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Praying to the God of Abraham

Left:  Muslim pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Left: Muslims pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Both pleading to the God of Abraham.

Praying to Abraham’s God 

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca.

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Last night I was invited by three Muslim friends to join them in the holy city of Mecca.

I took this photo (above left) of my Muslim brothers praying at the Kaaba (a worship place built by Prophet Abraham). It reminded me of another photo (above right) I had seen of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (the foundation stones of the worship place built by Prophet Solomon).

These stone buildings are not objects of worship. They are merely places to focus one’s attention on the one and only God of the universe.

We must remind ourselves that both Jews and Arabs are genetically descendant from Prophet Abraham. They are “cousins.” They both pray to Abraham’s God.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer

As I joined hundreds of men and women in making the ritual tawaf (the prayerful circumambulation of the holy Kaaba), Scriptures came to mind reminding me that disagreements, no matter how difficult, must never lead to hatred. Hatred has no place in true faith.

While I praised God for his loving kindness, I tearfully prayed as the great Messiah Jesus taught us to pray, “God, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The context of Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, known to Christians as “the Lord’s Prayer,” outlines a heartfelt appeal to all of us (men and women) who make a public show of prayer. We are in essence told to humble ourselves in our relationships with others;  seeking not to offend but rather to make amends.

Praise to the God of Abraham

In many Christian congregations (especially the Methodist), congregants stand and sing the hymn “The God of Abraham Praise.” This old hymn has an interesting background

One night in 1865, the English hymnist Thomas Olivers was attract­ed to a service in a London Jew­ish syn­a­gogue where he heard an inspiring soloist, Le­o­ni, sing an an­cient He­brew mel­o­dy. His baritone voice was filled with deeply profound emotion. Olivers was im­pressed and immediately was moved to write a hymn to the same tune. The re­sult was the hymn, “The God of Abra­ham Praise.” This hymn is actually a par­a­phrase of an an­cient He­brew yig­dal, or dox­ol­o­gy:

The God of Abraham praise,
who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days,
and God of love;
Jehovah, great I AM,
by earth and heaven confessed:
I bow and bless the sacred Name
for ever blessed.

Films you should see

There are a number of award-winning films that have been released during the past few years that help one to understand what’s behind the conflict between Israel and Palestine–the heart of the Middle East crisis.

Below you will see the closing scene from a great film Language of the Enemy (2008) about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its resulting calamity. In the film an American Jewish university student falls in love with a Muslim Palestinian doctor. The young man is tragically killed by Israeli soldiers. This scene depicts the heart-rending despair separating Jews and Arab Muslims. It ends with an agonizing cry “Abraham!”  If you haven’t seen this movie, get a copy and watch it.

I also highly recommend the award-winning films The GatekeepersFive Broken Cameras and the recently released Omar.

Unless we feel their pain we will never understand their suffering. Please join us in praying and working for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Our collective hope and faith is in Abraham’s God


September 13, 2013 Posted by | Human Rights, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeddah’s awe-inspiring Al Makkiyah mansion

The Angawi mansion in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a center for study and dialogue.

The Angawi family mansion in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a center for friendship and learning.

Al Makkiyah Carter

Former US President Jimmy Carter and US consulate staff listen as Dr. Sami Angawi speaks about Islamic art, science and history at Al Makkiyah. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Leaders come to Al Makkiyah

One of the most interesting private residences in Saudi Arabia is the home of well-known architect and historian Dr. Sami Angawi. Al Makkiyah mansion attracts leaders and visitors from around the world.

Angawi is an expert in Islamic architecture and is also outspoken about his faith, Islam. The house serves as a meeting place for individuals and groups seeking to communicate Middle Eastern culture to peoples and groups on other continents. He believes, however, that extremists are attempting hijack Islam. He and other Muslim leaders hope to maintain Islam’s core roots—balanced and moderate and more tolerant of people’s differences.

Angawi is known for his activism–especially his strong views about historic preservation in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Many significant sites of Islam have been destroyed under direct orders from radical religious leaders in an effort, they claim, to prevent idolatry or because of what they consider to be,the veneration of gravesites or relics. (See my story “Grandmother Eve’s grave.”)

Public lectures and concerts

The Angawi house is a cultural haven in Jeddah where his family and friends regularly host lectures, concerts and timely discussions, often on a weekly basis.

The design of this residence combines modern construction techniques with traditional crafts such as Turkish mosaic and Moroccan zillij. Red Sea coral reef stone, desert sandstone, marbles and granite are utilized throughout the exterior and interior.

Old-style natural ventilation techniques minimize the need for air-conditioning even at the peak of hot Arabian summers. A computerized drip-watering system feeds thousands of hanging plants that are an integral feature of both the central internal courtyard and the exterior ground and roof gardens.

The Islamic principle of sitr (ensuring privacy for neighbors as well as inhabitants of the house) is accomplished by using traditional rawasheen bay windows and intricate hand-carved Hijazi woodwork over the openings.

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Al Makkiyah will serve as the main campus of the Al Makkiyah/Al Mediniyah Institute for cross cultural studies.

Bridging nations and faiths

For decades Saudi Arabia has been generally considered a somewhat closed society, eager to protect its own traditions from external cultural influences.

While preservation of traditions is of great concern to Dr. Sami Angawi, his desire is balanced with a passion for building bridges between nations, cultures and faiths.

His architectural designs assert the importance of his HIjazi heritage with the common cultural heritage shared by both western and Islamic societies; believing that a “clash of civilizations” need not lead to misunderstanding, but rather friendship, trust and peace.

This concept of balance, known in Arabic as mizan, is the essence of Islamic tradition and of many of the world’s religious beliefs. The aspiration of Angawi to reflect this historic principle in his life and work is important. It has made him a leader in building bridges between the Middle East and the rest of the world. “More balance can be achieved through respect for the past,” Angawi says. “In our Al Makkiyah mansion, modernity and tradition, privacy and openness, stability and dynamism are equally represented to generate harmony.”

Hijazi culture influences the modern world

Dr. Sami Angawi shows guests the expansive inner courtyard of Al Makkiyah.

Dr. Sami Angawi leads guests through the expansive inner courtyard of Al Makkiyah.

Angawi is the founder of the renowned Hajj Research Center in Mecca and also the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage. He has dedicated his life to preserving the history and architecture of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina; encouraging dialogue about Islam and cross-cultural collaboration and understanding between institutions and universities worldwide.

Angawi’s Hijaz ancestry can be traced back to the Mecca region along the central Red Sea coast. It is his lineage, dating back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, that has formed his religious thought. “The Hijaz,” he says, “is the site of Islam’s holy places and the melting pot of the Muslim world. Millions of pilgrims from all over the world have traveled  annually for centuries to the region, enriching it with their traditions and ideas.”

Respect and compassion

Angawi believes that respect, solidarity and compassion are human values and inspiring principles for every culture and all faiths. “Being aware of these intrinsic similarities and stressing them is the only antidote to fear, bigotry and ignorance.”

In a 2011 interview with Arab News, Angawi said, “Al Makkiah represents a seed. I wish that one day we could have thousands Al Makkiyahs and establish a ‘United Nations of people,’ regardless of their race, color or beliefs.”

When Arab News challenged his concept as being Utopian, Angawi said he finds inspiration in water. “It is a powerful element, stronger than rocks, steel and diamonds. If it doesn’t reach the sea, water changes its status and comes back in other forms to achieve the goal.”

