Of Sand or Soil: A Back Story


Photograph by Wajahat Mahmood

by Nadav Samin

I wrote a book, Of Sand or Soil, on genealogy and social contestation in modern Saudi Arabia. It rests on two apparent falsehoods, both of which concern that “least sexy” discipline, philology. The first of these connects to a broad premise that animates the book: the notion that a careful regard for the language in which the historical inhabitants of central Arabia articulate their own cultural understandings is vitally important for our understanding of the dynamics of modern Arabian history, politics and cultural life. This sympathetic view of philology was proposed most notably in recent memory by that supposed scourge of the text-obsessed, the late scholar-intellectual Edward Said. Just prior to his passing in 2003, Said affirmed a humanistic grounding for philology, which he described as “the detailed, patient scrutiny of and a lifelong attentiveness to the words and rhetorics by which language is used by human beings who exist in history….”[1]

Sifting through the religious texts, vernacular poems, and oral narratives generated by central Arabia’s inhabitants over the past three hundred years, I find that the words and rhetorics of that far-flung corner of the Islamic world form a distinctive and coherent corpus that is ripe for the sort of humanistic inquiry proposed by Said. This sense of promise extends as well to the writings of that consummate emblem of all things anti-humanistic in our contemporary age, the founder of the region’s distinctive Islamic creed, Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1792). Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s doctrine, which carried within it an aggressive distaste for most other Muslim interpretive communities, is typically not mined for its profundity – while no slouch as a scholar, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb was also not averse to the Muslim jurist’s version of phoning it in, that is, copying passages wholesale from predecessors without attribution. Ideas and actions matter, but so too does the language in which they are framed. By reading Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb philologically, I’d like to suggest, we can read him imaginatively, and thus in a humanistic spirit.

In a polemical letter to one of his rivals, Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb drew attention to a central dynamic of pre-modern Arabian society, the often-fraught relationship between peasant farmers and nomads. In Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s frame of reference, these nomads were “al-sawād al-aʿẓam,”[2] the greater part of the population of central Arabia. As captured in the phraseology of their iconic representative, the god-fearing inhabitants of central Arabia’s scattered date palm oases perceived themselves to be surrounded by nomadic Bedouin, who denied the validity of God’s book, affirmed their own moral code, and followed a system of norms distinct from that of the town dwellers.

The term sawād has at least two connotations. The first is the sense described above, of a mass, preponderance, generality, or greater part, to paraphrase the lexicographer Lane. In Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s rhetoric, we can understand this sawād to mean a frighteningly large population that lay beyond the disciplining capacities of centralized authority and scriptural religion. The second sense of the root from which sawād is formed means something pertaining to darkness or blackness, as in al-ḥajar al-aswad, the ancient black stone that is embedded in the Kaʿba in Mecca. Synthesizing these two connotations of sawād produces a new substance, a dark matter. Genealogy in Saudi Arabia, I find, is like the physicist’s dark matter, that invisible substance whose gravity directs the movement and trajectory of the visible particles in the universe.

The dark matter of genealogical belonging takes two shapes, which correspond to two distinct historical eras. The first is an eighteenth century era, in which a relatively weak sedentary society thought itself encircled by nomadic Bedouin, who elevated their own kinship relations above the settled, literate, and pious life of the oasis town, thus disturbing the teleology of salvation that underpinned Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s project. The second is the modern context, in which a powerful, centralizing Saudi state has subjugated its sociologically disparate populations, in large measure, I argue, by making genealogy an animating virtue of modern Saudi personhood. Once an organizing principle of pre-modern social life, genealogical consciousness figures centrally today in the formation of Saudi citizen identity. In a society in which political parties, labor unions, and other meaningful forms of civic association are forbidden, only the tribe and the Internet are left to satisfy the social and political aspirations of a globalized, kinship-loving citizenry.

The genealogical dark matter that tugged at the sentiments of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb in his eighteenth century epistle is distinct from that fashioned by the modern Saudi state. Yet the two represent key thematic anchors for my study of social life in the kingdom, in which a preoccupation with affirming prestigious tribal lineages figures centrally. To suggest that an eighteenth century religious polemic and a contemporary theory of physics together help explain the nature of genealogical consciousness in modern Saudi Arabia requires by all appearances a reckless philological leap. Yet faced with the unhelpful caricatures that constitute our picture of the social and cultural life of central Arabia, past and present, some effort at linguistic alchemy seems warranted. This is all the more the case considering that the central Arabia region (Najd) is today the arbiter of power in Saudi Arabia, itself one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, and a highly influential presence in the broader world.

Of Sand or Soil is in a different sense a prolonged reflection on another remarkable place, my hometown of New York City, and its unexpected intimacy with Saudi Arabia after 9/11. It is implicitly an effort to recast understandings of the relationship between these two interconnected places, attached through bedrock economic and political sinews despite massively divergent temporalities, not to mention temperaments. For this purpose, a plodding, traditionalist philology, a pure study of texts, cannot suffice. It is the lives that weave in and out of Saudi genealogical texts that I am after in Of Sand or Soil, and that I trace through personal interface with the genealogists, historians, poets, family patriarchs, and lineage seekers of the modern kingdom. A concern for the living, more so than the dead, must be the twenty-first century philologist’s method – to do it justice, we should call this method properly an anthropology of the text.

Cover image by Edward Musiak.


[1] Edward W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 61.

[2] Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Muʾallafāt al-Shaykh al-Imām Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, vol. 5 (Riyadh: Jāmiʾat al-Imām Muḥammad b. Saʿūd, 1981), 235.

About the Author:

Nadav Samin is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. Of Sand or Soil: Genealogy and Tribal Belonging in Saudi Arabia was published in 2015 by Princeton University Press.