For a period of over 150 years, from 1820 until its withdrawal in 1971, Britain was the dominant political and military power in the Persian Gulf. Throughout this period of domination, Britain’s indirect rule was managed by a small number of British colonial officials employed in a network of political agencies around the region which reported to its headquarters, the Political Residency in Bushire (Bahrain from 1947 onwards). These men—remarkably few in number given the size of the area for which they were responsible—were supported by a larger body of British-Indian staff who were employed in a number of roles including secretaries, translators, doctors, and soldiers.
[Britain’s Political Residency in Bushire, c.1870. Image via Public Domain]
One such official was Siddiq Hasan, the “Indian Assistant” at Britain’s Political Agency in Bahrain. The island was a vital component of Britain’s so-called informal empire in the region. Consequently, Hasan’s position was a significant one. A number of files containing letters and reports written by Hasan appear in the India Office Records at the British Library in London. One such file from 1920 provides a fascinating insight into the tumultuous era in which he lived, as well as a glimpse of the personality of the man himself. More broadly, the file reveals the emergence of a number of trends that were to have an enormous impact on the future of the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Notably, the Al Saud family’s manipulation of Wahhabism to serve their political objectives and the tension that this eventually generated between them and members of their military force, the Ikhwan.
In 1920, Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder and first king of Saudi Arabia, asked the British government to provide an Indian Muslim official in its service to accompany pilgrims from Nejd on their journey to Mecca. This request occurred during a period of great upheaval in the Arabian Peninsula, before the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, when Abdulaziz—then titled the Emir of Nejd, Hasa, and its Dependencies—was both consolidating and expanding his control over the region. The emir had already been the recipient of arms and financial assistance from the British government. As his power and territory grew in size, Britain was keen to maintain a close relationship with him to ensure that his rise did not threaten its strategic interests in the region. Indeed, in the words of one British official, there were a number of distinct advantages in making Abdulaziz a “British vassal for good”. Therefore, the task of accompanying the Nejd delegation on the pilgrimage was an important one, and it was Siddiq Hasan who was chosen to perform it.
[Ibn Saud and members of his family, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
Although the professed reason for Hasan’s journey was the pilgrimage to Mecca, he was also tasked with meeting the ruler himself in Riyadh and reporting back the result of this meeting to his superiors. The British government was then acting as a mediator between Abdulaziz and his bitter rival, Husayn ibn Ali al-Hashimi, the sharif of Mecca and king of the Hejaz. So Hasan was required to encourage the two sides to negotiate and to ensure that the arrival of a group of Nejdi pilgrims in Mecca did not cause further conflict between them. Abdulaziz’s request for the presence of an Indian Muslim official took place in the context of worsening tensions regarding the hajj. Control of the annual pilgrimage was crucial to the Hashemite Kingdom of the Hejaz economically, as well as a significant source of prestige to the sharif, both within the region and the Islamic world more broadly. Therefore, Abdulaziz’s ascendancy and the simultaneous growth in popularity of Wahhabism were a clear threat to the Hashemites’ position and their control of the Hejaz. Abdulaziz had begun to utilize the hajj for political purposes and demand permission for groups of Nejdi pilgrims to perform the hajj, in spite of the continuing hostilities between Nejd and the Hejaz. In so doing, Abdulaziz ensured that Nejdi proselytizers (mutawwa‘a) could penetrate the Hejaz region and spread Wahhabi propaganda amongst its tribes. Simultaneously, he was able to present the sharif’s reluctance to accede to his demands as evidence of his supposed weakness and inflexibility.