Al Makkiyah/Al Mediniyah Institute

Dr. Sami Angawi is now gathering an international board of intellectuals, activists and businessmen to create his legacy–an international institute offering degrees in Islamic history and science, the Al Makkiyah / Al Mediniyah Institute will provide courses in Islamic history, architecture and science.

The institute at Al Makkiyah will house Angawi’s more than 100 thousand photographs, drawings and writings about Islam and the two holy cities Mecca and Medina. The school will be a collaborative educational experience, providing American, Canadian and European students the opportunity to research Islam on location in the Hijaz–right where the faith has advanced over the past 1400 years.

Here’s a short video describing the Al Makkiyah mansion:

Sources: Arab News,, Saudi Airlines, CNN, History of Architecture, BBC, Harun Yahya TV

August 25, 2013 Posted by | Archeology, Human Rights, Jeddah History, Music, Religious architecture, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ascending the minaret–a childhood dream

Minarets tower over the world's mosques as powerful symbols of Islam's daily calls to prayer.

Minarets tower over the world’s mosques as powerful symbols of Islam’s five daily calls to prayer.

Dream come true

Today my friend Aidarous Al Mashhour drove me to the Khalil Mosque here in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. After we prayed together at the mosque, Aidarous told the imam about my childhood dream—to climb to the top of a minaret.

The imam directed us to the caretaker of the mosque who was more than happy to unlock the door to the inner stairway of the minaret. After some ten minutes of climbing through very narrow openings I arrived at a balcony which encircles the upper section of the minaret. I was so happy to be able to look out over the city of Jeddah and to consider the hundreds of years of Islamic history that minaret represented..

Sam stands atop Jeddah's Khlil Mosque minaret.

Sam stands atop Jeddah’s Khalil Mosque minaret. (Click photos to enlarge.)

The history of this marvelous structure

The minaret is one of the most distinctive features of a mosque. It’s history is interesting, not just to Muslims, but also in the annals of architecture.

Remarkably, there are very few references to the minaret in Arabic literature.

The name itself is somewhat strange, and in no way represents the purpose for which these towers are built. The word in Arabic means “an object that gives light” ((Arabic nur, meaning “light”; hence mi-nur-rat or minaret). So, from the name itself one could wrongly conclude the minaret to be a type of “light house” or tower with a light on top.

Some suggest that the minaret gets its name from the light that the muadhin (“caller to prayer”) would hold as he recited the adhan (call to prayer). Others indicate that in some of the oldest mosques, such as the Great Mosque of Damascus, minarets doubled as illuminated watchtowers.

The earliest Islamic mosques had no minarets. The mosques built in the days of the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca and Medina were very simple. There was nothing like a tower associated with these early houses of prayer and worship.

The call to prayer

Sam's friend Muadhin Shafik Zubir calls the faithful to prayer five times a day at Tuqwa Mosque near the Red Sea Promenade in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Sam’s friend Muadhin Shafik Zubir calls the faithful to prayer five times a day at Taqwa Mosque near the Red Sea promenade in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The use of the adhan goes back to the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed. The adhan is, for sure, one of the most characteristic, powerfully evocative symbols of Islam. This Arabic call to prayer, dramatically intoned by a muadhin from high atop a lofty minaret—once heard—it can never be forgotten!

The use of the adhan goes back to the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed, and is mentioned only once in the Qur’an, in connection with the Friday assembly:

“O you who have believed, when [the adhan] is called for the prayer on the day of Jumu’ah [Friday], leave your business and proceed to the remembrance of God. That is better for you, if you only knew” (Sura 62:9).

Muslim tradition explains how the adhan came to be used to announce the times of the five daily prayers.

After the emigration of Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina (known as the Hijra) a believer named Abd Allah ibn Zaid had a vision in which he tried to buy a wooden clapper to summon people to prayer, as was the tradition of Christians living in Medina at that time. But the man who had the clapper advised him to call out to the people instead and to cry:

God is the greatest! God is the greatest!

I testify that there is no god but God.

I testify that Muhammad is the Prophet of God.

Come to prayer! Come to prayer!

Come to salvation! Come to salvation!

God is the greatest! God is the greatest!

There is no god but God!

The Qutub Minor Mosque in New Delhi, India, has the world's  tallest brick minaret.

The Qutub Minor Mosque in New Delhi, India, has the world’s tallest brick minaret.

Bilal, Islam’s first “caller to prayer”

According to Ibn Ishaq, the eighth-century biographer of Prophet Mohammed, Ibn Zaid went to the Prophet with his story and Mohammed, having had a similar dream, agreed. He told Ibn Zaid to ask an Ethiopian believer named Bilal, who had a marvelous voice, to call the Muslims to prayer.

Early traditions indicate that Bilal made his call to prayer from the rooftop of the Prophet’s house, which doubled as a residence and a place for prayer and worship.

Indeed, no towers were used or mentioned. The ancient poet al Farazdak spoke of the adhan as being prounounced “on the wall of every city.” In the later hadiths it was said “the muadhin, if he is on the road, may make the call to prayer while riding; he need not halt.”

(Note: Below, I have put a short, stirring video of the call to prayer being made from the minarets of Jeddah. Listen to it.)

First mentions of minarets

The first time a minaret is referenced in connection with the mosque was in Medina–some 80 years after the Prophet Mohammed’s passing.

The massive minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia is the oldest standing minaret. Its construction began during the early 8th century and was completed in 836 CE. Its imposing square-plan tower consists of three sections of decreasing size reaching 31.5 meters (103 feet). Considered as the prototype for minarets of the western Islamic world, it served as a model for many minarets to come.

The tallest minaret, at 210 metres (689 ft), is located adjacent the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. The tallest brick minaret is the Qutub Minar in Delhi, India.

Perhaps you heard recently about the 12th-century Great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria. It was a UN World Heritage Site. Sadly, its ancient minaret was completely obliterated a few months ago during a battle of the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

The minaret’s design

Minarets basically consist of three parts: a base, shaft, and the tower gallery. For the base, the ground is excavated until a hard foundation is reached. Gravel and other supporting materials may be used as a foundation.

The crescent moon adorns the tops of many mosques.

The crescent moon adorns the tops of many mosques.

Minarets may generally tapered upward, square, cylindrical, or polygonal (faceted). Stairs circle the shaft in a counter-clockwise fashion, providing the necessary structural support to the decidedly elongated shaft.

The gallery is a balcony which encircles the upper sections from which the muadhin may give the call to prayer. It is usually covered by a roof-like canopy and adorned with ornamentation, such as decorative brick and tile work, cornices, arches and inscriptions, with the transition from the shaft to the gallery typically sporting muqarnas (collections of small corbels that form a transition from one plane to another). Formerly plain in style, a minaret’s place in time can be determined by its level of embellishment.

The symbolic moon

The crescent moon, sometimes combined with a star, often tops the minaret. This symbol was often used by the late Turkish Ottoman Empire; however, its not the official symbol of Islam.

In many nations; however, it remains a generally accepted symbol of Islam in much the same way the Star of David represents Judaism or as the cross is representative of Christianity.

