Saudi Arabia is the focus of much international attention today. However, little has been published in English on the background to its culture and its roots in the First Saudi State that arose in 18th-century Najd. The Islamic reform movement that infused it with its sense of mission, and the life and thought of Shaikh Muhammad b.`Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4-1792) the teacher who inspired and led it, have similarly been neglected.
Often referred to outside Arabia as Wahhabism, the Shaikh’s teachings still exert a profound influence on the lives of Saudi Arabians and their government. His ideas continue to inspire his many followers, both inside the Kingdom and abroad, and a knowledge of his life and thought is vital to a proper understanding of both Saudi Arabia and the Arab world of today.
Students of Saudi Arabian history have long recognized George S. Rentz Ph.D. thesis on the Shaikh’s life and the origins of the First Saudi State as a work of pioneering scholarship. Despite this, since its acceptance in 1947 by the University of California, it has never before now been published.
Closely basing his account on the local Najdi chroniclers who were contemporary with many of the events they describe, Rentz pieces together the life and thought of the thinker who, using as his guide orthodox Hanbalite doctrine, set out to purify Islam as he saw it practised around him, and to direct Muslims back to the fundamentals of their faith. In the process Rentz tells the colorful story of the creation of the First Saudi State from 1745 with its capital at al-Dir’iyah, near present-day Riyadh.
Born in Pennsylvania, George S. Rentz (1912-87) showed a talent for languages from an early age. Becoming involved with the Arab world by chance in 1932, it was while teaching in Aleppo that he first conceived his interest in
the new state of Saudi Arabia emerging in the Arabian Peninsula. Returning to complete his university studies in the USA, by the end of the 1930s he had embarked upon the thesis published here.
He visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1944, and in 1946 he was recruited by the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) to set up a research and translation division at Dhahran. His sojourn there (1946-63), where he immersed himself in the history, culture and geography of the Arabian Peninsula, transformed him into Aramco's resident authority on Arabic and Arabian matters and established him as a scholar of international repute.
Rentz returned home in 1963 to take up a post as curator of the Middle Eastern Collection at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In the USA he continued to teach and inspire his students. Though he himself published little, he was renowned for his extraordinary erudition. He influenced a generation of Arabist scholars, and it has been truly said of him that he laid the foundations for the study of Saudi Arabian history as a scholarly discipline in the West.
View all posts
William Facey is a historian and museum planner. Since 1974 he has been involved in many heritage projects in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia. His books, introductions and articles cover the history, architecture and early photography of the Arabian Peninsula countries, as well as Arab maritime history, Islam among the British, and Western travellers in Arabia, particularly those visiting Islam’s holy cities. He established Arabian Publishing Ltd in London in 2002, and in 2006 became a founding trustee of the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia (BFSA), now IASA, the International Association for the Study of Arabia.
View all posts