Guidance from the Saudi Koran Kops

mhm muhammad  s tombAs longtime readers may have noticed, we GetReligionistas think it is rather important for basic religious facts to be included, from time to time, in stories about major religious events and trends. It is, for example, rather important to help readers (even government officials) understand the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This topic has come up several times and, alas, I am sure that it will continue to do so. There is no way to round up all of GetReligion's URLs on that subject, but here are a few.

At the same time, I have been interested in knowing what these sectarian differences look like when they are lived out in daily life, in public worship and in the doctrines that define them. If a reporter walked into a Sunni mosque instead of a Shiite mosque in Iraq, how would they know the difference? Baptist sanctuaries do not look like Catholic sanctuaries. Right? There are differences that can be described in words and even photographed (perhaps).

I tore a Stephen Schwartz article out of The Weekly Standard recently that offered some insights on issues of this kind, and then I lost it. I found it yesterday in the bottom of my shoulder bag, down under clips from the The Washington Post, The Washington Times, etc. The edgy headline said: "Saudi Arabia's Koran Kops -- The religious police run amok."

We do not write about the political weeklies all that often, but this article contained information and images that religion-beat reporters will find interesting.

At the heart of the article is the fact that the religious militia, or mutawiyin, of Saudi Arabia have been cracking down on people whose worship they consider unworthy or even heretical. This is especially true when it comes to the Shiites, who offend the Wahhabi authorities in every way. But what does that look like? Consider this passage:

On August 10, according to Reuters, a group of eight Iraqi Shia men aged 16 to 26, holding American and British citizenship, accused the mutawiyin of assaulting them in Mecca a week before. The eight Shias claimed they had been detained overnight and beaten by the religious militia for praying in the Shia manner, which differs slightly from the Sunni prayer ritual. A member of the Iraqi parliament said that two of the men were sons of Iraqi political figures. One of the pilgrims, Amir Taki, 24, declared, "We were handcuffed and savagely beaten with chairs, bats, sticks, shoes and police radio communication devices." They claimed to have been denied water, food, medicine, and toilet facilities, and to have been subjected to threats of murder. They escaped because one used a hidden cellphone to contact U.S. and British diplomats.

My colleague and coauthor Irfan al-Alawi ... a British Sunni Muslim, had a similar experience to that of the Iraqi Shia pilgrims, on August 12. He writes, "I went to the prophet's Mosque to read my prayers. I moved close to the sacred chamber where the prophet is buried, which is made of a green coloured metal grill and has a wooden wall surrounding it. The mutawiyin and police sit behind the wooden wall and stop people from looking inside, touching the grill for blessings and praying towards it.

"As I took out a book consisting of salutations for the Prophet, one of the mutawiyin had left to change duty. I was reading the salutations facing the sacred chamber when a police officer told me to move away. The mutawwa who had left to change his shift told me not to face the sacred chamber. I made a gesture indicating I needed only two more minutes to finish praying, but the mutawwa insisted that I leave the area immediately. I continued reading from my book while sitting for approximately five more minutes, and then got up to leave. As I walked around the sacred chamber towards the exit, another mutawwa grabbed me at the indication of the first one, and led me towards the first. The first asked me for my card, to which I replied, 'Which card?' in English. He repeated, 'Card, card.' A well-dressed old Saudi man told the mutawwa to leave me alone, to which the mutawwa replied, 'Mind your own business and don't interfere.' He then asked me my nationality and when I replied that I was British he smirked.

"We then went to the head office of the mutawiyin. The one who arrested me reported the incident and told his senior that I ignored his instructions three times against praying facing the sacred chamber. I waited for ten minutes before a Pakistani dressed in the blue uniform of the Saudi bin Laden company came into the office and sat down next to me. He asked me in Urdu why I was there, and I repeated the incident, to which he replied, 'Why were you facing the sacred chamber?' He then asked me which book I was reading. He looked through it and then asked me whether I was a Shia to which I replied that I was not, but that I was a mainstream Sunni. He then said that the book I was reading was written by a Shia, which happens to be untrue."

And so forth and so on. Don't you want to know more, more about the actual teachings that shape these clashing traditions?

There are other factors at play here. But are the religious beliefs important? Of course they are.

Photo: The gates to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad.

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