A childhood in a cult

Although the common perception is that Saudi Arabia is religiously homogenous, it is actually diverse in its religiosity and religious practices, despite the state’s efforts to present a unified image of its Sunni Muslim identity. The existence of a Shi’a minority in the Eastern region of the country, and their struggle against state discrimination and persecution is no secret. What is less known, however, is that there are other ‘underground’ – and I use the term underground here very loosely – religious groups. I have been a member of one of these, as a child and as a teenager.

My immediate and extended family is not strictly religious. Praying and fasting have always been important; hijab and modesty have always been encouraged, occasionally demanded. Yet, there was one member of the family who was the most religious, the most ‘pious’; a self-styled ‘religious scholar’. My oldest aunt, my father’s sister, having read innumerable religious books, claimed to know better than everyone else. She used a condescending tone to instruct other people on what was right and what was wrong. She would force her religious practices onto others, out of belief in her own righteousness, refusing any debate or discussion. She vehemently rejected the concept of religious tolerance. She called it ‘religious fluidity’; a threat to Islam.

The story I am about to tell took place in Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative societies in the world. My whole family is a moderately conservative, practicing Muslim family. My aunt, however, had a group of best friends who were very religious. From middle school, they were part of an underground cult. They would meet to memorise the Qur’an and learn how to recite it properly. They read books by some of the most prominent religious scholars on Qur’an interpretation, Islamic jurisprudence, as well as biographies of the Prophet and his companions. They would do this under the supervision of other, older women who had memorized the Qur’an already, and who had gone through the whole process themselves.

Everything I have just described about my aunt and her friends is very common in a theocentric country like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country that follows the strict Hanbali path, from which Wahhabism is a branch. Religion is at the centre of every small detail of everyday life. State-regulated religious education is socially encouraged and formally enforced throughout the country. 

This group followed the teachings of the Hanafi path, named after the Muslim scholar Abu Hanifa Al-Nu’man. As a religious group that had regular informal meetings and dispersed congregations, they were under threat of persecution if they were caught, or if the government became aware of them. The group has never been a threat to anyone, but the state has been taking pre-emptive measures after several terrorist incidents occurred across several decades, from the rebellion in Mecca in 1979, and incidents that followed 9/11. In an attempt to prevent future violent attacks, and to regulate religious schooling the state tightened its grip on religious groups such as this.

At the time I was too young to understand all of this. When I asked why we weren’t allowed to mention our weekly meeting to memorize the Qur’an, or to truthfully answer how I had got to know some people, I was just told ‘you are not supposed to talk about it’. It started with a few members who followed a specific way of practicing Islam, who read specific books, and even dressed a certain way. Members were encouraged to adopt a certain way of dressing and lifestyle choices in general – and were often shamed if they didn’t oblige. They focussed their efforts on learning religious texts. They held their own events to celebrate the personal milestones of their members, or to celebrate a member for wearing the hijab or memorizing the Qur’an. Any newcomer was expected to dress the same way too. These rules were unspoken. In taking part in the group, you become exposed to pressure and judgmental comments about ‘other people’ and the way they dressed; how immodest they were, how westernized, how vain.

I believe that the group started with a few enthusiastically religious Syrian immigrants. Because it followed the Hanafi path, some of the most highly venerated members and their teachers were Syrian, while their ‘dress code’ was inspired by modest Muslim Syrian women’s apparel. Most of the group’s members are professionals in fields including medicine, business, education, etc. Their senior members are ‘self-proclaimed religious scholars’. They believe in reading and learning the teachings of the Prophet, his companions and other prominent leading scholars. They believe in hierarchy within their groups and in following in the footsteps of the Salaf (the first three generations of Muslims). They also believe in learning the religious teachings of prominent scholars, trusting them blindly, memorizing their teachings. Once a person has memorized all these texts, she has reached the epitome of knowledge. I remember that once I got into a political conversation with my aunt. She shut me down, saying ‘You do not have enough religious knowledge to speak about these matters or have an opinion about them.’

They recruit other girls to the group informally. The whole arrangement is completely voluntary. Those who are interested in religious education and memorizing the Quran will receive tremendous support from other members. They will be taught by senior members who volunteer their time and efforts, and provide space in their own homes to teach others religion. Those senior members, the teachers, were themselves taught at the hands of more senior ‘scholars’ who recognize them as eligible to hold religious lessons.

Members of the groups advocated the ways of the Prophet and his wives and companions. They used tactics of shaming and judging while believing themselves to be persuasive and spreading the ‘common good’.  One time, there was a highly esteemed lady in the group who was a dentist. I was not sure what qualified her to be as venerated a figure as a religious lecturer. She and the rest of the group were my aunt’s dearest friends. They were invited to my grandmother’s house. I was wearing a short dress. The moment I walked in to say hello, she glared at my legs with disapproval, or perhaps shock. This is the kind of attitude that makes you change yourself, just to avoid judgement.

