What are the Saudis afraid of?

Islamic art is a reminder of a Muslim past that some of today’s powers are trying to undo.

Museum of Islamic Art [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha was designed by Chinese-American architect I M Pei [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Early in the evening of a delightful December Monday, accompanied by an Egyptian and an Italian friend, I entered the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha and I wondered to myself: What are the Saudis afraid of? 

Upon our arrival, we noticed a special exhibition called Imperial Threads: Motifs and Artisans from Turkey, Iran and India. We entered and toured the exhibition and I found out what exactly it is that the Saudis are so afraid of.

There was not a single soul except the three of us wondering through those glorious halls. One Christian and two Muslims – one Sunni the other Shia by birth and upbringing – we were engulfed by the generosity of a history of arts and craft that had mapped a different world than the one we left behind entering the museum. 

I have for long been an admirer of a number of art institutions in the Qatari capital. I have had occasions to celebrate the generosity of spirit with which the curatorial authorities at MIA have allocated their resources to collecting artifacts from across the Arab and Muslim world without the slightest sense of ethnic or sectarian prejudice. 

The site of MIA is an island of peace and serenity crafted masterfully by the legendary Chinese-American architect I M Pei in the midst of a rambunctious cacophony of architectural mayhem perpetrated in this Arab capital.   

I have also had more than one occasion to celebrate the other magnificent art institution in Doha – Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the site of the finest collection of contemporary and modern Arab art. 

But I have also had reasons and on multiple occasions to cast a critical look at some other curatorial decisions in these important art institutions in Doha. I feel at home in these museums though I do not know a single soul in a position of authority there – I like to keep it that way. 

Add to that constellation of galleries and museums various art residency programmes and you’ll get a sense of collective commitment to a wide spectrum of contemporary, modern, and Islamic art across time and continents, as well as a glimpse of how Doha has carved a niche for itself among Arab capitals. 

What are museums for? 

Immediately upon your arrival to the Imperial Threads exhibition, you realise you are in the capable hands of a learned, caring, competent and, above all, cosmopolitan curatorial confidence.

The first segment of the exhibition as you enter is dedicated to a marked celebration of the Safavid art and craft. Imagine that! Just a few hundred kilometres away from this museum, the term Safavid has degenerated into a curse abused by some Muslims against other Muslims.

Here, the term is the entry point into one of the most glorious phases of Islamic cultural history.

What we are witnessing throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a battle for the soul of the Muslim past to inhabit the spirit of the Muslim future.


Imagine, just try to fathom, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the bosom buddy of Jared Kushner and Thomas Friedman, allowing a celebration of the dynasty that for centuries ruled Iran with might and majesty, cruelty and glory. With respect, with love, with admiration for the sublime and the beautiful, the caring hands of a curatorial policy at work here mark a historical period when a Muslim dynasty of Turkic descent ruled a prosperous swath of Muslim lands in Iran.     

Then, you move along the same line of recognition and admiration for the Ottomans in Anatolia and the Mughals in India – which leads you to discover the logical progression of the artifacts crafted by artisans from Turkey, Iran and India highlighting “the exchange of artistic and material cultures in the early modern era (16th-19th century)” – as the curators rightly put it.     

We further learn: “Focusing on carpets as the prominent medium, manuscripts, metalwork, ceramics, and other objects are also featured to further illustrate the historical and artistic context of this time.” That artistic history has the logic and rhetoric of its own, for “beginning with the Timurid period in Iran and Central Asia (1370-1507),” again in the judicious words of the curators, “this exhibition shows the continuation of artistic practices shared amongst succeeding and neighboring dynasties, namely the Safavid in Iran (1501-1736), the Ottomans in Turkey (1299-1923) and the Mughals in India (1526-1857).”‘ 

This is the rich and empowering Muslim history in full panoramic view – staged just a few hundred kilometres away from Yemen where more than eight million Muslims are “a step away from famine”. How could have we inherited that history and ended up in this calamity? 

Reclaiming a robust past 

None of such historic reminiscences is with a sense of misplaced nostalgia for lost Muslim empires or letting the state of Qatar, where MIA is located, off the hook for its own share in the current mayhem in the Arab and Muslim world. No state gets a clean bill of health in this region.

Nor is this to dismiss an entire nation trapped, like all other nations, in the claws of a self-serving Saudi clan, systemically vulnerable to the whims of one prince like Mohammed bin Salman.  

What we are witnessing throughout the Arab and Muslim world is a battle for the soul of the Muslim past to inhabit the spirit of the Muslim future. In its ruling elite, Saudi Arabia represents a colossal obscenity of wealth and power dedicated to a peculiar brand of outdated Islamism that combines violent militarism and puritanical fanaticism.

Its arch nemesis, on the other hand, the ruling regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran, is also holding an entire nation of liberating possibilities in the claws of its outdated clericalism. The ruling regime in Iran is only slightly cleverer than its Saudi counterpart in fighting this losing battle for the future of the Muslim soul. 

What is staged at MIA in Doha is precisely the opposite vision of Islam in this battlefield of fear and fanaticism: open-minded, generous, forgiving, embracing the best of Muslim past for the freest Muslim future.      

I have nothing against giving a robot citizenship in Saudi Arabia, or even having it convert to Islam if that is the thing the robot opts to do. But I am convinced Muslims have far more urgent tasks upon their hands:  the critical retrieving of the unresolved trouble spot of their past before they can embark upon any such adventurous future. 

Our fates are not in the hands of the ruling families or cliques or ideologies of any state that is under the illusion of ruling over us – particularly the two belligerent states of Iran and Saudi Arabia. We, the people, Arabs and Muslims, configure our own destinies. 

The ruling states do their own things and we do ours. In between the pernicious machinations of our ruling states there is plenty of space in which we can dismantle their manufactured hostilities and re-map the contours of our children’s future.

This particular exhibition at MIA is one such crucial space to visit and wonder.   

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.