An hour outside the Saudi capital of Riyadh, in the rocky terrain of the desert, a Saudi family concludes a daylong outing. A full moon illuminates the black line of silhouettes in prayer. While I sit by myself on a blanket nearby, Ahmad and his father, brother, and young sister prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca. Observing my failure to pray, Ahmad, who is 6, approaches, clearly concerned. “I need to teach you something,” he says. “What?” I ask. “Do you know what to say when the angel of death comes?” he says. Assuming I do not, the little boy then provides the answers that the dying should give if they want to transit successfully to the hereafter: “The angel asks you, ‘Who is your God?’ and you say, ‘Allah,’?” says Ahmad. “?‘Who is your prophet?’ You say, ‘Muhammad.’ ‘What is your faith?’ You say, ‘Islam.’”
It is hard to imagine a child of that age in the U.S., or most other societies, similarly concerned about the hereafter for himself—let alone for a stranger. But this 6-year-old believer, seeking to save the soul of an infidel, suggests how pervasive religion is in Saudi Arabia. Several times every day, businesses throughout the kingdom close for half an hour at a time while men go to pray. (As the sexes are strictly segregated, women are not allowed in the mosques with the men and so have to pray at home.) Every airport, shopping mall, and government building includes an area covered with prayer rugs arranged to indicate the direction of Mecca, so worshipers know where to kneel and pray. Every hotel room has a sticker on the wall or desk with an arrow pointing toward Mecca. Even new cars often include complimentary prayer rugs so travelers can stop alongside a road and pray. The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer begins in predawn hours and is heard four more times throughout the day and evening from mosques so numerous that the effect in the larger cities is a chorus of prayer calls in surround sound.
On a recent morning, Lulu (short for Loulwa) pushes open the heavy steel door in the wall that surrounds her home. A woman in her early 40s, she is hidden under her billowing black abaya. Although the dusty street outside her house is empty, she is careful to avoid exposing even a glimpse of herself as she ushers me into the small courtyard of the modest two-story home she shares with her seven children and her husband—every other day. On alternate days, he is downstairs with his first wife of nearly 40 years, with whom he shares eight other children, all older than Lulu’s brood, who range in age from 5 to 20. “That is her home, and up here is mine,” she says with a nod toward the ground-floor door of the first wife as we climb the tiled stairs to her home.
A sweet woman, educated at King Saud University, Lulu speaks English haltingly. But, deeply devout, she is eager to share her religion. Though Lulu and her husband are educated and middle class, Lulu staunchly opposes women who have been fighting for the right to drive and for other freedoms, seeing them as dangerous infidel influences from the West. While Saudis these days have access to the Internet, hypermodern shopping malls, and hundreds of satellite channels—even illicit drugs and alcohol—her home is free of infidel influences. The walls of her home, like those of any devout Wahhabi, are devoid of photos because any human representation is forbidden by this strict interpretation of Islam. The family has one television, but it is set to receive only a religious channel that bans any appearances by women. Lulu doesn’t want her children seeing faces of unveiled women who have recently been allowed to work as anchors on some Saudi channels. The family’s sole computer, similarly, is used only under Lulu’s supervision—and then only for homework, most of it studies of the Quran or for accessing religious sites.
By choice, Lulu rarely leaves home. During the week I spend with her (and on subsequent visits), it is clear that Lulu not only accepts but welcomes the confines of her life. She is the primary caregiver to her seven children and has no household help, as the salary of her professor husband can’t cover maids for both wives and Islam requires that a husband treat his wives equally. And Lulu has no aspirations beyond living a life that pleases Allah and ensures the entry of her and her family into paradise. An essential element of achieving this goal is serving every need of her husband, a professor of Hadith, the thousands of stories about the words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, collected and passed down after his death as a daily-living guide for devout Muslims. If her husband should be dissatisfied with her—or worse yet, be led astray—the fault would be hers. “Men are in charge of women,” says the Quran. “So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard.” Serving Allah means serving her husband.