The crescent moon points to God’s awesome creation. We read in the Qur’an, “Surely your Lord is none other than God, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and then ascended His Throne; Who causes the night to cover the day and then the day swiftly pursues the night; Who created the sun and the moon and the stars making them all subservient to His command. Lo! His is the creation and His is the command. Blessed is God, the Lord of the universe” (Qur’an 7:54-58). A similar sentiment is echoed by the prophet King David in the Psalms, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-5).

The crescent moon is not, as some Islamophobic individuals continue to wrongly assert, a “secret Muslim moon god”! The Qur’an forbids the worship of idols of any kind. “And from among His signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Do not bow down (prostrate) to the sun nor to the moon, but only bow down (prostrate) to God Who created them, if you (really) worship Him” (Qur’an 41:37).

Watch this short BBC report on Jeddah’s mosques and the call to prayer:

Sources: The Oxford History, , Saudi Aramco World, BBC, CNN, Architectural History

August 18, 2013 Posted by | Jeddah History, Religious architecture, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Grandmother Eve — buried in Saudi Arabia?

Sam stands at the old entrance to Ummuna Hawwa (Eve's Cemetery).

Sam stands at the old entrance to Maqbara Ummuna Hawwa (Mother Eve’s Cemetery) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Eve’s tomb in Jeddah

It is believed by some Muslims that Eve, the Mother of Humanity, was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. While there is no absolute archaeological evidence old enough to authenticate the story of Eve’s burial here, the legend persists.

Some say that the city’s name, when pronounced as “Jaddah” — an Arabic word that means grandmother — is a reference to Eve. No one really knows how the story originated, and some in this Red Sea port city dismiss it as merely a myth. However, there is empirical evidence (references) dating back at least 1,200 years.

“It’s a legend, but it is one mentioned by many scholars,” says Sami Nawar, Jeddah’s general director for the city’s Culture and Tourism Department. Nawar, an expert on the history of Old Jeddah, likes to lace a bit of the legend into his presentations on the city to visiting foreign dignitaries and journalists.

The creation story

All Abrahamic holy books (the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an) say that Adam and Eve were the first members of the human race–created by God to dwell on earth.

In the first book of the Bible one reads, “And God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:25-28).

Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that Adam and Eve lived in Paradise (the Garden of Eden or heaven) before their fall from grace. After Eve ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree and gave some of the fruit to Adam, who also ate it, then the story goes that “their eyes were opened” so they immediately understood the difference between good and evil. God then banished them from Paradise.

In the Qur’an we read, “And We said, ‘O Adam, dwell you and your wife in Paradise and eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers.’ But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that [condition] in which they had been. And We said ‘Go down, [all of you], as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time’” (Al-Baqarah 35 and 36).

Early origins of the legend

Eve's tomb as drawn by 1984.

Tomb of Eve, drawing found in Pélerinage á la Mecque et á Medine by Saleh Soubhi, Cairo, 1894.

It appears that the earliest documented mention of Eve’s tomb being in Jeddah is by the Arab historian and astronomer Abū Muḥammad Al Hamdani (c. 893-945) who states it had been related that Adam was in Mina Valley, to the east of Jeddah, when he felt a yearning to visit Eve–that Eve had come from Jeddah, and that he found her to the East of Mina Valley on Mt. Arafat.

The renowned British explorer, geographer and ethnologist Sir Richard Francis Burton  (1821 – 1890) makes mention of Eve’s Jeddah burial site in his English translation of the classic work One Thousand and One Nights (in English most commonly known as The Arabian Nights).  

Conservative Islamic influence

Many non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, fail to appreciate just how diverse and varied Islam can be. Just as with Christianity or Judaism, there are things you can say that apply to all or most adherents of Islam, but there are many more things which only apply to a particular group of Muslims. This is especially true when it comes to Muslim fundamentalism; because Wahhabi Islam, the primary religious movement behind fundamentalist Islam, includes beliefs and doctrines not found elsewhere.

It would be a mistake and unethical to be critical of all Muslims on the basis of doctrines particular to Wahhabi Muslims. Modern Islamic fundamentalism and movements cannot be explained or understood without looking at the history and influence of Wahhabi Islamic teaching. This means that it’s important from an academic perspective to understand what Wahhabi Islam teaches and why those teachings differ from other branches of Islam.

Eve's tomb c. 1908.

A photograph of Eve’s tomb c. 1908. The tomb attracted historians and tourists from around the world.

The First Saudi State was founded in 1744. This period was marked by conquest of neighboring areas and by religious zeal. At its height, the First Saudi State included most of the territory of modern-day Saudi Arabia, and raids by Al Saud’s allies and followers reached into Yemen, Oman, Syria, and Iraq. Islamic Scholars, particularly Muhammad ibn Abdul Al Wahhab (1703 to 1792) and his descendants, are believed to have played a significant role in Saudi rule during this period. The Saudis and their allies referred to themselves during this period as the Muwahhidun (“the unitarians”) or Ahl al-Tawhid (“the monotheists”).

The fundamentalist teachings taught by Al Wahhab positioned him in history as the first modern Islamic fundamentalist. I’m told that Al Wahhab made the central point of his reformation movement the principle that just about every idea added to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era (about 950 AD) was false and should be eliminated. Al Wahhab and his followers taught that Muslims must adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs set forth by the Prophet Muhammad.

The reason for this extremist stance and the focus of Al Wahhab’s reform efforts, was a number of popular practices which he believed represented a regression to pre-Islamic idol worship. These included praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, venerating trees, certain caves and stone monuments and establishing certain forms of ritual worship.

Eve tomb today

Still named Mother Eve’s Cemetery, nothing remains of Eve’s tomb. Today only unmarked graves exist.

The destruction of Eve’s tomb

The February 27, 1928, issue of Time magazine, describes how Eve’s tomb was destroyed: “To His Majesty Ibn Saud, warlike Sultan of Nejd and King of the Hejaz, came tidings last week of his flourishing son the Amir Faisal, 19-year-old Viceroy of the Hejaz. The tidings were conveyed 500 miles by motor caravan from the Red Sea town of Jidda in the Hejaz, to the Sultan’s inland capital, Riyadh, in Nejd.”

It was announced in the 19-year-old’s “tidings,” “There was it made known that the enlightened son & Viceroy had finally caused to be obliterated that notorious imposture, ‘The Tomb of Mother Eve,’ at Jidda (Jeddah).”

By 1975 even the ground of Eve’s legendary burial site was sealed in concrete to prevent pilgrims from paying homage or praying there.

Today, the cemetery is a row of unmarked tombs, and there’s nothing to indicate Eve’s tomb has been there. Wahhabi beliefs forbid the marking of tombs and graves.

William Dever, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and a prominent U.S. archaeologist, was asked about  Eve’s tomb by the Associated Press a few years ago. He said there just is not any archaeological evidence going back far enough to back up the legend of Eve’s burial site.

“There are lots of traditional tombs of saints of various kinds in the Middle East,” he added. “But they are never excavated or investigated scientifically.”

Asked if he had heard of any other final resting place for Eve in the Middle East, Dever said, “No. There are tombs of Abraham all over the place, but I don’t honestly know in Israel or the West Bank or Jordan of any Eve tomb in these places.”

A few pilgrims still come

Thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims still come to see what's left of Mother Eve's Cemetery.

Thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims still come to see what’s left of Mother Eve’s Cemetery.

Pilgrims from around the world continue to visit the graveyard named Ammuna Hawwa (Arabic for “Our Mother Eve”).

