A controversial Saudi academic refuted historians’ claims that burial of newborn girls was a common practice in the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian Peninsula and argued that the Quranic verse referring to this issue was misinterpreted.

Saudi researcher and academic Marzouk bin Tenbak stirred much controversy following the release of his book “Girls’ Burial by Arabs: Between Illusion and Reality,” which he said was based on seven years of research and investigation.

The book, bin Tenbak stated, was the product of several questions he began raising as he reflected on the practice of burying girls upon their birth in pre-Islamic Arabia and whether it was really an established tradition at the time, as many historians claimed.

“I was surprised to see that everybody believed that girls’ burial was a given. I find this an insult to the dignity of Arabs,” he told Al Arabiya.

Bin Tenbak explained that when he traced the origins of stories about burying baby girls, he discovered that they do not come from trusted sources.

“I challenge anyone to come up with proof that burying girls was as prevalent as popular belief has it.”

Bin Tenbak argued that the word “buried” in the Quranic verse is used in the female form not because it refers to girls in specific, but rather to the soul in general, which is female in Arabic.

“The verse refers to the burial of babies born outside wedlock and it includes both boys and girls. The word ‘buried’ refers to the soul of the buried child.”

Therefore, bin Tenbak argued, the verse “and the buried asked what sin it [she] committed to be killed” refers to all illegitimate children whose soul is wondering why they are being killed even though they are not the ones who committed a sin.

Killing those children, bin Tenbak added, was mentioned in the Quran to refer to a practice that was prevalent in several parts of the world, and not the Arabian Peninsula in particular.

“This practice even takes place in the present time in several places.”

Bin Tenbak’s theory on the burial of girls was criticized by several historians and critics, who argued that it is none other than his personal interpretation.

“What bin Tenbak wrote is his personal point of view and therefore cannot be regarded as an indisputable fact,” said Saad bin Nasser al-Shathri, who headed the committee formed to discuss bin Tenbak’s book.

Shathri added that there is no proof that the verse in the Quran is not referring to the practice of burying baby girls in the Arabian Peninsula in specific.

For preacher Mohamed al-Najimi, bin Tenbak’s theory could be plausible; he
does not deny that Arabs did bury girls, but he argued that it was not an Arab practice only.

“He added another point of view but did not deny the existence of the practice. Scholars do not agree with him, but it is an issue that is open to interpretation,” he said.

Marzouk bin Tenbak’s views have always stirred controversy in Saudi, especially his stance against the closing of stores at prayer time. Bin Tenbak argued that he is not against calling upon people to pray, but is rather against punishing those who do not comply. According to him, religious advice would work when it is given in a mild manner.

Bin Tenbak’s statements on secularism also stirred heated debate in the kingdom.

“Secularism protects the dignity of human beings and their religious practices and right to exist,” bin Tenbak was quoted as saying by the London-based al-Hayat.

In a lecture he gave at the Najran Literary Club, bin Tenbak said that the secularism of Britain did not obstruct the construction of 1,500 mosques and Islamic centers and did not prevent 3 million Muslims from living there.

“And liberalism in Europe did not prevent Islam from spreading there,” he added in the same lecture.

(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)