Hello World! From “Servant” to “Custodian” of Holy Shrines

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From “Servant” to the “Custodian” of the Two Holy Shrines

Muhammad Lifting Black Stone at Kaba, Jama-al-Tawarikh, 1315

Mecca and Medinah are the holiest places for Islam. They house the two most important mosques of the religion, apart from the Kaaba, which serves as the reference point for about a billion Muslims across the world, who face the Kaaba during their prayer. They also venerate the Black Stone installed into this sanctuary during, Haj, their pilgrimage which is one of the 5 essentials duties of Islam for those Muslims who can afford a trip to the Mecca.

Located in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi King holds a special place in his kingdom as the Saudi monarchy projects itself as the protector of these two holy shrines. However, there is a difference in the way the Saudi King has been perceived in the Arabic-speaking world and in the West in this regard. And this difference has more to do with political economy of the region than with religion.

The Saudi King is often referred to as the “Custodian of the Two Shrines” in the West. This is coupled with the American policy of treating Saudi Arabia as the spiritual leader of the Islamic world. But this view is grossly misplaced. In fact, in the Arabic language, the Saudi King is referred to as Khadim al-Haram-ain. This phrase means “Servant of the Two Shrines.” The transformation of the servant into a custodian is actually closely interlinked with the status of the King and the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia for the West. The Saudi monarchy projected itself as the servant of the two holy shrines in order to emphasise upon the Islāmic religious state it was building by moulding the kingdom on the Islāmic rule. The king as the servant of the two holy shrines is thus, one who follows the Islāmic law to govern his kingdom.

The US since the catastrophe of 9/11 has been devising an Islāmic policy to speak to the Muslim community throughout the world and has decided to use its strategic ally Saudi Arabia as the spiritual spokesperson for the Islāmic community. This policy as resulted in transforming the servant to the custodian of the two holy shrines. This misplaced definition places Saudi Arabia in a superior role as compared to the other Islāmic countries and also to other Muslim societies. Indeed, Western converts to Islam often want to move to Saudi Arabia as they see it as the Islāmic Holy Land.

In fact, in history there was not always a tendency to look for a spiritual spokesperson for Islam. In India, the Mughals separated themselves from the Arab Caliphate and got the Khutba read in their own name. Even during the freedom struggle of India, Sir Saiyyad Ahmad Khan and his supporters had clearly said that they didn’t want to follow the Arab Caliphate as Indian Muslims’ issues were different from those of the Arab world. The Muslims in every country are more concerned with their surrounding population and with the policies of its own country’s government. Saudi Arabia does not have much value for them apart from Haj, which not every Muslim is able to perform ultimately for economic or other reasons. This US policy in fact overlooks the fact that the Muslims across the world may not be looking towards Saudi Arabia as their leader and their myriads versions of Islam are in fact are very different from the Saudi version. It’s also worth noting that majority of the Muslim population does not live in the Arab world (see map by clicking here), but outside it and this majority does not follow the Saudi version of Islam. It is highly undemocratic and unfair to marginalise the perceptions of the majority of practitioners of Islam by devising this kind of policy.

There is a reason Saudi Arabia has been given so much of prominence by the US. Of course, we all know about the oil reserves of the country and the US is its biggest buyer of oil. Besides, Saudi Arabia has a strategic location in the West Asian region. By making it their ally, the Americans can use its air-space to control the entire region and Saudi Arabia accommodates this need of the US.

One doesn’t expect Saudi Arabia to be so naïve as to be unaware of the fact that the majority of Muslims in the world don’t necessarily look upon it as their religious leader. It appears that this is a strategy of the Saudi Arabia to establish itself as the religious leader of the Islāmic world by using its oil and strategic power and it is trying to achieve its aim by aligning itself to the US and using the American might for its own religious ambitions. Hence, this appears to be a bilateral policy of the US and Saudi Arabia, not only a one-sided one.

That the US is clearly helping Saudi Arabia to achieve its aim was seen last year in the President Obama’s bowful respect to the Saudi King during the G-20 Conference in London. According to the US military protocol, the US President is not supposed to bow to any other head of state and Obama’s action came under severe criticism. The White House tried to cover up Obama’s action by saying he was not really bowing. But this video shows Obama clearly bowing to the Saudi King, thus symbolically accepting the Saudi leadership in the world.

