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This review is from: Arabian Sands (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Edition)
I have called this review, 'recognisable history' as many aspects of what was once a far-off, highly alien civilisation have reached well into the day-to-day of Western societies since the collapse of empires and WW2. The prospective reader should have no doubt that this is a unique, powerful, readable account which will illuminate, startle and grip from start to finish. Indeed I was saddened when the tale finally ended with the author's being expelled from Arabia.
But what I would want to think on is the nature of Islam and Muslims as depicted by this Christian author (albeit Christian in what is a lost societal definition rather than today's use in Western society to denote a minority sect) as he wandered across the huge sands of Arabia where non-Muslims entered at a danger of death. Indeed, if there are a few words which leap out of the text these would include 'death' as one near the top of the list. Others would include sand, cold, water, thirst, hunger, camels, guns, limestone, sand, sand and sand. Oddly Thesiger never really talks about the heat of the day.
But, these to one side. This is a highly dramatic account that places the reader right in the middle of a land torn between the stone age culture of the Bedu and the medieval of the settled Arabs; plus guns - lots of guns. Thesiger is highly supportive of the passing culture of the Bedu. He eats, talks, sleeps, argues and risks all with those men who risked their all with him. He sees in them a heroic life, manly, supportive of their society, risky, facing death at every turn, enjoying laughter, enduring immense suffering without complaint, dying at all ages and from all causes. And he contrasts this with the settled culture of the Wahhabi Muslims settled in Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arabian Gulf states.
He evidences two totally different Islams, but both strong. The Bedu are almost celibate, never practice homosexuality, tolerate illegitimacy, tolerate Christians, elevate the position of women and practice their faith in daily life. The Wahhabists regularly practice homosexuality, murder women who commit adultery or who sleep with a man not married to her, are 100% intolerant and abusive of anyone not Wahhabist (including the Bedu as well as Christians), hide their women and faith for them is the ritual of prayer.
Now, swing from the 1940's up to the 2010's and enter much of formerly Christian Europe. There are now tens of millions of Muslims spread across the EU. They are dominated by Wahhabists, not by the gentler, more tolerant and inclusive Bedu Islam. The Islam that has so recently embedded in Western society is one that is totally intolerant to anyone not Wahhabist Muslim: other Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus and Agnostics. There is no route out of Wahhabism, for to do so is to become an apostate, and Wahhabism designates the death penalty for apostates.
If someone not a Wahhabist in Western society wishes to understand how and why this intolerant, dominant sect of Islam does affect those caught in it, and those who have to live around it, then this book by Thesiger does so admirably. The first half is all about the Bedu, so the reader gets a clear understanding of their Islamic lives. When the Wahhabists appear the shock of difference is startling. You can see why Thesiger was so attracted to the Bedu lifestyle - and you can see how the Bedu and Thesiger are appalled and repulsed by Wahhabism.
Wester writers on Islam in the West are often modernist, guardianista, tolerant, inclusive - indeed as was Thesiger and even in ways the Bedu. But to understand Wahhabism it needs to be seen as Thesiger saw it: as a force against tolerant, inclusivist, modernism. The challenge for Western readers, sitting consuming such a book as this, is that in a city near them Wahhabism is alive and, the word would definitely be, kicking.