Before Hasan departed, Major Harold Dickson, Britain’s political agent in Bahrain, had called for him to “keep things as quiet as possible by friendly advice” and to discourage any signs of a “fanatical or hostile attitude” toward the Hejaz among the pilgrims from Nejd. Dickson also requested Hasan to gather as much information as possible about Abdulaziz’s irregular military force, the Ikhwan, and to gauge his level of control and influence generally. In addition, Hasan was asked to keep a daily account of the journey. Hasan’s evocative and detailed diary of the trip that resulted from Dickson’s request is a remarkable historical resource that is full of fascinating observations concerning the places and sights that he saw and the people whom he met, many of whom are now well-known historical figures. As an Indian Muslim, Hasan was able to enter mosques, pray in the desert alongside bedouin and perform the hajj rituals in and around Mecca. This access gave him insight that his British, non-Muslim colleagues were unable to gain. Hasan was also a fluent Arabic speaker and his typed report is interspersed with several hand-written notes in Arabic. Nevertheless, it is clear that Hasan had adopted some of the orientalist attitudes regarding “Arabs” that were so prevalent amongst British officials in this period and, although he was Muslim, the hostility with which he was greeted in Nejd as a foreigner is a constant theme of his diary.
[Uqair, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
Farhan al-Rahmah, a member of the Muntafiq tribe of Iraq and a friend and assistant of Dickson accompanied Hasan on the trip. Before his departure, Dickson had advised Hasan to consult al-Rahmah on “all matters” and claimed that since he knew Bedouin manners and customs perfectly, that he would recognize certain indications or “changes of wind” before Hasan would. The two men, along with a number of servants and attendants, departed Bahrain on the morning of 15 July in the Political Agency’s steam launch The Bahrein, and headed for the port of Uqair. Upon their arrival in the town, Hasan was distinctly unimpressed, commenting that it was “hardly worth the name of port. There is only an old Turkish Khan and a few huts.” In a manner that is characteristic of the diary as a whole, in one breath Hasan explains in technical detail the need for expansion works in the port, before informally commenting that he had ridden a camel that day for the first time in “something like fifteen years”.
[View of Hufuf with Ibrahim Pasha Mosque in the background, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
After passing through a number of small villages, the party reached the town of Hofuf in the evening of Saturday 17 July. Hasan describes the town as a “fairly big walled town of good appearance” but once again, was underwhelmed. Evidently proud of India’s grand Islamic heritage and architectural tradition, he commented that the mosque in the town is a “good building in itself” but in comparison to “our Indian Jamias [Mosques] of the Pathan Kings and Mughal Emperors” is of “no consequence at all.” The governor of Hofuf at this time was Abdullah ibn Jiluwi, Abdulaziz’s cousin and a man with a fearsome reputation. In Hasan’s words, the punishments of Ibn Jiluwi were said to be “the severest possible,” beyond even the “strict” Sharia. Just two days before the group’s arrival, a member of the Ikhwan had been decapitated after he had killed a Shi‘i shopkeeper “whom the bigot suspected of having smoked [tobacco] before coming out to meet his demand to sell some goods.” Hasan observed that Ibn Jiluwi was not only feared, but also widely respected for although he was “an un-couth badoo [bedouin],” he had achieved what his Ottoman predecessors had always failed to—peace and tranquillity in the Hasa region. Indeed, his administration had entirely transformed a district that under Ottoman rule “was so notorious for murder or rapine.”
[Abdullah ibn Jiluwi and his retinue in Hufuf, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
After departing Hofuf, the group travelled through a number of small villages and other settlements. The conditions were trying and at times, the summer heat was unbearable. On Sunday 25 July, the group reached Abu Jafan, where they found wells from which they and their camels could drink. There, the group also encountered a number of Dawasir Bedouin, described by Hasan as “Mutadayinah” [religious] or “Akhwan” [Ikhwan]. Hasan states that this group “regard every people Kafir [infidel], will not salaam or return anyone’s salaam unless it was an Akh [brother], one of their own class.” Both Hasan and al-Rahmah prayed with the Dawasir tribesmen, who regarded them with suspicion and were “not at all pleased at our joining their Jamaat prayer.” After seeing three Bedouin women praying, and perhaps insulted by the frosty reception that he had received, in words almost indistinguishable from the tone of many of his British colleagues, Hasan commented that the Bedouin are “weak, dirty, unhealthy looking people on the whole.”