Obama bows to Saudi King at G-20 Conference in England

The real losers in this game are the hundreds of Millions of Muslims outside the Arab world, who don’t follow that version of Islam, on whom an alien Saudi Islam is being imposed and whose own voices are becoming suppressed because of this kind of political economy that uses religion as its tool.

I would appreciate comments from the visitors to this page.

13 Responses to “Hello World! From “Servant” to “Custodian” of Holy Shrines”
  1. सुयश says:

    ‘समरथ को नहिं दोस गुसाईं।’ अमेरिका उन देशों में मानवाधिकारों के हनन के बारे में कुछ नहीं कहता है जिनसे उसका कोई फ़ायदा जुड़ा होता है। तेल के भंडार के कारण वह सऊदी अरब को सभी मुसलिम देशों का मार्गदर्शन करने वाला देश घोषित कर रहा है जबकि सच तो यह है कि भारत का इस्लाम सऊदी अरब के इस्लाम से भिन्न है। अपने फ़ायदे के लिए अनैतिक नीतियों का पालन करने वाले अमेरिका को जनतंत्र की दुहाई देने का कोई अधिकार नहीं है।

    आपके ब्लॉग में ऐसे विषयों के बारे में भी जानकारी मिलती है जिनपर मुख्याधारा का मीडिया जान-बूझकर चर्चा नहीं करता है। आशा है कि आपके ब्लॉग पर ऐसे विषयों पर विचार-विमर्श करने का मौका मिलेगा जो हमारी नज़रों से ओझल रहते हैं।

    इतनी अच्छी जानकारी देने के लिए बहुत-बहुत धन्यवाद।

  2. Mahmood says:

    I am an Indian Muslim and I have also lived in the Arab world. It is true that Indian Muslims practise a different kind of Islam than Saudi Muslims and we are more sensitive towards Indian religions than the Arab Muslims. We don’t consider Saudi Arabia as a religious leader of the Islamic world. This is a wrong policy of the US.

  3. Hilal Ahmad says:

    Dear Archana,
    Your such a deep knowledge about Islam and Islamic world has always surprised me. I will suggest that you study Islam that will give you more insight. You see Islam from a historians angle. Islam as the philosophy is same world wide the different branches are on the issue how you practice them.
    As far as the issue of Saudi leadership is concerned it has been established by the West way back when the Oil was explored and the dependence of western wurld on Oil has increased. The Monarchy in Saudia is a real issue as Islam is the propouder of democracy and perhaps the first in the world to advocate it. But monarchy suits to the Western world as it makes it easier for them to assert themselves on one family than the whole population which is against the West in general and USA in particular. You are right that the two are complimenting each other and necssary for each others existence. American President should bow down more to the king, where else will they find such a CLASS who is more for the prosperity of the USA then their own Arabs, what to say about muslim world. They are not the Leaders of the Muslims, but are imposed on them.Same is the case with Muslims in India where the Ulemas are forced upon as leaders and representatives of muslims, which they are not

  4. Archana says:

    I agree with you completely that the Saudi leadership is imposed on the Muslim world and the Ulemas are imposed on the Indian Muslims.

    When I talked about the different versions of Islam, I was talking about the practice. I know that there is only one Quran followed by all, but Muslims in different parts of the world use it differently as they are conditioned by their different environments. This is true for all religions, not only for Islam.

    You are right that different countries get a different treatment because of their different political and economic significance on the global platform. This is unfair to those countries which don’t have a bargaining power.

  5. John Burgess says:

    I think there are several linguistic threads being intertwined when it comes to translating ‘servant’ to ‘custodian’.

    One is from American English, where the word ‘servant’ is deprecated. Once, the person responsible for the maintenance of a physical facility was called a ‘janitor’. That word is now seen as being derogatory and has been replaced by ‘custodian’. Perhaps this is just ‘job title inflation’, but that’s the way language works.