Lulu’s children, including her teenage girls, admire and obey her. And her 19-year-old daughter submits to her control of music to be downloaded on her new MP3 device. Proper Islamic music, Lulu says, must have no rhythm nor include a woman’s voice lest a man hear it and be led astray—a sin upon the female. When I ask Lulu how she hopes her daughters’ lives will differ from hers, she doesn’t hesitate. “I pray they have a life like mine,” she says. Her eldest daughter, a student at King Saud University, says with admiration, “She is dedicating herself to helping us have a life just like hers.”
During more than three decades of covering Saudi Arabia, I have been fascinated with the role of fundamentalist Islam and the hold religion has on society. Researching a forthcoming book, I recently spent a week living with Lulu’s devout family in Riyadh (a different and much more conservative one than Little Ahmad’s family) in order to understand the role of religion in everyday life.
Like Lulu and her family, most Saudis practice an ultraconservative form of Islam known as Wahhabism—the fundamentalist form of Islam that motivated the Islamic jihadists responsible for the 9/11 attacks and more recent violence. Yet, paradoxically, Saudi society itself has seen very little turmoil or trouble. Ruled by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, this is an absolute monarchy. There are no elections or other political freedoms. The winds of change ushered in by the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and now strife-torn Syria—and fanned to violence during the recent anti-American protests sweeping across the Mideast—have not visibly touched the Saudi kingdom.
Increasingly, however, there are signs that the Saudis might not be able to hold onto the status quo, with women and youth at the forefront of a demand for change. For instance, one young Saudi woman this spring did the unthinkable—she stood up to the religious police who stalk the streets to enforce Wahhabi religious strictures on women. When the men ordered her out of a Riyadh shopping mall for wearing red nail polish, she held her ground, told them they had no right to harass her, turned the camera of her cell phone on the men to film the entire confrontation and posted it on YouTube, where it quickly went viral.
Lulu and her daughters represent the cloistered and benign Islamic conservatism that the Al Saud and its religious partners, the Council of Senior Ulema, profess to believe dominates the kingdom. Lulu wishes she were in such a majority but says fewer than 50 percent of women any longer share her views and lifestyle.
Saudi women such as Manal al Sharif, a divorced mother who worked at the kingdom’s oil company, Saudi Aramco, in Dhahran, braved arrest for daring to drive—something Saudi women are forbidden from doing. Additionally, after a six-year effort, women finally are being allowed to work as saleswomen in lingerie stores. Conservative Saudis had fought the idea of female sales personnel, arguing it would lead to the mixing of men and women, forbidden by Wahhabism. (Never mind that such mixing occurred when women purchased lingerie from male sales staff.) And no less a figure than King Abdullah’s daughter, Princess Adelah, has helped Saudi women establish homes where battered women can flee abusive male family members. She also helped secure a fatwa, or religious ruling, from the kingdom’s grand mufti that family violence isn’t a husband’s right but rather a crime. Of course, it takes more than a religious ruling to alter centuries of tradition.
There seems little doubt that if the greater openness of recent years that has allowed some Saudis to choose a more liberal lifestyle—where men and women sometimes mix, where women can check into a hotel without a male relative, where there is even talk of women being allowed to drive—were to become the new norm, conservatives like Lulu would resist adapting with all their might. This is the challenge for the kingdom: how to accommodate those citizens who want more freedom to change and also those like Lulu and her family, who truly see change as a road to hell.
For sure, that task is growing ever more difficult as the historic supports of Al Saud control are weakening. Islam, long a source of unity, is now becoming another source of division and for several reasons. The Al Saud, whose legitimacy rests on perpetuating the one true faith, have politicized Islam, using the religious establishment to condone Al Saud political priorities from basing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia in the ’90s to supporting a new university that mixes men and women in 2009. As a result, the religious establishment’s credibility is eroding and along with it the legitimacy of the Al Saud. Moreover, thanks to the Internet, the Wahhabi religious establishment no longer has a lock on interpreting Islam for young Saudis, who hear many discordant views from Muslims inside and outside the kingdom.
