Will Saudi Arabia Cease to Be the Center of Islam?

Source: New York Times

By Faisal Devji, who teaches history at the University of Oxford

Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world.

An Urdu novel published in 1869 by Nazir Ahmad, a writer in Delhi, portrays two young Muslim girls at their geography lesson. As they identify various countries on a map, the girls come across the Arabian Peninsula. Their teacher describes it as an empty space infested by marauding Bedouin, one whose only significance lay in its historical role as the site of Islam’s birth.

The monuments and institutions of Mecca and Medina, the birthplaces of Islam, had always been minor in architectural quality and financial endowment compared with the splendid mosques, tombs and seminaries found at the centers of Muslim power in Baghdad and Cairo, Istanbul and Isfahan, Delhi and Samarkand.

Muslim kings rarely visited Mecca and Medina. Instead, those cities served as places of exile for their enemies.

Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world. Even as Mecca and Medina represent the most important sites of Muslim pilgrimage, the vision of the holy cities as remote and perilous is still reinforced by the occasional stampede of pilgrims during the Hajj.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has been moving fast to make his country a political and military power for the first time since its founding. He has engaged in a pitiless war with Yemen, imposed a blockade on Qatar and embraced increasingly aggressive positions toward Iran and other rivals. Whether or not Prince Mohammed’s strategy succeeds, it will transform Saudi Arabia’s religious status in the Muslim world.

In the late 19th century, for the first time since the Prophet Muhammad’s day, the Arabian Peninsula was placed at the center of Islam’s modern geography as Ottoman power waned over the Middle East and British influence extended outward from its economic and military base in India.

The “Muslim world” emerged as a category that provided a novel way in which to imagine a religion in cartographic terms. In 1882, a British diplomat and Arabist, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, published a book titled “The Future of Islam.” He foresaw the Muslim world’s colonization by European powers and sought to bring Islam under the protection of the British Empire, which possessed more Muslim subjects in India than the Ottomans did in their empire.

Mr. Blunt was among the first to make an argument that eventually redefined the geography of Islam by placing Arabia at its center. He argued that Istanbul and its Turkish emperor could never be true Muslim leaders, a role he saw as reserved for Arabs and their homeland. Istanbul, the capital of the only remaining Muslim power, had to be divested of its claim to the caliphate, and Islamic authority had to return to an Arabian Peninsula defended by the Royal Navy.

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Categories: Saudi Arabia

1 reply

  1. even now I would say Saudi Arabia – from a scholarly point of view – is no longer the ‘centre of Islam’. Who listens to Saudis? a few, yes, but not the majority of Muslims.

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