Conservative societies often fear renewal or any kind of critical review of their cultural, social and religious legacy, as “collective memory” lends a kind of communal strength and sanctity.
Resistance to renewal is a common trait in most Arab societies as they are accustomed to lack of accountability and follow a culture of obeisance. Religious rhetoric runs deep to the extent that it governs most individual and public activities.
‘Guardians of faith’
I have my reservations about the term ‘Saudi Shiite community’ because Shiite citizens in the kingdom are not a homogenous bloc. However, there are influential sections within this society, particularly traditional pressure groups which present themselves as “guardians of the faith” and take on any issues raised about the community by any critic.
These self-appointed ‘guardians of faith’ believe that any review of doctrinal positions, the conventional biographical accounts of their imams’ or any critique of Hussaini rituals is tantamount to a “violation of their faith” and undermines the fundamentals of the sect’s beliefs. They are wary that any such review would pave the way for the dissolution of the community in the sea of Sunnis and Shiite Muslims will become less than a minority in the country. The fear of being subsumed by the majority and their tendency is to viscerally counter their “rivals’ aspersions”. These tendencies have made the community susceptible to dubious historical narratives and untenable discourse.
Angry reaction not a studied response
Last month, the Thulata Cultural Forum in Qatif hosted poet Sheikh Ali Al-Farj for a lecture titled “The Myth Of Historical Symbols: Causes And Consequences.” The discussion’s main focus was on Farj’s book ‘Al-Abbas ibn Ali: Myth and Reality.” The speaker was highly critical of the preachers of the Hussaini platforms and said 70 percent of them rely on inaccurate historical narratives. He also raised questions about the reasons behind the dissemination of common myths circulated during Ashura gatherings.
Sheikh Farj also criticized classical religious scholarship and their references for their apathy towards historical research and heavy focus on jurisprudence. This criticism drew a sharp and acerbic reaction from members of the conservative movement, along with “insulting remarks” made against the speaker, which forced Farj to later issue a statement clarifying his statements.
An eclectic intellect
Ali Al-Farj is a young religious scholar who has studied his faith close to the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine in Rif Dimashq before resuming his studies at the Qom seminary in Iran. He is also a poet and a person with literary inclinations. He was influenced by Iraqi poet Mustapha Jamaleddine and is a friend of the poet Jawad Jamil. He is highly involved in hosting literary debates and discussions with students and intellectuals in Iraq and the Gulf.
After returning to his town Al-Qadeeh following his religious education, Ali Al-Farj resumed his work as a poet. Influenced by Saudi poets like Mohammed al-Ali and Abdullah al-Jeshi, he started publishing a number of poems in several Saudi and Gulf dailies. He once told me that he used to fall asleep in his house in Qom with a book of Nietzsche by his side.
This implies there is a general movement of religious figures and intellectuals who support the approach of questioning false legacies and clearing of old myths.Hassan Al Mustafa
This fact tells us that he is a young man who loves sharia and jurisprudence and is still open to reading philosophy and cultural and literary critiques. In stating that the phenomenon of Ashura has been turned into a ‘myth’, he was expressing his cultural outlook. In his texts about Karbala and Imam Hussain ibn Ali, he does not lament the travails of Imam Hussain and his people but joyfully writes about them. He does not forcibly cry over them or dress in black to project them as a defeated people. He presents them as inspiring figures on whom he has based his poetic and literary works.
However, Sheikh Ali Al-Farj drew sharp criticism from conservative Shiites due to his book and his speech on the ‘myth’ of Karbala. Sheikh Mansour al-Salman criticized the Thulata Cultural Forum and said the forum “seeks to find people who could insinuate and harm the sect’s cause and who seek to create doubts about rituals or historical accounts.” He added that the forum rushes to host anyone “wearing a turban and is willing to criticize (Shiite) references.”
Sheikh Mansour al-Salman is a respectable public figure, who enjoys direct communication with official channels and opposes the use of violence. However, in this instance he has resorted to a kind of “symbolic violence” against Farj, as he could not accept ideological differences and cast aspersions on the intention of the speaker and the forum and concluded that it was some sort of conspiracy planned against Shiism.
Farj wrote his book for purely religious reasons as he had promised to himself that if God responds to his prayers and cures his wife, he would write a book about Abbas. This historical review was thus written by a student of religion with the intention of “correcting concepts” and not to destroy them.
The same ‘vitriolic’ criticism against Farj has been made by several other Shiite religious figures either through messages and articles on social media in Qatif and adjoining areas. The criticism often descends to making personal insults that is unbecoming of a people who claim to be followers of Ahl Al-Bayt.
This harsh reaction is the result of Sheikh Farj’s criticism of classical religious scholarship and references which he blamed for not standing up against the populist rhetoric. A wide cross-section of Shiite scholars and their supporters have taken this stance as being tantamount to crossing red lines against “classical scholarship and their references” who are viewed as worthy deputies, sanctified by the ‘Infallible Imam’.
Enmity caused by ignorance
However, Farj’s work has also been defended by several Saudi Shiite writers and intellectuals, who have spoken out against his detractors. Poet Habib Mahmoud has stated: “Those upset with the results of historical investigation cannot tolerate this sudden criticism. They cannot pause at one investigation and respond to it. They respond to what they do not know, and ‘people are enemies of what they are ignorant of.’ What they do not know about the book is much more than what they know. Therefore, Sheikh Farj’s problem is not with those who write and discuss matters but it’s with those who do not read and who want to respond to statements which he did not say.”
A friend of mine told me that a respected religious figure in Qatif asked those who want to respond to Farj to respond after doing their research and not to resort to insults and sectarian remarks. This implies there is a general movement of religious figures and intellectuals who support the approach of questioning false legacies and clearing old myths.
The difficult task
Sheikh Farj’s story is an example of the cultural and religious activity taking place within the Saudi Shiite community. This activity is happening on a daily basis and its arenas are mosques, Shiite religious institutions and social media. When it comes to this controversy, people will have a difficult task in imbibing the concept of plurality and accepting self criticism. This work will not be easy and people will have to be patient and wise. The movement of the “guardians of faith” will not sit idle and watch their notions collapse but they forget that what they claim to be sacred is just a human interpretation of religion.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hassan Al Mustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.