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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, report 24 December 1917

ABDULLAH AND THE AKHWAN
[Arab Bulletin, 24 December 1917]


 The following are notes of the talk of Sherif Feisal during a conversation which I had with him on December 4: - It is not fair to condemn my brother, Abdullah, without reserve. He is taking no part in the war against the Turks, because his whole heart, his head, and all his resources are engaged in the problems of Nejd. He is king of the Ateibah and of part of the Meteir and Heteym, and is daily increasing his hold on the outliers of Qasim and Jebel Shammar. The responsibility for order in Western Nejd has always lain upon Abdullah. When my Father came to the throne he found all the border tribes in a turmoil, and Abdullah led expedition after expedition against them (while I crushed the Idrisi, by the help of the Turks) until his name was feared from Taif to Shaharah, and all the chiefs of the Ateibah came to him for orders and directions. In those days we were beset by our religious enemies, the Wahabis and the Idrisis, and were fighting for our lives. After that there was peace until we had revolted against the Turks and marched to Wejh. Then again began troubles in Nejd. Abdullah garrisoned Henakiyah, and lbn Saud took alarm. Once more he has sent out all his missionaries.

The name 'Akhwan', which you use is not properly applied to the converts. It began as the title of the brotherhood of preachers. Now it is used loosely of the disciples also. The Akhwan take over all the Senefiyeh tenets, especially the saying that Mohammed was a man with a message, who is dead. They add stricter rules of consanguinity, veil their women even in the house, are fatalists to a forbidden degree, and hold as first principle the law of Jihad, at the call of the Imam and the Ulema. I fear always that to-morrow, when the stress comes, they will reject the authority of the Koran (in the interpretation of which they differ greatly from us), as they reject the Prophet to-day. Their Imam is Ibn Saud, but the title is not significant; yet they regard him as the head of their tarika and submit themselves wholly to his orders. He pays the salaries of all the preachers, many hundreds of them; but the moving spirit of the whole is one of the Ulema of Riyadh. They appeal only to Bedu, and sow discord between them and the hadhar. Riyadh (or the aalim village near it) is the centre of the new doctrine. Eight out of ten Nejd Bedu follow the Akhwan, and the Taif branch is rapidly winning over the tribes of Northern Yemen. The Zobeir men are influencing the Shamiyah Arabs; one fourth of the Shammar have allied themselves to it, and only the energy of Nuri has kept it out of the Anazeh. The converts stir each other up to a pitch of extreme fanaticism, but their subjection to the college at Riyadh is absolute, and the college is the creation of Ibn Saud, who pays and feeds the preachers. He insists on peace at present, and is friendly to you. He suffers Ibn Rashid to exist till he has converted the other Shammar. When his time comes he will direct the force of the Bedu in turn against the settled peoples of Arabia: taking piece-meal, first Qasim, then Hail, then the Hejaz, then Iraq and Syria, he will impose everywhere the new doctrine, and sway the peninsula.

Abdullah is making head against all this. The first step in his ambition is to win the Shammar, and in this he is making steady progress. He has lost the Heteym, who have gone over to the new faith; but his hold upon the Ateibah is very strong, and he is daily confirming it. Without the Ateibah Ibn Saud can never take the Hejaz. These measures are defensive, and so far as his means go, Abdullah is extending them. He is also carrying the war into Ibn Saud's camp, in Qasim, the weak point of the Akhwan scheme. Aneizah, Bureidah and Rass are comfortable towns. Their young men have enlisted in our, and the Turkish Government's, ageyl, and there learnt tolerance and the use of tobacco. They return after three or four years to their homes, and tell the people of the Hejaz government, where the savagery of the sheria code, literal with Ibn Saud, is softened by the humanity of the ruler to accord with the spirit of the time. In consequence the eyes of Qasim turn longingly towards us, and if the Qusman could, they would rebel against the Imam and his Akhwan. Ibn Saud usually keeps forces in their towns, to prevent this movement gaining force, and so Ahdullah has to work secretly. He does not really want Qasim, but he wants to make Ibn Saud afraid.

If we can unite the settled peoples of Arabia under my Father's flag, we can strangle the new faith in the desert, until it becomes again a dogmatic abstraction, as the Wahabi faith was between Mohammed Ali and Emir Abd el-Aziz. If we fail, all our efforts and victories over the Turks will be wasted. Great Britain will not profit by the Arab revival, if the tomb at Medina and the Haram at Mecca are destroyed, and the pilgrimage is prevented. Abdullah is fighting all our battles, and if he has no leisure to campaign against the railway meanwhile, he should not be judged too harshly.

T.E.L.

Source: SD 145-147
Checked: mv/
Last revised: 1 August 2006


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