As I was standing at the entrance of the cemetery yesterday, two tourist buses pulled up. Tour guides made brief speeches about Eve’s burial place, and the buses pulled away.

Dr. Sami Angawi, an architect and historian in Saudi Arabia who has been a long-standing critic of the lack of preservation of historic artifacts and monuments, says, “Tombs are not preserved in Saudi Arabia, and visiting graves is not encouraged as Wahhabists believe that they could lead to Bedaa – a frowned upon invention that undermines the orthodoxy of Islam.” Dr. Angawi says, during the past 80 years historic artifacts and sites have been dug up and thrown out, not only in Jeddah, but also in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“Eve’s tomb,” he says, “is now just a flat hole among a graveyard of unmarked tombs.”

“All we have left is the legend,” he says with disappointment.  “But that legend will live on and be passed on to future generations.”

In the following short CNN video, Dr. Angawi says all eyes remain on the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina that are constantly under assault:

Sources:  The Bible, The Qur’an, Arab News, Time Magazine,, Sir Richard Burton’s English translation of One Thousand One Nights, the Associated Press, The National (UAE), USA Today, CNN International News

March 13, 2013 Posted by | Jeddah History, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sam and friends on the 2012 Hajj!

Abdulrahman, Abdul Rudy and Sam, dressed in Ihram, begin the rigors of the annual Hajj in Mecca, Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifa.

The incredibly difficult but rewarding Hajj

Less than two weeks ago, I was invited by two Muslim brothers, a Saudi doctor Abdulrahman, 25, and his Egyptian friend Abdul Rudy, 70, to accompany them on the intensely spiritual and difficult Hajj to Mecca, the Mina Valley and Mount Arafat in wastern Saudi Arabia. The only pre-requisite, they said, is that I must be able to walk. My response immediately was, “Of course I can walk!” (But I never had in mind walking over 25 miles in four days!)

The three of us left Jeddah Wednesday morning, October 24, dressed in traditional two-piece terricloth wraps called Ihram, heading for the holy City of Mecca. By faith, a Muslim who completes the Hajj is believed to be cleansed from all sins committed during his/her life—to be reborn as a newborn baby.

Understanding Mecca’s history

Muslims believe the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), over 4,000 years ago, was instructed by God to bring his wife Hagar (Hajira) and their child Ishmael from Palestine to the dry and uninhabited Mecca Valley. It is said this was done to protect them from the jealousy of Abraham’s first wife Sarah. (For an outstanding narrative of Hajj history, please take time to watch the Discovery Channel documentary film at the end of this post.)

Abraham left them with only a limited supply of food and water, trusting God to care for them. However, after a few days Hagar and the child found themselves suffering from hunger and dehydration.

In desperation, Hagar ran up and down two hills called Safa and Marwa trying to see if she could spot any help in the distance. Finally, returning to the child, she collapsed beside Ishmael and cried out to God for deliverance.

Ishmael kicked his foot on the ground, and miraculously a spring of water began to gush up from the earth. Hagar and Ishmael were saved. Now that they had a secure water supply, they were able to trade water with passing nomads from the Well of Zam Zam in exchange for food and supplies.

Sam gets a look at the miles and miles of Hajj campsites in the Mina Valley. It’s all managed through a high-tech central command center operated by the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia.

We’re told, that after some time Abraham returned from Palestine to check on his family and was astonished to see them managing a profitable well.

The Prophet Abraham was told by God to build a shrine next to the well. Abraham and Ishmael constructed a small stone structure–the Kaaba (or Cube). It was to become the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in the one true God.

As the years passed, it’s said that Ishmael was blessed with prophethood, and he preached to the desert nomads a message calling upon them to surrender or submit to God.

After many centuries, Mecca, thanks to its continuing, reliable water supply, became a thriving city. But gradually, the people left their faith in the God and turned to polytheism and idolatry, worshipping many different gods of stone and wood. The shrine that had been built by Abraham and Ishmael became a house of pagan idols.

After many years, the Archangel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammed and told him that he should restore the Kaaba to the worship of the one true God of Abraham.

In the year 628 Prophet Muhammed set out on a journey with 1400 of his followers. This journey was the first Hajj pilgrimage in Islam, and would re-establish the faith of their patriarch Abraham. Today the Hajj commemorates both Abraham’s and Muhammed’s struggle against polytheism and paganism.

The rigorous routine of Hajj sacraments

More than 3 million Muslims gathered from around the world in the desert cities surrounding Mecca for the 2012 spiritual, but incredibly difficult, Hajj.

Many pilgrims fly to Jeddah, and then travel to Mecca by bus. Some of the wealthy are on packaged tours costing over $4,000. The poorer Muslims have saved all their lives just to pay for airfare. They manage to sleep either in modest tent camps or lay on cardboard or rugs along the streets of Mina.

En route to Hajj one repeatedly recites the prayer: “Here I am at Your service, O God, here I am at your service! You have no equal. Here I am at your service. All praise and blessings belong to You. All dominion is Yours, and You have no equal.”

Then pilgrims proceed to the famous Al Haram Mosque in Mecca, walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba, where certain ritual prayers are said during and afterwards, offering praise to God.

Next the pilgrim goes to the walkway between the hills of Safa and Marwa, following the same trail as Hagar when she searched for help. The pilgrim walks back and forth, just as Hagar, seven times. These hills are now enshrined within the Mosque.

The pilgrim has now completed the Umrah and declares through prayer his/her intention to do the Hajj, before travelling (by bus or foot) some 20 kilometers to the Mena Valley, where one remains in prayer until the next morning.

To carry out the pilgrimage rituals, one needs to be in a special state of ritual purity called Ihram. One does this by bathing, making a statement of intention o God, by wearing the Ihram and by following certain strict guidelines. The terricloth Ihram has two purposes. (1) It is symbolic of spiritual purity. (2) It demonstrates that all Muslims are equal–there is no class consciousness.

A Muslim person during Hajj may not:

•Engage in marital relations
•Shave or cut their nails
•Use cologne or scented oils or soaps
•Kill or hunt anything for food
•Fight or argue (Very difficult when you’re fasting, in pain and being pushed and bumped by over 3 million people!)
•Women must not cover their faces, even if they would do so in their home country
•Men may not wear clothing with stitches

Abdulrahman on board the Hajj train bound for Arafat at the far end of the Mina Valley.

The next morning, pilgrims either walk several miles or get onboard a modern Hajj train bound for the Mount Arafat, where one stands in the open praising God. (We were only able to use the train on one occasion because of the huge masses of people trying to board the train.)

At the end of the day in Arafat, one travels back to their camp or hotel for rest and food before travelling about 5 kilometers by foot later in the night to Muzdalifa. One is to have gathered 49 stones to throw symbolically over three days at three pillars of Jamarat. These three pillars represent Satan’s temptation of Abraham. The casting of the stones is symbolic of one’s rejection of Satan. (In times past pilgrims would walk up to the natural earthen pillars to cast their stones, but today one walks through a massive four-tiered concrete structure. This prevents crowd congestion as millions make their way through the Jamarat.)

Then there is the long trip as millions of men, women and children make their way back some 8 miles to Mecca (many on foot). Upon arriving once again at the Al Haram Mosque one again performs the Tawaf, the seven rounds of the Kaaba.

After this, men’s heads are shaved as a symbol of humility and obedience to God. Women remove a lock of their hair.

