Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Royal Devastation and a Case for Knowledge

I am writing this in response to a news item brought to my attention by a wonderful blog: Crossroads Arabia. It is one of the many ways the internet connects me to Saudi these days.

Also, please let it be known that I am really talking about a certain group of Muslims, not all of them, and certainly not all Saudi people. Every large area has many group, and within each group there is individuality and diversity. I am sure you know that already.

Recently, Arab News reported that archaeologists have found a Pharaonic inscription near Tayma.

What an amazing find! It is evidence of a trade route, of communication between peoples thousands of years ago. This route goes all the way to Jordan (according to the article). It's a fascinating discovery that gives Saudi history a different in its richness, a deserving complexity.

Crossroads Arabia makes a very good point though, and mentions a term: "The Age of Ignorance". This is a term that makes the human and the art historian in me shudder with rage.

When I was in Saudi, I let myself waste away (but then decided to write it off). I bathed in solitude, as many of you know. On the other hand, my sister took advantage of her time there to go and do much, much cooler things. This is for reasons of personality and opportunity, and I am very proud of her. One of the things she did was visit a museum in Riyadh, I don't remember which one, although I think it might have been the National Museum of Riyadh. She reported back to me about what she had seen, and one of the things she told me was that the museum had a certain...tone about pre-Islamic Arabia.

The very term "Age of Ignorance" is one I have heard many times in my life. People in my own family has used it, and many members of the Muslim community of different ages and walks of life talk about it casually in their discussions of religion. It marks an attitude that I could never wrap my head around, or even respect. This is because it is founded on the belief that before Islam, people were just...doing it all wrong. Nothing good could come from the "Age of Ignorance"! God brought to us the prophet Muhammad and he made us do it right, so all we need to know is that before Muhammad, people sucked. That's it.

As someone who has devoted years of her life to studying culture, the evolution of mankind, architecture, and many other things that involve the human race over the course of years upon years, I am insulted by this attitude. I cannot relate to it, and have therefore gained prejudices against people who show the merest sign of having it.

Islam is the religion of knowledge and I am proud of being brought up in a religious circle that preaches everything but blind faith. Since I was little, I was told several things that support the spiritual and mental benefit to gaining knowledge: read the Qur'an, become proficient in Arabic fuss'ha (or however you might want to spell it) so that you can understand it without a translation one day, read the parables/hadith of the Prophet and understand which ones are more reliable (if any of them are), have religious discourse, and take nothing at face value, for God has given you the capability to learn.

I feel like this "Age of Ignorance" attitude is contradictory to this wonderful, reasonable attitude that doesn't even need Islam at its core to appreciate. There are many things to study about all histories, including pre-Islamic history, and much that we can gain from remembrance and analysis. Many Muslims know that, and to them I am preaching to the (probably nasheed) choir, but others don't care about anything but their own little bubble.

This goes for just about anybody of any religious or non-religious upbringing. What kind of a life are you living if you do not appreciate the work of the men and women and others who came before you? What kind of justice are you committing to them, if any at all?

The reason art history was the major I chose in my undergraduate study is because I got to study history through the lens of expression and perception. I got to learn through the philosophies of those who came before me and those who are still working today. It would be a great shame if we ignored the ideas of others and pretended we are so much better than they are. I am proud of the discoveries of Muslim scholars, I am interested in the knowledge or wisdom that the Prophet might bring, and I am also equally interested in the Pharaohs that have made their mark on Arabia.

I have no right to make decisions for Saudi Arabia or for its people, but I have to admit and address the worry that I feel personally about a lack of interest or appreciation for a whole history. There is a block in my mind against Muslims, not just Saudis now (because my knowledge about the "Age of Ignorance" came from Mauritians and Americans) that is caused by my mind's confusion. Why would you not take pride in a rich past? Who would brush away the accomplishments of their ancestors? And why not try to learn from the ancestors of others who are not your own?

The people who would ignore the past are the ones belonging to Ignorance. The people of pre-Islam were, according to Islam, on the wrong path spiritually, but the mental capabilities were nothing to scoff at. There are non-Muslims who find no need to think about anything but their own present as well, and they are doing just as badly. Humanity has done great things, and horrible things, and we are the ones losing out if we become ignorant.


  1. A few miles outside of Riyadh, on the escarpment to the right of the Mecca road, there are a handful of what appear to be neolithic ruins. They're circular structures of stone. Scattered about them you can find arrow and spear heads. I never heard exact dates given because 'stone age' technology can actually be pretty much contemporary, depending on where you are.

    Most Saudis in Riyadh are utterly unaware of these ruins and, when told of them--or better, brought to them--they're utterly amazed.

  2. Interesting. I hate it when describing world history, one stage is always "The Dark Ages".It was only the "Dark Ages" for Europe! The rest of the world was flourishing! China, Arabia, Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa; all were progressing and achieving great things as Europeans ate dirt!

  3. JMK: Although I think it is very important for us to study history, the way it is taught is a completely different pile of crap to sort through. It's...very problematic!

    John, I have heard similar stories from several people, and I just hope that this area of history is opened up for Saudis and people all across the Middle East. I also wonder who is at fault.