The group reached Riyadh on 27 July and upon their arrival were formally received by Abdulaziz, who is referred to in Hasan’s report as “Imam Ibn Sa’ud, Shaikh Sir Abdul Aziz KCIE,” indicating that the British government had made him a knight commander of the most eminent order of the Indian empire. Over the next few days, Hasan met with Abdulaziz on several occasions and discussed a number of issues with him, including his financial situation and his conflict with Sharif Husain. Abdulaziz revealed that he had learnt through informants in Medina and Buraidah that the Sharif had supplied large amounts of arms and ammunition to Abdulziz’s other principal enemy, Ibn Rashid, head of the House of Rashid and ruler of the Emirate of Ha’il. Upon hearing this news, Hasan remarked that “this is rather disappointing, and makes one fear that that these two rulers are not likely to live in peace.” His prediction was to be proven correct; just five years later Abdulaziz conquered the entire Hejaz region and Sharif Husain’s successor, his son Ali, was forced to flee to Iraq and never return.
[Ibn Saud and his cousin Salman Al ‘Arafa, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
On Friday 30 July, Hasan visited a garden said to be one of the finest in Riyadh. He paints a picturesque scene of a vineyard containing various fruit trees, pears, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, guavas, and watermelons. Accompanied by a “dark, elderly man of half-negro appearance,” Hasan ate fresh grapes and watermelon while sitting beside the water reservoir in the garden that was powered by donkeys drawing water from a well. On the same day, Hasan and al-Rahmah had attended communal prayers at a mosque near Abdulaziz’s palace. In his account, Hasan describes how once they had entered the mosque, everyone stared at them with distrust and turned their faces away when they approached. Hasan comments—perhaps naively—that this was “in spite of the full Arab dress” he had adopted. With a touch of bitterness, he writes “why forget that we are ‘Ajanib’ [foreigners], out-siders, non-Nejdis . . . even though we go to their mosque and join their prayers.” The sermon was given by Shaykh Abdullah ibn Abdul Latif, the highest religious authority in Nejd, and in Hasan’s words “practically the Shaikh-ul-Islam of Nejd.” Hasan records that there was nothing particularly of note in the sermon except for the notable omission of the closing prayer for the Ottoman sultan. On their way back from the mosque, Hasan and al-Rahmah bumped into one of Abdulaziz’s sons, Faisal (king of Saudi Arabia 1964-1975). Faisal had recently married and was said by Hasan to be pleased that this had “been noticed in English newspapers.”
[A garden in Riyadh, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
At dawn on the morning of Sunday 1 August, gunshots were fired in front of Abdulaziz’s palace in celebration of the Ikhwan’s capture of the village of al-Harra near Medina. According to Hasan’s informer, who is not identified, the Ikhwan had massacred four hundred people “i.e. nearly all the inhabitants of that unhappy village, not sparing even women and children.” Hasan reported that upon hearing news of the massacre, Abdulaziz’s brother, Abdullah was said “to have uttered in his Majlis . . . that these blind fanatics [the Ikhwan] must one day be visited with the wrath of God, and be doomed to destruction.” Abdullah’s observation was prescient, as seven years later the Ikhwan rebelled against the authority of Abdulaziz. The resulting three-year conflict saw Ibn Saud crush the Ikhwan entirely with substantial military backing from Britain, including bombers of the RAF. When explaining the gunshots to Hasan, Abdulaziz made no mention of the massacre and downplayed the events; Hasan comments wryly that “this was not telling the whole truth.”