Pilgrims then return once again to his/her hotel or campsite for three to four days and the two additional visits to Jamarat in Muzdalifa, casting 21 stones each time.

Finally, one does a farewell Tawaf in Masjid-al Haram in Mecca, asks God’s forgiveness, and the Hajj is finished.

Many foreign guests proceed by bus to the Prophet’s Mosque, six hours north in the holy city of Medina, but this is optional. A modern, high-speed train system between Mecca and Medina is now under construction.

Post Hajj happenings

Abdulrahman had his head shaved as did the Prophet Mohammad at the end of the very first Hajj.

A man who has completed the Hajj is called a Hajji, a woman who has completed it is called a Hajjah. As followers of Prophet Muhammad’s tradition, all Muslims who perform Hajj, reinforce their belief in his  teachings and follow his traditions which in the Muslim world are known as Sunnah.

At the end of the Hajj, Muslims from all over the world celebrate the holiday known as the Eid ul Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice). Many offer the sacrifice called a Qurbani. A lamb or sheep is slaughtered, and the baked meat is distributed to the poor. This is usually done by a local butcher under strict halal regulations, very similar to the kosher rituals of Judaism.

This festival commemorates the obedience of Abraham when he was ordered to sacrifice his precious son Ishmael. While this might sound unloving—I mean what kind of God would demand such a sacrifice?! It was really a test of Abraham’s faith.

Abraham knew that God had promised to multiply his descendents through Ishmael. In order for God’s promise to come true, Ishmael would not die. Abraham proved his faith, love and allegiance to the one true God of the universe. In the end Abraham did not have to kill his son as God provided him a ram to sacrifice instead. (Judaism and Christianity teach that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.)

Today’s annual Hajj pilgrimage

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj, has been forced to institute a system of registrations and travel visas to control the annual flow of the millions of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. More than 3 million men, women and children from around the world made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Arafat this year.

Abdul Rudy and Abdulrahman (background) casts their stones at one of the three symbolic pillars at the Jamarat where it is believed the prophet Abraham was tempted by Satan. In this way Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy testify that they choose to submit to God, denying the temptations of Satan and this world.

The Hajj is the fifth of the “Five Pillars of Islam”. All Muslims who are financially and physically able to perform Hajj are obligated to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Millions of poor Muslims from around the world scrape together all their lives the thousands of dollars needed to do the Hajj.

During the month of the annual Muslim Hajj, the city of Mecca receives as many as five million pilgrims. Various organizations dedicated to organizing and managing the Hajj, such as the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia, have been forced to reluctantly institute a system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of the great numbers of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. The registration system has prompted outcries of protest among some pilgrims who have the wherewithal to make the Hajj on multiple occasions, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they have no alternative to prevent tragic accidents.

Pilgrims who complete the Hajj consider it one of the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives. The Hajj is seen in many cultures as one of the great achievements of civilization, because it brings together as much as one-fifth of the people of the entire world and focuses them upon a single goal: the difficult task of completing the Hajj. This is an achievement unparalleled in human history, and philosophers have said that only war can compare to the Hajj in terms of organization and scale.

Abdul Rudy and Sam with healthcare workers at the Saudi National Guard pilgrims’ clinic.

Abdulrahman, Abdul Rudy and I were fortunate to be invited to camp with a Saudi National Guard/Red Crescent Hajj healthcare facility in the Mina. Abdulrahman’s father, a cardiologist, was chief physician at the clinic.

Our camp was in the middle of all the Hajj happenings. Everyone welcomed me and treated me with great respect and honor.

In all, the three of us walked nonstop more than 25 miles—once all the way from Arafat to Muzdalifa and then on to the Kaaba in Mecca, about 13 miles! My feet were bleeding and blistered, and every joint in my legs and feet were swollen and in pain.

It has taken me several days to recuperate from the strenuous ordeal. I don’t know how much weight I lost in four days, but it was significant.

I feel closer to God because of what I have learned. My faith, a gift from God, is more precious to me than ever before.

One criticism of Hajj–plastic debris

I have read in the November 5 issue of The Saudi Gazette one criticism of Hajj, one that I wholeheartedly share. I quote from Shadiah Abdullah’s article entitled “Reflections on a journey of a lifetime”:

“It is understandable that there will be a lot of trash created as a result of the congregation of around three million people. What is not acceptable is how Muslims, whose part of faith is cleanliness, litter and sully their holy sites. The usage of tons and tons of plastic and other disposable utensils is the main culprit behind the accumulation of so much trash in the sacred sites.

“It is sad how we ignore the fact that Hajj is supposed to be an opportunity for us to live simpler lives where we respect the environment around us.

“A greener Hajj, where less plastic is used, is something that the Saudi authorities need to work on instead of introducing more cleaners and bigger waste dumps every year.”

Architect and historic preservationist Dr. Sami Engawi with his son Ahmad.

Preserving Islam’s historic buildings

Dr. Sami Engawi, a world-renowned architect and historic preservationist, is concerned about the over-development of Mecca as many Muslims seek to cash in on profits during the annual Hajj season.

Engawi who heads the Amar International Center For Architectural Heritage, wants to preserve Islamic culture by means of saving historic buildings in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities to Islam.

Engawi says historic Islamic buildings and culture are being destroyed and must be preserved. “Already many historic buildings and ruins dating back more than a thousand years have been torn down to make way for skyscrapers and hotels surrounding the Grand Mosque,” he says.  “There are plans to build many more tall luxury buildings and shopping malls adjacent to the mosque.”

In an interview with the BBC, Engawi speaks about the importance of preserving Mecca’s historic buildings and heritage.

Forever grateful to Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy

I do appreciate so very much these two brothers who bore the burden of encouraging me, helping me along, to complete the Hajj! Abdul Rudy, the Egyptian brother from Azwan, age 70, was running circles around me. (Abdulrahman and I learned the age-old lesson: Never ask an African how far it is to walk somewhere. He’ll always say, “Don’t worry. It’s just a short ways down the road.”)

I was exhausted towards the end, once collapsing on the sidewalk, unable to muster the strength to walk another step. These two men will always be known to me as my “Hajj brothers.” They didn’t give up on this woefully out-of-shape, 64-year-old American man.

Towards the end of the Hajj a delegation of Indonesian pilgrims gathers around Sam in Muzdalifa for a celebratory group photo.

I had only three days to study about Hajj before our departure. Abdulrahman had given me a book to read. I did my best to understand where I was going and what I would be doing. But, in the end, there was so much that happened in these few days that I still did not fully understand all that was going on around me. I learned as I followed Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy through the rituals.

I’m still reading even as I write this blog post—trying to figure out what was said in the Arabic prayers that were uttered constantly before, during the five-day event and at the end.

I’ve been living in the Mecca Region of Saudia Arabia now almost 11 months. Since being here the only American I’ve met is the newly appointed US  Consulate General Anne Casper. I have submerged myself in the Saudi culture, making friends with all social classes and many nationalities and have visited several different mosques. I’ve tried my hardest to understand everything I’ve seen. Much of it has been strange and alien to my Christian upbringing, but I’ve also experience grace and mercy as God is always exhalted in prayers and in the reading of the Quran as the “God of mercy, the purveyor of mercy.”