As the religious pillar weakens, so too does the future of oil dollars that the Al Saud have relied upon to purchase public passivity. Saudi oil production is believed by some experts to be nearing a peak. Undeniably, domestic energy consumption is skyrocketing, reducing available oil for export, the major source of revenue in Saudi Arabia’s one-dimensional economy. The kingdom is far from broke, but Jadwa Investment, a large financial institution in Riyadh, projects that by 2014 lavish spending to buy public quiescence will exceed oil revenue, forcing the kingdom to spend its foreign currency reserves or face potentially destabilizing spending cuts.
Finally, the royal family itself is nearing a potential point of crisis. For six decades the monarchy has passed from one son of the founder, Abdulaziz, to the next. But this line of brothers is running out. King Abdullah is nearly 90 and ailing; his crown prince is 76; and the youngest of his remaining 43 brothers is nearly 69. At some point soon the extended royal family of some 7,000 princes is going to have to pass the crown to one of the grandsons of the founder. At stake for the family is not simply who gets to rule but the prospect that the selected prince’s branch of the family will then pass the crown to its sons in perpetuity, precluding other branches from ruling again. If the family divides, so likely will the country.
Assaulted by technology and globalization, tipsy from a population explosion that has left 60 percent of Saudis age 20 or younger, and facing a potential succession crisis, the Al Saud continue to rely on religion as their anchor in a sea of change.
Lying on my pallet on the floor of Lulu’s home, I awake at 4 a.m. when the muezzin in the nearby mosque begins to call “Allahu akbar,” or “God is most great.” “Hurry to prayer. Hurry to salvation. Prayer is better than sleep.” Lulu’s husband and two teenage sons rush to the mosque.
When her husband is home, I am banished to my room. During the week I spend with Lulu, I see her husband only once—when he picks us up from a rare outing to her sister’s home. Fully veiled, I slip into the seat behind him but we are not introduced and the conversation continues as if I were as invisible as Casper the ghost. A devout man would never commune with an unrelated female—even veiled.
Lulu and her household illustrate the deep and genuine commitment of millions of Saudis to their religion, long a pillar of stability in a kingdom with deep historic divisions between regions, tribes, and sects.
Doing Allah’s will is Lulu’s consuming focus. At age 19, when her husband offered himself to her family, Lulu willingly chose to be a second wife. “I prayed to Allah, ‘let me do this if it is good.’?” Even when her husband and children are out, Lulu almost never leaves home. Asked if she would like to drive, she seems truly puzzled. “Why would I want to drive? In Islam it is a man’s responsibility to drive his wife and children.”
At home, this genuinely devout woman focuses on trying to save me. Converting an infidel to Islam entitles one to paradise, she believes. And just as my conservative Christian father forbade shorts and pants, Lulu tells me that my pants and sweater are not pleasing to God because anything that reveals the human form is forbidden. My floor-length black abaya similarly is gently criticized for its fit and decoration of a blue and orange braid on its long sleeves. Fingering the offending braid, she says, “This is wrong. Your abaya shows the body, and this decoration attracts men to look at you.” Outside the home Lulu and her daughters shroud head to toe in shapeless black abayas that are akin to wrapping oneself in a black bedsheet. They also cover their faces with a separate black niqab that features a slit for the eyes, but these devout ladies cover even that slit with another black cloth, which can be flipped up or lowered depending on the need to see clearly.
To assist her conversion effort, Lulu sits me before her computer to view an hourlong video on YouTube of a fundamentalist Christian preacher from Texas explaining his conversion to Islam. When this doesn’t produce a convert, she issues a stern warning: “It is very bad to die believing Allah had a son,” debunking Jesus as the son of God. When I observe that Christians, like Muslims, believe in one God, she rejects any equation between the two religions. “No,” she says emphatically. “You must believe in Islam. Allah says this.”
When the conversion effort fails, Lulu assumes it can only be fear, not any failing of Islam. “Why are you not a Muslim, Miss Karen? What stops you? Are you afraid of some people in your country when you go home?”
To the supple Al Saud, religion is an asset to be cleverly employed to preserve power. To the inflexibly Islamic—Lulu and some millions like her—religion is an inviolable pathway to paradise.