and is maintained by a “fundamentalist” form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, that strikes many as particularly regressive. In today’s Atlantic, Ryan Jacobs takes a close look at what “Saudi Arabia’s war on witchcraft.” In the process, he observes:

Under Wahhabi doctrine, magic is seen as a serious affront to the pure and exclusive relationship one is supposed to share with Allah. But belief in the supernatural and magic is actually quite common in Muslim culture.

Begging Jacobs’ pardon, but belief in the supernatural and magic is not just “quite common” in Muslim societies — it is universal. Indeed, the reason these societies are “Muslim” (or Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.) is because of a belief in the supernatural and metaphysical. “Magic,” for its part, usually consists of those supernatural and metaphysical beliefs that are outside of orthodoxy and are thus heretical.

All this serves as a powerful reminder that the passage of time, accompanied by changes in economic and political forms, is not a measure of progress. While these changes may be accompanied by genuinely cumulative or accretive advances in technology and science, religion does not come along for the ride. Sunni Islam, whether in its Wahhabist or other forms, is no more “advanced” or progressive than the animist-polytheist beliefs of “primitive” Arab nomads.

While this observation may momentarily cheer those who find Wahhabism religiously distasteful or positively repulsive, they would do well to remember that the same applies to all so-called “world” or “modern” religions. There are no advances or progressions in this derivative and contingent domain — there are only changes in ideas and forms.


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