Let me end by stressing again that Hajj was an extremely difficult experience, not just for me, but for the millions of Muslims I met along the way. People did the Hajj with all their hearts, many suffering from physical difficulties of all kinds–most of all ailing joints! The Saudi government did a remarkable job of controlling and assisting the crowds. The Saudi National Guard healthcare workers were remarkable in caring for pilgrims with health problems of all kinds. And Saudi citizens did an incredible job of passing out free food and water and safeguarding foreigners.

One very important thing I learned from the many foreigners I met along the route was that regardless of international politics, they haven’t lost their love and respect for Americans. Just about all of them have some relative living somewhere in the US.

When it was pointed out that I was an American, people gathered around me for photos. They were grateful that an American would seek to understand Islam and make the Hajj along with them.

My prayer, my hope

So I ask my Jewish, Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters in America: Do you realize just how respected and loved by Muslims around the world you are?

In each of our Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we have our small minority of “crazies”; extremists who make the evening news because of their hate, bombing and killing. They cause a lot of misunderstanding. But they are few in numbers compared to the overwhelming many who love the God of Abraham and seek peace, freedom and justice in the world. As all the holy books teach, true justice is about compassion and harmony. It is not about revenge, which is selfish demanding that one get even for past wrongs.

May we all walk together in unity, seeking to make life better for all the world’s peoples. May the next generation of Jews, Christians and Muslims become a voice and force for compassion and understanding as we submit to the God we all claim to love and serve. May we rebuild our cities and nations with justice, religious tolerance and economic opportunity for all men, women and children. This is not a “suggestion” from God. It is our duty and obligation as we submit to God’s will and direction in our lives.

Let’s keep standing, keep hoping, and keep working in God’s cause!

Enjoy the sights and sounds of Hajj as documented by National Geographic:


My thanks to Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy for making it possible for me to go on the Hajj, and thanks to my incredible wife Jana for making corrections to this post! ~ Sam

November 4, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The truth about Muslim anti-West protests

This week’s Newsweek magazine cover featured raging Muslims, but how many were really angry?

What’s really behind the outrage?

Newsweek‘s recent cover-story featured the bold words “Muslim Rage” and depicted most of the world’s Muslims as angry with the US and the West. Here’s a different perspective of what is happening around the world — much of the information was given to me by the French arm of the activist think tank AVAAZ.

According to AVAAZ, there are a number of very important items we have missed in the midst of all the sensational, tabloid-like reporting.

Seven things you may have missed in the so-called “Muslim rage”

Like everyone else, many Muslims find the cheap, unprofessional Islamophobic video “Innocence of Muslims” trashy and offensive. Protests have spread quickly, tapping into understandable and lasting grievances about neo-colonialist US and western foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as religious sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But the news coverage often obscures some important points:

1.  Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.

2.  The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

3.  Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film. An investigation by both the US and Libyan governments is underway.

Think-tank AVAAZ estimates that less than 0.007 of Muslims protested against the hateful anti-Muslim film during the past several weeks, but both Christians and Muslims are known for their few “crazies” who prefer violence over dialogue and peaceful protest.

4.  Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survery of news reports on September 20 suggested that protesters had killed a number of people. The deaths cited by media were largely protesters killed by police.

5.  Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.

6.  The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.

7.  After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologizing and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.

Add to that the number of really big sensational news stories that were buried last week to make room for the front page, “angry Muslim clash” coverage. Maybe you didn’t even hear that in Russia tens of thousands of protesters marched through Moscow to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and Spaniards turned out for anti-austerity protests; and more than a million of Spain’s Catalans marched for independence.

Muslim rage or radical Salafist strategy?

Meet Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, the radical Salafist TV host who incited violence against US embassies because of the American anti-Muslim hate film.

The Amercan anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims” was picked up and heralded with subtitles by far-right Salafists – radical Islamists. The film was a cheaply made, YouTube failure until a radical Egyptian Salafist TV host, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah began promoting it to viewers on September 8.

Most insulted Muslims ignored the film or protested peacefully, but the Salafists, with their signature black flags, were leading instigators of the more aggressive protests that breached embassies. Leaders of the Egyptian Salafist party attended the Cairo protest that broke into the US embassy.

Like the far-right in the US or Europe, the Salafist strategy is to drag public opinion rightwards by seizing on opportunities to fan radical anger and demonise ideological opponents. This approach resembles that of anti-Muslim US Charismatic Christian pastor Terry Jones (who first promoted the film in the west) and other western extremists. In both societies, however, the moderates far (far!) outnumber the extremists.

A leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the more powerful and popular political opponent of Egypt’s Salafists) wrote to the New York Times saying: “We do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.”

Objective, good reporting out there

Most print media and radio/TV journalism is about readership/viewership/listenership polls (ratings). The ones with the best ratings can charge higher prices for advertising. And, far too often, its about sensation and greed at the expense of truth. Whenever a lie is told or an exaggeration is promoted as “truth” the result is misunderstanding, alienation and, far too often, these lead to conflicts and even war.

A lonely band of journalists and scholars, however, have approached the protests with an intent to truly understand the forces behind them. Among them, Hisham Matar, who powerfully describes the sadness in Benghazi after US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, and Barnaby Phillips, who explores how Islamic conservatives manipulated the film to their advantage. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior cautions against treating the Muslim world as a homogenous unit. And Professor Stanley Fish tackles a tough question: why many Muslims are so sensitive to unflattering depictions of Islam.

And then there was our own blog that reported that all was well in both Mecca and Medina–the two most holy cities of Islam. The insulting Islamophobic film was barely mentioned in the news media in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Muslims basically ignored the inflamatory film. Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal urged Saudi youth to “confront the anti-Islam smear campaign by leading an exemplary life, following the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.” The Saudi government early on condemned the violence and attacks on US embassies.

Finally, in Dearbon, Michigan, Muslim leaders joined by Christian pastors and leaders of other faiths, held a press conference. While condemning the anti-Muslim film, they clearly stated that freedom of assembly does not mean the freedom to be violent, to attack embassies or to kill innocent people. Here’s a recording from that press conference:

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I invite NASA to visit Saudi Arabia!

Mars landscape

Martian landscape looking eerily like that of the Arabian Desert.

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 00000

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 2012.

I just can’t help wondering about the universe

You ask, “What in the world? Sam, why are you desk-bound in Saudi Arabia mesmerizing about NASA and the universe? …and God?”

So, I confess. I’m a space buff—have been since 1970. That’s when I took a course in astronomy at Shelton College.

During the past month I’ve been closely following NASA’s Curiosity landing. What an incredible accomplishment—an SUV-sized rover that travelled three-and-a-half months to the red planet, descended like a fire ball through the atmosphere during what NASA called “seven minutes of terror” and then parachuted to the martian surface landing at nearly pinpoint accuracy in the Gale Crater.

NASA studies Mexican desert

Curiosity carries the biggest, most advanced suite of scientific instruments ever sent to Mars. The rover will analyze organic samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. According to NASA scientists, the record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil.” The rover is looking for the chemical building blocks of life (e.g. forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in aeons past.

Now studying the planet Mars, one might think, means travelling there or exploring only by means of satellites, landings and robots, but that’s not the case. NASA has a Mars research program going on in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, where the vast, scorching plain is said to be very much like ancient Mars.

The NASA scientists working in this largely arid and extremely hostile climate are looking for organisms able to survive on a minimum of nutrients, high salinity, soaring temperatures and high ultraviolet radiation.