The same night, another woman was criticizing the way another woman dressed saying ‘God grant her guidance; she wears pants and short clothes’ while I was sitting there. I do not know if I had become invisible to her throughout the night, or if she intended to insult me. It has been one of their main practices to push their modest sense of fashion (or lack of it) on others. I remember when I was even younger, not even ten years of age. My grandmother was having one of her dinner parties. I was wearing a short pink skirt with a white t-shirt. I was sitting in the kitchen and felt embarrassed as soon my aunt walked in. Once she saw my outfit she released a gasp, bit her lower lip and told me to go and change.

Their obsession went beyond dress codes. The ‘teachers’ or ‘aunties’ of the group were trying to be the mentors and guides to younger members. Most of those who joined already came from families that followed the same ideology and the girls themselves appreciated that type of guidance. But to me it was very extreme and intrusive. I was criticized for something as simple as wearing lipstick. I was once told by the ‘teacher’ who was closest to my aunt and my family that there was no reason why a young unmarried woman would wear lipstick. After all, who could she be wearing it for?

The ‘teachers’ discussed among themselves and then came to tell us of the importance of covering our faces to prevent ‘fitna’. One ‘teacher’ (who was also a teacher, without quotation marks, because she was a science middle and high school teacher in real life) would hold weekly meetings at her house for me, my sisters and cousins, and other girls. We would go and memorize the Qur’an, then listen to a short lecture before we all went home before lunch. At one of our meetings, we had some time off. One of the girls was excited about her older brother’s recent marriage, and had brought some wedding photos with her (this was way before smartphones). She was excited to share the pictures with us. Just as she was about to pull them out of her bag, the teacher told her not to. When we asked why, she answered that as he was unrelated to us it was inappropriate for us to see his pictures, in case they stirred some feelings of attraction towards him.

Gender segregation was one of their biggest obsessions. My aunt even made futile attempts to segregate our regular family gatherings. She constantly complained about how we all sat together or went out together as a family. She contrasted this with an example of the family of one of her friends; married sisters, who had never met their brothers-in-law, let alone sat with them in the same room. She complained about having to sit in the same room as her brothers-in-law, my uncles. She did her best to prevent her children from playing with their cousins of the opposite sex. Everything was sexualized within this cult. Showing a little bit of hair was too revealing; you ought to wear a bandana under your hijab to prevent any hair from slipping out. Showing any part of your arm beyond your wrist is too much, so wear tight sleeves under your outer garments. Showing a little bit of ankle is also too much, so wear long dark socks. Wearing pants is too revealing, because god forbid people know that you have two legs under that long skirt or can guess at what your figure looks like.

The science teacher was a little different than the rest. She had been influenced a lot more by Saudi extremist religious ideology. In some ways, she was even more rigid in her religious practices and more conservative. Yet they all expected a certain kind of behaviour, a very conservative appearance, and obedience and adherence to religious teachings. Their way of getting others to listen to them was always by repeating: ‘as long as my words are “God said” or “the Prophet said” then you are obligated to listen to me.’ Because of course, in such a religious culture, you will be condemned as a sinner if you question or argue with any statements that use God or the Prophet as their reference.

This teacher in particular, had big ambitions for raising a whole generation of girls (because obviously, she would not be teaching boys) and changing the educational system and encouraging girls to have bigger goals in life. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. But her vision went beyond that. She was striving to create an organization of women who were knowledgeable of all aspects of Islam. They would all have memorized the Qur’an and would strive to serve Islam in every (approved) field of life. She would talk about this grand project and the generations it would take to accomplish it. Since I had never shown any interest in this project of hers, I do not know if she ever got to work on it at all. Since I never heard anything about it after the few times she talked about it, I suppose it never got any further than being a dreamy ambition of a Muslim enthusiast.

As I grew older, I started pulling myself farther from these people. I decided that I did not want to be in any way even remotely part of a group that shames people, that does not respect its members’ individuality or personal choices, which forces their beliefs on others, and which idolizes certain people because they were influential religious figures or they had memorized some texts from other scholars and the Qur’an. Most of the elders of this group may have come across as very intelligent and knowledgeable but their knowledge never extended beyond what they had memorized from religious texts. They did not possess nor encourage critical thinking skills. I was told repeatedly by my aunt and others that as long as I had not learned what the prominent religious scholars had said then I was not eligible to question anything, let alone have an opinion of my own.