A Muslim woman who practiced medicine in Saudi Arabia is traveling the U.S. speaking about her experience under the orthodox rule of the kingdom's state-sponsored religion, that westerners call Wahhabism.
Dr. Qanta Ahmed wrote a book describing a religious lifestyle very different from the Islam she practiced growing up in Britain. In her newly published book, Dr. Ahmed, who is of Pakistani descent, says she found practices that profoundly contradict the Islam she follows. Dr. Ahmed recently sat down with VOA's Julie Taboh to talk about her new book.
When Dr. Qanta Ahmed was offered a job practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia, she says she decided to try it. As a Muslim who grew up in the west, she says she welcomed the opportunity to explore her faith in the birthplace of Islam. But what she did not expect is how life in the Islamic kingdom would challenge her faith.
Dr. Ahmed began her Saudi life with a spiritual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, a journey called the Hajj that all Muslims who can, are expected to make at least once in their lives.
"You realize at once how insignificant a human being really is in the scale of creation, and at once you realize the vastness of your creator," Dr. Ahmed said. "But for me especially I realize the diversity in Islam. And it's so extraordinary that that diversity is manifested year after year in the cradle of Islam, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which does not espouse diversity broadly in its own society."
Dr. Qanta speaks of the orthodox version of Islam that is the kingdom's state religion. She links Wahhabism, as it is called, to militant jihadists such as Osama bin Ladin, which some scholars dispute. "This is not Islam," Dr. Qanta said. "This is a bastardization of Islam, a horrendous word to use. I'm not going to make any friends doing that, but that's what it is."
Reading from her newly published book -- Dr. Ahmed told a small but diverse audience at the National Press Club in Washington, that living under Wahhabi law, so different from the moderate Islam she practices, inspired her to write about it.
In her book, "In the Land of Invisible Women," Dr. Ahmed explores the role of women in an orthodox Islamic society. "A woman cannot own a business without a male front or male sponsor," she said. "Women cannot travel without some male permission. Women do own businesses. Women own 40 percent of businesses in Saudi Arabia. They control a huge amount of the economic wealth there, but they have to do it through a male sentry so to speak to deal with the state."
The director of the American Muslim Studies Program at Georgetown University, Dr. Zahid Bukhari says the lack of freedom for many Saudi women is not necessarily a religious issue.
"Basically it's a cultural issue," Dr. Bukhari said. "It's not Islam. I don't think it's Islamic. If it was Islamic, then it should be all in 57 Muslim countries and Muslims living all over the world, and they don't have these type of problems. It's very much a Saudi-specific issues."
Though state sponsored, Dr. Ahmed says she found many Saudis do not agree with Wahhabiism and she says many women, and men, are trying to bring about change. "They're able to accomplish moderation and heterodoxy in a setting of sanctioned orthodoxy," she said.
And she encourages moderate Muslims around the world to find the courage to speak out against violent acts, those committed by militant jihadists in the name of Islam. "I think Muslims need to ask themselves," Dr. Ahmed said. "How their behaviors, or their inability to protest behaviors or their willingness to condone behaviors, how is that reflecting on Islam?"
Dr. Ahmed says she hopes her book will appeal to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, in order to create a better understanding between the cultures of the east and west.