My invitation to NASA

After hearing that, I say, “NASA, come to Saudi Arabia! I have something to show you here!”

Take a look at the following photo and the photo (inset) that was beamed back from Curiosity to the NASA Mission Control Center in Pasadena, California. It arrived just a couple of days ago. You’ll recognize the incredible similarities between the Arabian desert and Mars’ Gale Crater—pink reddish sand and dust with black volcanic formations and scattered stones. The Saudi mountains and desert landscapes look weirdly similar to the Martian plains and mountains.

Sam in full Saudi costume standing in the Arabian Desert near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The photo inset shows a Curiosity photo of the martian desert taken from the Gale Crater.  The similarities are striking. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Here in Saudi Arabia the desert temperatures and climatic conditions are even more radical than those of the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico. Temperatures sometimes sore to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, yet there still exists various forms of life in this grueling climate, including the infamous, giant camel spiders!

Some spiritual dimensions

Sam is proud of America’s accomplishments in space. This is his friend Astronaut Charlie Duke during Charlie’s 1972 Apollo 16 moon walk. Charlie was the 11th man to walk on the moon. Sam spent time with Charlie and his wife Dottie at their home in New Braunsville, Texas.

All the holy books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims have a lot to say about the universe. The prophet David wrote in the Psalms, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3 and 4). And in the Qur’an we read, “Consider (think about) the sky that is full of great constellations” (85:1).

I like gazing up into the Saudi night skies. The stars, planets and moon seem brighter than back home, and the sun appears twice as big as it sets over the Red Sea in the evening sky. By faith I stand in awe of God who is at this very moment millions of light years away among the galaxies, and at this same moment He is also here and is concerned about the plight of the men, women and children of earth.

We are taught in the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels that we humans were created to fellowship with this God (Allah)—to glorify God—to enjoy God forever. Unfathomable! The wonder of it all!

The words of and old Swedish hymn come to mind, one we often sang when I was a child at my local Georgia church. It’s the famous, hymn many will recognize–“How Great Thou Art.” Here’s the first verse and chorus that seem appropriate:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Yes, Eternal God of the heavens, how great thou art! (Incidentally, we often hear Muslims proclaim in their mosques or in daily life the words “Allah akbar,” meaning “God is great!” Also, remember the prayer we were taught as children–a grace we said before the family meal, “God is great. God is good. And we thank him for our food.” The Arabic equivalent of “God is great” is “Allah akbar”!)

Cosmology argues the existence of a divine, grand Creator

Plato and other ancient philosophers developed the cosmological argument for the existence of a divine Creator.

When we gaze into the night sky, beholding the cosmos of space, how can we not consider God’s existence and his greatness?

The “cosmological argument” for God’s existence derives its title from observing what we can see of the world around us. It begins with what is most obvious to us–the fact that things exist. It is then argued that the cause of those things’ existence had to be a “God-type” being–a Creator.

Beginning with Plato, these types of arguments have been put forth by renowned theologians and philosophers. And almost in reverse order of what one might expect, science seeminly caught up with theologians in the 20th century when it was confirmed that the universe had to have had a beginning.

In 1912, the American astronomer, Vesto Slipher, made a discovery noticing that the galaxies were moving away from earth at huge velocities.  These observations provided the first evidence supporting the expanding-universe theory.

Then the “Big Bang” was theorized by leading scientists. The theory was originally postulated in the late 1920s by Georges-Henri Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and astronomer. The theory advanced the concept that our universe was expanding, having originated from one highly super concentrated mass. While the Big Bang theory does not provide any explanation for such an initial condition, it describes and explains the general evolution of the universe from that point forward.

But how did it all start? Do our Abrahamic faiths hold any answers?

The cosmological argument advances that since there was that scientifically accepted beginning, there then had to be a cause.  In the movie Star Wars the cause was called “the Force.” Muslim, Christian and Jewish philosophers of faith agree that the Force is none other than the Eternal One–God (Allah).

There are remarkable statements in the Torah, the New Testament and and the Qur’an that appear to confirm the Big Bang! The first words of Genesis read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, (chapter 11, verse 3), we read these amazing words, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” When reading the Qur’an I came across this amazing verse, “Don’t the unbelievers see that the universe was once joined together, then God burst it apart. God made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” (21:30).

One of the primary objectives of NASA’s Mars probes has long been the search for water on the “Red Planet.” Water, NASA says, contains the building blocks of life.

Update: Curiosity measures wind and radiation

NASA announced November 18, 2012, that, aside from scooping and analyzing Martian soil, Mars rover Curiosity’s measurements of wind and radiation patterns on Mars are helping researchers better understand the environment near the surface of Mars.

Researchers with the Mars Science Laboratory mission have identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked changes in air pressure, and linked radiation changes to atmospheric changes.  The goal of the mission is to discover whether the environment in Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed earlier this year, could ever have been habitable for microbes.

All praise to God, the Lord of the worlds

Take some time to enjoy this classic National Geographic presentation Journey to the Edge of the Universe. And while watching, think about the words of that great hymn, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made!”

September 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My incredible trip to Riyadh and drive back through the desert

My visit with friends in Riyadh

Sam (in schmag) with Suzan and Hossam Malallah and sons Abdulrahmen and young Beide on the observation deck of the famous Faisaliah Tower in Riyadh. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

I just got back from a visit to the capital of Saudi Arabia–Riyadh (Pronounced Ree-yaad; Arabic: الرياض‎). The name in English means “the gardens.” A buinessman there got me a ticket to fly to Riyadh. I stayed with Hossam Malallah and his wonderful family for a week. We had numerous business appointments, and then we drove back to Jeddah through the desert via Al Taif and Mecca.

I thank my friend Hossam and his family for their warm hospitality and for arranging several very important appointments with business people including a Saudi Sheikh Ry-an Al-Monsoul. For the occasion, I was outfitted with a brand new custom-tailored thobe and schmag!

The history of Riyadh is centuries-old and interesting

Riyadh is the largest city of Saudi Arabia. It is situated in the center of the Arabian Peninsula on a large plateau, and is home to nearly 6 million people. The greater Riyadh area is nearly 7 million people. Riyadh is home to the world’s largest female university, the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University.

During the pre-Islamic era, the settlement at the current city site was called Hajr (Arabic: حجر‎), and was reportedly founded by the tribe of Banu Hanifa. Hajr served as the capital of the province of Al Yamamah, whose governors were responsible for most of central and eastern Arabia during the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. Al-Yamamah broke away from the Abbasid Empire in 866 and the area fell under the rule of the Ukhaydhirites, who moved the capital from Hajr to nearby Al Kharj. The city then went into a long period of decline. In the 14th century North African traveller Ibn Battuta wrote of his visit to Hajr, describing it as “the main city of Al-Yamamah, and its name is Hajr”. Ibn Battuta goes on to describe it as a city of canals and trees with most of its inhabitants belonging to Bani Hanifa, and reports that he continued on with their leader to Mecca to perform the Hajj. (No canals were visible during my visit! I’m trying to find out what happened to them. It hasn’t rained in Saudi Arabia during the past 3 years.)

Riyadh’s 100-story Kingdom Tower skyscraper and city lights at night as seen from the Faisaliah Tower observation deck.

Later, we are told, the area of Hajr broke up into several separate settlements and estates. The most notable of these were Migrin (or Muqrin) and Mi’kal, though the name Hajr continued to appear in local folk poetry.