    A second thread is with the Arabic word kh-d-m. The base sense is, as you note, ‘service’. The word takes on extended meanings, however. In Arab Christian contexts, for example, khadim is translated as ‘deacon’ and a Christian mass service is a khadam quddasa. It can also be used to suggest the making available of something.

    Translating khadim as ‘custodian’ may not be the most elegant translation, but it needn’t be seen as coming from questionable or nefarious motivations, either.

  6. Sundaram says:


    Tracing etymology doesn’t help much here as the post by Archana was discussing essentially the espousal of fundamentalist interests by the US where it suits. And not only Saudi, US has no qualms about supporting fundamentalisms elsewhere.

    Even the new state in Afghanistan, established with much fanfare for democracy and celebrating demise of archaic Taliban is in fact called The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. No wonder even this new regime passed most unhuman and humiliating kind of legislation against women – consent for sex or starve !

    And this call by Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) underlines how US and its supported regime is not only corrupt and brutal, but also obscurantist – http://www.rawa.org/attack-e.htm. Hillary Clinton herself called Karzai regime a Narco-state owing its indulgence in drug-trade.

    This kind of selective support to fundamentalist and undemocratic interest speaks so much about American love for democracy. A recent article in The Guardian shows how this will lead to more chaos in the actual fight against terror.

    Terror is the price of support for despots and dictators – (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/07/egypt-gaza-strip-viva-palestina)

  7. Archana says:

    I am surprised that the links you posted say something I have been arguing recently and I haven’t read any material on this issue. I have been saying in popular public space that the US support to the fundamentalist Islamic states in the Arab world is encouraging the spread of an intolerant Islamist ideology. Though later I realised that the Afghan section of the extremists may have received their ideology from the Arab world as well as from the indigenous orthodox elements. In case of Malaysia, there does seem to be a link between its moving away from its own traditional, accommodating version of Islam and with its growing proximity to Saudi Arabia – the strategic ally of the US. And we know about the debacle in Malaysia.

    However, my impression is that the US has grossly misread the nature of the fabric of the Islamic world while devising its Islamic policy. This is not a nefarious motivation as John says – and I feel he is being honest about his opinion. Rather, I feel this is an ignorance of the indepth understanding of the non-Western world. In fact, the US acknowledges that Iraq was a serious miscalculation on its part because the Americans didn’t understand the intrinsic social fabric of Iraq.

    Unfortunately, the US policy is based on this misunderstanding and it is affecting the whole world. It’s time the US realises that this Islamic policy is flawed and they need to move away from it.

  8. Archana says:

    Thanks for that explanation. However, I’ll say again what I said to Sundaram above. It’s true that the term “servant” has a derogatory connotation in the West and therefore, in English language. But again, this translation has not understood the intrinsic values of the society where this concept evolved. In many eastern societies, it is common for a religious person to refer to oneself as servant of God or servant of a shrine etc. – it’s not something specific to Saudi monarchy.

    For example, there are poetic compositions by many devotional saints who were active in the mediaeval period in India, who refer to themselves as “servant of God.” The renowned woman saint Meera from Rajasthan, who was a contemporary of Akbar, composed a poem in which she enjoins upon Lord Krishna to keep her as a servant in his “house,” where she would perform all domestic services to the Lord.

    This kind of sensibility is completely different from the one that has emerged in the West regarding the notion of a servant. The Western sensibility is also true, but its context is different. For example, it would be true in a modern environment where an employer may exploit the servant to get all his personal work done.

    In a devotional context, the connotation of a servant changes. The poems referred to above are in various languages of India, but their English translations always retain the term “servant” or use “attendant” instead. Use of a term such as “custodian” would be completely wrong here, because it is a conscious attempt at elevating the status of the person vis-a-vis the society, as you have rightly noted in your phrase “job title inflation.” This is wrong because a devotee is not supposed to elevate his social status before God.

    Having said all that, one should also understand the politics of language the way it is used in any context. In the case of Christian service, please note the term “service.” Originally, this was meant as a service to God, but gradually, as the Church grew in power and following, it began to use the service more in the sense of making the religious facility available, with the priest being the “Deacon” as you have mentioned. Hence, Khadim in Arab Christianity has changed its connotation from “one who serves,” the original meaning to “administrator of religion,” the transformed meaning. Please note the term “administrator” here.

    In the case of Saudi monarchy too, same has happened. They established themselves as “servant of the Holy Shrines” in order to legitimise their regime as a rule by the God’s servants. Now they are attempting to become the Custodians of the Islamic world. Hence, the term Khadim is changing its connotation. Please note what JK said on your page – the entire Grand Mosque began to look the way it looks today only in the 1950s. Architecture is a visual reflection of the cultural and political ideas in a society. The same ideas get reflected in language as well. I feel that the term “attendant” may be used instead of “servant” but “custodian” completely changes the meaning of the term and also the role of the Saudi King.

    If you are right that there is no conscious nefarious intention involved from the Americans’ side in this, then my thesis that the Americans haven’t understood the intrinsic cultural politics of KSA involved in this aspect, holds ground. I would again say that the US needs to understand these intricacies while devising its policies, because American policies affect the whole world.

  9. Aafke says:

    I think one should take into account though that Saudi money sponsoring Mosques and imams is having an effect though. If you look around in countries in the west and read the world news you see more and more women wearing hijab, or faceveils, and most new converts I know of all propound the Saudi/salafi ideologies. The innovation that niqab is compulsory, that segregation is compulsory (punishment for not holding to it is hell, all new innovations) You read on some islamic sites passages from the quran and hadith which have been adapted to show this change in attitude.

    In Eqypt were women did not wear hijab in the seventies almost all women do now, if they have not been convinced on a religious level they still have to wear it to avoid harassment on the street.

    In Indonesia there are now clubs for polygamy, by men who want multiple wives. Polygamy is on the rise in many other countries.

    I see the Saudi version of Islam taking hold all over the world. I think one should not ignore that.

  10. Archana says:

    Yes, that’s precisely the point. Because Saudi Islam is being projected – by Saudi Arabia, supported by the US as the “authentic Islam,” Muslim societies where a more liberal version of Islam was followed for centuries, are becoming more orthodox and intolerant towards other religions. Malaysia’s debacle is one of the worst examples of it. There is a need to understand that Saudi King is not the custodian of Islam and there are more liberal versions of Islam in this world, which are being wiped out because of this policy.

  11. Danish says:

    Hi archana
    I’m from Pakistan and I enjoy reading your articles found best in all
    You are very much sane in your article. This article truly represent my own views about Saudi rulers and many other feel the same as well.
    The problem is that each and every Religion is being turned a materialistic creed which is a grave sin in religious point view.
    Hinduism can also be monotheistic religion but also very much turned materialistic aka secular.
    I feel secular means satanic, the solution i feel is that if we implement our religious laws according to our sacred books like Vedas in Hinduism, Bible in Christians, Torah in Judaism and Koran in Muslims countries we all will become one and no pi$$ only peace but unfortunately all religion has been subverted by i guess lucifer and his lovers and become materialistic creed
    Every civilization is based on religion and clash of civilization is as apparent because we no longer care for it.
    I could write more but i am tired of writing because nothin gonna change by writing. Set your soul straight and get salvation.

  12. Archana says:

    Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog.

    You are right that all religions ahve some good points to teach and if we follow the good points then there will be peace in the world. The political authorities in the world are making use of religion to keep themselves in power and this is a dangerous phenomenon.

  13. MoQ says:


    I do not make much of the intent in using the word custodian verses servant. Although, I think the translation requires a few twists to arrive at the word custodian. I think they used Khadim in Arabic because of the religious link. When you translate that to servant in English the title becomes less dignified so they had to find an alternative. It is that simple in my mind.

    The other issue I may disagree with you on is the symbolism of the Obama bow. I have a different theory. You have to remember Obama grew up in Indonesia and most of his direct interaction and knowledge about Muslim mannerism comes from that period. I grew up with a number of Indonesian friends and one of the traits I remember is the polite gestures they use when greeting the elderly. This includes some bowing to seniors. Could that bow simply be part of the cultural heritage Obama had from his time in Indonesia. He was simply trying to show respect to an older Muslim man.

    I do understand the complexity of the US and Saudi relation, but I do not think that was a symbolic gesture of Obama accepting Saudi leadership.

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