[The Royal Palace in Riyadh, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
The following day, Hasan and al-Rahmah visited Abdulaziz’s father, Abdul Rahman, at his house. After a friendly chat with the “nice old man,” Abdulaziz entered and Hasan was amazed to “see him stoop low down, kiss his father’s hand, and then sit at a distance, near the ordinary ‘Hashiyah’ (adherents) of his father.” Hasan remarked that it impressed him to see “this wise, capable and strong ruler, who is so much feared and respected by all, pay so great a respect to his old father.” Ritualistic displays of public deference to elders of this kind–irrespective of the true power dynamic between the two parties–are still practised by members of the Al Saud today. A notable example being Muhammad bin Salman’s attempt to kiss the feet of his elder Muhammad bin Nayef after replacing him as crown prince in June 2017. Notwithstanding these intermittent pleasant encounters, Hasan was beginning to feel stranded in Riyadh while he waited for Abdulaziz to decide when the pilgrimage convoy would leave. Hasan complains that it was difficult to “put up with the hatred seen in every face outside the little circle of the Imam’s immediate entourage and those attending to our needs.” Abdulaziz himself even expressed concern that Hasan might be bored as he had no newspapers or books to read “nor any place of interest to visit.” Although Hasan responded that he had actually brought two books with him, a book of Arabic poetry and another about the hajj, later the same day Abdulziz sent him and al-Rahmah a copy each of a book about the history of Nejd and the Wahhabi movement (the title is given only in Arabic as ghazwat ahl al-islam or Holy Raids of the People of Islam). Hasan comments that the book was written in “old style Arabic” and abuses other Muslim sects, “as could be expected of such a sectarian compilation.” More than a week after Hasan’s arrival in Riyadh, Abdulziz had still failed to confirm when they would depart for Mecca. The uncertainty was beginning to concern Hasan and on Thursday 5 August, he wrote that he was feeling depressed. Much to Hasan’s relief, later that day after holding talks with Abdulaziz in his private majlis, the date for the group’s departure was set as Saturday 7 August. Under pressure from Hasan and al-Rahmah, Abdulaziz also agreed to send a Nejdi delegation—headed by his cousin and representative, Ahmad ibn Abdullah al-Thunayan Al Saud—to negotiate with representatives of Sharif Husain. Al-Thunayan had accompanied Faisal on his trip to Britain in 1919 and was a close confidante of Abdulaziz.
The following day, Hasan attended Friday prayers in the main mosque in Riyadh for the second time. On this occasion, he was shocked to notice that the majority of men who entered the mosque did so with their shoes still on, and observed that they only took their shoes off once they began to pray, placing them on the floor so that their heads almost touched them when they prostrated. Hasan states that this practice is “truly Wahhabi.” Abdulaziz and his father, brothers, sons, and retainers formed the first row of the congregation behind the prayer leader. The mosque itself is said by Hasan to have been “spacious but low roofed, and of a very simple, un-ornamented type.” Once again, he compares the mosque to those in India, remarking that even “the mosques in our villages in India are better in every way, to say nothing of those of towns. So much for Wahhabi simplicity of puritanism.”
[The Great Mosque in Riyadh, c.1918. Image via Public Domain]
Before the pilgrimage convoy left Riyadh on Saturday morning, Abdulaziz presented both Hasan and al-Rahmah with a gold-gilt sword and a rifle each as personal gifts (later that year Hasan wrote to his superiors that he was “rather anxious to keep these arms as a memento.”) Hasan was shocked when an elderly man greeted him and al-Rahmah “in the correct Arab fashion.” He remarks that this was the first greeting that he had received in or near Riyadh, “no one having done so at all, not even replied to our own salaams, which I always took care to say first (as a Moslem is commanded to do.)” Al-Rahmah is said to have berated Hasan for “wasting salaams” on people who did not reply and on the contrary, “turned away their faces, or muttered half-audible curses.”
Later that day, the party stopped briefly at Diriyah, the first capital of the Saudi state (1744-1818). Hasan remarks that it had been “deserted by the As-Saud after the Turko-Egyptian invasion and terrible defeat and persecution by the Turks,” referring to the Ottoman campaign against Al Saud led by Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt. By this time, the town was in a state of decay, Hasan saw a large mosque “in a half ruinous state” and noted that its population had dwindled as Riyadh, the new capital, was flourishing just fifteen miles away. For the next few days, the party travelled through several small villages and settlements including Jubailah, Awinah, Barra, and Shumaisah. Although they travelled outside of the main hours of intense sun, the heat remained intolerable. On the 10th, the group reached Mughirah where they encountered a group of Utaybah Dalahibah Bedouin. Hasan comments that they were “better looking desert people than any met with so far, and their women are comparatively well-dressed and wear silver and gold rings and ear-rings.” He also noticed that the women do not cover their faces, “but only draw the top portion of their Abas [Abayas] over their fore-heads and eyes, if a stranger happens to be close by.”