The earliest known reference to the area by the name Riyadh comes from a 17th-century chronicler reporting on an event from the year 1590. In 1737, Deham ibn Dawwas, a refugee from neighboring Manfuha, took control of Riyadh. Ibn Dawwas built a single wall to encircle the various quarters of Riyadh, making them effectively a single town.

In 1744, Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of the nearby town of Diriyah. Ibn Saud then set out to conquer the surrounding region with the goal of bringing it under the rule of a single Islamic state. Ibn Dawwas of Riyadh led the most determined resistance, allied with forces from Al Kharj, Al Ahsa, and the Banu Yam clan of Najran.

However, Ibn Dawwas fled and Riyadh capitulated to the Saudis in 1774, ending long years of wars, and leading to the declaration of the first Saudi State.

The first Saudi State was destroyed by forces sent by Muhammad Ali of Egypt, acting on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman forces destroyed the Saudi capital Diriyah in 1818. In 1823, Turki ibn Abdallah, the founder of the second Saudi State, revived the rule and chose Riyadh as the new capital. Internecine struggles between Turki’s grandsons led to the fall of the second Saudi State in 1891 at the hand of the rival Al Rashid clan, who ruled from the northern city of Ha’il. Riyadh itself fell under the rule of Al Rashid in 1865.

The city was recaptured in 1902 from the Al Rashid family by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He went on to establish the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, with Riyadh as the capital.

The Climate

Summer temperatures are very hot, sometimes reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit! It got to 123 Fahrenheit while I was in Riyadh. Since the weather there is very arid or dry, the temperatures were more tolerable.

Winters are mild with cold, windy nights. There has been practically no rainfall during recent years, but in better times the city receives a fair amount of rain in March and April. Riyadh is known to have many dust storms (not to be confused with Haboobs or sand storms). The dust is sometimes so thick that visibility is less than 30 feet.

Sam and friends were hosted by Sheikh Rayan who presented Sam and guests with a formal Bedouin-style dinner of baked lamb, rice, vegetables and fresh camel milk. Sam’s stomach passed the test! He walked away with none of the consequences some foreigners suffer from their first attempt at camel milk.

Why the visit? Our current work…

My purpose for visiting Riyadh was to look for funding sources to underwrite our work in producing a modern, everyday English version of the Qur’an that is cross-referenced with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible which the Qur’an refers to as “the Book.” Surprisingly, even though the Bible is given status in the Qur’an and was respected by the Prophet Mohammad, few Muslims are familiar with the Bible, and even far fewer Jews and Christians have any knowledge of the Qur’an. In addition to cross-referencing similar verses and passages in each of these Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, our new, everyday-English version of the Qur’an will include a glossary of terminology along with footnotes explaining commonalities between these holy texts.

Our second project we are proposing is a North American ad campaign over US and Canadian TV, radio, and the internet. The paid ads will use professional teen and young adult actors in various settings (e.g. having coffee in a Starbucks, lunch in a high school cafeteria, a classroom setting, etc.). Each ad will include Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth involved in a conversation about what they believe. They find out they have many things in common. Each ad ends with one of the youth begging the question, “Why can’t we just live together in peace?”

Yes, it’s true, we do have so much positive in common, but often, due to political pressures, profound ignorance, half-truths and blatant bigotry; confusion and outright hate win out. And those minority extremists who speak out of ignorance, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew, usually get major headlines. We’re hoping our work will shatter much of the disinformation and myths being propagated.

Compound all of the ignorance and bigotry with the need by many greedy individuals for a type of “new cold war” to keep profits from the international arms industry up and going, and you have a catalyst for disaster both in the US and abroad.

In addition to meeting with Sheikh Rayan, I met with the president of MedGulf, Saudi Arabia’s largest insurance company, and two other major players in the Saudi economy. We are establishing relationships that we hope will result in future assistance to our programs.

This elderly male baboon smacked down a banana tossed to him by Hossam as younger baboons approached. It was obviously a really bad hair day for grandpa baboon!

Since our project is producing beneficial results for the three major Abrahamic faiths, we hope that we will be able to see the burden of our work equally shared by concerned Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Our visit to Taif in the Al Sarawat Mountains


Departing Riyadh, this time by car, what unbelievable sights we beheld! Ten-hours of staring out the car windows at awesome desert scenery, Bedouin camp sights, camels and sheep!

And then the desert freeway wound its way up a high escarpment to city of Al Taif (pronounced Al Tah-ehf and more commonly known as just “Taif”), a mountain top metropolis tucked far up on the highest slopes of the Al Sarawat Mountains. It is in the Province of Mecca and is more than 6000 feet above sea level. Taif has a population of just over a half million.

The city is the center of an agricultural area known for its fresh fruits, roses and honey. It tends to be much cooler in the summer than the rest of Saudi Arabia. We got out at a local fruit stand, and it was a pleasant 70 degrees. We saw many people wearing jackets to keep warm while working in the shaded areas. Thousands of Saudis, along with most of the Saudi federal government, head to Taif during July and August, the two hottest months, when sea-level temperatures reach between 120 and 130 degrees in many places. Combine those awfully hot temperatures with the high humidity of the Red Sea port Jeddah, and it’s going to be quite a first-time experience for me this summer!

Fresh Taif fruit! We loaded up on just-harvested plums, peaches and figs–incredible treats after such a long desert drive.

The more moderate Taif climate is also attractive to a breed of wild Arabian baboons that scavenge the countryside looking for food from passing tourists. You get out of your car for a peak, and they come running at you from all directions!

After leaving Taif we took a modern, hair-pin, four-lane freeway down the steep mountainside. Here we had breathtaking views of the surrounding solid gray-pink granite mountains and pink desert sands. The new freeway connecting Taif with Mecca is along one of the busiest routes in Saudi Arabia’s West-to-East network. It’s both fast and safe, barring sudden major encounters with the baboons crossing the highway. We must have taken a hundred photos as we descended 6000 feet down the mountainsides. (For a short view of the freeway see the video at the end of this post.)

Once again in the low desert, we came to a herd of  60 or more camels feeding on the lower branches of desert trees. I had to stop and say hello! So Hossem put his SUV in 4-wheel drive, and we took off through the desert.

I don’t know what it is, but camels must be getting positive vibes from me. When I get out of a car where camels are nearby, they come running and crowd around me. They are the friendliest animals I’ve ever met. (If you don’t know much about these very intelligent animals, read my previous post.)

We got back to Jeddah about noon on June 12 just in time for a major traffic jam. As we neared our offices on Corniche Road, just two blocks from the Red Sea, we confronted the sweltering humidity. I felt a sense of being home again because I knew, despite the heat, I would be greeted by Safi and Eman Kaskas and numerous other friends.

Here in humid Jeddah, where summer high temperatures remain over 100 degrees for days at a time, you find that walking just a few feet outside leaves your clothes soaked with sweat and perspiration. That’s why the traditional Saudi dress is becoming more accustomed to me. Wearing loose fitting, white clothing and sandals certainly beats wearing a dark, tight-fitting business suit, necktie and dress shoes! I’m learning many traditional concepts for staying cool and comfortable. Fortunately, just about all buildings and homes here are well air-conditioned.

Here’s a short video of the Taif Freeway we took down the mountainsides. The road is an engineering marvel. It’s literally carved out of solid pinkish-gray granite.

June 16, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments