Irony in the Oil Kingdom

It’s amazing what money can buy, even these days. Just a few days ago, President Trump dropped in on Saudi Arabia, and by all accounts, gave a pretty impressive (though tame) speech on Islam. Except, it wasn’t. Not by a long stretch. One thing sticks out: the almost exclusive blame he places on Iran for the region’s problems. Trump accuses Iran of being:

…a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran. From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.

That’s standard trope from Saudi Arabia, and Trump has become the latest patron for it, after inviting the kingdom to sign a multi-billion dollar deal with American defense companies.

Now, there’s no denying that Iran is a bad state actor, funding militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq etc etc. However, their attention has primarily been turned towards the region. Trump’s speech, while maverick for an American President, merely repeats pet Saudi Arabian slogans that are firmly anchored in the destructive feud between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. More bluntly, Trump leapt, and came down on the Sunni side of the wall.

Here’s the irony. It’s not the Sunni side of the wall that Trump’s landed on, it’s the Wahhabi side. Though Wahhabis like to identify themselves as Sunni Muslims, the Wahhabi creed is an incredibly literalist form of Islam that eschews all other expressions of the religion. Everything that does not conform to the Wahhabi strain is branded deviant, and this includes groups like Sufis, who have traditionally been considered an integral part of the community. Often, such branding led to deadly outcomes.

Key people in the realm provide monetary and spiritual succor to a brand of extremists who are not only interested in destroying Shia strongholds like Syria, Iraq and certain parts of Yemen, but also the mainstream Islam that is practiced by most Muslims. International terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda share the same ideological pool as Wahhabis. Across the world, they’ve probably killed more Muslims than non-Muslims.

It’s even more ironic that almost immediately after Trump’s sojourn in Saudi Arabia, a suicide bomber struck a concert in Britain. Was it Iran? Nope. The bomber was a poster child of Islamic State.

I don’t care if the extremist is a Sunni or Shia believer. All extremists must be eradicated.

Book Review: Fifty Key Figures in Islam

Well-bound and compact, Fifty Key Figures in Islam is an interesting read that is sure to fill boring moments. In presenting fifty famous figures of Islam, the author goes to great lengths at simplifying important Islamic concepts as theology, mysticism and law. The explanations of Arabic and technical terms are smoothly woven into the text itself, lending the book an elegance that is reminiscent of Karen Armstrong’s own works.

The book is laid out in a chronological manner, starting with the biography of Prophet Muhammad and ending with Abdul Karim Soroush. Though each individual’s life is spread out across an average of five pages, Roy Jackson highlights key moments that helped shaped the course of Islam. One of the book’s most important features is how it subtly exposes hitherto unseen links between old ideas and new ideas. Thus, even though the ultra-rationalist school of the Mutazilites (introduced together with the author’s biography on the Abbasid ruler, Al-Ma’mun) has long since been extinct, many Mutazilite ideas remain popular, especially amongst modern-day reformers like Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani. This is hardly surprising since Roy Jackson goes on to reveal that Al-Afghani was, in reality, a Muslim of the Shia sect, which unlike its Sunni counterpart, has not rejected the doctrines of the original Mutazilites and the type of speculative theology they employed.

However, the book has its faults. It confuses key concepts like mujaddid and mujtahid. Mujaddid means “renewer” of the religion, while mujtahid refers to a jurist who can exercise independent reasoning to derive laws from the Quran and Sunna.

Either Roy Jackson or sloppy editing allowed both terms to be used interchangeably numerous times. It’s highly suspicious when the mistake even extends to the index pages, where mujtahid is explicitly described as “renewer”. That’s incorrect.

Be warned also that because the book is about different individuals, there isn’t a monolithic theme to be derived. One may be hurt by the criticism leveled by individuals against Sufism or Wahhabism, for example. But Roy Jackson is simply being faithful to the key characteristics and achievements of the fifty extraordinary people who, for better or for worse, identified themselves with the Islamic faith.