Nidhal Na‘isa

About two years ago, on October 5th 2009 in an incident that stirred up much uproar and controversy at the time, the former Shaykh of al-Azhar, the late Muhammad Sayyid al-Tantawi (1928-2010), the spiritual head and the most senior person in the greatest of conservative Sunni Islamic religious foundations, al-Azhar,

and also known as the ‘Great Imam,’ entered one of the institutions’ study classes and saw a girl in the full bloom of youth wearing the Bedouin desert covering on her face known as the niqab.[1] Familiar in the Arabian Peninsula, this is a garment in which only the eyes can be seen – although even this ‘nakedness’ is at times forbidden.[2] Al-Tantawi exhibited signs of anger and disapproval and asked her to remove the niqab forthwith, he actually proceeded to remove her niqab with his own hands, thereby bringing upon himself a storm of protest and indignation.

Al-Tantawi: ‘A custom, not a devotion’

Indeed, the heart of the Islamic religious system has been the target of Bedouinization raids in its own ‘traditional’, ‘official’ form, and is now up to its neck in it. The Shaykh’s action was greatly symbolic, and expressed the desire to break the open infiltration and clear confusion being made between what is coming to be thought of, on a broad popular level, as Islamic religious values and principles and what is in reality merely Bedouin behaviour which has no relation to the essence of the faith. The Shaykh of al-Azhar was attempting to give everyone the message that this niqab, in terms of clear and unambiguous Islamic legal foundations, has no connection with Islam.

In this context there is a common and widely-used expression, the same expression which Shaykh Tantawi used when he spoke with the girl, a lilting expression that has a certain magical, moving, flowing euphony to it: al-niqāb ‘āda, wa-laysa ‘ibāda – “the niqab is a custom, not a form of devotion.”

Indeed, this simple expression could be applied to many things that are done and seen and which many have come to associate with religiosity, or practice them as if they were part of the faith, although they are not. Today Bedouinization has become a new religion, a religion which we would do well to replace with the basic, original one.

The heart of the Islamic religious system has been the target of Bedouinization raids

But before getting in too deep for the moment into the heart of the matter, one ought to pause a while to consider the meaning of ‘Bedouinization’. As a concept it began at one point to infiltrate itself furtively but has by now burst in on our lives and imposed its looming shadow upon many aspects of our behavior, right down to its smallest details, in this part of the world, and perhaps in many other parts too that until recently used to be far removed from it. This Bedouinization has actually become a gauge and a Procrustean Bed[3] used by some to measure the degree of another’s faith and evaluate it. Hence one could, somewhat riskily, define Bedouinization as a term as follows:

Bedouinization is a term derived from the word ‘Bedouin’, an inhabitant of the remote desert, one who is by nature hostile to civilization, urbanisation, the values of mingling, coexistence and openness.

Thus from this respect it is:

a set of values that the Bedouin lives by and in which the spirit of the desert is conspicuous, along with its culture and mindset. Its behaviour is represented by values held to be absolute, final, pure, sacred and impeccable. It is an exemplary excellence beyond all evil, which occupies the role of a religion in its Qur’ānic guise and prophetic Sunna. Bedouinization draws part of its legitimacy from the fact that the pious first Companions, who are looked upon with something of awe and romanticism and reverence, behaved and lived this way.

In fact, there is a clear confusion today between what is known about the history of Islam, how it was practiced over the centuries without these recent Bedouin features, and the process of systematic Bedouinization we see today with its wholesale dressing up of religious ritual and practices in its own guise, and the attempt to give it a desert identity that has subsequently come to be widely known as Bedouinization.

Volunteers for the desert

It is a methodical operation, supported by millions of petrodollars, to present the values and behavioral norms of the desert – to the exclusion of all else – and to Bedouinize everything it can, on the principle of imposing the creed of the victorious petrodollar ‘king’ with all his keys of power, in all regions where Muslims are to be found. It is also a bid to give the impression that this Bedouinization, as opposed to everything else, is the ‘true Islam’. Takfīrist currents have arisen aiming at imposing on Islam the desert Bedouin style. And this is one of the most important problems today that contemporary urban Islam faces. From it has arisen all the troubles and clashes in every region which the Shaykhs of the desert have reached.

By way of simple comparison, one might make the following observation: prior to the 1980s, in an era of relative liberalism in the region and before the age of abundant oil, a form of urban, rational, moderate, un-takfīri Islam, one that was at peace with itself and with others, predominated. We know this from our mothers who wore the hijab headscarf elegantly, beautifully and gracefully, without expressing any affectation or statement of distaste for others or coercing them, nor seeking attention or demonstrating any sense of ‘identity’. They wore it in the same way and form that their Christian sisters often wore it, without making any distinction at the time between a Christian or Muslim woman. Since then the Christian has deliberately shed her headscarf as an act of protest, tacitly refusing the politicization and Bedouinization of the headscarf, or its conversion into a symbol. Meanwhile some Muslim women, under the pressure of those imported Bedouin values, have taken a hard line on wearing the headscarf and conspicuously flaunted it. Still others have become more extremist and closed in on themselves, exchanging the headscarf for the jet-black niqab – a more extreme, closed, staid form of scarf that expresses a religious, not a national identity, and a voluntary return to the desert.

Read Part 2 of this article

[1] Al-Azhar issued a ruling in 5th October 2009 prohibiting the wearing of the niqab inside its premises, leaving the choice of wearing it outside the classrooms a personal matter.

[2] Even the eyes are commanded to be covered. On this, Shaykh Mutlaq al-Nabit the media spokesman for the ‘Committee for Enjoining that which is Permitted and Forbidding that which is Repudiated’ (the religious police) in Ha’il in northern Saudi Arabia, affirmed that the members of the Committee operating in markets are to engage in applying the orders to any woman if her eyes are alluring. In his statements to the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, al-Nabit said that “the men of the Committee have the right to order the woman to cover her eyes if they are causing temptation”. He denied that he had given permission to a Committee member who was involved in a scuffle with a citizen in Ha’il market, to carry weapons, but nevertheless confirmed that members of the Committee are responsible people and therefore entitled to do so. Al-Wasat (Bahrayn) issue 2990, 13th November 2010.

[3] An arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced. (Ed.)

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