[Map of Riyadh, c. 1918. Image via Public Domain]
Two days later, the group reached the town of Shaarah, a centre of trade between Nejd and Hejaz with a large central market “where cloth, rice, sugar, coffee and spices are sold.” However, much to Hasan’s annoyance, the governor of the town, Abdullah ibn Saad bin Masaud, was such a “fanatical” member of the Ikhwan, that the group were refused permission to enter the town at all. Such was the governor’s zeal that he had refused even to greet Ahmad al-Thunayan, who after waiting for an hour and “obviously feeling much insulted and chagrined” was forced to leave the camp and call upon him in town. This incident is another indication of the tension brewing between Al Saud and leaders of the Ikhwan that was to break out into open conflict seven years later.
On Sunday 15 August, the group arrived at the wells of Saja. Saja had no permanent population, but a large number of the Utaybah tribe were camped near the wells. This particular clan of the Utaybah were recent converts to “Akhwanism” and according to Hasan, still resented the zakat tax that was imposed on them by Abdulaziz’s tax collectors. The conversion of tribes in and around the Hejaz was part of the slow-moving Saudi occupation of the region, what has been termed by many writers in Arabic as zahf meaning “crawling” or “creeping.” Converting tribes to Wahhabism was one of the means by which Abdulaziz gradually undermined Hashemite control in advance of the full-scale invasion he launched in 1924-25. At sunset that day, the group spotted the “new moon - the hajj moon” and Hasan describes evocatively how the group of forty chanted “There is no God but Allah, Allah is the greatest of all” in unison, “which sounded strange in the desert and very gratifying to me.” The following day, Hasan complained that the whole Nejdi convoy remained “as reticent and aloof as ever” and that only Ahmad al-Thunayan came to speak with him. Clearly keen to impress his superiors, Hasan claimed that after time spent talking with him, al-Thunayan was now “imbued with the spirit of toleration and conciliation instead of the intense hatred and blind opposition [to Sharif Husain] with which he came of out of Riyadh.”
The trip was grinding Hasan down by 18 August. He complained that the journey “is continued, day after day, in an ominous silence. Few voices are ever heard, especially when travelling at night, and even in day time there is very little talking among this party of forty men.” In a manner almost identical to the racist, orientalist attitude of so many of his British employers, Hasan blamed this silence on the “natural reticence which characterises the ignorant Arab” but he also acknowledged the role of “the orthodox Wahhabi…hatred for strangers and non-Wahhabi.” Clearly frustrated, Hasan details the attempts made by him and al-Rahmah to integrate with the Nejdi contingent of the party including joining them in prayer to show “that we are Sunni Moslems like themselves.” These attempts failed, however; Hasan reports that all him and al-Rahmah had received in return was “sour faces” and “unpleasant murmurs” concluding that “[w]e have tried but failed to remove this barrier and have found it hopeless to fraternise with these worthies.” Many of the Nejdis are said to have cursed Hasan and members of his party with the phrase “if you want paradise, kill the infidel and drink his blood.” Hasan also complains that members of the Nejdi group would point him and his companions out to strangers and call them “the Christians’ men” or “servants of the English.” Hasan’s evident annoyance at this factual, if impolite, observation is typical of a theme that runs throughout his report; a distinct lack of awareness that although he was a Muslim, he was also a paid representative of a foreign, Christian imperial power. The fact that he would be perceived as such by many of those he encountered does not seem to have occurred to Hasan.
[View of the Kaaba in Mecca, c. 1886-1889. Image via Public Domain]
Then, in a hugely insightful passage, Hasan makes the astute observation that he believed that although Abdulaziz and his immediate family and entourage did not outwardly express the “blind bigotry and fanaticism” of the Ikhwan, that inwardly they “countenance and even encourage this spirit because it provides them with a useful political weapon against their real or supposed enemies, the followers of other religions including Moslems of other denominations.” Hasan’s words accurately describe the manner in which the Saudi ruling family cynically manipulated extremist sentiment for their own ends throughout thetwentieth century, and in many ways continue to do so. According to Hasan, al-Thunayan admitted to him that the Ikhwan, “these poor ignorants,” actually knew nothing of the Christians except the name, so “they cannot possibly understand the need for having friendly political relations with them.” Al-Thanaiyan is said to have argued that the “ignorance and aloofness” of the common people helped to keep Islam safe from contamination through foreign influence. Hasan concludes the passage succinctly by stating “I could only express my outward acceptance of this plea.”
[View of Mecca, c. 1886-1889. Image via Public Domain]
After losing their way more than once and being shot at by a group of Bedouin, the convoy was one day’s ride away from Mecca by Friday 20 August. Hasan was extremely tired but happy to finally be so close to Mecca. At 4 a.m. the next morning, the rituals and observances of the hajj formally began and the members of the group donned the ihram clothing (two white sheets and an uncovered head). They reached Mecca’s Grand Mosque at 11 p.m. that night and performed the required rituals, which Hasan described as “old relics of the times of the Prophet Ibrahim.” That night, the party camped at Jabal al-Nur, the mountain where it is believed the archangel Gabriel first revealed the words of the Quran to Muhammad in the Cave of Hira'. Hasan states that atop the mountain was a small tower commemorating where the Prophet, “persecuted by the callous unbelieving Quraish,” had taken refuge before his eventual departure to Medina. Under Saudi rule, pilgrims have since been discouraged from visiting the site as Hasan and his party once did. At the base of the mountain, a fatwa is now displayed that states the Prophet Muhammad “did not permit us to climb on to this hill, not to pray here, not to touch stones, and tie knots on trees.” Hasan’s account is testament to just one of the manifold ways in which the Al Saud takeover of Mecca has transformed, and in many cases destroyed, pre-existing religious practices and traditions deemed incompatible with Wahhabism.
On the morning of Sunday 22 August, the party was greeted at their camp by Ibrahim al-Muatiq, a favourite member of the Sharif’s entourage described by Hasan as a refugee who had fled from Abdulaziz and “a great sycophant and hypocrite.” The party was formally invited to greet Sharif Husain and his sons at the palace, and at 8 a.m. they set off to enter the city for the first time in daylight. Hasan comments that the city was “large and well-built with beautiful pucca houses…big broad streets and bazaars all full and bustling with people of all lands.” The diversity of the city struck him. He claimed “[o]ne cannot have an idea of the cosmopolitan character of this city without seeing it during hajj season.” Appropriately so, given that it so often reads like an opinionated travelogue or short story rather than an official report, Hasan ends his diary at this point with simply “the end.”
[View inside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, c. 1886-1889. The Ottoman Ajyad Fortress that was demolished by the Saudi government in 2002 can be seen in the background. Image via Public Domain]
Several rounds of negotiations between the two sides then took place over a number of weeks, a topic which Hasan discusses in a separate report to his superiors. On 5 September, an agreement was eventually reached, but it did little more than ensure a cessation of hostilities between the two sides until the Nejd delegation had returned to Riyadh.
Hasan’s report of the trip was well received by its commissioner, Dickson. After reading it, he observed “the diary is of great interest and value. It has been compiled with more than ordinary care and under conditions of the greatest difficulty, seeing that the journey was accomplished in the hottest part of the year and in record time. The greatest credit is due to Siddiq Hasan.” Almost one hundred years later, the diary not only preserves the observations and prejudices of its author, Siddiq Hasan, a complex historical character in his own right, but also offers remarkable insight into developments in the Arabian Peninsula at this crucial juncture in its history.