Welcome to a new series I’m doing. My recent posting in Dubai has afforded me the opportunity to travel around the world with a frequency I hadn’t been able to before. As a result, I’ve made it a point to visit at least one local mosque in every country I visit and comment on my feelings about that country. Let’s start off with Saudi Arabia.
The mosque I visited was quite small, just the small room you see in the picture, enough for 25 – 30 people at most. The inside, however, was beautiful. Calligraphy carvings on the front wall, a clean and comfortable carpet, and a neatly tiled entry way gave the place a warmly welcoming and inviting feeling. The people were friendly, though they were Shia whose prayer rituals slightly differ from my own. It was a testament to what Islam should be, a faith which welcomes others, accepts differences, and provides acceptance.
Unfortunately, the rest of the country isn’t quite as inviting. To start, women are faced with many restrictions limiting what they are able to do. To start, women are not permitted to drive, and in some areas, cannot even own cars, let alone other property. Women must be completely covered with an hibaya, the traditional black veiled covering often worn by Muslim women. In the world of business, this leads to additional complications. The men on our team must secure rental cars and transportation. It’s risky to be seen riding in the same car as a woman I’m not related to. Additionally, business offices must construct a separate area for women to work, although no companies actually make their women work separately unless they’re being inspected.
This has always been interesting to me because Islam does not require, or condone, any of these restrictions. Women are not required to wear abayas in Islam. They are only forbidden from wearing tight clothes which reveal their figure, and even then, this requirement is only applicable to Muslim women. Islamic law does not extend Islamic rules to non-Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) first wife was one of, if not the most, successful and well known merchants in Arabia. Islam was the first religion in the area which allowed women to own property and gave them a place at the political table. The state of affairs in Saudi Arabia runs quite contrary to Islamic teachings.
The country also feels oppressive. Strict rules and punishments, like beheadings, still regularly occur in the country. I have to constantly be mindful of what I say or what I’m talking about for fear of persecution. It’s difficult to understand how valuable freedom of speech really is until you go to a place where it isn’t afforded. I must cover the tattoos on my arms because they might be found offensive as well.
These policies, among others, have resulted in the country being left in a poor state. There is little investment, and commerce struggles to thrive. There is a large reliance on oil money, much of which doesn’t go to the poor in the country. Agriculture is struggling, and the landscape of the country is barren and depressing.
It saddens me, as a Muslim, to see the nation which houses the centerpiece of my faith in a condition like this. It’s not as bad as is sometimes believed in the West, but it’s much worse than I wanted to believe it would be. Coincidentally, the people in the mosque, and those in the surrounding area, were very much against the royal family and the rules which have been imposed in the nation. Well, maybe that wasn’t so coincidental.
I can only hope that these things change in the years to come and the country experiences a rebirth.